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American Impressions, Chapter 50: Hawaii
Heaven and Earth

American visitors to Hawaii make the mistake often. They refer to the mainland as “the United States,” as if Hawaii were an island separate from the continent and the Union: “Back in the United States . . .” goes the gaffe. “But you are in the United States, sir,” comes the local correction, said in a tone that slaps the air. “What you mean to say is—back on the Mainland.”

Well, yes, but the mistake is never a matter of ignorance or malice. It’s closer to the truth than its correction. Hawaii is less a part of the United States than apart from it, a cluster of islands drifting northwestward on the Pacific plates on a brief journey out of oblivion. The biggest island, Hawaii, also is the youngest, a blink out of water barely one million years old. One of the oldest and smallest—Midway—is not even an island anymore but a 15-million-year-old atoll, and a preview of what every Hawaiian island will look like before subsiding completely back into the sea. That the chain is thought of primarily as a vacation spot for mainlanders, an exit from old grinds and grasps, only parallels its own vacation out of the deep, out of Earth’s grasp.

Perhaps that’s why Hawaii’s attraction is one of unrealities, a place where our usual perceptions of the world are altered, usually for the better, usually without explanation. The rational doesn’t make it to shore. To R.L. Stevenson, one of the islands was “The Isle of Voices,” a place “beset with invisible devils” where “day and night you heard them talking with one another in strange tongues,” where “little fires blazed up and were extinguished on the beach; and what was the cause of these doings no man might conceive.” Somerset Maugham—for whom “the wise traveler travels only in imagination”—found in Honolulu, “I know not why, a feeling of something hotly passionate that beats like a throbbing pulse through the crowd.” And to Mark Twain, the sight of Kilauea Volcano made him think it “just possible that its like had not been seen since the children of Israel wandered on their long march through the desert so many centuries ago over a path illuminated by the mysterious ‘pillar of fire.’ “ My paths were no less luminous.

When I landed at Kauna on the Big Island of Hawaii I was greeted not by girls clad in plumeria flower necklaces and hula rhythms but miles of white coral graffiti drawn on black volcanic ground along the coastal highway, like haikus in the making (“deborah and steve,” “SMILE BEFORE YOU DIVE,” “In loving memory of . . .”). Leaving Kona’s semi-desert landscape and perpetual sunshine, I drove toward Hilo, on the opposite side of the island and the opposite side of the weather, into sheets and feet of rain—almost two feet’s worth the first three days (I didn’t know that Hilo is among the wettest places in the States). Not that I was there to swim and surf. I wanted to look at the heavens and walk the young Earth, two very simple things that cannot be done in a single better place.

The sloping top of Mauna Kea’s 13,800-foot peak is a multinational village of a dozen telescopes, including Keck I and Keck II, the world’s biggest eyes on the sky. The island’s southeast shore is a cooking pan of young earth still stirred red in many places by the steady lava flows of Kilauea. I had a notion that between the astronomers’ observations of stars and planets in the making light years away and geologists’ trails through this planet’s youngest neighborhoods, the story could not be drastically different: the stuff of life is the same underfoot as it is on the outer rim of the galaxy. On Hawaii, one mirrors the other, while the island itself is in every way a way-station between the distant and the familiar. To the local Polynesian culture, the European colonists of the 18 th century might as well have been from other galaxies when they first landed here with Captain Cook in 1778. There was bloodletting. There always is. But on the whole the two cultures have mixed, without quite exploding, proof that the alien and the distant are not necessarily foreign, and that the making of new worlds can be—like Kilauea’s steady, mellow eruption of new earth—peaceful. Hawaii’s way-station between heaven and earth restores one’s faith.

Peter Michaud of the Gemini Observatory is driving me along Saddle Road, so-called because it follows the crest of what forms a natural saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, the island’s two highest peaks and dormant volcanoes. We’ve left the rainforest vegetation several thousand feet below and entered the equivalent of a young boy’s messy room, but on a geological scale. Creation here has been up-ended, crushed, stretched, blackened and greened in alternating layers of mountain-building—black where the lava is young, green where it has been weathered and naturally tilled into apprentice earth. The road crosses Mona Loa lava flows from 1855, 1856, 1881, 1882, and the flows of 1935 and 1936, which had the honor of being the first flows to be raided from the air, with 500-pound bombs—the island’s own victimless Guernica—in a failed attempt to divert their route. Mauna Kea has been quieter, last erupting 3,300 years ago, about the time when the epic of Gilgamesh was a bestseller.

”The wonderful thing about going up here is, the lighting is different every time, there’s always something to see, so I never get tired of going,” Michaud says. He’s a 38-year-old science graduate of Plymouth State College in New Hampshire who was attracted to Honolulu in 1988 when a planetarium job opened at the Bishop Museum there (“the Smithsonian of the Pacific,” Michaud calls it). He joined the Gemini Observatory in 1997 as its outreach manager, translating the new, 8-meter wonder’s astronomical technicalities to people, like me, whose knowledge of the stars stops with the words “bright” and “innumerable.”

