|Kalapana, January 2006 | by Jim Gupta-Carlson|
My husband Jim recently resurrected a photo he had taken at Kalapana, Hawai'i, in early 2006. We were newly married and had recently decided that we would leave Hawai'i, where I had lived for ten years and he for about five, sometime that following summer. I had wanted to try and visit all the islands one more time before we left, and to make the two-day hike along the Kalaupapa trail on the Na Pali coast of Kauai, a trek I'd always swore would be my parting hike from Hawai'i. As it turned out, the winter and spring of 2006 were unusually rainy, with flash floods occurring regularly across all of the islands. Tears, perhaps, from heaven that paralleled my own sorrow over the departure. The rains coupled with a crazy schedule and a lack of funds meant that Hawai'i was the only island -- other than O'ahu, where we lived -- that we were able to visit.
I didn't remember the photo initially, but as I looked at it more intently, memories floated back. The steam rising through vents in the volcanic rock, the sparse but energetic vegetation, the haunting sunset. I had first visited Kalapana in 1996, and had been struck by what I perceived as its lifelessness. I am not sure of the actual details any longer, but the story holds true: a massive corporate development had been planned and would desecrate some areas that the Kanaka Maoli held sacred. Madame Pele intervened, and in 1986, the lava from the Kilauea flow rolled in, destroying the town and a series of subdivisions.
Ten years after the flow, there was little life. You could drive to the edge of the lava field, walk on the rocks and feel the heat. Steam vents were common.
Ten years after that, in 2006, nature was doing its part. Life was returning to Kalapana in the form of vegetation and a small amount of what seemed to be locally based commerce (as opposed to the corporate tourism that seems to dominate so much of Hawai'i) to the town.
The revival made me happy. And it heightened my sadness over my pending departure from Hawai'i.
I am not a person of permanence. I was born to immigrant parents, and within the first ten months of my life, I had lived at three different addresses. The moving continued through my childhood and young adulthood years, from Iowa City to Cleveland, to Muncie, to Chicago, southern Illinois, Fort Worth, northeastern Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Seattle, and then Honolulu. By 2006, I was forty-three years old. The longest I had lived in any one place was fifteen years in Muncie, where I grew up. The second longest was ten years and the place was Hawai'i.
I never intended to remain in Hawai'i. From the outset, I considered my presence there to be morally inappropriate as it was continuing a colonialist practice of outside settlement and exploitation of fragile resources by those non-native to the islands. I tried to be as politically supportive of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement as I could as a doctoral student who was earning her keep by working as a journalist for a newspaper whose ancestral ownership included members of the business elite that masterminded the illegal 1893 overthrow of Hawai'i's monarchy. I was constrained by my job from overt political participation. Nevertheless, I taught the politics of colonialism and U.S. imperialism as they pertained to Hawai'i in courses in the political science department at the University of Hawai'i and used my time in the islands to learn what I could about the theories and practices of decolonization from a bottom-up perspective. And, in what feels today from the pragmatic lens of the crusty, cynical Northeast as an overly superstitious view, it seemed as if for years I was being asked to stay. After deciding I would leave, the wheels would be stolen off my car, symbolizing the fact that I wasn't going anywhere as yet. But when my rent began to climb beyond the point of affordability on a part-time salary and I began to realize that I was spending more time working at my job to afford to live in Hawai'i than I was actually living in Hawai'i, I knew it was time to go.
The decision pleased my new husband, who had not shared many of my experiences of the islands, and had questioned the truth of aloha spirit. But it tore me up. Even though I put on a pragmatic face, I wasn't ready to leave quite yet.
We left on July 12, 2006, two days after I defended my doctoral dissertation. I finished the revisions in Seattle the following fall and spring, and flew back in May 2007 to graduate, just as that Hawai'i-born senator named Barack Obama announced his bid for the presidency. Today, I feel that I live very far from the world I inhabited from August 1, 1995, through July 12, 2006. Yet, there are parallels. The ground today -- on this today -- is lifeless, blanketed by a thick crust of snow. Smoke rises, not from steam vents in lava rocks but from wood-burning furnaces, stoves, and fireplaces that people in the rural part of northeastern New York where I now live use to heat their homes. Yet, underneath the snow, there is new growth. Nature will do its part as it did in Kalapana to restore life.
I look at the photo, and I love it. I suggested that we get it printed for my office, where it -- like the 88-cent calendars from the Long's Drugstores in Hawai'i that two friends loyally send me every year -- will remind me of what I learned in Hawai'i and inspire me to continue the work I began there in the social justice activism that I, now no longer working in mainstream journalism, am free to express publicly. Jim wants it framed and hung properly. I want it as a poster, stretched out in a horizontal 20 x16 portrait and affixed to the wall with thumbtacks, scotch tape, and/or duct tape. He protests that I don't know how to treasure things of value. I retort that I am not a person of permanence. The story behind all this is how I want to engage with the photograph. I want to press my nose into the landscape and smell the sulfur from the vent. I want to trace my finger around the tree that forms the dominant subject. I want to touch the mountains in the distance and imagine the feel of that sun burning my skin with memories of its warmth. I feel as I look at it that the land -- the tree, the steam, the sunset -- was telling me something that perhaps I couldn't understand then and am only beginning to comprehend a little now. That life is mobile and dynamic. That land is life. That we should keep moving forth.
There's an addendum to this story: In doing a bit of Internet fact-checking on my memories of Kalapana, I was reminded that Pele had released the lava in the area again more recently, this time in 2010. What life was rekindling may now be snuffed. Yet, like the frozen life beneath the snow in my backyard in New York, there is a promise of rebirth.