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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND: Attack of the Carnivorous Caterpillar

Here on the Big Island – Attack of the Carnivorous Caterpillar

          Wait – that’s not a horror-movie.  But it was filmed on the Big Island.

          The carnivorous caterpillar is the common name of a singular creature that most certainly does attack its prey.  And where was it first found?  Why, right here of course!

          The early Hawaiians must have overlooked it, for there was no known Hawaiian name for it, nor was it mentioned in chants or myths.  But it’s not easy to spot.  It’s small, dull green and brown, like a little twig; it keeps very still when larger creatures are around; and it metamorphoses into an equally un-glamorous moth.

           People have studied caterpillars for millennia, and the silkworm has long been domesticated.  But until this member of the Eupithecia family was seen in action, in the 1960s, caterpillars were considered to be vegetarian.  Other Eupithecia caterpillars, elsewhere, eat only flowers and fruit.  In Hawaii, they eat fruit-flies.

          Subsequent field-studies around the world have now identified carnivorous members of other caterpillar species.  So entomologists assume that each evolved from a plant-eater in a local, relatively isolated habitat, where there was an open ecological niche for a small insectivore.

          At first sight, you’d think it was an inchworm.  It advances along a branch by humping up in the middle and hoisting its back end forward.  But when it does, you can see that it has legs only near each end, not all along the sides.  When it senses prey, it clutches the branch with its rear legs, lifts its head, and snatches the passing insect with its forelegs and jaws.
What happens next is rather like a man eating corn on the cob . . . .

          Here are two links for video of this remarkable Big Island resident.

HERE IN HAWAII – Hawaii Musics (Plural) – Part 2

Hawaiian Musics (Plural) – Part 2

[Click here to first read “Part 1”]
In the first two decades of the 20th century, paralleling America’s fascination with the ukulele there was a craze for pseudo-Hawaiian “novelty” songs. Some featured nonsense words, like “Yakka-Hula Hickey-Doola.” Some were risqué ditties, like “They’re Wearin’ ’em Higher in Hawaii.” Others were vaudeville numbers built on ethnic jokes, like “O’Brien is Tryin’ to Learn to Talk Hawaiian.” You probably won’t hear those songs in public today.Few composers on Tin Pan Alley had ever been west of New Jersey; but their songs did help to get Hawaii’s visitor industry going.

Fortunately, by the 1930s, songs combining proper Hawaiian and English words had become hits on the radio, and are still in the repertoire of local musicians. Known as hapa-haole (half-Caucasian) songs, these include “On the Beach at Waikiki,” “The Hawaiian Wedding Song,” and “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua.” (You know that one . . . it’s “where the humuhumunukunukuapua’a goes swimming by.”)

By now, show-bar and luau entertainers have gotten hundreds of thousands of people – maybe even you – singing along to “Pearly Shells” or “The Hukilau Song.” Hapa-haole songs are still being written; and in a delicious irony, there is now a rendition of “Little Grass Shack” sung entirely in Hawaiian!

Just as on the mainland, there was a folk-music revival here in the 1960s and ’70s. Young local musicians sought out obscure, older musicians in rural places, and got them recorded. Among their traditional and vintage songs, in both Hawaiian and English, many were accompanied by slack-key guitar, a style that local guitar players immediately took up and celebrated.

As the two generations played and recorded together – almost always acoustically, not amplified – new popular songs were composed in both languages. A burgeoning interest in “world music,” since the 1980s, has stimulated interest in Oriental and Polynesian musical styles, particularly in drumming. And Hawaiian songs have now been cross-pollinated with the Reggae rhythms of another famously musical tropical island – Jamaica – to produce the sound known here as “Jawaiian.”

You can hear the music of the islands on Big Island radio stations, but bear in mind that our huge mountains block the signals, so most stations broadcast from the east side can’t be heard in the west, and vice versa. KHBC in Hilo (1060 AM and 92.7 FM), KAPA (100.3 FM in Hilo, 99.1 in Kona — website offers live streaming radio broadcast), and KWXX in Kona (101.5 FM) have Hawaiian music formats.

HERE IN HAWAII – Hawaii Musics (Plural) – Part 1

Hawaiian Musics (Plural) – Part 1


There’s a Grammy Award given for “Hawaiian Music,” but that’s just one category. And as most local musicians and enthusiasts can tell you, there are many varieties of “Hawaiian” music in Hawaii.

