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Sunrise on the Mauna

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Before leaving, I wanted to go up to Mauna Kea to see the sunrise. I left the house around four in the morning (much to the discontent of the cat in my bed) and drove along the dark roads, the buzz of coqui frogs fading behind me.

The balmy air grew colder as I drove up Mauna Kea Access Road. I parked in the nearly empty lot, bundled up some more, then rambled up a little dirt path to the top of a drumlin overlooking the landform, whose flanks were still submerged in shadows.

Sitting on a cold slab of rock, I looked up at the open sky. A week earlier, I had joined a class taught by a man named Lanakila Mangauil. He had talked about pō (night) and how it reminds us of the origin of the world. He compared the darkness to that of a womb, or a seed buried in soil. According to a chant called the Kumulipo, the world began in utter darkness with the Earth Mother, Papahānaumoku. The darkness of night, Mangauil explained, brings us a feeling of being closer to our origins.

Coqui Frogs

A few paling stars were still visible. It was bewitching to think about Native Hawaiians learning how to read the stars and passing this knowledge down through generations so that they could navigate the world.

I also thought about how much of the world outside of our planet has yet to be navigated. Dr. Bolte had described how a larger telescope would allow us to look through the thick veils of sky, right back to the beginning of space time, and use these uncharted stars to get closer to our origins.


I realized, just then, that each person I met those past few weeks was advocating for the thing that helps them understand our world better. To the astronomers, the Thirty Meter Telescope is a tool that could help us learn about how the galaxy came to be. To some, it’s also a way out of the tourism-dependent economy consuming true Hawaiian culture down to the bone. However, those who blocked the Access Road did it to protect that same culture, as well as the land. To them, Mauna Kea represents who they are and where they came from.  

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The sun peeked out from under the horizon, its rays spilling over the low-hanging sheets of clouds. The world looked like it was being reborn, fresh and clean and well-rested. The rolling hills and clouds all blended together into one landscape of opal.

This reminded me of the next part of Mangauil’s story, when the sky father Wakea brought light into the world. Together, Wakea and Papahānaumoku created the world of earth and sky, light and darkness. 


The two sides of the TMT debate are not as easy as light and darkness. I came here thinking that I was going to unmask a villain, that one group of people would be right and the other would be wrong. But what’s happening on the island is not black and white. It’s the pink and orange clouds of sunrise, the time of day that Flores said represents the love between Kukahau'ula and Poli'ahu. It’s the pearl-colored telescopes already perched on the Mauna’s peaks. The grey dust on the feet of people who danced hula on the Access Road every day, and the grey metal of handcuffs on kupuna. The infinite colors of the nebulas we have yet to discover. It’s the people, fighting for what they believe will heal the deep red wounds of this island . . . this island, in the middle of a blue sea.

. . . 

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