1.5   Kipuka

Prudence drove to the end of the Highway then into the cul-de-sac at the end of the road, in Kalapana. Off to the right were the Kalapana Café and store, the local awa bar and Kaimu lava flow information center – nothing more than a palapa-styled billboard at the edge of what used to be the bay; now it is a sea, literally, of solid black lava, where once there was a quintessential fishing village and surf spot.


There are few houses down this way. There used to be a housing development called Royal Gardens up above town, right in Kilauea’s path. All of that is gone now. The hillside is just a smoky, grey mass of Pele’s slumber. At night, if the lava is following above ground, the hillside sparkles in spatters of red.

In the cul-de-sac there is always somebody selling something to the tourists who come down this way to walk the lava flow atop Kaimu: coconuts, soap, lava trinkets, offerings to Pele, the volcano goddess.

Pru drove across the pavement. She gave some shaka love through the window to Marty Martinez who was selling fruit from his yard. “Aloha, Pru,” he called.

She then steered her pickup onto a road that had been scraped into the lava bed and topped with red cinder to smooth out the ride.

Source: http://pubs.usgs.gov/dds/dds-80/album.html

To get to Uncle Billy’s place you drive a few hundred feet across the lava mound along the ad hoc road. Just before the old bus that’s embedded up to its roof in lava (this used to be the Chain of Craters Road), you veer mau’ka in the direction of the caldera and then drive another five or ten minutes (depending the state of your vehicle’s suspension) along a ragged road up through the lava field to a green oasis. Here in the shadow of Kilauea’s steaming breath, along the hillside above what used to be Kalapana town, lies Uncle Billy’s kipuka.

For thirty years the lava has been flowing. In 1990 it took Kalapana town. In 2012 it took the last standing house in nearby Royal Gardens1. Over the years Uncle Billy and his family have watched as Pele consumed the land along the flanks of the volcano, inching in closer and closer up on their paradise. Every so often the lava would shift, taking out different parts of the wild, unnamed landscape. It was in 1999 that the flow eventually fully surrounded his homestead.

billy's kipuka

Uncle Billy’s was a mini village unto itself: a cluster of small houses interconnected by gravel walkways. There were several outdoor gathering spots covered in structures framed by sinuous ohia posts and shaded by coconut frond roofs. Palm trees and fruit trees abounded. Here and there, flowering shrubs sent wafts of scent spiriting throughout the yard: ylang-ylang, pukaki, gardenia…

Despite its idyllic grounds, Uncle Billy’s property was four acres of green surrounded by hundreds of acres of black, a reminder that it was always in Pele’s path. Nevertheless, a kipuka is a special place – a symbol or sign of Pele’s unpredictable benevolence. One assumes a kipuka is a reverent place because it has been spared.

Certainly that was the case with Uncle Billy’s hillside hideaway. Here, the native kanaka council would hold their meetings. Gatherings were common – luaus, community music nights, or just Billy and his family. Uncle Billy’s was a place of refuge, surrounded by the wild phenomena of the planet.


There is no cell phone service in this part of the island. No television. No electricity. No county water. Power comes from the sun and water comes from the sky, captured in large steel catchment tanks.

Every attempt to bring in the internet to Kalapana has failed. Several providers have tried using a network of relay dishes affixed to ohia and other tall trees in the area but always the result is the same: an internet connection so slow and unreliable it would cause your grandmother to have fits.

Here in the kipuka, with Kilauea’s flanks crackling in the nighttime distance, Manu could often be found amongst whatever crowd had gathered to drink kava and talk story, to gossip, reminisce, ponder, and discuss politics and the perennial conflicts that can consume a place.

Manu was a beloved relic from the past who cherished words and tradition and gathering with other people. He sometimes struck haoles (non-islanders) as quaint, but his ways of living – his values and his beliefs – were unambiguous, often rigid and inflexible. He was, in many ways, the opposite of what people assumed him to be.

“What is this email?” Manu once asked. He understood the concept and saw it in action on Pru’s computer once. “I don’t like it,” was his assessment.


A group of 15 or so had gathered at Uncle Billy’s to decide what was to be done about Manu’s memorial luau. They were seated on chairs arranged in three-quarters of a circle in one of the open-air structures with a tin roof and ceiling fan.

Auntie Lulu was there wearing a printed frock the color of fire (it was her power mu’mu). And stolid Uncle Billy, of course, with his long white hair pulled back into a ponytail, his girth held up by XXXL board shorts, and no shirt over his sun-darkened, sagging torso. The rest were community leaders and close friends of Manu – all kanaka (native Hawaiian), except for Pru.

“Are we ready to begin?” Uncle Billy said to the gathering.

Auntie Grace, pastor from the Church of Our Savior in Pahoa Town, came to the front of the gathering and gave the blessing: “We are gathered here, kanaka and haole, friends and ‘ohana of the late Manu Mahinulani Kamanakapu’u to offer our prayers and find in our hearts an agreement on how best to celebrate our departed Uncle’s life. Many have had disagreements with him but all have shared his love and his learning. We ask our Lord Savior, Jesus Christ, to bestow upon us dignity, compassion, kindness and love as we strive to come to agreement in our gathering today. In His Father’s name: Amen.”

The gatherers offered a communal Amen of varying hues and intensity.

