Alone with the Mountain

Several times during the recent contested case hearings I have listened to telescope opponents ask witnesses on the stand and under oath, “Have you asked the mauna?” or “Have you asked Poliʻahu?” I have heard a dozen variations on the question, but that is the general sense of it. They are asking if the witness has asked the gods or goddesses who are reported to dwell on Mauna Kea if building the telescopes is allowed. Poliʻahu in particular, the goddess of snows and ice, is identified with the summit of Mauna Kea.

Summit and Winter Milky Way
The winter Milky Way over the summit of Mauna Kea
The question strikes a particular resonance with me, returning to my thoughts again and again. I consider my relationship with the mauna, is it pono that I continue to work at an observatory and support the construction of TMT?

I think of all the nights I have spent alone on the mountain. So often I have sat in the quiet, with nothing but the mauna and the stars. Sometimes I am sitting beside a small telescope, and taking a break to simply enjoy the night. Sometimes I am waiting for a camera, somewhere nearby in the dark. Sometimes I am just sitting doing nothing at all, simply enjoying the beauty of this place. In any case I am alone with the silence, the stars, the mountain, and my thoughts.

It is not always at night, often I have hiked to places people rarely go. Quiet places where one can be alone with the mountain. These moments are all too rare, and all the more memorable for it. While I am an on the mountain several times each week, I am usually too busy to truly experience the mountain. It is at night that the sense of this place really impacts one’s consciousness.

Milky Way over Pu'u Huluhulu
Venus and the summer Milky Way rising over Pu’u Huluhulu
There are legends that swirl about these places I go. The summit is home or associated with several gods and goddesses. The summit puʻu are particularly interesting, each prominent peak associated with a particular goddess. The saddle region is purportedly a place where one can encounter night marchers.

On the high plateaus and the flanks of the mountain are ahu, shrines to the various deities or ʻaumakua to be found here. There are so many stories and legends of Hawaiian deities appearing or visiting people that one has to wonder. By all accounts they are still here, still to be found upon the mountain.

In all my experiences on the mountain I have never felt unwelcome here. Quite the opposite, I have always encountered peace and quiet in the night. In these moments I will stop and look, sit and listen. The swirling winds or the silence, the stars, the clouds far below. As one who has for so long pursued the stars I am comfortable in the night, the darkness holds no fears for me. I find it easy to open myself to the night, to simply enjoy the beauty of this place.

Never have I sensed disapproval in my being here. If someone were to ask me the question, “Have you asked the mauna?” I have an answer.

MIlky Way Arching over Hualālai
The winter Milky Way arches over Hualālai with Orion and the setting Moon at the center

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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