Home > Culture, History, Literature, Science, Travel > A Sojourn in the Pacific: Thoughts on Hawaii

A Sojourn in the Pacific: Thoughts on Hawaii

Roughly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies an archipelago whose warm weather, languid coastline sunsets, and edenic profusion of tropical flora is generally accepted in popular aesthetics as the nearest natural approximation of the Judeo-Christian vision of paradise. This is certainly the ironclad image of Hawaii peddled by tourism boards, hotel operators, tour guides, and real estate developers, that of a mild, comfortable, frequently pretty vacation destination. A holiday-perfect place in the sun, conveniently available to the world but especially to Americans as one of the 50 states, with a history both patriotic and romantic.

This manicured picture of Hawaii is not exactly untrue, as far as it goes. Its excellent climate, idyllic natural beauty, and cultural patrimony are unquestionable. A visitor gets this impression especially strongly on Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian islands. Having risen from the ocean floor on mounds of hardened, nutrient-rich lava bursting through a moving hot spot in the earth’s crust, Kauai is about 6 million years old, and thus has had more time to grow into a richly-adorned living botanical garden than many of its fellow islands in the chain (though it has some human-arranged versions of those gardens IMG_3770as well, most notably the Allerton Garden in the National Tropical Botanical Gardens near the old plantation town of Koloa).

With no more active volcanoes to increase its size, Kauai is eroding gradually into the ocean; the effects of this epic erosive process are most visible on the dramatic Na Pali Coast on the island’s north shore, its near-vertical verdant cliffs and ridges snaking towards the reductive ocean like inverted fingernail scratches. It’s gorgeous but also imposing, aesthetically potent but also pregnant with the awesome danger inherent in the natural world. Little wonder that Steven Spielberg shot most of the locations for Jurassic Park there.

If this spectre of the mortal peril underlying geologically-scaled natural forces pokes through the green curtain of beauty on Kauai intermittently, it is wholly inescapable on the island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island to avoid confusion with the state or archipelago that shares its name. The youngest and largest of the islands, the Big Island is also the only volcanically active land mass above sea level in the archipelago, having been formed relatively quickly in geological terms (over a mere half-million years). Its sense of grand, catastrophic geological drama is unmatched in the Pacific and perhaps the world. From its coast, alternately sun-baked and rain-soaked, encompassing gentle beaches (of white, black, and even green sand) and treacherous rocky outcrops, it is possible to progress above 13,000 feet to the peak of its twin sleeping mountains, Mauna Kea IMG_3975and Mauna Loa, in the space of a couple of hours (although, with altitude sickness in mind, it wouldn’t be advisable to cover that vertical space too quickly).

The intense threat of this place often overwhelms its scenic wonders. From the thunderous waves with deadly undertow potential to the frigid mountain summits to the rivers of fire spilling from the three-decade eruption of Kilauea, the Big Island can lull with its stark magic but promises the potential of death behind every winking sunset as well. The islands’ first and most celebrated pasty-white foreign tourist encountered this fatal potential firsthand: British navigator Captain James Cook met a bloody end in the island’s picturesque Kealakekua Bay, his skull stove in by Native Hawaiians in the shallows of what is now one of the world’s finest and most tranquil snorkeling reefs.

True believers in Hawaii’s paradisical serenity may balk at such gauche reminders of a less idyllic past, but bare history rarely sugarcoats. My views of the last two centuries of Hawaiian history were largely formed by Sarah Vowell’s informative and wonderfully readable Unfamiliar Fishes, which I devoured on the long travel day to the islands from the Eastern Seaboard. Mixing travel literature with history, Vowell interweaves her own idiosyncratic treks through the islands to historical sites and museums with an account of the period from Cook’s stopover in 1779 to the archipelago’s annexation to the United States a little over a century later.

What Unfamiliar Fishes makes clear is that Cook’s arrival set in motion both local indigenous changes and larger imperial forces that moved astonishingly quickly to enfold Hawaii into the rapidly-developing modern world and, consequently, into the American Republic. New England Evangelical missionaries followed Cook’s lead in 1820, with Jesus Christ quickly filling the void left by a traditional set of religious practices and social customs that distintegrated swiftly under the stress of the examples of off-island society and destructive irruptions of off-island disease. Kamehameha vowell_unfamiliar_fishes_bookthe Great, a ruthless but astute warrior chief who united the islands under his dynastic authority (a unity achieved through mass slaughter of resistant forces, which sets the streets, parks, and malls named after him across the archipelago in quite a different light), also left a kingdom and a culture susceptible to foreign influence and eventually takeover. A coup masterminded by the missionaries’ sons (also wealthy landowners in the rapidly-developed plantation system that dominated the Hawaiian economy for 3/4s of a century until tourism displaced it) in 1893 removed Kamehameha’s descendant Queen Lili’uokalani, paving the way for a cynically imperial annexation by the U.S. upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Vowell, an outspoken liberal and NPR regular, sees plentiful parallels between the then-contemporary Iraq War’s imperial grasping under Republican President George W. Bush and the Spanish-American War’s imperial grasping under Republican President William McKinley. But she also pulls out illustrative incidents from Hawaiian history that further reflect American social, political and cultural traits and tendencies. American control over Hawaii was and still is justified in terms of the inevitability of westward expansion, manifest destiny stretching into the Pacific. But in this most beautiful of states, Vowell is able to find much that was ugly about how Hawaii became a state in the first place.

Early in Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell recounts visiting one of Hawaii’s iconic banyan trees in a town square. These impressive trees, with their insatiable, rhizomatic root structures, do not resemble single-trunk growths so much as multitudinous wooden vines. They are more like contiguous forests than single trees, and make a strong impression on so many visitors to Hawaii (I first visited the islands when I was 2 years old, and “banyan tree” was one of my first spoken words) that one might believe that they had been growing there for centuries.

But banyans are not native to Hawaii; like so many of the islands’s flora and fauna species, they are invasive, brought from India. Furthermore, their exponential expansion is nearly unstoppable; Vowell’s local guide tells her that gardeners are kept quite busy trimming the snaking roots and branches to keep the town’s tree from toppling most of its buildings. Vowell intelligently presents this image as a metaphor for her own view of Hawaiian history (and, I must admit, now mine as well), but without specific definition. We are left to read it as reflecting the pervasive and ineradicable foreign influence that has made Hawaiian into the diverse culture it is today, as well as the damaging cultural reality of that influence. But as presented, it is also an image of natural forces threatening the structural integrity of civilization. This last impression is inescapable in this mid-ocean land forged by water and fire.

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  1. July 5, 2015 at 12:05 pm
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