Beltane Mountain Moon
Volcanoes of the Big Island
In the month of the Mountain Moon Kilauea has reminded me that my interest in mountains precedes the Rockies. My first mountain driving experience was Haleakala on Maui. I learned there that you don’t have to brake going up, take your foot off the accelerator and the mountain takes care of you.
Haleakala means house of the sun and on one of our trips to Maui I did the tourist thing of seeing the sunrise on Haleakala. As we rode in the small van around 4 a.m., the skies were cloudy, rushing across the island, allowing the full moon to become visible, then blocking it out. Even though we were on Maui, a tropical paradise, the early morning temperatures on Haleakala’s summit, 10,023 feet, were cold and windy. Black Mountain, visible from my window here in the loft, is 10,731 feet.
Hawai’i put vulcanology on my oh this fascinates me list. On a visit to the big island, Hawai’i, we drove the Highway east out of Kona, traversing first Hualalai, which sits just above Kona, then Mauna Loa, the long volcano, and finally, climbing up the eastern flank of Mauna Loa we went past Kilauea. We did not go in that day, driving on to Hilo town. On our way back, later that evening, we drove along the southern flank of Mauna Loa again, the air scented by gardenias and jasmine.
In 1999 we visited the Big Island again, this time staying in Volcanoes National Park at Volcano House. We were there for two weeks. Learning the language of volcanoes was easy there: fumaroles, vents, calderas, pahoehoe, ropy undulating lava, and aa, fragmented sharp blocky lava, lava tubes, magma, magma chambers, and the home of Pele, Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. (see poster above)
Hiking a long path around the summit, walking on lava flows where the Pu’u O’o vent added to the land mass of the Big Island, exploring inside now drained lava tubs with ferns growing from the ceilings and reading about volcanoes gave me both an experiential and intellectual immersion. I’ve followed Kilauea off and on since then and the news coming out of the Big Island has me riveted.
Maps. Kate bought me this wonderful vintage map of the Big Island. It now hangs in a prominent position here in the loft, reminding me of many adventures including our stay at Volcano House. Kilauea is in the yellow portion of the map that extends south to the Pacific and butts up against the large swath of green in the middle. The new eruptions are in the eastern, white segment that extends to the north from the point where Kilauea meets the Pacific. This is Kilauea’s eastern rift zone*. People building there knew about the rift zone, but hoped it wouldn’t affect them, much like we hope our location in the Wildlife Urban Interface, WUI, won’t result in our home burning down. Mother Nature gives no passes for human hopes however. She decides when and where things happen, according to her own laws.
Over years of travel I have purchased maps and annotated them. I did this especially in Hawai’i where we visited often while Kate practiced. It is a popular location for continuing medical education. Each time we visited I would mark where we had gone, the date, sometimes a brief note though the longer explanations were in my notebooks. We spent time on Maui, Hawai’i, and Kaua’i, enjoying all of them in turn. Each has their particular charms.
The section of my Big Island map above shows the eastern rift zone area with our 1999 visit marked by the black circle in the upper left and the current eruptions in the Leilani estates circled in orange. The Lo’ihi seamount, the latest island of the Hawai’ian archipelago forming beneath the sea, is just south of the shoreline shown here. It’s the volcano that is most directly over the hotspot** which has formed the whole archipelago.
In 1999 I stood on the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. Next to me were empty bottles of gin and rum, sprays of flowers, especially red ginger and bird of paradise, a lei of gardenias. These were left by native Hawai’ians who came here to worship Pele, the goddess of fire, of volcanoes, of creativity. This is, according to Hawai’ian theology, Pele’s current home though I imagine she will be moving in the next few thousand years to Lo’ihi.
Rudolf Otto, the German religious philosopher who wrote about the nature of the holy, said it combines two elements: awe and the mysterium tremendum et fascinans***. Gazing down over the rim, looking 150 to 200 feet to the crater’s floor, awe came bubbling up at me. In 1999 Pele’s home had no active, visible lava, but just knowing that the magma existed below a thin crust of cooled lava was enough. There is a large lava lake in the crater now.
Otto could have written these words to describe my feeling: “overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its power.”
Wordsworth, too, in the World Is Too Much With Us:
“I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”
The lava on Kilauea is about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Various magma chambers up to six miles below the surface feed the lava flows into Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, formerly fed (up until this last week) Pu’u O’o and now feed the fissures breaking through the eastern rift zone 21 miles from the Kilauea caldera. Here is the raw power of our wild universe visible in its most primal form, kin to the winds of a hurricane, the awful speed of a tornado, the waters of a tsunami, flooding rivers, avalanches, wildfire, orogeny. Nothing subtle at all in these forces; we ignore them at risk to ourselves and those we love.
I need no book, no prayer, no revelation of another. Here is the great wild, the generative power of the tao laid out for all to see. Stand in a sanctuary and feel no more divinity than in their presence. Visit St. Peter’s or the Temple Mount or the Wailing Wall or Angkor or the Great Medicine Wheel and know no more of the sacred, the holy than when the heat of the lava brushes your delicate skin. Pele’s touch.
*Rift zones are areas where the volcano is rifting or splitting apart. The rock in a rift zone has many cracks and is relatively weak, and thus it is easiest for magma to make its way to the surface through these rift zones.
**Hot spots are places within the mantle where rocks melt to generate magma. The presence of a hot spot is inferred by anomalous volcanism (i.e. not at a plate boundary), such as the Hawaiian volcanoes within the Pacific Plate. The Hawaiian hot spot has been active at least 70 million years, producing a volcanic chain that extends 3,750 miles (6,000 km) across the northwest Pacific Ocean. Hot spots also develop beneath continents. The Yellowstone hot spot has been active at least 15 million years, producing a chain of calderas and volcanic features along the Snake River Plain that extends 400 miles (650 km) westward from northwest Wyoming to the Idaho-Oregon border.
*** Rudolf Otto and the numinous
“Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (fearful and fascinating mystery):
- “Mysterium“: Wholly Other, experienced with blank wonder, stupor
- awefulness, terror, demonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, “wrath” of God
- overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its power
- creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence
- energy, urgency, will, vitality
- “fascinans“: potent charm, attractiveness in spite of fear, terror, etc.