Thursday, December 25, 2008

Missing Pele

The visitor services at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park are centered on the Kilauea caldera, although the park itself covers large portions of Mauna Kea as well. The most active eruption at the moment is the Pu'u 'O'o vent, which is located on the shoulder of Kilauea, and from which lava flows into the sea at a location outside the park, on the southern shore of Puna district. So what you see in the park, while impressive, is not the most dramatic of the sights to be seen.

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Kilauea caldera, and the large crater within it called Halema'uma'u, were once a lake of fire (between about 1823 and 1924); now the caldera and most of the crater are covered in hardened pahoehoe, and the only lava is dimly visible from the air at the bottom of the current Halema'uma'u gas eruption. Still, the crater presents a moonscape unlike anything I had ever seen. A ridge sloping westward from the crater (to the left in the above photo) is the remains of a lava curtain that erupted from the crater floor in, I think, 1984; and gas vents and other upwellings appear all across the crater floor. It was once possible to hike across the crater floor, but the high levels of sulfur dioxide from the gas eruption make it deadly now, so we saw everything we saw from the northwest portion of the caldera's rim (the southwest part is in the gas plume, hence closed to the public).

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Here is a view of the caldera wall, with the long slope of Mauna Kea behind it. We are at 4,000 feet here, and Mauna Kea looms another 10,000 feet overhead. There are plenty of nice (and very low-key) walks along the crater rim; we hiked a 2.2-mile portion of the trail between Volcano House and the Jaggar Museum and observatory. Along the trailside are steam vents, where groundwater sinks into cracks in the earth:

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and comes out as steam:

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The wind at this altitude is chilly and relatively dry (at least by local standards) so you notice right away when you walk through a cloud of steam from one of these vents. The visual effect is like something out of a Hollywood movie; you never expect to see the ground steaming by itself. Other vents bring sulfur gas to the surface from much deeper cracks, and deposit it as yellow crystals on the rocks:

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Click through for more pictures from this trip.

The Park Service provides really excellent educational information about the geologic forces that shaped Kilauea, the formation of a shield volcano, the history of eruptions and so on, all spiced with sketches and quotations from 19th-century US and European travelers like Mark Twain, who visited in about 1867. But there is almost no information about the Hawaiian cultural significance of the site, which is, after all, the seat of the fire goddess Pele, and one of the most important cultural sites on the island. There is plenty of information on the conservation of the endangered nene, 'amakihi, 'apapane, and other indigenous birds. But there is almost no information on, for example, the rituals connected with eating 'ohelo berries, an indigenous relative of the blueberry and cranberry, which was sacred to Pele.

We have spent much of our vacation here visiting cultural sites like Mo'okini luakini heiau, so the absence of cultural information at the Kilauea site was peculiarly noticeable. The experience of visiting the caldera of an active volcano is overwhelmingly powerful; it is very easy to understand how this site was considered to be particularly full of mana. What's hard to understand is the way in which the official interpretation of the site fails to present or even acknowledge this, beyond an impressionistic sculpture dedicated to Pele that stands in front of the Volcano Art Gallery. It seems unlikely that the park rangers, who live in the neighborhood and surely must be aware of the significance of the site in their care, are unaware of its history. But it doesn't seem to be part of the official story.

We've been thinking a lot lately about how we should live in these islands, as outsiders coming from the dominant and dominating Mainland; it's important to us to find a way to be here, rather than carrying Chicago or the other cities where we've lived along with us. Understanding the way in which these landscapes we traverse were and are made meaningful by and to the Hawaiians seems to be one very important part of that approach. The earth isn't just earth; it has footprints on it, and if you look closely enough, you can see where they tread.

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