Haleakala–House of the Sun and Home of the Silversword


By Neva Knott

4 AM, Maui, Hawaii, 2014.

Jim’s rustling in the kitchen and the smell of coffee awaken me. I stay nestled in my blanket on the couch, listening to him find pans to make breakfast, listening to his wife Gail turn on the water for a shower. The lapping sound of the ceiling fan reminds me I’m in the tropics, not at home in rainy winter Washington. I stretch my arm over the couch; Jim puts a cup of coffee in my hand and says good morning. “I’m up, really,” I reply. I’m usually the sleepy head of the bunch, but today we’re going on adventure. We need to get a move on, so I get up, dress quickly, organize a bag for the day, and step out onto the lanai, into the still darkness. The air smells clean and musty, as it always does after a night of rain in the islands. I swing for a while in the hanging porch chair, taking in the warmth of the coffee, the dampness of the air and the silence of the darkness.

Twenty minutes later, we’re all ready to go. It’s still dark as we pile into the rental Jeep. Dark, as in not yet dusk–no hint of sun. That’s good. It’ll take us about an hour to drive to the top of the volcano; we’re going there to watch the sunrise, so pitch black is what we want right now, why we’re up so early.

When we planned this trip, going up top for sunrise was my one request. Though I’d lived on Maui years ago, and though I drive up to Haleakala National Park every few visits, I’ve never been up for sunrise. Haleakala translates to house of the sun. The three of us are on Maui now as a celebration–Jim and Gail and I went to high school together, were close, but lost touch after I moved, went to college, their son was born–after adult life took over. We’ve recently reunited. They helped me remodel my mom’s house after she passed, and this is my way of saying thank you–for the support, the sweat equity, and for saving me so much money by doing work I would have had to hire done. Jim and Gail have only been to Maui once before, and they had the bad tourist experience. The whole plan for our trip is for them to see Maui on a more local level, to see this beautiful island come alive.

Our rental is a cabin is in Haiku, a more residential jungly part of the island. No street lights, curvy roads. We make our way to the main roads, roads I know. I direct Jim the back way through the still-sleeping town of Makawao and onto the rodeo road that connects to Haleakala Highway. Then it’s up and up via an s-curve two-lane road, up to 10,000 feet. We drive, mostly in silence. Jim has said he wants to see the sun “boil out of the ocean on one side of the island, and sink back into it on the other.” Jim’s request is similar to that of the demigod Maui’s mother. Legend tells that Haleakala crater is where Maui captured the sun in order to convince it to take longer crossing the sky each day, so that his mother’s bark cloth could dry fully. Maui held the sun captive in the crater for several days. Finally, the sun granted Maui’s wish so he let it return to the sky.

We are a bit late this morning–the sky is getting light as we snake up the last few miles. Jim parks the Jeep and we jump out. As we start walking to the rim of the crater, we hear voices. Gail asks, “What’s that noise?” “Chanting the sunrise,” I tell her, though in my mind, I can’t remember the words. I give a quick explanation of the Hawaiian ceremony as we make our way to the rim, arriving just as the sun peaks through the cloud layer and burst into orange, filling the sky. For that moment, nothing else existed, nothing accept the sun rising out of the ocean, coming through the clouds, lighting the sky, signaling the beginning of this new day.




4 AM, Kaho’olawe, Hawaii, 2003.

The pu sounds, and I rustle in my sleeping bag. I reach for my flashlight but decide to leave it off–turning it on will only upset the calm of the darkness, and will make it harder to see once I’m outside. I wake my tent-mate, Wendy, telling her I’m going to get Niccole and we’ll wait for her before we head to the beach. The last blows of the pu drift into the still-night darkness as I unzip the tent flap and step into the cool Hawaiian morning.

