Born Was the Mountain
by Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder
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Narrated by Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder
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In this in-depth investigative story, Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder explores the collision of values unfolding on the summit of Mauna Kea, the proposed site for what would be the largest telescope in the world.
‘O ia ho’i hā, o ka mauna. Hānau ka mauna. So it is, the mountain. The mountain was born.
Nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on the island of Hawai’i, there is a place of snow and ice where the wind is sharp and wisps of cloud are alive in the air—illusions of breath where there is little. The land is otherworldly: iron-red and yellow and black, interspersed with the white of packed snow reflecting the strong sunlight. Cinder cones peppered with rocks rise from the undulating surface of the expansive summit with slopes that taper until they fold into the shallow circles of the small black craters at their peaks. These were the last parts of the mountain to erupt long ago, before the volcano fell dormant.
The mountain began its slow and dramatic rise from the seafloor over one million years ago, as the Pacific tectonic plate moved over a volcanic hot spot and lava erupted underwater from fissures in the earth’s crust. Eight hundred thousand years ago, it broke through the surface of the ocean. For the next half million years, it underwent frequent, violent eruptions, which transformed it into the second-largest shield volcano in our solar system. The mountain has long been dormant and still. The summit is known now for its blankets of soft snow and clear skies above the cloud line.
This is Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i, the Big Island. For the Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawai’ians, it is Mauna a Wākea, the mountain of Wākea, the firstborn child of Wākea of the sky and Papa of the earth. Mauna Kea is the piko, the center or umbilical cord, the point where all energies converge. It is a place where the akua dance in their human forms, a place to chant, pray, and remember how to be in proper relationship to creation. It is the highest temple. The mountain is an ancestor to the Kanaka Maoli people, born long ago in the ongoing song of creation. For well over a thousand years, to honor this ancestor, the Kanaka kept the summit pristine, pure, and accessible only to those who ascended with the proper conduct and ceremony.
The fate of Mauna Kea and its descendants began to turn in the eighteenth century. The British Empire, thirsty for scientific knowledge and territory, sent ships to the Pacific Ocean, tracking the course of planets and searching for new sea routes. In 1778, one of those ships stumbled upon the Hawai’ian Islands, and the long memory of a people was overtaken by something different. In the late 1800s, shortly before the Hawai’ian monarchy was overthrown by American merchants, the summit of Mauna Kea, with its clear skies and low atmospheric turbulence, earned recognition as an important site for astronomical observation. Today, astronomers know it to be the preeminent place on Earth from which to gaze at the universe.
On a day in late March, the sun is making its way across the sky as the mountain’s shadow begins to flow down its eastern side, veering horizontally where it meets the clouds, which are sweeping up the barren slopes of the summit in great gusts of wind like howling day-lit phantoms. Far in the distance, across the cloudscape, the dark eye of neighboring Mauna Loa opens briefly, glaring from its own great height, before closing again in a shroud of white.
From the seafloor to the summit, Mauna Kea rises to 32,696 feet, making it the tallest mountain on Earth. The base, 18,900 feet below the shimmering surface of the Pacific, lies far below where the last of the sunlight has been dispersed in the deep water—an abyss where the cusk eel swims, at home in the cold dark.
At the true summit is a modest shrine: a mound of stacked red stones collected from the body of the mountain. Blessings and prayers—bouquets of grass, offerings wound with red thread—are tucked into the rocks, secure against the wind. Some are fresh and hold their color; others have turned dry and brittle.
As the sun sets, it catches the metal siding of a huge dome standing tall and still above its wide base: a telescope. Just beyond it is another telescope, and another: silver and white towers planted in the red rock, some of them fifteen stories tall. In 1968, the University of Hawai’i Institute for Astronomy was granted a sixty-five-year lease on the summit of Mauna Kea. To date, thirteen telescopes have been built. Driven by the wonder of discovery and the awe of gazing at the night sky, scientists have gone so far as to create machines which see further and more clearly than we ever could, which gaze in our stead, sensing neither the mountain nor our reverence for the heavens.
A long string of dark asphalt curves up the slope of the mountain. At the end of this day in early spring, observatory staff depart in four-wheel-drive vehicles, while sunset-viewing crowds arrive in vans and buses, eager to watch the light of the heavens transform into a wide swath of stars. Island vacationers shiver in borrowed coats as the temperature dips into the thirties. Come nightfall, after the crowds depart and the last light is gone, the shrine—the small mound of stones at the highest point of this dormant volcano—will fade with the mountain into the darkening sky, giving way to a vista of stars. The telescope domes will rotate open. Their searching eyes will begin the nightly ritual of peering into the heavens, far beyond the dome of the sky, searching for distant answers from atop the high and silent reaches of the White Mountain.
Mauna Kea is the piko, the center or umbilical cord, the point where all energies converge.
Gemini Observatory and The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea.
ON SEPTEMBER 2, 2010, the University of Hawai’i at Hilo submitted a Conservation District Use Application to the Board of Land and Natural Resources, seeking permission to build a fourteenth telescope atop Mauna Kea. TMT, the Thirty Meter Telescope, would be at the forefront of innovation in telescope technology and would sit on the best site in the world for observing our universe. Over eighteen stories high with a dome measuring over ninety feet in diameter, TMT would enable astronomers to see ever further into the reaches of space, to perhaps discover habitable exoplanets, and to analyze with more precision the mysterious events surrounding the Big Bang. It would enable humanity to learn more about dark matter and black holes. TMT would offer what generations of scientists and astronomers have been working toward for centuries: a giant forward step in the potential for discovery, an unprecedented technological breakthrough.
To the astronomical community and much of the lay community of the Big Island, TMT was a step in the right direction. It would bring the prestige of discovery, funding for education, money, jobs, and scholarships to a struggling community. With thirteen telescopes already on the mountain, the University of Hawai’i and TMT anticipated the permit’s swift approval. They did not see what was to come, perhaps because they did not realize the extent to which many of the Kanaka Maoli have been remembering the ancient songs, recalling their role as guardians of a sacred mountain.
Pualani Case is a Kanaka Maoli woman, a hula teacher, and as a member of the Mauna Kea ‘Ohana Na Kia’I Mauna, is one of the most outspoken defenders of Mauna Kea. “Wha