HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VI – Winter Wood-Working

By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid?  Part VI – Winter Wood-Working

          Nighttime winter temperatures along the coasts, here, can get down to 60° F.  Add the cooling effect of clouds and rain, and on the eastern side, at least, you can expect nights in the 50s. As you get above sea level, anywhere, ambient temperature falls 3° F for every 1,000 feet up, so many places here are downright chilly in the winter: Volcano, at 4,000 feet, gets frost!

          But homes in Hawaii don’t have furnaces, and few if any are insulated against cold (or hot) weather.  Other than wrapping yourself in heavy clothes, if you want to stay warm indoors, you’ll have to generate heat, and the easiest way is to burn wood.

          You could soak all day in a wood-fired hot tub, but more likely you’d want to sit around the house near a modern wood stove or fireplace that’s engineered to send a lot of heat into the room, instead of up the chimney.  They’re are sold in specialty stores in Hilo and Kona, and can be ordered through home-improvement stores, too.  You must get a commercial model, and not build one yourself, because it has to meet strict local construction codes, and the building-inspectors here are very finicky about anything that could be a fire-hazard.

          What isn’t widely available, however, is wood.  You won’t see cords of firewood stacked outside supermarkets and garden supply stores, as you do on the mainland.  (A true cord, by the way, is four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long.)  Sometimes, a classified ad in one of the local papers will offer firewood.  Just make sure that the pieces are cut small enough to fit in your firebox.

          You could, of course, go out and cut your own firewood.  Unless you have an especially dense stand of trees on your land, that you really don’t want to keep, you probably will have to go elsewhere.  Obviously, you can not go logging in Hawaii’s forest reserves or parks; and until you’ve lived here a while, you probably will not know or hear about neighborhood trees that have to be cut due to land-clearing, hazard-removal, and so on.

          You should certainly consider cutting weed-trees, though.  Many property owners – maybe you, too? – have thickets of rose-apple or waiawi that they’d like to get rid of.  Waiawi (“vy-vee”) is strawberry guava, an especially hard wood that burns hot; but the trunks are not especially thick, and hence not easily split by hand.

          A client of mine purchased a house whose long driveway was lined with tall cedars and pines.  These exotics were probably intended to be harvested as Christmas trees, but had not been cut in time, so they stood over 50 feet tall, deeply shading the driveway, and blocking half the view from the house.  He had them professionally cut down.  The branches and leaves were ground up into mulch, which was piled up near his garden; and the logs were cut to fit in his fireplace.  Citing the old adage that you get warm first from the exercise and then again from burning the wood, he now spends an hour or two each autumn and winter month with an axe, maul and wedge, happily splitting those logs.

Getting a pro to cut your fire-logs frees you up to split and burn them.
Getting a pro to cut your fire-logs frees you up to split and burn them.

          He doesn’t use a chain-saw, however.  In the popular imagination, you aren’t really living off-the-grid if you don’t have a chain-saw.  But you probably won’t need one; and unless you are already experienced in operating one, or have someone who can teach you to use it carefully, you probably should not get one.  The ease with which a chain-saw cuts through wood makes it a very compelling tool, especially for inexperienced users who are all too likely to take on a challenge they can’t meet, or in some other way get into an accident.  Moreover, it’s a tool that requires a lot of
care: ensuring that the cutting-edges are sharp, keeping both the engine and the chain properly lubricated, etc.  Like installing electrical circuits or plumbing, cutting wood with a chain-saw is a task best left to experts.

View Other Posts in the “Could You Live Off-the-Grid?” Series

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND: Battling Those Weed Trees


By Kelly Moran

Battling Those Weed Trees

A few months ago, I wrote about a tree that was brought here from Brazil

and that has gone terribly wild. It’s officially psidium cattleianum, but commonly called “strawberry guava”or waiawi (“vy-vee”), and it’s extraordinarily invasive: seeds from the fruit sprout easily wherever they fall, and are spread by birds and pigs; if the tree is cut down, it quickly regenerates from stumps and fallen branches, ultimately forming a dense thicket in which nothing else grows.

Researchers estimate that waiawi is now entrenched in more than 800,000 acres on the Big Island, and though its range may ultimately be limited by drier microclimates and higher alititudes, it is still in-filling where it’s already established, especially in Hamakua and Puna, where it squeezes out practically everything else, especially native and endemic species. It also draws fruit-flies, expanding their range, which frustrates efforts to cultivate more desireable fruit.

To fight this weed tree, the Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources, the Hawaii Dept. of Agrictulture, and the Forest Service of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture propose to introduce a Brazilian insect called tectococcus ovatus,which severely weakens – but doesn’t kill – waiawi. It tunnels into the leaves, forcing the tree to make “galls” that contain the pest, instead of making new leaves. This is expected to slow the spread of waiwai, allowing people more time to cut thickets down and keep them down. The insect has no wings, and can move to adjacent trees only on the breeze; moreover, tests prove that it can live only on strawberry guava and on no other plant; so the release of this biological control agent is considered very safe.

Waiawi does have some practical uses. The fresh fruit, being in the guava family, are easily made into tasty jams and jellies; the wood, like other fruit-woods, makes an excellent smoke for curing meat and fish; and the trunks – if thick and straight enough – can turned into hardwood poles. So there is a small vocal contingent here, mainly in Puna, that objects to introducing tectococcus, in the name of “saving” the waiawi.

But, the USDA counters this misguided effort by pointing out that, if anyone actually wants to cultivate waiawi, or keep wild stands from being infected, they can do what farmers do for any other orchard crop: i.e., protect it with ordinary (preferably organic) insecticidal spray.

There is another invasive weed tree here that was introduced about the same time as waiawi; but it is currently being decimated without human intervention. The rose-apple (syzygium jambos), though not quite as aggressive as waiawi, tends to spread out more, and to form dark “tree-tunnel” arches over back-country roads. The fruit is rather dry: its “rose” being more of a scent than a flavor.

But rose apple trees are being attacked by a “rust fungus” disease that kills new growth and thereby starves the tree of energy. In a couple of years, many stands of rose apple will be bare and dead – and likely will be overtaken by waiawi, which is often found in the same areas.

There is a small but real danger that this rust could spread to other trees in the same (myrtle) family. The worst-case scenario would be a jump to native ohia. So Hawaii forest managers are urging the state to restrict new imports of nursery trees and other plant material that can harbor the rust. For more information about the rust,
click here