Then Uncle Billy’s son, nicknamed Lau Lau, a thick handsome young man with broad shoulders and a long ponytail that rivaled his father’s, recited a brief chant in Hawaiian. At the end he lifted his arms and looked upward, then returned to his seat and said nothing more.

Pru sat quietly and listened to the deliberations. She wasn’t there to discuss, really; she was there because she’d been invited. The kanaka all liked Prudence, for the most part, and because she was an integral part of the last decade of Manu’s life, they felt it was important to have her there when decisions were made about his memorial.

As with most kanaka councils, in this one there would be disagreements and rivalries; disappointments and arguing. Residual loyalties and resentments would surface. And after much talk of brudda and ‘ohana and the great injustice tricked upon the Hawaiian kingdom – Manu was a historian, recall, and in Puna all roads lead somewhere, especially to the overthrow of the kingdom – they would all come to a decision, and everyone would submit their assent, some leaving the gathering more satisfied than others.

What was decided was that the luau would be held two weeks from the coming Friday, to allow time for the details to be worked out. What was known was that there would be music. There would be food. There would be talk story and there would be hula -- in other words: all the standard components. Auntie Grace would lead the charge on part of the planning. Her cousin, May, would pick up other pieces. Lau Lau would play a role and...Well, that was about all that was decided when Uncle Billy abruptly stood up and declared the meeting over.

The most important pieces had been decided: time and location. Everything else would fall into place Puna style.

Prudence left the assembly feeling honored: the council had chosen to hold the luau on Ohalani Road, at Pru's place, because, as Auntie Lulu asserted, “Manu's mana is strong there.”

As a scientist will tell you, energy (mana) is neither created nor destroyed: it can only be transformed. After our loved ones die, part of their energy goes to the sacred place (the unknowable) and part of it stays here on earth. So in Hawai'i we live out our days alongside the spirits of our ancestors and friends.

Manu would be part of the party.


Once at home, Prudence strolled down through the bamboo clusters in her upper yard, then down toward the dense cane grass that bordered Manu’s yard. She was getting excited by the thought of hosting the luau. And she was humbled. She walked across the broad lawn behind the cottage and then stopped to marvel at where she’d found herself: her property was her own version of a kipuka, surrounded by the dark and wondrous beauty of life and by that strangest phenomenon of all: human nature.

Prudence went up to the cottage, left her slippers on the lower step, and then sat down staring out at the yard. Manu’s cottage was silent except for the quiet sound of breezes passing through gaps in the boards.

His presence was indeed strong. Unfortunately so was his absence.

It had been three weeks since he died. Prudence had walked down the hill from her house that day. She hadn’t heard Manu all that morning. Ordinarily she could hear him tending the house or calling to the wild hawks that lived in the vicinity and flew circles above the property.

Sound traveled uphill, and although the noises from Manu’s house were only snippets of his day – the faint clanking of dishes, a hammer, indecipherable chanting – they were signs of his life and its accompanying poetry which rolled upwards along with the wind to her house. They were, to Prudence, part of the sounds of nature.

“Manu?” she called from the path that had been forged by footsteps into tall cane grass bordering the house.

She meandered through the shower trees and called his name from outside the ‘ohana, which in Hawaiian means family and also stands for a guest house. There was no response. She walked up the four steps that led to the front door. She rapped on the frame and called him again: “Manu?”

She couldn’t see if Manu was inside – from the front door you couldn’t see much of the interior – so she walked around to the back of the house, where there was a deep lanai backed by a wide wall of glass. A few broad steps connected the lanai to the yard where the coconut trees danced in daylight and the mango cast a long thick shadow across the lawn. It was on these steps that Prudence liked to sit with Manu, listening to stories of his past, and of Hawaii’s past, and watch the clouds in the evening sky turn pink from the setting sun as it disappeared behind the volcanoes, she with a glass of wine and he looking at her every so often with a smile.

The moment she stepped out of her flip-flops and left them on the steps she sensed something was wrong. (We can’t always describe these things but we can feel them: there is some energy in the shifting of the wind, or in the silence of the birds, in the way we feel when something is out of place.)

Prudence peered in through the glass doors and there he was: slumped forward onto his writing desk. For an instant she tried to convince herself that he was asleep. That was the scene she wanted to render, that was what she wanted to be real. She pushed open the door in fright and called again: “Manu?”

He didn’t respond, just remained there motionless, pen in hand and his head turned sideways, his frozen gaze directed at his bookshelves.

Prudence approached and nearly choked on her breath. She grabbed one of his wrists to check for a pulse, but as soon as she touched him she knew. She pulled his long salt and pepper hair away from his cheek and put her hand there, solemnly. In moments like this life is a closed, empty circuit: there is no sharing of electrons, no heat, no life, only a vacancy of everything. The irreversibility of the moment was too much for her. She made her way to the edge of the bed and sat, staring at her friend, her tenant, the old man poet, mentor, uncle…all of these things…in disbelief.


In the Hawaiian language there are 14 different words for rain, phrases that tell you not just that it’s raining but how it’s raining: a light moving rain is ko’iawe; showery rain is ua na-ulu.

Prudence hadn’t heard the rainstorm coming, nor was she aware if she’d been sitting on the edge of his bed crying for five minutes or for fifty. The rain was being blown southward by the trade winds and when it arrived in the lower yard and landed upon the roof it was, like her tears, a drenching rain: ua ho-’e’ele.

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1The last house standing in Royal Gardens…

Excellent collection of pictures of the Kalapana flow…

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