Of Red Herrings and Black Birds

posted in: July 2006 | 0

The work is freighted with embarrassingly overwrought prose (“unfurling fronds of fern … green vessels of vegetal life”), sappy reflections (“What unexpected twists and turns of endangered species conservation this journey has taken, I later muse. A library in Philadelphia, wild dogs on a mountain, a ramshackle house in the Kohala hills”), corny dialogue (“’I agree, pigs are destructive,’ Klavitter politely responds”).

What is even worse is the sloppy thinking that underlies the very idea behind the book: Walters’ search “to discover what was missing in my own largely scientific view of animals: an opportunity to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, a chance to glimpse wisdom hidden in the seams and folds of everyday experience.” It is a search in which he sets up a dualistic universe – the hard, factual, Joe Friday world of science, and the mysterious realm of the spirit. But in his quest, Walters looks for meaning in the same way that a scientist might: as though it was a brass ring, possessed of weight and occupying space, and having a fixed location – say, 19 degrees 23’ North, 155 degrees 47’ West. How else can one explain the fact that his search for meaning so often takes him to specific spots – Pu`u Wa`awa`a, McCandless Ranch, the Ka`u Coast – where his musings on life’s meaning/the `alala/the speed of tectonic motion invariably fail to yield the Holy Grail of insight.

Ultimately one needs to judge the book on its own terms. Does Walters succeed in his quest, which, after all, is the point of the book? No. “I now realize that my quest to know the raven … will never end,” he writes in the book’s epilogue.

Small wonder. His inherent dualism precludes his ever finding a way out of this maze. You can’t find meaning with a compass; you can’t measure value with a yardstick. Yet this is what Walters seems to want to do.

Meaning is above all a human construct. It can coexist in perfect harmony with western views of science and nature. Spirituality and science were not at odds in the latter days of the wild crow. Pigheadedness and greed may have been, but to put the conflict in those terms would not have afforded Walters the same opportunities for navel-gazing.

* * *
History’s First Draft

When he isn’t engaged in flights of spiritual fancy, Walters chronicles the ups (a few) and downs (mostly) of the state’s efforts to raise `alala in captivity. With benefit of hindsight, he castigates the work of state employees, such as Fern Duvall, who oversaw the program in the difficult years of transition between Pohakuloa and Olinda. And he celebrates the successes of the contracted workers Cyndi Kuehler and Al Lieberman in developing at last a brood of `alala that regularly pumps out chicks doomed (for the foreseeable future) to life in captivity.

The flip side of captive propagation is, of course, habitat protection. Walters is generous in his criticism of the state, but the sole example he provides is the case of state-owned land leased to Newell Bohnett at Pu`u Wa`awa`a. Certainly the state’s oversight of Bohnett – who bulldozed, logged and built illegal structures on the property – represents the worst sort of benighted stewardship of public resources – not only because of the damage done to habitat of `alala and other forest birds, but also because of the irreparable loss of some of the rarest species of Hawaiian plants. Yet when it comes to failure to protect or improve habitat for `alala, Pu`u Wa`awa`a was not the only, or even most important, game in town. According to a draft environmental assessment for population reestablishment of the `alala, published in 1999 (a final EA has not yet been released), the home range for a pair of `alala can be as much as 200 hectares of undisturbed forest. With Pu`u Wa`awa`a having at 1,652 hectares of “contiguous nesting habitat,” it could accommodate at most about eight nesting pairs.

Contrast that to the privately owned McCandless Ranch, which in 1999 had 11,596 hectares of nesting habitat – sufficient for 58 pairs. By the late 1980s, the wild `alala had retreated to the upland areas of the ranch, which became Ground Zero in the battle to save the `alala.

Walters retells the story well told (in Hawai`i, at least) of the bitter fight involving the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Audubon Society and the Hawai`i Audubon Society (he does not distinguish between the two), the state, and the owners of McCandless Ranch. Essentially, the Audubon parties argued that the service had the duty, under the federal Endangered Species Act, to collect `alala or their eggs from the wild, which in this case meant going onto the private McCandless land. The McCandless owners vehemently disagreed. A lawsuit filed in federal court ended in a settlement that allowed biologists onto the property, subject to certain restrictions, and eventually led to a second captive propagation facility being built with federal dollars on land owned by Bishop Estate near the Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.