Kaho’olawe is the uninhabited island eight miles southwest of Maui. It’s a privilege to be here, to stand on this sacred ground. Before we arrived, we learned traditional cultural and protocals, one of which involves rising before dawn. A group leader blows the pu, or conch shell, to signal it’s time for the day to begin. Then, we make our way to the water, strip, submerge and cleanse ourselves of anything left from the day before or that crept into our consciousness during the night. The ocean sweeps away negativity, worry, guilt, exhausting, anger, or distraction that will keep us from living this day, the day to begin when the sun rises as we chant our prayer to its climb from ocean to sky. Wendy, Niccole, and I are alone at our scrap of beach. The water is shallow and the bottom rocky. We wade out as far as feels safe, then kneel, dunk, and splash to cover our skin in the salty water. This ritual makes sense to me. I think to myself, “How can I do this every morning?” The earth-based, cycle-of-life Hawaiian style of spirituality resonates in me.

Kahoolawe Fire

After our dip we gather at the fire the kuas, our leaders, have built. The sky is lightening, but still some version of a blue-black-grey. After all of the group have made their way from tent to ocean to fire and are warmed and dry, we make our way up a shoreline steepe to watch the sun come over Haleakala, Maui’s volcano, the house of the sun.

For the half hour or so it takes the sun to rise, we chant, e ala e:

E ala e Ka la i kahikina

I ka moana

Ka moana hohonu

Pi’i ka lewa

Ka lewa nu’u

I kahikina

Aia ka la.

E ala e!


In translation:


The sun in the east

From the ocean

The ocean deep

Climbing (to) the heaven

The heaven highest

In the east

There is the sun



6: 45 AM, Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, 2014.

The cold air hits us, and I realize I’ve forgotten to tell my friends it can be close to freezing up here. I put on yoga pants and a sweater, but am still cold. Gail is in shorts. Jim runs back to the Jeep for our beach towels–we wrap ourselves in them and stand in awe, watching. The sun is up, and as it shifts higher and higher, the colors in the crater change. The cinder rock hills come out of shadow and take on their daylight hue of deep rusted burgundy, the sharp edges of cliffs come into relief so that the stone’s edges are delineated, the vegetation is now bright green.


The Haleakala Silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense ) is a unique plant, charismatic even. It grows only here, in these volcanic soils. The bottom of the plant is round and covered in silver-green spikey leaves. The flower stalk shoots up from the middle of this ball and grows to five feet or so. The silversword flowers only once in it’s life, then dies. The charismatic nature of the plant comes through in its bloom–the petals are a deep maroon and the 100-500 flowers on each plant burst open at once, engorging the stalk with life.


The plant almost went extinct–as the story goes, visitors often picked the silversword as a symbol of having made it to the top of Haleakala. Local lore explains that, for awhile, it was the thing to do…not really a custom, but something like tossing a coin in a fountain for good luck, everybody does it…to roll the ball shaped part of the plant into the crater, for sport. I have to admit, it does look a bit like a spikey bowling ball. Before Haleakala was a National Park, it was used as rangeland. Consequently, in addition to the picking and the rolling, grazing goats and cattle helped to diminish the silversword population. By the 1920’s, according to Haleakala Park scientists Lloyd Loope and Arthur Medieros, there were only 1437 of the plants left in existence. Conservation efforts have restablished the health of the plant’s population. Now about 50, 000 individuals grow across this gritty cinder rock landscape.


The silversword’s rare nature has also made it a research subject. According to the Park Service, scientists are studying to attempt to understand how it might react to climate change. In one regard, it’s a plant that is sturdy and able to survive in harsh conditions with irregular water; contrastingly, it dwindles when its habitat is disturbed. The silversword is a desert plant; most desert plants store carbon dioxide differently than non-desert dwelling vegetation. As scientists work to understand how Haleakala’s floral celebrity will handle increasing temperatures, the silversword becomes not only a charismatic species, but an indicator species as well.


It was too dark to see much on the drive up. What’s beautiful about the drive down is that the landscape changes again and again as we wend from the barren alpine aeolian zone of the summit and through the subalpine shrublands along the slopes. Plants change, rock formations change, hill slope changes. Both the North Shore and the South Shore are visible from this altitude. As we descend, we watch the island awaken. It’s not quite 9 AM when we get into Makawao town. We have to wait for the coffee shop to open. Unanimously, almost unspokenly–in that way between friends of a long time–we decide we’ll go again tomorrow, and we’ll be up top on time.


Photograph of Haleakala Silversword in bloom courtesy of the National Park Service.

All other photographs by Neva Knott.




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