COURTESY NATIVE BOOKS
A luau held at the Lanai schoolhouse is among historic images captured in "The Story of Lanai."
Tale of Lanai is an instant classic
Collection of writings and images brings Lanai's history to life
George C. Munro (1866-1963) was a New Zealand farmer hired in 1911 to run the Lanai Co.'s cattle ranch; that is, the entire island. He stayed for 23 years, in effect a benevolent despot over 44,000 acres and about 600 people.
"The Story of Lana'i"
By George C. Munro
2007, 233 pages, $42
» When: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday
» Place: Bishop Museum
» Featuring: Hawaiian food, entertainment and book-signing. The book will be sold for $25 at the event.
» Call: 596-8885
» July 8: 3 to 5 p.m., Native Books, Ward Warehouse
» July 14: Noon to 1 p.m., Bookends, Kailua
» July 20: 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., Bestsellers, Downtown
» July 28: 1 to 3 p.m., Lyman Museum, Hilo
» Sept. 1: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Kauai Museum
» Sept. 15: 1 to 3 p.m., Bailey House Museum, Maui
» Sept. 2: 5 to 7 p.m., Queen Emma Summer Home, Nuuanu
» Oct: 25: 7 to 9 p.m., Hawaiian Historical Society, Honolulu
"The Story of Lanai" draws on Munro's observations, daily notes and evolving efforts to nurture the island's delicate ecosystem. His management decisions were mostly intelligent, far-seeing and almost always effective, not only in maintaining the herd but in preserving the environment. In 1934, when he retired -- Lanai was then owned by the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. -- his achievements were widely acknowledged. Visionary in his time, he was applauded for what is now called "green politics."
Munro, a leading ornithologist and self-trained botanist, came to Hawaii in 1890 as part of the Rothschild bird expedition. Many of the species he collected are in the American Museum of Natural History. His "Birds of Hawaii" (1944) remains a standard textbook. In the last 30 years of his life, he published about 175 articles in Elepaio, the journal of the Hawaiian Audubon Society.
Munro is now chiefly remembered for his conservationist work. A well-known trail on Lanai is named after him, as are dozens of plant species, including the rare munroidendron. He single-handedly created the nine-acre Na Laau Hawaii (Plants Belonging to Hawaii) Arboretum on Diamond Head, for years personally carrying water up in buckets. In 1960, at age 94, he became an honorary member of the Hawaiian Botanical Gardens Society. A year later, he won the Garden Club of America's Medal of Honor and was elected honorary associate of the Bishop Museum.
Yet if you seek his monument, look no further than this book. "The Story of Lanai" is an instant classic. Munro spent his final years writing it, and no expense has been spared in its publication by his descendants. And rightly so. The book is an important document, often consulted in its manuscript form by historians such as Kamakau. The present edition makes a fine study more accessible and will extend its influence. Its back cover includes a large fold-out map, while the text itself is enlivened by dozens of wonderfully evocative, sepia-tinted photographs from Munro's personal collection. This is old Lanai, and you are there.
COURTESY NATIVE BOOKS
The author's grandson Richard Towill, left, and great-grandson Rick Towill will appear at book signings.
The book's greatest glory, however, is the author's clear and supple prose, sustained by a wealth of sharp-eyed perceptions. The result is a text that never bores and often challenges, despite its methodical style of presentation. Munro's conclusions about the effects of precontact Hawaiian farming and cultivation, for example, may cause controversy because (in his view) ancient slash-and-burn practices almost destroyed the island's fertility. "Contrary to general belief," Munro declares, "the erosion of (Lanai's uplands) was not caused by livestock but by agriculture." This apparently well-supported opinion is all the more persuasive because Munro obviously has no political ax to grind. He's just calling it as he saw it.
Similarly, Munro attributes the disastrous decline in Lanai's native population not to European diseases alone but to a bloody 1778 military campaign by Kaliniopu'u and the young Kamehameha, "which wiped out most of Lanai's peaceful and unwarlike inhabitants." This same attack left Kaho'olawe "a naked, dreary barren waste without habitation or cultivation." This is important corrective information, though it is sure to be contested.
In one of the many appreciations of Munro that conclude the book, Leland Miyano writes: "Lanai is a microcosm of the world. ... Without active conservation management we will continue to lose species and the land will continue to degrade and dehydrate. This is (Munro's) challenge: Will we be good managers of our environments and save our unique legacies? It is not too late yet, but we are at a critical point and our destiny lies in our own hands."
is scholar-in-residence at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and adjunct professor of English at TransPacific Hawaii College. His latest book is "The Tragedy of Richard II, Part One: A Newly Authenticated Play by William Shakespeare." E-mail him at email@example.com