Gemini North is actually still being built, and will be the twin of Gemini South, on a Chilean mountaintop—Castor and Pollux, each in his own hemisphere. They’re twice as powerful as the Hubble Space Telescope, able to “resolve” (the astronomical word for observing clearly) a set of car headlights from 3,000 miles away, the distance from New York to San Francisco. They’re designed to overcome the “blur” of the earth’s atmosphere, to look through stellar or planetary gas clouds and better analyze the birthing process of such bodies, and to look far out. “We’re going to the edge of the universe,” Michaud says, “how it was formed, what it was like 10, 12 billion years ago.”

At 9,000 feet, we stop at Hale Pohaku, or the House of Stone, a modern refuge for summit astronomers who need a good meal, a bed to rest, a library in which to study, or for visitors and astronomers on their way to the top who need—who must, according to safety-conscious guides—stop for an hour to get acclimated to the altitude. Michaud gives me a 20-minute lecture of warnings about altitude sickness that makes me more conscious of my heart, my lungs, my brain and what I ate that morning than I’d been in years. The walks through Idaho’s fields of radiation a few weeks ago hadn’t been nearly so trauma-inducing. Weren’t we simply climbing a mountain that happens to be higher than most clouds? The top of Mauna Kea is accessible only by four-wheel drive. Above 10,000 feet the pavement ends. So do most life forms. A gravely road begins to yield slopes and browns of Antarctic barrenness, and visions lower down of the old volcano’s many cinder cones, supporting actors back when the mountain was the Hawaiian hot spot’s chief attraction. It’s a rare, foggy day. The mist shrouds us all the way to the top. The temperature is 30 degrees. The telescope domes begin to appear. Two days later I’d be able to see them from Kona as white dots gleaming in the sun on snowed-in Mauna Kea. Here they look massive, completely at odds with the land around them, yet not out of place.

Mauna Kea, which means “White Mountain,” is a religious shrine, a site where Hawaiians bury their important dead. It is also where the University of Hawaii, which serves as the multinational telescopes’ landlord, has mismanaged the land, ignored environmental laws, and broken promises to native Hawaiians concerned about the way the mountain was used in the last 30 years, according to a 1999 legislative audit of the Mauna Kea science reserve. I had a difficult time thinking any of these concerns that significant on top of the mountain (which could still erupt and in 30 seconds commit its own bit of cataclysmic mismanagement). Each dome here is a leap beyond Earth unimaginable a few years ago, a measuring stick of our place in the universe. Environmentalists are worried about the science reserve’s effect on insects native to the mountain top. But if the telescopes have proven one thing, it is that we are those insects, and that it is not such a bad thing. Talk to most astronomers, and they’ll tell you that it is just a matter of time before we discover that the universe is full of insects. The discoveries from Mauna Kea are pointing that way.

The following night I jumped over to Keck and met with Gibor Basri, a 48-year-old astronomer from the University of California at Berkeley, who had come for three days of observing. His is a pioneer in the discovery of brown dwarfs, those objects too small to turn into burning stars, too big to be planets. His bad luck—terrible weather that sealed Keck’s dome shut for his first two nights—turned into my good luck. We sat in the observation room at Keck Headquarters, in the small town of Waimea, 48 miles away and 11,000 feet below the summit, and talked stars, planets, brown dwarfs, red dwarfs, black holes, galaxies, cosmology and the meaning of time. We sat in the same room where Geoffrey Marcy, a colleague of Basri’s and one of the superstars of modern astronomy, made his groundbreaking discoveries of planets outside the solar system in the last few years. It’s a spare room connected to the observatories on Mauna Kea by fiber-optics, and no more impressive than a college computer lab.

Had the dome been opened and Basri been at work, he would not have been looking at the sky in old Galilean fashion. He would have been looking at a computer screen showing spikes and dips on a graph, which is what a M4 spectrum of light broken down into its component parts looks like—stellar DNA. The age of looking through a telescope’s eyepiece is over. Astronomers don’t even need to be on the mountain to look at the sky. With the Internet, they could even sit in Berkeley—as Basri has—or anywhere else on the planet where a computer is hooked up to the Net. But proximity to Mauna Kea is still favored, even though the competition for observation time is fierce.

From Basri I learn that the Milky Way galaxy is producing about two new stars a year, that planets can’t get much bigger than Jupiter (so we should consider ourselves lucky to have that specimen for a neighbor), that the discovery of an earth-size planet is a matter of time (“within 10 years, although I don’t think we’ll find life in the next 10 years”), that time is going to go on for ever even though in a few trillion years the universe will go dark, its energy all spent except in useless repositories such as brown dwarfs, and that the immensity of the heavens does not make astronomers lose their mind, as it would mine if I thought about it long enough, but just more curious.

