Under the outdoor canopy, everything is tied down by something. Bungee cords. White plastic zip ties. Rope, wire, rubber bands. The makeshift cables lasso plastic water bottles, folding chairs, covered trash bins, planters of red ti, carved wooden drums and beyond—dozens of pup tents ripping at their seams in the November wind.
At the base of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the Pacific, the only things not tethered are the flags. Wooden poles staked into the gravel-crusted snow fly the colors of Tibet, Palestine, Standing Rock, Guam. The Hawai’ian flag screams its own dissent, flapping upside down.
My friend Napua has invited me to visit the encampment atop a lava field where she has been living for most of 2019. She belongs to a Native Hawai’ian protest movement called Ku Kia’i, Protectors of the Mountain. They are illegally occupying the access road that leads up the mountain, blocking construction of the world’s largest telescope.
I arrive after the hour drive, a sympathizer, though torn between science, mythology and the truths both offer. Mauna Kea’s summit is the most sacred site in Hawai’ian cosmology as well as one of the best places on earth to study stars. I’m not quite sure how to balance native culture over against the quest for knowledge.
Napua and I stand under the canopy where the morning protocol will be observed. The space, which interrupts the access road, has been turned into an outdoor auditorium. Police cars and uniforms line the highway, an electrified fence.
Napua jokes that I can sit with the elders if I’m willing to be arrested. Then she leads me to a woman in a wheelchair, her pewter hair encircled by lehua flowers.
The old woman tells me aloha, reaches for my shoulders and brings her forehead to mine. I am startled, surprised by the intimacy, though I recognize this as a traditional greeting.
For a few moments we breathe together, exchanging what is in us, between us.
The air is cold, but it warms in my nostrils as the tips of our noses touch.
A crowd of shivering spectators has formed a circle. At the center, one of the Ku Kia’i elders invites us to look at the mountain. To learn from the mountain. We tent our hands and peer through the triangle of empty space formed between our thumb and fingers. The mountain is striped copper and silver, dazzling in the thin air sunlight. Some of the thirteen observatories already on Mauna Kea are also visible. Their white domes look like pimples.
“The mountain has plenty water,” the elder shouts to the crowd and laughs, “Lono ionizes the water for free!” Everyone howls and claps. The water she refers to is the aquifer, fragile water reserves buried beneath Mauna Kea. Lono is the God of rainfall. “Don’t let the occupiers tell you they won’t pollute.” She walks barefoot, her face a dried apple, her voice like a cello. “They have desecrated our sacred land with mercury—chemical spills— then say, Nevah Mind.”
A pale-skinned man with red hair removes his parka. He stands with feet set wide apart, bare chested and tattooed. He chants in what I think is Maori, then kneels as he presents a gift wrapped in leaves.
Three young Zuni girls and their mother present corn in mittened hands. The maize is a gift, raised, harvested and ground by their community.
When the drum begins to sound, Napua tells me to take off my shoes. “Our gift will be to dance. Come!”
I’ve lived in Hawai’i for fifteen years and have never danced hula. Didn’t have time, never thought I was coordinated enough. I no longer have an excuse not to try.
I position myself next to Napua in one of the random rows of Kia’i and visitors. Even my friend, the elder with flowers in her hair, has wheeled forward to dance the movements with her arms. This hula is not the hip-swiveling sensuous kind, but more ancient and pounding. A female chanter keeps the beat by slapping an enormous gourd and sings out instructions.
Together, we face the mountain and offer the gift of our bodies in motion. Uplifted, kneeling, leaning back and forth, bending low.
I am breathless by the exertion and move to the side. Above, the mountain’s summit pierces the clouds and reaches for the stars. I wonder, are there places in this world where humans are never meant to go?
BIO: Linda Petrucelli lives on the Big Island of Hawaii. She likes the view from her lanai which she shares with one husband and ten cats. She won first place in the WOW! Women on Writing Fall 2018 Flash Fiction Contest. Her essays have appeared in Memoirist Magazine, Sky Island Journal, Barren and KYSO Flash.
Photo: Joe Parks