The Big Island

I had a wonderful time at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was a beautiful evening, not as cold as some nights. Ranger Dean Gallagher gave a great talk on the natural history, geology and history of Mauna Loa, worshipped as Pele by the native Hawaiians.

But Pele was fairly quiet last night. No eruptions, as happened earlier this month. Photographic opportunities were scarce. Still, the lava lake simmered and bubbled, although being below the rim it was not visible to us at the Jagger Museum lookout.

What a sight, though. Standing there I couldn’t but marvel at the privilege of witnessing creation right before me. This is where igneous rock is formed. Then the lava flows, sputters and spits into the air, cooling and becoming rock. Then the rock erodes, soil forms, seeds land, and pretty soon, at least in geological time, we have grasslands, shrubs and forests.

And that is one of the things I love most about Hawaii. These islands emerged from the ocean. What we see is but the tip of immense volcanoes. Depending on the age of the island you can see new, red hot earth being formed, islands still expanding, barren for now. On other islands, or even on another part of the same island, we see pioneer plants emerging from rocky crevices. On still other islands, I’m thinking Kuaui in particular, we see the mature tropical forests that resulted from eons of evolutionary biology. What a thrill!

One last observation. In the early eighties (showing my age here), I consulted to the nuclear Navy and was honored to be able to cruise on an attack sub, with some of the finest, most competent sailors in the world. At one point the captain showed me the underwater topography of the islands we cruised between. Later, as we sailed toward Pearl Harbor, he turned on a camera as we negotiated an underwater canyon. It took my breath away. Those perspectives stay with me still. We live on a dynamic, fragile planet. It is still changing, experiencing birth and death every day. Islands are still forming on the ocean floor, year by year inching toward the surface. I only hope that in a million years or so people will be around to enjoy them.

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