In the North Atlantic there is an island, and it is said that upon this island live two nations: the human nation of Iceland, and a second nation, one that is mysterious and veiled. This is the realm of the Huldufólk, Iceland’s “hidden people.”
This presentation, given at Esalen Institute in the autumn of 2016, offers a glimpse into the world of the Huldufólk and the dynamic landscape in which they live.
This final installment of my journey through England I’m writing on the early morning train from Plymouth to London. Out the window to my right I can see the thin crescent of a Moon approaching its new cycle, in an elegant line on the ecliptic with Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. The edges of the planetary bodies are crisp and clear in the cool morning air. The sky is slowly lightening, and I will see the sunrise while aboard this train.
The pace of going from Canterbury to London, to Cambridge and Oxford, was beginning to wear me out, and I was grateful the latter half of my travels would be spent in more relaxed environs. From out of Oxford I caught the train to Stroud. The last section of the train journey was especially beautiful, as we raced past a steep, green valley whose hillsides were embedded with old stone houses and churches, flower and vegetable gardens terraced directly into the slopes. The images flashed past before I could fully take them in, a brief glimpse into a world I could only imagine what it must be like to be a part of.
I was met at the train station by a dear family friend, who brought me to a local pub where we met up with his son, another friend of mine. The Woolspack is no ordinary pub. Like the village I had seen on my train journey, this pub is part of a small hillside community, the buildings constructed of old grey stone, gardens overflowing with flowers in every direction one might look. The pub itself looks over a deep green valley, with nothing but pastures and trees covering the facing hillside. We sat out on the stone patio amongst the trailing vines and blossoms. First to arrive at lunchtime it was perfectly quiet. No breeze stirred the air, and one could almost feel the movement of the warm lemon sunbeams in the stillness.
As our meal progressed—pints and jerusalem artichoke, cheese and hazelnuts, followed by a tray of coffees and an assortment of puddings—other families and couples and groups of friends settled in around us. But all maintained the reverent quiet of the still air and the warm October sunshine. Our conversation, seemingly inevitable in this setting, turned to fairies. This is the part of England where everyone knows there are fairies present. What if one were to write not a fairy-tale told by humans, but a human-tale told by fairies? What would they think of us? As we spoke I realized that the little girl at the table next to us was holding a conversation not dissimilar to ours: ‘But it was a real fairy! Why doesn’t she understand that I saw one?” the young lady asked.
Our meal concluded, we went on to The Grange, their family home in Sheepscombe. The village of Sheepscombe is also nestled in one of these wooded valleys, a collection of old stone houses, a single church still well attended on Sundays, a little post office and nearby pub, and many trails through the woods and hills in every direction. The Grange itself is an old house, once two separate buildings several centuries old, joined together by a third that was constructed in the 19th century. Lawns and gardens spread around it, a multitude of flowers and fruit trees thriving in the moist climate. There was quince and apple, and the vegetable gardens had the last of the raspberries and sweet peas. A towering beech stands majestically over the yard, its roots clothed in a spray of cyclamen, the enchanted little flower I keep encountering again and again during these travels. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole place was the study. At the front of the house is a glass sunroom, with desk and chairs and a wicker chaise. Growing inside the glass walls is a massive grape vine, trailing and twisting about the room, heavy with deep purple fruit. One can sit at the desk working with a cluster of grapes of mythic proportion dangling within reach, just inches from the little desk lamp.
We went for a short walk not long before sunset, under the wide leaves of the deciduous forest near the house, and up onto a ridge above the village. As the Sun and horizon neared one another a misty golden glow washed over everything. In the distance a narrow steeple stood up against the light, the church from a neighboring village.
Our evening in was wonderfully relaxing, dinner and conversation, and later reading by a warm sitting room fire.
Looking out the many-paned window from my upstairs bedroom, I could see that the mist had rolled in by morning, and I felt the turn away from summer into the cool of autumn. After a simple breakfast laid out on beautiful china in the kitchen—coffee, orange juice, fresh raspberries and blueberries, toast with honey, butter, and jam—we put on our coats and settled into the car for a drive across the Severn Firth, and into Wales. Near the border and in a wide and peaceful valley are the ruins of Tintern Abbey, the Cistercian cloister that inspired Wordsworth’s famous lines:
And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man; A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still A lover of the meadows and the woods, And mountains; and of all that we behold From this green earth; of all the mighty world Of eye, and ear, —both what they half create, And what perceive; well pleased to recognise In nature and the language of the sense, The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul Of all my moral being.
Built in 1131 by monks of the Cistercian order, Tintern Abbey’s location was chosen for its seclusion. The monks were largely self-sufficient, living off the land growing food and raising pasture animals. When King Henry VIII defied Rome and founded the Anglican Church, he abolished the many abbeys across Britain and took their wealth for his own. Now all that remains of this majestic place of worship are arched stone walls, ornately shaped where windows once spanned, and in some places nothing more than a pile of reddish stone and the outlines of foundations. Flocks of crows now make their home among the stones, creating a constant call and response as they wheel through the empty windows. Looking up I saw a lone white dove wing from an empty rose window to an open mossy ledge. The floor is now carpeted in soft green grass. There is no shelter from the wind.
Following a warming bowl of sweet potato and cauliflower soup along with a half pint, we left Tintern behind us and wended through the hedge lanes a little deeper into Wales. Although much like England, there is still a tangible difference to the feeling of Wales. Green pastures and hills, forests and meanderings streams they have in common, but there is a quality in the air that is different. It feels quieter, less inhabited, suffused with a more ancient presence. Story feels like it is living in the land here. The names on the map roll off the tongue and change the quality of one’s consciousness in the speaking. Our route led us to Llanthony Priory, another ruin decimated by Henry VIII. Much less of it remains than at Tintern, and the priory seemed likely to have been more modest to begin with as well. Yet I actually found this place more compelling. Its arches and remaining walls, some of which were leaning over, were covered in moss and twisting vines. A long field extended up the hill behind it, dotted with sheep, and met the base of a red cliff descending down from the hilltop. The Welsh rocks are red, as can be seen on the cliff faces and in the stones in the ruins. Mist poured down over the slopes. A group of walkers had stopped by for hot coffee at the little hotel set up inside what remained standing of the priory. I imagined coming back here at some future time for a walking tour, spending the days outside tramping across the hills and fields, spending the nights in the pubs and inns that still dot the countryside.
Another cozy fire and supper back in Sheepscombe, and a brief stop over at the neighbors’ to see England’s rugby team knocked out of the World Cup by Australia, and my stay in this corner of England had come and gone.
Morning saw me at the train station in Stroud again, speeding past that same stone village built into the steep hillside. Now my train, the longest journey yet, led south and further south after that. Much of the way I had my nose in a book, glancing up now and then to see the changing scenery, although it was still consistently pastures and hedges for much of the ride. But toward the end of the last leg of the trip came a dramatic change. The fields gave way to coastline, first to narrow firths filled with sailboats, little towns visible across the way built right down to the docks at the water’s edge. It was a cold and grey day, the steely sky reflected in the choppy water. Once or twice the train passed a boat that had long ago sprung a leak and was now but a rotting skeleton, the ribs of the hull black against the lapping waves. Turning a corner the view opened out to a vast stretch of ocean, waves crashing against the rocky shore, white gulls wheeling in the spray. The train went into cliff tunnels and back out again, each new view more striking than the last.
Soon enough the slowing train pulled into the Totnes station. There on the platform waiting for me were my aunt and uncle, who I haven’t seen since they moved to England nearly five years ago. It was a reunion that has been long overdue. We came back to their home, set among the lovely pastures of a farm just outside of Ivybridge. Inside were so many memorable objects, art and furniture, dishes and decorations, that were so familiar to me from their home in Big Sur, a place that always will be intimately close to my heart. It was strange yet comforting to see them all the way over here in England.
We spent our time together walking outside and painting inside, quilling little coils of colored paper into art projects, reading with morning tea and watching movies while cuddling the cat, and simply catching up and sharing meals in each other’s company. On my last full day we went over to Schumacher College, which I’d always wanted to visit, and walked around the exquisite gardens of Dartington Hall, a magnificent building constructed on the estate initially in the 14th century. All about the hall are huge tended gardens, ancient trees with lawns running the slopes in between, with fountains and statues and flowers lining the paths and stairways. After a thorough wander through the gardens the three of us went down to Plymouth, for a late afternoon walk on Plymouth Hoe overlooking the sea and what was once the primary harbor of the famed British navy. Down at the docks are massive stone buildings that once held supplies for outfitting the ships—ropes and rigging, wood and sails, all fortified against any incoming attack from the sea. Now these buildings largely stand empty, except several on the ground level that have been repurposed into restaurants and cafés. We enjoyed a quiet dinner in one of these restaurants followed by a stroll along the water’s edge. Before long we returned to the quiet of home for a final night together before my departure from England.
