Tragedy and beauty go hand-in-hand at Kalaupapa. Along with metaphor and anthropomorphism.
The wind is an ever-present friend at Kalaupapa, blowing bugs and the humid heat down a backdrop of cliffs lined up straight as soldiers in formation.
If I were shooting slide film again, I would select a blue-and-green box of Fuji Velvia for this dramatic spot on the north side of the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. And I wouldn’t need a polarizer or HDR or PhotoShop to pop the colors. After a winter of blessed rain and ever-present clear skies, the colors are already saturated.
I just discovered a mongoose, sitting on its hind-end, front paws propped against the screen door, and peering at me in the kitchen.
Outside, a happy plumeria proffers bouquets of blossoms as big around as melons.
A pod of spinner dolphins rests in the sandy-bottom bay just west of Kalaupapa Landing, the dock where a container ship makes it annual stop with a year’s worth of groceries and washing machines and lumber and whatever else the residents of Kalaupapa need. I watch a couple smaller dolphins bring up the pod’s rear, flipping and jumping and acting just like teenagers resisting bedtime.
In science, the act of ascribing human attributes to animals is called anthropomorphism. That last line in the above paragraph is a perfect example. In literature, however, we call that a metaphor, and we call that good writing. But in science, metaphors are pretty much verboten.
It’s hard to be good at writing. I’m not talking about writing in complete sentences, and getting nouns and verbs in agreement, or lining up dependent clauses in the right order–although there is that to consider.
What I am talking about is writing something that is deemed “good,” by whomever happens to be doing the deeming. That may be an editor. It may be the subject of a profile piece. It may be the biologist about whose life subject you have condensed into a 5,000-word feature story.
What I’ve concluded is this: Writers never get it right.
To some, the style is too flowery—too much like poetry. To others, it’s too formal—too scientific.
Then, there’s the truth—the truth, be it the accuracy of science, history, dates, species, you name it. Some readers kneel at the feet of facts. Others claim Truth—with a capital T—is all that really matters. That is, getting to the essence of some human condition or experience.
Simply put, there is a whole lot of judging going on. Readers are constantly evaluating whether this or that rings true, is true, feels true–however they define true.
Earlier in the day, while sitting at the kitchen table and seeing a book I had toted to Kalaupapa, a fellow traveler remarked, “I’ve read that book.” It was a book of essays on endangered species published some 20 years prior, so I was a little surprised she had read it. But, then, the book included pieces on Hawaiian monk seals and short-tailed albatrosses, so my surprise was not all that remarkable. We were, after all, at Kalaupapa because of our mutual interest in saving the Hawaiian monk seal species. And we had both worked closely with albatrosses, as well.
I didn’t have to ask whether she liked the book or not, because she offered a review rather quickly. She recalled others—fellow scientists—remarking that it was too flowery.
As a writer, all the judging can be overwhelming. Sometimes, I think why bother. Why toil over the right and perfect word when no matter what I write, there will be detractors? Why interview so-called experts when other so-called experts will say I got something wrong anyway.
I was thinking all this as I walked through the settlement of Kalaupapa. That’s what it’s called here—a settlement. Kalaupapa has a rather dark history.
In 1866, the Hawaiian government started exiling persons suspected of Hansen’s Disease—known then as leprosy—to this isolated peninsula cut off from “topside” Molokai by 1,600-foot sheer cliffs.
Randall, a gentle man with an easy smile who works for the National Park Service, picked us up from the airport—a one-room, open building where there are no x-ray machines, no TSA, and no agricultural inspections. Not even a gate. He said Kalauapapa is “50 miles and 50 years from Honolulu.” I think the numbers might be more like 50 and 100, respectively.
Speaking of numbers, nearly 8,000 people died on this peninsula from the “separating sickness,” as it came to be called, because most were forcibly removed from their families. Some of the early exiles, it’s said, were shoved off a boat and left to swim to shore.
In 1980, Kalauapapa National Historical Park was established to preserve the natural and cultural characteristics of the place and maintain the home of the remaining residents. There are eight to 15, depending on whom you ask. Some “patients,” or “old folks,” or “residents,” as I heard them called—no one calls them “lepers,” anymore—have moved home, wherever that was before their exile. Others decided home was Kalaupapa, the place they had spent most of their lives.
A cure for the crippling and disfiguring disease that affects the nerves, skin, upper respiratory tract, and eyes was discovered in the late1940s, but it wasn’t until 1969 that Hawaii’s isolation policy was officially abolished.
I make my way through the few blocks that comprise the settlement and head north on Kamehameha Street—not that there are street signs. You’ll only find street names on a National Parks Service pamphlet.
