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25 October, 2009

Land of Lilinoe

Years ago, when I should've been writing my thesis, I laid on the bed in our Honolulu apartment and watched the sky. Nothing unusual there, me being a pro procrastinator and the view being out over town toward the ocean through the glass doors to the lanai, but that time sticks in my head because instead of the usual blue sky or Pinatubo sunset, it was rain that enthralled me.

Perched on the south slope of Puowaina hill, our place was saved only by the tradewinds from being an oven in an urban, leeward heat-scape. But on that day the deep moana blue of the ocean and cumulo-dotted azure of the sky was replaced by wave after wave of rain sweeping in off the Pacific. A band would pass and the sky cleared enough to see the next one blowing in.

Squall lines, I guess the salts would call them, but the winds were puffy, the rain misty, and instead of closing the door and cowering in the face of stormy onslaught, I found myself willing each rainwave closer, tolerating the intervals only because the clearing and warming made the next arrival that much sweeter and soothing.

Having so many names for winds and rain--sometimes specific right down to the sound, the intensity, and the valley where they fall--Hawaiians probably have a name for that rain, but all I know is that when it comes that way, misty and delicate, it is lilinoe, maybe noenoe also on that day.

What the Salish peoples call their rains remains a mystery to me for now, but I know that the fine misty rain lives here, and not just on that rare day when tropical moisture and backward winds make magic. Sometimes the atmosphere collapses and clouds come down to earth, or fog spores burst from their hiding places in the moss, or Puget Sound steams. However it happens, we may spend days or weeks walking in a liquid atmosphere.

Sure, there are downpours and dowsings, squalls and storms, but there is plenty of lilinoe as well. The fine droplets fill the air, sometimes glowing with sunlight whose source cannot be pinpointed, but which glows from every iota of the atomized rain. [Damn Hollywood for using the title Liquid Sky, which is the phrase I feel swimming through this atmosphere.] Often the only drips are from the trees that capture the mist and gather it into rivulets before letting go from twig-tips and leaflets. On these days my beard creates measurable precipitation.

Sometimes it shrinks beyond droplets and mist to something like vapor, wettening everything without ever raining. The firewood tucked safely under a roof grows damp as the corpuscular fog courses into every crack and cranny. The edges are washed from everything, and sfumato creeps to the fore in every landscape. Sounds are swallowed, and only the nearby exists.

19 October, 2009

Fire Comes in

October rolls around, and fire moves inside. Maybe the weather gives it a few more weeks outside, heat and drought overcome rain for a while. Maybe flickers its arrival, oscillates between forest and hearth before making the jump for the long winter ahead. But rarely does November blow in to find fire still cavorting under the lowering sky.
This summer, wildfires were not so bad as expected (and in some quarters, desired, for where there’s smoke, there’s work). Climate change has induced drought, let forest-ravaging bugs move north, and spawned severe lightning storms at whose fulgerite-toed feet blame is laid for many a wildland blaze. Especially on the western Cascadian slopes, swaths of dead and weakened conifers stand brownly, needley tinder tempting sparks. 

I work with people who fight forest fires, and when they talk of the next summer, their eyes smoke over and their jaws clench, knowing that the Northwest will not be immune to conflagrations forever. They grant that this year’s acreage burnt may not have been so bad, but grimly acknowledge the colossal and growing fuel load, the budget cuts that have decimated thinning of that load, the fact that fires kept emerging for weeks this year after the usual close of the season. They worry that their job security will come at the cost of an inferno. They know that it ain’t just the lightning, it’ the people who start fires, who build stick homes in forests that have burnt since time immemorial.

After summer’s blazing heat, but before the blanket of wet settles completely, people here have long had burning seasons. Today it may be timber slash piles, and for millennia before it was the dried grass of the prairie, the clean-picked and exhausted berry patch. Ecosystems exist here that would not have been born without anthropyro-sparked mosaics of regeneration; mile after mile of black prairie soil sequesters this carbon truth. Not an escapee or a mistake, but fire the ally: clearer of underbrush, landscaper of game parks, feeder of berries. Under the knowing hand and at the right time—autumn cool, February sunbreak, spring flush—this not-so-wild outdoor fire helped humans prosper.
It is the Northwest, after all, and at some point the lows in the Gulf of Alaska and the Pineapple Express bring in the moisture, outdoor fires wild and feral retreat for another winter. Their tamed cousin builds a glow inside as it has for millennia, drying soaked boots and warming chilled toes, cooking savory meals, lighting the dancers and crackling along with the drumbeats, embers shimmering reticulose like an octopus’s skin as tales unwind. We welcome and nurture this fire as part of our family.

17 October, 2009


My first college room-mate was a rich kid from Lowan Guyland (whereas I was just from Goy-Land), and my first exposure to guys who own a lot of shoes. I mean, this Himelda showed up to live in a 144 square foot room with more than a dozen pairs, many of them various shades of patent leather dress shoes. At the time, I pretty much only wore combat boots, and at night I could hear them clumping over to his closet to menace his patent leather slip-ons.