As I’ve been writing this on the train, mist has been rising from the fields between dark trees and hedgerows. Only the Moon and Venus now remain visible in the periwinkle sky. As more time passes just a thinning crescent can be seen in the rising morning mists. A rich magenta glow now lights the horizon, the dark tops of clouds a heavy violet pushing back against the oncoming sunlight.
Sunrise over the calm morning water, first on the straights between the peninsulas, the dark patches visible at low tide contrasting with the colored mirror of the water, and then opening out to the sea itself, a clear pathway of warm sunlight illuminated from the horizon to the shore, where low waves roll against the sand. The train runs along the coast, passing into tunnels cut in the dark rock, then back out again into view of the spectacular scene. No matter how many times I witness the dawn, I will never cease to be in awe.
There is nothing quite like riding the train at magic hour, into the City of Dreaming Spires. I spent much of the day in London, including several important hours catching up with an old friend, having a fantastic brunch at The Breakfast Club in Soho, and walking through Hyde Park during the sunny, warm afternoon. As the day dwindled toward evening I walked from Warwick Avenue to Paddington Station, past canal boats floating low in the water covered in bright, chipping paint and overgrown planter boxes of flowers.
The departing sun set the sky alight in lavender, periwinkle, rose and indigo while the train sped toward Oxford. I chose to walk the mile and a half from the station to my lodgings in a friend’s college rooms so I could take in the city along the way. Sure enough I passed beneath the lit steeple of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and not long after the tower at Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis spent much of his teaching career. Crossing the bridge over the River Cherwell I could look back and see clearly why Oxford has been called the City of Dreaming Spires: the old college buildings send up spire after stone spire into the starry night air.
I arrived into my rooms which were warm and welcoming, filled with familiar books, including a shrine with Jung’s Red Book upon it. I found it somewhat amazing (although not surprising once I reflected on whose room I was occupying and our similar academic interests) that I had come halfway around the planet to study Tolkien’s visionary artwork, the contents of his Red Book, in the Bodleian Library, and right in my bedroom would be an accessible copy of the other Red Book to which I am comparing the results. It felt like an affirmation I was in the right place.
Early the following morning I awoke, soon to realize I was shaking—with anticipation, nerves, excitement, I wasn’t entirely sure. I planned to arrive at Admissions in the Bodleian at 9:00 am as they opened, and hopefully if all went well in getting my reader’s card I’d be meeting with the head archivist of the Tolkien special collection by 9:30. Walking through the streets of Oxford, down Queen’s Lane and under Oxford’s own Bridge of Sighs toward the library, I felt a deep sense of connection to this place. Ten years ago I once had the dream of attending this university, and now again that desire was reawakened. I could feel the past presence of those literary figures who had shaped me in such a formative way. Something in the heart of Oxford was calling to me once more.
I entered first the oldest building of the Bodleian, which had many doors branching off the courtyard with signs over their doors reading Schola Naturalis Philosophae and Schola Moralis Philosophae, among several others. Soon I was redirected toward the Weston Library, a newer building although still seemingly old to my eyes. I entered Admissions, handed in the various forms explaining my research purposes along with three (three!) forms of identification. To my relief I was approved without much delay but, before handing me my reader’s card, I was to swear an oath aloud that ran four lines long:
Then to the lockers where I left all my belongings except a pencil and blank sheets of paper, through the secure entryway, up the stairs and into the reading room. There I was met by the Tolkien archivist, a wonderful woman who has what I felt to be one of the most admirable and enviable positions in the library. We spoke for a little while about my research goals and then she set me up at a table with the first of four boxes of Tolkien’s artwork that I would be studying over this morning and the following.
My hands shook a little as I opened the first box, but I soon relaxed into the process, turning from one drawing to the next. What did I find there? Well, I’ve signed too many forms to risk revealing much here without the permission of the Tolkien Trust. But I’ll just simply say that I believe I found what I came for, that my thinking in these areas has been affirmed, and perhaps someday I will be able to express the fullness of what I saw in my dissertation. Much of Tolkien’s great art has been published already, for which I am immensely grateful. But a few pieces remain hidden which would be wonderful if they could be seen by the wider world. And the sequence itself of the artwork has its own story to tell.
After several hours and even more pages of notes I decided it was time for a change of scene, so I packed up and departed the library. I made a brief stop in Blackwell’s Bookshop, my favorite book store in the world that I hadn’t been inside of for about five years. Of course they had a whole Inklings section right up at the front, and I was able to get a copy of Verlyn Flieger’s edited edition of Tolkien’s fantastic essay “On Fairy-Stories,” first given in 1939 as the Andrew Lang lectures at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. They also had lovely little editions of several of Tolkien’s short stories; I limited myself to two: Smith of Wootton Major and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book, each with accompanying introductory and critical essays.
Lunch at the Eagle and Child pub seemed the only appropriate place to go next, so I walked up St. Giles to the legendary “Bird and Baby,” and was soon sitting in the back room with a pint and vegetable pie, gazing at oil portraits of Tolkien and Lewis and scribbling notes on my morning’s research.
That afternoon I met up with a family friend who happens to be teaching in Oxford for the next two months, so we spent the next several hours catching up and discussing ideas on an array of topics, from philosophy and religion, to literature and travel. We walked home through Oxford in the evening together, conversation still well underway.
Morning found me once again in the Sir Charles Mackerras Reading Room, pouring over more drawings. But finally the time came for me to depart and I left with reluctance. Would I have the opportunity to again be a researcher in these halls? I hope my life may take such a turn.
For the afternoon I had a special pilgrimage planned: a long walk from Oxford city center first to 20 Northmoor Road, where Tolkien and his family lived seventeen years, and then on a few more miles up to the Wolvercote Cemetery where Tolkien and his wife Edith are buried beneath one gravestone. It felt important to me to walk, to really put in the time and effort and make it to each place on foot.
I noticed as I was walking down Northmoor Road I was shaking a little again. The wooden gate bears a metal number 20, and bushes and blackberry vines grow about the entrance. Someone else has made their home here now, and it looks simple and well-kept. The only distinguishing feature is a small blue plaque near the gable of the roof stating:
Author of The Lord of the Rings Lived here 1930-1947
I tried to imagine what it might have been like to live here, raising four children, preparing lectures, marking exams, and writing thousands upon thousands of pages of fantasy and Elvish lexicons during some of the spare hours in between. I peered at the smaller house next door, number 22, where the Tolkiens had lived for a shorter period before, from 1926 to 1930. Eventually I continued on my way, grateful to have glimpsed these two homes.
The walk up to Wolvercote Cemetary was actually much longer than I expected, and a few times I thought I might be lost. I started to worry I wasn’t going in the right direction, or worse yet that I was but had somehow mistaken the cemetery and was walking far out of my way for nothing. I departed the road I had been on, thinking perhaps the cemetery was further east. I began to walk down an unfamiliar road when suddenly I had a strong sense to turn around. I did, and following intuition more than anything else I realized I was now on Banbury Road, the very road the cemetery was meant to be on. Sure enough just several hundred feet further, and a little sign pointed me into a wide, grassy cemetery. A brass plaque indicated to follow the signs to Tolkien’s grave. I had made it.
The Tolkiens are buried right near the back of the cemetery, a modest plot with a granite stone at the head and a rose bush with a few blooms, their fading petals marking the end of summer. The stone reads:
Edith Mary Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
I cannot recount here all the emotions that arose in me at the sight of this grave. I’ll simply say it was a deeply meaningful experience, far more than I was even expecting. I spent a long time there. At one moment a strong wind picked up, shaking the trees. I was reminded of when the wind blew through the trees as Tolkien and Lewis were on Addison’s Walk by Magdalen College, the night that Lewis had his conversion experience, which Tolkien commemorated in his poem “Mythopoeia.” Finally I felt it was time to depart. As I turned away I saw a small, pure white feather on the ground. Rarely do I collect tokens of remembrance, but this time I felt the feather was for me.
It was a joy to rest my feet as I sat on the upper deck of the bus back toward city center, right at the front window so I could see clearly the whole return journey. I felt in a place of great peace. Arriving back into the heart of Oxford, I walked over to Exeter College, where Tolkien studied as an undergraduate, and was able to enter with my newly acquired reader’s card. (“I’m a visiting researcher, may I enter the college?”) Passing the emerald green quad I entered first the chapel, where a tapestry of the Adoration of the Magi adorned the front left-hand wall. A copper bust of Tolkien stood near the back, not too far from the door. Although small, Exeter’s chapel is exquisite. From there I somehow found myself in the Fellows’ Garden, a peaceful lawn bathed in sunlight, trees and flowers scattered throughout, a large fig climbing the stone wall by the private college library. Toward the back right of the garden is a small pond filled with water lilies, and a stone staircase ascending the outer wall of the college. Coming to the top of the stairs I found myself with a spectacular view looking out toward the round Radcliffe Camera, the tower of the University Church just beyond it. Below me a crowd of tourists happened to be walking by, but up here on the wall of Exeter College I was secluded, in the peace of an idyllic garden where generations have come to study outside.
