If you were to travel back in time to the 5th century AD and accompany the first Polynesians to settle Hawaii, upon arrival you would be (a) really, really seasick, and (b) very surprised at how different the islands appear from what you see today. Practically the only land animal life were birds and one species of bat. There were no coconut palms, no banana or candlenut (kukui) trees, no taro plants, no breadfruit… all things that are inextricably identified with Hawaii today.
This was driven home to me yesterday while we were touring Kohala, the peninsula at the northern end of the Big Island that is essentially a million year old extinct volcano. We were taking a break in the town of Kapa’au, a sleepy hamlet best known as the birthplace of Kamehameha I, unifer of the islands, and a statue commemorating same. I was lounging outside a small restaurant across the street from the statue while Alice was inside buying a drink, and my reverie was interrupted by a young couple querying me in an English accent:
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Are you OK with lizards?”
I was unsure where this line of inquiry was going, and decided to play it safe.
“Um, yes. Is there some reason I shouldn’t be?”
“Well, there’s one a few inches from your head.”
This was quite true, more than one in fact. I turned my head to the bamboo fence over my left shoulder and came eye to eye with this guy, about twice the length of my pinky finger and accompanied by several of his friends:
I was surprised to see him. Geckos are very common in Hawaii; there are at least nine species of them, all of them introduced. But despite having lived on the Big Island for three years in the early 1980’s, I did not recall ever seeing one that looked like an acid trip with scales.
It turns out that there is a very good reason for this. A little Googling reveals that this is a “gold dust day gecko” — that would be Phelsuma laticauda for you taxonomy lovers — and that it is native to northern Madagascar. That is nearly as far from Hawaii as it is possible to be and still be on this planet, so what is it doing here?
The answer, of course, is “people”. A student at the University of Hawaii main campus on Oahu smuggled eight of these geckos from Madagascar and deliberately released them in 1974. (Why?) They were first sighted on Maui — about halfway between Oahu and the Big Island — 20 years later. By extrapolation we can estimate with some confidence that they made it to the Big Island some time within the past ten years. So I would not have seen them 35+ years ago.
So the moral of the story is that change is continuous even in a place that we think of as being isolated. When I eat local fruits or witness an old Hawaiian craft demonstration I like everyone else like to luxuriate in the satisfying illusion that I am beholding the island in some Edenic antediluvian state. But in fact the islands lost that particular innocence as soon as the very first settlers stepped out of their canoes, and the process never stopped.