While Pele can sometimes be destructive, she is viewed by Hawaiians as fundamentally a creative force responsible for building the Hawaiian Islands, a force of change that continually alters the landscape with new land. To gaze upon her nightly glow is to remind us of a fact many Westerners also find difficult to accept—that all things are impermanent and that much of human meaning and the efficacy of cultures comes from periodically adjusting our aspirations and habits in light of that truth. Trying to halt an encroaching lava flow is as futile as trying to stop climate change without finding a new way to live without fossil fuels.
Mauna Loa’s broad slopes capped with snow on January 28, as seen from a cattle ranch on the outskirts of Volcano Village, about 4,000 feet up the mountain.
Poliʻahu is one of several mountain deities that represent the life-giving properties of pure water, essential to sea-bound island societies. Because pure water can never be taken for granted on islands, the fight for its protection and fair distribution has been fiercely controversial in Hawaiʻi since its colonization two hundred years ago and the flood of development that it unleashed. Poliʻahu’s blessing of snow on the island’s pinnacles—visible even from other islands—reminds us that the planet’s pure waters are one of its most important gifts. Seeing her pristine snow stirs us to rethink our continued faith in the last two hundred years of techno-industrial development that has contaminated so much water that more than a billion people no longer have clean water to drink, bathe and cook with.
A mantle of fresh snow covers the upper 3,000 feet of Earth’s largest volcano, Mauna Loa, on January 28.
These are some of the thoughts that enter my mind when, seeking enchantment, I venture out at night to watch Pele’s auburn glow or rise early to catch the sun’s first light on Poliʻahu’s icy mantle. Being reminded of our true relationship with nature—and the human foibles that challenge it—evokes for me an even deeper enchantment about our wondrous life-giving planet and the urgent need for us to revere it, as my Hawaiian friends do.
My wife Catherine Robbins watching the eruption from the caldera rim of Kilauea on New Year’s Eve.