Another Volcano Story… Death in a Lava Tube, 1993
Thursday March 11, 1993
Veronica came over last night. She is beautiful… but she wears so much make-up and refuses to do nudes. Clothes and make up, they are like barriers. I think some women feel naked without their make up. Mimi said, “I feel more naked without my makeup than I do without my clothes.” (She put on a look like a wet poodle.) It is almost as if, if a woman does not give up these barriers, I cannot photograph her, because I can’t get to her core, cannot get to her essence. It is the difference between a snapshot and art. Don’t mind me, really. Of course, art can be had from anything. But I am more fascinated by the bare, naked soul, by the nude woman, than by the hidden. Then the exploration begins, not ends.
April 17, 1993
Kona, Hawaii Baggage Claim Area
Not a good flight, nor a good morning. Basically I am depressed because I am tired, On the plane I wasn’t happy. I had to get up at 5am to pack. I read the magazines on the plane to heighten my sense of paranoia about our world. When I read the news, it made me feel ill. For one thing, Los Angeles facing possible riots, another article was about how grandparents allegedly molested their grandchildren, but when I read how the children were interrogated, it made me sick. I got the impression that the suspicious parents actually planted the ideas in their heads. And every page led to one negative or another for me because it was media hype, or advertising hype, or corporate hype. All of it made me sick.
Which is a good starting point for this entry. I am feeling overloaded with the human being, period. They are everywhere, clawing, clutching, stomping, crying, demanding. We are overrunning the earth. On one hand, I want to isolate myself from others. On the other hand, I love to be sociable.
Here is the crux – I want to be in a society of gentle people, of open-minded, good people. For example, American society is chock-full of people with strange ideas about sex. Some are bad – with intent to do harm – others are bad – with intent to do good. I am strongly influenced by the (now deceased) author of Sexual Freedom, who purports sex to be amoral, neither good nor bad. Everywhere I see signs of people who, in my opinion, are misguided into worrying about many, in reality, harmless aspects of sexuality.
The things to worry about are diseases. They pose a real threat. But wouldn’t the world be wonderful if sexual desire was considered like taste in food? If no one batted an eyebrow over who did what and who wanted what? Instead, our media is a tabloid of preoccupation with sexual matters. Many of our perceptions are be learned, rather than in-born. The way I look at it, at the basic level, if people harm no one and do not force anyone, what they do is not my business. When I speak of harm, I speak of physical harm, not some intangible harm which a third party imagines occurs (and attacks “the perpetrator”).
For example, one law, which irritates me, is the statutory rape law. That is because it doesn’t matter if the girl is willing or not. It appears so unnatural to forbid what is so delightful. To me, it is as if things are backwards. Those who are following innocent and harmless urges are at the mercy of busybodies.*5 These moralists are of the same vein as those religious crusaders who led the Inquisition, who slaughtered Central and South American Indians, etc. Irony is too gentle a word. Somehow, the word “immorality” has become connected to sexuality. Somehow “morality” has become associated with denunciation of natural function.
April 17, 1993
Nude Beach, Hawaii
It seems the human world has become perverse. I have to admit that I live in it, and thus tacitly do not disapprove of it strongly. Consequently, I feel ineffectual with regards to my own life. I feel a poor master of my fate. Yet I believe it is not too late to change my life. Even if I enjoyed a few years of “sensible” living, I believe I would feel a great satisfaction. Like a habitually hungry man who just finished a good meal. What do I mean by “sensible?” I can examine this.
For a generality, I would say ‘to live in the here and now’ instead of living for tomorrow or for avoidance of some imagined future calamity. It is easy enough to spend a lifetime living for tomorrow, huddling against a phantom storm that never comes.
For a specific, lying on a beach such as this, naked to the elements and writing and playing. In every way, to avoid the trappings of our society. Our customs remind me of “the Emperor’s New Clothes,” the story in which everyone was afraid to say the obvious (that the “new clothes” didn’t exist and the Emperor was actually naked)!
