A Night with a Goddess

"Earth, water, fire, and air met together in a garden fair."
- The Incredible String band

The Goddess in question is Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes.

I had spent a night close up to an Hawaiian lava flow several years ago; it had been one of the most memorable events of my life. So when I heard there was a new flow that was only a short hike in, I set off with a friend to take a look.

This time, however, the flow had received a lot of media attention, and the rangers and local police were limiting people to a viewing area about half a mile from the actual flow. But even this turned out to be worth the trip; watching streams of lava pour into the sea, throwing up plumes of steam.

Between us and lava pouring into the sea was a new lava field. Streaks of orange, creasing black rock, with thin streams of yellow lava running into it from above. Closer still was a low ridge, on the other side of which were bursts of light as vegetation in the path of yet another flow caught fire.

At 8.45 pm, the rangers announced that the area was closing in fifteen minutes and people should get ready to leave. I would be the last to leave, I thought. They would have to drag me away from this spectacle. Maybe I could even persuade them to let me stay, and my mind got busy thinking up possible appeals to their kinder side.

Within half-an-hour, everyone had gone except for a ranger discussing with a friend the probability that the flow in front of us would probably reach the sea by morning. After a few minutes they too left, leaving us sitting there all alone. Had he really not seen us sitting about ten feet in front of him under the light of the moon? Or did he think we were "cool", and not bother to tell us to leave (even the most flexible rangers usually give you a pep talk to make sure you they can trust you out on your own.) Or had there been an intervention of some other kind? I'll never know.

We couldn't quite believe our luck. A whole night ahead of us, and the lava just a short walk away. We waited five minutes to make sure they really had left, then, seizing our chance, snuck off towards the lava. Even if they did come back, they'd never find us now.

Distances are deceptive in the dark. We soon discovered that the lava field was only two hundred yards away. It was flowing over on old sea cliff into a basin of black sand, forming a pool of lava some two hundred feet across. The surface of the pool had solidified into a thin crust of rock, less than inch thick. But as lava continued to flow into the pool, the lava pushed against the thin crust, causing it to stretch and crack, allowing more lava to ooze out—creating the thin orange lines we'd seen from a distance. At the edge a small shrub, ignited by the lava's touch, was burning, adding a gentle crackle to the stillness of the night.

We sat a few feet from the pool's edge, mesmerized. The only word I can find to describe the experience is "primal". Here was Mother Earth oozing out minerals onto her surface, replenishing the raw materials of life—the blood of Gaia oozing from the vagina of Pele.

This is where it all begins. Usually we talk of how old rocks are—usually in hundreds of millions years or more—the thin crust of rock in front of us was the newest rock on the planet, only minutes old. Give this new rock some water, the energy of sunlight, and a few billion years, and you have human beings. Human beings sitting watching where it all began.

And, as above, so below. Below the relatively thin crust of the planet's surface lies a vast reservoir of liquid rock. We were catching a rare glimpse of the inside of our planet—into the belly of Gaia.

Moving on, we walked slowly around the rim of the pool, stopping here and there to watch a fresh piece of crust give way to the pressure beneath, allowing more lava to ooze out. Slowly but surely, gaining a foot here and a couple of feet there, the edge was moving forward, covering forever the old sandy beach.

This sandy basin had obviously been a favorite spot for people. In many places, stones had been carefully balanced one on top of the other. What would happen when the lava met them? They seemed so delicately balanced, and the lava so solid and unrelenting. To our total surprise, the oozing rock gently flowed around them, engulfing the piles for ever. At times, the encroaching lava tongue would nestle against the pile, then lift the stones up on its lip. How could something so irresistible be so tender?

Above the pool, we could now see the little valley with the fires we had seen from afar. A tongue of lava was slowly creeping down, igniting a coconut plantation, tree by tree, each one a new torch lighting up the night sky.

Further round we came to the part of the pool closest to the sea. It was no more than twenty feet from the lip of a sandy slope that led straight down to the Pacific Ocean. It did indeed look like the this lava flow would reach the sea tonight.

Needless to say, the heat was intense. We could stand ten feet away from the lava for a few minutes, absorbing the primal awesome spectacle unfolding before us. Then we would have to back off a while. Until, that is, we discovered that at ground level the air was cool. We could lie on the sandy slope of the beach, with the lava only a few feet away, watching her crack and ooze close-up. Could it get any more perfect than this—a ringside seat, with soft sand to lie on?

Up close like this, we could see the surface of the new crust silhouetted against the glowing lava behind. There, on the surface, were tufts of tiny fibers, as thin as hair. At first we thought it was some trick of the light, but as we looked more closely we confirmed they were really there. The new-formed rock was not smooth but hairy. (Later we learned that volcanologists call this, quite appropriately, Pele's Hair. It is formed by the stretching or blowing-out of molten basaltic glass from the lava.)

Across the pool, a bright yellow line appeared down the face of the cliff. Then another, and another. Suddenly, huge slabs of rock fell away, as the dam on a river of lava burst. Bright yellow lava, as liquid as water, gushed out of a ten-foot wide tube, like a waterfall into the pool below. This "waterfall" of liquid rock continued throughout the night, sometimes slowing, then pushing more slabs of rock out the way to pour in with renewed vigor.

This was the real stuff of Gaia's belly; rock as liquid as water, pouring over the ground. Now, after its long journey from the volcano's vent several miles up the mountainside down to here, just a stones throw from the sea.

By now, the half moon had set, revealing a star-studded sky, with the Southern Cross sitting above the ocean horizon. A feast for the eyes, wherever we looked.

As more and more lava filled the rock-encrusted pool, its edges pushed further and further out. Within a couple of hours, the leading edge had reached the lip of the beach. It hovered, bulging, with nothing but a twenty foot sandy slope down to the sea. Tentatively, the first tongues began to flow down the slope, a foot-wide stream of liquid rock enjoying the pull of gravity. Each surge slowed as it cooled, creating swirls of ripples in its own thin rocky crust, giving the surface of the new rock a form that would last a million years. New surges pushed out from beneath, while other tongues found their way over the lip and started flowing down into the sea. Before long, the sandy slope on which we had been lying, glorying in the sight, was covered with streaks of new rock reaching down to the rocks below. A few more feet and it would touch the sea.

But by now the lava at the edge of the pool was much more fluid—probably a result of the continued gushing of liquid rock into the pool. When new tongues broke through cracks in the crust, they flowed more freely. Soon it would be pouring over the lip and down the beach. And it was bursting through in more places too. Behind us a new tongue looked like it might start flowing down into another cove—a cove that lay between us and the way we'd come. Being caught between two streams of yellow-hot lava with no way out but a wild ocean crashing onto the rocks below, is not my chosen destiny. The time to leave this primal spectacle had come.

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