Two of my dearest friends just witnessed their own little miracle last week when their first daughter, Harper, was born. About eight years ago, maybe nine now (I'm terrible with dates), I stood up for them in the most beautiful wedding on Turtle Point, a lovely sea-side area on the Big Island of Hawaii where they live. It seems fitting that the couple who had the loveliest wedding should have given birth to one of the loveliest babies I've ever laid eyes on. I would post her picture, but the happy couple needs time to do this themselves. I'd hate to steal their thunder. Regardless, I wanted to post a little something in Harper and her parent's honors, for they gifted me with the Big Island, one of my favorite places on planet earth. I look forward to my next trip out and the opportunity to hold their sweet little girl for the first time. In the meantime, I must make do with my imagination, which is not too shabby, so I really can't complain.
The following piece was a writing assignment given to me by a visiting writer while I was an undergrad in the creative writing department at Randolph-Macon Woman's College. We had to sketch a place, using some fact and some fiction to create the sketch. In this case, the facts are all of the things about the island and it's people and traditions. The fictions come through the narrator and a couple of the cast of characters who are based loosely on some of the people I met along the way. Photographs or drawings were encouraged as a part of the final product. So, here is what I turned in. I hope you like it, and I hope my friends will some day read it to Harper.
Island of Fire
I have come home. I live in the only state 2000 miles from any other land. For ten years, I tried living east coast, mainland. I was hoping to return to Maui, where I spent my childhood, but I got a job in Hilo instead, and I think I am going to like living in this little town called Volcano on the Big Island. I am already in love with the dripping, chill of the rain forest that lies here in these sun-drenched clouds.
Every day, I climb up the steep face of Kilauea to my little town, aptly named because it sits on the only volcano that is still active. The ancient Polynesians named this mountain home of Pele, Goddess of Fire. It is the only volcano here that has never gone dormant. I still get excited over the little differences of the island, like soil the color of asphalt made of the lava rock that built these islands up layer by layer out of the ocean.
I look forward each day to the end of work, to leaving the hurry of town for the thirty-mile drive home. About ten miles up the mountain, the traffic disappears, and the fast food restaurants no longer line the road. As the climb grows steeper, the road is swallowed up into the huge palms that reach their leafy, arms over the street. There’s this invisible wall I hit half way home where the temperature drops away at last. The majority of my days at the University of Hilo are sticky and thick, but up in the rainforest, the massive plant growth provides a cool shelter that seems to hug me and welcome me into its mist.
The main road begins to switch and turn not far from my house, as the air continues to grow thinner. I leave my windows down so I can feel the exact moment when I pass through the wall. After my first few weeks here, I noticed the bird songs also change at this point. Where I hear the whistles of cardinals, pekin robins, and chats in town, all species who should not live here, now I only hear the steady twitter of the Puiohi, the Akepa, and the I’iwi. I believe, like me, they have come to this volcano to escape. It is nice to know that others understand the strange reclusive quality that draws me here.
I wrap myself in layers, long-johns, sweats, a jacket over the top, and lots and lots of blankets. This is the only way to get a decent night’s sleep on Kilauea. No one believes me. This is Hawai'i after all, the land of sunshine and hula dancers. I keep extra jackets and blankets for my friends and family who come to visit. It no longer surprises me when they show up with only summer clothes in their bags. I love to watch their faces when they see their first vog up here. Even though I tell them all about this strange mix of fog and volcano sulphur, they have to be surrounded by its thickness at least once to believe. I love to take them outside when it comes rolling through the trees and stand them in the yard just two paces from me. That look of awe that crosses their faces just before I disappear is priceless.
I am smurfette and I am not ashamed to say it. My little hut in the woods is adorable. Some crazy human painted it smurf blue, and I knew the moment I saw it I had to live here. The high vaulted ceilings, exposed beams, large open rooms, huge windows with views of the forest on all four sides, must have been built with me in mind. It's paradise. I tell myself if Pele decides to send a lava flow my way, I will be ready to move on, but the truth is my heart will be buried too. I believe that Pele does not care for the attachment to material possessions, so I try very hard to live simply as an honor to her. The only attachment I cannot seem to set aside is the one for this ridiculous, little house.
The guy who lived here before me planted tons of ginger and bamboo in the yard, and I have spent countless hours digging them up by the roots. The mongooses happen to love bamboo. The nasty little bastards climb the stalks and sneak into the surrounding bushes to eat the birds and their eggs. I set traps to get rid of both the black rats and the mongooses. I used to hate to kill them, but once you understand the destruction they cause, you begin to see them as the enemy.
At times, I feel surrounded by stupid people, from the ones who plant the invasive ornamental crap in their yards, to the ones who let pet parrots from Asia go free, to Captain Cooke who brought the black rats to plague us. Perhaps the fathers of them all are the ones who introduced the mongoose to eat the rats. How do you tell the Mongoose, “Rat’s only, please.”
