Nature is awful. But it’s awful from back when awful meant “full of awe”. To fully appreciate this, you have to imagine what it was like for ancient people to gaze upon some wondrous natural phenomenon, before we had any grounding in science, and have absolutely no idea what caused it.
Imagine coming upon the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, Mount Everest, or the Great Barrier Reef and thinking, how? Our ancestors can’t be blamed for assuming that everything that wasn’t man made must be of a spiritual origin. And while my belief system differs greatly from theirs, I do enjoy hearing the old creation stories and imagining the various deities as living, breathing entities who shaped the earth in ways mankind never could.
That’s what was running through my mind as Dear Husband and I walked down through a rain forest full of fern trees and birdsong. We felt as if we had been transported to prehistoric times.
Our ultimate destination was Nāhuku, also known as the Thurston Lava Tube to those uninspiring name-changers of European descent. (They may not have been poetic, but hey, at least they were arrogant.)
One such white guy was Lorrin Thurston, a newspaper publisher who “discovered” this tube back in 1913. I’m actually grateful for this man, because he was instrumental in creating Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, where this particular lava tube is located. It’s only because of him that I was able to walk into said tube. But that doesn’t mean he gets to take credit for its very existence, as far as I’m concerned.
Even the National Park Service website makes it seem as though Thurston discovered this lava tube. Poppycock. It is estimated that this tube is 350 to 500 years old, and the Polynesians first arrived in Hawaii at least 1400 years ago. It’s safe to assume that they knew of this tube from the time it formed.
In fact, Nāhuku means “the protuberances” and probably refers to the lava drippings that used to hang down from the ceiling of the tube, until white people started breaking them off for souvenirs. What a shame. I’d have loved to have seen them. People suck. (I tried to find images of these drippings on the internet, but came up empty.)
Lava tubes are created when a river of molten lava with temperatures over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit travels along, and then eventually leaves an empty tube in its wake, as the outer edges cool and harden long before the flowing, orange-hot center does. That’s the scientific explanation. But scientists and ancient people can agree on this: No mere mortal is responsible for creating such an incredible formation.
According to Wikipedia, Ancient Hawaiians believed, and some of their descendants still believe, that the goddess Pele governs the Kilauea volcano, and is responsible for all its lava flows. It is she who shapes the sacred land. She is known for her power, passion, jealousy, and capriciousness. It is said that she lives in the caldera of Kilauea, but her domain is all the volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii.
I felt quite privileged to explore Nāhuku, which could be described as some of Pele’s most impressive handiwork. I have to say it’s still very cool, literally and figuratively. It’s located about a mile and a half past the park entrance, and there is limited parking, but we happened to luck out on the day. We walked through the 600-foot tube, which was well lit, and has ceilings that are more than 20 feet high in some places.
The site is actually open 24 hours a day, but it’s only lit from 8 am to 8 pm. I think walking through there at night with just a flashlight would have been exceedingly creepy, but it can be done. You used to be able to walk through another 50 yards of the tube which is always unlit, but now that portion is closed off. The whole tube was closed off for a time during the 2018 eruption, and closed again for a year during the height of the COVID 19 pandemic.
This was not my first lava tube, but it is my favorite so far. (Read about the one we visited in Oregon here.) As we wandered through this natural wonder, I thought about colonization and its arrogance, science and its value to our knowledge base, and the goddess Pele, who I will forever associate with the gorgeous painting below, which can be seen at the Volcano Art Center. (Or at least it could be seen there at the time of our visit. I wish I could have been the one to buy it.)
As we neared the other end of the lava tube, you might say that my mind was on fire with history, facts, and mythology, and I was struggling to process it all. I was tempted to turn around and walk back the way we came, just to give myself more time to think. Then a rat ran across my foot.
Nope. It was definitely time to go.
Fun fact: There’s also a “psychedelic, experiment surf instrumental band” called The Thurston Lava Tube. Interestingly, they hail from England. Their music is kind of fascinating, and a lot of it can be found on YouTube. Check out their cover of Bohemian Rhapsody, which gives the song an entirely new vibe.
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