In piecing together his account of this troubled period, Walters relies heavily on interviews with Cynthia Salley, one of the McCandless Ranch owners. His sympathies with the ranchers illuminate the book, practically from the first page, when he describes his experiences as a paying guest on one of the ranch’s expensive `alala-watching tours. (On that tour, in 1996, he spotted 12 of the birds.) Walters devotes chapters to discussing Salley’s views that scientists disturbed the wild `alala with their invasive research, but fails even to mention the notion that the bird-watching tours might have been disruptive. He gives free rein to Salley’s fulminations against the government, and makes only passing mention of the ranch’s koa logging business. (In fact, Walters waxes rhapsodic over the koa in Salley’s living room, failing, apparently, to connect it in any way to the `alala’s collapse: “I was amazed by the house’s interior, especially the warmth and beauty of the solid koa wood walls and ceiling. It was as if the house itself had been hewn from the heart of a massive koa. The rich reddish brown wood gleamed with swirling honey and cream-colored grain. The walls radiated a warmth so intense as to seem aflame.” A more thoughtful person might have stopped to reflect that the very koa whose warmth he is basking in may once have sheltered an `alala nest.)

Salley lambastes the government repeatedly, yet it would take a whole chapter, if not another book to describe the ways in which the McCandless heirs have benefited from efforts by the government to restore and protect `alala habitat. There were the access easements, allowing the government overland access to 5,300 acres it purchased from Salley’s nieces. Salley was paid from $30,000 to $100,000 a year for this, Walters notes. (Most of the route was over state-owned land, but Salley controlled the gates.) There was the use of the state-owned land itself, known as the Waiea tract – 1,200 acres rented by Salley at fire-sale rates; today she pays $245 a month ($2,940 a year), but in the early 1990s, it was just $188 a month. The Fish and Wildlife Service paid some $8 million – and untold hundreds of thousands of dollars more in legal fees – in its efforts to acquire the 5,300-acre chunk of former ranch land. On top of that have been numerous grants for predator control, reforestation, and the like.

When it comes to sheer nerve, though, the captive propagation facility operators take the cake. Walters describes how Kuehler and Lieberman continued to send captive-reared juvenile `alala on suicide missions – that is, releasing them into the wild in the near-certain knowledge they’d be killed by predators or succumb to disease. By the late 1990s, the wild-released youngsters were dying with depressing regularity and several members of the `Alala Recovery Team were calling for an end to the wild-release program. “Kuehler and Lieberman felt that they knew what the problem was,” Walters writes: “poorly managed habitat. They argued that only a continual release of new birds would offer the species any hope of survival, if nothing else, by forcing the [Fish and Wildlife] Service into a game of chicken. That is, ‘Buy these birds some habitat or they will die!’ And die they did.”

With the captive propagation program consuming so much of the state and federal dollars spent on conservation in Hawai`i, where did Kuehler and Lieberman suppose the money for habitat would come from? When The Peregrine Fund took over operation of the Maui captive breeding facility, part of the argument for endorsing the move was that the organization, with its vast fund-raising capabilities nationwide, could raise money in the private sector that would help support its Hawai`i operations. Year after year, however, The Peregrine Fund simply took its overhead cut of money earmarked for the captive breeding program in Hawai`i. The only money it spent in Hawai`i came either from the federal government or the state. In the years since the Zoo Society of San Diego took over operations (with Kuehler and Lieberman still in charge), private contributions for the captive propagation facility have grown to more than $100,000 a year in cash or in-kind services.

* * *
Sacred Cows

Walters seems to be driven by the belief that if we all embraced Hawaiian “spiritual ecology” instead of bloodless science, the `alala wouldn’t be in the sad shape we find it today. He argues that the `alala’s fate was sealed practically the instant that Captain Cook’s naturalist recorded his sighting of two caged `alala at Kealakekua. At that moment, “the bird was abstracted from everyday experience and rendered for the first time as mediated by written characters, a-l-a-l-a. These letters, recorded in unalterable ink symbols upon a page, tended to divorce the bird from its living presence. And so perception of the bird began to subtly change… To the westerners, it was more of a static object to be studied for what it was, and, to them, always would be – a species of bird.”

What Walters describes here is the abstraction that any written language entails, not just English or other Western language. This is more than a quibble; it betrays Walters’ eagnerness to find fault with Western culture. Contrasted to that is his idea of how the Hawaiians must have viewed the `alala. The early Hawaiians, he writes, “based land management on both scientific and anecdotal knowledge. And their practical understanding of natural phenomena merged with their spiritual beliefs…. Have such beliefs been permanently supplanted by the traditional Western view that animals are objects first and beings last – if at all? Or is the whole notion of ‘spiritual ecology’ – the belief that spiritual values drove conservation among the early Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples – our own romance with what never was? Such questions haunted me…”

Haunt him they might, but throughout his book, Walters never cedes an inch to the possibility that his notion of Hawaiian values might be nothing more than a figment of his overactive romantic imagination.

