HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
Pig Season, Again
After a dry winter in which we got only about a third of our usual rainfall, Spring rains have come. It was an “El Niño” year, in which the surface water in the central Pacific ocean gets somewhat warmer than normal. This causes ocean currents in the Eastern Pacific to warm up, encouraging whole schools of California’s coastal fish and squid to head north into cooler water, which in turn lured seals and sea-lions up to Oregon.
Here in Hawaii, El Niño enables a zone of “high pressure” to stall over or near the islands, and thereby to keep otherwise wet trade winds at bay. Hamakua and North Kohala have had a severe drought – its effect on farmlands being also aggravated by the loss of agricultural irrigation ditches that were damaged in the earthquake of October 2006.
So, rain may be returning; but here in Hawaii we don’t get the conventional four seasons that characterize more northerly (or, across the equator, more southerly) latitudes. Winter months can bring snow to the tops of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, but days are not much shorter than they are in summer months, and rain can fall any time. The original Hawaiians divided the year into two seasons: wet (i.e. Winter) and hot (Summer), which is probably more accurate than our four-season convention, even though we may giggle at the certainty that our “hot” season, here, will probably also be “wet.”
Distinguishing the seasons can be done by looking at trees. A sure sign of Spring is the pastel crepe myrtle, which is in bloom in Hilo, right now.
There’s a very nice stand in front of the County Building (which is scheduled to re-open soon, after a multi-year renovation), and another in the little parking lot at the intersection of Waianuenue Ave. and Keawe St. As Summer approaches, we’ll see the “shower” trees along Kamehameha Avenue come into bloom; and of course, the farmers’ markets will start to carry those most popular of summer fruits: mango and lychee.
But I think there’s another marker for “Spring” here: the reappearance of pigs. Oh, they’re active all year long, of course; but they seem to emerge from the woods in greater numbers right about this time of year. They are increasingly common, as you drive uphill, and hunters are gearing up to take them down.
Pigs first came here with the Polynesian voyagers, though only men were allowed to hunt and eat them. They resembled pigs still found in East Asia: relatively small and relatively hairless. Captain Cook and the first Western settlers brought European pigs with them, which were larger and had thick coats of black hair. Interbreeding, in the absence of any four-legged carnivores big enough to seize and kill them, enabled subsequent generations to grow quite large. The pigs we see today are about as big, and weigh as much, as people do.
What’s extraordinary, though, is how little these pigs seem to care about us. Drive uphill, beyond where most houses are, and you may very well see whole families of pigs alongside or crossing the road, and doing so quite slowly, with no fear at our approach. The adults are typically sows, shepherding their piglets, since boars (other than the father of the piglets) tend to keep to themselves. When you see pigs, they will generally be nosing in the ground for earthworms, grubs and roots, or sniffing around for new places to find food.
Their eyesight is weak; their senses of hearing and smell much stronger. But they do not seem to regard the sound or smell of an automobile or even of a human being as an automatic threat. Unless you are making a lot of noise, or approaching them at a fast clip, they may not notice you – or may even ignore you – until you are within a couple of yards of them.
And even if they do notice you, they will probably walk – not run – away, ducking into whatever bushes or ferns offer them cover. (The scent or the sound of a dog, however, will send them fleeing swiftly.)
I have an un-scientific theory about pig behavior, which I will share with you for what it’s worth. Pigs are, after all, highly evolved omnivores; so I believe that they have some way to pass along abstract concepts to their young, and if I could understand the way they communicate, I fancy that they would be saying something like this:
“We’re pretty big animals, and any predator that might want to catch us and eat us would have to take us by surprise. So if you notice that one of those human beings is nearby, you may not need to run, because it has surely already noticed you, and yet it has not done anything to threaten you. That said, however, if you hear a loud BANG, and one of us pigs suddenly drops dead, then you may well be in danger, and you should run away. Otherwise, just keep doing what you’re doing; you’re perfectly safe.”