08 March 2009


I have seen some wondrous things in this life. The sharp white peak of Mt. Fuji. Tokyo Bay from high inside the red girders of Tokyo Tower. Hiroshima. Taiwanese rice paddies. California redwoods you can drive through. The black depths of Carlsbad Caverns. The Columbia River where it meets the sea. The red-mud Missouri river. Under a microscope: giardia (little men in hats), staphylococcus (clumps of grapes), and syphilis (spiraling corkscrews). The Tower of London. Brick Lane. The high arches of Winchester Cathedral. The Great Star of Africa. A white chalk horse on the cliffs near the Salisbury plains. Stonehenge. A real Monet (Chicago). A real Van Gogh (London). Lightning over the peaks of Mount Moran from the far side of Leigh Lake. Babies born. Solar eclipse. A hunting hawk strike. Breaching whales. Endless stars.

I have my father to thank for believing that his children were better off for seeing the world rather than sitting in a classroom every day. I thank my husband for continuing the adventure with me. But for the grandeur, I can only thank the universe itself.

In 1977, I turned 12 and my family hiked out of Driggs, Idaho, through Devil's Staircase up to Alaska Basin and then to the top of Hurricane Pass that looks over at the backside of the Grand Tetons. Our guide was an older gentleman named Fred Miller. Fred was born with two club feet. His mother was told he would never walk. According to Fred, she didn't accept the diagnosis and worked his feet straight every day until he walked. Fred hiked with two walking sticks, swinging one or the other forward with each step.

It was a 2- or 3-day hike, and we all carried packs - everything in and out. Fred could out-pace us all. And while I don't remember the details, I recall that he told us stories and named the trees, flowers, rocks and streams all along the way. He showed us watermelon snow, elephant heads, and purple iris. He memorialized the troop of girls who died around a great tree at the crest of a ridge, killed by the lightning strike that burned through the tree roots to reach them where they lay in the grass away from the tree.

Then one night after camp had been set up against the big, round boulders and dinner was done, Fred Miller sang. He sang with the red flicker of campfire on his face, the sharp white of stars overhead, and the black shape of the mountains all around.

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

He sang in joy. In worship of his God. In humility. In awe.

Even though I was young, pre-pubescent, struggling to understand without an understanding, I was moved to tears. His awe gifted me with something precious, something I have never forgotten.

Something I felt again this past week.

My husband took me to Hawaii, the place of his mother's birth. He grew up with her stories and more than a little bit of the local language. As a young man, he returned to the island to work on a construction project with his father, both of them carpenters, and lived in Hilo with his mother's people. So it was a return for him. A new experience for me.

Hawaii, the Big Island, is active with volcanic eruptions. We visited the Volcano House at Kilauea, saw the billowing white steam from the rift in the giant caldera, a volcanic haze spreading west across the island, punctuated by sharp, white bursts of steam vents and smaller eruptions. The larger driving/hiking loop was closed due to high levels of poisonous gases in the air. Several days later when we drove over the volcano and west to Punalu'u and Honaunau, we could smell the pungent sulphur even with all the car windows closed.

Late one afternoon, my husband drove us south from Hilo, down Hwy 130 through Pahoa towards the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Drove until the highway was stopped by an old lava flow that had taken everything around it - the highway, homes, outbuildings, forest. A one-lane makeshift road took us up and over the massive flow, and we followed it to another short stretch of paved road. Then over another flow, another narrow one-lane, and reached another abrupt end. This time, truly an end to the road.

A tower of steam rose up beyond the expanse of old lava. We had seen it from miles away, that place where the molten lava meets the sea.

We hiked then, followed a series of yellow paint stripes across the old lava flow, the hardened cake-batter ripples of pahoehoe and the crunchy sponge-like a'a. For all the people who had walked this way, there was no visible path worn into the rocks, only the yellow tags of paint to indicate we were going the right way. It was like walking on the surface of another planet, surreal and unfamiliar.

The sun set behind a haze of sulphur and volcanic matter, and the moon overhead was a thin crescent, Venus bright beneath it.

More than a mile away, the pillar of steam was immense, lit from below by the flux and flow of molten lava. As the night darkened, the reds, oranges, yellows and blues deepened. The flow pulsed and growled like a living organism, spit and surged, and sometimes flung brilliant flares up and over the edge of the old flow like primal fireworks.

Awe is inadequate a word for what rises up in your chest as you stand on a mound of hardened lava and watch the earth birth new land. Awe and immense joy for this world in which we live. For its beauty. For its astounding cycles of life, healing and regeneration. For the immense power greater than us all that pulses beneath our feet and lifts in the air we breathe.

To that which is greater than us all, I give thanks. I give honor. I gift my awe to the very universe I celebrate.

Aloha and mahalo nui loa.

* A special thanks to the following photographers:

Ryan Backman for his beautiful photo of Hurricane Pass;
and Ben Levy for his amazing photo of Alaska Basin.

The rest of the photos are my own.