In the case of our society, there are many “obvious” facts, for which, as a whole, we religiously practice denial. One of which is that nudity is perfectly natural. If anything, it is the natural thing and we should all have the right to be naked in any public place. Two is that sex is perfectly enjoyable and normal and that we should not criticize another for their preference. Older men often like younger women, even, and in many cases especially, those below the legal age. That women like sex and it does not make them good or bad whether they indulge frequently. Some women are called “whores” who “give it up easily.” Etc. These notions are anti-productive, and heaven knows there are too many of them (such notions, that is).
April 18, 1993
Uncle Billy’s restaurant, Hilo 7:47pm
A most interesting day. Awoke 6am, breakfast. Bought food for the road and drove out of Kona at 7:35am. Took coast road (19) by mistake instead of inland road (190) so drove through Waimea and back to saddle road, losing a little time. Drove to the Observatory Visitor Center, where I parked. I got a ride to the trail head.
I started out. It was supposed to take 5 ½ hours. In fact, started at 10:45am. When the trail met the road, I ran – really a slow trot – with my day pack. I arrived at 2:15pm, more or less at summit, 13,796. Took photos of cinder cones and clouds. Didn’t get to look in the observatory. A docent with the Observatory Visitors Center, Don, gave me a ride down (to my car). Below are the things I learned:
I The Observatories
Scientist are trying to get a telescope big enough and good enough to see THE EDGE of the universe, the light of which has been traveling for 15 billion years. Mauna Kea has the largest telescope in the world, made with 36 inter-locking pieces of “meniscus” glass, hexagonal in shape, to form a single mirror 33 feet in diameter. I think he said the Russians tried pouring a single piece of glass 26 feet in diameter but since “glass” is a liquid, it lost its shape. Now, says Don, we give the Russians credit — “they’re doing well in astronomy” — but during the cold war we said, “It’s a piece of shit.” The Japanese are pouring a single piece of glass 27’ feet in diameter, but they will have a pad on which it will rest that will be controlled by computer. “The best way I can describe it is, it’s a bra.”
He said there are eleven telescopes in all on the mountain. None on Moana Loa because it is active – blew in 1987. Why Hawaii as opposed to Mt. Shasta, for e.g.? One, the air rushing over the mountain makes it clean and clear! Two, there is a sort of climatic inversion – see the clouds (they’re like a pancake below the mountain). This mountain has 60-70% clearer nights than similar mountains around the world. Three, lack of ambient light from surrounding cities.
The large American telescope was designed to see THE EDGE, but can’t. The Japanese telescope purportedly will be able to see THE EDGE. I mention my wife is Chinese. [Ed. note: since divorced.] The Chinese were the first astronomers. They were making star charts in 2400 B.C. He attended a docent’s convention in London. Chinese docents from the National Museum told him this.
II The Mountain
He asked if I’d seen the adze quarry. Indeed I had but said no because at first I didn’t realize what I’d seen. When I saw it I’d said I must be nearing the road because it looks like they dumped a pile of rocks there, the gray hard rock standing out against the backdrop of dusty, bleached brown tan and red lava. But as I walked by it, I’d said, “Oh it’s just natural rock.” In retrospect, it appeared chipped and hewn, much as tailings might appear from an “adze quarry.”
We drove down to a radio telescope. It is part of what is called the Very Large Basin Array. It is controlled from New Mexico. (Previous note: the large American scope is having a twin built next to it. In essence, they will operate simultaneously as a sort of monstrous binocular!) When we drove on a newly graded road, he commented, “Those bastards (the Smithsonian, with whom he is affiliated) just built this road. It is over glacial ice-age moraine. The mountain should be left intact. The mountain itself is like a temple.” He described how the Hawaiians had virtually manicured the island over time due to their curiosity, turning over every stone.
He and a Hawaiian man and a Brazilian woman, all getting doctoral and postdoctoral degree at the University of Hawaii were on the mountain one day when they all heard an Ehu, an ancient Hawaiian flute. They weren’t drinking or smoking, but they all heard it. They looked up and saw a cave above a rock ledge. Climbing up the rock they looked inside and saw skeletons sitting up! They were ancient. They did not go farther. The skeletons had been wrapped in ti leaves. In their tradition, the bodies would be brought to a place and then, when they were skeletons, they would be wrapped in Ti leaves as a preservative. The leaves had since decomposed, leaving a yellow tint to the bones. The Hawaiian man said, “It smells like Ti leaves in here.”
