Island Planet

SPIRIT OF ALOHA January/February 2007

We take turns straddling the crack in the ground. Primordial heat wafts skyward. "That's from the Earth?" Andy says.

"Yes," I say. The floor of the caldera looks like photos most people with access to media have seen of the moon's surface. Gray and broken and sharp, rock created by lava flows that oozed from this volcano makes the surface tricky. Called 'a'a, the name first used by the original inhabitants, this type of rock is everywhere on the Big Island of Hawai'i, especially here on Kilauea volcano. Andy leans over the crack and, at just the right moment, a shift in breeze sends a searing blast that scalds his cheek. I think that might stop him, but he is back at it again. He is a six-year-old, with a

six-year-old's fascination for something unfathomable, and a six-year-old's tolerance for cold or heat or hunger when he has his mind on something. When the steam swirls around us, we look like superimposed, solid figures on an atmospheric photograph. I am decades older than Andy, but no less impressed. Hawai'i is a process in motion.

Nothing less than the forces that created Earth are at work here, on active display, and even though within the jurisdiction of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, they are still out of our control. We are moving right now, though we don't feel it. The Pacific Plate travels west, northwest, some four inches per year, and we are standing on the island currently sitting over a stationary hotspot—the area within the Pacific Plate where magma intrudes to erupt lava onto the surface of the Earth. This process made the chain of Hawaiian Islands. Like a line of siblings standing from oldest to youngest, Kaua'i, O'ahu, Moloka'i, and Maui each sat over the hotspot where molten mantle spewed to create land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. As the Pacific Plate moved, it carried an island off the hotspot, and the vacancy allowed the conduit to build a new one.

Hawaiian ancestors observed, long before science proved, the successive ages of the Islands by their great variety in lushness and erosion. Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes, they said, lived on Kaua'i until her sister Namakaokaha'i, the Goddess of the Sea, struck her and chased her off the island. Namakaokaha'i was relentless. She chased her sister from each subsequent island to which Pele fled. On Kilauea Volcano, Andy and I peer inside Halema'uma'u Crater, the steaming chasm within the caldera whose walls drop in long, straight depths. This is where Pele now lives. Lei of yellow flowers, and purple, and white, and red, and of seeds, and nuts, and leaves lie on the thin margin of edge on the inside of the protective railing: homage to a force we can't ever control. Kilauea's occupant has been rezoning land use through ongoing activity since 1983, with lava flows that have recaptured real estate borrowed by humans for miles of highways, for hundreds of buildings, and for the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park's own Waha'ula Visitor Center. Pele is recalling her rock.

We don't make the winding drive down the side of Kilauea to see where steam is rising from the ocean near the end of the Chain of Craters Road. Since lava from Kilauea's current eruptions flows through subterranean lava tubes, we wouldn't be able to see the glowing, viscous red show that mesmerizes Andy, his older brother Alec and me in the visitor center's running video. The natural history interpreter tells us night is when people gather at the road's end, where the red glow of recycled rock from Earth's interior falls into the ocean. Darkness illuminates the process.

Five volcanoes have built Hawai'i this way—Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa (the largest mountain in the world) and this, Kilauea, the volcano that currently demonstrates the power that respects no roads, no titles or escrows, and inspires my youngest nephew to duplicate it out of sand at the beach the next day, and repeatedly throw me, represented by a pebble, in it. Fortunately, he has no shamanic powers. I seem to be fine, though a more relaxed version of myself. Maybe my sacrificial body, in stone effigy, has been burned to reveal a soft layer hiding all along under the chitin-like casing I normally walk around in. But where I come from, Gore-Tex is essential against the ample precipitation that covers Northwest volcanoes in glaciers.

Unlike the volcano in my backyard—Mount St. Helens—whose eruptions are explosive, Hawaiian volcanoes usually erupt non-explosively, pushing out lava that flows like batter, layers pushing other layers ahead in long ropey lines that cool into the smooth rock known as pahoehoe, or the skin-scratching, sharp-edged 'a'a. The earth of the Big Island is primeval. You get a sense of land having just arisen from the sea, as of course it has, geologically speaking.

Set after set of breakers rushes through the turquoise water to strain the shore. Andy's first sand volcano is being claimed by Namakaokaha'i as she sends her waves to attack his efforts. I motion for him to come sit by me farther up the beach. We can build a new one, I say. Just like Pele. The Pacific Plate keeps moving, and one day it will carry Hawai'i off the hotspot and eruptions here will cease. A new island will rise, perhaps, out of the ocean. Lo'ihi Seamount is growing about 22 miles from Hawai'i's southern coast. Could this be the next place Pele flees to?

