Thinnest crescent above, and us down below, eyes burning like New Year’s again, in a gravel parking lot up behind the once-pharmacy and now-gone video rental… Scuffing gravel companionably with a bunch of guys leaning against their pickup truck… They all in hoodies and me in my winter pants because it’s cold up there near the lava…
We watch the threatening glow up the hill while Harry takes pictures. Too quiet, the town, so it’s comforting to stand with other humans.
The guys point out the bright floodlights just a block down the street. Their uncle is out with his D-9, making a wedge-shaped shield to protect his house. Cut down in a trench on the leading edge and mounded higher than the house, they say.
I have a picture in my mind of a man out there taking on the elements, a hero willing to pick a fight with an island goddess, riding his trusty steed through the dark and the rain… I’d like to buy him a beer and hear his stories. I bet this isn’t the only one in his scrapbook of vivid memories.
It’s pouring now. Harry and I stand in the rain taking pictures while the guys take off. Fresh friends for a moment, ancient forces in the night, and the moon has seen this all so many times, so many different ways.
Usually, they didn’t start out as work clothes. I’ve seen some very nice blouses re-purposed for banana work. Imagine you’re on your way out the door to an event, or you’ve just come home from work, and you notice yellow bananas on one of your trees. “I can be careful this time,” you say. How hard could it be not to get a single drop of banana juice on me? Yeah. That’s how you get banana clothes. Some people even have banana underwear, because banana juice can and will soak through, and it stains whatever it touches.
The problem is twofold: banana juice stains, and bananas are tempting for passers by. If your banana trees are right out in the open, you might get anxious leaving them stridently begging to be picked. Not only are they a treat for people, they are a fragrant magnet for winged and pawed critters.
Clearly, if you want to enjoy them yourself, you need to stay on top of your assets. When you see them turning yellow, you must react. From the time you notice the first yellow banana, you might have only half a day before they’re ripe enough to start falling from the tree.
Harvesting bananas doesn’t take more than a few minutes, either. You find your machete, whack down the tree, cut your banana bunch off and haul it off to safety. Bam! Five minutes’ work, and you’re back on your way to whatever you were doing.
Now you see the temptation to act.
The trouble is the clear liquid that splattered everywhere when you hit the tree, or that you brushed up against when you heaved the trunk into the jungle; that clear liquid will turn into dark bloodstains on everything it touched.
So I have banana clothes, and I change into them just to do a 5-minute job.
What I get is well worth the sacrifice: hands and hands of the sweetest bananas, enough for the whole neighborhood.
On the Big Island, there are at least 50 varieties of banana trees. The most common bananas on the island are called Apple Bananas. With a slight citrus tang and firm texture, their plump bodies are about four inches long. They taste like the joyous smile of a sun ray. Some of my trees will yield bunches of these babies three feet long.
My friend Mary, up the street, has Ice Cream Bananas in her yard. Stouter fruit with a sweeter hint of vanilla, they are a treat.
Still, for eating every day, I’m sold on apple bananas. And for banana bread, they are da kine.
Banana Bread Recipe, makes 1 loaf
Bake at 325 degrees, about 50 minutes, in a buttered pan
Tropical storms are a bit of a new concept on the Big Island. Sure, we all know when it is tropical storm season; that comes right around Mango Season. We all get the Civil Defense teachings about them and know we’re supposed to be prepared.
The thing is, until this year we just haven’t had to worry about them. Until this year, there hadn’t been a storm here since before we were all born.
When we came out of our houses in the morning, every road was blocked with huge trees and downed power poles. It was an emotional blow to us. Our invulnerable island was suddenly vulnerable. Big bad winds could actually come get us. At our house, we felt it was miraculous the power company could get our power back on in less than two weeks. The neighborhood was traumatized and in shock, but everyone helped each other. Aloha isn’t just a catchword here; it is a way of life.
It’s been a solid month and more since we got power restored. The jungle has blunted the edges of the impact. I still see uprooted trees beside the road, but it doesn’t clench my gut the way it did last month.
Now we’re in the path of another storm, Ana, and struggling to quell our own anxieties while we do the best we can to prepare. Lessons I learned from Iselle are these: Fill up your gas cans and water cans, have an escape plan in case it intensifies at the last hour, and most of all, bake cookies ahead of time. When the power goes out, nothing tastes as good against the dark and the storm as a homemade cookie.
There’s a guy who has been around here forever: Larry. I see him in the evenings: him out walking with his dog, Mrs. Nose; me out walking with my husband. Larry is a songwriter, full of short, quirky bits of wisdom. One day he handed me a CD he recorded. I don’t have the sleeve anymore, and don’t know if it’s available in the real world, but the very best song on it made me howl with laughter: “You’re an Asshole When You’re Drunk”
But I digress. The two most important pieces of advice Larry had for me about gardening were these: throw my jungle trimmings in the empty lot across the street from me “You’re doing them a favor, making soil for them”; and if you want to grow something here, “Stick it in the ground and jump back.”
Well, his advice about planting was good.
I still haven’t met the absent neighbors, so I don’t know if they’ll like their soil.
