Story by Julia Steele
Photos by Elyse Butler
As David Burney and Lida Pigott Burney are well aware, necessity is the mother of invention. Add to that the maxims “Everything old is new again” and “Slow but steady wins the race,” and you get an inkling of why giant tortoises are now roaming a remote corner of Kaua‘i. The innovative Burneys, who between them have seven decades of scientific study in places as far-flung as Kenya and the Mascarene Islands, seven years ago began planting a six-acre plot near Makauwahi Cave, Kaua‘i with native species. The Burneys sought to create a large stock of rare and endangered Hawaiian plants — eighty-three species in all—in the hope of making those plants less rare and endangered. They planted six thousand baby natives, among them kou, ma‘o, koki‘o and lama, and nurtured them fastidiously.
Things have gone extraordinarily well —tiny seedlings have become twelvefoot- tall trees — but along with the thriving things the Burneys wanted came thriving things they didn’t: weeds. So out came the mowers and weed-whackers — and with them a nasty carbon footprint and a constant need for labor.
David Burney knew that in the past— in the far distant past, say around the time that man started walking upright — none of these weeds existed in Hawai‘i. Back then, rather than being choked out, Hawaiian plants were more at risk of being nibbled up by the giant flightless geese and ducks that roamed the Islands. To thwart the birds, the plants developed ingenious defenses. Conventional wisdom holds that native Hawaiian plants are delicate, vulnerable beings that evolved without defenses, but that’s not so, says David. What they did was evolve without defenses against mammals. Things with beaks were a different story. For millions of years Hawai‘i was a paradise of birds, and to fend them off, plants evolved fancy tricks like divaricating, wherein a plant splits its branches immediately after coming out of the ground, then splits them again and again and again to model itself into something akin to a bird’s nest. The plant becomes all but impenetrable, and any large creature reaching in to pluck leaves with a beak won’t get far. (Any creature with teeth, of course, can just munch right through.) Native plants had other defenses, too, which included growing a flexible trunk that couldn’t be snapped to the ground and tingeing leaves with a purple pigment that’s hard on the kidneys of birds and reptiles. For eons a symbiosis existed between Hawai‘i’s plants and birds, and everything thrived.