I love my work. Most days I find myself along a trail in a forest full of birdsong or stepping across cascading streams. Other days are spent in pursuit of hot lava, steam vents, lava tubes, pit craters, and earth cracks in the world-class setting of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I meet new people everyday. With a few exceptions, they are curious, wondrous, appreciative, and intelligent guests. Some of them are in Hawaii for the first time, but the majority are repeat visitors to our island. They love it here and come back again and again. Oftentimes I expose our veteran tourists to a Hawaii they never knew existed. One of my greatest joys is to change peoples perception of Hawaii. I am a naturalist. As a naturalist guide I help interpret the environment to my guests. Hawaii is a marvelous place for a naturalist to interpret. The mystique of Hawaii, the essence of this place, a place that millions of people from all over the world love to visit, is found in the life of the land. Each day I am out in the field, Hawaii nei reveals herself to me and my guests. These encounters affect people in profound ways.
Good natural history interpretation connects the visitor to the place in an intimate way. This is an easy task in Hawaii. The beauty, diversity, uniqueness, and youth of this island is like a child for the interpreter. You can see it grow before your very eyes. It has a freshness and vibrancy, it is uncluttered, simple and open. Its truths are laid bare and available for those who stop and watch, listen and absorb.
People connect with nature on several levels. Usually the first and the most obvious connection is physical. Putting them in the middle of a barren lava flow or a lush, fern filled rainforest, or an active volcano does something that is real, immediate, and sometimes overwhelming for the guest. Emotionally the visitor experiences a rush of feelings that speak to the essence of the human soul. Awe, wonder, tranquility, fear, humility, joy, thanksgiving, respect, these can all blossom in the right setting. Lately, there has been lots of plants blooming in the understory of the forest. Imagine a visitor who has never ventured into a rainforest, suddenly finding themselves lost in world totally foreign. As they stand trying to absorb the beauty around them, an Iiwi lands a few feet away at eye level. Over the next few minutes, they watch in amazement as this bird methodically, gymnastically, and noisily forages for the nectar of the ohelo flowers. This spectacular encounter puts the visitor in a place that needs no explanation. But, of course, I will explain.
It is easy for the naturalist to focus on the intellectual connections. The intellectual information is important and sometimes is all the guest expects. People want to know the names of things, the age of a lava flow. They want explanations and answers. So many times, folks have gotten into my van, and after a brief time getting to know one another, an eruption of questions pour forth. Where do all these resorts get their water? What’s that squirrel like animal I saw? How long does it take for plants to grow on the lava? Are there any hummingbirds on the island? Who owns the new land made by the volcano? Where do all those white rocks come from? By the end of the day, hopefully, I’ve woven a narrative of the island’s volcanic origins and characteristics, the colonization of plants and animals to Hawaii, the evolution of these colonizers, human impacts on the islands, the difference between exotic and native species, our extinction crisis, Hawaiian cultural history, and all sorts of anecdotes that shed light on our lives here in the middle of the Pacific. As these stories are told, vivid pictures of the landscape around us illustrate the story. People not only hear it, much of it unfolds before them as we explore the land.
One question I’m often asked is, “Don’t you ever get tired of going to the same place all the time?” “No, I don’t,” I always reply. And I mean it. I love to discover and learn. Nature has a promise that if you stop, look, listen, smell, and feel, you’ll discover. In nature there is an infinite possibility of discovery. There is always something new, something once hidden suddenly revealed, there are magical moments that occur spontaneously. These encounters are doubly enjoyable when they are shared in the presence of others. And somehow, through the physical encounters, the emotional connections, and the intellectual stimulation, nature, especially the nature of Hawaii, fills you with a spiritual quality that is as real as molten rock colliding with the sea and as soothing as a cool, calm, cascade of a Kohala waterfall. It’s an authentic Hawaiian experience. It’s a natural encounter of Aloha. And best yet, it’s my job.