story by Lynn Cook
GERMANY, 1932. Dieter Mueller-Dombois dreams of trees. Forests of trees. He is a young boy and trees are his passion. He joins a youth group, marches and sings about freedom, but he’s thinking about being a forester like his uncle. Ten years pass. Dieter advances in the youth group and becomes a forestry apprentice deep in the woods of East Prussia. He is happy. But there is a war on and suddenly, he is drafted into service for Hitler’s Third Reich. After officers’ training, he’s sent to the front lines in Holland as an artillery scout. He enters hell and winds up a prisoner of war in an American camp outside Paris. More than half of his youth group class are dead. What he learns, through the fighting and in the camp, is that nothing worse can ever happen to him.
photo by Olivier Koning
On his release, holding fast to his dream, he finds work as a forest laborer in his hometown. There is no forestry education so he settles for a university degree in agriculture. But there are no jobs. He drives the night shift for the American newspaper, Stars & Stripes, and begins to think about emigrating. By 1952 he is on an Italian ocean liner, headed for British Columbia, with a completely unknown future ahead.
Fifty years later, Dieter Mueller-Dombois is the foremost botanist in the Pacific. He has taught governments about conservation, educated a new generation, saved rainforests—and, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion, solved a great mystery in Hawaii’s ohia forests. He conducts research, presents symposiums, authors seminal articles. Called to Germany recently, he was presented with the only honorary doctoral degree for scientific achievement ever awarded by the prestigious Brandenburg Technical University Cottbus. Looking down the line of mortarboard- and gown-clad dignitaries, he recognized many of his students, now colleagues, who had traveled from the far corners of the world to celebrate his work. Only one or two other educators worldwide have graduated as many young botanists ready to, as Dieter says, "take up the cause and tramp through the forest to find solutions that will take us into the twenty-second century and beyond."
Dieter is also the author, with the late Dr. F. Ray Fosberg, of "the bible" of Pacific plant life, Vegetation of the Tropical Pacific Islands, a book he completed after making a death-bed promise to his beloved colleague. That tome, first published in 1998 and edited by Dieter’s wife Annette, gave birth to PABITRA, the Pacific-Asia Biodiversity Transect, a network that alerts conservationists to "living textbook" sites scattered from New Guinea to the Galapagos. All PABITRA sites are botanical jewels; the one Dieter has embraced is Kahana Valley on Oahu’s Windward side, a place, he says, that even now tells a clear story of Hawaiian ecosystems as they were in 1600 and before. It is a place he hopes will be saved and studied, and for that reason, on the day I accompany him, he is walking through Kahana with colleagues visiting from Okinawa.
At seventy-nine, Dieter is just as agile and enthusiastic as he was decades ago in the forests of Prussia. His arm sweeps around authoritatively. He points high in the valley to the indigenous koa and ohia woodlands, then notes the pandanus forest, the prolific wet taro terraces and the wetland marsh. The botanists walk through the valley and eventually arrive back at the coast, by the ancient Huilua fishpond. There Dieter describes how the broad expanse of this ahupuaa, or sea-to-summit landscape, integrated ecosystems and served Hawaiians as a sustainable system. He talks about the valley’s past: through the mid-1800s, home to a self-contained community; then owned successively by a high chief, Chinese farmers, an agricultural hui and a single individual; used by the military during WWII and then transferred to the state.
"With 119 archaeological sites, and even some ancient rock art petroglyphs, this valley reads like a history book," Dieter says. "When we fully understand its healthy systems, we can export that knowledge worldwide."