I live on the world’s most hazardous volcano in fact. This short story is about this experience. You can listen to it as a bedtime story, or just read. XO C
I live on the world’s most hazardous volcano. This sounds more daring than it is.
Most days, equatorial sun and warm rains grace her gentle slopes; her fertile mineral secretions double-bloom the avocado trees. She provides sanctuary for the hundreds of saffron finches and cardinals that sing in the dawn. While all the evidence of her prior upheavals is right in front of me (dried flowing rock- roping, jagged, puckered, smooth- tinted with rainbow striations of separating metals- lava caves- cliffs), it’s now dotted with baby cocos and prehistoric ferns and dominated by O’hia trees, with their vibrant red Le’hua blossoms. The blossoms whisper, “Those flows were long ago, don’t mind them at all.” The gobsmacking hyper-saturated peace of it all often deceives me into believing that stability exists.
Still, some part of me knows. I keep a sixth sense tuned to the mountain’s mood, and have both the USGS volcano watch and Hawaii County Civil Defense alerts on my phone.
The first time I felt a quake on the land was actually my first night there. I was almost asleep in the moon cabin, little more than a glorified goat shack: a single screened-in, tin-roofed structure with a fancy outdoor kitchen bolted on. It’s unremarkable, except that you can sop your face with a just-picked mango while watching the sunrise over the ocean, all without leaving the yard. That baby quake shook the ground just enough to remind me that I’m living on an evolving planet, but not enough to cause damage. I held my breath, and then laughed out loud as if I’d just come off some kiddie ride at a carnival. Senses on high alert, but safe and secure after all. The caretaker laughed, too, and said, “Pele is saying hello, maybe she’s welcoming you home.”
This is how we make nature (or anything or anyone, frankly), into a person: we develop a relationship. In this case, an asynchronous one.
Before we plant the new gardens on the land, we ask Makani, a Kahuna, to come and seek a blessing from the Island’s presiding deity, Pele, to let her know our intent to honor the local culture. Kahunas, so you know, are not all “Big”- the big one is a Kahuna Nui- the wisest of the wise. There are many kinds of kahunas, experts in crafts like canoe-making, or in arts of sorcery, such as forecasting or divination. There are 20 kinds of kahuna in medicine alone. Makani is barely 30. He surfs and prays aloha- peace and love. We invite all of our neighbors for the ceremony. We spend two days preparing laulaus, taro and ulu cooked three ways, spicy pickled mango, sweet papaya, mamaki iced tea- everything made from what was already growing on our land. More than 100 people come, many of whom we’ve never met. We stand in a circle, around a newly installed limestone statue of a crouching maiden, a rendition of Pele from the mind of my artist friend David. He drew her in charcoal, then Jun in Bali sculpted this curvaceous 3D version, and put her on a container ship from Ubud to Pahoa, where Kenny and Shiva and Noah and Shane lifted her with a pallet, and gently lowered her into position. Superstition says that lava flows where she rests her gaze, so she is placed to gaze straight out to sea. Makani comes an hour late for the ceremony, and intoxicated. He wears nothing but a white loincloth, a crown of leaves and several floral leis. When it’s time, he moves with a steady grace into the center of the circle. He summons the six directions, the elements, the deities, and begins chanting ancient tongue prayers in Hawaiian. He lays flowers at her feet. We consider the goddess appeased. The next morning, we put the coffee starts into the soil.
The US Geological Survey has a citizen science program. It allows people to submit a “Did You Feel It” report. It’s an attempt to add qualitative data to the information coming from sensors and measuring devices. What’s the human experience of a 2.3 or a 4.1 from various distances from the point of origin, it wants to know. The survey asks you things like: What were you doing
when it happened? How did you feel? Did you notice any swinging of doors or other free- hanging objects? Did you hear creaking or other noises? Did objects rattle, topple over, or fall off shelves? Did any furniture or appliances slide, topple over, or become displaced?
It doesn’t ask: Did you look around for your cats or call for the children? Did you wonder, yet again, why you bought land in a place that could not be insured? Did you wish for a second that it might swallow you up and free you from your body?
Usually, filling out the report is a little bit of a let down. No, my large appliances didn’t move. No, I didn’t tell anyone else. Just the titillation of a 2.1 in an otherwise normal day.
