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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: PhDs and Rose Apples

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence Its scientific name is Syzigium jambos, islanders call it rose apple.  It came to Pitcairn from a faraway land to provide islanders with much needed lumber after the native forest was depleted.   An added benefit, an edible fruit that tastes of an apple that smacks of eucalyptus.  Local say it...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

Its scientific name is Syzigium jambos, islanders call it rose apple.  It came to Pitcairn from a faraway land to provide islanders with much needed lumber after the native forest was depleted.   An added benefit, an edible fruit that tastes of an apple that smacks of eucalyptus.  Local say it makes a great pie.  But like so many good ideas, there are unknown consequences.  One glance from Gannet Ridge will tell you that this experiment in introductions has gone wild.  Rose apples are now the dominant forest type, and to boot they seem quite resilient to drought, unlike the tapau that previously filled this niche.

I met Brenda at the top of the ridge, back-pack on.  I was in transect mode finally, released once again from the human world that lay only ½ mile down the hill.  I cherish that distance and transecting disconnects you from the mortal world.  Our task today was technical.  I had logged the 20 some plots put on the map by Ms. Noleen Smythe, a PhD student who back in 2003 and 2004 had killed the rose apple and replaced it with native plants that she grew in a nursery.  Question was, what did these plots look like some ten years later?  Did the rose apple reinvade, did the beautiful yet choking lantana take over, or are the natives hanging on?  Brenda was on the original study so she could bird-dog the plot locations.

Noleen used two different methods: one was to cut the trees down and remove them, the second method was frilling.  In the USA we call frilling “hack and squirt”.  It is a common method used in forestry in America when you want to kill trees that compete with your plantation.  You take a hatchet and hack the tree’s bark through to the cambium, then you spray Roundup, a powerful herbicide that kills not only the tree but its root system.

The first plot was just like what I had imagined.  Barely through the dense cover of lantana Brenda started calling out names and counts: Huliander: 4, Redberry: 1, Tah Manu: 1.  That was all we could see.  Maybe little guys were buried in the dense bush.  To boot, the rose apple seemed to be creeping in from the sides.

Second plot was the same.  Brenda had to climb up a rose apple to peer down: Huliander: 1, Redberry: 2, and that was all we could see.  Like most efforts at undoing man’s handiwork, it costs a lot more to go back than it did to go forward at the time.  If you wanted this experiment to work, you would need to plant natives more densely and you would have to weed the plots several times before they were good to grow.

Plot 3 though was a bit of a different story: Huliander: 5, Pandanus: 2, Lehe fern: many, Pulau: 3, but still lots of lantana.

Science is great but we headed up the hill again just to go see the big slide in the Faute Valley on the south side of the island downhill from Red Ridge.  True to form Brenda led us down the nose of Red Ridge.  This ridge gets it name for obvious reasons—it is bare of vegetation, exposing that dense red volcanic clay.  We could see goats here and there on the ledges.  The billies have long fluted horns in this Pitcairn variety.  They don’t hunt them that much anymore but the population doesn’t seem to be completely out of control.  There are probably between 100-200 goats up in the hills here.  Down lower on the ridge the slip came into view—Wow, the whole heart of the valley fell into the sea.  It had been raining and an enormous red plume of mud could be seen in the clear blue water below.  I couldn’t see an obvious human source of the slip, but it could be drainage from some point on the New Road atop the mountain.

Next stop was Down Rope (see photo gallery).  Brenda was pretty clear before we went that you shouldn’t try to get down to the beach here without a guide—that is, her.  We arrived at the spot.  There were small steps into the mountainside that looked like it just dropped off into the abyss.  On the ground I found a few inches of poly rope and made a joke about this being “the” rope.  Little did I know that indeed that had been the rope, the rest of which was long gone.

As soon as we started down I knew what this place was.  This was the rite of passage for Pitcairners.  If you can’t negotiate Down Rope, you are not worth your salt.  My fear was that Brenda would just disappear down and I would be on my own.  This is the kind of place you need a local to tell you every spot to put your foot.  We hit the edge and the willies officially hit my neck hairs, 500 feet straight down and the steps were far apart and only about 4 inches deep and covered in slide debris.  In for a nickel, in for a dime, down we went, with a short stop for Brenda to show me where this British guy fell last year and broke his back in four places and smashed his legs to smithereens, ha ha.

I was never happier to be on a rugged beach.  There were about 50 red-tailed tropicbirds sailing and cawing in the funnel of the cliffs that went up at least 700 feet.  I could see birds sitting on eggs in little caves in the face. It was also here that one of the Polynesian women who came on the Bounty fell (or jumped?) to her death provoking mayhem amongst the remaining male population.

There are also petroglyphs here that pre-date the arrival of the Bounty folks.  Brenda didn’t really have an idea about the significance but they looked a lot like primitive rock drawings that you find in a lot of places.  I was more interested in the hike up as the sky went black and it started to sprinkle.  My ascent was more about adrenalin than skill.  I looked back at just the wrong spot, saw only faint foot-holes and that emptiness below me, and man, it just takes your breath away.  The second time going down there I am sure would be a lot more scary—now that I know just how scary it is.

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Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.