Long Beans are my favorite quick garden plant. If you plant a seed, you will be eating beans in a month. Use those beans to seed the next crop, and one packet of seeds purchased years ago can stretch your $1.79 into eternity.
They’re about a foot and a half long, and best eaten when more pod than bean. With a robust, leafy flavor, they do well in Thai or Chinese preparations.
My favorite long bean lunch starts with a trip to the garden for some Hawaiian Chili Peppasand a handful of Garlic Chives
…and of course the Long Beans you saw above.
Start by browning half a pound of tofu in olive oil in a heavy skillet, then turn down the heat to medium low and add half a round onion and some salt. The lower heat will make the onion sweeter. Put a cover loosely on the skillet to let it breathe but save the heat.
About halfway through the onion cooking, add chopped long beans in and cover tightly to cook until they’re nearly done. Right before they are perfect, add in chopped peppas and minced garlic chives, with a dash of sesame oil, and cook just a bit more to bring all the flavors together.
Fill a bowl half-full with chunks of wild avocados, and serve the long bean mixture on top.
I’ve never had luck growing round onions or garlic here, so I use garlic chives and buy my onions from cooler climes.
They stumble through the air, barely aloft and as noisy as my neighbor’s ancient car. Their favorite flowers are lilikoi, that palm-sized blossom mainlanders call passionfruit.
Of all the pollinators in my yard, they are the loudest and busiest. I hear them soon after the sun clears the horizon, and watch them all day, covered thickly in pollen, landing heavily on blossoms dwarfed by their inch-long bodies.
A quick look through the jungle reveals their homes: pinky-sized burrows in dead wood are the tiny apartments of busy single mothers. Mom digs perfectly round holes that could be the product of an electric drill, with tiny bedrooms off the sides for her babies. Then she goes out for a little grownup time with a drifting male so she can fill those rooms.
The menfolk are gorgeous golden creatures, not nearly as industrious or focused as the ladies. From all I’ve read, they can’t even sting. I hardly ever see them doing any work, because they only gather enough food for their own needs. They live alone, and just loiter where the ladies might find them.
Each egg from our lonely lady gets its own little room. It is carefully placed on a tiny bed of pollen and nectar so Baby has breakfast when it hatches, and enough food to survive through larval stage to transformation. When Baby emerges from the bedroom, Mom is ready with more food until the little bee can make its own way in the world.
If you blunder across one of these homes, watch out; Mom is a fierce guard. While it takes a lot to make them sting, they fly right in your face and can scare you into falling on your butt.
They come in as many kinds as there are separate trees. The ones at the end of my street are small and round, with big seeds and pebbly skins, nearly black when ripe. Half a lot away are the treasures: big as a baby’s head, tiny seeds, and meaty, buttery flesh. Right next to them are thin-skinned ones with watery flesh and refreshing flavor. Over at my daughter’s house, their monstrous tree bears true pear-shaped fruit, promising in shape, but shunned for their huge pits and stringy flesh. The best are the ones around the corner a block from my house: about a pound apiece, they turn deep burgundy when ripe, and their flesh is nearly neon green.
My favorite avocados? Free ones, closely followed by the 3/$1 variety and reluctantly by the 50-centers.
I was telling this to my friend Oshi, who joined me about 10 miles into my usual avocado-foraging bike ride. She laughed. She has a tree of her own in her yard. I was pulling off the road to pick a couple from a tree on an empty stretch of the jungle highway we were riding. “Need some?”, I asked. No; no need.
That’s the question, too. Do you need them? Will you use them?
There’s an etiquette to gathering the wild avocado.
If a tree is in someone’s yard or an obviously-tended area, don’t touch it; you need to ask first.
Driving to the tree or picking from the tree using a picker is also frowned on. Cars and pickers are cheating.
Best to walk or bike, and to stay in your neighborhood. You should have at least a nodding acquaintance with anyone you see while you gather.
If you’re the squeamish sort that must pick your avos, never take more than two from a tree. One at a time is more polite, unless you have an auntie you need to share with.
If the fruit has fallen, the tree has given it up and it is yours to take. Still, don’t take more than a few unless you know nobody else will come by looking for more. If you find too many, pile them up in an obvious spot for the next person to find.
Remember to stop for a moment and thank the tree. I’m not kidding; I’m not the only person I’ve seen doing this. Crazy-looking, fierce tattooed guys walking by with knives on their belts and fishing poles in hand pause to thank trees they gather from too.
Which ones do I want?
Avocados don’t ripen on the tree, so you won’t be able to judge by squeezing ones on the tree.
You know a tree is ready for you when you see full-size fruit has fallen from it.
If you’re impatient, and you think a tree is getting close to ready, you can pick a big fruit from it. Write the date on the outside, and wait a week. If it comes ripe within that week, the tree is ready; go for it! If not, try wait.
Look for the freshly fallen ones, with clean-looking stem points. As avos sit on the ground, they are tempting for all types of foragers, and you want to be the first to eat yours.
If you’ve done it all just right, your chosen avocados will be ready in a few days.
Now you just need to go out for another bike ride and get some more.