The question with the longest set of response choices is about damage to buildings. AS IF damage to buildings is the most objective observable way to ingest personal reportage. Was there any damage to the building? No damage -Hairline cracks in walls -A few large cracks in walls -Many large cracks in walls- Ceiling tiles or lighting fixtures fell -Cracks in chimney -One or several cracked windows -Many windows cracked or some broken out -Masonry fell from block or brick wall(s) – Outside wall(s) tilted over or collapsed completely- Separation of porch, balcony, or other addition from building- Building permanently shifted over foundation.
ANYWAY, I can also now tell you the experience of 6.9 quake epicentered where you live and only 4 miles under the surface. It is holy fucking Mary mother of God, the earth is undulating. The car is rocking in the driveway, you can’t stand up, you are dropped to the grass in a terrifying 2 minutes. In USGS terms however I was: Alone, Awake, Frightened, Objects fell off the walls, and the Building permanently shifted over foundation. Under “feeling” there is no radial button for “OMFG”.
To enter information on a Did You Feel It? you go through the main USGS volcano watch site. As you dutifully report that you were laying in bed and, yes, it woke you up….in the left margin, you also get to see all the earthquakes around the world over a 2.5 magnitude that have occurred in the last 24 hours. On this day, there have been 51 worldwide, all under 5. I note an unusual one in Texas (and yet again) a troubling swarm around Yellowstone. This information keeps me strangely grounded. It reminds me of traveling to Iceland, where we hiked into the backcountry to swim in a hot river. To get there, you walk through hot sulphur steam vents that saturated gear and opened the pores on your face. I had a similar experience then- of being given a glimpse into what is really going on, and found it relieving. The surface world of strip malls with AutoZones and El Pollo Locos as far as the eye can see are gleefully smug, as if they mattered, while all this is happening right below the surface.
Lava, you may know, rests in underground reserves. In the mountain, there’s a network of tunnels and tubes. If you sliced the earth here and put it between panes of glass, it would look like an ant farm, with orange red metal where the ants should be. Here on Kilauea, one of these tunnels leads upward to a crater with a lava lake. In early April of 2018, the lake at the top of our mountain, at Puʻu ʻŌʻō, began to drain. The lava was on the move. But where? The neighbors and I began to shift uncomfortably in our seats. Hey, Pele, whatcha doing?
The tremor reports started coming in- 200, 400, 600 a day hovering in the 0-3 magnitude range, over the East Rift Zone. She was coming towards us. On April 30, the crater collapsed inward. A big crack appeared in the highway. Men went to look at it. Men of every age, in every manner of dilapidated farm truck got as close as they could to the crack, inspecting the situation with gravitas. Within days, there were more ground cracks, this time steaming. These were much posted and discussed on Facebook. The nearest crack was a mile from my land- but it was makai- or toward the ocean. We would be bypassed. Some people began to clear out of the area, pack up treasured things, go to visit friends, hit up the mainland.
On May 3, the ground cracks opened and began to spew lava. The big quake, the one I told you about, came the next day, May 4, the strongest to hit the state in 50 years- and it was game on. By May 7, 200 families were in Red Cross Shelters set up in town. There were Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, heavy lifters that could carry 50 people, standing by, should the flow cut off the last remaining exit roads. Soon, the national guard blocked road access to anyone but residents, and eventually, everyone in the active zone was required to leave. More fissures opened. Giant spewing fountains of lava, 300 meters high, class V rapids of lava, a 5,000 acre delta of lava, rolling over the land, taking out 700 homes, as well as the biggest freshwater lake on the island and our beloved warm pools.
The curious went to get as close as possible. Shiva, Noah, Isaac and Kenny went with their cameras to capture it. They got so close the soles of their shoes melted. They brought back iPhone photos, in addition to footage taken with the real cameras. The molten spectacle looked like the fountains of the Bellagio, but now spewing orange Chihuly glass flowers, instead of cool waters. On May 19, the lava hit the ocean and the Laze began. Laze, or lava haze, is a steaming mix of hydrochloric Acid, and bits of lava, irritating to the eyes and lungs of anyone downwind. When the N95 masks proved to be inadequate, we locked the doors and left the land.
