By Léo Azambuja
Almost 20 years ago, two renowned photographers teamed up with two botanists from the National Tropical Botanical Garden to document and preserve Hawai‘i’s most rare and endangered species in some of the most inaccessible environments in the Islands.
Photographers Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager, along with NTBG Plant Extinction Prevention Specialist Steve Perlman and NTBG Research Biologist Ken Wood, spent countless hours doing fieldwork from 1998 to 2000, painstakingly searching, collecting and photographing the islands’ rarest fauna and flora.
“David and I are really obsessed,” Middleton said of her work ethics. “But I think Ken and Steven are obsessed too.”
The result of this obsession was a 264-page large format book titled Remains of a Rainbow, originally published by the National Geographic Society in 2001. The book has more than 140 stunning photographs of some of Hawai‘i’s rarest plants and animals; some of which have since gone extinct in the wild. Accompanying those pictures, many stories of remote places that have stopped in time.
Remains of a Rainbow has been out of print for a number of years, but the NTBG Research Center in Kalaheo is currently holding an exhibit of 30 large photographs from the book. The exhibit will be up until the end of this month.
NTBG CEO and President Chipper Wichman said he hopes many people on Kaua‘i will visit the exhibit because they will never get a chance to see most of the species in the wild.
Middleton said “first and foremost,” she’s an artist, but she collaborates with scientific experts to work, and the partnership with Perlman and Wood in Remains of a Rainbow is a good example of her modus operandi.
Wood said the work they did wasn’t just taking the photographers out in the field — many times by helicopter — to photograph. “We were able to get multiple things done, we were multi tasking.”
During the field work for the book, the botanists discovered a few new species and rediscovered many others, leading to a remarkable and successful preservation effort.
In one of the outings, Wood was collecting Cyrtandra paliku, a delicate flower and member of the African violet family, when he noticed “the most beautiful cricket he had ever seen” on his sleeve. Middleton decided to photograph it; and as it turned out, they had just discovered a new species of cricket, the Kaua‘i tree cricket.
“That’s the serendipity of the work that we have,” Wood said.
Many of the plants they photographed before the book’s publication in 2001 have gone extinct in the wild. Others have rebounded. But even those that have disappeared in the wild are now being cultivated and have been potentially saved from extinction.
The Brighamia insignis, a 3-to-16-foot tall succulent with a wide base, was once abundant on Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau. When the book was published in 2001, it was already extinct in Ni‘ihau and had only four known populations — each with about 20 individuals — left along the cliffs of the Napali Coast and Ha‘upu Ridge above Nawiliwili Harbor. Now, all the botanists can find is a single plant in the wild, according to Wood.
“Yet, this is a great example of one (species) that is doing so well in cultivation,” said Wood, adding the plant is a hit in European countries, where it is called the Vulcan palm. “There’s hundreds of thousands in cultivation in Europe.”
Another remarkable plant featured in Remains of a Rainbow is the kanaloa, an entire new genus found on Kaho‘olawe by Wood in 1992.
“I ended up climbing up there and saw this new genus … and time completely stopped,” Wood said. “I looked at it, and it was just an extraordinary, amazing plant.”
Even more interestingly, this red-veined shrub with greyish green leaves and small white flowers was once abundant throughout the Hawaiian Islands some 800 years ago, but it was wiped out by Polynesian rats and burning of its natural lowland habitats. Scientists had been collecting the kanaloa’s fossilized pollen through deep-soil core samples for years, but had no idea where that pollen had come from. When they looked at the kanaloa’s pollen in a microscope they finally matched it with the mysterious fossilized pollen.
Wood said it was like finding a “living fossil.” Unfortunately, he said, it is another example of a plant that has gone extinct in the wild, though they have been able to perpetuate it in cultivation.
Remains of a Rainbow also features a number of endangered birds. When Middleton photographed the ālala, or Hawaiian crow, there were only three individuals left in the wild, and another 27 in a captive breeding program. The ālala disappeared in the wild in 2002, but the breeding program has bred more than 120 birds, and as of last month, has released 11 birds into Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on the Big Island.
Perlman said people on the Mainland usually have the idea native Hawaiian plants are doomed. But the Hawaiian Islands, he said, are different than the Mainland.
“Mainland has nothing to compare to the flora that exists here,” Perlman said. “Most of the species that got here, got here as only one seed, and this is what happened over millions of years. …They existed here for millions of years, and they can exist in very low numbers. … We don’t count any of these plants off, we never think of any of them as doomed. Even though you have just one plant left, we don’t think of them as that way because the islands are selective for having these very low numbers.”
Middleton said her process includes looking, observing, trying to transmit what she is seeing, the “wonder” that she is feeling in the presence of the plants. These plants and animals, she said, are the “quintessential expressions” of Hawai”i, of their particular islands — and even of their particular micro habitats. And this “really gives them a kind of mana, a kind of power.”
The photographs were taken with bulky, expensive medium-format film cameras way before digital photography was popularized. The pictures were taken on the field, using makeshift portable studios lined with black velvet to isolate the subjects — no Photoshop was ever involved in the shots.
“Most of the portraits have been made, deliberately and dramatically, in isolation,” poet W. S. Merwin wrote in the book’s foreword. “This striking solitude again and again allows us to see each life as unique, a single appearance in all of time and existence, something that, paradoxically, it shares with every other life, and with the entire web of the waking world.”
Rather than being mere scientific documentation, Middleton said, her pictures are portraits.
“The idea is to try to create a portrait of an individual plant or animal, not a species, but an actual individual,” said Middleton, adding she is trying to establish an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject.
Thought Perlman defends the fighting spirit of Hawai‘i’s endemic species, he says that more than 130 species of plants in the Islands have gone extinct in the wild. Chipper said the culprit is the human race, which has accelerated the natural extinction rate.
“Extinction is a natural process, but normally, extinction takes places over thousands of years, not hundreds of species in a hundred years,” Chipper said.
Remains of a Rainbow is one of Middleton’s four book collaborations with Liittschwager. Together, they have also worked on Here Today: Portraits of Our Vanishing Species (1991), Witness: Endangered Species of North America (1994), and Archipelago: Portrait of Life in the World’s Most Remote Sanctuary (2005). She also published Spineless: Portraits of Marine Vertebrates, the Backbone of Life (2014), and partnered with Mary Ellen Hannibal in Evidence of Evolution (2009).
Though she has extensively photographed endangered species on the Mainland, she says she is fascinated by the “very beautiful adaptation” of plants and animals in Hawai‘i, where you can see the evolutionary process if you are guided by scientists.
“It’s fascinating, it’s like the greatest story ever told. And I think for me I could see it most clearly in the Hawaiian Islands,” she said
Remains of a Rainbow will remain in exhibit until Nov. 30 at NTBG Botanical Research Center in Kalaheo, at 3530 Papalina Rd. Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 332-7324 ext. 227 or visit ntbg.org/events/rainbow for more information.