Some years back, I left the Cariboo winter far behind and journeyed to a place of passion and unpredictability in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, perched on the edge of a living volcano. Today this tiny island is making international headlines for the lava that threatens to disrupt a community and change a way of life for the inhabitants. On this island, the goddess Pele has the final say.”
Winter is finally on our doorstep and the land is once again blanketed in snow. As we head into the festive season of giving, I like how the pace slows and there’s more time to take in the beauty of the landscape (driving extra slowly on winter roads) and coming indoors to the coziness of the woodstove, warm soup, and hot drinks. Getting outside in the sparkling snow and blue skies for skiing and other winter sports is also invigorating and we have no shortage of winter playgrounds here in the Cariboo. Winter is also a time when many journey away and escape to foreign lands to experience other cultures and climates.
Some years back, I left the Cariboo winter far behind and journeyed to a place of passion and unpredictability in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, perched on the edge of a living volcano. Today this tiny island is making international headlines for the lava that threatens to disrupt a community and change a way of life for the inhabitants. On this island, the goddess Pele has the final say.
My journey there is a story in itself—18 days on a 40-foot sailboat with an experienced captain and first mate sailing from San Francisco to Hilo, Hawai`i following the trade winds. Our days were punctuated by rolling seas, endless horizons, flapping white sails against a backdrop of puffy cumulus clouds, visits from dolphins and flying fish, and the occasional iridescent tropical fish pulled from the depths to add to our dinner. At night, the starry skies were unfathomable and shone with brilliant intensity.
After our 2,000-mile journey across the Pacific, when we finally arrived at the lush volcanic mountain rising out of the sea and mist that is the Big Island of Hawai`i, it was a sight to behold. It was hard not to marvel at the original peoples who populated the Hawaiian Islands around 350AD—in their ingenuity and skill as proficient ocean navigators. Hawai`i, or the Big Island, as locals call it, is rich with Hawaiian culture and customs, despite its longstanding assimilation into western culture over the past hundreds of years.
As a newcomer to the Big Island I quickly learned a few things—never venture into the ocean without checking with the locals if there are strong undertows; tropical rainstorms will soak you to the bone but are generally over within 10 minutes; Hawaiian ukulele and slide guitar music is playing everywhere so you’d better love it; stay away from the centipedes; yes, you really can swim with dolphins in the wild; and, Pele, the revered Hawaiian goddess of the volcano, must be treated with respect. Translation: Watching molten lava ooze across the land is an amazing experience, but don’t be taking any lava rocks home in your suitcase.
While it might seem like an outmoded concept that a volcano goddess dictates a way of life for people in modern times, reverence for Pele (pronounced “peh-leh”), the passionate, volatile, and capricious Ka wahine ʻai honua, or “woman who devours the land,” is reflected in all aspects of life in Hawai`i including the art, music, dance, and principles that govern the people. Mythological stories and images of the fiery goddess can be found everywhere—depictions usually showing a woman with long dark hair, her glowing face lit by the volcano, and molten rivers of lava flowing down her body and running down the mountain. Pele is believed to reside in the molten lava lake in the caldera at the summit of the active shield volcano, Kilauea, on the southeastern side of the Big Island of Hawai’i, with a reach encompassing all volcanic activity on the Island.
Kilauea’s eastern flank is located within the District of Puna. According to Hawaiian oral tradition, which recorded the volcano’s eruptive history long before European and American missionaries came to the Islands, ancient Hawaiians have always recognized Puna as the land of Pele, with human habitation subject to Pele’s will.
The district is a vibrant area of Hawai`i with its thriving markets, winding roads interspersed with giant mango, ironwood, and monkey pod trees, jagged coastline, popular surfing and snorkelling spots, warm ocean pools from heated lava tubes, and relatively cheap cost of rural living.
