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Mauna a Wakea: Reconfiguring Our Sense of Place

Table of Contents: Place and Resilience in Sustainability Education, April 2016 [1]

Photo Credit: Evan Loney [2]

Photo Credit: Evan Loney

When you grow up on remote islands formed by volcanic activity, volcanic mountains become a part of who you are, your identity, and exemplify how place and self are entangled. These mountains form the backbone of the Hawaiian Islands providing water and habitat for a multispecies community of humans, animals, and plants alike. I grew up on the flanks of the Ko’olau Mountain range on Oahu, yet the magnitude and liveliness of Hawai’i Island, where I now call home has always reverberated through my soul. The only island with an active volcano, Hawai’i reminds me of the Earth’s power and the minuteness of the human species within a vast universe.

Photo credit: Evan Loney  [3]

Photo credit: Evan Loney

Rising 4,205 meters above sea level, Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on Hawai’i Island, is the tallest peak in Hawai’i and is revered by scientists and residents. For astronomers, Mauna Kea offers desirable atmospheric conditions for astronomical studies. For Native Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli, the aboriginal people of Hawai’i) Mauna Kea is the sacred and ancestral birthplace of all the islands and aboriginal people of Hawai’i. This cosmology reminds us that place is neither static nor inert, and all humans are inherently situated within the mountain and all it’s cohabitants. This photo was taken on the trail to the summit at sunrise. It was the first snow on Mauna, winter 2014.

Photo credit: Evan Loney    [4]

Photo credit: Evan Loney

Photographer Evan Loney says “It’s hard for me to describe exactly how I feel about Mauna Kea, the Big Island is home and the town I grew up in sits at the base of it so I’ve looked up to her my whole life, I associate home with the Mauna more than anything, almost like a family member.” This photo of Mauna Kea was taken in the town of Waimea at sunrise.

Photo credit: Evan Loney  [5]

Photo credit: Evan Loney

In Hawai’i many people uphold the concept of aloha ʻāina (love of the land), which is grounded in Native Hawaiian cultural and religious thought. The idea of aloha ʻāina softens the separateness between place, culture, and identity; and between nature and culture.  Mauna Kea is the second most sacred place in the universe for Hawaiians because it is home to deities and ancestors.  In traditional Hawaiian cosmology the summit of Mauna Kea is regarded as both a temple and the realm of the Akua or creator.   This photo was taken on the first snowfall of 2014.

Photo credit: Evan Loney      [6]

Photo credit: Evan Loney


These two photos are of Lake Waiau, a high elevation lake that sits in the Pu’u Waiau cinder cone of Mauna Kea. Located at 3,970 meters above sea level it is considered one of the highest lakes in the U.S. Of cultural significance, many people will place an ahu (stone heap used as a memorial) at Lake Waiau.

Photo credit: Evan Loney      [7]

Photo credit: Evan Loney

Mauna Kea is a unique representation of place as it’s meaning is spatially and temporally negotiated, and relative to the interspecies and spiritual communities that coexist with the mountain, such as in Lake Waiau.  It weaves the narratives and images of the mountain, challenging the linearity and otherwise Western contemporary notions of space and time.

Photo credit: Evan Loney [8]

Photo credit: Evan Loney

When we truly talk about sustainability and educating for sustainability, it is important to recognize that we are situated within a complex and fluid notion of place. That is, we have to look in our past in order to progress forward in a resilient, regenerative, and just way that ensures the survival of human civilization and the land we depend on.