Glimpses of Culture Through a Lava Flow: Bomb the Crater or Clean Your House?


Kalapana lava flow (photo by Kurumi Sullivan)

A contrived reality show couldn’t be more compelling. Survivor’s got nothing on this. If I made documentaries or movies or even cheesy reality shows, I’d be camped out in Pahoa right now.

Since yesterday our friendly neighborhood lava flow has advanced a paltry 50 yards, the continuation of a gradual slowdown that’s been happening over the past several days. Just days before that the flow had advanced a whopping 150 yards in a single day, and right before that it had stalled for almost a week. There’s no rhyme or reason to this flow.

And the longer I observe the flow the more I’m convinced it has a mind of its own, although I might just be losing my mind. This flow has given me a serious case of lava fever: it’s the ultimate mystery story because no one has a clue–not even our smartest scientists–how it’s going to end.

What I’ve learned in the past month about this particular flow (besides its unpredictability) is that it not only burns a swath of land in its downhill path, it also creates compelling human stories. Throw into the mix two distant cultures dealing with it in completely different ways, and the intensity level goes off the charts.

That’s what happened at a recent County-sponsored informational meeting on our lava flow conditions here in Puna. It was surely not intended, but the meeting ended up showcasing some mesmerizing cross-cultural exchanges. Thankfully Big Island Video News was there to capture the highlights.

Whatever your personal beliefs, life doesn’t get more real and compelling than this. And if cultural anthropology happens to be your thing—even if it’s not—prepare to be enthralled.

The embedded clip at the end shows a segment of the town meeting that followed the County’s presentation on the lava update, during which time those in attendance were invited to ask questions of the Civil Defense Director and Geologist from Hawaii Volcano Observatory. I can only speak to the footage on the linked clip since I wasn’t at the gathering in person. My guess is that some folks actually did ask questions during the meeting.

But not so for the folks in the clip. Well, technically they asked questions. But the questions were just thinly veiled attempts to give advice: Could we use D9s to divert the lava flow away from town!?

And the Hawaiian speakers on the clip were less concerned with asking questions, and more concerned with refuting the notion of messing with the volcano in any way, shape or form.

Keep in mind that the Civil Defense Director has stated publicly numerous times that no attempt will be made at diverting the flow. The stated reason for the county’s stance is the danger of unintended consequences: any attempt at diversion could conceivably create more damage to residential properties that are not currently in the projected flow path.  (And just imagine the liability issues!) The Director also mentioned, as he should have, the cultural sensitivities at play with Native Hawaiian religious beliefs.

As you’ll see, based on comments made subsequent to the Director’s remarks, the County’s stance against any kind of lava diversion apparently didn’t sink in with everyone, as the Director had to repeat it more than once during the question-and-answer period. (I think you’ll agree that he handled it with grace and impressive restraint.)

Bomb the Crater or Change Your Bedding?

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”—Genesis 1:26

As I type this a molten lava flow creepeth upon the earth just five miles uphill from my neighborhood. And as far as I can tell, no man has dominion over it.

What’s so fascinating about this slow-motion disaster, is how differently folks are dealing with it. And it’s a testament to the power of culture in driving not only our respective behaviors, but in predisposing how we choose to view events like these.

So it didn’t at all surprise me that someone from my cultural tribe would suggest diverting the lava flow—or even bombing the crater as the third speaker suggested. As a guy who stands to lose a lot should the lava keep coming, I completely get the rationale. Why would thinking people passively stand by and watch their houses and businesses go up in flames?

In contrast, some of the Hawaiian responses (certainly on the video and in local online forums) are completely counterintuitive to my culture’s way of thinking. The last Hawaiian to speak in the clip, Pi’ilani Ka’awaloa, did in fact make it a point to invite “tutu Pele” to come to her house!

As a product of the West, it’s a big cultural stretch to understand exactly where Pi’ilani is coming from. But as fate would have it, there’s a story behind the story to help us understand.

With lava in the news, a local TV news station recently ran a special segment in their newscast on Pi’ilani. The gist of the piece is that on three different occasions lava flowed up to her family’s home and stopped. Pi’ilani explains what her mother told her when lava reached their driveway:

Mother: “What do you do when an important guest comes?”

Pi’ilani: “You clean the house, mow the yard, change the bedding.”

Mother: “We are getting ready for a very important guest…And if the guest wants to stay at the house, the house is there. And if she doesn’t want to, then she can leave. But at least we made an offer.”

Putting literal interpretations aside, truth and humanity are clearly behind the symbolism. Woven into Pi’ilani’s mother’s words and actions is a resignation that the flow is going to do what it’s going to do no matter how she might feel about it. From that assumption she chooses to transform a devastating event, completely out of her control, into a positive experience within her control, by welcoming the encroaching lava as “an important guest,” rather than casting it as an antagonist.

(On a personal note, I’m learning firsthand that there’s an added psychological benefit to staying in a routine. Mowing your lawn, cleaning your house, changing your bedsheets and other mundane tasks have a way of keeping folks grounded and focused during times of stress and uncertainty. I’m still sane so it must be working.)

And this brings us to the essence of the gap: does your culture predispose you to repel lava flows with bombs and D9s? Or welcome the lava as an important guest? And why such starkly different responses to the same phenomenon?

Here are some of the key cultural drivers at play:

-My culture has traditionally put man above nature, and with that position comes license to control and manipulate it as he chooses. Hawaiian culture on the other hand, sees nature as a manifestation of divinity, and man as subordinate to nature’s whims, especially to those of the volcano.

-My culture separates God from nature. As an offshoot of a desert religion, the traditional Judeo-Christian view casts nature as a foe (albeit an unconscious foe), an antagonist to be feared, battled, fled from, and overcome. This metaphor of nature as foe is so deeply ingrained in the Western mindset, that bombing a volcano doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea. Traditional Hawaiian culture in contrast is shamanistic; it animates nature with spirits, and believes nature to be alive and conscious. The notion of bombing the crater is blasphemous.

-My culture believes that man can “own” land; Hawaiians believe that they are “children of the land.” This explains why the Western mindset laments the prospect of losing land to the lava flow, while Hawaiians believe it was never our land to begin with, and that we should all just be thankful to Tutu Pele for allowing us to live here as long as we did.

At the risk of stating the obvious, these are some incredibly wide gaps to fill. Some are too wide to even try. The trick is figuring out which cross-cultural connections are possible, which are not, and setting realistic priorities accordingly.

Where Does the Twain Meet?

Cross-cultural cooperation is the art of the possible.

It’s possible to not focus on issues beyond your control (like trying to change the beliefs of others).

It’s possible to respect others’ rights to believe what they want without accepting those beliefs yourself.

It’s possible to focus on common ground and cooperation for achieving mutual benefit.

All these are conscious choices that must be made by all parties involved for any kind of cross-cultural cooperation to happen.

Even as someone who is not a follower of Hawaiian spirituality, the Hawaiian justification against diverting the flow based on religious grounds is a non-issue with me, as it should be with everyone else.

I choose to be respectful and focus on points of agreement, in my case, that we should not mess with the flow for any reason. Admittedly my reasoning comes from a different place: I’m convinced that we do not possess the knowhow to do this, as our County still struggles just to design safe traffic intersections. It’s tough to envision these same folks diverting the flow without causing disastrous unintended consequences. There is much debate about whether anyone has ever successfully diverted a lava flow. I’m obviously on the non-believer side of the issue.

So I’m in lockstep agreement with the Hawaiians on leaving the flow alone, and I can’t think of a single reason to initiate a religious debate. It’s not my place to challenge others’ beliefs anyway.

And while I personally believe tolerance is all about showing respect for my neighbors whatever their religious beliefs may be, some folks from my culture struggle mightily to get past their disagreement with indigenous Hawaiian beliefs. The heated exchanges on local forums can be brutal.

But even for non-believers, there are a couple practical reasons to avoid a religious debate: it will not change the Hawaiians’ beliefs, nor will it change the County’s stance. So why bother? It will only serve to alienate people within the community during a time that we need to be sticking together. There are many more productive places we can focus our energies.

Differences aside, I think the County has struck a wonderful chord with the community by making their lava-update meetings an educational event. It is slowly turning all of us–Pele believers and non-believers alike–into amateur geologists.

The community might be scared and divided on some issues, but everyone I’ve come in contact with is engaged and interested in learning about the science behind the volcano. After attending three such meetings in person, these educational sessions with the geologists seem to have had a positive, almost therapeutic effect on the community. It also keeps the focus on something that can truly connect us: shared knowledge.

But Pi’ilani’s appeal at the end of the clip really drives home the reality: we need to put aside our differences and start helping each other if we hope to survive and get past this lava flow as a community. Can’t think of a better reason to link arms and work together.

There’s a whole other discussion on the role of myths in our respective cultures, a subject we’ll handle in a future post. In the meantime, some food for thought from the late and great anthropologist Joseph Campbell:

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014


14 responses to “Glimpses of Culture Through a Lava Flow: Bomb the Crater or Clean Your House?

  1. Aloha Tim! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. So enjoy reading and thinking about your observations. Am wondering if the differences might be more between those who live close to nature and those who are no longer living close to nature as opposed to Hawaiian, or Japanese or American cultures? Urban versus Rural?

    • When discussing culture it’s a given that there are no clear/definitive lines of demarcation, and things can be sliced in lots of different ways. Urban versus rural is a very valid distinction. However we slice it, the reality is we’re stuck dealing with tendencies (as opposed to absolutes), and lots of blurry lines.

      That said, I agree that living close to nature is what it’s all about. Rice cultures and kalo cultures historically have had a very intimate relationship with nature, and from that evolved shamanistic practices and corresponding values that fed into social norms. (Interestingly ALL rice cultures have shamanistic traditions; and equally interesting is that kalo cultivation is very similar to wet-rice farming. Coincidence?) Those ancient traditions have left legacies that linger, albeit in diluted form, even with urban descendants who have never muddied their feet in a kalo patch or rice paddy.

      So the impact of history and tradition on culture can’t be dismissed. Without a doubt Hawaiians who grew up in Honolulu will be less connected to nature than our kupunas here in Puna. Some might even support lava flow diversion. But they’ll still have traces of Hawaiian beliefs (even if it’s diluted) woven into the deepest parts of their personalities. (My guess is they’d embrace a more positive metaphor for nature than their average Western counterpart.) Similarly, farmers in the U.S. will be more connected to nature than a Chicago city slicker like myself. But if that farmer is from a Judeo-Christian-European background, that attitude toward nature as antagonist would be mighty tough to shake, as it would be constantly reinforced through his education, religion, social norms, and cultural mythology. That said, exceptions exist in any culture, so anything is possible.

      For more on the impact of myth on culture, check out Joseph Campbell on youtube. Some fascinating interviews are available online for free.

      Thanks for taking time to read and comment.

      • Mahalo for this valuable input, although I desire to project my opinion that the Midwestern farmer of today is FAR from truly connected with true nature (‘s cycles) than a typical true Hawaiian practitioner of traditional agriculture.
        These days a Midwestern farmer has a large scale factory farm that is totally dependent on big petroleum guzzling machines, genetically ‘modified'(an euphemism) seeds, major amounts of chemicals, and they are destroying our futures heritage( Rich topsoil!!!).
        Incomplete, but end of rant!

        Mahalo for ‘listening’.

  2. Thank you for writing this! So great to get some more depth/nuance. Am passing it on!!!

  3. Pingback: Clean House and Change the Bedding to Greet the Lava | Cultural Detective Blog

  4. Mahalo!
    This is journalism as I envision it.
    Your article delivers the context, your viewpoint(in a balanced way) and most of all a facilitation for the sake of all involved-along with a healthy dose of understanding/ compassion.
    You have aided in putting things in perspective for ‘those who have ears….’
    Again, thank you for this bit of journalism.

    • Mahalo Chris for your kind words.

      Do you live in Pahoa? If so, hope you and your ohana are dealing with the flow as best you can and have a “worst-case-scenario” plan in place. We’ve connected with so many great neighbors since Hurrican Iselle, and now this. We look forward to making more connections and returning some of the kindness we’ve received from others.

  5. Malia DeFay-Brown

    Mahalo for this excellent and clear statement. You have said it much better than I ever could have. I have been trying to say it and you captured it!

  6. Thank you for this excellent article. You have my vote Mr. Sullivan

  7. You guys are so kind! Mahalo for taking time to read and comment.

  8. Thanks, Tim and others for the important cultural insights. We live in Captain Cook and I would love to connect with any of you. I am a retired Intercultural Educator.

    • Thanks so much for visiting my blog, Martha, and also for reaching out. Would love to connect! (Captain Cook, such a sweet place to be retired.) 🙂
      Just sent a friend request via fb… (hopefully it’s the same Martha Denney!)

      • Thanks, Tim. It would be great to connect at some point. Perhaps I could get some ideas for you that I’ve had rumbling around. We will be going to Hilo around Dec. 3 to pick up my car. Are you in Pahoa? How is the lava flow impacting you? Would love to learn more about you. Martha

Leave a Reply to Martha Denney Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s