“They must have been important personages,” I said.
“Tell me about it,” Don said, emphasizing my point.
They have not announced the discovery. He wants to make certain that the governmental bodies having jurisdiction over the mountain have protection in place as an archaeological reserve, and for mystical reasons.
They all have been changed by the experience. He’s not quite sure if it’s the right thing to bring it out at this time. As a result, he has set about to entirely rewrite his thesis on culturation vs. acculturation. That is culturation, the developing of one’s own culture or adherence to; or acculturation, the absorbance of another culture while dissolving one’s own. At least this is my definition after listening to him speak.
III Culturation vs. Aculturation – Politization
His experience as a Chicano growing up in L.A. Grandmother washed his mouth out with soap when he insisted on speaking English like a Chicano. They sent him to an Irish Catholic school that was founded by sisters who fled the potato famine. Sang Irish songs and thought he was Irish.
His first degree was in psychology, but later returned to school and degreed in Speech Communication. Got a Masters in Public Health. His angle is that the loss of culture has a direct negative health consequence on the indigenous Hawaiians. Some of the 35,000 natives living on Hawaii have been acculturated and have bought into the western mode, but others ask the question, ‘Why can’t I live on the beach? Why do I have to work?’ Interestingly, he says, on the original island, there were no fences. There were walls built and these were built by the order of the Mo’i, the ruling class. When the Europeans put up fences, they said, “What is this? This is preventing me from crossing from here to over there, preventing me from reaching ______ (Hawaiian word).”
He kept emphasizing the native Hawaiian’s fascination with things. He demonstrated this as we walked to his car once back at the observatory Visitors Center. There was a chip of wood on the ground. He stopped, looked down and said, “What’s this?” Picked it up, turned it over, put it in his pocket, proceeded on. “Now he’s got a new friend,” said Don. That is what they were like.
These comments moved me. It seems he believes he can make an argument from a public health standpoint that it is a return to health to return to culture. He stressed that amongst his own culture, people ignored their roots and he would tell them to pay attention to them. His grandmother was Hopi Indian. He has Aztec blood, Mexican blood, German.
I am fascinated by the concept that support could be won through an argument of public health that one’s culture should be allowed to thrive. Back to my previous argument for nudity. (Someone is going to point out the risks of “melanoma.”)
From my own standpoint, what I desire is for the world’s cultures to retain their roots. Since governments are oppressing this and creating a negative process, it could be that the solution is to get government to buy into freedom of every aspect of culture through an argument for health. That means tear down the fences, give back the lands, stop companies from polluting into those lands, revoke legislation over these people, allow self government, and even in light of the obvious reality of revolutionary technological and ideological changes that we are faced with, allow formation of new ideological countries where every person can flock to the ideology of their choice, no matter what that may be. The rules will be set out, so perfect democracy will be revised. Rather than trying to maintain an ongoing democracy that must somehow change with the whim of the masses, have a multitude of cultures to choose from. These units I envision would be much smaller than the governmental entities we currently have. They might be under a world federal government, a federation in the ultimate sense of allowing the autonomy of the world states it oversaw.
I propose that what we have now is simply unmanageable. There are too many diverse interests to live happily under one roof. Why not create much smaller states for the satisfaction of everyone? For example, albeit simplistic, have one state for nudists and one for people who do not like it. And, one division of nudists who don’t smoke, one for people who either smoke or don’t care. One state for people who don’t believe in use of narcotics for recreation and one for people who do or don’t care either way. The concept of “majority rules” should be rethought, or perhaps revoked or revamped. It’s O.K. when you need to decide to have spaghetti or meat loaf for dinner, but if each party is willing to propose what they want to eat, why force on them what the majority wants? Another word for it is “oppression.”
Don said, “Listen to the Wind. The Indians say that when you’re having trouble it is because you are not listening to the wind.”
I rode off the clear mountain into the clouds.
Photos. On the saddle road towards Hilo, upper Waiakea Forest Reserve caught my eye. It was misty, ferns, small trees growing out of a landscape of lava formations. Kept top down whole way to Hilo, even though interior got a bit wet from mist.
