Don’t Rock the Volcano

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Story by Judy Edwards | Photo by Ryan Siphers

I’ve worked for three national park sites on Hawai‘i Island and Maui. At each, rocks arrived in the mail, most with a letter wrapped carefully around them, profusely apologizing for their removal. This phenomenon has been known for decades as “Pele’s Curse,” which seems to work as well for those who pinch sand. Here is a classic example of curse fallout, courtesy of Snopes.com, which actually has an entry for “Pele’s Curse.”

The  Los Angeles Times  reported on the sad case of Timothy Murray, a 32-year-old who scooped some of the unusual black sand from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park into a bottle and brought it back with him to Florida. Everything in his life immediately went into a nosedive: his pet died, his five-year relationship with a gal he was to marry ended, and the FBI arrested him in a computer copyright infringement case.” (Snopes.com is mum on whether Mr. Murray mailed the sand back and retrieved his life.)

I call Rachel Hodara, archeologist and Cultural Resources Program manager at Haleakalā National Park, to ask whether this phenomenon has run its course.

“It’s definitely still a thing,” she replies. Although the park sends out public service announcements to discourage rock removal, “we get about 100 packages a month, and usually every single day. We freeze the rocks for a month to kill any possible organisms, then rocks [from] the park get put back in the park and we take the boxes of sand down to the beach.”

Volcanic rocks of all shapes, sizes and colors are returned to the national parks every year, some accompanied by distraught letters begging forgiveness. Photo courtesy of Haleakalā National Park

Before the overwhelm of Western contact, Hawaiians consulted kāhuna (priests) about moving pōhaku (stones), perceiving the islands as alive in every detail, and every detail essential to the vibrancy of the whole. Like so much of traditional Hawaiian life, this is a beautiful and thoughtful way to live with deep respect. It is, however, a nuanced and complex set of concepts, not easily communicated, say, on a tour bus. And that has made me wonder, over the years, if it isn’t just easier to let the threat of a curse do the heavy lifting for what Hawaiians might term pono, or intrinsic rightness.

“The ‘curse’ is [probably] the main reason people don’t take things,” says Hodara, “but we focus on respectful resource protection and the cultural perspective.” And, she reminds me, National Park Service laws prohibit taking plants, fish, wildlife, or rocks from parks.

Kainoa Horcajo, Hawaiian cultural ambassador at the Grand Wailea Resort, unpacks it this way: “I just got rocks sent to the hotel with a letter that said, ‘I took these rocks on our vacation even though I was told not to, and my business has suffered ever since. Please return them to their right place so that my business may be restored.’ Security brings these things to me very carefully, with this idea that the rocks are cursed. And I say the rocks aren’t the problem, the person is the problem. We love to assign blame externally, [but] the idea of a curse is such a western concept.

“This thing that the western world regards as an inanimate, lifeless object, Hawaiian culture conceptualizes as a physical being that has been able to bind, to make solid, all of the energies from the very beginning of time. So, who is important here? Not us. The pōhaku.”

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