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 grow