Protecting Mauna Kea: Notes From the Summit

San Diego Free Press Grassroots News & Progressive Views MAY 28, 2015 BY WILL FALK

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I went to the Thirty Meter Telescope construction site near the summit of Mauna Kea for the first time, today. Four-wheel drive is recommended for the road that twists steeply with hairpin turns up the Mountain, so ten of us piled into a Kanaka uncle’s (older native Hawaiian man’s) pick-up truck to go see the summit. Leaving from the visitor center parking lot at 9,200 feet the road ascends over 5,000 feet to an elevation close to 14,000. While my ears popped, my sense of wonder grew. Conversations around the truck bed stopped as the Mountain’s power over our senses intensified.

Beginning below the tree line, the six-mile ride carries you through ancient cooled lava flows, across red-stained cinder fields, and under patches of snow adorning Mauna Kea’s brown shoulders like jewels. When we parked we took a moment to breathe the air that is thin, but crisp and fresh. The walking was hard. We moved slowly and I wondered if Mauna Kea keeps the air thin on purpose to ensure peace on the slopes. Serenity filled the spaces where the hills parted to show the clouds carpeting the valley floor below.

I felt like I was traveling in a timeless land until we turned a corner on the trail and the thirteen existing telescopes appeared on the ridge lines forming Mauna Kea’s summit. My breath caught and my stomach soured.

Screen Shot 2015 06 01 At 03.26.31 PmSome are calling the collection of observatories and assorted buildings the “industrial park on Mauna Kea” and I understand why. The telescopes themselves are housed in blank, white geodesic domes. Numerous support buildings including giant satellite radar dishes dot the slopes leading up to the telescopes. Roads – both paved and simply grated – lacerate the mountainside. Brown and orange outhouses stand like sores in otherwise breath-taking cinder fields. I recalled a picture I saw down at the visitor center showing one of Mauna Kea’s hills being dynamited before construction. Scars are still visible years later.

We did not linger long and left down the trail for Lake Waiau. There is no mistaking the sacredness of Lake Waiau. The Lake’s waters are an emerald green in the center rimmed in royal blue as the waters approach the Lake’s red cinder banks. I sat engulfed in the shimmering waves on the Lake’s surface. The wind is alive on Mauna Kea and it seemed to sense the enormity of the experience for me, dying down to allow me my stillness.

Then, two uncles in our party blew long, clear blasts on conch horns. The echoes rang through the intimate valley where Lake Waiau sits and filled my chest with warmth. I began to cry.

Screen Shot 2015 06 01 At 03.29.38 Pm  One of the uncles brought a harmonica and played some soft blues to the breeze. I kept crying. I cried for the destruction on Mauna Kea’s summit. I cried for the pain Kanakas expressed to me and to each other while talking story at the occupation. I cried for the pure joy of experiencing a power humans have felt for millennia and will continue to feel so long as we stop the destruction of the world’s sacred places.

Back at the occupation, I reflect on my first trip to Mauna Kea’s summit. Ahinahina, named silverswords in English, are blooming on the slopes of Mauna Kea. The fragrance of their purple flowers sweeten the dry mountain air. Their silver stems glisten in the wind and shimmer with the sunshine. Above the ahinahina, the gold flowers of the mamane trees dance with delight to the day’s colors. I close my eyes in an effort to print these images onto my heart. I imagine what Mauna Kea must have looked like a couple hundred years ago when Kanaka Maoli – aboriginal Hawaiians – treated these slopes as sacred and forbidden to all but the most holy activities. No cattle were allowed here then. No invasive species choked out the ahinahina and mamane forcing endemic species to within inches of their existence. I imagine the mountain sides as they must have been: awash in silver and gold.

Silver and gold. I wince at the irony. That is, after all, what the Thirty Meter Telescope project is all about – pieces of silver and mounds of gold. 

