A novelist friend writes to us as follows from Hawaii, reflecting on this particular moment as so much seems in flux, and we each, in our own way, in our own place, try to get our bearings.
Letter from Hawaii
Here on the Big Island, as the age of Trump arrives, we are celebrating the Winter solstice season on the slope of the world’s most active volcano, at the very end of the road through jungle and papaya farms and fields of rough black unnavigable lava devastation sixty years old—that is, hiding out as best we can from the sense that Mordor is glowing again: one orchic Trump nomination after another; terrifying, casual tweets encouraging a new atomic arms race by the self-described “very intelligent” incoming commander-in-chief almost with his finger on the button; Syria and Yemen and Iraq nearly destroyed; another strongman in Manila terrorizing his own citizens; Berlin shoppers terrorized and murdered; Standing Rock betrayals delayed for a moment by blizzard. Hiding from them or seeking them, these are the headlines of the day.
Here, on the most remote island chain in the world, the lava is pouring down again into the deep waters. You can see the steam pluming up into its own cloud cover just beyond the horizon, white during the day and orange-pink at sunset. That molten threat is just miles away and yet seems to us a lesser threat than the other, farther outpourings of violence.
Before dawn, the throbbing, squealing sex-call of the cocqui frogs (‘f- me! f- me!’) fades to the alto, and the slower but still urgent sex-call of the native doves and their chirpier songbird cousins sound jubilant about the new day. Sixteen years ago, in another century, before the frogs smuggled in on Caribbean imports, nights were still silent here as throughout history they had always been. You could hear distant neighbors coughing, palm fronds clicking in the breeze, the ocean pounding miles away, occasional cars accelerating far off down the road. Night was silent until the day birds began, and old-timers still mourn the change. Newer residents blink at the nostalgia. The Eastern clouds above the horizon are still dark when the faintest wisps above them are already glowing bright, and the sun jumps fast into the sky from the sharp line of ocean when it’s clear, or fanning out in God-rays behind passing storms. Often there are huge clouds behind us, too, skirting the volcano, glinting rainbows above the western slopes. For these, we stop our breakfast, lean over windowsills, and practice memorizing.
Neighbors in Paradise
We bought a field of lava rubble at the neglected top of the neighborhood, farthest from the ocean but surrounded by empty fields and distant forest. Given the lava danger and the lack of gentle beaches, this district is one of the most affordable in the state—and one of the poorest, most dependent on public assistance. We imagined a modest cottage in the middle of a garden, perhaps with a glimpse of the distant water down below. For some years we visited, marching across the field imagining a house here or there, arguing about here-not-there but whispering because just beyond the rubble a little blue cottage was already nestled in a jungle clearing, and often a woman was standing at her outside kitchen, or hanging laundry on a rope. Finally, one year she walked over through the hedge, thanked us for our quiet and introduced herself. Even when we built up our modest cottage on stilts until it became a high tower with a view, our careful neighbor practice still mostly succeeded—at least in that direction.
The neighboring fields have since been claimed, built upon, habitated. Not all neighbors care about quiet, or imagine how far their voices carry, or who hears what interchange. The guy with the saxophone has finally sprung for windows and interior walls. We experiment with fences, hedges, music, smoldering resentments, Buddhist acceptance, exchange of seedlings, eggs, filtered water from our rain tank. The hedges are growing up nicely.
Recently a new neighbor walked her periphery while I weeded unseen behind the bananas. “They’ll have to move that palm tree,” said the female voice to another neighbor, a gentle elf of an elder, across his knee-high stone wall. “And your stone wall extends into our property, too. It’s got to be moved back.”
Gentle elder: “Well, in Hawaiian tradition, the walls are on the property lines, a little on each side.”
“Still, it’ll have to be moved. I just want what I paid for.”
The Buried Village
The lava spilled down in ’55 and then again in ’91, burying the upscale neighborhood of Royal Gardens and the ancient village of Kalapana with its curvaceous, palm-lined black sand beach. A stretch of new land extended out a mile into what had been untamed ocean. Uncle Robert’s hamburger shack survived beneath its ancient jungle trees, and became a new center of The Lawful Kingdom of Hawaii (“We never left”). The old inter-racial enmities shifted after the shared disaster, and old Uncle Robert’s property, the literal end of the end of the road, is now the nexus of several worlds, political, ethnic, racial, geological, psychological, even galactic. Saturday mornings there’s a quiet farmer’s market mostly for tourists, and Wednesday evenings a livelier market with local amplified singers and occasional traditional dancing. At “Uncle Robert’s,” liquor is served for donations without a license from any imperialist entity. An ancient heiau has been re-sanctified from its nearby jungle camouflage, and signs remind visitors to drive SLOW. Out on the new lava is a welcome sign and circular clearing for visitors from off-planet (“Star Visitor Sanctuary”), suggesting a safe place to land on an often unsafe planet.
Babies and Trees
Across the street and behind us, our young neighbors are raising toddlers into the new century. The latest came into the world at the Spring equinox, announced by her mother with a great middle of the night screaming that silenced even the frogs. From our childless tower we watch the loving gestures of a new generation of parents below, gentle, hands-on fathers, empowered, competent mothers, screaming fits met with patience, toilet training casually practiced shame-free on the roadside, naptime strolls through afternoon sun and rain showers. We are planting trees more for these newborns than for ourselves. How high will the trees grow, while we can see them? Our mac-nut tree is three inches high. Our limes are fruiting, but not yet the oranges or tangerines or grapefruit. Last summer came twenty-four melon-sized mangoes from our small tree—someday it will serve to block out the view of other houses; perhaps not in our day.
Back on the mainland, I sit quietly and listen to people’s stories, practice with them grappling with their shadows. Sometimes we punch pillows and cry into them. Here, on retreat from listening to voices, I gather lava rocks and pile them into garden borders and low walls. The heavy ones I roll across the gravel, or, if I dare, I pick them up and carry them for a few feet at a time. The results are quickly satisfying, even without ever yet reaching artfulness. Back on the mainland, back in my office, I daydream about moving rocks, fitting rough stones together into something that coheres, and makes sense, and serves a lasting purpose.
The Magic Cloud Hour
As the sun settles down toward the western ridge, two enormous, endless cloud caravans converge and follow it most days beyond the volcano rim into the dark. But first, for an hour or so, they are lighted from the side and then from beneath, gold and orange, pink and yellow, finally shades of luminous silver into gray upon gray. We stop our work to watch them pass from the top of our tower, we name the shapes, or allow the silence and the mystery. The Norfolk pines, already in silhouette, reach up quivering in the breeze with their finger-sized spindles taking in air and light as long as it will last, even when only Venus is left shining above them.