A Language for Nature: Preserving the Hawaiian Rainforest
W. S. Merwin addresses the controversial issue of geothermic drilling in Wao Kele o Puna at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco on March 31, 1992. Wao Kele o Puna is now a protected Forest, though it wasn't purchased by the Trust for Public Land until July 19, 2006, settling the environmental dispute.
Merwin: If you read Darwin and if you read the great naturalists of the 19th century, you see that they all—they may not have written very well—but they did write very well compared to many contemporary naturalists. They didn't write in jargon. They wrote the language very well. They had had a kind of classical education. Their writing may not have been very exciting, but it was very good.
Darwin wrote rather elegantly, in fact. But by the end of the 19th century, there was a sealed dichotomy between the literary arts and the sciences—which has remained well into my lifetime.
A little over a year ago, I went to a gathering of writers who had come together to talk about the environment. And it occurred to me that this was a kind of earth-breaking occasion. In the first place, there were far more of us than we expected. We thought there were going to be a hundred of us in the whole English-speaking world, and there were four or five times that number, some of whom had come great distances to be there.
One of the things we had in common was that most of us grew up thinking we were weird. We were interested in literature, we were interested in the arts, and we were also maybe more than interested. We couldn't live without some physical and psychic connection with what we have been taught to call—which I think is a ridiculous phrase—"the natural world," as though it were somehow different than our world.
We had friends who were interested in one or the other. But many of our friends who were naturalists never read anything else. And many of our literary friends couldn't tell a tree from a bush. Both are green.
A very well-known writer in New York said to me once about Hawaii: "Yes, but apart from the vegetation, what is there?" We just don't continue a conversation like that. Henry James says if someone says the only thing they like to eat is chestnuts, you don't talk about food.
But all of a sudden, here were these people who, all their lives, had these two interests. And I think this is happening more and more. It's like a disease that suddenly you're able to diagnose, though it's been around for a while. Also, there are more and more people who are growing up—young people—with these two concerns driving them. And they don't see that there's any conflict between them. They see that, in fact, they really belong together. And I think they do belong together.
One of the things that's happened in the history of the arts—you see it in moments of great genius, in all the arts—is that suddenly a whole new area of experience lights up. It's possible to see it—whether it's in music or in painting or literature, whatever it is. Suddenly a whole new part of experience becomes available.
This can never go back. You can't ever find that the subject expands and then retracts again. The only way it would do that would be if the whole civilization and society had suffered so serious a setback—something like what happened in Europe after the fall of Rome—where the whole thing sort of withdraws upon itself, and things that had been possible a generation or two before are no longer possible at all. This can happen.
But you can't voluntarily say that "this" is not a subject we want to talk about anymore. You can't do that without sort of amputating your moral and ethical and imaginative capabilities and becoming less of a creature than you were before. And this may happen to us. I'm not as optimistic as others are, I suppose. We may not be able to live up to ourselves.
Blake said the object of being human is to learn how to be human. And we might not be able to be human in time. We may not be able to live up to our full capacities in time to save ourselves or the world that is vulnerable to us. And that would be a greater tragedy than we can imagine.
The fact that the people whose lives are devoted to the human imagination and those whose lives are devoted to the knowledge of the world around us are beginning to be able to speak more cordially to each other than has been possible before is a very hopeful sign.
Because the only real hope for us is something to do with what we really are and how we see ourselves, an attitude toward life as a whole, the ability to perceive that the basic assumption of much of our civilization and much of our perception of ourselves is not only false, it is dangerous and probably lethal. And that's the assumption that there is an absolute difference between us and other forms of life, and that we are superior to other forms of life, and can exploit them forever, and use them for our purposes, and that's what it's there for.
I don't think you have to have any mystical view of it to see under this conclusion. I don't think that the rest of life will tolerate this. It's not because there's some great mentality out there coming to a moral judgment. It's simply because it's not made to tolerate it.
The great biotope wants to maintain some sort of changing balance, and if something upsets that balance too severely, it goes. And it may go at great cost. But I don't think that the greater biosphere cares much more about us than, at this point, we seem to care about it.
That's the overview of how I feel about the moment that we're in, the moment of crisis. Even people who have paid a lot of attention to it may not even be aware of how grave it is.
Last September, in Moravia, in Mexico, there was a gathering of scientists and writers from all over the world—the first time that's ever happened. It was the first time that everyone sat down together—not to be polite to each other but simply to say: "At last we can try to converse and work together. We need each other." The scientists were major scientists, and there were very interested writers there, and it was a very interesting time.
When the scientists began to say just how bad it was, I was there with Peter Matthiessen, a wonderful writer, and Peter said, "I don't understand why it is. I'm very shocked to know about how bad it is. And yet I feel very good." And I said, "Peter, it's such a relief to hear someone able to tell the truth. To go out and say, 'This is how bad it is.' It's so much better when the doctor tells you just how sick you are, instead of when they're all out whispering in the hall somewhere."