I open my eyes again, asking silently for the words ahinahina and mamane might want me to write. I wish I could ponder the beauty of these endangered plants forever. As I think this, standing in front of a ahinahina mesmerized by her elfin colors, a sparkle grows deep in her thin leaves and the comparison to the twinkle of stars Mauna Kea is famous for is undeniable.

Of course, there are those saying the Thirty Meter Telescope project is about something more noble than money. I’ve heard, for example, it’s for “pure human curiosity,” or for “love for the stars.” The problem with this is not all human curiosities, nor all loves are created equal.

Screen Shot 2015 06 01 At 03.41.10 PmWhere have we heard the human curiosity argument before? It is often used to excuse the actions of explorers that open the lands of original peoples to colonization. Christopher Columbus has his own holiday for “discovering America” while the total eradication of the Taino people is forgotten. Hitting closer to a Hawaiian home, Captain James Cook is honored for supposedly being the first European to land in Hawai’i.

And what has this cost Hawai’i? The population of Hawai’i in the late 1770s is estimated at more than one million people. By 1897 at the time of the Ku’e Petitions, only 40,000 Hawaiians survived. Over 95% of the Hawaiian people died in 120 years due to contact with Europeans. Of course, Cook knew this would happen as he warned his sailors not to engage in intercourse with Hawaiian

Some will excuse Cook saying at least he tried to control his sailors. But, when we’re talking about the near total extinction of a whole culture, I think we need to judge with stronger standards. Who goes to work when they have a communicable disease like a cold? Who goes to work when they have a potentially fatal communicable disease? Who, among us, would willingly and knowingly expose our loved ones to danger? Cook did, and he did it, in part, out of “human curiosity.” 

In response to the “love for the stars” argument, keep in mind that the Ku Klux Klan advertises itself as a “love group not a hate group.” Either we have to trust people like the KKK, or we realize that we cannot trust everyone’s rhetoric. Another way to look at this is to understand that often what is called “love” in this dominant culture is really a poisoned version of what love truly is. Those responsible for the TMT project might love the stars, but that love is poisoned by the destruction their project will create. What is love if it causes you to violate boundaries established by aboriginal peoples? What is love if it causes you to clear an 8 acre space, digging two stories on a formerly pristine mountain top? What is love if it causes you to dangerously perch hazardous chemical waste above the largest freshwater aquifer on Hawai’i Island?

Screen Shot 2015 06 01 At 03.42.05 PmNow, I am certainly not saying that love for stars is wrong. Every night up here on Mauna Kea, I roll out my sleeping bag under the open sky and gaze in awe at the stars. There is a right way and a wrong way to love the stars. Hawaiians who loved the stars so much they were able to navigate the largest ocean in the world with handmade canoes using the naked human eye loved the stars the right way, the least invasive way, the most respectful way. The TMT project with all of its destructive technology, all of the waste produced by the materials used in its construction like steel, aluminum, and mercury, is loving the stars the wrong way.

The counter to my argument is often, “You say you love the Mountain, but what good is a mountain?” Thankfully, the brilliant professor of ecology and leading figure in the deep ecology movement, Neil Evernden, has come up with the best response. He says the best way to respond to the questions, “What good is a mountain? What good is a ahinahina? What good is a mamane tree?” is to ask “What good are you?”


Evernden’s point is something I learned looking at Lake Waiau, is something I learned listening to the ahinahinas and mamanes. Mountains, ahinahinas, mamanes, polar bears, rhinoceroses, and you and I each exist for our own subjective purposes. Ahinahinas have lives, joys, dances, and purposes as valuable to them as ours are to us.

To take this idea even deeper, I know when I heard the clear notes of the conch horns above Lake Waiau I was sharing in a tradition thousands of years old. When the winds blew through my hair, the pores of the cinder rocks mixed with the pores of my skin, and the blue light on Lake Waiau was reflected in the blue light in my eyes, I was engaged in relationships that made me most fully human. To block those winds, to dynamite those cinder rocks, to poison the light from Lake Waiau, will destroy the relationships that make humans human. In other words, destroying Mauna Kea is destroying ourselves.