The ‘alala is a matte-black crow endemic to Hawaii’s Big Island. This noisy, social, and exceedingly clever corvid, classified by Western ornithology as the Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) was once plentiful throughout Hawaii’s upland `ohi`a or `ohi`a-koa forests, a constant companion to denizens as recently as the mid-20th century. Today the species teeters on the razor edge of oblivion. In Seeking the Sacred Raven, Mark Jerome Walters explores what brought this proud species to its current sorry state.
Actually, the full title of this book, Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island, gives a clue as to how the origins of the ‘alala’s agonies. Mr. Walters begins at the very beginning, with the known history of Hawaii from the indigenous creation myth to Captain Cook’s ignominious landfall. Once the Europeans discovered the bounty of the Pacific isles, the ‘alala’s tragic fate, as that of so many of the native flora and fauna, was sealed. The irresistible, obliterating tide of Christian religious conversion washed away all traces of the original culture. Gone was ecological awareness, gone was responsible stewardship of natural resources, and gone was the enduring reverence of the sacred raven. The tale of woe proceeds predictably from there, punctuated by depredation, selfishness, and ineptitude.
Seeking the Sacred Raven is deeply saturated with sorrow. Mr. Walters’ solemn account of the ‘alala’s life and times possesses a scope that encompasses every agent that ever worked for or against the bird. In his thorough analysis, Mark Jerome Walters comes across as more of a journalist than a naturalist. This description befits his experience, but also indicates that he is at his best when describing the complexities of Hawaiian environmental politics rather than the environment itself. And yet, a keen understanding of the massive extirpation at hand is evident: “It has long been appreciated that because many different plants and animals share the same habitat, species often disappear not singly but in great assemblages; not as a book stolen, but as a library burned.
Anyone with an interest in the ecological tragedy playing out this very moment should enjoy Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island. One hopes that the twilight of every avian species might be chronicled with such skill and compassion, although, if wishes are being dispensed, a better hope would be that books like these, despite their many merits, need never be written at all.