As Exhibit A, consider the fact that before human habitation, at least four species of corvids populated the islands, as did dozens of other birds that were driven to extinction before the first westerner committed the name of any Hawaiian bird to paper. The tension between exploitation of nature’s bounty and respect for all living creatures is not one that arises in the Western tradition alone. (At one point, faced with the uncomfortable fact that the extravagant feather capes of Hawaiian royalty may have contributed to extinctions, Walters writes: “It is not known how well those birds that were captured and plucked of their feathers fared upon release… Perhaps, when faced with a declining number of forest birds because of overhunting, Kamehameha the Great ordered plucked birds to be released – for he is said to have proclaimed, at some point during his rein, ‘The birds’ feathers belong to me, but the birds belong to my heirs’” [p. 30].)

At the same time, the scientific tradition that Walters disparages can hardly be faulted for causing the `alala’s decline. According to accounts cited by Walters himself, the foundation for the bird’s demise was probably laid in the 1800s, when grazing and logging destroyed large swaths of forested land. In a span of about six decades, starting in the 1870s, sightings of the `alala went from being commonplace in its traditional range (around the western and southern slopes of Mauna Loa) to scarce. One could put the blame for this on factors unknown to the Hawaiians until the arrival of Europeans, but science as we know it today, and as Walters himself describes it, played no role.

Still, Walters sets up the debates over managing the `alala in the last half of the 1970s as ones involving essentially the scientists (black hats) in one corner, and the mystics (white hats) in the other. Heartless scientists disturbed nesting behavior of wild `alala and sought access to McCandless Ranch not for the birds’ benefit, but to pad their resumes. In the opposite corner, and wearing the white hats, should be the Hawaiians – but Walters can’t find them. “It strikes me as ironic that little about the efforts to save the bird is in any way Hawaiian,” he writes (p. 75). “Other than the occasional blessings bestowed by native Hawaiians upon the recovery efforts, the `alala and efforts to save them are defined by the scientific culture of Cook, Latham, and Peale. Whether that is to the birds’ benefit or their detriment I cannot say.” Actually, Walters is too modest here, to say nothing of dishonest: his book leaves no doubt that he feels the birds would be better off by far if the “spiritual ecology” of the Hawaiians or their modern-day counterparts had prevailed in disputes over management.

In the Hawaiians’ absence, Walters sends in the ringers – Salley, the self-proclaimed ali`i of McCandless Ranch, Barbara Lee, the maligned `alala custodian, and their allies, who bend Walters’ ear for hours and days with their tales of abuse at the hands of government and scientists. (Walters complains that he cannot get interviews with some of the other key players. Given his slant, it should come as no surprise that scientists were, for the most part, reluctant to give him the time of day.)

By the time the scientists and spiritualists duke it out in Walters’ contrived ring, it was far too late for the outcome to have had any meaningful effect on the fate of the `alala in the wild. The writing was on the wall, and, one could argue, had been there for a half-century or more.

* * *
Feeling the Loss

I cannot fault Walters for wanting to find a connection to the `alala (or any other creature, for that matter) that transcends the mundane. I would disagree with his apparent belief that there is anything mystical about this. In the same way that it is possible to be moral without being religious, it is also possible to feel empathy for other creatures without embracing the supernatural.

If instead of looking for supernatural reasons for us to be connected to the `alala (and, by implication, all the other myriad endangered animals and plants brought to their parlous state by human actions), Walters had instead regarded our connection to the bird and concerns over its fate as absolutely, perfectly natural expressions of our human capacity to empathize with other living subjects, his book would have ended up being far less divisive and acrimonious. As it is, many of those who cared deeply for this poor bird and who keenly felt its loss from the wild will be hurt yet again should they come upon Walters’ dismissive and ungenerous treatment of their behavior.

As a book that gives insight into Walters’ personal religious voyage, Seeking the Sacred Raven has pretty limited appeal, I’d guess. And yet slogging through all that seems to be the price one has to pay for getting to Walters’ journalistic “first draft” of the history of the `alala’s decline, a subject with far wider resonance. Given the limited literature on the `alala, some may find it worthwhile to hop into the passenger seat as Walters gives the reader a guided tour of his angst. But with the heavy burden of his prose, his cavalier attitude toward fact-checking, and what seems to be a current of ill will that gives an edge to what he’d like us to think are cloud-soft reflections on the meaning of life, I’d urge potential readers to wait for the next bus.

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 17, Number 1 July 2006

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