Called Joy from Uncle Benny’s Hotel. (Merrie Monarch Festival held here.) She went for breakfast to Bolinas with Jock Sturges and Maya. I checked into hotel, had a mediocre meal while listening to a horrible band of two Hawaiian guys and a drum machine. After dinner, even though tired, I considered a choice between going upstairs to bed and writing or venturing forth to find a beach to sleep on. I couldn’t stand the thought of ending a fabulous day without trying the latter. So I drove down to Kapalana Black Sand Beach and east on the coast looking for a way down to the beach without a flashlight. Turned in several locations before backtracking to a trash can with a path, after getting confirmation from a runner that it was possible to get down that way and bumming some matches off a fisherman. At first I thought I had the beach to myself, but saw the dim light of a fire on the way down.
Didn’t sleep well but still enjoyed the experience. I slept completely naked for a while but eventually got a wee bit chilled. While naked I slumbered envisioning how it might have been as a native to be free from unnecessary appurtenances, and fearing for a storm or worse yet a tidal wave or a lava flow. There was something wonderful about trying this. The temperature was perfect, no sand flies to irritate.
I imagined for all I knew I could wake up and see cannibals’ skulls on sticks all over the beach. It drizzled a bit in the night. I considered leaving but ended up staying as the precipitation didn’t last long and was light. When it started, I discovered two other inhabitants looking after their tent and plastic over-tarp, respectively.
In the morning, before 6am, I woke. Definitely a black sand beach. I took a morning dip in the ocean. A group of women, almost all quite fat came down in their wrap-arounds and took them off and frolicked in the waves naked for sometime. There have been a succession of nude bathers coming and leaving since then, but no unclothed beautiful women. The women here are unshapely. It is still lovely to have them happily sunning themselves. (Now 9:37am)
Night of April 19, 1993
Death in the Lava Beds
As I neared the coastline on foot, I could see the black silhouette of a man back-dropped by the eerie red reflection of molten lava in steamy clouds that trailed into the black night. The molten earth was pouring into the ocean within feet from where he stood. I registered surprise. I had not thought the Park Service here at Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii allowed the public to get so close. I soon neared a sign hanging on a cord behind which people stood, reading “No public access beyond this point due to emergency conditions.” Then I realized the man I’d seen had gone beyond the warning sign.
I turned to a man to my left, “Did you see that guy out there?”
“I’ll be going out in a minute, if you want to come.”
“O.K.” Little did he or I know that he had less than an hour to live.
“What is your name?” he inquired of me.
“Mine is Nagar,” he said. In a moment we were heading out on the black but hard semi-cooled lava, his friend Ken between us.
“Did you bring the Ti leaves?”
“We have to go to a place where it is hot enough for them to burn.” Nagar’s confidence and apparent command of the situation bolstered me out onto the deck of treacherous earth.
Ken said, “It’s hot.”
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” replied Nagar enthusiastically, seeming to enjoy his upper-classmanship. “Let’s come over here first.”
“Are you sure it’s OK?” I stepped gingerly.
“No problem. Now see here where the red shows through the cracks, this is OK too. It’s hotter though. That’s about six inches under the surface. It is still cooling.”
Once out in the vicinity of the first river of molten lava, they laid some large leaves onto a cooled flat pool, but they weren’t tea leaves as I know them. [Ed. As I understand it, the Ti, not tea, leaf was used for offerings.] I followed out to a vantage where the lava was like a streamlet, bright orange-red, fantastic, pouring onto the sand. The tide surged and there was a blast of steam obscuring our view. When it cleared again, Nagar shot more photographs. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.
“Let’s try up there, ” Nagar chortled in obvious and unmitigated delight. They moved away and I stood where he’d stood and photographed the rivulet in awe. I came up behind them, becoming more confident to step. An even better view of the phenomenon was offered from their new location. Ken complained of the heat. “We’ll leave in just a few minutes. Walking will cool your shoes.” I stepped around Ken and set up my tripod on Nagar’s flank. “Let’s go over there. It is really beautiful.”
