story by Paul Wood
Kenneth Emory album,
Munro family collection
These days, Norfolk Island pine trees—or their almost identical counterparts, Cook Island pines—stand like monumental, midnight-green spikes all over Lana‘i. They surround the central park of the island’s one town, Lana‘i City. They line the drive to the Lodge at Ko‘ele, the upland resort that—along with the Manele Bay Hotel—provides the primary livelihood for the island’s residents. And they grow along the island’s summit ridge, which is lined with a scenic jeep road known as the Munro Trail.
These are rainmaking trees. Their needles, arranged like long rows of toothbrush bristles, whisk moisture out of the sea breezes, and this moisture gathers into drops that rain down onto the otherwise parched earth. This artificial watering—fog-drip—has been a boon to thirsty little Lana‘i, which catches few rain clouds because it is low-lying and situated in the lee of West Maui. In 1955, one man observed “twice as much precipitation in twelve months under one of the Norfolk Island pine trees … as that recorded from rainfall alone on an adjacent open area.” The author of that sentence had good cause to rejoice, for he had planted those same trees some four decades previous. He was George C. Munro, former manager of Lana‘i Ranch and the namesake of that scenic jeep road.
Although Munro lived on Lana‘i for only twenty years of his 97-year life, his name, those trees and the ecological health of Lana‘i will be forever linked in the history of the Islands—especially now, with the publication of the book he was writing when he died in 1963.
The Story of Lana‘i by George C. Munro, published this year by his descendants and distributed by Native Books, is an immediate classic and a must-have for every serious collector of Hawaiiana. It’s loaded with photos from Munro’s own collection, many of which were shot by Kenneth Emory on visits to Lana‘i in the early 1900s, when that famed Hawai‘i archeologist was a dashingly handsome young man. These images are so fresh-looking that the viewer feels tugged into the pre-automobile Lana‘i past; the effect is almost unnerving.
A back-cover pocket holds a poster-size island map dotted with authentic place names that you won’t find on other maps. For this, retired state forester Robert Hobdy, who grew up on Lana‘i, contributed meticulous research based on several antique maps, interviews with old-timers and personal observations while walking or kayaking the island. Thanks to the work of designer Barbara Pope, the volume is a sumptuous example of the bookmaker’s art—sewn binding, hard covers, heavy agate-green endpapers, a number of full-bleed photo layouts and a double fold-out spread to accommodate panoramic images over two feet wide.
To Munro’s own text, which was basically complete when he died, the family has added some reproductions of Lana‘i Hawaiian genealogies that Munro created during his tenure at the ranch. And there are tributes to Munro written by botanists and naturalists, including a list of the numerous native birds, insects and plants that have been named after him. The volume also includes an index, a glossary of Hawaiian words and a list of the plants mentioned in the text.
All of the above complement the main attraction of the book, which is Munro’s scholarly writing. An accomplished life-long amateur naturalist with a special interest in birds—he published his highly respected Birds of Hawai‘i in 1944—Munro writes in a voice that is clear, calm and careful. He relies primarily on his own observations and extensive travels over every slope and gulch of the island. His topics range from Lana‘i history and legends to its weather and wildlife. In the reading, one meets a man of great personal discipline who loved the island’s fragile natural order—he always traveled with a plant press strapped to his saddle—and who was determined to stop the blight of human-caused environmental degradation. Through innovative planting strategies, careful ranching practices and the slaughter of many thousands of feral goats and sheep, he was able to keep the island from eroding into a moonscape.