We follow our leaders, Paul and Jane Field, single file through a lush, tropical and unfamiliar world. “Avoid the lava tube on your right,” Paul instructs, and I look down to see a dark depression in the rain forest floor obscured by layers of dense vegetation. We reach our destination, and Paul arranges us in a straight line facing a dense wall of tall, homogeneous vegetation. Earlier, I couldn’t help but notice the debris under foot from presumably earlier battles. And now, it’s clear, we reached the front lines, face to face with a foreign, invading army.
My wife, Debra, and I are visiting Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. It just reopened after being shuttered for months due to the island re-shaping forces of the Kīlauea volcano eruption. Roughly 13.5 square miles of land had been paved over by lava, destroying approximately 700 homes. Kīlauea’s summit collapsed 1,640 feet, and 700 acres were added to the Big Island where lava met the sea.
Debra and I are participating in the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park’s “Stewardship at the Summit” program led by the Fields, long-time park volunteers. Under the care and guidance of this duo, we cleaned our boots and clothing of mud and plant debris, sprayed our boots and loppers with isopropyl alcohol and learned the proper etiquette of traveling safely in a rain forest before entering into the sensitive and diverse ecological community nestled on the slopes of the Kīlauea volcano.
Jane reminds us to “hold tight to your neighbor’s flank, none of the foreign invaders must be allowed to break through our line.” Paul reviews our battle strategy, and once again demonstrates the safe and effective use of our weapon of choice, the lopper. With Debra on my left, and Jane, a veteran of countless battles on my right, I feel confident. My grip tightens on the lopper’s handles.
Paul gives the command to attack. I feel like Lord of the Rings King Théoden. “So it begins,” I muse.
I plunge forward with the loppers severing through the approximate 1-inch diameter stem of a 6-foot-tall stalk with many ascending, clasping and long blue-green leaves. It cuts easily, and I quickly fell the remaining four stalks severing each 15” above ground level. Gratifying, I think, my first Himalayan ginger plant is down. The harder task, I discover, is arranging all the cuttings on the forest floor so as not to smother any native plant seedlings or hide the cut ginger stems from the herbicide crew that will be following later.
I lose sight of Debra and feel a wave of panic. I cut and slash in her direction and eventually catch sight of her face; glasses steamed over, body covered in ginger stems, and cheeks flushed in the color of Irish red. I know that look, I grin. Those ginger plants don’t stand a chance.
We battle on. Sounds of crunching loppers everywhere. Ginger stems falling. Conversations of invasive species, Hawaiian ecology, and other subjects drift through the air. I overhear James, a seasoned steward, speak to Debra. “Cutting the ginger is addictive,” he says. “There’s something about the crunch, like potato chips, that’s satisfying.” I get a brief glimpse of Paul over the fallen ginger. He moves like a samurai, directionally felling each ginger stalk with amazing speed and precision.
Himalayan, or kāhili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum), is only one of hundreds of invasive species that threaten Hawai‘i’s natural heritage. According to the National Park Service (NPS), the Hawaiian Archipelago, once celebrated as the islands of evolution, are now the islands of extinction. The onslaught of introduced plants and animals have driven countless native species to extinction and still threaten unique life forms in Hawai‘i. A few days ago, when touring the island of Oahu, our guide informed us 95% of the vegetation is non-native.
The volunteer “Stewardship at the Summit” program is an important component of the NPS’s control of invasive species. Countless Himalayan ginger, faya, strawberry guava, and other invasive, non-native plants that threaten the native understory near the summit of Kīlauea volcano, have been removed. In their place, once-shaded ‘ama‘u and hāpu‘u tree ferns have re-emerged, and pa‘iniu, kāwa‘u, and other important native plants are returning to the stewardship plots.
After 3 hours of battle, seven weary stewards look over the fallen ginger remains covering roughly ¼ acre in size. We moved the battle front forward only a short distance, but the visual impact of seeing the compounding results of our efforts gives each of us an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
I’m sweaty, dirty but happy, grateful for the opportunity to connect to the Kīlauea volcano with all of my senses. And thankful to have bonded with the dedicated volunteers of the “Stewardship at the Summit.”
I suspect many of us casually think that the threat to Hawai‘i is its volcanoes. Eruptive forces that wipe out everything in its path. While this is certainly true if your home is in the path of a lava flow, it’s not true for the ecosystem. Volcanic forces are what built, and continue to build, Hawai‘i land forms and shape the evolutionary uniqueness of its ecosystems.
The real threat is the invasive plants and animals introduced by humans. Likewise, it is only humans that can reverse this threat.