More often than not, that Grammy goes to a “slack key” artist, whose finger-picking guitar style involves loosening one or more of the six strings. So, there are dozens of slack-key tunings, some of which originated 100 or more years ago, when players who did not know the instrument’s “correct” tuning began to invent their own.

Slack key may be widely recognized – and rewarded – but it is not the Islands’ only musical style.  The earliest Hawaiian music comes from their oral tradition of aboriginal chants, known collectively as mele.

These include invocations, prayers, rituals, and mythological stories, usually sung unaccompanied or with gourd drums or rattles. Mele are widely heard, today, especially in official or public events and dedications, and as accompaniment for traditional hula.

During the 19th century, haoles brought Old-World music to Hawaii.

It was immediately popular with the ali’i (royalty), who set Hawaiian poems to Western-style melodies, with harmonies they’d learned from singing Christian hymns. By the 1880s, King Kalakaua had a royal band, and his bandmaster had set the monarch’s poem “Hawaii Pono’e” to stately music. You hear it now, as the State anthem, typically sung at the start of a public event. At the end of that event, however, many people will spontaneously sing “Hawaii Aloha” – the beloved though unofficial anthem, written around 1860 by a commoner, Makua Laiana. And by the time she was deposed, at the turn of the century, Queen Liliuokalani had written dozens of popular songs, most famously “Aloha Oe.”

But most of what people call “Hawaiian music” today had its origins in the 20th century. I’ll tell you about that in my next column.

Click here to go to “Part 2”


Read All About It

          Newspapers have been published on the Big Island since the mid-19th century.  Most have been in English, though there were Hawaiian language papers here until the 1920’s, and Japanese language papers (the largest was the Hilo Times) until the 1980’s.

          Two daily newspapers circulate here now: the Hawaii Tribune-Herald covers the whole island from Hilo, while West Hawaii Today, focuses on the Kona and Kohala districts.  Both are owned by a Mainland chain called the Stephens Media Group, headquartered in Las Vegas, NV.  Being the only local dailies, they run nationally syndicated news, features and columnists, but also cover Big Island politics and issues, and provide extensive coverage of local sports.  And both run a list every day, of islanders who have been arrested or charged.

          The dailies are delivered to subscribers’ homes throughout the island, and can also be purchased from coin-boxes in commercial areas, alongside boxes for the two Honolulu dailies: the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin, which are home-delivered only within Hilo, Waimea, and Kailua-Kona.

          Two tabloid-size newspapers also serve the Big Island, and while they can be subscribed to by mail, they are free of charge in boxes around the island, and so are mainly picked up that way.  The feisty Hawaii Island Journal, published every two weeks, is owned in Honolulu by the publishers of the city tabloid Honolulu Weekly.  The Big Island Weekly, though owned by Stephens Media, is editorially quite independent.  Both are “alternative”
papers: staunchly pro-environment, giving plenty of “ink” to counter-cultural topics, and intensely supportive of Native Hawaiian issues.
Both also run a column locally written in “pidgin” English.

          To be fully informed, it’s worth reading at least one daily and one alternative paper regularly; and all four are available online, at:


While coverage of local issues may not be as comprehensive as some readers would like, the Big Island is about as good a newspaper market as you’ll find in any rural American county that’s 200 miles from the nearest big city.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – That Jumping Flea!

That Jumping Flea!

         The Hawaiians had never heard anything like it.  In the late 19th century, Joao Fernandes, a Portuguese musician just off the boat, began to play a miniature guitar that he called a brauginha.  So quickly did his plucking fingers jump among the four taut strings, that the islanders were laughingly reminded of a flea hopping about.  So they called his little instrument a “jumping flea” – uku lele – which you had better pronounce “oo-koo-lay-lay” (not “yuke-a-lay-lee”) if you want to be recognized as taking its music seriously.  For folks in Hawaii do consider it a serious instrument.

          The rest of the world first noticed the ukulele in 1915, when Hawaiian entertainers were among the featured acts in the expositions that both San Francisco and San Diego hosted to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.  Soon, an ukulele craze was sweeping the U.S.  During the 1920s and ’30s, thousands of youngsters were strumming, and a few virtuosos arose.  By the 1950s, though, the craze had passed: songs that had been recorded with ukulele accompaniment were dismissed as ditties, and the instrument was widely disdained as a toy.

