It is not always paradise here. Sometimes the air is so filled with sulfur dioxide and other gases from the Kilauea volcano in the Puna district of southeast Hawaiʻi, that it is difficult to breathe. Your eyes burn, and your throat hurts, and the dense atmosphere of toxic chemicals, called vog, occasions depression and malaise.
Kilauea, the home of the fire goddess, Pele, has been erupting since 1983. According to measurements taken in 2008, the volcano spewed 3000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air every day. There is more poisonous air now. It is often worse in Kaʻu and Kona, which are in the path of the once invigorating trade winds. Kona is the destination of most planes from the mainland to the Big Island, and the unwary tourist often steps into a thick miasma of ash, smoke, sulfates, and ammonia. Perhaps I should not be telling you this.
The fire goddess Pele, capricious, cruel, jealous, and vengeful, makes her home with her five compelling brothers and sister in Kilauea crater. O. A. Bushnell writes:
Those first Hawaiians became acquainted with two manifestation of divine power they could not have seen in the land of their birth. With a fine sense of relationships, and their realists’ humor, they decided that these novel forces must be feminine. The blazing, impulsive, destructive, hot-tempered, and beautiful one who issued so unpredictably from her underground realm they called Pele. The haughty, pallid, silent, cold maiden who never deigned to descend from her lofty mountain citadels they named Poli’ahu . . . Pele as their Earth Goddess in her triple manifestations: as Mother, maker of mountains and of islands and humankind; as Lover-Pursuer-Virago, devourer of men who do not heed her power, no matter how handsome and accomplished they may think they are; and, finally, as Kuku Wahine, Grandmother, who receives in her wrinkled bosom the bodies of the dead, taking them into her care once more.
Kahu (guardians or acolytes) of Pele coated their long hair with red dust, and made their eyes red. The fact that volcanoes destroy entire villages understandably helped to underline the magical connection between the visible danger (the kahu) and the invisible danger (the goddess).
Kamehameha was said to be a favorite of Pele. When his land at Puako in South Kohala was threatened with lava from an eruption at Hualalai, people said that Pele had lost patience with him and was punishing him for making love to Kaheiheimālie the sister of the favorite, Kaʻahumanu. He quickly made offerings to Pele, and a forgiving Ka’ahumanu and Kaheiheimālie (who was said to be the more corpulent of the two) loyally resolved to perish with Kamehameha should the lava overtake him. The historian Samuel Kamakau wrote that Pele appeared to the women, dancing at the end of a troupe of goddesses, chanting, “Our husband has gone to carry the bigger load [Kaheiheimālie], while the lighter load [Ka’ahumanu] is neglected.”
Pele sent her lovely sister Hi’iaka to find the handsome chief Lohi’au of Kaua’i to bring him to Pele on the Big Island. During the dangerous journey, beset by water spirits and sorcerers, Hi’iaka and Lohi’au fell in love (a Hawaiian version of Tristan and Isolde). Hi’iaka, who is herself a sorceress with the gift of prophecy, is said to have composed the following chant:
I lose my breath crossing Hilo’s rivers and ravines,
countless hills, descents innumerable as I travel
Kula’imano’s gullies and streams.
There’s Honoli’i stream and the cliff called Kama’e,
single cliff among many in spacious Hilo-of-the-standing-cliffs.
Waiolama River flows on and on through Pana’ewa,
Pana’ewa the rain drenched forest-island of tallest trees, dense branches of scraggly lehua,
‘ohi’a’s flame flower, beloved of birds.
Now Hilo darkens. Night falls in Hilo.
Puna, sunk in dusk, glows through my smoky land.
All things stir with life, breathe anew.
The Woman has lighted her fires.
In 1824, the high chiefess Kapi’olani (a recent convert to Christianity), despairing of the reverence and fear with which Hawaiians still worshipped Pele, made the arduous journey across the lava fields to climb the southwest slope of the crater to challenge the goddess in her lair. Kapiʻolani, accompanied by the Hilo missionary Joseph Goodrich (the missionary Samuel Ruggles wished to go, too, but he had no shoes), was followed along the rough path by hundreds of people who pleaded with her to return home, knowing that it was they, not the haoles and the ali’i, who would suffer the revenge of the goddess. At the edge of the crater, Kapiʻolani defiantly ate a handful of the ʻōhelo berries sacred to Pele, and threw stones into the volcano (Peleʻs skin was said to be so hot that if a bundle of taro touched her for even an instant, it would be cooked at once). Kapiʻolani sang numerous hymns, and prayed at length with Goodrich to give Pele sufficient time to display her fury. When the goddess was silent, Kapi’olani triumphantly turned her back in scorn and walked home, leaving the frightened Hawaiians to follow in astonishment.
Pele seems to bring out the worst in artists. I used to think that Santa Fe had more bad art per square mile than any place in the world, but what might be considered contemporary Hawaiian art may be worse.
Excepting of course, paintings on velvet from the Fifties and Sixties. As a young woman, I read scripts for an actor who was eager to begin an art collection. As I now and then came home to Hawai’i, he asked me to find him some paintings on velvet. There was a very good dealer in Hawaiian antiquities in Honolulu, the late Don Severson, and I would make an appointment to see him at his gallery. He had the most exquisite things — calabashes, Hawaiian quilts, poi pounders, nineteenth-century paintings by Hitchcock, Peale, and Tavernier, prints and watercolors by Choris, Arago, and Webber, delicately-patterned Hawaiian kapa cloth unlike anything in Oceania, and once, an exquisite koa-wood outrigger canoe. He also had a small collection of kitsch, including paintings on velvet, which he somewhat amusedly kept in a separate room. I tried to convince my employer to buy something of beauty — at least what I thought beautiful — but he really wanted his nudes on black velvet, and so I would purchase them on his behalf and carry them to Los Angeles. To be just, he soon abandoned paintings on velvet and moved on to Matisse and Picasso, among others, but I had nothing to do with that.