”There’s a point at which you realize you can’t go further, but that doesn’t make me mad, it makes me happy that scientists of the future will have something to discover,” Basri says. “Astronomy is a cultural activity. It’s a little like art in a sense that it does not produce economic results, but we’d be much the poorer without it. It also satisfies a basic curiosity.”

That’s why astronomers working on the summit often think the distance between their work’s meaning and the meaning of the mountains to native Hawaiians is not that great—why Jack London wrote that “The peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa hung poised on the wall of heaven.” They are the gentlest of high mountains, beckoning the climb and the lookout beyond to that observable infinity even as the crunchiness of the fresh rock below reminds you of their infinitesimal, and so finite, age.

I spent the following day crunching my way around Kilauea, which has erupted continuously since 1983, adding its own contributions to the universe. In the last 17 years it has spewed enough lava to bury Manhattan under 121 feet of rock, making 547 acres of new land for the Big Island. The Kilauea Crater itself is quiet these days, its black surface of hardened lava venting steam and sulphur so gently that tourists hike through it. The main lava flows are coming out of the eastern slope of Kilauea, from a crater called Pu’u O’o, which is not accessible on foot. In September the flows almost stopped, worrying geologists about magma buildup below the surface somewhere, and a potentially devastating explosion that could affect Hilo. But the flows have resumed—Pu’u O’o flows have stuttered 75 times in the past 16 years—as have hikers’ dangerous pilgrimages to within feet of the molten lava three miles beyond Chain of Crater Road on the southeastern end of the island, where a flow cut off the asphalt on its way to the sea a few years ago.

I walked through a lava tube dripping from the ceiling with water and roots, walked through lava flows marked by year, like vintage rock—some of it called a’a, if it has a rough, jagged surface, some of it called pahoehoe, if it looks smooth and billowy—I listened to the hardened black flows make the sound of rice crispies being doused in milk (even though it wasn’t raining), and I finally reached the shore, where black cliffs of fresh land rose from the sea, ready to crash into the surf without warning. It was early evening, the air was tinged with vog, as Hawaiians call the volcanic haze of sulfur dioxide, and on a hill, 4 ½ miles away, the smoldering orange of a lava flow appeared, flaming its way imperceptibly down to the sea.

That spot at the end of Chain of Crater Road is a popular evening gathering place on the island. People go there to watch lava flow, even though it is far away and generally no more impressive than a faint slash of brush fires. But it isn’t brush fires. It’s molten rock, newly arrived from below, and we all gaze at the mountainside in awe, a silent greeting of new land forming before our eyes: Mother Earth, younger than her daughters and sons.





Total area: 6,459 sq. miles (rank: 47)

Population (1997): 1,186,602 (rank: 41)

State capital: Honolulu

Economy: Tourism, defense, sugar, pineapples.

Nickname & Motto: Aloha State; The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. Entered union: Aug. 21, 1959 (50 th).

Notable facts: Polynesians first settled Hawaii around 600 A.D., probably coming from the Marquesas Islands 2,500 miles southeast of Hawaii. A second group of Polynesian immigrants arrived some 500 years later from Society Islands, bringing with them the sugar cane and the coconut. But Europeans, beginning with Capt. James Cook’s arrival in 1778, were responsible for importing such eventual island specialties as mosquitoes, plumera flowers, feral goats, and the pineapple, which became one of Hawaii’s leading industries. In recent years sugar lost the lead as Hawaii’s top local industry - to astronomy.

Hawaii in quotes: “Thus when a people or a person live in the spirit of aloha, they live in the spirit of God . . . I feel especially grateful that the discovery and development of our islands long ago was not couched in the context of an imperialistic and exploitive national power, but in the context of aloha. ... Aloha does not exploit a people and keep them in ignorance and subservience. Rather, it shares the sorrows and joys of people; it seeks to promote the true good of others. Today, one of the deepest needs of mankind is the need to feel a sense of kinship with one another. Truly all mankind belongs together, for from the very beginning all mankind has been called into being nourished, watched over by the love of God who is aloha. . . . Thus may our becoming a state mean to the nation and the world; and may it reaffirm that which was planted in us one hundred and thirty-nine years ago on this ground: ‘Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.’ “—From the Statehood Service delivered at Kawaiahao Church, March 13, 1959, by the Rev. Abraham Akaka.



* “A Hawaiian Reader” and “A Hawaiian Reader, Vol. II,” both edited by A. Grove Day and Carl Stroven (Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, $5.95 and $6.95 respectively, in paperback) are invaluable reads through three centuries of Hawaiian literature, history, legend and travelogues.

* “Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands” (Mutual Publishing, $4.95), is a unique look at Hawaii in the 1860s, including some of the most vivid descriptions of Kilauea Volcano in action.

* “Roadside Geology of Hawaii,” by Richard Hazlett and Donald Hyndman (Mountain Press, Montana; $20) is a complete, readable guide to Hawaii underfoot.

Web Sites:

* University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy:

* Gemini Observatory:

* W.M. Keck Observatory:

* Volcano National Park:

* Hawaii tourism:


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