After Exeter I went on to visit two more colleges: Christ Church College, which is by far the largest and wealthiest, with vast meadows stretching beyond it, and Magdalen, where C.S. Lewis was situated. Walking down the echoing corridor beside the Magdalen quad I had an internal image of black-robed students walking down these same halls, when suddenly I turned a corner and a whole choir of schoolboys in the very black robes I had been imagining processed down the passageway before me, turning quickly (and the smallest ones in the back shoving each other) into an arched doorway to the left. My footsteps carried me further until I passed out of the wrought-iron gates and across the small bridge over the River Cherwell onto the pathway of Addison’s Walk. Turning left I walked for a ways beside the river, stopping when I came to the next bridge and seeing to my right in the meadow a large herd of deer. All of the females and fawns were standing eating grass, while the two males with antlers—one significantly larger and presumably older than the other—sat on the ground on either side of the herd. After a moment in quiet reflection beside the deer, I turned back the way I’d come. I noticed a few things I had missed on the way in: a few large stumps that had been carved into thrones rooted directly into the ground, and a small moored boat that looked like it must belong to Ratty from Wind in the Willows.
By now completely exhausted from all my walking, I returned to the University Church which had a garden café at the bottom, and sat with a perfect cup of English tea and a scone, replete with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Just refreshed, I went to meet the same family friend I had joined the afternoon prior and we walked together over to Christ Church chapel to attend Evensong. It’s one thing to tiptoe into the college chapels when no one is there and take in the art and carvings on the walls, it’s another to come in when candles are lit and the air vibrates with the voices of young men and boys in the choir.
Thus, after a beautiful dinner and evening, my time in Oxford was coming to a close. The following morning I packed everything up and walked back toward the train station the same way I had walked in. An autumn mist had descended on the city, turning the morning Sun’s light into diffused rays that scattered across the yellow stones and fading trees. I felt a reluctance to leave this place. But if I am meant to return to the dreaming spires at some point in the future then I must trust that I will.
The first thing I notice about London is the speed: everything and everyone is moving about at such a pace, and in so many different directions all at once. Stepping off the train arriving from sleepy Canterbury, I was immediately swept up into a stream of life not my own. One must choose a direction and keep pace, or risk being battered about on all sides, a single leaf caught in the cross-currents of many hurried winds.
The complex interactive network of the London Underground is actually surprisingly easy to handle, and puts all of our local Bay Area public transportation to deep shame (I’ve had this feeling repeatedly on this trip, with each new train journey wishing we had the same kind of sophisticated system in the States). I found my way to the Bakerloo line and was deposited before long at the quiet station of Warwick Avenue, where I emerged into the slanting golden light of a warm London evening. Walking past elegant blocks of brick and white plaster apartment buildings, with ornate iron railings outlining the front steps, I came without much trouble to the flat of a dear friend and his family, where I was welcomed with open arms.
I spent a tremendously peaceful evening there, meeting for the first time my friend’s wonderful two-and-a half-year-old daughter, and getting to hear all about her life in her own excited little voice. When morning came we had an active round of monkeys jumping on the living room guest bed—the broken monkeys miraculously healing and coming back to bounce in ever-decreasing numbers once more.
Come mid-morning I set out from the flat, making my way on the tube to King’s Cross station to get my ticket up to Cambridge for the day to visit my professor Jake Sherman. Ticket in hand I quickly realized I would be leaving from Platform 10 at King’s Cross—just a quarter of a station from the legendary departure point of the Hogwarts Express. Try as I might the wall wouldn’t give. But I knew it was already September 28, a full four weeks after the entryway had closed. Besides, I had another train to catch to an equally magnificent institution of learning.
Jake met me right at the station in Cambridge, and we set off toward the heart of the town at a brisk pace. The closer to the center we came the older the buildings appeared, more ornate and closer together. Our exploration began at Emmanuel College, where Jake is currently teaching in the post of University Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion. The scale of Emmanuel, or Emma College as Jake called it, felt like it would make a good academic home. Some of the magnificent colleges I was to see later, such as Clare or King’s, were almost overwhelming in their grandeur. But there was something about Emma that felt just right.
Stepping into the college chapel, Jake showed me the many figures who adorned the stained glass, from Origen and Johannes Scotus Eriugena, to Benjamin Whichcote and John Smith the Cambridge Platonists, and John Harvard, the founder of Harvard University in the States. The gardens outside seemed a Romantic paradise, with winding paths and a pond inhabited by ducks and coy, swimming among the tall reeds and flowers.
From Emmanuel our tour went seemingly zigzagging in many directions, from one ancient and beautiful building to the next. We saw the oldest church in Cambridge, and not too far away another that was perfectly round, built by one of the Knights Templar in reflection of the houses of worship in Jerusalem. The Cam River, for which the town and university are named, winds its way past these ancient buildings, spanned by many beautiful bridges in the course of its meanderings. We crossed several, passing from one college to the next. Perhaps the most striking is the Bridge of Sighs, built in reflection of the same bridge in Venice.
As we walked Jake shared with me the history and traditions of the colleges we saw, or famous individuals who once studied there. Cambridge is so rich with history and genius that it is almost too much to dedicate more than a plaque to the luminary who emerged however many centuries ago from its tutelage. Almost any other town or institution would have a museum or building dedicated to its famous students, but here they are passing names, murmured in connection to one of the great colleges that has stood as a place of learning for centuries.
To come from a conference on Re-Enchanting the Academy straight into Cambridge, and to be able to see it through Jake’s eyes, someone who has participated in its traditions and lineage, I was able to recognize the enchantment of the academy that is still inherent to a place like Cambridge. The rituals and traditions run so deep and have been passed on from matriculating class to matriculating class for centuries. Often they are deeply embodied, ritualized traditions. Part of re-enchanting the academy may be awakening to the enchantment already present and acknowledging how much it plays a role in the learning that takes place within the academic walls.
Certainly the college that impressed me the most was King’s, especially its magnificent chapel. Entering inside I felt a state of awe descend upon me. The foundation of the chapel was laid by King Henry VI in 1441, but it took a century to complete under the subsequent patronage of Richard III and Henry VII. While the Choir design is much simpler, according to Henry VI’s wishes, the Ante-chapel where we entered is alive with ornate carvings, depicting Tudor roses, dragons and dogs, and forests of curling leaves. It would take weeks to observe all the details carved directly into the stone. The ceiling however, outshines all the rest. It is a soaring fan-vault ceiling, the largest of its kind in the world. The pillars of the chapel ascend like tree trunks into the air, their fanning branches meeting each other across the ceiling, creating an intricate web that gives one the sense of walking through a forest of living stone.
Come late afternoon we took our leave of Cambridge and, walking for a short while by the Cam, turned down a track that traversed the green fields outside the town. It was magic hour, the waning light coming forth in rose and golds, casting the rich green of the fields into a soft vermillion glow. We passed fields of cows and grouse, under arching tunnels of trees, along leafy hedgerows dividing the landscape. There was little to indicate the century I was in, and visions from Blake, Wordsworth, and Austen all came to mind. At last we entered the little village of Grantchester, and passing the six-hundred-year-old Green Man pub where we would later have dinner, arrived at Byron’s Mews, the cottage that was once Byron’s stable, next door to Byron’s Lodge where he allegedly housed his various mistresses. I’d stepped into the most idyllic English picture, entering a garden where I met two beautiful children picking apples from one of the many orchard trees.
Following dinner, drinks, pencil drawings and conversation, my time in Cambridge had all too quickly come to a close. I sat on the train back to London feeling blessed and exhausted, struggling to stay awake wrapped in my warm coat. Of course I have struggled that my dissertation advisor is all the way over in England as I complete the last few years of my degree, but now seeing where he is situated I cannot help but feel he is in the right place. Cambridge is certainly the most beautiful university I have ever seen. Yet for me personally, I also felt something missing. I had a feeling whatever it was I might find in Oxford. But that’s another journey, one to take place the following day.
Canterbury: I couldn’t have imagined a better place to hold a conference titled Re-Enchanting the Academy. Although cars run on the narrow streets and the ninety-degree angles of contemporary buildings can be found throughout the city, one can feel the Chaucerian age palpably. Cobblestones, thatched roofs, white walls between dark wooden beams that seem to bow out at the middle, as if the centuries are weighing on the building like a elderly man carries a potbelly. Canals and bridges, gardens and stone walls, crawling ivy touched by the crimson blush of early autumn—the air seemed to tingle with enchantment, but an old, slow enchantment, one that has settled deep into the stones along with the overgrown moss.
