When the World Began

It also ended.

Three weeks after my family and I watched the earth being born, my mother-in-law sent me the news article from Hawaii News Now: “Kamokuna ocean cliff collapses,” the headline announced, unapologetically, as if magnificent ocean cliffs crumbled into the sea every day on the Big Island. The dependent clause after it, though, was what startled me: it had cut off the lava hose.

Before I went to the Big Island in January of this year, I didn’t know what a lava hose was, exactly. I knew, of course, what a volcano was, essentially how it worked, and that what we walked on when we walked in Hawaii was hundreds of millions of years of lava, building up, and up, and up from deep in the sea. I’d done science projects on faux volcanoes in elementary school; I’d read the first fifty pages of Michener’s Hawaii three times, stopping always for one reason or another after the islands have finally, fully formed; I’d read in our guidebook how Kona looks like the moon and Hilo looks like a tropical forest. What I didn’t realize, though, was that a lava hose—a rare sight that happens only when cracks in the sea cliffs fully expose a lava tube and it spews forth, as if from a hose, from the cliff into the sea—could be cut off, and thus disappear, so swiftly.

I read the article carefully, pausing on each word I’d come to associate with the dreaminess of a post-Hawaii adventure, with the melodic names rolled up in so many vowels and the eerie moonscape of Kona lingering at the edges of your memory, as if you’ve known them for years. Makalaweia…Makalawena….Punaluu….Milolii… Ironically, the words around the names of places sounded sterile, as if I were reading about a clinical trial done in a laboratory. “A breathtaking display of Madam Pele’s power came to equally spectacular end Thursday afternoon,” the article detailed, its rhetoric never far from a gentle homage to the matriarchal spirit of the islands. It went on to report the clinical details: that a team of experts were assessing an area near the lava entry point when a “massive chunk of the oceanside cliff collapsed,” taking with it the brilliant orange stream of lava that spewed forth from an exposed tube in the jet-black seacliffs.

At the moment, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that bothered me so much. Was it the smattering of Hawaiian goddess and clinical report all in one article, stating both the majesty and unpredictability of our world in one awkward breath? Was it that I felt sad that a piece of our geography had fallen into the sea? Was it that I mourned the violent cutting-off of a rare and spectacular lava tube?

It was none of these things; it was all of these things.

But it was mostly about the cliffs themselves. For one thing, I was one of the very last people on earth to see them.

Back in January, I traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time with my husband, his sister and her husband, their parents, and their grandparents. We’d planned to hike through fields of dried black lava in Kona, go up lush green mountains in Hilo. On the six-hour plane flight from San Diego to Kona, we’d talked about taking a boat trip—if weather and water conditions allowed—to see some lava, but when I imagined what I’d see, I didn’t see much more than a speck or two of orange glowing in the sea. After all, who really gets to see lava creating the world?

My sister-in-law Rachel had found a company who promised to take its passengers on a homemade boat to see the lava “up-close and personal.” Though the website looked like it hadn’t been updated since 1996—a mishmash of pixelated images, centered text, and lots of hyperlinks to broken URLs on a dark grey background—we somehow loved the fact that they must be in business for some reason other than their stellar web design skills. We booked a trip for all eight of us.

When we got to Hilo that Thursday afternoon, an overweight, surly 40-something captain named Shane greeted us. He called roll, sent away two people who’d showed up but accidentally scheduled themselves for the next day, mandated that anyone with health issues immediately leave the tour group, and emphasized that if any of us actually had health issues and didn’t tell him and ended up suing him, he would not be happy. Pointing to his boat (a rickety old thing that looked like a bunch of melted-together tin cans), he shared a couple of nightmare tales of elderly folks pulling out their backs when the boat jumped over some crashing waves and people with epilepsy having seizures because of the rockiness of the open sea. It didn’t deter anyone.

We sailed for about an hour, getting further and further away from the coast until we couldn’t see anything except open sea and the jagged black cliffs of Kailua.

Creeping toward sunset, the clouds were growing thicker and the sun was no longer visible, just a glowing remnant on the horizon. We could see the plumes of smoke come into view, and get bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until we could also hear the crack and sparkle of the rocks jumping up out of the water in sync with small explosions of red heat.

Shane didn’t talk much on the ride (which, as someone who isn’t exactly a huge fan of narrated boat trips, I highly appreciated), but once we sailed into the cove where the lava tube spewed out from the cliffs and the plumes of smoke, I knew he didn’t have to say anything. What was there to possibly say? The steaming water beneath our tin-metal boat boiled around us, and lava leaked out in heaps from vertical cracks in the black sea cliffs. Pieces of the cliff crumbled down the sides, pounded into the sea, and caught on fire. Lava spewed from the hose and glowed in the water, and sometimes, as if on cue, a plume of smoke would break and spit up rocks, embers, and edges of the cliffs.

He parked the boat there for thirty minutes, and we stared, dumbfounded and in awe. We watched nature creating itself. We took pictures, and videos, and selfies with the bright orange lava hose oozing over the side of the cliffs, and we listened to the crackling embers as they burned and boiled in the steaming water around our little boat.

We watched the lava flow, and flow, and flow, ceaselessly and without end.

I thought of all of that as I read the article, and I thought about the whole idea of bearing witness to something so out of this world that it’s nearly impossible to comprehend. The cliffs we saw pulling up to the lava hose were not the same cliffs we saw as we left the lava hose. They weren’t the same cliffs five minutes later, or tomorrow, or next week. Three weeks after that, they wouldn’t even be cliffs as I remembered them at all.

I thought about the implications of this for a few days, wondering how I’d ever make sense of what I’d seen, out there on that ramshackle boat with the salty seaman who called himself Shane and who had made an unbelievable fortune taking people out to see nature do what it does. What did it mean, I wondered, to see a part of the world that no longer is? What did it mean to see the rarest of sights, a fluorescent lava hose, as it spewed forth from cliffs that no longer exist?

I decided that it meant that I’d been one of the last to see something. We don’t always think of that in our lives—what it might mean to be the very last to do or see something. We always ascribe it to tragedy—the last person to speak a language, the last person to see a woolly mammoth—and I couldn’t say that I didn’t feel a certain kinship to those cliffs, all jagged and smoking with rocks tumbling down the side. We’d shared something that I’d never be able to replicate again.

But then, three days after Hawaii News Now published its article on the tragedy that had befallen Kailua, the New York Times published an addendum. Though no one could have ever expected it, the experts had seen it, and the photographers had taken photos of it. It was confirmed.

The lava on the Big Island of Hawaii had returned for an encore, squeaking through the cracks in the sea cliffs once again.

The fire hose was back.

Article and all photographs by Kristin Winet.

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