Madam Pele’s Handiwork
Some days ago I marveled at the photos of the goddess Pele’s display of power in the caldera of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The park guide tells visitors about how Pele traveled many leagues from the northern-most islands guided by her favorite brother Kamohoali‘i who was also a guardian shark. Having traveled for many miles from Kahiki in search of a suitable home for her fire and family, Pele finally settled in the crater of Halema‘uma‘u at the summit of Kilauea Volcano.
The guide tells us that Pele personifies fire and volcanism in all its forms and the landscape is her handiwork. The poetic name for her is Ka wahine ‘ai honua, the woman who devours the earth. But as she devours some part of the island of Hawai’i, she builds on others as she sends streams of molten lava flowing down the slopes of the Big Island, destroying everything in its path. The land trembles and the sky is afire with a crimson glow as her molten body moves across the land. Those present whisper in awe, “‘Ae, ‘aia la o Pele, There is Pele”.
Kilauea is much smaller than Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, that all together make up the Big Island – the Island of Hawai’i. Mauna Loa stands 56,000 feet above the sea floor and 13,677 feet above sea level, and is the Earth’s most massive mountain. It’s the site of a weather observatory and often snow-capped, quite a sight from tropical Hilo. In 2022 an eruption caused lava to flow toward the main highway between Hilo and Kona (and the main airport), stopping about a mile from the road.
Kilauea is almost constantly active, and lucky for us, easily accessible, only a 40-minute drive from Hilo, our favorite Hawaiian destination. On our last visit the weather was gorgeous with blue, blue sky as we ascended to near four thousand feet from sea level. Hilo was soon left behind in favor of small farms before the entrance to the park.
A short walk from the visitors’ center and we came to the edge of the giant caldera some two and a half miles wide two miles long below us. I was overcome with awe at the spectacle – a sea of hardened black lava around the edges of a cliff and the floor of the caldera with a center of occasionally fiery bubbling burping liquid lava toward one side.
The fire goddess was resting so there were no gushers or geysers but it was still terrifying. A lone bird (an omen from Pele?) winged over the immense barren circle, easily described as the mouth of Hell. I was struck with wonder at the power of nature, the power to build and destroy, the power to produce Hawai’i.
The park has many hiking trails but we were interested in driving the Chain of Craters Road leading from the Visitor’s Center back down to the sea near the Holei Sea Arch where the road now ends. It was truncated by lava flows from 2004 to 2010 so that it is no longer possible to drive to towns and beaches beyond in a loop leading back to Hilo. At the start of the road we entered a jungle with trees including palms overhanging the roadway and giant ferns spreading over the ground – a tropical tunnel.
There are about fifteen small craters near the roadway, some steaming, others long ago quiet, some barren and others filled with vegetation.
The vegetation disappeared as we descended and became a wasteland of sharp lava, with only the most determined small tree like the red-flowered Ohi’a lehua bravely sticking up from a fissure where dust had blown in or the lava has disintegrated enough to sustain life.
At the end of the 19-mile road we reached the edge of the sea. A short walk through a boulder-strewn area led us to a cliff-top overlook to view the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. Surf crashed into the arch far below.
The boulders were made of a ropy lava where the heave and flow of liquid rock left waves, cracks, and what looked like thumb prints perhaps of Pele.
But here again plant life fought back. I marveled at the ferns that have taken root in crannies and cracks.
I hoped Madame Pele approved of the natural leis hung on the rocks.
All photographs except video from USGS are copyright Judith Works