I came in to Canterbury after a non-stop flight from San Francisco to London Heathrow, and an adventure of trains and tubes, until I was deposited at the Canterbury East station as I approached twenty-four hours of being awake. Trailing my little suitcase I walked up the exceedingly narrow cobbled sidewalks to a hostel I’d booked ahead. A brief wander into town later and my first cup of English tea, I fell into a jet-lagged sleep.
Or tried to. For a variety of reasons I had a terrible night at the hostel and, desperate for a sense of peace and solitude, I checked out early the next morning and managed to find a lovely hotel right in the heart of Canterbury. For the rest of my stay I was grateful to myself for making this decision, so that I might have the space, comfort, and rest to engage fully in the conference. I must say, something about that first difficult night has made all the pleasures of the rest of my trip so far all the sweeter.
After getting my hotel situation sorted, I had a few hours to myself to wander in the morning sun. My feet carried me to the Westgate Towers that have stood at the entrance to the old city for six hundred years. Through the gate I found myself on a bridge over the Stour River, and stretching away on either side of the river were the beautiful Westgate Gardens, a meandering array of lawns, flowers, stone arches, twisting trees, and pathways. I even came across a California redwood, who had adapted to the English soil by growing up with curves and twists, rather than tall and straight like the redwoods on my home coast. I also found my way to Greyfriars Chapel, a small chapel built in 1267 that spans a narrow river.
Eventually the time came to meet Patrick Curry, one of the keynote speakers of the conference, for lunch at the Goods Shed near the Canterbury West station. Goods Shed is a large, barn-like structure filled with stands where piles of colorful organic produce are arranged, and counters selling cheeses, breads, meats, fish, and deserts. Moments later Patrick and his partner walked through the door, and we sat down to an exquisite lunch together: cappuccino, elderflower elixir, a vegetarian platter of grilled squash and eggplant, tomato toast, creamy soup, poached egg, and several other tasty arrangements. Among our topics discussed was Patrick’s new book, Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: Essays on Tolkien, of which he kindly gave me a copy.
Lunch led us straight to the conference, which Patrick opened with his talk: “The Enchantment of Learning and the Fate of Our Times.” He addressed the need to leave the door open to enchantment, but not to try to force or tame it. One cannot make enchantment happen, one can only cultivate the conditions that allow for its occurrence. With that note to start on we set off on three days of presentations, usually two tracks running simultaneously. The conference was held primarily in St. Martin’s Priory at Canterbury Christ Church University, a gorgeous brick building surrounded by truly enchanting gardens, filled with roses, apple trees, and even a labyrinth set up for one of the conference workshops.
Presentations ranged from psychogeography to depth psychology, the Book Fairy (that moment when you encounter just the right passage or phrase that sets you off on a new train of thought or research), astrology and astrological music, poetry and myth, and the need to re-invite the feminine, the body, and the Earth back into the academy. One issue I brought up in relation to some of the material was the need to address patriarchy both inside and outside the academy, without shaming men who want to be allies, and without recreating an essentialist gender binary. Through this conversation I encountered a wonderful astrologer, who happened to have been friends with my Dad for twenty years. We found that not only did we share a common astrological world view, but her sister is also a harpist! As we chatted together walking merrily home at sunset I felt like I had somehow found my fairy godmother.
My own presentation took place on Saturday afternoon, the third on a panel with the Jungians Jean Hinson Lall and Roderick Main, both of whom I was honored to follow. I presented on my dissertation work, Jung’s and Tolkien two Red Books, and found I had a receptive and supportive audience with wonderful questions and feedback. For me the dialogue carried on long into the evening and the conference dinner.
The magnificent Canterbury Cathedral was just a street away from my hotel, so I woke up early Sunday morning to attend communion, primarily from the desire to see and feel the cathedral from the inside in a role that wasn’t a tourist. The air was so still as I approached, my footsteps echoing on the cobblestones and my breath visible in the morning air. Entering inside I was overwhelmed by the majesty of the building, the long stone steps leading higher and further into the nave. This cathedral was founded by St. Augustine in 597 BCE when he came over from Rome to be the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and over the centuries it was expanded and rebuilt, including in 1070 after a major fire destroyed much of the cathedral. I felt a profound mixture of emotions, in part inspired by the minimal attendance in relation to the grandeur of the building. Turning inward I could feel the centuries upon centuries of people who had come here to worship, able to see and hear in my imagination the full crowds that once would have overflowed this hall. Yet now all was nearly quiet.
Ritual. If we are to revive enchantment we need ritual, but it must be ritual that is meaningful for who we are now. Perhaps for many we are in a time between rituals, seeking the meaning that will enchant.
Soon the conference was coming to a close. I was amazed to find that many of the ideas brought forward, presented by individuals from several parts of the world, were frequently ones I had encountered in some form at CIIS. Over the course of the weekend I came to value at a new level the education I am getting at my little institute in California. Yet to engage with so many others specifically on these topics was invaluable.
A final stop at the Goods Shed once again for a piece of quiche, and Patrick and I hopped on the train to London. From there new explorations would soon ensue…
The forty-five minute flight from Waimea to Kahului was one of the most visually stunning experiences I have ever had. First to see the dry landscape and deep cracks in the Earth on the Big Island, then the turquoise coastal edge before a vast expanse of deep blue water flecked with whitecaps far below. Then, through the clouds, the peak of one of Maui’s mountains became visible, deep green slopes descending down into plains planted with pale sugar cane. We were coming to Maui for just four days to spend some time camping with a couple we know from our graduate school. Maui feels palpably different than the Big Island, its age as one of the older islands in the Hawaiian chain immediately apparent. The soil is of a rich red color, and the shape of the mountains are clearly eroded from eons of rain descending on their slopes.
After picking up supplies in Kahului we drove to Lahaina to meet our friends for lunch. Lahaina is definitely a tourist town, packed with overpriced shops, restaurants, and cafés—beautiful and inviting, yet somehow exhausting all the same. We were excited to leave and drive about half an hour up the coast to Windmills Beach, where we set up camp among the ironwood trees right by the water. It was a soft, white sand beach, with sheltered pools to dip into the ocean water. We sat around a fire late into the night, drinking beers and gazing at the stars, talking about all the experiences we each had already had.
The following morning, after a leisurely swim at the beach, we made our slow, scenic way up Haleakala, the East Maui Volcano. The four of us stopped in at the visitor’s center to get our camping permits, and then parked several miles further up the mountain at the Halemau’u Trail Head. As we made the finishing touches to organizing our gear we conversed with the other groups of people in the parking lot, some of whom had just returned from a full twelve-mile day hike across the crater and back. One of them opened the trunk of his car and brought out several green coconuts from his backyard, which he cut open with a machete and shared with all of us. I realized it was the first fresh coconut we had eaten since coming to the islands, and it was perfect to consume before setting off on our trek. We also shared a whole pineapple, and some papayas and lilikoi, before departing with bellies full of water, fruit, and optimism.
Although it was warm and sunny in the parking lot, about ten minutes down the switchback trail into the crater we encountered a wall of dense cloud, and soon our vision was limited to just a few feet on all sides. The path cut back and forth across the face of the ridge, but we had no perspective on where we were going, or even really a sense of what we left behind as we passed through the landscape. The hillside was covered in vegetation, red and green ferns dominating the slopes. Every so often a nene, the native Hawaiian goose, would startle from a bush up ahead and fly across our trail. The world was eerily silent, like the dense fog was pressed against our eardrums. Soon we were drenched, moisture dripping from our hair and rolling down our faces and limbs. It was hard to tell how far we had come, and we had no idea how much further there was left to go.
Suddenly, a bottom was in sight. It came completely unexpectedly. First the dim thread of a trail seemed visible, and soon a pale green field began materializing. The fog became less dense, the path ahead more clear. Before long the last switchback was in sight, and the mountain path ended in a gate that opened onto the flat bottom of the crater. We passed through the gate, closing it behind us, and began walking through a field of tall, wet grasses adorned with sprays of delicate yellow flowers. The mist was rapidly evaporating as we continued on our way. To the left was one of the many cinder cones inside the Haleakala Crater, and the Moon, nearly full, had risen like a pale pearl in the now darkening sky. The path before us began to ascend gently, winding through a’a lava rocks and rough vegetation.
After about a mile, the four of us arrived at our campsite, which was just a little round clearing amongst the brush and lava. Another group of campers was set up nearby, and a pair of hikers came in not long after us and set up in the distance. The Sun had set some time before behind the ridge we had descended, but streaks of bright pink still adorned the sky to the north. The light of the Moon dominated the scene, becoming ever brighter as the rest of the landscape faded into darkness. As night descended the sounds of nene and other birds began to echo all around, a soft cooing emanating from the dry foliage surrounding us. Looking south we could see the two bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri, which Matt and I had also viewed from the heights of Mauna Kea. Yet we could also observe the slight difference in latitude between the Big Island and Maui, because while we had seen Alpha and Beta Centauri from both islands, the Southern Cross was only visible from the Big Island, the one place in all the United States from which that constellation can be seen.
