The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter IX.

Onomea, Hawaii.

This is such a pleasant house and household, Mrs. A. is as bright as though she were not an invalid, and her room, except at meals, is the gathering-place of the family. The four boys are bright, intelligent beings, out of doors, barefooted, all day, and with a passion for horses, of which their father possesses about thirty. The youngest, Ephy, is the brightest child for three years old that I ever saw, but absolutely crazy about horses and mules. He talks of little else, and is constantly asking me to draw horses on his slate. He is a merry, audacious little creature, but came in this evening quite subdued. The sun was setting gloriously behind the forest-covered slopes, flooding the violet distances with a haze of gold, and, in a low voice, he said, “I’ve seen God.”

There is the usual Chinese cook, who cooks and waits and looks good-natured, and of course has his own horse, and his wife, a most minute Chinese woman, comes in and attends to the rooms and to Mrs. A., and sews and mends. She wears her native dress — a large, stiff, flat cane hat, like a tray, fastened firmly on or to her head; a scanty loose frock of blue denim down to her knees, wide trousers of the same down to her ancles, and slippers. Her hair is knotted up; she always wears silver armlets, and would not be seen without the hat for anything. There is not a bell in this or any house on the islands, and the bother of servants is hardly known, for the Chinamen do their work like automatons, and disappear at sunset. In a land where there are no carpets, no fires, no dust, no hot water needed, no windows to open and shut — for they are always open — no further service is really required. It is a simple arcadian life, and people live more happily than any that I have seen elsewhere. It is very cheerful to live among people whose faces are not soured by the east wind, or wrinkled by the worrying effort to “keep up appearances,” which deceive nobody; who have no formal visiting, but real sociability; who regard the light manual labour of domestic life as a pleasure, not a thing to be ashamed of; who are contented with their circumstances, and have leisure to be kind, cultured, and agreeable; and who live so tastefully, though simply, that they can at any time ask a passing stranger to occupy the simple guest chamber, or share the simple meal, without any of the soul-harassing preparations which often make the exercise of hospitality a thing of terror to people in the same circumstances at home.

People will ask you, “What is the food?” We have everywhere bread and biscuit made of California flour, griddle cakes with molasses, and often cracked wheat, butter not very good, sweet potatoes, boiled kalo, Irish potatoes, and poi. I have not seen fish on any table except at the Honolulu Hotel, or any meat but beef, which is hard and dry as compared with ours. We have China or Japan tea, and island coffee. Honolulu is the only place in which intoxicants are allowed to be sold; and I have not seen beer, wine, or spirits in any house. Bananas are an important article of diet, and sliced guavas, eaten with milk and sugar, are very good. The cooking is always done in detached cook houses, in and on American cooking stoves.

As to clothing. I wear my flannel riding dress for both riding and walking, and a black silk at other times. The resident ladies wear prints and silks, and the gentlemen black cloth or dark tweed suits. Flannel is not required, neither are puggarees or white hats or sunshades at any season. The changes of temperature are very slight, and there is no chill when the sun goes down. The air is always like balm; the rain is tepid and does not give cold; in summer it may be three or four degrees warmer. Windows and doors stand open the whole year. A blanket is agreeable at night, but not absolutely necessary. It is a truly delightful climate and mode of living, with such an abundance of air and sunshine. My health improves daily, and I do not consider myself an invalid.

Between working, reading aloud, talking, riding, and “loafing,” I have very little time for letter writing; but I must tell you of a delightful fern-hunting expedition on the margin of the forest that I took yesterday, accompanied by Mr. Thompson and the two elder boys. We rode in the mauka direction, outside cane ready for cutting, with silvery tassels gleaming in the sun, till we reached the verge of the forest, where an old trail was nearly obliterated by a trailing matted grass four feet high, and thousands of woody ferns, which conceal streams, holes, and pitfalls. When further riding was impossible, we tethered our horses and proceeded on foot. We were then 1,500 feet above the sea by the aneroid barometer, and the increased coolness was perceptible. The mercury is about four degrees lower for each 1,000 feet of ascent — rather more than this indeed on the windward side of the islands. The forest would be quite impenetrable were it not for the remains of wood-hauling trails, which, though grown up to the height of my shoulders, are still passable.