It took years and some education to understand that this guy was just exhibiting classic evolutionary dynamics. Finding fertile ground in nouveau riche Dicksville (or Dix Hills, whatever), shoes had diversified like finches to occupy every niche, from the family's carpet showroom to various ritual contexts: Passover, Mall Cruising, trips to The City. Furthermore, through showy elaboration, his footwear had a demonstrated ability to signal to potential mates, "I have money, and I am not afraid to spend it on ridiculous crap." If I sound bitter, it's only because I find it sad when exotic species displace the indigenes that spent so many generations adapting to a place, that a flood of Gucci knock-offs extirpated farmers' clodhoppers and fishermens' chest waders.

In time, my engineer and combat boots mutated, as selective pressures shifted from seeking punk rock mates to psychedelic quests, which required things like moccasins and a pair of romeos bedecorated with day-glo lizards and such. Man, am  sorry I don't have photos of those to post.

In the absence of a trust fund, the struggle for survival meant that those died out before too awful long, replaced by two major branches: rubba slippas and work boots. The last post introduced these species, mostly in an island leeward ecosystem context, but here I'd like to get into the diversification that burst forth when the varied demands of the Pacific Northwest began to affect new generations of boots.

Ambulamuchimus affordii. Low-rise cheap boots have survived the migration. Flexible generalists like these are fairly adaptable, and can get by in a variety of environments.

Ambulamuchimus robusta. With their top-grain cattle hide, lug soles (nearly worn off now), higher tops and insulation, and all around more rugged construction, these specimens outlive several generations of A. affordii, and in fact I inherited these from my dad. In addition to that sentimental allure (of little intrinsic value in the survival of the species), these are of good enough quality that I take the time to oil them. Their framework is such that the worn soles can be replaced, rather than dooming them to oblivion. A triumph of longevity that more than makes up for the low reproductive rate.

Fossicker aquaticus.  These exhibit adaptation to the cold nearshore waters of the Puget Sound watershed. Waterproof, insulated, and crucial to the intertidal surveys and stream-walks an archaeologist needs to do in the northwest.

Gwarus lumberjackii.  And finally we arrive at the corks, or calks, or whatever you want to call the giant spiky boots favored by those who must traipse through mossy forests. These can stomp into oblivion those pansy combat boots I wore so long ago. They transform wet slippery blowdown into boreal highways, ice into sidewalks. Waterproof, impervious to cold, and quite fetching to boot.

15 October, 2009

Boots In-Side My Head, I Said Boots Inside My Head

Being an anthropologically-minded archaeologist, I find myself judging people by the boots they wear into the field. In Hawai'i, of course, there were plenty of times when boots weren't involved, and I did more than my fair share of work in rubba slippas and fake birkenstocks. Bruddas usually wore the same, or would show up in gum-boots or steel-toes (or unadorned cowboy boots in paniolo country), at least back in the 90s they did. I had a Tongan supervisor who always wore rubba slippas ("flip-flops," haoles) on survey through the jungle, and swore that it was just as safe, that it made you walk more carefully. He saw more artifacts than anyone else, and I think that the pace and tactility afforded by the slippas helped.

On many crews, there would be somebody with a pair of high-end hiking boots made by some company that proles like me don't even recognize. Not that I have a problem with quality footwear, but often it was the wrong tool for the job. Lava chews the soles and jungle rots the top off of any boot, so it never made sense to have expensive ones. Plus, the people with the expensive ones were, often as not, lazy and/or clueless when it came to hiking through the bush looking for sites, the kind of people who'd gotten educated in classrooms only, who didn't understand the value of game trails and drank water from camel-packs instead of a Menehune Water bottle re-used for the umpteenth time. Sometimes insufferable to the point of citing Dunnell in the field.

Then there were the people who would show up in sneakers to slog through mud or traverse a'a. Sometimes they would end up losing one or making it through with bloody ankles; always they end up being the Limiting Factor. Now and then this would happen when some dumb haole kid (me, circa 1991, for instance) would show up in rubba slippas in a vain attempt to feel local, but lacking the skill to go off-road with the things, or the judgement to leave them behind when heading into the thorn-paved kiawe groves.

I'd go more by cost than anything else, but found myself in Hi-Techs pretty often. When I worked on the Big Island with Pele's insatiable hunger for soles, I would head to K-Mart every month or so for another pair of whatever was cheap. Being the devotee of made-up ritual that I am, I carried over my practice of interring T-shirts that had reached near-compost stage to boots, stashing them in lava bubbles. A sacrifice, an offering, a recognition that the land had won. Some day, some archaeologist will run across these and wonder...