The heat of the early morning Sun awakened us and coaxed us forth from our little tents. Our plan was to hike for a couple miles further into the crater before packing up the tents and returning up the switchback trail. The path into the crater led over more rough a’a lava toward the part of Haleakala where the Sliding Sands trail leads. The pu’us in this part of the crater are an array of red, black, orange, and ochre sands, seemingly drizzled over each other to form a desert landscape reminiscent of the surface of Mars. The central field of the crater looked like a sea of blackened waves, frozen in time. Off of the main path to our left we came to the Silversword Loop, a section of trail that passes a cluster of silversword plants, a species endemic to the mountain heights of Maui. The silverswords have long pointed leaves that are a pale green silver hue. Many of the silverswords on the loop were in bloom, with countless bees humming around their dark magenta flowers. The smell of the blossoms is like honeybush tea, sweet yet subtle and inviting.
Eventually we turned back, packed up at the campsite, and headed up toward the switchback trail. The Sun had been blazing all morning but we could see a bank of clouds in the distance and felt sure that we would be mired in fog as we had the day before. Ascending the switchback at first was not nearly as challenging as I expected, and I even said so to Matt. We had already ascended hundreds of feet above the crater floor and were still in good energy and spirits. The bank of cloud kept approaching, yet also appeared to be maintaining a good distance. The view with each rise in elevation was spectacular: first we were overlooking the inside of the crater where we had spent the night and then, as we rounded the other side of the ridge, a new view leading all the way down to the ocean opened up. Even though we were walking the same trail as yesterday the experience of it with clear skies and sunlight was utterly new and exciting. It soon became clear that the fog was not going to encompass us, and that the rest of the hike would be under the penetrating heat of the Sun. Suddenly the switchback grew steeper, at times even becoming stone steps. One section of the path ran across the top of a ridge connecting two larger slopes, and there was nothing but open air on either side of us, a narrow bridge on top of the world. About a mile and a half from the parking lot we ran out of drinking water. The view was still beautiful, but the end of the trail felt like it would never come. Sure that we were nearing the end of the hike we passed a sign: Park Road – 0.7 miles. From our situated perspective that seemed an eternity away.
Yet of course the trail did end, and we emerged hot and sweaty, coated in dust and exhaustion. We had no water in the car, but fortunately something even better—a cooler still filled with ice and cold beers. We lay on the ground for a long time just drinking beer, amazed at what we had accomplished.
After a good amount of time resting, the four of us left Haleakala behind and headed into Paia, a little hippie town to the east of Kahului. Completely exhausted, we chose not to camp, but rather find a room at the Rainbow Surf Hostel, whose manager is a recent transplant to Maui who spends his days interacting with, to use his words, all the “awesome” guests that pass through his domain while playing covers of ‘90s female musicians on his guitalele, a cross between a guitar and a ukulele. Still exhausted, we treated ourselves an epic meal at the Flatbread Company, which serves locally brewed beer and organic pizzas. The four of us stayed up late playing music and talking in the coconut-shaded courtyard of the hostel.
About mid-morning we left the hostel to spend our final moments on Maui at Paia Beach, and then Matt and I bid our friends adieu and set off for the airport. I can certainly say four days is not enough time to spend on Maui, and that I hope to return sooner rather than later to explore the road the Hana, the Seven Sacred Pools, and many other places that I have yet to hear of.
The flight back to Waimea was just as beautiful as the flight to Maui, and this time we were graced with a rainbow arcing through the clouds beneath the belly of the plane. One of my uncles met us at the airport and brought us back to rest at his house where we could just relax and unwind from all of our adventures.
With only three days left in Hawaii we decided to spend the remainder of our time moving at a slow pace and just returning to our favorite places in the area. In the morning we helped my beekeeper uncle sell honey at the Waimea Farmers Market, then spent the rest of the day at Mauna Lani Beach lying in the Sun and floating on the peaceful waves. The following day we learned how to harvest bananas from my uncle’s trees, then spent the late afternoon at Mauna Kea Beach, which I must say is my favorite beach we visited during the entire three weeks. The white sand beach is curved in a gentle crescent, and the surf is simultaneously perfect for body surfing and for just floating calmly. That night Matt and I cooked Thai green curry as part of a dinner to show our deep gratitude to my two uncles, who really made this trip possible for us by giving us a place to stay and a van to take around the Big Island.
For our final full day Matt and I returned briefly to Honaka’a, then went back to Mauna Kea Beach to body surf and eventually watch our last Hawaiian sunset. We went out for sushi near Mauna Lani, and then met up with my cousin and her boyfriend for a final dip in one of the resort pools and hot tubs.
Three weeks can seem like a long time, but when you are in a place as rich and diverse as Hawaii it seems to go by in half a heartbeat. Yet how much we had experienced; indeed how much we had been changed in so many deep and beautiful ways by this experience together. I want to learn how to hold these experiences within me in such a way that I can draw on them for strength and inspiration when I need them. And yet, as much as I hope to embody as fully as possible the transformative power for growth and healing that Hawaii can offer, I also cannot help but ask, when can I return?
The journey of exploring Hawaii’s Big Island continued as Matt and I made our way in our traveling van home down the Hamakua Coast and eventually into Volcanoes National Park and Puna on the eastern side of the island. We had begun our morning on the heights of Mauna Kea, watching the Sun rise among an ocean of clouds, but we spent our first night of this leg of our adventure right by the water’s edge, back at Laupahoehoe Point where the grandmother banyan tree stands. I mentioned in my last post that my dreams seemed to be shifting depending on where I was sleeping each night, with an array of violent dreams taking place in Waimea, but dreams of majestic mountain-consciousness occurring on Mauna Kea. At Laupahoehoe, where the tsunami took the lives of nearly two dozen people, many of whom were schoolchildren, my dreams were saturated with watery depths, beginning first in a car that was being driven underwater, bloated bodies with white eyes floating past the windows, and then having the experience of floating far out at sea with two other people, debris littering the rough waves, an endless distance between myself and anything that felt safe. When I awoke I finally was beginning to recognize how much the history of each place we were staying was influencing the content of my nightly visions, and it led me to inquire later into the history of violence that took place in Waimea.
Once again waking before the dawn, I leapt from inside the van to stand near the crashing waves and watch the Sun emerge in blazing gold from the sea. I have been coming to love these early mornings on the Big Island, the whole day stretching before us filled with the potential of new places to see and explore. We began driving south along Old Mamalahoa Highway (which seems to be the name of half of the roads on the Big Island, at least according to Google maps), going first to Akaka Falls, an exquisite plunging thread of water descending 442 feet into a narrow, circular pool. A trail loop circles through lush rainforest, across a passing stream, and over to first one look-out where Kahuna Falls can be seen in the distance, and then up to a closer look-out where one can see the full length of Akaka Falls. Throughout the rainforest were flowers of almost unimaginable complexity, intricacy, color, demonstrating the sheer creativity of tropical evolution.
We continued along the winding thread of coastal highway until we reached the Onohi Loop, a scenic route through rainforest trees, over streams and small waterfalls, and along the coastal cliffs. At Onomea Bay, which is at the base of Alakahi Stream, Matt and I walked out onto the stony beach, and then onto a jut of land that extended out into the crashing waves. In a playful mood, I walked as far out as I could and stood up on a promontory of rock above the waves crashing all around me. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I started to use my arms to conduct the waves, in synchronized movement pulling the swells up from the sea and raising them until they crashed against the sharp, black lava rocks, splashing me with salty, white foam. It was a dance with the waves, each seeming to respond to me as much as I to them, a dialogue of danger and play. It was like being a child and a god all in one moment. I felt so serious, yet couldn’t stop laughing, playing in shear delight with the rhythms of the world.
After Onomea Bay we drove into Hilo, making many short stops in and around the small city. First we went to Rainbow Falls, a much smaller yet still immensely gorgeous waterfall. Unlike Akaka, it’s possible to climb up above the waterfall and watch it flow past below you, catching the light in arc after arc of misty rainbows. We sat with our feet in the cool pools of rushing water, soaking in the warm sun of the still early morning. After Rainbow Falls we made another quick visit to Boiling Pots, a series of pools that looks like pots of boiling water as they bubble and splash on their way downstream. From there we continued into Hilo itself, walking along Kiawe Street, stopping in shops, picking up some lychee from the farmers market, and eating papayas while looking upstream from the Wailuku Bridge. We ate a picnic lunch in a park full of dozens of enormous banyan trees, and then walked through the Japanese Botanical Gardens over to Coconut Island, a tiny plot of land out in Kuhio Bay.
