Kauai Reflections

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Which do you prefer?

30 October – 9 November

Rain is falling over Hanalei Bay tonight. Not the on and off again tropical rain that produces the rainbows we see everyday. This afternoon a front of low, dark clouds settled over the island, and began calmly and persistently letting down a soft rain. After a long day exploring the island, Jessica and I are happy to cook our box of Thai noodles, to which we add fresh, locally-grown veggies, and accompany it with wine and our new Hawaiian roots station on Pandora. As we reflect on the past week here, we both celebrate and grieve this place.

It’s easy to praise the beauty here. What’s harder to fully appreciate is the scale of time and circumstances under which it was formed. James Michener, the popular writer who weaves historical research into rich character-driven fiction novels, helps us reach the recognition deserved of these islands, of this planet, of the timeless and perhaps incomprehensible flow of creation and destruction. The first 18 pages of his true-to-geographic-history epic, Hawaii, moved Jessica and I to a sense of the sublime deeper than the beauty on it’s surface level ever could. Which says a lot, because this place is epic in its beauty. We all know the Hawaiian islands were formed from volcanic eruptions. What we don’t always consider is that those eruptions began 19,000 feet beneath the surface of the ocean. “For nearly forty million years, an extent of time so vast that it is meaningless, only the ocean knew that an island was building at its bosom,” writes Michener. Kauai is said to be five  million years old, and being the oldest of the main islands, it stopped growing a long time ago. The time it took to rise from sea level to it’s glory of 5,243 feet at it’s center is less than 5% of the life of that volcano. For 10,000 years after its emergence above the surface, this tip of a gigantic mountain under the sea was nothing but a “little pile of rock in the dead, vast center of the sea.” As it (very) slowly grew and eventually accumulated soil, maybe once every 20-30 thousand years a new scrap of life would reach the island. “Nothing, nothing that ever existed on this island reached it easily.”

This car, the original fruit-bearing trees, and the immigrants all came from very far away.

This car, the original fruit-bearing trees, and the immigrants all came from very far away.

Until modern passenger jets came along. I reached Kauai after five hours spent reading, napping and sipping o.j., hardly noticing I was speeding through the air in a metal tube at 500mph. This is where the grief comes in, as I arrive here following generations of colonialists. I won’t uselessly express white guilt. I’m more aware of how my disappointment in my own culture leads me to idealize one I know nothing about. Just as we imagine, during travels, living more happily in a place that expresses cherished values our current home lacks. Why else would I be surprised, or more aptly just as disappointed, to learn that even the Hawaiians fought among themselves, and that it was likely necessity, born from overpopulation on already inhabited islands that pushed their exploration to new areas? Today, things reach Hawaii all too easily. Only 10-15% of the plant species here is native (a small percentage of non-native plants includes what the Polynesians brought). Today we heard on the local news that a boa constrictor was found slithering down the sidewalk in Honolulu. Snakes are illegal in Hawaii, as they have no predators here and would pose a serious threat to the ecosystem. Which  makes sense. Hawaii is unique in having had, at least before colonial contact, no diseases, no poisonous plants or insects, no thorny plants and even no mosquitoes. Also, before the Polynesians arrived, there was no fruit either. No taro, no sugar and no coffee. None of the delicious things things Hawaii is known for today. Still, I feel grief for the lost virgin paradise that actually couldn’t have sustained humans, and I feel grief for a lost culture that still had a caste system, religious rituals of human sacrifice and war. What do I really grieve for?

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Back to geology. Take a look at the Google map of the Hawaiian islands in satellite mode. (Thank you Michael Kulik for pointing this out to me). Zoom out and you can follow the chain of dead islands (the Hawaiian-Emperor Volcanic Chain) all the way to the north edge of the Pacific plate, by Alaska. You are looking at 80 million years of island-making history. In 2-3 million years, Kauai will nearly be gone. Like an undulating wave of the sea itself, the rocky islands rise and fall.

Each line is a layer of lava

Each line is a layer of lava

To say something arouses the sublime is to suggest it not only contains “a power greater than that of humans, and threatening to them,” writes De Botton in The Art of Travel, but also demands awe and respect. Sublime places, like vast deserts and deep, colorful canyons, remind us that in the vastness of the universe, we are small, frail and short-lived. For me, the sublime contains immense gratitude. This sense of awe often accompanies a religious sentiment. Struck by something so much larger than myself, and so perfectly appeasing to my senses, I am moved to express my gratitude to something, some kind of god or “force.” The native Hawaiians on Kauai (of which I know little and who probably carried with them gods worshiped in their own native S. Pacific home) believed that their god resided in the center of Kauai. That happens to be the cone of the ancient volcano and source of the seven rivers that flow here. It’s the wettest place on Earth with an average of over 450 inches of rain annually. The sublime can inspire in us a teaching that is claimed by the religious and the secular humanists: The world is mighty and unfair and human life is overwhelming. Though we often meet that with anxiety and outrage, in the midst of Yosemite valley or Hawaiian volcanoes, we realize it is the nature of things and we are humbled to speechlessly accept it. We can greet with grace “the unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.”

Three hours later, its still raining. No walking on the beach or star-gazing tonight. Meaningless, yet part of a very meaningful process. A few more molecules of the island worn off the rocks and a bit more soil washed back to the ocean. Just a rainy night from my point of view, yet another imperceptible movement of the ever flowing change that will eventually erode this island away completely. And our little human dramas will have played out on it without regard from these cycles. Ecosystems arisen and changed by the introduction lichen, moss and plants by hurricanes and birds, then of fruit-bearing trees and chickens by the first humans here, then sugar cane and mosquitoes and plastic bottles and snakes by the colonialists and later immigrants. The current debate is over GMO. Where do we draw the line between native and not? From human sacrifice, to leper colonies, to the possible legalization of gay marriage this week, our tiny lives play out on this sinking island. Sometimes it looks like progress, and sometimes destruction. Both are true.

From Michener again: “Endless cycle, endless birth and death, endless becoming and disappearing. Peace and calm seas and the arrival of birds bearing seeds are pleasant to experience, but the residence of beauty is surely nominated for destruction. A song at night of insects, the gentle splash of surf against the sand, and a new ice age is beginning which will freeze out all life. Limitless cycle, endless change.”