Madame Pele Gives and Takes Away

I’ve only set foot on the Big Island of Hawai’i for two days, but I’ve seen Madame Pele.

Maybe that’s one reason I didn’t follow in the footsteps of most of my family, which is mostly scientists. I’ve always wavered between the rational, scientific way of analyzing the world, and the poetic, spiritual side that feels there’s some parts of life— like that non-physical experience called “I”— that  science can’t fully address.

The following is another small example, which has been on my mind often lately.

In 1986, returning from a trip overseas, my parents and I spent a two-day layover in Hawaii. Being nerds, we island-hopped to Hilo and made a beeline for the Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory. When we asked the on-duty scientist if anything was erupting, she ostentatiously checked her watch (!) and said, “Not right now, but check back in about four hours.”

Volcanoes aren’t normally that predictable. But at the time, this one had fallen into a surprisingly predictable routine. Pu’u O’o, a large vent on the shoulder of Kilauea Volcano, had been erupting every 28 days like clockwork. Was the moon’s tidal pull nudging a brimming magma reservoir over the edge? Was Pu’u O’o operating like a geyser, erupting when the pressure was high enough, emptying its magma store, then refilling and repeating the cycle? I don’t know.

In retrospect, I suppose the woman could have been pulling our leg. She might have known an eruption was imminent. Kilauea’s the most monitored volcano in the world, and instruments show when magma’s on the move.

At any rate, by 5PM, Pele was putting on a show I’ll never forget the beauty and power of a real-live volcano erupting just 7 miles away. Through binoculars, we could see a line of brilliant red lava fountains 500 feet tall, fanned across two newly-opened fissures over a mile long on either side of Pu’u O’o’s main cone. That night, we drove all the way around the island—the direct route was blocked— to watch a lava flow creeping down towards the ocean, burning through a forest at the edge of the Royal Gardens Subdivision.

I heard people saying that native Hawaiians never built there, because the land was sacred to Pele. They blamed a mainland developer for ignoring tradition. I don’t know whether that developer was mythical. I do know that mythology transmits a community’s collective wisdom about the natural world and local circumstances, described in non-scientific language.

But yes, I saw Pele, and she wasn’t just a scientific observation couched in the language of storytellers. We stayed until close to midnight, watching a bright orange lava flow as it slowly consumed stubborn trees that don’t yield easily to fire. Walking back to the car, my mother tapped my shoulder and pointed. I looked up. There, looming over us in the low ceiling of clouds, was an old woman’s face dimly illuminated by the red glow of the lava. She seemed to be looking down at us.

Mom and I didn’t say a word to one another. I just whispered “Mahalo,” thank you, to that face above me. There’s plenty of stories about Tutu Pele manifesting as a beautiful maiden or an old woman, whom you disrespect at your peril.

The next day, I cast some ohia berries into Halema’uma’u, the summit crater where Pele makes her home. Snagged on the edge of the crater were leis and other offerings, some coated by volcanic dust. Nearby, fresh fumaroles steamed.

Knowing it’s taboo to take lava from Kilauea, I brought back only my memories, as I wrote in a cheesy schoolgirl poem called “Mahalo to Pele” when I got home.

Sometimes, memories are more substantial than stones. Despite my humanities bent, I developed a lifelong fascination wotj volcanoes. After moving to California, where the ground sometimes shakes the house, I’ve become more and more interested in geology. Sometimes I need a break from humanity these days.

Over the years, I’ve kept an eye on Pu’u O’o. I felt like I had a personal stake in its progress after seeing it born. Not that that’s strictly true. It had been erupting periodically for three years before I laid eyes on it. But it’s almost never stopped erupting since then— until this May.

I feel guilty for having feelings of affection for a volcano that’s cause so much grief for the people of Puna, forcing them to evacuate, disrupting their lives, damaging their homes and property. It’s not really fair that I can sit in the safety of my own home, watching this eruption as a spectacle.

Luckily, Hawaiians know their volcano better than I do, and they know Pele. They cherish her gifts and accept her bouts of fiery temper. They know how volcanic soil, once it’s broken down, grows crops and flowers in abundance. The price of their paradise is that sometimes, they have move out of Pele’s way and let her remodel. It’s what built their island in the first place. She’s still building it.

Stories of Pele

How to Help the People of Puna

Respect for Pele helps ease heartache when she drives people out of their homes, but they still need help. Rather than donate to the big charities, I like to look for local groups. HawaiiNewsNow has an article on Puuhonua o Puna, volunteers from within the Puna community crowdsourcing help for those in need (everything from diapers to beds to meals).  See the FAQ at the top of their Facebook page for donation links (at the bottom).

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