Patiently Awaiting Lo’ihi: A Hawai’ian Story*
By John R. Hall
Eons before our forefathers climbed down from trees, shed vestigial tails, discovered their thumbs, and began walking upright, the fire goddess Pele was hard at work on the bottom of earth’s mightiest ocean. There, four miles beneath the turbulent salty surface, she toiled. Building Islands of white-hot, molten basalt, pushing them far into the sky, then watching as rock, buffeted by wind and rain, wore down to soil, as birds dropped seeds from faraway lands, as lush forests grew, as the ancestors of parrot-fish gobbled coral and crapped golden sand beaches which, in turn, became home to ancient species of crabs, turtles, and seals, then smiling knowingly as those same Islands began a slow collapse under their own weight. Dying as surely as all things must, one by one, the sentient towers of basalt slowly returned to the arms of the sea god Lono, from whence they arose. Leaving new and developing Islands in their wake, as they slipped beneath the waves.
For seventy, eighty, a hundred million years, Pele has been relentless in her project. Her route being mapped from the beginning, by a two thousand mile long fault line beneath the sea. Running northwest to southeast, the Hawai’ian hot-spot has a history about which we can only venture educated guesses. Although still unseen by human eyes, twelve hundred years ago, these beautiful ever-changing Islands had become much as we know them today.
They came from the southern tropics, across two thousand, five hundred miles of unforgiving seas. Fleeing unknown strife on Bora Bora or Tahiti. Perhaps religious persecution, as James Michener suggested in his epic 1959 novel Hawai’i. Luckily for those who would become the first Hawai’ians, they came with the foods of their homeland, for Pele’s creations were almost completely lacking in human sustenance. Their swift, seaworthy, twin-hulled canoes were loaded with coconuts, taro corms, banana and breadfruit shoots, sugarcane, chickens, pigs, edible dogs, and hearty men and women of breeding age. They came to establish a new civilization in a place which thus far existed only in their native folklore. Their faith guided them to Hawai’i, and their painstakingly thorough preparation would sustain them for a millennium, largely undisturbed and unmolested in the most remote Island chain on earth.
They brought with them a strong sense of oneness with the aina (land) and the kai (sea). Soon their crops were planted and growing, their livestock breeding and flourishing, and fertile fishing grounds established. Their numbers quickly increased, spreading out over all the habitable islands. Their lifestyle sustained, even improved, that which Pele had created. Edible plantings attracted more passing birds to call Hawai’i home. Taro patches, banana trees, and sugarcane fields decorated the landscape. Coconut trees provided food and welcome shade along the coastlines. Laughter of keiki (children) filled the air. Of course, even paradise has its ups and downs. Like all humans, the Hawai’ians had their share of bickering, power struggles, even wars between the populations of various Islands. Finally though, about two hundred years ago, all the Islands were united under Kamemeha the Great, and fell under the jurisdiction of the Monarchy.
But by then, the seeds of change and destruction had already been planted. English explorer James Cook had sailed into the neighbourhood, becoming the first non-Polynesian to lay eyes upon Hawai’i in 1778. Although the Hawai’ians had the good fortune or foresight to permanently silence him, word got out about the paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Shiploads of missionaries, businessmen, and other predators of various stripes began arriving with alarming frequency. The vast majority of new arrivals were pink invaders that came from The United States of America, who knew exactly how to deal with illiterate, overly-pigmented populations, long entrenched upon valuable and coveted property. 300 years of mass armed robbery, rape, and murder had successfully created the U.S.A., and a few little Islands would be no problem for expert opportunists to handle.
It all began innocently enough. The Hawai’ians, finding that their sandalwood forests were highly prized by people in faraway Asia, happily chopped them down, trading the fragrant wood to passing merchants in exchange for exotic products from foreign lands. Whaling captains, discovering that the Islands were winter calving grounds to thousands of whales, wantonly decimated the leviathan population. Capitalism was well on its way to despoiling paradise. All too soon, the aina was being traded away to wealthy pink businessmen who would grow vast tracts of sugarcane, coffee, and exotic species of pineapple from South America. Crucifix-bearing missionaries, selling their particular version of religion, shamed the Hawai’ians for their nakedness and promiscuity. After being forced to deny their own dieties and accept the one true God, through threats of eternal hellfire and damnation, the Islanders tossed aside Pele, Lono and a host of other gods, crossed themselves, grovelled and filled the collection plates of their monotheistic invaders. The pink intruders were well on their way to remaking paradise in their own image.
It was slavery that built the agrarian capitalist economy of the U.S.A., and the lesson had been learned well. Unfortunately the Hawaiians, much like Native Americans, made poor slaves, whether wages were paid or not. Soon shiploads of wage slaves from China, Japan, the Philippines, and Portugal began arriving. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Monarchy had become an inconvenient impediment to progress, so American businessmen, with the help of the U.S. Marines, dethroned Queen Lili’uokalani. Soon, Hawai’i was annexed as a U.S. Territory, and the U.S. Military moved in and took over the show.
In 1959, a few years after Hawai’i played a strategic role in World War II, statehood was awarded to, or forced upon, the Islands. Hawai’i’s reputation as a vacation destination grew in leaps and bounds, and even though Pele was still busy on the Big Island, creating more land, real estate prices skyrocketed. Now, only the wealthy could afford to live the dream life in Hawai’i. Condo complexes sprang up like weeds. The original Hawai’ians, whose numbers had both dwindled and been widely interbred with an international array of partners, found themselves in a bewildering world.
Hawai’ians, whose ancestors had once lived off the land, were now unwitting, unwilling slaves to a bizarre economy in a parallel universe. Once able to walk out into their gardens and harvest mangoes, papayas, coconuts, bananas, and sugarcane, they found that their gardens were now military bases, or had been bought by real estate speculators. They were forced to become wage slaves, cash their paychecks, and shop at Safeway Supermarkets for mangoes from Ecuador, G.M.O. papayas from Monsanto, coconuts from Mexico, bananas from Honduras, and sugarcane from C&H. Commercial fishing had decimated local fish populations to a degree that they would now need to buy frozen salmon and cod from the other side of the world. Homes which were once free for the building, were now obtained only after providing proof of sufficient income, and assuming unaffordable thirty year mortgages.
New foreign concepts were rearing their ugly heads. Poverty, homelessness, and hunger became everyday crosses to bear, as an international wealthy clientele bought up every scrap of valuable land, every house and condo, and all the while making consumer goods in the Islands even more expensive. The rich man’s playground had rendered the original Hawai’ians superfluous. Nothing left for them to do but put on grass skirts, get out their ukuleles, dance and sing for the entertainment of their conquerors, and accept the fact that paradise was gone for good.
From her workshop, just 20 miles south of the Big Island, Pele watches in amusement the unsustainable fiasco which has become Hawai’i. Her latest Island creation, Lo’ihi, is now less than a thousand feet beneath the waves. The Big Island which, although still adding land area through the usual process, is already beginning to collapse under its own immense weight. Sooner or later, the older Islands of Ni’ihau, Kaua’i, and O’ahu will disappear from sight. They will be followed after another few hundred thousand years by Moloka’i, Maui, Lana’i, and Kaho’olawe. The voracious civilization which now controls the Islands will eventually cannibalize itself and vanish, leaving behind nothing but ruins and a sordid history. Lo’ihi will arise from the depths, adding layer upon layer of molten basalt. Pushing ever-higher into the sky. Rock will turn to soil. Plants and birds will arrive. Parrot-fish will crap new beaches. Even more Islands will grow from the dark depths of the sea. And the great experiment of life will take another shot at getting it right. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode.