Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Garden of the Gods

I don't believe in god. Or gods. Really, none of them. I don't even really believe in witchcraft or "spirituality" or any woowoo New Age versions of religion, or Higher Power. I do believe in karma, but in a pretty generic way.  I don't think there's some actual balancing being done by a force or forces, rather I think people just generally get what they deserve. It's a law of nature. Now nature, that I believe in.

The word "mana" is, according to wikipedia, "an indigenous Pacific Islander concept of an impersonal force or quality that resides in people, animals, and inanimate objects. In anthropological discourse, mana as a generalized concept is often understood as a precursor to formal religion."

When Hawaiians talk about mana, it is with reverance, and often with more than a hint of the mythical and spiritual. But I prefer to think of mana the wiki way, as a quality, a natural presence that imbues everything, even rocks.

On the island of Lana'i in Hawaii, there is a garden of rocks. It looks likes Mars. In Hawaiian it is known as Keahiakawelo, or Garden of the Gods.

It doesn't sound like much, rocks, but these rocks, they have mana. They have stories inside them of warrior battles and a dry scrabble existence in the arid and windswept landscapes of this small island, and they oversee the rusty hulls of shipwrecks carrying the ghosts of storms and death and loss. As the sun gets lower, the colors change from red to orange to greens and blues, as if remembering, at the end of each day, all that they've stood sentry over.

At the end of the road, past Keahiakawelo, lies Polihua beach, a gorgeous 1.8  mile stretch of gold sand that houses nesting green sea turtles, the occasional monk seal, and not much else. Stunning views of Moloka'i and Maui and their deep, hidden green valleys spread out across the channel.  There is mana in every grain of sand.

Down the coastline a bit more, and down a road fit for only the more rugged of 4wds (or in this case, our rented H2), is Awalua  a pebbly beach without the magazine cover panache of Polihua, but with an eerie, lonely World War II shipwreck just offshore, and even better views of Moloka'i. Because of its remoteness, it doesn't get the press of the larger WWII shipwreck further east on Kaiolohia (aptly nicknamed Shipwreck Beach), but it is almost more picturesque, in its tragic, rusted way.

Lana'i is a deceptive island. It's small and laidback, and with a little town of 3,000 people and a couple of Four Seasons resorts, it doesn't seem like much. But get in a 4WD and start driving down any path that will have you, and you start to realize an 18 x 13 mile island can be a mighty big place.

Kaiolohia is about as well known as any place on Lana'i, but on this day, there was no one there but us. And the ghosts.

Oh, and an endangered Hawaiian monk seal...

And inland, amongst the kiawe tree, lie big red boulders covered with more than mana, a more tangible record of the stories of this magic isle, the Luahiwa petroglyphs.

In stark contrast to the ancient history and myths that imbue the corners of this island, there sits majetically above the crystal clear waters of Hulopo'e Bay, the Four Seasons Manele Bay.

There is an extensive, glorious healthy reef in Hulopo'e which not only makes for spectacular snorkeling, but has resulted in the designation of the area as a marine preserve. This important protection keeps boats from anchoring, and because of the limited tourism and population inherent on Lana'i, this area has been spared the adverse effects of overuse which plague much of the rest of the state. Hulopo'e regularly attracts a large pod of resident spinner dolphins. Unlike on the Big Island of Hawaii, the spinner population on Lana'i had not been adversely affected by human interaction. This in part is due to the excellent job the Four Seasons staff does to discourage people from entering the water near the dolphins, refusing to issue snorkel gear when the pod is present. On this day, as the dolphins had settled in for several hours, we took their advice and entered the bay on the far side, well away from the pod, who we were fortunate to nonetheless encounter when they swam our way. We took our photographs, being careful to never block their egress to open water, and then they and we parted ways. They remained in the bay most of the morning, but mostly away from people in the deeper water.

A short walk up the cliffs leads to panoramic views of the coastline, the bay, and Pu'u Pehe, or Sweetheart Rock.

The legend behind Pu'u Pehe involves a selfish, dimwitted warrior who secretes his (naturally) gorgeous wife in the sea caves to keep her from getting stolen due to her beauty. The maiden befalls an entirely foreseeable, but still tragic, death by drowning. Our warrior, grief-stricken, carries her body to the top of Sweetheart Rock after asking the gods for the strength to do so, entombs here there, then leaps to his death. Telling this story to a 10-year old is a revelation.

Child: Why did he climb the rock? Me: To jump off it Child: Well, that's stupid, we're standing on a higher cliff than that, why didn't he just jump from here? Me: I don't know Child: Well, did they find the body? Me: It's a myth, child, like God. Or Santa Claus. Child: I KNOW MOM, but in the STORY, did they find the body? Me: I don't know Child: Why didn't the girl just swim out of the sea cave before the storm came? Me: I don't know. Child: This is a stupid story.

So anyway, the heiau on top was actually built by ancient Hawaiians, although archaeologists have not found any human bones there. Who knows how they got up there, it seems like a pretty impressive feat when you're looking at it and considering they didn't have fancy rock climbing gear.  Plenty mana here, too.

I left Lana'i this trip after six days. Most people come for a day trip, or a weekend, but I left feeling as if I hadn't begun to do it justice. It's an island for people who like to feel their travel, see it in the red dust on their skin, feel it in their bones after long, hot hikes to secret, special places, and finally soothe themselves in a clear but reckless and unpredictable ocean. It's an island for fisherman and storytellers of all ages, and seekers of meaning in the ancient and everyday. It's a place to learn what mana means.


  1. Beautiful post! Yes, you really captured what Lānaʻi is all about. Can you see why there is such strong opposition to the proposed wind farm? I can't even imagine 150 foot turbines blocking the view from Keahiakawelo to Polihua. It just can't happen.

  2. Hey Shea,

    It was an absolute pleasure meeting you guys, and I'm so happy to see how much you guys enjoyed your time here, and I'm thrilled that I was able to play a little part in that!

    A Hui Ho