Sarah Gibbon

The Plants and Animals of Hawaii

Sarah Gibbon
The Plants and Animals of Hawaii

Mongoose: A carnivorous mammal from the sub-order Feliformia and the family Herpestidae native to southern Eurasia and mainland Africa that feeds on small animals and fruits. They form colonies. They take over a place.

They were imported by plantation owners in Hawaii to control the rat population. Fun fact about a mongoose: it is diurnal. And rats are not. So the mongoose population in Hawaii continues to live in peaceful indifference to its would-be prey.

“Hey, haole girl. Hey, you there.”

I looked up from my biology textbook and turned towards the voice. It belonged to a big-framed local girl with long brown hair pulled into a loose bun on the top of her head. There were two other girls sitting next to her, mischief glinting in their eyes.

“Hey, haole girl. You like some?”

I looked at the iridescent green, paper-thin sheets she held in her outstretched hand and wrinkled my nose.

She snickered. “It’s just nori. Look, it’s good.” She nibbled the corner off one of the sheets and held out another. “What, you think I’m going to poison you?” Her friends burst out laughing.

I shook my head, feigning disinterest, and returned to my reading.

The word mongoose comes from the Marathi mãgūs. English-speaking people, unfamiliar with the long “u” sound, started spelling it phonetically. But since the word origin has nothing to do with birds, the plural is mongooses, not mongeese.


Haole Rot: a slang term for tinea versicolor, a fungal disease of the skin that causes temporary discoloration. It also itches like hell. And you have to use this nasty green antifungal soap that smells like grandpas. And no matter how hot it gets, you can’t wear tank-tops because some tita on the bus will ridicule you for not being able to handle the tropical sun. She will tell you to go home, haole, and laugh and laugh. And her friends will laugh. Only the Micronesian kids will hold their tongues. Because there is something worse than haole here.

Haole literally means “one without breath.” Walking dead. Zombie. It’s used to refer to people who are neither native to the islands nor descendant from people brought over to work the plantations. It means foreigner. It means white person. Someone without roots or culture. A parasite.

Turns out anybody can get tinea versicolor, even local kids.


Cat: A carnivorous mammal from the sub-order Feliformia and the family Filidae native to bookshops and back alleys around the world. They are a kind of working pet, controlling damaging pest populations and being rewarded with saucers of milk and soft, cozy, indoor beds.

You can tell the feral cats from the strays and the throwaways by the length of their muzzles and the size of their ears. The four-week-old kitten Mom found in the lava field was unmistakably feral. Like any young, wild thing, he hadn’t learned the fear yet. So after she knelt down and poured a little water from her water bottle onto the black lava rock, he followed her, mewing along the connector cord of his new mother-bond. She stuffed him in her sports bra, next to the cardio-quickened pulse of her heart. A pulse almost like a cat’s.

He lived with her for seventeen years. When she left her home to visit family on the mainland, he would go on walkabouts through the kiave- and guava-thicketed vacant lots in the sub-division, blending with the landscape like any other feral. But he would come home as soon as she did, dirty and bloody and mean.

Earl could never understand why she let that rat in the house.


Nene: A species of goose native to the Hawaiian Islands that builds its nests on the ground. There were 25,000 nene in Hawaii when Captain James Cook arrived in 1778 with his ships full of horny sailors and hungry cats. By the time the islands became a state of America, there were 30.

But a few hundred years before Cook, the last wave of Polynesian invaders from Tahiti colonized Hawaii. They put the locals, the Menehune, the “little people,” to work. Now we have stories about these helpful folks that do all your hard labor while you sleep. We have commercial logos with tiny, native, industrious men. Smiling little brown faces.

I told my mom about how the kids on the bus won’t let Micronesians sit next to them, how they mock them by imitating the sound of their language. How even through the language barrier they understand the joke and stop talking. 

 “But they don’t even try to learn English,” she replied. “They just come here and leach off the government.”

She must have seen the disappointment in my eyes.

“I’m sorry, but it’s true,” she said. “Just because of what the military did to them…it’s awful, but now the taxpayers here have to pay for it, and that’s not right either.”

It’s called the Compact of Free Association. COFA. After World War II, the COFA region came under the protection of the United States. It also became a main nuclear test site. Because of that, Micronesians are eligible for visa-free entry into the United States and access to subsidized healthcare.

Hawaii is the closest state to the COFA.


