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A Juggling Act in Paradise

CREDIT: Betty Izumi, Ph.D.

Born on Oahu (or O`ahu, as the natives write it), 34-year-old Hawaiian Kawika Winter has always stood at a distance from mainstream American culture. Ask him about his childhood and you won't hear about hours spent watching The Cosby Show or Cheers, but rather about hours spent in forests and an ocean full of characters that to him were much more interesting. "I had the blessing of being exposed to healthy ecosystems," he says. "The trees were my friends, the fishes were my friends, and when you see change happening and their environment suffering, that creates a deep drive to save them." During college and his first years of graduate school at the University of Hawaii, Winter soaked up indigenous Hawaiian culture while also seeking scientific tools for understanding the local environment. The split between science and indigenous culture continues to inform his professional activities, which include graduate school and directing a botanical garden and preserve. With equal comfort, Winter can explain the ecological features of the 1000 acres he oversees in terms of either old Hawaiian myths and stories or the scientific grammar of conservation biology.

"The trees were my friends, the fishes were my friends, and when you see change happening and their environment suffering, that creates a deep drive to save them." -- Kawika Winter

A fateful decision

In 2004, Winter was a master's degree student in botany at the University of Hawaii, focused mostly on Hawaiian 'Awa (Piper methysticum), a plant used to make a drink consumed for medicinal, religious, and social reasons across Pacific cultures. 'Awa bars were becoming increasingly popular, a trend that would eventually catch the attention of travel writers on the U.S. mainland. Winter was less interested in imbibing than in collecting data and publishing his work on how the plant and human culture co-evolved.

In time, he matriculated in the university's doctoral program. But as he continued his scientific studies, he found he was even more passionate about studying the indigenous community, including traditional dance, chant, and healing practices.

When he heard that the National Tropical Botanical Garden's (NTBG's) Limahuli Garden and Preserve, on the island of Kauai, needed a director, he applied even though -- or perhaps because -- it was more than 300 miles away from the University of Hawaii campus in Honolulu. Experience working at the university's Lyon Arboretum helped propel him to the top of the candidate list. When NTBG director Charles "Chipper" Wichman Jr. agreed to support his continuing doctoral studies, the deal was sealed.

The science of politicking

Soon after his arrival at the park, Winter attended a series of community meetings aimed at slowing the decline of the local ocean fishery. A newcomer and relative youngster, he found himself dealing with families who have lived and fished on Kauai's north shore for generations. "He was kind of thrown to the wolves early," says Maka'ala Ka'aumoana, executive director of the Hanalei Watershed Hui, a local nonprofit involved in the issue. "But Kawika had several things in his favor. He was naturally humble, intellectually gifted, and culturally aware."

Winter joined a group of community activists, led by Ka'aumoana, that tracked down an amenable state legislator, Ezra Kanoho, and advocated for a new law, which establishes two community-based sustainable fisheries in Hawaii, one of them near Winter's adopted home of Ha'ena, Kauai. The law empowers locals to set and enforce rules that encourage sustainability, provided the rules don't conflict with other laws. "Of course, the community's first notion was to just say, 'Nobody but us can fish here,' " Ka'aumoana says, laughing. "And as it turns out, that's sort of unconstitutional. Who knew?"

Ways of knowing

Winter's recent scholarly publications sit at a theoretical edge of botany. They attempt to identify fundamental measurable units of interaction between people and plants, which he calls quantum co-evolution units. His goal is to create a common yardstick for gauging the interplay of biological and cultural diversity.

CREDIT: Betty Izumi, Ph.D.
Kawika Winter directs the National Tropical Botanical Garden's Limahuli Garden and Preserve on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.

Winter notes that there are older ways to take the measure of a landscape. The legend of Pohaku-o-Kane explains how a Volkswagen-sized rock came to be perched improbably on a mountaintop above the Limahuli Valley, visible from much of the botanical garden. The story says the rock was one of three siblings who long ago set out to look for a new home. When they arrived on Kauai's north shore, two of the siblings stopped to rest, but the third kept climbing the mountain he had seen in his dream. The slope proved too steep; in exchange for the final boost from the Hawaiian god Kane, the rock promised to keep watch on all that happened below until the end of time.