Historically, settlement was concentrated within about 5 km of the shoreline and areas near the volcano and upper forests were mainly visited for gathering plants and spiritual purposes. Today, despite Pele’s reign, the district of Puna has the fastest growth rate of all the districts in the County of Hawai`i and is teeming with subdivisions and people flocking there for the affordable living in paradise it offers.
The area has also seen an influx of idyllic travellers or those interested in off-grid, alternative lifestyles in paradise. Land is relatively cheap, due to the inability to buy insurance against the ongoing threat of lava flows, since all of Puna exists within the three highest risk lava hazard zones.
Eruptions at Kilaeua between 1983 and 1986 were characterized by spectacular and explosive lava fountains up to 1,540 ft. in the air. More recently the lava has moved slowly in oozing molten flows transported by lava tubes to the ocean. Pahoehoe ( “paw-hoey-hoey”) is the term for the smooth, ropey, and slow moving lava and aa ( “ah-ah”) is the rough crumbly lava resulting from explosive eruptions. Pahoehoe flows are relatively safe to navigate and even walk on, though I’ve seen a few foot sole prints on recently cooling lava and heated the bottom of my hiking boots a little too much for comfort. During my six months on the Island I learned that if you want to visit Pele close up, depending on where her lava is flowing, locals can recommend ways to get around high priced tours.
Most Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians have a deep respect for the goddess Pele. According to Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park staff, offerings of fruit, flowers, plants, and berries are left daily for Pele at the edge of Halema’uma’u crater. Even local geologists speak reverently of Pele. Geologist Herb Kane says, “So long as the earth is alive with quakes and eruptions Pele will live in the Hawaiian hearts and minds as the personification of the natural phenomena of volcanic activity.”
Pele is said to have created the islands and since the lava rock is considered her flesh, it is told that misfortune will come to those who take lava rocks away from the Islands. The Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park has displays of notes of apology and mounds of rocks returned from people believing their lives were touched by Pele’s curse. My grandfather was among those who returned lava rocks to Hawaii after worrying a family tragedy was due the lava rocks he carried home. (Lava rocks to be returned to Pele can be mailed to: Headquarters, Volcanoes National Park, Volcano, HI 96785.)
In 1990, when lava flows destroyed the town of Kalapana, locals told of those who prayed and left offerings and were inconceivably spared when the lava snaked around their homes. Since then, lava flowed mostly south from the crater toward the ocean and away from populated areas, but on June 27, 2014, everything changed. A flow erupted from a vent on the northeast side of the crater and began oozing its way through the forests toward Pahoa, the main town of Puna, on a trajectory towards populated subdivisions down-slope.
By October of this year, the lava flow had advanced approximately 13 miles, crossed the first road on the outskirts of Pahoa, and moved through a small cemetery. On October 30, when it seemed imminent it would cross the main highway servicing all of lower Puna, the lava stalled. The cooled front now sits 480 feet from Pahoa’s main traffic artery and the route of accessibility for approximately 9,000 residents to the south. On November 10, a breakout from the main flow claimed its first home. Soon after, the flow stalled again.
At the time of writing this article, Puna residents hang in the balance as they wait anxiously for Pele’s next move. Emergency proclamations by the Hawai`i County Mayor and State Governor were followed by a declaration of federal disaster by President Obama. At the cost of between $12 and $15 million, an emergency route is being built through the once-buried Chain of Craters Road from Kalapana to the northwest and into the Volcano National Park in case residents are completely cut off.
There are no signs of Pele’s flow stopping, as breakouts higher up from the main flow relentlessly ooze down the mountain towards the town. Some residents have fled the Island, some have moved their homes, and many are determined to stay, praying that by the grace of Pele their homes and way of life will be spared.
One thing is for sure: talk of diverting the flow is a heated and highly controversial issue. Historical attempts all but failed and the risk of causing harm to other residential areas is considered too great. Underlying it all are the deep traditions of the Hawaiian culture. It is still considered a fact that you are living in Pele’s home for which you must show only respect. In our modern world, it is extraordinarily rare for humans to revere and ultimately give the forces of nature the last word.
— Lisa Bland