The Icelandic Volcano Speaks

In my youth I lived on the island of Oahu for a dozen years. It is still my spiritual home and I get back periodically. The Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes on Hawai’i (the “Big Island” 200 miles to the south) have been erupting periodically since 1984, adding acreage to the island. This is normal, it’s just how Polynesian islands grow. It’s beautiful to watch, from a boat offshore, the flood of red lava down to the sea. But the expulsion of water vapor, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and various other acid and inert gases into the atmosphere can be annoying.

In Hawai’i it’s called “vog” (volcanic fog). When I was last home (in January) the sky over Oahu was heavy with it. Kilauea had been belching out this stuff for quite awhile now, the vog damaging island ginger and tibucinia plants, reducing driving visibility, exacerbating asthmatics’ conditions. But there was a major new emission while I was there, darkening the sky so far north. Usually the sky is so blue, just like the postcards show it. But it was gloomily grey through much of my visit, cutting down on my beach-time.

I think of that visit while reading of the impact of the Icelandic volcanic eruption on my fellow human beings.

Isn’t it remarkable that something so random and unpredictable as a volcanic eruption in the North Atlantic can shut down air traffic throughout much of the world? Planes can’t fly because ash particles accumulating in jet engines could clog them with molten glass. (That’s a more sobering thought than that of having a shoe-bomber sitting behind you.) Those sitting around in airports around the world just have to realize that the sky itself won’t let them fly right now. There’s no reason to be miffed at the person at the airline counter. It’s the volcano under the Eyjafjallajoekull glacier causing this problem.

While there’s been a lot of dramatic seismic news in recent years, it doesn’t appear there’s any particular quickening of activity. The December 2004 earthquake off Sumatra produced a tsunami that killed 225,000 and there’ve been lots of earthquakes in or around Indonesia since. But nothing as dramatic as the eruption of Krakatau in 1883 that killed about 38,000 and disrupted global weather patterns for about five years. The rash of earthquakes in Chile, China, Japan and elsewhere are not abnormal. (Those citing Biblical prophecy about such incidents signaling the End Times could have done so at any random point in the past.)

So everything’s normal and fine. As Shakespeare once put it:

Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinch’d and vex’d
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb; which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldam earth and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers.

No problem. We just can’t fly over Europe for awhile. It’s a good time to pause and think about our relationship to islands, volcanoes, and the ever-changing earth. We’re not in charge and shouldn’t be. Let the ash particles fall to earth while we save on jet fuel, miss conferences, and maybe get some extra sleep.

In old Hawai’i volcanic eruptions, as well as fire and lightning, were associated with the goddess Pele. She was supposed to reside in the Halema’uma’u crater of the Kilauea crater. From the 1820s, Christian missionaries from New England sought to wipe out the Pele cult. But they were never able to do it entirely.

Pele’s unpredictable. In recent years she’s wiped out heiaus (pre-Christian Hawaiian temples, some dating back 1500 years) by her fits and spasms, earthquakes and lava flows on the Big Island. What was the point of that, you have to wonder.  And why is the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano doing this thing now, when Iceland as well as Europe in general have enough problems?

I think of the closing scenes in the movie Avatar, in which the planet Pandora itself rises up in rebellion against the presence of the predatory invaders.  It is of course sheer fantasy to impute consciousness to a planet, although James Cameron uses that device effectively in the film. But let’s just imagine for a moment that the Icelandic volcano is sending us a message, on behalf of Mother Earth.

In its explosive roar it’s really saying, rather gently:  Sorry, you have to adjust to my normal workings. I need to vent, change, grow. You may be surprised at how new islands pop up, expand or disappear, or how stuff belched from my depths might impact your comfort level. But you’re not in charge here. You need to be reminded of that, every so often. And get over your arrogance, which is at least as annoying to me as the inconvenience of some ash in the air is to your travel schedules.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu



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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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