With several hours still left in the afternoon, Matt and I went over to Richardson Ocean Park to see how snorkeling on the east coast of the Big Island compared to what we had seen on the western side. I pushed myself to face my fears of the water and set off from the black sand beach closely tailing Matt. The corals and fish at this particular location were gorgeous; purples, yellows, brain corals, rainbow-colored fish. No eels. We went out for a ways until the water got deeper, and then turned back in to where the water was shallower and rougher, which seemed to house an even greater diversity of fish and corals. Just as we decided to head back to shore, we had a deeply profound encounter. At the base of one of the larger rocks was a dark cave; gazing out from that cave was the head of a turtle. The turtle watched us swim nearby, and then slowly swam up to meet us. Not wanting to disturb this majestic creature we backed away, but the turtle followed. Each time we retreated, she came closer, floating gently in the water, gazing at the two of us. How old must this being be? What is her consciousness like? What does she think of the world around her, what changes has she noticed in the decades she has spent beneath the waves? After some time the moment of connection came to an end, and the turtle swam back into her cave. Matt and I both felt blessed to have had such an encounter.
We ended our day in Hilo by going to a tiny sushi restaurant, Hime Bar Sushi, that had only three tables and was run by an elderly Japanese couple: he made all the sushi behind the counter while she served at the tables, a quiet dance between two people who seemed to have been practicing the steps for many years. It was some of the best sushi I have ever had, somehow at half the price of most other sushi restaurants I have been to.
As night descended we left Hilo, and drove in the dark to Volcanoes National Park, where we awoke to the sound of two little birds tapping on the windows of the van. What did they want? Perhaps tapping at their own reflections, or perhaps offering a needed reflection for us at that moment, I do not know. This was our fullest day yet, beginning with a short walk through the Thurston Lava Tubes. The lava tube we walked inside was enormous, lit up with warm yellow torches that gave the sense of entering an underground dwarvish kingdom. Mosses and other plants grew around the entrances, and in places throughout the tube a tree root broke through the outer layer of rock.
Not far from the lava tubes was a path along the top edge of the Kilauea Iki crater, which is close to the main summit caldera of Kilauea. A trail runs across the crater and we could see tiny figures far below walking it. I recalled making the same trek a decade ago with my cousins. But today we had a different adventure in mind, so after a brief look out over the edge we returned to the van and drove to the parking lot where our real hike would begin.
Matt had chosen the Napau Trail for us to hike that day, a trail which crosses a vast field of forty-year-old pahoehoe flows from the Mauna Ulu eruption that eventually leads to the Makaopuhi Crater, the largest crater on the Big Island. We decided to walk about eight miles of the trail, four miles in to the crater’s edge and then the return journey. This trail leads all the way to the Pu’u O’o vent, but the end of the trail has been closed due to volcanic activity at Pu’u O’o. At the start of the trail we had to self-register at the hiker’s check-in station so that we would be accounted for if anything were to go wrong. I felt very tentative about this hike, seeing the immense stretch of lava desert before me. It was not a hospitable environment, and at times I couldn’t help but see our two little figures crossing this bleak landscape as something akin to crossing the plain of Gorgoroth in Mordor. It was absolutely fitting for the Sun-opposite-Pluto transit in the sky.
About a mile into the hike we reached Pu’u Huluhulu, a rainforest-covered cinder cone which provided an amazing view in all directions from its top. A circular rainbow happened to be surrounding the Sun at the time we reached the summit of the cinder cone, casting enchanted colors across the stark landscape. Leaving the minimal shade of the rainforest, which felt stuffy and close compared to the open air over the lava flows, the landscape of the hike unfolded like waves that had been frozen into crystalline structures. Each step was precarious, the path uncertain, yet all the better for it. Nothing could be taken for granted. An orchid in the middle of this desert appeared a small miracle. Golden ferns adorned the landscape here and there. Eventually we began to approach a crater, which at first we thought was the Makaopuhi, but soon realized that it was but a small chasm in the Earth compared to what we were about to encounter. The colors of the lava all around this smaller crater were amazing to behold though, rusted reds and yellows that seemed to be a product of the intense heat arising from this part of the ground.
Finally in the distance we could see the green of trees growing along the edge of the Makaopuhi Crater. At first it was difficult to even begin to take in just how enormous this crater was. We weren’t able to see it fully before the path plunged into the trees, which provided a welcome relief from the hot sun. The path wove between soft green grasses under a canopy of tall trees. Suddenly there was an opening in the trees to my left, and I dared to walk off the path for the first time since starting this hike. Just a few yards from the path was an open ledge, and beyond that—nothing. The cliff before our feet went down and down, hundreds of feet. The bottom of the crater was a lifetime away, and nothing was between us and that precarious edge. It was almost too much to behold. One side of the crater was covered in the multiple shades of the green rainforest, the other side the deep purple-browns of lava flows that spilled over its edge and obliterated the living forest. Life and new land were intermingled in a flow of colors, the life of the rainforest an older presence on this land than the seemingly dead flow of lava. Standing on that cliff edge, and the conversation that took place there between me and Matt, will remain one of the most precious moments of my life.
At magic hour we turned back toward home, walking with the Sun before us, casting ever-longer shadows behind. The return journey felt shorter than setting out, with familiar features of the landscape making themselves apparent. At long last we returned to the van, and then to the campsite where we had spent the previous night. Although we never saw the sunset, the sky was a myriad display of fuchsia and tangerine, tangled in a spiderweb of clouds.
The following two days were a series of adventures all around Puna. We went first to the town of Pahoa and breakfasted at Pele’s Kitchen, before going to Lava Trees National Park to see the eerie towering remains of a forest covered over by lava flows. Our next stop was to Hedonesia, a little hostel and intentional community located in a lush pocket of forest overflowing with coconut trees and raspberries. The funky rooms are all open to the landscape, with screens as walls and tall grasses already seeming to swallow the structures back into the Earth. After being given a tour of the work they are doing on the land there, Matt and I headed out again, this time to Kehena Beach. It happened to be a Sunday, the day when many of the local Punatics descend on this rocky black sand beach after Ecstatic Dance at Kalani Retreat Center to bodysurf nude, play drums, dance, smoke, converse, laugh. It made both of us want to join the community here, to have the rhythm of Sundays at Kehena be a part of the rhythm of our own lives.
We returned to Pahoa for dinner at Kaleo’s Bar and Grill, and then had a slightly trying night attempting to find somewhere to park our van to sleep. First we had to leave from Isaac Hale Beach Park, only to later be kicked out by police from Alahanui. At last we found a place where we would not be troubling anyone, and got a few hours of sleep before waking to a lush, rainy morning. For lunch Matt and I decided to go to Kalani, the local retreat center where my Dad has come to give workshops at times. Kalani reminded me of a tropical version of Hollyhock in British Columbia, with flowering trees and gardens, open lawns, small rustic yet beautiful buildings set up for guests and workers. We enjoyed the abundance of the kitchen while seated on the Lanai, and imagined what it might be like to be able to teach workshops there one day.
After a return visit to Kehena Beach and a quick dip in the waves, Matt and I returned to Hilo to meet a fellow scholar of Alfred North Whitehead at a local burger joint. Over a series of pints we dove into process philosophy and archetypal reality, exchanging ideas that may come up next year in the International Whitehead Conference being held at Claremont for which Matt is the organizer of the track “Late Modernity and Its Reductive Monism.” To my surprise much of what we were discussing was extremely pertinent to the paper I was working on at the time on the nature of archetypes and if it is possible to have an experience beyond the patterning of one’s birth chart and transits. That paper was deeply influenced and shaped by the different places I wrote it in, with each new landscape and experience offering different perspectives on the material.
Much later that night we made it back to Waimea, and spent a few hours doing laundry and repacking all of our gear in preparation for our early flight to Maui the next morning. Sleep was such a relief after all our adventures, and yet we still had so many more awaiting us.
Our first week on the Big Island of Hawai’i was based around Waimea, with daily excursions to the beach or on a day hike. The second week I have come to think of as the week of the van: my uncle was kind of enough to lend Matt and I his van to travel in around the island, so we took out the back two rows of seats, put in a futon and created a little traveling home for the next week. We had a handful of my uncle’s family’s CDs for entertainment—the I Am Sam soundtrack with its Beatles covers became our theme music for the trip—as well as the exquisite changing scenery all around us and rich conversation throughout.
Our first day with our travel van was a day trip, heading down the west coast toward Kona. After checking out the small city briefly, and stopping at a painting exhibition detailing the life and conquerings of King Kamehameha, we drove further down the coast to Kealakekua Bay, a dark blue bay with deep waters where spinner dolphins often come to rest during the day. We first walked along the rough lava rocks on the shore before finding a grassy beach area where we could lie in the sun. Although we did not encounter any dolphins we did go for a short snorkel in part of the bay, seeing a whole school of bright yellow fish among the coral. We also hiked a little ways along the shore, exploring tide pools filled with little fish, crabs, and sea anemones. On our drive back up toward Waimea we stopped off at Da Poke Shack, a tiny little storefront south of Kailua-Kona, where we got the last of the day’s catch of fresh poke served with steamed rice and seaweed salad—hands down one of the most delicious meals I’ve had on the island.
