Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bound for the Mountains

     When we first moved to the Big Island, jobs were scarce. That hasn't changed, except to get worse. I know that's true everywhere, but Hawaii Island has long been notorious for its dearth of decent paying employment, unless you're an astronomer or work for the government. It's a challenging place to start a business, too, more expensive and arduous than any place in the nation. If you want to be an entrepreneur here, you've really got to want it. Perseverance and plenty of capital is crucial, for it's more likely to take years than months to acquire all the permits and open the doors. I can think of three large, empty buildings -- two new and one restored historic site -- sitting empty right now, waiting to open their doors for business. It's disheartening how many people who live on the windward side make the three-hour drive to work the upscale resorts of Kona and Waikaloa (a.k.a. Haolewood) on the leeward (west) side. One of my neighbors, just up the road a piece, works as a waiter in Waikiki. He flies over to Honolulu and sleeps for a few days each week in a camper he keeps there.
    Yes, people do extraordinary things to get by, let alone get ahead. Here's an example: It was an early morning, last summer, six a.m. I awaited the shuttle to take me to the airport, returning home from my Alaska/Colorado and one night in Phoenix adventure.  I struck up conversation with the pleasant, personable young desk clerk. It was August, and at that hour already getting hot in the desert.
     "Whew! How do you handle this heat?" I asked.
     "You actually get used to it," he said. "Physically. Your blood changes after awhile and you can tolerate the heat better."
     "Are you just starting your shift or are you still here from last night?"
     "I'm the still here. One hour to go."
     "Graveyard. That's tough. Do you sleep in the morning when you get home, or do you stay up for a few hours and sleep in the afternoon?"
     "Usually, I crash as soon as I get home, but today we have a mandatory one o'clock staff meeting."
     "So you have to come back in the middle of the day?"
     "No, I have to stay. I ride the bus two and a half hours to work. It's impossible for me to go home and come back. Then I'm on again tonight, so I'll just stay here after the meeting, too."
     "Can they at least give you an empty room so you can snooze and shower before your shift?"
     "Yeah, I just found out they're going to do that."
     "Two and a half hours. That's a long commute."
     "It's not so bad. I can sleep on the bus. And it's better than no job at all."

     The resiliency of the young is impressive, isn't it?  But older people are making big sacrifices for their paychecks, too. Later that morning, the middle-aged TSA ID checker at the airport commented on my Colorado Driver's license.
    "My wife lives in Denver," he said. "She said it rained pretty hard there last night."
    "She lives there and you live here?"
    "Yeah. It's not the best but we talk every day. Gotta do what you gotta do."

     I've applied for scores of jobs here over the past few years, dozens in the past few months. In most cases I don't even get a reply saying thanks but no thanks. So recently, I've been sending applications elsewhere, most notably Gunnison, CO, where we still own a cool, historic log cabin, biking distance to town, that nobody wants to buy. I have yet to land a job there, either, but I've at least gotten a few positive responses and have scheduled a few interviews, so prospects look good. The cabin needs an inhabitant, at least through the coldest part of the winter, so it makes sense that I should go there. There's a glut of rental property in Gunnison these days -- ours is not the only house not selling -- and we're just not up to being long-distance landlords again. Are we destitute and desperate? No. But sitting around unemployed has not been good for me. So off I shall go to bring home the tofu (we no longer eat much bacon at out house), to shovel snow and freeze my tush off in a new middle place, the middle of the Rockies, while my family remains in the middle of the Pacific tending to the coffee farm, basking in the liquid sunshine of the rainforest and keeping our cozy hovel from biodegrading into the earth. I'm confident we can withstand this skosh of adversity. Americans everywhere are working much harder and doing much crazier things. Plus, there's iChat, Skype and Magic Jack. We'll be fine.

I'm also looking at this as a writer's retreat. How can I help but be productive there, alone in a cabin in the mountains, fire blazing, snow piled up against the windows outside? And when I'm not working or writing (of course, writing is also hard work), there might be time to squeeze in a few turns. I dug my skis out of storage today, and while they're a bit outdated, they're still OK. A quick run over a base grinder, a squirt of silicone spray on the bindings and they'll be ready to slide. I just hope I remember how to ride 'em.