Underneath the green maze, invisible streams, deep down, made sweet music, sweeter even than the gentle murmur of the cool breeze among the trees. The forest on the volcano track, which I thought so tropical and wonderful a short time ago, is nothing for beauty to compare with this “garden of God.” I wish I could describe it, but cannot; and as you know only our pale, small-leaved trees, with their uniform green, I cannot say that it is like this or that. The first line of a hymn, “Oh, Paradise! oh, Paradise!” rings in my brain, and the rustic exclamation we used to hear when we were children, “Well, I never!” followed by innumerable notes of admiration, seems to exhaust the whole vocabulary of wonderment. The former cutting of some trees gives atmosphere, and the tumbled nature of the ground shows everything to the best advantage. There were openings over which huge candle-nuts, with their pea-green and silver foliage, spread their giant arms, and the light played through their branches on an infinite variety of ferns. There were groves of bananas and plantains with shiny leaves 8 feet long, like enormous hart’s-tongue, the bright-leaved noni, the dark-leaved koa, the mahogany of the Pacific; the great glossy-leaved Eugenia — a forest tree as large as our largest elms; the small-leaved ohia, its rose-crimson flowers making a glory in the forests, and its young shoots of carmine red vying with the colouring of the New England fall; and the strange lauhala hung its stiff drooping plumes, which creak in the faintest breeze; and the superb breadfruit hung its untempting fruit, and from spreading guavas we shook the ripe yellow treasures, scooping out the inside, all juicy and crimson, to make drinking cups of the rind; and there were trees that had surrendered their own lives to a conquering army of vigorous parasites which had clothed their skeletons with an unapproachable and indistinguishable beauty, and over trees and parasites the tender tendrils of great mauve morning glories trailed and wreathed themselves, and the strong, strangling stems of the ie wound themselves round the tall ohias, which supported their quaint yucca-like spikes of leaves fifty feet from the ground.

There were some superb plants of the glossy tropical-looking bird’s-nest fern, or Asplenium Nidus, which makes its home on the stems and branches of trees, and brightens the forest with its great shining fronds. I got a specimen from a koa tree. The plant had nine fronds, each one measuring from 4 feet 1 inch to 4 feet 7 inches in length, and from 7 to 9 inches in breadth. There were some very fine tree-ferns (Cibotium Chamissoi?), two of which being accessible, we measured, and found them seventeen and twenty feet high, their fronds eight feet long, and their stems four feet ten inches in circumference three feet from the ground. They showed the most various shades of green, from the dark tint of the mature frond, to the pale pea green of those which were just uncurling themselves. I managed to get up into a tree for the first time in my life to secure specimens of two beautiful parasitic ferns (Polypodium tamariscinum and P. Hymenophylloides?). I saw for the first time, too, a lygodium and the large climbing potato-fern (Polypodium spectrum), very like a yam in the distance, and the Vittaria elongata, whose long grassy fronds adorn almost every tree. The beautiful Microlepia tenuifolia abounded, and there were a few plants of the loveliest fern I ever saw (Trichomanes meifolium), in specimens of which I indulged sparingly, and almost grudgingly, for it seemed unfitting that a form of such perfect beauty should be mummied in a herbarium. There was one fern in profusion, with from 90 to 130 pair of pinnae on each frond; and the fronds, though often exceeding five feet in length, were only two inches broad (Nephrolepis pectinata). There were many prostrate trees, which nature has entirely covered with choice ferns, specially the rough stem of the tree-fern. I counted seventeen varieties on one trunk, and on the whole obtained thirty-five specimens for my collection.

The forest soon became completely impenetrable, the beautiful Gleichenia Hawaiiensis forming an impassable network over all the undergrowth. And, indeed, without this it would have been risky to make further explorations, for often masses of wonderful matted vegetation sustained us temporarily over streams six or eight feet below, whose musical tinkle alone warned us of our peril. I shall never again see anything so beautiful as this fringe of the impassable timber belt. I enjoyed it more than anything I have yet seen; it was intoxicating, my eyes were “satisfied with seeing.” It was a dream, a rapture, this maze of form and colour, this entangled luxuriance, this bewildering beauty, through which we caught bright glimpses of a heavenly sky above, while far away, below glade and lawn, shimmered in surpassing loveliness the cool blue of the Pacific. To me, with my hatred of reptiles and insects, it is not the least among the charms of Hawaii, that these glorious entanglements and cool damp depths of a redundant vegetation give shelter to nothing of unseemly shape and venomous proboscis or fang. Here, in cool, dreamy, sunny Onomea, there are no horrid, drumming, stabbing, mosquitoes as at Honolulu, to remind me of what I forget sometimes, that I am not in Eden. 15

I.L.B.

15 NOTE. — Throughout these letters the botanical names given are only those which are current on the Islands. Those specimens of ferns which survived the rough usage which befel them, are to be seen in the Herbarium of the Botanical Garden at Oxford, and have been named and classified by my cousin, Professor Lawson.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:41