We can’t, of course, know what these Islands sounded like before the first Polynesians brought snorts, barks and clucks with their pigs, dogs and chickens. We can’t hear what the forests sounded like before sweet potato, taro and breadfruit changed the sound of the wind across the land. Or before Cook came, the ring of iron staying behind after the Resolution and Discovery sailed away.
Or even what Hawai‘i sounded like before the whaler Wellington dumped its larvae-infested water barrels ashore in 1826, unleashing mosquitoes. With them spread local reports of a new itch accompanied by a “singing in the ear” and an avian malaria that ravaged native birds, utterly changing the soundscape. By the turn of the century, ornithologist H.W. Henshaw wrote that “one may spend hours … and not hear the note of a single native bird.” Consider: Until Alexander Graham Bell experimented with recording—his first devices used an actual human ear attached to a stylus to catch the wave forms of sound—the only way to hear something was to be where it was happening. Easy to forget now with a thousand songs carried on a cell phone, but sound was once as immediate and fragile and unrepeatable as a first kiss. But an island like Maui, unlike a continent, preserves its own echoes, saving them in the folds of its hills and mountains. If any place in Hawai‘i sounds like pre-contact Hawai‘i might have, surely this is it. In the bottom of the crater, dozens of separate eco-zones, entire ecologies, can lie only inches apart yet have nothing in common. And each one of them sounds different, each like an ark of sound, an acoustic museum.
I take a single step across the transition between the almost lush northwestern part of Haleakala crater and the southwestern barrens of sand and ash. In the lee of a cinder cone, I hear … nothing.
And that’s good. But no matter how long I sit and listen and wait, I don’t feel what Gordon had promised. Which means I haven’t gone far enough.