A huge ring circled the moon in the middle of the night, but both were gone when Koko and I rose hours later and set out under a sky smudged with gold and crowned by Venus.
All the mountains were clear, though clouds hovered near Waialeale’s summit, and mist hung thick in the pastures and crept across the road. As we returned, the sun rose, smoldering orange, and we found ourselves walking through a sparkling pink haze.
It looked like the perfect day to dry laundry, so I headed down to the Laundromat, where I ran into my friend Jim, another early riser born in the year of the Rooster, and as my clothes washed, we chatted about Kapaa, where he was born and raised, and how the reef fish had pretty much disappeared along that stretch of coastline.
He blamed run-off, including chlorinated water, for killing the reef, but said that people had also overfished — taken too much while giving nothing back, and none of the young kids growing up today had any sense of the culture, much less its spiritual aspects, which were at the core of caring for any resource.
"Now days it's all take, take, take," he said.
It made me think of a conversation I had on Monday with a man who has family on Niihau, and recently returned to that island, after a 10-year absence, for a relative’s burial.
He was struck by how much it had changed in that time, saying that only about 100 people still remain, and they’re dependent on their Kauai relatives because there’s no work for them on Niihau anymore, now that the kiawe charcoal and honey enterprises have gone bust.
All they’ve got to live on are food stamps and money they can make from Niihau shell lei. A few of the old paniolos help out with the exclusive hunting trips that are the only form of tourism, save for the helicopter rides that drop tourists on the beach for a picnic. Hunters, also transported by helicopter, pay about $1,500 for a day’s hunt, but they’re pretty much guaranteed to kill something, because the island is loaded with pigs, goats and the game animals brought over years ago from Molokai Ranch.
Subsistence hunting and fishing is a big part of the residents' existence and helps them remain somewhat independent, he said, so it broke his heart when he saw how many people have started coming over from Kauai to fish and collect opihi.
“They don’t realize they’re literally taking food out of the mouths of the Niihau people,” he said. ‘They have no respect, using bleach, which kills everything, picking every opihi they can find, pulling up on shore and poaching cows and other animals.”
It used to be that no one came close to Niihau. Folks respected the island’s privacy and isolation; they gave it wide berth. But that’s all gone, he said. As the fish are depleted around Kauai, they’re looking for easy pickings, and right across the channel, there’s Niihau, with its relative abundance.
And then you’ve got the curiosity seekers, those who just want to go to someplace that’s “forbidden,” and so they sneak onto the beaches, not realizing how much it frightens the people who live there to have strangers show up, unannounced and uninvited, with no idea of their intentions, in that very isolated place, he said.
“I wonder what’s going to happen to Niihua when Bruce [Robinson] is gone,” he said, noting that the barge that brings drinking water and other supplies only goes to the island very intermittently these days. The caretaker role that the Robinson family formerly played has pretty much disappeared, he said, now that economic opportunities on the island have dwindled.
“People have this idea that Niihau is this little paradise for Hawaiians, the last untouched place,” he said. “But it’s not. It’s really very depressing. The people there have so little, and now other people from the outside just want to grab what’s left. All they want to do is take, take, take.”