09 October, 2009

Beyond Tahuya

Were I alive a hundred years ago, I coulda gotten there quicker. Hop on a canoe and zip across the elbow of Hood Canal, instead of driving forever to the finger tip and doubling back on North Shore Road. Hell, in a canoe I wouldn't have had to do it at extra low tide, couldn't have even had to walk, gliding over the delta with a waterbird's-eye view.

But now is when I live in this body on this earth, so the bus took me to work, where the motor pool chief gave me his finest SUV.  NPR and nectarines for the mind and body, a jug o java for the soul, and the drive didn't seem so bad. Other than where a lane had slid into the water and traffic had to take turns, nothing stood athwart the path, and before too long I found myself at the mouth of Rendsland Creek.

I made it to the edge of the exposed delta right at slack water, looping around before the flood flowed. Bars of oyster, streams of mussels, and me. The wavy sound of traffic across the water, but nobody moving on the Kitsap side, no boats even. A few cracked rocks whispered of crackling fires long ago, but none in herd formation on a distinct archaeological site, and I had no luck finding artifacts. Then again, I was on big shellfish beds a short paddle from the mouth of the Skokomish River, and if that doesn't mean anything to you, it's closer still to Potlatch Park. Once again, I'd run up against the paradox and idiocy of archaeology: no artifacts, no site.

Fortunately, my card says Cultural Resource Specialist, and big shellfish beds with a good freshwater stream are sure as hell of interest to people with culture.

As I alluded to earlier, I do live now, and here in Washington that means that walking the tide flats is only possible in certain places. So when I got close to a couple of pilings I saw that they marked the edge of a commercial shellfish area. And that means that the same card that had freed me from my archaeocratic trap a hundred paces back just as surely put up a fence here, because it just won't do for a gummint man to be trespassing. So my body stood there dumbly subdued while my mind took a brief vacation to Hawaii, where the waters and shores are free to all. Malama pono.

So then it became a game of zigging and looping, zagging and meandering, trying not to stomp the shells that looked inhabited, dogging every high spot and weird rock and channel cut et the picture. Still no artifacts. A couple of stubby pilings that may or may not be 50 years old, but no artifacts.

No artifacts, that is, until I found the Giant Stone Money From Yap. Evidence of trans-Pacific trade, probably with Tahitians as the middle men, if my hunch was right. Not that I'm saying it is necessarily ancient. Nah, probably in the early days of the sandalwood and fur trade. I mean, if you're the chief who gives away Giant Stone Money From Yap a your potlatch, you're on top, nobody can ante up to that.

05 October, 2009

Post Equinox Garden

Fall keeps gusting in and out, but even the persistence of clear weather cannot defeat the earth's tilt. With the shrinking of the daylight, most of the plants call it quits, at least as far as producing anything new. Leaves gray with mildew, roots routing a last bit of energy to seeds along stems stepped on, chewed at, tunneled through ad generally abused by the growing season.

Why then does the tropical vine keep going?

Lycopersicon pimpenellifolium, the 'wild tomato' that I would snack on from Kealakekua to Nualolo, a rampant vine I've also seen described as the 'wild Everglades tomato.' Jungly cloak of tropical shores and clearings, 30-foot tentacles flowing over lava and helping ancient sites return to obscurity. Why so fat and happy north of 45 degrees, in the legendarily cool and wet Northwest?

04 October, 2009

Mixed Messages

Odd what could be witnessed on Moku o Keawe a few years ago. Some things must remain un-pictured. Some things exist only in the imperfectly audited banks of memory. Other things are captured forever at the twitch of a thumb through a rental car windshield, and may last ad nauseum.

For instance this, in the parking lot of the Kailua-Kona Wal-Mart (lo, the corrupting influence of the creeping hyphen of cosmopolity). Pit-marks bespeaking plentiful mileage, perhaps the catalyst for the advertising? As with the tourist economy overall, I have to wonder, how long can this career last? Wrinkles and sores, erosion and dead reefs, the aging takes its toll.

And this, way on up the coast where the richers resort, where carousing escapists give coralline voice to vacation romances and other inanities, punctuated here and there by the rare real message, someone put this. Bold peace sign, leavened with troop support, disambiguized by the bring em home finisher. All of which spells, "I could come to a $400/night resort on the same technology bringing shock and awe to sitting duck A-rabs, and then when I scored some $30/gram "Kona Gold" (45% oregano and bubble gum) I was inspired to strike out in my rental Hummer and speak out for Peace!"

Hoomau Nualolo!

I found some old photos of Nualolo Kai, a place to which I am bound and will return forevermore.

This was an offering when we returned a long lost Nualolo child to her home. Shell lei, Lu hee, coral head, and a packet of I only know what.

And here are some of the guys who built the new old wall for Kaunapueo. They worked time and time again to make it right. They embodied hoomau, gave it life force fro the rising of the sun til way past midnight, laboring under the 600-foot X. Mahalo Keiki o Kauai and Keiki.