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Turtles, Twain, and a Composer

Sea Turtle on Beach in Hawaii

In the blur of jet lag from New York to Hawaii, I met some of my new neighbors. These sea turtles come to the Punalu’u to lay their eggs. This black sand beach is just down the road from Waiohinu and Na’alehu, my home for the next month as Artist in Residence for the National Parks Arts Foundation (NPAF). Gravity weighed heavily on the turtles and me with the exhaustion of our respective long journeys. We all felt out of our element since the turtles were separated from the buoyancy of the ocean and I left behind the familiar snows of Northern, New York. Thankfully, the Hawaiian sun provided an antidote for our collective fatigue and displacement by wrapping its welcoming arms around us.

No artistic journey can begin without the basics-food and new friends. Along the only road that runs along the coast, a half-mile stretch of Na’alehu boasts a bakery, a restaurant, a couple churches, a gas station/grocery store, a post office, an elementary school, a hardware store with farmer’s market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and a library that doubles as the movie theater and seats 8-10 in between the book shelves. Within a couple of conversations, my-master-networker of a wife had already figured out all the happenings in town and made new friends. From the Filipina grandmother who sells jicama, avocados and fried bananas at the public market and the Russian carpenter who showed us the best swimming spots, to the yoga instructor who knows everybody and our NPAF hosts, we are in good hands in our first week.

I am not the first artist with Upstate New York roots to be here. Mark Twain spent April to November of 1866 in Hawaii, including a significant visit to Waiohinu and the Kilauea Volcano. His early career letters, published in the Sacramento Daily Union, gave Hawaii the quintessential Twain treatment. He waxed poetic on local customs, exotic fruits, horses and mules, skinny-dipping with locals, the vagaries of weather and Hawaiian government, volcanos, and the massive sugar industry that drove the economic engine of Hawaii’s eventual annexation (1898) and statehood (1959). Around the corner from our house, the “Mark Twain Monkey Pod Tree” is recognized on a street sign along our only road. After writing some music and making some friends, I plan on leaving a smaller footprint in Waiohinu than Twain.

The sea turtles came here to dig into the black sand in hopes that new life will return to the ocean. I came here to listen deeply to the lava-crusted landscape in hopes of finding the musical voice of the volcanos. I am excited to hike the volcanos later this week with some local experts. I also look forward to meeting musicians and other local tradition bearers to learn more about this beautiful place.

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