Pilfered lava flows back to volcano--along with candy and whiskey

September 09, 1991|By Martin Merzer | Martin Merzer,Knight-Ridder News Service

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Hawaii -- Today's nomination for worst job in America: mail carrier to the volcanoes.

Six days a week, mail sacks bulging with slivers, chunks and sometimes bricks of lava are dragged into the ranger station on the edge of Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

More lava is the last thing this moonscape of a place needs, and more work is the last thing the rangers need. But still the lava comes -- all of it returned to the source, more or less, by star-crossed tourists desperate to lift the "Curse of Pele."

Pele, a Hawaiian goddess, supposedly inflicts legendary doses of bad luck on anyone who removes even a speck of lava.

Thousands of otherwise reasonable people believe that. To placate Pele, they return lava, coral rock and anything else they might have "borrowed" from the area. Taking no chances, some try to bribe Pele with Jim Beam whiskey, candy and, once, a black nightgown.

"You just can't believe what people send, Express Mail and everything," said Norrie Judd, who handles administrative matters at the park, which means she spends a lot of time opening packages. "People, if things start going bad, they start sending things back to us, and it doesn't matter what it is.

"These boxes come completely taped, I mean completely. They don't want even a drop of lava to leak out."

Some people don't learn about the curse until many years after they bring home the lava.

"Dear Madame Pele," read a typical letter that arrived this summer. "Enclosed please find some lava that my husband and I took home as a souvenir in 1973 from a lava flow that closed the black sand beaches.

"We didn't realize that it was taboo to keep lava, and that it would make you angry. We certainly have had more than our share of bad luck, and we are terribly sorry to have angered you.

"Please accept these back, with our most humble apologies, and please release the curse." The last four words are typed boldface and underlined in red ink.

Every day stuff like this arrives, and it's driving the rangers nuts.

Norrie Judd says, "The mailman dumps the boxes here, and we have a huge pile each morning. I get tons of it. It's like, I have to commandeer volunteers, and it takes a lot of hours to do this, to unload the rocks and stuff."

No one is sure how this began, but rangers said the incoming lava started as a trickle about 15 years ago, erupting into a steady flow in recent years.

"It used to be good fun in the beginning," said Candy Hoopii, a park ranger who was born on the island. "But then, after a while, it got out of hand."

How did the legend of the lava swell into whiskey, nightgowns and who knows what else?

"Paranoia," said park ranger Steve Mattox.

He and others noted that there was nothing in Hawaiian legend that mentioned a curse on souvenir hunters.

Pele, so it goes, is the daughter of Haumea the Earth Mother and Wakea the Sky Father. She is the goddess of fire, maker of mountains, melter of rocks, eater of forests, burner of lands -- all the things one expects in a volcano goddess.

She is "unpredictable and tempestuous as only a proud and jealous female can be" -- an observation that comes directly from a brochure issued by the federal government.

So Pele tends to be edgy, but not vindictive.

Rangers don't know what to do.

So they dump the lava in what they call the "rock graveyard," behind a garage near the summit of Kilauea.

That, they figure, is close enough to Pele.

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