While a junior at Occidental
College in 1974, I received the equivalent of a Summer Undergraduate Research Program award to study the
monitoring of active volcanoes in Hawaii. I spent 10 weeks on the Big Island exploring
the operation of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, perched on the rim of
One fateful day, Robert Tilling, my supervisor and a Pomona geology alum, sent me into the nearby forest with a
team of fellow observers to examine strange goings-on recorded by the observatory’s
geophysical instrumentation. The whole top of the mountain was gently rocking;
something big and unseen was moving underfoot—a creepy feeling. Native Hawaiians
would have called it the fire goddess Pelehonuamea, who made her home at the
summit of Kilauea, but my teammates called it magma: underground molten
Shortly before noon, a large crack opened in the trees near
where we stood next to our four-wheel drive, and with a roar like a thousand fire hoses
turned on full blast, a curtain of lava hot enough to melt steel shot out of
the earth. We barely escaped to an overlook we thought would be safe, about a
kilometer upslope and upwind of this vent. Feeling secure, we settled in simply
to watch nature in convulsion, destroying the old while building the new.
It turned out that we were hardly safe where we stood,
however. A fellow student soon pointed out a shallow trench forming in the soil
just a few meters away. As it deepened, dense white steam began to wisp from
its rims. Dr. Tilling shouted for us to
move back, further upslope. Within a few minutes a fresh curtain of blood-red
lava erupted with a loud hiss. And then … a third crack opened—this time right
in the parking area!—forcing us to evacuate our vehicles farther away. Flows
poured across the landscape in multiple directions, and for a few crazy moments
it seemed like the landscape was literally falling apart all around us.
How does one feel at a time like this? A peculiar mixture
of terror and awe at the wild power and strange beauty of what was happening.
Soon enough, the paroxysm died down. Within a few hours, it
was essentially over. I’d been permanently transformed. I’d been inspired.
Decades have passed since that event, but I continue to be
occasionally troubled by dreams from this time. In these dreams, I move through
a landscape that I believe is the Kilauea countryside—but isn’t, not quite. Its
features are distorted and modified in the way that dreams can change things. An
eruption begins modestly … then spreads and develops further, until I am trapped!
I wake up irritated. What do these dreams mean? They come
when I am busiest and most anxious from work; I suppose, then, that they relate
to fears about losing control, or being exposed to forces beyond my power. They
also show how quickly impressions of breathtaking beauty can change to
brow-sweating terror—and unexpectedly so.
They remind me too, that living in a city like Los Angeles,
we live in a bubble—that we come to think that reality revolves around the
human sphere of urban culture and personal interaction, much like people
imagined that the sun and stars revolved around the Earth in the Classical Age.
But after spending time in a place like Kilauea, it becomes
very clear that this view is illusory. The nature beyond our purview, of
course, is far more significant. It is the reality that supersedes human
activity everywhere, and in a time of rapidly changing climate, rising pollution,
and increasing depletion of resources, we should keep this foremost in mind.
Better to understand the system that provides context for our affairs and go
with the metaphorical flow—stand “upwind and upslope” when a big event happens unexpectedly—rather than ignore the forces that otherwise can quickly overwhelm us. My
take-away from these dreams is positive. They are interesting, thrilling, and
By virtue of being in Claremont, you are almost certain to have transformative experiences during your four years—perhaps
less searing than the one I’ve described here, but nonetheless capable of
returning in later years to haunt you in (I hope) positive ways. Appreciate them; they have the power to form links in deeply surprising ways to futures yet
unlived. Although you will leave this place, in some ways the place may stay with you.
You may regard your graduation, whether that prospect is immediate or still
distant, as an end to your education. But it is really a beginning of something much
richer—a trip to a yet-undiscovered country whose landscapes will, in turn, shape your dreams for years to come. Look forward to it!
Richard Hazlett is the Stephen M. Pauley Chair in Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and an affiliated professor in the Geology Department. He spoke on this topic at the most recent TEDxClaremontColleges event, “Unexpected Narratives.”