People and plants -- we're all in this together
By Norman Bezona
Published: Sunday, November 30, 2008 7:50 AM HST
This is a great time to be alive even though there are some really tough challenges ahead. During the election, I was attending the American Bamboo Society meeting in the Bay area and was amazed how most folks were celebrating with hope and faith that we are changing the course of history for a better America. As the results of the election came in, I received calls from Ghana, Togo, Haiti and even Britain to congratulate us for our selection of a new president. With Thanksgiving behind us, I am reminded to be thankful every day that Hawaii has sent a message of aloha to the mainland in a very big way.
Most folks say they hope for "Peace on Earth," especially at this season when that message is loud and clear. Most folks also wish for a "Happy New Year."
Why then do we have the many bloody conflicts occurring today?
It seems the answer is too complicated to ever understand. Just about the time we gave up in trying to figure out why this is such a crazy world, a teenager walked by with a T-shirt that said "One People ... One Planet." Like a prayer answered, it dawned on me that the big problem is that we constantly see ourselves as separate from others. We are the "us group" and everyone else a "them."
As long as we create this dichotomy in our minds, we are susceptible to getting caught up in conflicts, even wars because of this duplicity. The problem is separating ourselves from others by race, skin, eye or hair color, religion, culture, philosophy, sex, geographical origin or whatever. It's not a matter of saying we are all the same, but recognizing our diversity and appreciating our differences. I was especially impressed when the president elect commented on getting a "mutt" from the animal shelter and how it made sense because he was also a mutt. It dawned on me that we are all mutts. We are all shades of color. We can be proud of our heritage without looking down on others. This is one example of the aloha Hawaii has to offer the world.
The question is, "Can we have ethnicity without ethnocentricity?"
Can we appreciate that we are unique without putting down someone else. Racist or bigot is not a label that most folks would like to have attached to them. However, it is so easy to fall into the "Us and them" mode of thinking that it takes constant mental pushups to see all humans as connected. One way to practice is by noting our attitudes about other inhabitants of our global ecosystem.
For example, let's take a look at our beautiful Hawaiian gardens. There is a lesson here to be learned. They are composed of plants from all over the world. Some of these plants arrived long ago transported by ocean currents, winds and birds. Hundreds of varieties were brought here by the first human inhabitants. These include kukui, coconut, ti, breadfruit, banana, sweet potato and many others. Later, each group of humans brought the plants associated with their culture.
Unfortunately, all the plants introduced by humans are now being called alien species. Oops, it's "Us and them" again! In the past, they were referred to as non native or exotic. The term alien is one charged with negative connotations, with visions of pestiferous and otherwise uninvited crawlies. When the term is associated with humans, we almost automatically add "illegal" to create another negative picture. When we describe plants or animals as alien species, we may incorrectly think of aliens only as pest species. However, every life form on our Island is alien if one goes back far enough.
Of course, it is essential to protect that which is unique to Hawaii, but we must be careful not to be an extremist. Simply labeling all the millions of life forms on this planet as native versus alien and then to infer that one is good and thus the other must be bad is a disservice to all. Our gardens give us opportunity to do our mental pushups and acknowledge the value of each diverse life form.
When I was about 9 years old, my grandmother told me that a weed is only a plant for which we haven't found the use. She also used to say that God created everything and that it was all good. It is up to us to figure out what that good is!
Many of the plants and animals introduced to Hawaii over the years are rare and perhaps even near extinction in the wilds from which they came. Some that we consider weeds, have been used by older cultures as healing herbs. For example, many plants and birds that we consider common here are no longer found in their place of origin due to destruction of habitat. I have traveled all over South America and never seen a Brazilian cardinal there. Most of the parrots we find in Hawaii are either threatened or endangered in their native lands.
When it comes to plants, the Royal Poinciana, Delonix regia, also known as the Flame Tree or Flamboyant, may be found in tropical gardens worldwide, but in its own native habitat of Madagascar it is extremely rare in the wild. A popular palm in Kona, the Foxtail Palm, was thought to be extinct in the wild but because of groups like the International Palm Society rare palms are being grown in tropical gardens around the world. Australia's Carpentaria Palm was thought to be extinct for over one hundred years and then was rediscovered in a private garden in Darwin. It now graces Hawaiian landscapes.
So to label plants as native and alien is to oversimplify a very complex global ecosystem.
To infer that plants or animals are good or bad is dangerous. These are moral judgements. These terms are only appropriate in relationship to how we manage and interact with the other living things around us. Yes, there have been lants introduced, many accidentally or illegally, that have had a negative impact on other life forms in a given environment. But for every negative impact, there is likely a positive one. Weeds are often pioneer species healing the wounds created by bad management practices. Many life forms that have become part of our Hawaiian life are not from here such as our loveable geckos, popular pikake and plumeria that brighten our lives.
When the first humans arrived in Hawaii, these Islands had a very different ecosystem than in 1790 or today. There were few plants or animals that could help humans survive. Most non-native plants introduced purposely have benefited man. With diversified agriculture essential for our economic survival, it is important we don't hamstring ourselves so that we are unable to grow a crop that is of benefit to our community and economy by maligning all non-native species.
Our responsibility is to recognize that our community includes many other life forms, most of which are unique and need our special protection, and at the same time to recognize the need for non-native species including those introduced by the Polynesians and other ethnic groups.
he message for our future is that it is time for all members of our island community, including environmental groups, agricultural interests, visitor industry, and others to work together on plans that focus on good management of our resources. It is not a time to be confrontational.
We can learn to manage our polarities if we can shift out of the "Us and them" patterns of thinking. There is a lesson to be learned in how we treat all the varied life forms in our island gardens. Maybe if we learn that lesson, we will treat one another better!
It is the essence of aloha.
This information is provided by the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. For more information, contact the Cooperative Extension Service in Hilo at 981-5199, in Waimea at 887-6183, or in Kainaliu at 322-4892.