Mark Anderson is the strangest man I know. He is my neighbor although, thankfully, it is about a twenty-minute hike from his driveway to mine. I met him for the first time in my backyard while I was checking my traps. He scared the breath out of me when he stepped out of the forest in his camouflage getup, holding a machete in one hand and had a rifle strapped over his other shoulder. Times like this remind me how alone I am up here. Mark is not quite as scary as he first appeared. He is employed by the Hawai'i Volcano National Park that borders our properties. His job is to hunt and kill the pigs and cattle roaming free around the island, another of the wonders introduced here by the fabulous Captain Cooke. Both species have lived here at the expense of a great deal of forest. The soil layer on the islands is thin and delicate and cannot handle their trampling hooves. It makes tracking them fairly easy. You just follow the trails of total annihilation and eventually you catch up with the culprit. So Mark trudges out into the forest day after day and gets paid to do what he loves best. It's not that I mind the hunt when it’s necessary, but I am not sure I am comfortable with a neighbor who gets off on bloodshed. He has started to walk this way regularly now, and all he talks about is the kill. His beady eyes glow when he tells his stories, and it makes me squirm. I’ve started hiding in the house when I am lucky enough to hear the rustling in the woods that signals his coming.
I drive by a huge, ugly, gray and blue monstrosity every day. Tourists come from that store every day with their bag of souvenirs bought at the specialty shop in the front section where the mainland stores usually house their barbers. Who wants to buy something hand- crafted by a native when they can have a plastic hula doll for their dash made in China at half the price. I make a point of buying my groceries from the local farmer's market, paying about double the price, and I smile while I pay it.
Sometimes, I drive over to Kalapana. It was a small village in the area now called "the wild west," because it’s been covered with lava so many times that only the crazy or very brave, depending on your point of view, rebuild there. The only thing left of the quaint village that used to sit on a lush beach facing the ocean is the steeple of the town's Catholic church. It juts up out of a vast wasteland that is now the 1990 lava field. I park my car and hike a half -mile over the cracked and ragged rocks to sit by the charred steeple and watch the waves crash over the cliff not far in the distance. I find peace and balance here by this ruined church. It reminds me to be thankful for what I have each day.
There is one little, old, native man I chat with on my walk to and from the Kalapana church. He wouldn't agree to a picture because the camera might steal his soul. His house is the only one in the town that survived. The lava rocks covered every living thing within ten feet on all sides of his cabin. He still lives without the amenities of electricity and running water, but he’s determined to stay. He says Pele spared his house for a reason, and he’d be turning his back on her if he left. The greenery is just beginning to poke up through the jumble of black rocks around him, and soon he will be surrounded in lushness once again. For now, he seems content to sit in his rocker on the front porch and enjoy his ocean view. He says he feels privileged to be so favored by the Goddess of Fire.
Bad luck will follow those who remove a lava rock from the islands. To take one home as a souvenir has been the downfall of hundreds of unsuspecting tourists. There used to be letters lining the hallway walls of the Hawai'i Volcano House inside the Volcano National Park. Each one telling a tale of hardships from treachery and deceit to pain and death that were deemed a result of the lava rock someone took home as a keepsake. Most send the rock back with the letter in an attempt to appease Pele. Many were warned by a native during their visit and mistakenly chose to disregard them. You learn not to underestimate the power of an angry Goddess in this place. Like so many others, I’ve taken many of the rituals of the natives to heart. Shoes are not allowed inside the front door of my house to insure the lava remains outdoors where it belongs. I leave offerings of coral and small tokens to the Goddess, things I find on the beach, and place them on the alter near my front door. I hang wind chimes to comfort Pele near the porch. Most of all, I thank her regularly for the blessings she bestows on me.
Driving home from a day at Puna lu'u, the black sand beach that lies over the opposite side of the volcano where I basked on the beach with hundreds of green sea turtles (Perhaps I was a sea turtle in a former life), I noticed a couple of guys up ahead on the side of the road. They were sitting in lawn chairs in the backs of their two trucks and holding cardboard signs while chatting amiably. My knee-jerk response was to begin rolling up my window to avoid the pleading looks of the drunks who say "will work for money". Then I remembered where I was. It occurred to me at that moment that I rarely see anyone begging on a street corner here. Then, I began to wonder what these two men were doing. One man was holding a sign that said Vote Democrat for Governor and the other said the same for the other party. It made me laugh and I honked my horn and waved as I passed, getting a heart-felt wave and smile from each in return. As I continued home, I realized I didn't even know who was running. Strangely, I hadn’t heard any of the back stabbing, lying, propaganda on the television, perhaps because I so rarely even turned it on. When I got home, I Googled the Governors race, and was happily surprised to find that Hawai'i was going to be the first state to have two women running for office.
There is one post office, one gas station, one Hotel (the Volcano House) inside the National Park, two small groceries, one inside and one outside the park, and three restaurants, a sandwich place, a sushi place, and an Indian place with the best Chicken Masala I have ever had. There is a quilting shop, an art museum, and a sizemic research center within a mile of each other, as well as a bird conservation center right across the street from a little winery that serves the sweetest wine I have ever tasted. There are two main roads and about five dirt roads that get you where you need to go. The population is 300 full-time residents and another 200 part-time employees to the Volcano National Park. There is one heliport run by Blue Hawaii Tourist Center that takes helicopter rides over the Pu'u O'o vent that still spews fire down the mountain side. The volcano adds about two thousand new acres onto the island every year. Last night, the island lost 500 acres when a lava shelf split off and crashed into the ocean. A tourist name James Cartwright, ignoring the warning signs and barricades, was allegedly hiking on the shelf when it fell into the sea.