Friday, August 06, 2010

planting a foot on it (a Wish - part 5)

We began at the various visitor buildings, where the Eldest was ceremoniously given a small bag of informative gifts. And the loan of Ranger Rob, a twinkling gentleman with an excellent understanding of that which is small and male.

Hi, said the boys, and gazed adoringly at Rob, his uniform, his walkie-talkie and his generally obvious belonging-hereness. Hi, said Rob. And twinkled.

I explained the Eldest's Wish to climb a volcano, and Ranger Rob and I considered the challenge. To arrive at the Volcanoes National Park, we had driven, well, up. A whole lot of up, more than you'd have thought, given the effectiveness of the doowwwwwwn. Erm. You are already at the summit, another ranger pointed out. (Sans twinkle.) But Rob was unconcerned. I'll take you to what I consider the real summit, he declared. Are you ready? By now, I was pretty sure that I knew the answer.


And off we went, up a dusty trail to the (ahem) summit of Kilauea - a summit not appreciated by the tourists, who hang around the nicely paved semicircle with the pay-per-view lookout glasses. The US Geological Survey likes it just fine, and even stuck a literal pin in the map on that very spot, noting the volcano's highest point. They also built a tidy concrete housing over their pin, and we plopped ourselves on top, the better to consider the view.

It is a view that takes some considering.

Kilauea is an uneven sort of place, with steam rising in a great gush from the caldera, and then in little dribbles scattered through the landscape. Clouds hung low, promising damp, then drizzle, before blowing away to let in a blazing sunshine. Greenery would explode upwards, before stopping abruptly on the edge of lava. Even the bare rock left the sense of someone opposed to housekeeping - a handy geologist (drawn in by the twinkle, no doubt) pointed out the caldera's bathtub ring, a ridge showing the lava lake's level, before the most recent eruption. And who would dare scrub at that?

Untidy - and uncertain. Rob's walkie-talkie crackled often, chattering about emerging or possible alarms, and next door, a lab bristled with measurements and instruments eyeing the volcano's every twitch and wriggle. A place to be, but not to settle in, I thought - but possibly that had somewhat to do with the rock digging into my bum. Or possibly with that threatening gush of steam.

It was odd beyond odd to watch a jogger go by, pony tail bouncing.

The geologist, Kelly, offered to take the Eldest to the Jagger volcano lab and observatory, where she showed us boxes of ash and lava samples. The geologists examine the samples for mineral content, among other things. Different minerals are present at different depths, and a new mineral can mean that lava - or ash - is coming from a different chamber, below the surface. They track an amazing amount of information here, Rob told me, quietly. The computers help assemble the information, and can even help us try to figure out what is happening, during a crisis. And yet, looking around at the piled-up boxes of samples and reams of data, I had the feeling that a crucial degree of volcanology was instinct; a half conscious assessment of information, experience and a coalescing judgement, trailing explanations in its wake.

Reliable science would be nice, but hey, instinct works for me, too.

These are Pele's hair - and tears - said Kelly, and the boys listened with their mouths open as she talked about the way that volcanic glass is spun as thin as a human hair. She held up a bag of what truly looked like hair, and picked out a tear. I found this in the parking lot, a few days ago, she said. (I considered moving the car) Oooo, said the boys, but the Eldest hunched his shoulders, worried by the idea of that much volcanic activity.

Is it safe?

Kelly smiled at him. We watch the volcano, she told them, and study everything we can. The Eldest's shoulders relaxed slightly, finding this comforting. And then forgot everything but awe when Kelly explained how they took the lava samples. Ash daily and lava weekly, she told them, and grinned when I asked why her shoes don't melt. Later, she pointed out some Army green flight helmets and bits of gear. For when we go to get the lava, she said, calmly. Rob nodded gravely, and I caught the whisper's edge of a twinkle in Kelly's eye.

Oh, I said, lamely. Oh, boy.

Kelly flickered another micro-twinkle at me, and led us out to a little gallery of stuff thought cool by the geologists. We gaped at these for a while, remembering the difference between stalagmites and stalactites. Geologists really do get to collect the very bestest rocks. But Rob wandered over to what ought to be the Man's favorite map ever; a geological map, showing the dates and topographical details of the various lava flows. Here is where people were evacuated in such a such a year, Rob pointed, and there is where the lava did this, crossed that town, that road. You could see why Rob was still a Ranger - he looked at that map and saw events, people and needs, where numbers and notations about who knows what were written.

People? rocks? I don't think you can really separate the two around here. But you can pick a focus as a lens for reading a given moment.

We walked past a bunch of bemused geologists (children? in the lab?) and wound up some stairs. Thanks for letting us break chunks off the olivine, said a poster, signed, Ms X's class. I grinned, and kept climbing. We emerged into a glass-walled Situation Room on top of the Jagger lab, complete with webcams and fantastic views. And maps of Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and goodness knows what else, from umpteen angles, dates and with an infinite number of teeny notations.

There is Mauna Kea, Rob waved. I peered at the omnipresent clouds. An eruption would show browns, and a glow. We'd see it, or an eruption around here, or there... He trailed off. And then, we'd respond, he said, simply.

Looking at the massive landscape, I didn't ask how, but suspected that the answer would depend on your lens.

We headed for the car, an annotated map in hand, slipping from specialness into anonymity. Waving goodbye to Rob and the tourist-aesthetic spaces, we looked for somewhere to get dirty.

It was time for a hike.


Anonymous said...

Shanah tovah to all the Imperfects!

hosein said...