Monday, January 26, 2009

JF Rock's 1913 Hawaiian must-read now on Google Books

One of the most remarkable volumes in Hawaiian botany, Joseph Rock's “Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands,” is now available on the Web.

The 1913 compendium is full of photographs and descriptions. If you love Hawaiian history, vivid description and Hawaiian trees "Indigenous Trees" is a necessity.

The book is available in a couple of locations, including Google Books and at the Internet Archive's American Libraries site. Links at the bottom of this article. (A comment from a reader, seen below, led me to update the post with the American Libraries link.)

The photographs are stunning, although not well reproduced by Google Books. They are, however, good enough to encourage people to visit their local libraries to view them in the original. The text is compelling, describing a Hawaiian landscape quite different from what we see today, and adding amazing bits of information, like the role of human disease on the decline of the native palms. More on that later.

Rock, a famed Hawai'i explorer, ethnographer and botanist, explains his goal in the opening words:

“It has long been the writer's desire to give to the public a volume on the native trees of Hawaii, giving popular as well as technical descriptions of the trees peculiar to Hawaiian soil.

“At first it was thought that plain popular descriptions would suffice, but it soon became evident that the technical part could not be dispensed with, and in order to make the book valuable for both the layman and the scientist, it was therefore included.”

Rock worked the Hawaiian forests early enough that he was discovering new stuff all the time, and he notes that his book added an entire genus, 22 species and a pile of varieties of Hawaiian plants.

The book is useful in numerous ways, but is valuable in part because Rock uses the Hawaiian names as well as English and Latin monikers.

And it is useful to see what the impact of a century is on the landscape. The Austrian Rock was working in the Hawaiian Islands from his arrival in 1907, at age 23, onwards. He later left the Islands to spend his mature career of more than 25 years in China—where he wrote books, dictionaries and much more. He returned to Hawaii after World War II and died here in 1962.

Worldwide, his is most famous for his China work, but in Hawai'i, he has been seen as one of the seminal botanists, an explorer and chronicler without peer, and among the first to produce a volume that was useful to and understandable by the lay reader.

He worked in a time when much of the lowland area of Hawai'i was still being converted from native forest to plantation agriculture and other kinds of development. And grazing animals had not yet destroyed many of the older stands of native trees. Today, when people want to be in a largely native forest, they head into the uplands. That wasn't necessary in Rock's time.

“...each island, with the exception of Kahoolawe, and also Niihau, has its peculiar leeward lower forest flora, which is in all cases richer in species as far as tree growth is concerned than the rain forest,” he writes.

But the decline was happening as he worked.

“On Kauai, the dry or mixed forest zone has almost entirely disappeared and only a few trees can still be found. Most of the land has been cleared for sugar cane fields up to an elevation of nearly 2000 feet; above Makaweli only little is left, while above Kekaha only grass land spreads up to an elevation of nearly 3000 feet,” he writes.

Rock starts with a detailed description of the individual islands and forest zones, and then switches to detailed plant descriptions. Within his texts are intriguing tidbits. For instance, he says the native fan palm, loulu, was used to weave “excellent hats.” But he said disease made it difficult for residents to climb the trees, so they chopped down the palms to get at the leaves.

“It may be stated that excellent hats are made from the young fronds by the natives. This, however, has caused much havoc; the present generation, being more or less afflicted with the hookworm, finds it easier to cut the palms down rather than climb them for the single young frond necessary for a hat,” he writes.

Hookworm infections were once common in many parts of the world. The disease caused anemia, weakness and fatigue, but rarely death. The parasite has largely been eradicated in many parts of the world, and drugs are available to cure infections. Global hookworm eradication programs were being launched about the time Rock published “Indigenous Trees.”

The original 1913 volume went out of print, but was reprinted by Charles E. Tuttle Co. in 1974. It is again out of print, and used copies are being sold as antiques. It has 548 pages and 215 large photographic plates.

It's a big file on Google, but you can read it on the web or download it to your own computer here. The Internet Archive American Libraries site seems to have better quality on the photographs. It's here.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate


philiptdotcom said...

A version with (reportedly) better-resolution images is available at:

Anonymous said...

I learn something new everyday. Googlebooks is one. And the book your recommending is another.

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