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Lava Trees, Basaltic Crystals, and the Landscape of
Kilauea's East Rift Zone / 2012

My introduction to Kilauea's east rift zone and the dynamic forces controlling this shield volcano started with a daylong hike along the Mauna Ulu trail in 1992. Since then, I have found myself continuously drawn back to this perpetually morphing terrain, with each trip bringing new revelations.

The east rift zone contains many intriguing geological formations. Lava trees, above all, have sparked my imagination. I initially started this body of work by documenting these honeycombed structures. Lava trees form when molten rock flows through a forest and then drains. The moisture that is trapped in the larger plants cools the lava and shapes it into stone statues. Some lava trees contain a hollow void, a ghostly negative space where a tree once stood. Others still hold the charred remains of the forest in their core. The more complex lava trees are created after a second coating of lava, usually from spatter ejected from an active fissure.

Lava trees have brought forth numerous associations to my mind, from Chinese scholar rocks to Giuseppe Arcimboldo paintings, like The Four Seasons in One Head. They exhibit an oddness more commonly found in the cabinets of the Renaissance Wunderkammer. However, lava trees are a much more ephemeral object, and over time many collapse and disappear.

Puu Oo the ever active cinder cone on the side of Kilauea, draws scientist's and visitor's helicopters and planes, which buzz around its summit. Flying over Puu Oo is a humbling experience. I have hovered in pouring rain around it, with white mist and blue volcanic gases obscuring the view. This only made the hissing sounds coming through the haze feel more ominous. On clearer days, one sees an immeasurable flow of iridescent orange rock spilling out of the vents. Looking down at its primordial pump, Kilauea reveals itself as an ancient entity radiating a menacing indifference.

One of the dominating features seen from above are long trenches called graben. These massive sunken blocks form when the stable northern flank of the rift zone, and the mobile southern flank are displaced by intrusive magma. This leads to large crustal movement. Grabens are testimony to the immense forces at work beneath this landscape.

At higher altitudes, the east rift zone contains a rainforest dominated by native plant species and fragmented by recent lava flows emanating from Puu Oo. Some of the older lava trees get swallowed up in this mix of vegetation, which has evolved to make a quick comeback after each successive eruption. The rainfall can exceed 100 inches here, and it is often a wet, cold, and foggy place, not what comes to mind for most when they think of Hawaii. The Ohia tree, with its twisted branches and explosions of red flowers, dominates this forest. It is an early colonizer of new lava flows, and its sweet nectar is an important food source for the indigenous birds.

The prehistoric-looking tree fern, Hapuu Pulu, is commonly found with the Ohia. This fern can reach heights of 20 feet, and its base and fronds are covered by a thick protective fiber called Pulu. In the 19th century the Pulu was harvested and shipped to the west coast to be made into stuffing for pillows and mattresses. The soft golden brown filament covering these giant's curled fronds resemble a wooly mammoth's snout.

On my latest hikes in the rainforest, I found myself using a large concave mirror in the pictures. Like a lens, converging mirrors have the ability to focus light, and I soon began to carry one around as if it were a third eye, one with the ability to amplify various plant forms with an expanded perspective.

The east rift zone has produced continuous lava flows for centuries, with the most recent and longest eruption coming from the mouth of Puu Oo. As tentacles of lava wind through the rainforest, they creep down Kilauea's steep southern flank and descend towards the sea.

The Hawaiian word for cliff is Pali, and running along Kilauea's southern flank is the impressive Halina Pali. This fault scarp, like many geological artifacts, is testimony to past catastrophic events. As new magma is injected into the east rift zone, it pushes down on the unbuttressed southern flank of Kilauea. The result is large scale slumping, which has helped form these 2000 ft. high escarpments. Massive edifice failures can lead to Tsunamis. This last happened in the 1975 earthquake and the resulting small Tsunami took the life of two campers. In the next century, it will likely happen again, but on a much larger scale.

At the base of the Halina Pali the cascading lava has a silvery glow under a full moon. Here one can find petrified rivers pouring down to a cracked pahoehoe pavement that stretches under a scorching sun to the ocean. This is now the hot and arid lowlands which are dominated by Pili grass.

I recently brought back a small sample of fresh pahoehoe from this lava field so I could observe it greatly magnified. Under a scanning electron microscope at Princeton's IAC center: the world suddenly opened up into a constellation of igneous crystals. The Big Island produces a particular kind of basalt known as Hawaiian tholeiite. It is rich is Silica, Iron and Potassium oxide, and it is known for its abundance of phenocrysts. The olivene, plagioclase, and pyroxene phenocrysts I was now seeing would have grown while the rock was still hot.

As a beam of electrons illuminated these celestial jewels in a basaltic chip the size of my thumb, thoughts on infinity from the 16th century monk, Giordano Bruno, seemed relevant, " All things are in the universe and the universe is in all things."


Note- The online version of this writing lacks the diacritical marks in the Hawaiian language because many web browsers will not display them correctly.