Munro's love of Lanai published in 'Story'
|Photo gallery: Lanai History|
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
Every evening, the fog would roll over the village of Ko'ele from the east — dark, cool and heavy with moisture. It was a phantom on the parched landscape of Lana'i.
But the fleeting sweep of elements captured the imagination of George Munro, Lana'i Ranch manager in the early decades of the 20th century. In them, he saw a way to restore what had become, by 1911, a barren, abused landscape.
Above his home stood a 125-foot-tall Norfolk Island pine tree. Like a wick, the tree's foliage drew moisture from the mist and sent it raining down on the iron roof of Munro's home.
In that constant tapping, he encountered a phenomenon known as "fog drip," and learned that a pine tree that tall could pull 100 gallons of water a day from the fog.
Munro eventually planted thousands of pine trees across Lana'i.
The pines helped bring Lana'i back to life and serve as a living testament to Munro's passion for the island and his expert attention to detail.
But they are only a chapter in a saga the New Zealand-born conservationist, who died in 1963, devoted his life to writing — "The Story of Lana'i," published this spring.
Munro's descendants edited and published his manuscript as both tribute and tale. In it, the family member they lovingly call "Pa" explains the natural features, history, meteorology, climate, agriculture, wildlife and legends of the island.
STARES FROM LOST LAND
The 233-page book includes 173 black-and-white photographs of the people of Lana'i. They stare from a landscape and a lifestyle now replaced by championship golf courses and resorts.
It also contains family trees of the Native Hawaiian families living on Lana'i during Munro's time there.
"It's a history of that period that he managed the ranch," said Munro's 78-year-old grandson, Richard Towill. "There is a lot of philosophy, conservation and ecological considerations that are very worthwhile for anyone to read."
Towill, a retired civil engineer from Palehua with no formal writing background, was the primary editor of Munro's manuscript. He would work on it for brief periods in the decades after his grandfather's death.
In many ways, the editing wasn't difficult, Towill said. His grandfather was a meticulous notetaker his entire life and kept a journal of his daily activities, observations and the people he met.
When the rancher arrived on Lana'i in 1911, followed a few months later by his wife and five children, Munro began to carry index cards in his shirt pocket for his handwritten records.
At the end of each week, he would type them on a Remington typewriter, using only his index fingers and thumbs. It was the same trusted tool he used to write drafts of his manuscript.
"He was very exacting and had a scientific bent," Towill said. "Whenever anyone wanted to know about something, they could call him and he could look it up. He was just an organized person."
Munro served as ranch manager until he retired in 1930, and continued to work on the manuscript after he moved to O'ahu. He followed many pursuits as a conservationist, authoring "Birds of Hawai'i" in 1944 and establishing the nine-acre Na Laau Hawaii Arboretum on Diamond Head. Munro was often seen carrying water up the slopes of the crater to nurture the dryland native plants.
But it was pear-shaped Lana'i and its 140 square miles that held his interest until his death at age 97.
"He loved that island," Towill said. "He went there, and it was a windblown dusty place, and he did everything he could to stop the erosion and revegetate the island. He was a good steward of the land, and he loved the Hawaiian people."
Phyllis "Coochie" Tanodra, who can trace her Lana'i family back six generations, found the book to be a stunning connection to her past.
When the 55-year-old Tanodra looks at some of the photos in Munro's book, she can find three generations in a single frame.
One photograph in particular, a group shot outside a lu'au at the Ko'ele School, is practically a family portrait.
"When I look at that, I am just connecting all the dots and who these people were," she said. "That is why the island is so precious. The bones of my ancestors are buried there."
Like many who grew up on the island or still call it home, Tanodra, who now lives in 'Aiea, loves the book. Last month, she flew to Lana'i to help with a special book distribution party attended by several hundred people.
The book was a hit. Nearly 500 copies were sold. It will help new generations learn about a man who was something of a Lana'i legend for decades, Tanodra said. Even though he built fence lines and pipelines, the trees became Munro's stamp on the landscape.
They are everywhere on Lana'i.
"If your family is from there, it is basic history," Tanodra said. "They are a major part of the place. It is kind of a folklore tale, like Johnny Appleseed."
FROM BARREN TO LUSH
When Munro arrived on Lana'i, he found the island blowing into the sea.
A failed ranching effort had unleashed 40,000 sheep and thousands of goats on the landscape, and their appetite was destroying the groundcover that held the soil, said Kepa Maly, a Hawaiian cultural historian and resource specialist who spent some of his youth on Lana'i.
Munro eliminated the sheep and goats, then built paddocks for 2,500 head of cattle, which he carefully managed so they would not overgraze. But the island was drying out.
With few new sources of water, the fog drip presented a tantalizing solution.
Munro planted pines by the thousands to gather water from the trade winds: About 2,000 in 1914, the first year, and 8,000 the next year.
Each tree drew moisture so well that pools of water formed below the boughs.
"It brought enough moisture back to change what was an almost barren and bleak landscape," said the 53-year-old Maly, who now lives in Hilo. "It brought back a dormant seed stock of endemic species, some of which were only found on Lana'i."
Among them were a distant cousin of the silversword called iliau and 'ie'ie, a beautiful upland forest plant. And a groundcover called uluhe returned to the slopes of the island's highest peak, Lana'ihale.
The pines planted by Munro have flourished. They have become a cherished, green signature on Lana'i. When two needed to be cut down recently near Sacred Hearts Catholic Church, their wood was kept for bowls.
The original pine tree, the one that soared above the ranch house at Ko'ele when Munro arrived, survives as well.
"It is still there," Maly said. "It is an incredible tree."
It is nearly 200 feet tall.
Reach Mike Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.