I pass the Long House, where family could sit at a table and visit patients through a fence that separated them. I pass a gas station with one rusty pump that I’m not convinced is still operational. I pass a store.
I pass St. Francis Church with its Gothic windows and masonry construction, where, the next day, I will attend mass for the first time in years and sit with a half-dozen other parishioners, most patients, one whom I met the night before playing a card game called Hearts. He nods his head in recognition when he sees me. Another, a woman, signals to me where I can find the missal, a liturgical book with the prayers and readings for the service. Like elsewhere in the world on Sunday mornings, we sit scattered about in the pews, mostly in the back. There are eight rows in this church where Father Damien, now a saint, once said mass, and I imagine all the pews and aisles were filled then.
At the end of mass, I kneel, make the sign of the cross—the prayers and genuflections and all the details come back without conscious thought—and I notice the small balcony at the back.
At another church on the peninsula, I had seen an outhouse with two doors—one labeled “patients,” the other “kokua.” Too, the 6,100-square-foot Paschoal Hall, a one-time social center with movie projector where John Wayne, Shirley Temple Black, and the Von Trapp Family Singers actually performed, had a separate entrance and stairs leading to mezzanine seating for “kokua.” Or helpers—the nurses and priests and nuns sent to Kalaupapa to tend to the patients.
But all that church stuff would take place the next day. On this day’s walk, my destination was the beach known as `Ilio pi`i.
In her popular dictionary, noted authority on Hawaiian language, Mary Kawena Pukui, translates this beach’s name to “climbing dog,” ostensibly for the monk seals that haul out here. I’m not sure how old the Hawaiian name is, but it pre-dates the return in the 1990s of Hawaiian monk seals to this beach, according to Eric, the marine ecologist with Kalaupapa Historical Park.
There is a monk seal mother and her pup hauled out on the beach when I arrive and three males patrolling the near-shore waters. The males make a show of what I can only determine is a hierarchical display, raising their heads to look bigger, opening their mouths to show off their big canine teeth, and grumbling. I decide the sound they make is something between a growl and a long, drawn-out belch—and coin a new term for monk seal vocalization: Grelch. There is little physical interaction, but these three guys are grelching to beat all, probably debating who will claim the top spot on the female’s dance card once she weans her pup and comes into estrus shortly thereafter.
But that’s all speculation and anthropomorphism and metaphor on my part. I’ve spent nearly eight years as a volunteer in the effort to save the Hawaiian monk seal from extinction, but I’m no scientist.
This, I think, is the perfect setting in which to read the 20-year-old text of a naturalist-author who helped me realize the kind of writer I wanted to be, and so I start reading.
Immediately, I’m jealous. This is a writer who has traveled to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands on assignment for National Geographic. On the second page, I underline a sentence about the first pinniped recorded by Aristotle in the Mediterranean and the first spotted by Columbus in the Caribbean—both monk seals. I underline another sentence that impresses me for the way it succinctly imparts information about the author herself and the age of the monk seal species. But starting on the sixth page, I find myself underlining passages and adding a small question mark in the margins. Is that right, I ask myself. I think she got that wrong.
By the time I get to the ending, I am fuming. I don’t believe it. Witnessing the breeding of a pair of Hawaiian monk seals? That’s a rare event that has yet to be scientifically documented some 20 years later? I start to question the writer’s ethics. Then, I question her storytelling decisions. The ending is just too easy. Too wrapped up with a bow. I hate bow-tied endings.
Then, I realize I am doing the same thing that had disturbed me earlier in the day. I am judging a story. What’s more I questioning a writer whose papers are housed at the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections of the Cornell University Library? Who do I think I am?
It dawns on me that my own writing community is made up of judgments: critique groups, workshops, editor’s letters, book reviews.
As much as it may bother me, we are a people who evaluate, review, and judge. It’s the same when I, on the rare occasion, go shopping. These shoes are the wrong color. Those are too tight. Those make my cankles look big. As a writer—a receiver of all that judging—it can get exhausting. It can diminish the desire to pen a single word.
Here in Kalaupapa, we will never know some details, like whether patients really were shoved off boats and left to swim ashore. Why there is a beach named `ilio pi`i. The meaning behind all that grelching. And I will never please everyone with the words and stories I write. Some things are a mystery. But here’s the thing I do know: We have to keep doing what we do. And what I do—rightly or wrongly, accurately or not—is write.
My four days at Kalaupapa unfurl like a long, lazy flag in the wind. Time moves at a snail’s pace of 50, perhaps 100, years ago when endemic land snails probably still populated this peninsula. That’s my apology for writing on and on and on when I’d only intended to pound out a short essay.
And let me also just say this in advance: I try hard to get my stories just right, but I’m sorry if I got anything wrong.