"That's the cultural perspective in Hawaii. We acknowledge that there are forces beyond our control," Winter says. "And I share that perspective."

Precarious balance

It's perhaps fitting that Winter works in the shadow of Pohaku-o-Kane since his life, too, is one of precarious balance, and since he, too, oversees a landscape. Winter is perched between the demands of completing his Ph.D., managing the botanical garden, serving as an advocate for the local community, and parenting two young children.

A discussion with Warren Wagner, chair of the botany department at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., an endowed NTBG research chair, and a father, helped Winter realize he wasn't alone in his often-exhausting effort to do several things at once. Wagner did not assure him that the going would get easier. "I asked him, 'How do you do all this?' " Winter says, recounting the conversation. "He just looked at me and said, 'To be completely honest, some weeks I'm a good father, some weeks I'm a good researcher, some weeks I'm a good administrator, but I'm never good at all three at the same time.' "

"I realized then that I was okay," Winter says. "Because I'm feeling the same thing."

Despite the workload, Winter is determined to complete his Ph.D. He passed his comprehensive exams in April. He considers his academic training to be critical to the work he's doing in the community beyond the garden.

"Another way I use my scientific training," Winter says, "is networking and collaborating with researchers who currently are, or potentially will, do work in the valley. I network and collaborate with botanists, evolutionary biologists, ethnobotanists, zoologists, ecologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and hydrologists. Being that Limahuli is a treasure trove of biodiversity (nearly 50 plants and birds on the verge of extinction) and archaeological sites, there is a lot of potential and desire to do research here. Someone needs to coordinate all that, and with my scientific background, I am able to."

Here's one example: While lobbying for the new law, Winter helped summarize and explain nearly 2 decades' worth of research on the local fishery, a task made easier by his years of experience doing literature reviews. The research documented a connection between various human activities and declining numbers of fish, including Moi, a species (Polydactylus sexfilis) of threadfin.

The Moi fishery's decline started in the 1980s when the tour boat industry expanded, increasing the amount of oil floating on the ocean's surface near the shore. At low tide the oil coated the reefs, "killing everything," Winter says.

Community activism helped to curtail the tours, but the 1990s brought a new threat to Moi stocks: increased fishing, much of it from foreign commercial operations. "Indiscriminate take and nontraditional techniques were impacting the entire fishery," says Ka'aumoana, who helped to initiate lobbying for the new law.

The community is proud of its newfound autonomy, but Winter cautions that science, not vague paeans to past practices, will determine whether the new fishing rules are successful. He plans to continue garden-sponsored observations of the fishery for the next several years at least. Proof that community-authored rules are working, and hope for more local management of natural resources elsewhere in Hawaii and beyond, requires data linking new practices to increasing numbers of fish.

CREDIT: Betty Izumi
Visitors encounter the canoe garden as soon as they begin a walking tour of the Limahuli Garden. More than 20,000 people annually stroll among plants such as taro, sweet potato, banana, and coconut palm, which were likely introduced to the island hundreds of years ago by Polynesians traveling by canoe.

"Just getting people down to the legislature to say, 'I want it to be like this, because this is how we grew up' -- that's not what's going to change policy," he says. "What changes policy is data and scientific evidence, and especially building up a body of research, connecting it to similar research happening in different areas of the country or the world, and saying, 'Hey, this is a trend here.' "

The long-term view

Some might see a position like his as the first step on a career ladder. But Winter plans to be a caretaker in the valley for a long time. "I guess it says something about who I am as a person, but I look at my job as a lifelong investment," he says. "I get a few job offers a year from O`ahu, ... which I never seriously consider, but I just got a very serious offer to be the executive director of a nonprofit whose aim is the restoration of the health of a bay in the area where I grew up. The job offer represented a doubling of my current salary package and an opportunity to return to my home community and give back. After a LOT of self-reflection, prayer, and consultation, I decided to decline the offer. I am committed here for the foreseeable future."

Geoffrey Koch is a writer in Portland, Oregon.