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Life on a volcano: Hawaiians face Kilauea eruption with reverence

Why We Wrote This

What happens when people cannot trust the ground beneath their feet? On the Big Island of Hawaii, where lava flows have swallowed neighborhoods, evacuees embrace the dynamism of nature with grace and resilience.

Terray Sylvester/Reuters
Jolon Clinton (l.) and her sister, Halcy, take photos of a fissure near their home on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii May 14. With fissures opening up in residential neighborhoods since May 3, some 2,000 people have been forced to evacuate, and more than two dozen homes have already been destroyed.

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The ongoing eruption of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island has forced roughly 2,000 people to evacuate their homes since May 3. The molten rock spewing from 20 fissures on the side of the shield volcano has already destroyed more than two dozen homes. But many evacuees are not responding with anger. “Who am I going to be mad at, Mother Nature?” says Eddie Chatman, who has been living at an evacuation shelter since lava drove him from his home of 14 years. This is not an attitude unique to Hawaii. People affected by volcanism around the world often find ways to see beyond its initial destruction to the rejuvenation that follows. Once the poisonous gas, smothering ash clouds, and fiery lava subside, new earth has formed. Eventually, seeds and spores begin to take hold, sprouting new life. “What is constant,” says Karen Holmberg, an archaeologist who specializes in volcanism, “is this sense of respect for that double edge of destructiveness and creativity that an active volcano embodies.”

The scene could be described as apocalyptic. Lava and poisonous gas spew out of black gashes in the earth. Molten rock crawls through green lawns, down tree-lined streets, devouring cars, houses, and anything else in its way. The contrast between the raw volcanism and the subdivision it’s invading is unmistakable.

With 20 fissures opening up in residential neighborhoods situated on side of the shield volcano Kilauea on Hawaii's Big Island since May 3, some 2,000 people have been forced to evacuate and more than two dozen houses have already been destroyed. There is also the added threat of an explosive, steam-driven eruption from the summit.

These homes hold residents’ worldly possessions, valuables, keepsakes, and memories of children grown. Despite these losses, the default reaction has not been one of anger. Instead, in a demonstration of resilience, evacuees are responding with acceptance, and even reverence for the power of nature.

“Who am I going to be mad at, Mother Nature?” says Eddie Chatman, a self-employed landscaper who has been living at an evacuation shelter since lava drove him from his home of 14 years in Leilani Estates.

“This is part of the lifestyle for all of us,” says Henry Poe, who volunteered to stand in the driving rain last Thursday directing traffic into one of the aid centers established for the evacuees. Mr. Poe himself evacuated his neighborhood of 28 years. 

Relinquishing control

Volcanic eruptions serve as a reminder of nature’s dynamism and unpredictability, says Judith Schlehe, a sociocultural anthropologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. The natural world isn’t the controllable backdrop to human activities that it might seem.

Around the world, people who live on land which they cannot control – on volcanoes, atop fault lines, or near glaciers – have found a sense of stability and control within.

“People want to make sense of something that is beyond control, beyond understanding, beyond technological measures, and then we find all kinds of explanations,” Dr. Schlehe says.

In Hawaii, that takes the form of Pele: the goddess of fire.

“Pele is the life-force of the volcano,” explains Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor, a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa,  and a historian of Hawaii and the Pacific.

All of the phenomena associated with an eruption – earthquakes, explosive eruptions, slow eruptions, ash clouds, lighting, etc. – are part of Pele’s energy. “It helps us always be aware, be alert, and never take anything about this dynamic volatile force for granted,” she says. “If you choose to live there, you are always living at the grace of this force.”

A sense of respect

Volcanoes also underscore the division between human society and natural forces.

“A volcanic eruption is just a volcanic eruption unless there happens to be people in its way, and then it’s a natural disaster,” says Karen Holmberg, an archaeologist who specializes in volcanism and a visiting scholar at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge.

The destruction at Pompeii in particular influenced thinkers of the 17th and 18th century, Dr. Holmberg says, because the volcanically entombed city was a site along the Grand Tour, a route through different European sites toured by wealthy young men as they came of age. A relationship to nature emerged that endures in Western literature today: that nature is dangerous, and imperils culture, and therefore must be kept separate from humanity.

