Text by Kelli Gratz | Images by John Hook
Through the veil of shrubbery, the ‘ōhi‘a lehua tree stands majestically. Massive aerial roots prop it up against the porous soil; its wide-reaching branches cradle the surrounding forest. Overhead, the sun shines through the gaps between leaves, illuminating the tree’s healthy red crown like those worn by ancient Hawaiian ali‘i (chiefs). We’re two-thirds up Haleakalā’s Cloud Forest Trail deep in the Waikamoi Preserve, when Pat Bily’s cool voice rises: “God only knows how many ‘ōlelo (stories) surrounds this tree. In the 24 years I’ve been walking these forests, it’s the largest I’ve encountered.”
Pat Bily is a botanist at The Nature Conservancy in east Maui and the one who discovered the tree we are hiking to see. “Based on [Dr. Patrick Hart of the University of Hawai‘i’s] paper on tree growth and age in ancient Hawaiian wet forests, the tree is most likely around 600 years old,” says Bily. “That places it in an interesting historical context because Captain Cook arrived here just 200 years ago. The tree itself is said to be the oldest documented flowering tree in the Northern Hemisphere. Think of everything it has seen!” He goes on to explain that centuries ago, the surrounding forest could have been brush cover or moss, and how, following anthropogenic disturbance (a.k.a. man), this tree gained its reputation as a fierce fighter and a symbol of a culture. “Its scientific name, Metrosideros polymorpha, represents its many shapes it takes on,” says Bily. “I would classify this particular tree as a polymorpha sub-species glaberrima because of the glabrous waxy leaves. It’s a very diverse tree that can handle all sorts of habitats. It’s magnificent on its own, and it rules this neighborhood now, but at one point it was just a pipsqueak, and some other tree was bossing it around.”
Deciphering the mysteries of the forest has become Bily’s life’s work, along with ensuring the protection of native Hawaiian flora and fauna. “This all used to be koa and ‘ōhia forest before it was cleared for pasture,” says Bily, gesturing toward the area around us. “Pre-Panama Canal, nobody had gas to burn, so farmers would burn wood to build houses and other things. They denuded the place so much that the territorial government demanded they plant eucalyptus to stop the erosion and act as a wind buffer. Unfortunately if they had re-planted koa, we’d be sitting on a gold mine!”
Here, in the eye of the forest, more than 63 species of rare plants and 13 species of birds can be found in the 5,230-acre preserve. Through efforts of the Nature Conservancy, the native watersheds are flourishing, but as Bily describes, it’s constant work. “It’s not so much about the tree itself, but what it represents,” he says. “We have ancient forests up there that people don’t even think about. We knew these trees were old, but until Dr. Hart’s paper came out in 2009, we had no idea just how old. By focusing on this one tree, we draw attention to the native watershed forests, which are healthy now, but are continually at threat. The goal is to ensure it stays that way.”
Bily is enlivened by the jungle. He’s one of those guys who could survive for weeks alone in the forest if he had to, eating nothing but berries and leaves. “I’m not a botanist by training,” says the self-described plant nerd. “I actually majored in social sciences, but I’ve been working with plants in one form or another since the mid-’70s, from truck-farming agriculture to when the protea business took off, to landscaping and nurseries—I’ve always been interested in native plants.”
The trail is only three miles, and at an elevation of 6,800 feet, ancient forest sprawl dominates the terrain. But evidence of modern civilization is all around: fencing, colored tape markers, feral goats, cattle, pigs, and mongooses. Hawai‘i’s remaining native honeycreepers, like the scarlet ‘i‘iwi, crimson ‘apapane, bright green ‘amakihi, kiwikiu, and the endangered ‘ākohekohe, flit around, punctuating the dark-green backdrop. It would be hard to believe anyone might stumble upon this area by accident, Bily says. Yet of course, no one knows for sure. If only trees could talk.
After walking for a few miles, Bily shouts, “It’s the tree of life!” The land around us is shaded in a pale pink light as the mighty figure appears in the tall brush. Up close, the ‘ōhi‘a lehua is even more impressive than I had imagined. Its canopy stands at 108 feet, its girth just under four feet—giving life to the smaller plants and animals on who call its boughs home. “If you look close, you’ll see different types of ‘ekaha tongue fern and the ‘ōhelo and ‘olapa growing in it. It houses an entire community.”
Bily and his team at The Nature Conservancy, along with the Maui County Arborist Committee, are in the process of having this massive ‘ōhi‘a lehua awarded as exceptional by Maui County. An exceptional tree, according to The Nature Conservancy, “is one with historic or cultural value, or which by reason of age, rarity, location, size, aesthetic quality, or endemic status has been designated by ordinance as worthy of preservation.” Bily expounds: “The tree is already protected by our management efforts, but calling for protection would mean no one can do a butch prune job or anything like that.” To ensure the protection of this tree, as well as the 27 miles of contiguous native watershed forests included in the Waikamoi Preserve, Bily and his team take steps to maintain the fencing installed in the area to keep out intruders and have plans to install more if necessary.
Under the shade of the enormous green umbrella, I extend a hand and feel the rough bark, which reminds me of what might have been the calloused skin of a ruling ancestor standing guard over the natural order of things. In the time spent in the forest with Bily, I learned that respect and community, fostered by strength of spirit, governs the terrain. And just as easily as we arrived, we turn back, confident in the path ahead of us.
For more information on The Nature Conservancy and its work, visit nature.org.