He called back to me. “Do you want us to wait for you, Jeff?”
“No” I replied, grateful for his thoughtfulness. “I’ll be alright.”
They trailed off above and away on the thick lava shelf. I was left to only the sounds of the ocean waves and the hissing of the steam rising out of the cauldron of magma and seawater. Caught up in the insanity, I became unafraid and contemplated how little real objective danger there was. Boy, was I wrong. After several shots, realizing that these fantastic images might not, by themselves, serve for art, I thought how startling it would look to have a female nude silhouetted against the hellfire from the guts of the earth.
Realizing that it made no difference if I had clothing on or not in terms of my safety and that I could never get someone to pose for me out there, I stripped and filled a roll of silhouettes of myself using time exposures, feeling silly mostly because I found myself worried about what they might think if they noticed me. After all, the sheer power of the scene engulfed and destroyed any petty human vanities.
I saw their lights way far away, perhaps a football field’s distance across treacherous folds, twisted, aching pandemonium. I cautiously began. Ha! Little could I realize how vast was my foolishness, how fragile was this covering over the river of rock! Nagar flashed his flashlight rapidly to me. I didn’t know if that meant I was coming the right way or the wrong way. Tick, tock. When I arrived to them, Nagar was scurrying down to a little “beach” where a molten lava finger pushed its way from the east. The tide surged occasionally into a rift between this finger and another block of magma on the west. Incredibly beautiful, awesome, photogenic, the magma cooled into black rifts in the red liquid, creating a banded, changing molten mass of artistic parabolas, moving, cooling and being supplanted by another new fire-stream of red over it or to its side.
“This is the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen a lot but I’ve never seen anything as dynamic as this.” These words only fell like emptiness, vaporizing rather than echoing off of this machine of beauty and death, intent on its purpose, an envoy from “Mama” (i.e, Pele, the goddess of the Volcano)!
The scene was at one and the same time ludicrous and profound. Nagar was daring to the point of sheer lunacy. He would set his tripod up and then a wave would surge through the rift in the lava and wash boiling water and molten fire onto the very spot where he had been standing, while he darted to the “safety” of higher ground, just feet away. He was the circus stunt man and the clown, the hero and the fool, the ace and the joker, all in one. Time and again, when I yelled out that a wave was coming, he would say, “I see it,” then thank me for the warning. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said. It seemed at times the surf might pour directly over the finger of lava.
A congenial man wearing a cap and a sweatshirt that read “Cancun” came wandering down the hillside of black rock. He said he was from Millbrae, the town I grew up in, south of San Francisco. We exchanged exclamatory statements of surprise after finding out we’d grown up in the same small town thousands of miles away. He had left his girlfriend back at the (“safety”) cones and explained, “She’s one unhappy girl.”
“She’ll be alright as long as you come back safely.”
Nagar enlisted Ken’s help. “Can you take a picture of me?” He would run up to a drip of lava several feet wide, hold his arms out towards Ken (as in “here I am!”), then run back. “That’s too hot. I could only stay there for a moment.”
He tried it again. Time moved on. Every new flow would renew his seemingly total enthusiasm. He downplayed every warning. He touted the upside of every question about danger. It was as if we were children in a sand box!
Above us, a stream of magma broke out afresh. Ken and I and the man from Millbrae went to see it. It was curious. Although not moving fast enough to present any danger of being overrun by it, it was disconcerting, popping out of the top of the black like that. Nagar joined us. He got right up to the flow to photograph it, so close that when I tried to join him I couldn’t tolerate the heat. Heat waves of air titillated, making it difficult to focus the camera when standing downwind of it.
Nagar made a game of which of two flows of lava could reach the ledge to the beach first. When a new stream broke out on the finger on the beach, this drew Nagar’s attention down there again. I commented to Ken, “I wonder what it would feel like to have it suddenly surround us on all sides.” Ken’s imagination and fear overtook him. We both thought we heard the earth crackling not twenty feet from the new top flow.
“Nagar,” Ken said. “This doesn’t look too good. I am afraid it is surrounding us.”
Nagar replied, “No, we’re alright.”