A hui hou. Aloha!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Okie Dokie, Coqui

Smaller in diameter that a dime and cute as can be, the coqui frog is nonetheless much maligned here on Hawaii Island. Many view the little buggahs as disruptors of the peace, invaders who have turned our once quiet evenings riotous. By contrast, the bitty frogs are much beloved in their native Puerto Rico, and threatened there as a species. But they thrive here, the first of them having arrived as stow-aways on imported plants sometime in the 90s. Named for their sound -- coQUI, coQUI -- only the males sing, and only after dark. During the day, the frogs are quiet. For a time, it was all out war against the frogs. The county advocated and supplied a variety of chemical sprays -- caffeine, citric acid, hydrated lime -- with huge promotional campaigns aimed at eradication. They're still here, more than ever and in the Puna and Hilo districts here in The Big Island, it would appear that, for lack of funding in these austere times and a waning of the will to murder the little beasts, they are here to stay.

When we first moved to the upper Puna area known as Glenwood, there were no coquis here. Now? Listen for yourself. This fifteen-second soundtrack was recorded from my back lanai. It started with one, a couple of years ago. Last summer, we could identify two or three within earshot. This year, it's dozens, or maybe scores. Here's what they sound like.

Not everyone hates the coquis. Though still a minority, there is a growing faction that has come to terms with these raucous amphibians and, I admit, I'm one of them. And now, local experts agree, too. Time to lay down our arms in the fight against the frogs.

Yes, the coquis are non-native. So am I.  So are many of the people here, and most of the plants and animals. To say that the frogs are disrupting the "status quo" would seem an indefensible argument.  The natural balance of these islands was altered with the arrival of the first humans and has been under siege ever since.  Frogs are dying off in alarming numbers worldwide due to climate change, pollution and habitat degradation. Here, it would seem, one renegade species has found a haven. It's true they have no natural predators here, but for the occasional chicken or cat who gets lucky. So there numbers are legion. And yes, they undoubtedly eat native insects and compete for food with other native and non-native creatures. Scientist worry that, if snakes are ever introduced to Hawaii, the frogs will be a ready food supply for the reptiles. Never mind that without the frogs, the snakes would no doubt find something else to eat. Like bird eggs (a bad thing). Or maybe rats (a good thing). Or, if we're really lucky, chihuahuas (Kidding.)  It seems a bit fatalistic to assume that it's only a matter of time before the snakes come. Fatalistic, but not unreasonable, given the record of human screw-ups of this place. Still, it seems a better use of resources to put our efforts toward keeping worse creatures out than killing off a million frogs already here. The coquis lots eat mosquitoes, too, also an invasive species, one which carries diseases that infect native birds, pets and people. We've noticed this summer to be our most productive in the vegetable garden yet, and it's possible the little coquis have something to do with that. Fewer pests mean fewer pukas in da zucchini. There are fewer gnats and beetles doing the crawl through my beer in the evenings, too.

It seems the way of things in Hawaii that humans bring creatures and plants here, either on purpose or through carelessness, for many reasons. The creatures and plants flourish. They become a nuisance. We decide we hate them and must exterminate. We endeavor to do so, always at great cost and often employing deplorable methods, and in the end, our efforts always fall short. There are still mountain sheep munching native plants on Mauna Kea,  fire ants tormenting lower Puna, feral cats everywhere, vast tracts of waiawi trees and miconia plants choking out native forests. Like them or not, they have become part of the landscape.

I'm not suggesting that what little remains endemic or indigenous to these islands should not be protected. Certainly, the diligence we all employ in keeping snakes away is worthwhile, and in keeping less onerous but nonetheless invasive, non-native species from entering in the first place. It's also on us to protect the few native creatures and plants that remain as best we can by resisting the urge to bulldoze their habitat to make it our own. But unless it's clear that the now well-entrenched coquis are a serious environment threat, it makes sense to leave them be and focus on bigger troublemakers. A recent story in the Trubune-Herald suggests that experts and government officials have come to the same conclusion. The coqui population has leveled off, they say, and is expected to remain stable here on Hawaii Island.  Millions of dollars have already been spent to eradicate the frogs, and, as you can hear, that's been a bust. If it's a choice between coquis and mosquitoes, or coquis and fire ants, or coquis and centepedes, or coquis and pigs, or coquis and Christmas Berry trees (horrible), all nastier and far more destructive, I proclaim solidarity with chatty amphibians. Long live the coqui. Our problems will not be resolved by the elimination of one small, misplaced creature to an isolated archipelago. It's our planet that's ailing, the place where we're all native, all trying to find our best place to thrive. More important that we should retrain our focus on the bigger island, Island Earth.