Perhaps she could use a place to start over, once again. The process of land building, and destroying, is not the only one at work.Hawai'i, and the other islands, as with most places on Earth, is undergoing rapid ecologic change. On this quiet piece of Kona Coast where we sit, a part of the vast landscapes of poured black rock where scarcely anything is growing, sea turtles blend with the speckled beach, in colors of ash and charcoal that disguise them well. On the Big Island, the sea turtles look old and the shore looks young. The sea turtles rest—against the coarse sand, against each other; one lies on top of a rock with his head hanging down over the water. No one bothers them here. But on Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, where we visited the day before on our way to Kilauea, carload after busload of visitors walk up to the turtles who rest not more than ten feet from signs exhorting people not to touch them. With cameras busy, kids and parents stroke the turtles, smiling as they snap away (the cameras, not the turtles). Weeks later, I receive a written response to my concerned query about the turtles from a local woman who makes a good point. She says, "it is sometimes hard for foreign tourists to understand that our turtles are protected in Hawai'i, as some of them eat turtles on a regular basis…" The turtles seem unconcerned by all of us—even those of us who want to perform that most primal of inspections to connect, and reach out to touch the gray skin and thus transfer bacteria against which the turtles have no immunological defenses.

Andy is busy with his sand constructions. His father and mother and grandmother and brother relax nearby. I go for a walk along the shore—waves crash hard. Not much beach on this young island. Goddess of the sea needs more time to attack her sister and wreck her rocks. I move aside to let a man and his son pass and slip on a flat rock, going fast, down along my right side. The rock takes stretches of skin from me, from the side of my right foot, heel, right buttock, elbow, and heel of my hand. "Wow, your blood is really red," my sister-in-law says when I return. "Lots of hemoglobin," I say. I employ my usual first aid regimen with cuts and scrapes—total neglect. I do what I always do—rely on my immune system to heal the infection that arises in each wound. What if, like the turtles, I couldn't do this? For roughly 70 million years, plants and animals evolving in these Islands had no concerns from human bipeds. But we are a species on the move, and wherever we go, we contribute change, often accelerating the process.

The first Polynesians to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands over 1,600 years ago brought food species, and change with them—dog, pigs, chickens, and coconuts, bananas, sugar cane—altering ecosystems. Euroamericans contributed more changes by clearing and farming land. Native plants and animals suffered from predation or competition from introduced species as a result. The bright yellow birds my sister-in-law and I saw by the side of the road seemed too bright for their own good. Many of Hawai'i's plants and animals evolved without predators. But even those species native to Hawai'i have ancestral roots in ancient colonizers, all life having come from somewhere else, originally, to the land that grew out of the ocean. Over 90 percent of Hawai'i's native plant and animal species can be found nowhere else on Earth, a diversity that exploded from a few colonizers to Pele's bare rocks. The Polynesian ancestors brought what they needed to recreate their lifestyles on these Islands, and introduced what had not been here before. My brother drives the minivan on maximum, when he can. Zooming up on cars, straddling the two-lane highway's shoulder to peer around a slow mover and judge the cause of the holdup, slacking off when we insist he stop tailgating. He has brought to the island what he is accustomed to in his lifestyle—stress. He cannot do without it. His running joke when other drivers won't yield—"they don't have the aloha spirit".

After lunch in town, I walk back to our hotel, a seven mile hike along Ali'i Drive from Kailua-Kona to Keauhou-Kona. Pele's rocks show up here as building materials in the upscale homes and resorts. Walls and structures have been faced with squares of pahoehoe and 'a'a. Restaurant and grocery and clothing and entertainment chains have been imported from the Mainland. Americans like what is familiar. Probably, like the ancient Polynesians, we feel less lonely that way. You get the sense as you fly for six hours over nothing but ocean that Hawai'i is a long way from anywhere else. You can drive around it in day and when you look out, across the coast, all you see is sea. Is this what Yuri Gagarin thought, the first human being to make orbital space flight: Just us on that island planet in a vast ocean of space? Us: all people. A heck of a lot of diversity out of our few ancestors.

Hawai'i is full of superlatives—the driest, the youngest, the largest of the islands, the southernmost land in the U.S. Its most super effect is how it has made us feel. The process of a Hawaiian vacation has worked on us. A stop for Hawaiian sweet bread in Na'alehu gave us an opportunity to smell the multitudes of plants in the fragrant garden on the bakery's grounds. A paddle across Kealakekua Bay to Captain Cook's monument for a snorkel showed us the vast ocean is hardly a lonely place—tangs and dolphins and manta rays and a shoreline scavenging mongoose meant opportunities for us to observe and share the space. Winding through country on Napo'opo'o Road gave us a chance to buy coffee at a farmers' cooperative and appreciate the non-native bean that provides an economy, and an unparalleled cup of Kona's best. Hawai'i is a place that gives everyone a look into the physical forces that created and continue to shape our planet, and the urge of life to multiply, to burgeon, to create an array of fantastic forms out of a little bit of material and a few sources. While we can't control the processes that built our planet and developed life, we are the only species we know of who can understand, and choose not to touch the turtles.