It was helpful to me in that moment to remember that volcanoes are primarily a generative force, not a destructive one.
When a volcano erupts, it injects vast amounts of minerals into the atmosphere, the oceans and the soils, which are then carried around the planet. There would be no life on earth as we know it without these eruptions. If you’re close to a volcano, you’ll note the intense fertility of the soil. Some of these: “carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and hydrogen chloride (HCl)…. and other fragments….potolivine, pyroxene, amphibole, and feldspar, which are in turn rich in iron, magnesium, and potassium.” Other than erosion from rivers rubbing against stone, it’s the only way minerals get into the air naturally. Mining heavy metals, of course, changes this balance.
This generatively is true in the big picture, but it’s not how it feels if you happen to be a creature, especially a creature with comforts, in the path of one that’s erupting. Then you face all of a creature’s uncertainties in varying degrees of calm curiosity and freaking out according to your constitution.
White people panicked. Lloyds of London is not going to honor this claim. They would lose everything, where would they go. The wailing of those who believe they are lone actors in a cold cruel world.
Of course not ALL white people. Kenny, our builder, a big red bearded Viking transplanted to the tropics from Orange County, has a truck and a giant trailer. In the early days of the eruption, from sunrise to sundown he hauled in and out of the lava zone, for weeks, for free, bringing out equipment, treasures, furniture, the cab of the truck invariably filled with baby goats or any chickens that were in coops and could be caught, or left-behind kitties who could be drawn to a bit of kibble and pulled into a box. By the time she stopped flowing, his own land was under 75 feet of new rock. He lost everything on paper, but still….he, his wife and their three kids took it in stride.
The Hawai’ian families did not panic. Their Elders, the Kupuna, modeled the correct response.
What do you do when the lava is coming, when your house is potentially in the path of the flow? You get busy preparing your home. You clean and sweep and mow the lawn even- you
put flowers on the bed and on the table, to make sure it is ready to receive Tutu Pele if she chooses to pay a visit. If she takes your home, it is considered a great sacrifice and a blessing on your family line. The rest of the tribe will help you rebuild. It’s just a structure, in any case.
In this way, people have lived harmoniously with her for hundreds of years. Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, dance and wind. Madame Pele, the creator and the destroyer. Theirs is a theology of interdependence and chance. To me, it didn’t matter if the eruption was just the natural expression of volcano being volcano, or Pele Ma- there is no answer other than reverence. This is the great teaching of the Kupuna: how to live in harmony within oneself even in galactically explosive times, to live Pono, to live Kapu Aloha.
The Lower Puna Eruption ended on August 15, 2018, as quickly as it began. 13.7 square miles of land had been covered by lava flows. 875 acres of new land was created in the ocean. The only people who were injured were one guy who wouldn’t leave his home and got hit in the leg by an errant lava bomb, and a boat of 23 tourists trying to get as close to the lava entry to the ocean as possible. We gave Kenny a no-money-down, no-interest loan on 5 acres of land, where he, his family (and his newest addition, a minidonkey), have been slowly building a new homestead, kicked off by gifts from grateful neighbors including an old short bus; floor joists; tin roofing; extra windows; and a steady stream of plants and starts. Another family that lost their land share the acreage with him- they’ve parked a RV up there and built an immense round bamboo and palm frond structure to shelter from the almost daily rains, and an outdoor toilet and catchment, you don’t need much more here.
There have been no flows, and very few quakes since then. The ones we do feel come from the new Hawaiian Island being born as we speak, far off the coast at the Loihi Seamount. The top of this mountain is about 1000 meters under the ocean now. I imagine some Homo Evolutis in 10,000 years fishing from her shores.
I was sitting on the porch of the big house the other day, 2 years after we locked the doors, and walked away. I remember how returning was a relief, and also a surprise. How clean the air was. How quiet the town was without tourists. Now, listening to the finches and thinking about how many cacao we could realistically put into the orchard without taking away from the other trees, when I heard a rumble, felt the jiggle, my own involuntary inhale. But it was nothing much- a 1.9 maybe. I dutifully told the USGS, bowed to give Pele a nod, and continued gridding the garden.