Mauna means mountain. Mauna Kea is the sacred mountain of Hawaii, the summit at an impressive 13,796 feet. Mauna Kea translates as White Mountain, also known as the mountain of Wakea. There is an ancient saying, Mauna Kea kuahiwi ku ha’o I ka malie, ‘the astonishing mountain that stands in the calm’. It comes from how the mountain’s summit rests above the cloud inversion line, and is one of the reasons it is such a good site for the science of astronomy, the other reason being it is surrounded on all sides by water, so there is virtually no light pollution. Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, measured from its base down at the ocean floor. It last erupted 4,500 years ago and is long dormant.
We waited until the sun went down to view the awesome array of stars above. Every star seen with the naked eye is part of our galaxy, except for the Pleiades constellation, which consists of a cluster of stars from the Andromeda galaxy. The Hawaiians have their own name for Pleiades, Makali’I.
I watched Jupiter set, and Mars rise. I watched one of the arms of our galaxy, the Milky Way, stretch across the entire sky in a wavy length containing an estimate of 1 trillion stars. There are so many that you cannot see them individually.
January 11th, 2010
The vegetation on Mauna Kea is extremely sparse, a characteristic of montane desert climate. Dry air, windy weather, and variable temperatures make if difficult for plants to thrive and are why so few are found here. A now rare, but highly special plant of Mauna Kea, the endemic Silverswoard, glistens with so much silver it looks as if spray-painted. When cattle and sheep ran free, as they did in the early 1900’s, these plants were particularly tasty to them, and soon the plant became endangered. It was thought to have gone extinct until a few were discovered growing on the edge of a cliff, where no sheep or cattle could reach.
The summit of Mauna Kea is an Alpine-Tundra climatic region, consisting of only moss, lichen, grass, and ferns. Very little fauna can be found. The only insect found to be living at the summit is the Wakiu, because of an anti-freeze chemical it produces. This highly specialized bug is a perfect example of species adaptation. The bug flies around finding dead frozen insects that were unlucky enough to be caught in winds sweeping them up to the frozen summit. The only native land mammal of the Hawaiian Islands is located up on Mauna Kea: The Hori bat. Other animals of flight in this area are the Nene goose, which have evolved to have shorter wings and lesser-webbed feet in order to better suite their new environment on the Island. Obviously, they do not migrate, but have been hybridizing with introduced species of goose. A full breed Nene is a rare sighting.
The mountain itself is a sacred and holy place for the Polynesians, and only high priest have ventured to the peak, too sacred for any other class to be. The lake Wa’le on Mauna Kea is thought to have healing powers as is used often for medicinal purposes. Many believed the lake was bottomless because the water is able to collect instead of drain away through porous volcanic rock, but actually the floor is made of clay. The lake is colored a solid green from the amount of algae growing in it.
We travel up along the saddle in between the broad active volcano of Mauna Loa, and the steep dormant volcano of Mauna Kea. The van barely makes it up the road to the visitor center on Mauna Kea. We are ascending up towards a sacred place. After reading about all of the social, cultural, and political conflicts that still occur today concerning the volcano, I feel weary about approaching. Not only am I not a priest, I am not Hawaiian at all. This volcano is a site where very few people were allowed. Now it is littered with tourists and scientists alike, disturbing this holy peak. It does not seem right for me to hurl myself up the side of this mountain. I feel unwelcomed.
The visitor center is only at 9,000 feet, the peak at nearly 14,000 feet. The van cannot make the rest of the climb, which I am somewhat grateful for. I already feel like a disturbance of some force or deity. The air is thin and cool. We are sitting at just about the inversion line, a layer of clouds suspended just below us. It feels like we are floating on top of them. If I strain my eyes just right, I can see the vast blue of the ocean, thousands of feet below.
While we wait for nightfall, I spend my time meandering on nearby trails, observing the vegetation, what little of it there is. There is a small garden close by dedicated to restoring the Silversword plant populations, āhinahina,, a relative of the pineapple. Their silver color is an adaptation to their cold environment. The silver coloring are tiny shiny hairs covering the leaves, which are parabolic-shaped focusing the warm sun rays on to the plant’s growing point, raising the temperature of that point by 40 degrees. It is the same concept of a reflector or solar oven. Silverswords live for about 10 to 50 years as a low, round bush. At the end of their life, they send up a flowering stalk that can grow over 6 feet tall within a few weeks, and produce up to 600 flower heads. It reminds me of the Great Pacific Octopus, which only lays eggs once, near death, thousands of them at once. She spends the last moments of her life guarding her eggs, keeping them hidden and safe. With a single death, comes a multitude of life.
Looking around, I take in the emptiness of vegetation, the scattered life that exists on this barren mountain. It seems that I am not the only one unwelcomed, for there are few who have actually been able to colonize this harsh environment and make a life of their own. The miraculous ability to adapt; to not only survive in places with little to no nutrients, oxygen and violent exposures of sun, wind and bitter coldness, but to thrive in this environment. I decide that I am not welcomed so long as I do not belong. Everything begins from somewhere else, and only those who find a way to survive and live in balance with their environment become a part of their environment. I stare back down at the Silversword and ponder what it means to be native. Where am I native to? What specialized adaptations have I evolved to have? If this mountain is thought to be sacred, are the plants and animals that live on it sacred as well? Perhaps there is some place where I will settle and become sacred myself.
(you can read the whole essay here.)