When a volcano erupts, it is initially a destructive force, spewing poisonous gas, smothering ash clouds, and fiery lava. But it has a rejuvenating side, too. The once-molten rock and ash form new earth. Then rain falls and weathers the volcanic rock. Eventually, seeds and spores begin to take hold on the new ground, and there is recolonization, rebirth.

Although the volcanic allegories around the world vary, many serve to integrate these two halves, showing the way toward humans living in harmony with the rest of the natural world.

“What is constant” in these legends, Holmberg says, “is this sense of respect for that double-edge of destructiveness and creativity that an active volcano embodies.”

In Indonesia, for example, some residents speak of the volcanic Mount Merapi as a friend.

“It gives them wealth and prosperity, whether it’s through mining volcanic ash or whether it’s just because of the richness of the soil,” says Gavin Sullivan, a scholar in the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University in England.

But when the volcano erupts, as happened in Indonesia on May 11, there’s a sense among the communities living around the mountain that they somehow angered the gods.

Finding meaning in destruction

Many of the legends around volcanoes involve some sort of agent behind the natural disruption of an eruption, be it a god, goddess, or some other spiritual entity. Usually that being has human-like characteristics.

With such a familiar actor associated with the eruption, “then we have an entity that we can relate to, and that gives us a kind of symbolic control back,” Schlehe says. “We can give offerings, we can ask for support, or we can find explanations for what happened.”

But it’s not just about finding meaning in one specific overwhelming event. Stories of eruptions, usually imbued with metaphor, are passed on from generation to generation so that knowledge of what happens during an eruption is not lost, Holmberg explains. As a result, eruptions are less foreign and scary for generations that haven’t experienced one themselves.

In Hawaii, for example, “Our ancestors were very keen observers and scientists, and they recorded their observations in chants that honor this volcanic energy, or Pele,” McGregor says. These chants both honor Pele and relay details of past eruptions and the natural grumblings that happen before an eruption that can help people know what’s coming.

“Volcanologists take oral traditions and indigenous stories about volcanoes pretty seriously,” says Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge. “They quite often turn out to have very scientifically relevant and useful information.”

At home on the flow

Not everyone who lives on an active volcano has the same relationship to the land. Some chose to live there for various reasons, others inherited the land from generations that came before, or had little choice in the matter. And those varied connections to the land influence someone’s calculation of the risk they face, Dr. Sullivan says.

Lava may have claimed Del Pranke’s Leilani Estates home of seven years, but he doesn’t plan on leaving the area. “People have asked me if I’m gonna move away,” he said as he sat on an air mattress with his dog at the Pahoa evacuation shelter Hawaii County is running the town’s gymnasium. “That’s ridiculous. I would never think of leaving Puna.”

Besides being seismically hyperactive, this region is one of the least developed in an island chain distinguished as the most isolated land mass on Earth. People don’t stumble on the district of Puna. Regardless if they were “grown or flown” here, residents are hearty. Many forgo the pitfalls of urban life to rely on generators, dirt roads, and captured rainwater for basic needs.

Mr. Pranke is a self-described “Punatic,” a common term that can be seen on bumper stickers in the area to describe someone who loves living in Puna. And he isn’t the only person who plans to return – whether their home still stands or not.

“I plan to stay and live here. I love it here. This is my home. I don’t want to move anywhere else,” said Mr. Chatman, whose family moved to Hawaii Island from California when he was 2 years old. For the past 14 years, he’s resided in Leilani Estates, the larger of the two neighborhoods under emergency evacuation.

This sentiment isn’t exclusive to Hawaii. A study Sullivan and Indonesian colleagues conducted of people living around Mount Sinabung in Sumatra when it erupted in 2010 revealed that the people who remained in their village after the eruption had a higher self-perceived social status than those displaced, despite knowing that they were exposed to more eruptions by staying.

“I want to go back,” Leilani Estates evacuee Cecilia Ascher says. “I’m positive of going back.” She adds that people who choose to live on a volcano “have to be strong and go with the flow.”

Staff writer Eva Botkin-Kowacki contributed reporting from Boston and contributor Jason Armstrong contributed reporting from Pahoa, Hawaii Island.

[Update: This story was updated at 3:30 pm to include the latest fissure to open up on Kilauea. There are now 20 open fissures.]

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