The following day Matt and I decided to head out from Waimea in the opposite direction, going east toward the Hamakua Coast. Our first stop was about 45 minutes away at Laupahoehoe Point, a leaf of lava jutting out into the more turbulent ocean crashing along the east coast. A school had been operating on this point during the first half of the 20th century, and it had been tragically impacted by the 1946 tsunami which killed 23 people, mostly young students, on this one part of the island. Further destruction hit both Hilo in the south and Waipio Valley up north. One of the most beautiful aspects of Laupahoehoe is the enormous banyan tree growing there, that was planted by the third grade class in 1916. The tree survived the incoming waters of the tsunami and still thrives today. We spent a good amount of time with this majestic goddess of a tree, climbing barefoot into her branches where whole rooms were created by the braided ropes of ascending branches and descending roots.
As we made our way back up the coast we drove into the hills above the ocean towards Kalopa Native Forest State Park, a tropical forest mired in mist where red birds flitted around us and mongooses scurried mischievously through the grass. We ate our lunch among the trees before going back toward the coast and driving up into the little town of Honaka’a, which is essentially one road with an array of little shops and cafés. The crystal store boasts the largest crystal on Hawai’i (although it actually originated in Brazil), and the woman running the shop offers free mini massages with a rounded crystal as you sit on a geode-encrusted stool named the “chair of adventure.” From Honaka’a we went several miles further down the road to the Waipio Valley lookout. Much like Pololu, which is two valleys further north, Waipio is a deep rift between steep forested ridges with a black sand beach stretching between the enclosing cliffs. Waipio is privately owned, although it is possible to hike or ride horses down into the valley itself. From the lookout we could see forest and grassland, and a few small cultivated plots with an occasional building here or there. A heavy mist hung over the valley, and rain was pouring in distant sheets over the ocean, catching the wan sunlight between watery veils.
On the road back to Honaka’a the roadside was littered with bright yellow fallen guava fruits. I was determined to stop and pick some, but by the time I convinced Matt to stop by a guava tree we had passed all the ones whose branches were within reach. Alas, all the fruit available to me was past its prime rotting on the ground. Next time, I suppose. Very much craving dinner as we rolled back into Waimea, we chose to stop at the Red Water Café, recommended to us by several different family members. We arrived under an epic rainbow, the second we had seen so far on the trip. Red Water was delicious but a little expensive—arriving just in time for happy hour we shared Negihama sushi and a lilikoi yellow curry. The décor seemed to be a cross between Western saloon and sushi bar: truly a fusion, and fitting of the culture in Waimea.
Matt, my cousin, and I spent the next day completely melting into the sand at Mauna Lani Beach, known for its excellent snorkeling in its small protected bay. It’s a short walk in to the beach through a field of rough a’a lava with the openings to some lava tubes here and there. The path then winds around some brackish ponds with trees growing right out of the water and with moray eels peering eerily out from their rock homes. I recalled a startling encounter I had with a moray eleven years ago while snorkeling at this same beach and felt a little reluctant to enter the water again. The inverted teeth are less than friendly looking.
That evening Matt and I set off for an adventure we had both particularly been looking forward to: a night spent up on Mauna Kea at the Visitor Information Center, located at 9,200 feet elevation above the cloud line. The observatories at the summit are at 14,000 feet but it requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to manage the road so we settled for the lower station. We soon learned that 9,000 feet is actually the best elevation for humans to view stars because while the atmosphere is thinner at that height than lower elevations, any higher there is not enough oxygen for the human eye to function optimally.
Our plan was to arrive in time for sunset, but by the time we climbed the nearest hill with a view of the western horizon the Sun had just passed below the ocean rim. The colors were still spectacular, vermillion and rose bleeding into a darkening indigo sky. The crescent Moon hung high in the western sky, a clear white arc lit up on the edge of a darkened orb. As night descended stars emerged everywhere one turned, more clear and bright than I have seen anywhere else. Down by the visitor’s center a young student from the University of Hawaii guided us through a tour of the constellations, beginning with the Southern Cross, which cannot be viewed anywhere else in the United States except on the Big Island of Hawai’i. She then pointed out the constellation of Leo, descending toward the horizon. Near where the Sun had set a glow was still in the sky, although it was now long past sunset. We were told this was indeed the Sun’s light as it reflected on the accretion disc of our solar system, the remaining particles of dust that lie on the plane of the ecliptic.
We were led through all the constellations of the zodiac visible above the horizon in the summer sky, as well as several particularly prominent stars. Polaris, the north star, is visible at 19.5° above the horizon, indicating the latitude of the Big Island. We could see the bright blue-silver star Vega, and were told that due to the procession of the equinoxes Vega will be Earth’s north star in about 12,000 years. I recognized then that knowing the constellations of the night sky at a glance is something I would like to master. While it is not as easy to see the constellations while living in San Francisco, there are still places I can go that are not too far away where the stars are clearly visible. But it is difficult to find a stargazing platform that can rival the heights of Mauna Kea.
Because we just missed the sunset I had the thought we could sleep in our van right at the visitor’s center, and wake up in time to see the sunrise. So we spent the night at 9,000 feet, our first evening where the temperature was actually cool, awaiting the dawn. I’ve had an interesting experience with my dreams since coming to Hawai’i: each night we stayed in Waimea my dreams were incredibly violent in content, but when we slept on Mauna Kea my dreams changed completely. There was a majestic stillness; I dreamt mountain-consciousness and starlight. The experience was far beyond human. It was grandness, height, vastness. Stillness. Without an alarm I awoke as the sky was getting light, and woke Matt up so we could climb back up the nearby hill to see the Sun complete its night journey as it passed back above the horizon. The sky lightened slowly, reds and salmon-orange clouds streaking the yellowing sky. Behind us the shadow of Mauna Kea stretched over the plane below. The wind picked up in the moment before the Sun seemed to melt as fiery gold over the horizon. Awe. No wonder we are drawn to worship this life-giving orb of fire. The landscape all around awakened, golden light hitting the edges of the pu’us, the cinder cones, down the slopes of the mountain. At long last we left, having seen the Sun at last from the heights of Mauna Kea.
When you arrive on Hawaii by night your first impression is the stars. The land is dark and only instinct and memory remind you that the ocean is to your left as you travel north along the coast. Diamond stars bejewel the sky, the Milky Way a blazing band through the darkness. Our first night we were ushered into the welcoming arms of family, met at the airport with orchid leis, and brought to stay up in Waimea. It has been seven long years since I was last here, and for my partner Matt it is his first time on the island. We awoke the following morning to the sound of banana leaves rustling in the wind right outside our bedroom window, and our first meal was fresh papayas and apple-bananas from the grove my uncle has planted all around his house. I want our time here to be a drinking in of experience: of sights and sounds, tropical tastes and cultural variety, rich emotions and the beckoning call of the unexpected. I am open and ready for what this volcanic land has to teach us.
First thing in the morning one of my cousins came to meet us and take us to the Waimea Coffee Co. where we got to try White Mountain Kona Coffee—perhaps the most perfect coffee I have ever tasted, without a hint of acidity and thus requiring nothing to supplement its superbly smooth taste. No wonder it costs $58 a pound! Happily caffeinated, my cousin took us to our first beach visit of the trip, a secret little beach we had all to ourselves (except for the appearance of a spear-fishing octopus hunter who emerged in camouflaged gear from under the turquoise waters) a little ways off of Mau’u Mae Beach. Lying on that first beach I kept having to remind myself that there was nothing more that I had to do than just lie in the Sun, swim in the waters, and let go of all the planning and scheduling and millions of other thoughts that are always flying around my mind. Hawaii reminds you to release all agendas. And since it was our first day we figured we ought to go to a second beach, so we spent the later part of the afternoon at Anaeho’omalu Bay, watching the Sun and horizon slowly begin to approach one another as the wind picked up and whipped across the surface of the waves.
For our second full day another one of my cousins, who grew up here on Hawaii, brought us up over the hills behind Waimea over to Pololu Valley, one of the three valleys that extends like fingers from the north of the island toward the ocean. The beginning of our drive was through the dryer landscape of grasslands and sparse trees that extend north of Waimea, but as we descended down the further side of the hills the vegetation became richer and more lush, the grasses tall and the trees filled with colorful flowers and enormous tropical leaves. Streams ran through the small valleys at the turns in the road and banyan trees hung their curious roots in search of new fertile places to take hold. We drove through the small town of Kapa’au before arriving at the top of Pololu Valley. Gazing out over the ocean from the lip of the valley, seeing where the waves meet the base of plunging green cliffs and the mouths of black sand beaches, I felt like the beauty of it actually hurt when I tried to fully take it in. Wonder is too small a word to describe what I felt at this piercing intersection of beauties.
