Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sacred Ground

Several times during my stay on the Big Island, people called the island or specific places on it "sacred". There aren't many places in the world where people discuss the spirituality of the land, but the Big Island is one of them, which made for a very thought-provoking, unique vacation.

The first person I heard use the word "sacred" to describe Hawaii was J.R., my guide to one of the most sacred places on the Big Island, the 13,796 foot summit of Mauna Kea, one of the largest mountains on earth (and even taller than Mount Everest, if you count the portion that is underwater). To ancient Hawaiians, Mauna Kea was where the gods lived.

J.R. was driving our van along saddle road, which sits high in the "saddle" between two of the largest volcanoes that form the Big Island: Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Here's a photo of J.R. in the driver's seat, above the clouds:

Because saddle road runs right through Parker Ranch, one of the oldest and largest ranches in the United States, J.R. was telling us the story of its founder: John Parker. In 1809, as a 19-year-old New England sailor, Parker thought life on the island looked better than life on the ship, so he jumped ship, hoping to establish a home on the island. That was a bit of a problem, however. Because the Hawaiians considered the entire Big Island to be sacred, they had a law (or kapu) that forbade any non-polynesian people from living there.

Fortunately for John Parker, he had a skill that King Kamehameha I needed, and so he was allowed to stay. His skill? Cattle ranching. About 30 years before, Captain George Vancouver had given a gift of cattle to King Kamehameha, who created a kapu (or law) against killing them. By the time Parker arrived, the cattle were roaming at will and had turned into a dangerous nuisance. Parker introduced cattle ranching to the Hawaiians (yes, Hawaii had cowboys, or paniolos, before Texas did!), married a high-ranking Hawaiian, and eventually built a 330,000 acre ranch.

Speaking of cattle being a nuisance: they're occasionally still a problem today, as evidenced by this sign at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station:

I was standing by this sign when I met the second person who called this a sacred place. To avoid altitude sickness, you are advised to spend at least 30 minutes at the visitors center, located at the 9300 foot level on Mauna Kea, to give your body time to acclimate to the thin air at that altitude, and so we ate our dinner there.

Also on a dinner break was one of the employees of the visitor center, who noticed my interest in both the Invisible Cows sign and a sign on the microwave, explaining that you must cut your cooking times in half, because water boils so very quickly at that elevation. As we chatted, he mentioned he had worked there for a number of years. I commented that he must enjoy his job, and he said, in a reverent tone. "Yes, I do. This is a sacred place."

After acclimating, we continued on our bumpy, engine-whining journey to the summit. Along the way, J.R. pointed out evidence that glaciers had once been there and mentioned that at one point, the earth's crust broke and hot lava flowed out beneath a heavy glacier. The weight and cold of the glacier caused the lava to harden quickly, resulting in the creation of a very unique volcanic rock--one harder and less porous than typical volcanic rock. Mauna Kea is the only place in the world where this type of rock was created, and yet researchers continue to find fragments of this rock throughout the Pacific islands. Ancient islanders considered Mauna Kea to be so sacred, that they made pilgrimages there, and even went to the effort of hauling some of that special rock, excellent material for their tools, in their vessels as they traveled back across the ocean to their home islands.

Here's a photo of some of that especially hard volcanic rock, with the Cal Tech sub-millimeter Telescope in the background:

I was interested to learn that the Cal Tech telescope will soon be torn down, to make room for another telescope. Mauna Kea is one of the best places on earth to study the cosmos, because the air is clear and there's very little light pollution on that rural island in the middle of the Pacific.

Despite the fact that this is an ideal spot to study the heavens, people also respect the fact that it is incredibly sacred to the Hawaiians, and so the number of telescopes that can be built there is limited. I believe there are 11 telescopes there now, sponsored by various governments and universities. If they want to build a new one, they must remove an old one, which is why the Cal Tech one will be dismantled soon.

Not far from the Cal Tech telescope is Lake Wai'au, which is one of the highest lakes in the world, at 13,020 feet. The ancient Hawaiians considered this lake to be the very sacred navel of the earth. When their children were born, some Hawaiians would make a pilgrimage to this lake, to cast in the umbilical cord of the child, creating a strong connection between the child and mother earth.

Here's a photo of the sacred Mauna Kea Summit itself. You can see that it has a small heiau (or temple) at the top of it. Unfortunately, J.R. explained, about a month earlier, a tourist wanted to get a photo of himself on the temple and so he climbed up it, causing much of it to fall.

I'll write more about the experience of going to the top of Mauna Kea in another post. Here, I'd like to tell you about visiting another sacred place in Hawaii, the Puako Petroglyphs, which are among the dry, barren lava fields on the northern Kohala coast.

The entrance to the hike that leads to the petroglyph fields has some stone carvings that mimic the ones left by ancient Hawaiians there:

"There were many places where our ancestors could have placed petroglyphs" Danny Akaka, Jr. told me, "but there was a special spirituality about Puako that motivated them to journey across the barren land to create their petroglyphs here."

Here's a photo showing the large Puako Petroglyph field where over 3000 images are carved into stone:

Danny also told me that as an alternative to casting your infant's umbilical cord into the lake at the top of Mauna Kea, people would also place umbilical cords inside a petroglyph carving. He also mentioned that people would sometimes save an infant's afterbirth, and plant it along with a tree, in hopes that the child would live long and grow tall like the tree. "People have a strong connection to the land", he told me. "That is why it is so important to preserve and protect these special places, and to be careful where we build so as to not disturb them." He also mentioned that people can desecrate the land, doing things that detract from the spirit that is there, when they don't understand the meaning and significance of what transpired there.

My journey to see the 3,000+ petroglyphs at the Puaku petroglyph field was a unique experience, as it involved hiking through a unique forest landscape, reminding me of the forest in the movie "Nightmare before Christmas".
I hiked it alone, in the early morning, in order to have the best light for viewing the rock carvings. The wind caused the trees to creak, which sounded like the complaining old wooden floorboards make when stepped on in historic homes. I noticed the tracks of birds along the trail, and heard the calls of birds in the distance.

Here's a little video I took of a cardinal singing in the trees near the Puako Petroglyphs:

Another unique thing about visiting the Petroglyphs was that when I returned to my car, it was surrounded by cats!

Another place considered sacred to the Hawaiians is the Waipi'o Valley, a Garden of Eden where many of Hawaii's kings lived, and which hosted temples also. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to explore it, but will hope to do so on a future trip. Here's a photo of it:

I visited several ancient heiaus (temples) scattered around the islands, where I felt a unique spirit, and which I'll write more about in a later post. I'll also write more about visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where it's possible to view the ongoing creation of the earth, as lava touches the sea to make new land...another reason the Big Island of Hawaii is considered sacred.

I'll end by showing a few photos the modern day LDS temple in Kona, where I also felt the sense of being on sacred ground.

1 comment:

Laurie said...

I love hearing about your adventures. Thank you for taking the time and effort to post them for me to enjoy!