I am a book nut. Sometimes I think my fascination with nature is just a highly rationalized excuse to buy books. Anything new that hits the shelves, I get it. Plus, I’m constantly on the search for the out-of-print titles that have anything to do with Hawaiiana. The ones that really drive my wife crazy are the jargon filled scientific tomes like Dung Insects of the World. Books and literature on the natural world are important to me. They enhance my understanding and appreciation of the natural world and provide a framework for continued learning. Sometimes books are very difficult to find and often, once found, are much too expensive to buy. One book I’ve tried to purchase for eight years is Joseph Rock’s, The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands. This book is a rare reference tool. It is not rare in the sense that few copies exist. Most public libraries have copies, as do many local folks I know who have an interest in Hawaiiana. The rarity of Rock’s work is the beauty of the photos and the content of the narrative. It is a work of art.
The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands was first published in 1913 under patronage. The list of patrons reads like a Who’s Who list from Land and Power in Hawaii: Atherton, Baldwin, Bishop, Castle, Cooke, Damon, Davies, Dillingham, McInerny, Robinson and Wilcox. The few copies published were soon snatched up. It was reprinted in 1974 in a handsome hardcover publication by the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden and the Charles Tuttle Company. You never see this book available at used bookstores or even on powerful out-of-print internet searches. People do not want to part with it. One friend of mine on the island has two copies on her shelf, she will not sell one.
The first quality that strikes you about Rock’s work are the photos. The 215 black and white plates are extraordinary. Most of the photos are of single trees or details of trunk, leaves, seeds and fruits. The photos are remarkable in several ways. First off, as aids in identification they are superb. Rock had a knack for finding specimens standing alone or set off. He uses two techniques to showcase the plants. In some, as in Plate 141, ohe makai (Reynoldsia sandwicensis), he pins (usually with his machete) a branch with leaves and fruits to the trunk and shoots. In one well-lit frame he provides the reader with all the distinguishing characteristics for general identification. His other technique, used for example in Plates 174-176 of naio (Myoporum sandwicensis), is to show a close up detail of leaves, flowers, and fruit on one plate, followed by a trunk and bark detail, and finally a full tree silhouette perspective. The lighting of each print is exceptional; the compositions seem at once spontaneous yet exquisitely arranged. His photos are one of the best plant field guides I have ever used.
Besides their practical use, Rock’s plates are beautiful natural portraits. Many could be framed and hung alongside an Ansel Adam’s landscape without embarrassment. Several of the photos are of representative plant communities. Look at Plate 5. Entitled “Vegetation along a stream in the lower forest region on Oahu, Palolo Valley,” it imbues the essence of a Kukui forested Hawaiian stream so well that one can almost hear the buzz of mosquitoes. Another aesthetically marvelous composition is Plate 73, mamane (Sophora chrysophylla). Here, a cross-section of a gigantic mamane trunk takes up the middle half of the frame. Its girth and weathered bark evoke a sense of grandeur, age, and invincibility. Tacked to the middle of the trunk is a clump of limbs and leaves which at first glance seem to be a decorative wreath. All this would be lost if not for the round-brimmed, beaver pelt hat set in the bottom left corner of the photo. Tipped up on the bottom of the trunk to provide scale, its placement moves the plate beyond the realms of a taxonomic I.D. picture to an artistic still-life. If found on the walls of the Getty Musuem, it may be titled, “Tree with Hat.” Less obvious than Rock’s photographic creations, though no less remarkable, are his narrative descriptions throughout the book. Rarely does the nature reader find text that is at once comprehensively descriptive botanically but also full of information ranging from native Hawaiian uses, historical anecdotes, and a fair bit of general natural history tidbits. Rock was a master of Hawaiian flora. His description of type locales, especially of the forests in Kona and Kau, are a vivid testament to the continuing change wrought upon Hawaii’s native forests. Even in Rock’s time, great change was ongoing. Rock discovered and described dozens of new species. Much of what he describes can no longer be found. His love of Hawaii emerges constantly in his writing. Here he is discussing hapuu ii (Cibotium Menziesii):
Hapuu ii is the most stately tree fern of the Hawaiian forests. Nothing is more beautiful than a stand of pure Ohia forest with trees of about 80 feet in height, when growing together with this beautiful fern, which forms the dense undergrowth. Their bright-green fronds produce a pleasing contrast to the rather grayish Ohia lehua trees, which contrast is enhanced when the latter are displaying their beautiful red blossoms. Such a forest is inhabited by native birds of all colors, red (the Iiwi), predominating.
Like the rare and endangered lobelia described by Rock, his book is a precious resource. Someday a copy of The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands will grace my bookshelf. Until then I will continue to borrow it from the library. And I will follow the advice given by Sherwin Carlquist in the book’s introduction. “I urge those with this book at hand to use it not merely to identify plants (although it will serve very well in that capacity). Rather, I hope that this volume will deepen appreciation and preservation of the ‘most different’ forest flora in the world and open new vistas of inquiry and enjoyment.”