The three of us hiked down the steep, turning path into Pololu, past guava trees, flowering vegetation, and several towering trees bedecked with large yellow blossoms. At the floor of the valley the black sand beach gave way to stands of ironwood trees hung with rope swings, that felt like a tropical enchanted forest. The ground was covered in needles and soft green plants, and small crevasses at the base of some of the trees could easily pass for fairy doors. A stream ran out from the heart of the valley, and many different species of bird careened over the brackish waters and the marshy vegetation. After wandering on the beach and through the trees, swinging on the ropes and photographing the rock cairns piled precariously by the crashing waves, we re-ascended to the valley’s edge and bid farewell for now to Pololu. Hopefully we will be able to return to this area soon, to explore one of the other two valleys, Waimanu or Waipio, when the time is right.
On our way home we made a brief stop in the town of Hawi, to get ice cream cones at the local coffee shop. Not only am I trying to eat every tropical fruit I can get my hands on while here, but also macadamia nuts in as many culinary forms as possible—so while I tried the macadamia ice cream, Matt got the white chocolate ginger and my cousin got lemon cream. Why is eating one’s way through one’s travels so much fun? Each morning since coming here we have started our days with homegrown bananas and papayas, accompanied by mango and lychee, and toast with white kiawe honey from my uncle’s bees. And from there our days have unfolded with avocado salads and carrot-ginger juice at Lilikoi Café in Waimea, bi bim bop and Thai ice tea with coconut milk at the local farmers market, fresh poke (raw fish salad), fish tacos and margaritas at the Plantation Grill in Kawaihae, local ginger and coconut brews from the Big Island Brewhaus, and still I know each day will open up more culinary adventures.
On our third day we spent the afternoon at a favorite beach for locals, known as 69s, that is shaded all along the shore by small groves of trees the grow right up to the water’s edge. Like in Pololu, rope swings hang from the branches, these swings right over the incoming surf. Before we knew it the day had passed us by, and we met up with my cousin and her boyfriend for dinner and sunset out at Kawaihae Harbor. The sunsets here have been beyond words, more colors than a painter could dream to mix in her pallet. One might say you could taste the sunset, it is so rich and complex.
I always say it is better to travel with locals because you get taken to the places a tourist would never imagine to go, or you can have free access to places a tourist would pay a fortune to visit. So we spent the rest of our night enjoying an epically beautiful swimming pool at one of the coastal hotel resorts, and soaking in a hot tub beneath a swath of stars that peaked through the shifting night fogs.
We seem to be alternating each day between hiking and beach lounging, so yesterday one of my cousins, my cousin’s boyfriend, Matt and I hiked up above Waimea to a series of pools and waterfalls. After climbing through thick, spongy kikuyu grass we first went to one of the smaller swimming holes above the larger waterfall and swam through the cool red waters. Waimea means “red water” and we could clearly see why the town had been named for the waters that flow through this land. After a couple hours we went to the larger pond at the base of the tallest waterfall we encountered that day, a circular pool surrounded by grey lava rocks and an abundance of ginger plants. We watched as my cousin’s boyfriend climbed up the side of the waterfall and made the thirty foot jump into the waiting waters below. I didn’t feel I had it in me that day to try a similar jump, but perhaps I will work up the courage the next time we go here, or perhaps when we go to the cliffs down at South Point.
We have been here less than a week, and yet have already had the good fortune to have seen so much. And yet there is always so much more to see, so many places we still plan to go: Mauna Kea, Hilo, Volcano National Park, Puako, Hi’ilawe, Maui. . . So there will be more writings and photos to share, I promise.
Have you ever done yoga while a sheet of rain obliterates all visibility of the world around you? Or tasted drinking chocolate so rich and spicy that you would swear you are holding a melted bar of pure chocolate in the cup before you—or somehow been transported to the seductive marble counter of Vianne Rocher’s French-Mayan Chocolaterie? Or sat in a hot bath with crimson and peach rose petals strewn over the surface, the scents of jasmine and ylang ylang spiraling with the steam towards the ceiling, while bells toll the hour softly out the open window? This is just a taste of the joys I had the great privilege to experience in the second half of my visit to New Mexico, a week I am now looking back on with awe and gratitude for the level of both bliss and adventure I was able to experience.
On the afternoon of the day I wrote my last post, I went with the friend I was staying with to pay a visit to an acquaintance of hers who is now a retired harp maker. His business was called Harps of Lorién, so I had a good feeling we would get along well. He had only kept two of his harps for himself—the last ones he made—and I had the great joy of being able to play them for a little while. The larger of the two harps had just under five octaves; a beautiful creation with a rich sound, especially in the upper register. The other harp was a lovely little lap harp with 27 strings, the kind I could easily imagine myself carrying on my back on some mythical adventure. Playing them I was reminded of a trilogy I recently read that a friend recommended to me: Riddle-Master by Patricia McKillip. The series is composed of three books, The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind. As one can imagine from the final book title, harps play a significant role in the unfolding of this story.
From harps we moved on to chocolate, a transition no one I know could complain of. I was brought to the Kakáwa Chocolate House where we were greeted with an extensive menu of both European and Meso-American drinking chocolates. After tasting several different samples I settled on the Chile Chocolate, which was made of 100% chocolate, coconut sugar, chile, and Mexican vanilla. The thick liquid was both sweet and spicy, rich and rounded, calming and awakening. It was, to say the least, amazing. Truly an extravagance.
Our evening plans brought us into central Santa Fe where we had dinner at a restaurant called Blue Corn, followed by drinks at a nearby bar called Thunderbird. My astrological twin and I, of course, ordered the same drink, a cocktail of vodka and crisp pear. Our parallels no longer surprised us, especially when it was something as simple as choosing a drink, or wearing identical socks or pants. Our differences were becoming far more interesting to discover and explore.
The following day, Sunday, my friend and I went back to the land in Glorietta to hike around the area where she and her partner are building their home. The day was cooler than when we were up there on July 4th, or perhaps I was just becoming acclimated to the altitude and desert sun. Clouds were gathering on the edges of the horizon but we still baked under the clear blue of the sky directly over our heads. Walking through the forest of ponderosa pine and cedar I started to notice a distinct smell that would hit me every so often, almost like kaffir lime leaves. What was an essential ingredient of Thai food doing out here? Finally, when I smelled the scent again I stopped and looked all around me, making note of any different plants that might be nearby. To my right was a low tree with gnarled bark and pointed, needle-like leaves. Silver-green berries grew in clusters between the leaves. I took a step closer, realizing the kaffir smell came from this tree. A juniper. I never would have guessed the two smells would be so similar except through this accidental discovery.
Passing under the eaves of this sparse forest we walked out into an open meadow, a long, snaking expanse of shrub-covered ground that formed a valley between two wooded hills. Gazing overhead we saw a hawk soaring, a local inhabitant my friend recognized because of the distinctive missing feather she had in one of her wings. We climbed up one of the hills to look back down on the meadow we had just crossed. Directly opposite on the hill facing us, at a point not much higher than where we stood, the dark entrance of a cave was just visible between the trees. My friend speculated that this cave might be the home of the hawk that was still circling above us, although she was not sure.
After returning to downtown Santa Fe, I spent the rest of the afternoon on a quiet meander through the town’s streets, pausing at the stalls of artists and vendors, admiring the bright silver and turquoise that was a prominent theme of the jewelry for sale here. The clouds continued to gather in the sky, making their way towards the town, their dark underbellies heavy with rain. Finding myself in the grassy plaza I sat beneath a tree and took out my watercolors to begin painting a scene I had been holding in my mind since that morning.
The sunset that night was so brilliant—an explosion of bleeding vermillions and reds, rosy oranges and deep purples—that no photo could even begin to capture it. I sometimes wish I could bring a painting forth all in an instant, the colors pouring from my open imagination directly onto the page. But the exact wash of that particular sunset, the ways its unique colors flowed together and blended, is fading from my memory with as much certainty as it faded from that night sky.
In many ways I feel my time in New Mexico was like that sunset: so beautiful and profound, surprising and unexpected, a crescendo of connection and experience. Returning to the grey fogs of San Francisco felt a little like a shock, the stark white of the sky such a contrast to the desert colors I still held within me, memories like precious gems, each expressing different emotions through their dynamic colors. My astrological twin and I are two Sagittarians who walked together down a spiraling path of an eternally growing checklist of activities: from baking cookies and pumpkin pie to turning our toenails into artistic canvases; from sampling at a delicious gluten-free bakery to a morning of pampering at the spa; from astrological readings and healing massages to crafting beautiful gift collages; from deep conversations and gorgeous laughter to the freedom of just being utterly silly. So much of what happened during my week in New Mexico was so simple, an extended playdate between two sisters, butterfly twins who had somehow only recently met—at least in this lifetime.