          But in the ’70s, with the revival of traditional Hawaiian folk music, some of the men and women who had taken up the ukulele began plucking out the intricate melodies and sophisticated chords of popular songs, vintage swing and jazz standards, and even selections from the repertoire of the classical guitar.  One of the most comprehensive websites about the ukulele is

kamakapineappleuke.jpg           With the musical revival came an instrumental revival.   The small figure-eight-shaped “soprano” ukulele is the most popular; some performers use a larger “tenor” size, for a deeper tone.  The most desireable instruments are made from mahogany or koa; those crafted by Kamaka Hawaii
( are particularly revered, though the most famous Kamaka ukulele is shaped like (and hence called) the Pineapple.

          Today, ukulele virtuosos give sold-out concerts, and hundreds – perhaps thousands – of folks are taking lessons or practicing.  So don’t be surprised when you see teenaged boys and girls hanging out at the beach parks, not with boom-boxes, but with ukuleles, playing and singing much as youngsters began doing a century ago.


Aloha Koa

koa.jpg          There aren’t many trees like koa.

          There are other beautiful woods, of course.  But look up close.
Just beneath a polished koa surface, ripples appear, like dunes along shores.  And koa has a wonderful resonance with plucked strings; no wonder ukulele luthiers prefer it.

          There are other materials for making a racing canoe.  But Hawaiian tradition calls for a long koa log, cut in solemn ceremony, and hand-hewn.

          There are other long-lived trees.  But koa seeds can lay dormant for years, not sprouting until the ground is disturbed.  And the wood is plenty hard.  A grand formal stairway was built of koa in the 1880s, at the heart of Iolani Palace, in Honolulu; and it’s the only entirely original wooden structure there that’s still in use.

          Koa are found nowhere but Hawaii, and are most abundant on the Big Island.  They grow best in the cool, misty uplands, though not where their feet stay wet.  Canoe-makers admire them straight and cylindrical; wood-carvers favor the spreading, gnarly ones, for more intricate grain.  Whatever their shape, koa trees grow tall, eventually over-topping whatever surrounds them.

          And other trees do tend to surround them.  Ohia – whose lehua blossom is the Big Island’s official flower – is a familiar companion to koa in the wild.  Where the land has been disturbed, koa can be huddled by an
opportunistic waiawi thicket.   

          Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about koa, however, is why it’s so “popular” that other trees cluster round it.  Koa is not like other trees.  It’s a legume.  Like peas or beans or clover, koa draws its most important fertilizer – nitrogen – not from the ground but from the air.  And having used what it needs, koa “fixes” the excess nitrogen: sending it down and out through its roots, enriching the soil, where other plants and trees can draw it up.

          Did you ever think a tree might have the aloha spirit, too?



          There’s a small pork industry here.  A handful of farmers raise pigs, and a few butchers sell or specialize in the whole animal, for which there is always local demand.  Kalua pig, baked by hot rocks in an underground oven (imu) is the centerpiece of every luau.  (“Ka lua,” by the way, simply means “the hole,” and so is also local slang for toilet.)

          Not much bacon is made here, but most supermarkets carry local brands of  “Portugese” sausage, for which, instead of mincing the meat fine, as in “Italian” sausage, the meat is very coarsely chopped.  And some people make sausages at home, which they sell from their trucks along the highway.

Pigs          But there are more feral pigs here than domestic stock.  If you drive uphill on the gravel roads, past where most people live, into the former sugarcane fields, mauka pasturelands and rainforests, you may well see them on the road.  They are the hairy (mostly black-haired) descendents of small Polynesian pigs that sailed here with the first Hawaiians, and which later mated with the European porkers that the haoles brought.

          Pigs are large, omnivorous mammals, with no natural predators in Hawaii.  Man is their only enemy, and in one-on-one combat they would have the advantage.  They can weigh at least as much – even twice as much – as a man weighs.  And they can charge at you with long, sharp tusks.

          It’s always “open season” on pigs here; and in the dense forests, local guys hunt them with dogs.  (Skip this if you’re squeamish: dogs corner a pig, and hold it by the ears until the hunter arrives with his gun.)  So, if you don’t have a dog with you when see pigs on the road, they usually won’t be spooked.  They know you’re there (hearing and smell are their strong senses, though their eyesight is poor), but they will wait a moment or two before they amble or skip – they don’t sprint – into the brush.

          Perhaps, in that moment of hesitation, they’re reasoning that you are not a threat.  Pigs, after all, are highly evolved creatures; maybe they’ve learned a few facts about us and our behavior, over the years, which they employ to ensure their survival.  It might go something like this: “If a human appears, but you don’t hear a big bang, or if no pig suddenly drops dead for no reason, just walk away.”