Lucille Clifton said that at a reading I went to as a teenager, in introduction to her poem “Auction Street,” about how it felt to stand at former slave auctioning blocks in Memphis. I hadn’t traveled yet, hadn’t experienced much outside of the Bay Area, but something in me knew she was right: that rocks and trees and dirt have memories, maybe even dreams—that they hold little pieces of their histories in them, stored emotions, tender and swollen as our own knotted muscles.
I kept thinking about that line, said in passing in some beaming wooden room years ago, on my last trip. Walking amid the wordless rocky ruins of an abandoned village with a heat in my chest and a trouble in my mind, nothing seemed truer. Because, after all, Hawaii is a tragic place.
I stayed along the Kona Coast, a barren, burned-out mound of volcanic rock where the resorts stand out like green sores: lush, overly landscaped swaths of palm and grass against the expansive silence of lunar black.
P. was supposed to be one of them. Not a resort, but a tract of vacation homes: 7 acres divided into 10 lots, like much else along the winding 3-mile road that led from the highway to the coast. The land had belonged to a Hawaiian family who, amid the 80s mad-dash of development, could no longer afford the property tax and was forced to sell the land to a shady enterprise. A wealthy philanthropist came into contact with the family, bought P. from the enterprise, and built a personal vacation home there. My brother married the daughter of a the philanthropist’s good friend—which is how I came to find myself vacationing in a private, ocean-side villa earlier this month.
Sure, there was a gym and a media room and a billiards room and WiFi and groundskeepers and a gated entrance. But it wasn’t like a private resort. Not really. Because something had been retained, kept, preserved—not bulldozed and landscaped over (just landscaped around). The place quivered with a peculiar spiritual energy that made me hippie-out on heavy vibage. (And feel like I was on Vicodin.)
P. had once been a small Hawaiian village, abandoned for unknown reasons around the time Westerns arrived. Through a kind of cheat-the-locals-out-of-their-land swindle, a family came into possession of the land in the 1930s when they swapped their more lucrative property on a lusher side of the island for the rocky tangle of coast. As they bush-whacked into the overgrowth, the family discovered the rock-mound remains of the old buildings, as well as a burial site for what was later determined by archeologists to be a chief. The family was old-school, and believed in respecting the ruins; they didn’t move a stone, but left it in homage to their ancestors.
When the philanthropist came into possession of P., he respected the original family’s wishes and built his home around the ruins. He hired the son of the family, T., to be the property manager, an effort to maintain the sacred integrity of the place and undo some of the bad mojo that had cheated the family from their land.
That was as much of the story I knew as I walked the property the first day. Barefoot, the thick grass felt like carpet, and the air was soft and heavy and feeling of paradise. The path of grass snaked between the ruins, dotted by dense tangles of native trees. Neon birds flitted past, and the weasels darted like small, hungry ghosts.
As I got closer, I felt a warmth in my chest, rising into the base of my throat—not entirely unlike how I remember that first sip of alcohol: the healing heat, how something from the outside got inside, and suddenly made me feel more whole, less empty and aching. It was a curious, jarring feeling, at once intensely comforting and, well, disturbing in its unapologetic power.
I steered clear of the spot for the next few days. Frankly, I was freaked out. There was plenty else to do: I floated around the pool in an inner tube, did yoga on the deck, lounged in a hammock and read my self-help book on love addicition and co-dependancy. I’d glance sideways at the mound, avoid it, like it were a person watching me with too-blue eyes: it had seen through me and sat waiting.
T. came over to attend to some maintenance issues one day, and we got to talking. He filled in more of the history of P.—how he’d spent his summers there as a kid, how his grandmother had always told him about the spiritual power of the place and how he’d always felt it, even during his wild party days. He talked about respecting the land, saying thanks and being in tune. He told a story about an owl that lived on the property, that may or may not have been the spirit of his deceased grandmother, that had once come out in the middle of the day to watch him repair some of the stones the archeologists had moved.
If it were a movie, T. would have been wearing a lion cloth and the lights would have dimmed when he spoke, the sound of far-off drumming accompanying his tales. As it was, he wore flip-flops and a t-shirt, wrap-around sunglasses and an American moustache.
“P. has always been a healing place,” he told me simply. “I’m just glad that G. bought it, and it was able to stay the place it had always been.” He looked around the stately furniture in the vaulted-ceilinged living room, the hint of a wistful smile in the lines around his eyes. It was a far cry from the rustic shacks of his childhood, but I knew what he meant: it turned out as best it could, for the situation.
“That mound over by the house,” I pointed. “What was that?”
“Heavy, huh?” T. smiled. “We don’t really know. The archeologists thought it might have been a women’s house. Either way, it’s got some of the most powerful energy here.”
I felt the heat come—not a burning, but a warmth. I tried not to fight it. (He left.) It reached down, to some very tiny place inside, a very old and glowing wound. (A black kitchen and a birthday cake.) I looked at the trees, imagined their roots reaching down, back, on in at something (purple sores, swallowed by black)—like the pulsing red roots of teeth, the throbbing behind the bones of things. (He was sick, I loved him, he left.) The wind was gentle but urgent, speaking in a language of leaves (if I could have loved them more), like a mournful ballad sung in a language you don’t understand. (And left me here: gone.) The stones scratched and the shells dug in.
I heard a hoot. My eyes shot open and my spine twitched.
I heard it again, a belly sound, a calling. I thought of T.’s story: his grandmother owl in the middle of the day, watching over him.
It could have been a dove, cooing at the wind. But in the center of that circle, the ancient black of rocks, it sounded like the voice of P., the voice of the past—whatever it was, still was, had been and was still being, despite the house and the sprinklers and walking of foreign feet: a place of healing. A place that could somehow get down, down into the tightly clutched hurt of things, and coo.
Does the earth remember what it was? Does it carry its past in special little pockets, like a wound we hardly remember, but keep reliving, searching to heal? Well, fucked if I know. All I know is that, with all its resorts and rental cars, Hawaii feels like a beautiful young girl who’s been forced to marry a man she doesn’t love—and P. feels like the place where she goes, not to weep, but to pretend, to dream, to whisper her fantasies to herself, in the voice of the wind.