Rat: A medium-size, long-tailed mammal from the order Rodentia and the family Muridae. Nobody likes rats. They live in filth and make no effort to fit in. At least that feral cat Mom brought home left an occasional rat carcass in the front yard. Good kitty.

After Mom’s new boyfriend, Earl, came over when she was at work and picked up the dead rat by the tail and threw it in the thicket that had taken over the lot next door and mowed the lawn, she started calling him Menehune-Man. On Facebook she shortened it to MM.

In school we learned about the coup, the overthrow of the rightful monarchy of the sovereign land of Hawaii. It was a day American interests, like James Dole’s pineapple fields, trumped American ideals. It wasn’t until years later, after I’d moved back to the mainland, that I first heard someone talk about the annexation of Hawaii. As if it were the building next to a popular bar that got bought up and used for expansion.

The Annex.


Ohia Lehua: A species of flowering tree from the myrtle family that is native to several of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s the first bit of life to sprout from Pele’s cooled rage. The first to call her mother. Its thin, gnarled trunk is slow-growing. Like the healing.

Mom bought me a Hawaiian Heritage bracelet to commemorate my High School graduation. It was a half-inch wide silver bangle engraved with plumeria blossoms. I chose my Hawaiian name, Kala, for the lettering on the front. A few weeks before I moved back to the mainland, I was rifling through a box of vintage clothes at a garage sale. The homeowner noticed my bracelet.

“Your name is Kala?” she asked.

“No, it’s Sarah.” I replied. “Kala is my name in Hawaiian.”

The woman smiled.

“Sarah means princess, right? Do you know how to say princess in Hawaiian?”

I shook my head.

“Kamali’i wahine. It’s a beautiful phrase, isn’t it? For a beautiful girl.”

I smiled and looked down at the ground, cheeks flushed hot-pink.  

I lived in Hawaii for seven years. I never did learn the language.


Strawberry guava: A fruit-bearing tree native to Brazil that was brought to Hawaii in the early 1900’s to anchor the eroding hillsides trampled bare by grazing cattle. Those trees grew like weeds: on hillsides and roadsides, through lava rubble and native fern forests. They sunk their roots deep into the volcanic soil, seeking the energy that pulsed through the living land, draining the reservoir that fed the delicate endemic plants that had evolved without competition, until then.

It’s been sixteen years since I moved back to the mainland. On trips home to visit my mother, I request an aisle seat. No need to be by a window. I can sense the land coming into view by the murmurs of disappointment that ripple through the cabin. First-time visitors who had images of jungle and long white beaches in their minds as they entered their credit card numbers in Expedia and clicked submit. Below the plane is a wasteland of black lava, tufts of yellow grass, and an occasional kiawe tree.

“Don’t worry,” said the woman in the window seat to the woman in the middle. “There’s  way more palm trees in town.”

“You’ve been here before?” asked the woman in the middle.

“Oh, yeah. I’ve been here four or five times. My boyfriend’s parents have a time-share on Ali’i drive. We just love it here! It’s like a second home.”

“How about you?” she asked, turning to me. “Is this your first time here?”

I took out one earbud and smiled.

“Oh, I’m from here,” I said. “I’m just home for a visit.”

I craned my neck to look out window.

“I’ve always thought the lava field was beautiful, in its own way.” I said and reinserted my earbud.


Mange: A class of skin diseases caused by parasitic mites. The term "mange,” which brings to mind the image of a ratty street dog, is reserved for infestation of nonhuman mammals. In humans it’s called scabies. It’s transmitted through touch. Skin against skin.

When Mom asked what we should do while I was in town, I told her I wanted to photograph the feral cat colony at Old A’s, which was a beach that ran the length of what had been the airport runway. It was where local families gathered under concrete pavilions and homeless people napped under thorny beach trees. It was also the site of a community garden: a patch of lava rubble divided into tracts maintained by town residents like little yards…some beautiful, some tacky. Many containing bird feeders, fruit trees, and little Tupperware dishes of water and cat food.

Of course the rats and mongooses lived off it, too.

The mongoose in Mom’s prize photo for the day was missing all of the fur around his neck and shoulders. The exposed skin was patchy red. We watched him fight off three other mongooses for first rights to the kibble left over from the noon-time feeding of the feral cats by the Humane Society. He turned and hissed at us when he heard the shutter click of Mom’s camera.

We took turns making cartoon villain sound effects for his movements. We laughed and laughed.