The global situation—I don't want to go into statistics, I get them wrong, I don't remember them very well—but if you pick them up anywhere, if you pick up the actual known figures on how many million tons of topsoil are being lost to modern agriculture, if you pick up figures on world water pollution, world air pollution—obviously the ozone layer—if you pick up any of these and just see where we really are, it is so startling, so shocking.
What is happening to the rainforest; what is happening to biodiversity; how fast the species are going; this is terrible.
Students sometimes say, when I talk about it, "I find this very upsetting." And I say, "You should. You should find it so upsetting that you can't put it down." That's the only way things are going to happen. If you say "this is too bad, but I've got other things to think about," nothing's going to happen.
Because the people who are making it happen are thinking about money. And they think about money 24 hours a day, happily, and make it happen. And you have to think about it that way too.
I don't want to go on about the world situation. People get awfully tired of hearing about that. I assume that most everybody here tonight is extremely concerned about these things, which means they know something about them.
I do want to talk a little bit about the specific situation in the Wao Kele o Puna on Hawaii. I hesitate to say too much about it as a layperson, but I'm going to anyway.
One of the speakers talked about the terrible disappearance, the fact that half of the indigenous birds of Hawaii are extinct and that more than half of the remainder are recognized as endangered. The main cause of that is habitat destruction and imported diseases, most of them born by mosquitoes—avian malaria.
There is no rainforest in the world like the Wao Kele o Puna. And there's only 25,000 acres—that's very small.
We know, from the studies of Wilson and Lovejoy in the Amazon, quite a lot about what they call fragmentation of rainforest. If you take even something as large as the Amazon and cut roads through it or chop out sections of it, the effect of that fragmentation is not just where it comes but it spreads a great distance away from the disturbed area. In an area as small as 25,000 acres, there's not much fragmentation that it will take before you ruin the whole ecosystem.
This is the only rainforest left in Hawaii, the only lowland tropical rainforest left of anything of comparable size. There may be pockets of 30 acres or 50 acres or even a couple hundred acres of lowland rainforest, but 25,000 acres of contiguous rain forest does not exist anywhere else in Hawaii. This is the last patch that really is integral and is itself.
It is unique in other respects. All of the lowland birds were destroyed by avian malaria—all of the birds below 4,000 feet. In order to find any truly Hawaiian native birds you have to go about 4,000 feet where the tropical mosquito can't survive. It's not up there.
The Wao Kele o Puna is one of those places. It is maybe the only place in Hawaii where the birds that have survived above 4,000 feet have managed to acquire immunities and reestablish themselves in the lowlands. They've also reestablished the pattern of migration. Very few birds in Hawaii migrate to other places; there are a few. The birds do migrate altitudinally, but only there, only in the Wao Kele o Puna. It's probably been disturbed already by the experimental drilling which has been done with a devastating crudeness in a much larger area of the Wao Kele o Puna than there are permits for. Introduced species are being brought into that forest all the time.
One of the other things that makes that forest unique is that it's on the slopes of the volcano Kilauea, in the lower slopes. The volcano Kilauea, one geologist said, may be the most geologically unstable spot on Earth. Within the Wao Kele o Puna itself, within one year, more than 400 seismic incidents were recorded. That's more than one a day.
And within the period of 10,000 years, as one geologist and biologist said to me, you can imagine a leopard skin where every spot is of a different biological age. Because every spot represents one part of one eruption that happened in a different time.
Every time you get one of these small eruptions, the biological clock is set back to zero. So it's the only place in the world where biologists, and botanists in particular, but etymologists and ornithologists can go in and say, "This is Hawaiian rainforest 50 years old." "This is Hawaiian rainforest 150 years old." "This is Hawaiian rainforest 1,000 years old." There's no other place on Earth in an area like that where you can do that.
This will not survive. It has found a way of surviving continual seismic activity and small volcanic eruptions and even major lava flows, but it cannot survive the kind of thing that the geothermal drilling will do. The greatly increased air pollution, the noise, the bringing of chemicals and weed seeds and all sorts of things from outside. The thing that they've not even begun to address, which is the production of large quantities of toxic brine from the well which contains all of the damaging heavy metals you can think of—lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic—in what amounts to large quantities for each well.
For many of these wells, they drill the well at great expense, and there's nothing there. The independent geologists don't believe for a minute that there are 500 mega-watts down there. It's a big scheme of capitalism. There are some very shaky economics behind it.
Why they're doing it at all we can talk about later. The great argument—that it's going to free Hawaii from dependence on oil—is simply not true. We never get a chance to say so in public. It's not true, because the oil that comes into Hawaii is refined in Hawaii and 60% of it or more is used for transportation. For electricity, they use what's left over. And it would be used in any case.
It's very probable that if a geothermic system were ever established, a back-up system which would be able to produce virtually the same amount of electricity would be necessary, and it would mean more oil used in Hawaii rather than less. It's a very cynical argument to push through this plan.
Incidentally, the Wao Kele o Puna is originally seeded lands given to the Hawaiian people, and it was taken away in a land-swap that they had no say over. So from every point of view, there's reason to be extremely incensed by what's happened there. And a great many people are.