The man from Millbrae with the Cancun Sweatshirt had gone back. After a short time, Nagar said, “OK, now we’ll go back.” I committed myself to staying right behind them. This particular section of the flow gave me the creeps. The ocean surged, the steam hissed. Time stood still.
Nagar stopped to set up his tripod again. I went past him and, almost unconsciously, my feet kept me moving towards the (“safety” of the) cones. I looked back.
Nagar yelled to Ken. A red cloud rose up behind him. It was sinister, unreal, unkind. Nagar was on higher ground, about eighty feet from me; Ken was about half way between us, to my right. “Hey, this is incredible!” Almost as if sensing Ken’s obedience, Nagar said, “Hey Ken, you’ve got to get back up here. The whole ledge broke away! It’s incredible.”
Time came to a halt. I was looking at them, Ken partially silhouetted to the right. Nagar, the Pied Piper unwittingly turned demon, beckoning Ken to his death. I watched as Ken took just a step towards him. I was about to go over a little mound of dry lava. A flash of molten lava gurgled above the horizon of the black hill Nagar stood on, sparks flying, massive, perhaps twenty feet across, accompanied by a cracking sound, as if something bubbling had broken a crust.
I heard Ken calling in desperation for his friend. “Nagar!” Despite how well-meaning Ken’s call and momentary lack of concern for his own life were, it was foolishness. There was nothing he could do to help Nagar. As quickly as a thought could enter my mind and leave it again, I felt my survival on the line and decided I would run for my own life. I turned and ran with all my might, helter-skelter over the mound and headlong into darkness.
A massive explosion, ka-boom, confirmed my worst and instantaneous fears. I ran bodily into a depression in the lava, almost without thinking, though not having seen the spire of rock and lava, knowing it’s terribleness instinctively. ‘Lavic’ shrapnel larger than a softball struck me in the bottom of my neck just off the side of the center of my spine and forced me to the ground, as a rain of rocks, some superheated, fell all around me, smattering like hail on a windowpane. I thought and felt, “I’m dead.” And I felt a sinking feeling; a kind of shame and regret that I could expire this way, having lost my bout with chance after all, through my own hand. All this passed through me in a quick instant.
I had intuitively expected a series of rock showers and felt remorse at the thought of being pummeled, burned, buried to death, a victim helpless against nature’s rage.
My camera and tripod had fallen out of one hand, and my flashlight out of the other. I instantly made a decision not to try to find them and ran like a wild beast amongst the dark jagged lava rock, twisting my ankles, stumbling, lacerating my skin. Scattered bushes all around me were on fire.
Soon, I entered a confusion of flashlights. I just keep yelling, “Which way to the road?” over and again. The more level-headed pointed the way. In the dim light, I noticed that one eye was not seeing as well as the other, but I assessed it was only temporary and told myself not to worry.
“Which way to the cars? Is this the way to the cars?” The voice with the flashlight said it was. I was determined to distance myself from this place, afraid it was going to get worse. I reached the cars. There was blood on the back of my neck. I drove until I was miles from the scene.
I knew Nagar could not have survived the blast.
I was up half the night driving back and forth to the site, each time frightened beyond reason. I was happy to learn that, rather surprisingly, Ken escaped with only minor injuries. I was told boulders larger than a basketball landed almost to the road. The news said rocks were thrown a quarter of a mile. Some people who were injured told me that they were 400-500 yards away. Fortunately, there were few people there. I was told that if it had occurred during the busiest of times, when it was packed, hundreds would have died. The rangers and the Coast Guard scoured three miles of the coast looking for Nagar’s missing body.
Today my ankle is sprained in one leg and my calf muscle pulled in the other, and they are tightening up so that after sitting for a while, I almost cannot walk. My shoulder is sore and my back tightening. I had to remove particles of lava from my hands, arms and legs. I have scratches all over my lower legs and hands and on my arms and my back. I am incredibly lucky (and glad) to be alive.
Nagar’s body is still missing.
Postscript… Nagar was pronounced dead. The Park Officials found my camera and returned it to me. Ken told me that the last thing that he saw was Nagar on one leg with his tripod in one hand, falling into the lava tube, yelling, “Oh Shiiiiii….”