I'll never forget the first time I realized how sensitive I am to vog. The sky grew hazy one day about four years ago, and I didn't feel so good. The next I knew I was flat on my back with a terrible headache and a complete lethargy, unable to leave the couch. I had no idea what had happened to me, but it felt awful.
I staggered through that week until the trade winds returned and then figured it out: Kilauea had just opened a second vent that was pumping thousands more pounds of poisonous fumes into our atmosphere than ever before, and I was affected by the neurotoxic and carcinogenic compounds contained therein.
Sulfuric gases. (The deleterious effects of which I'm told the state Department of Health does accept, to some degree.) Arsenic. Cadmium. (Which I'm told it does not since they are in trace amounts.)
I couldn't believe that the fire goddess Pele could be doing this to me. I visited Volcano many times when I moved back to Hawaii early in the '90s, and even though I made my living on Maui, I loved flying over to the Big Island to visit her.
I faithfully brought red flowers and offered them on the crater's rim at the beginning of each trip. (I know times have changed and the custom is frowned upon now.) I loved Pele. I loved the quality of energy she brought to the region, the heightened aliveness that merged with the cool, dark forest into something brooding and exciting.
I loved the crater rim trail at dusk, with its red-tinged grasses and nene soaring overhead, the steaming crevices hot on a misty afternoon. I loved the deep trails laden with ginger and 'ohia and the flash of native birds in the leaves. I loved sitting on the wall at the Volcano House after their sumptuous buffet breakfast, surveying the vast black crater, the lava fields beyond, Mauna Loa lying lazily in the distance. I loved the walk along the ocean in the dark to reach the golden river of lava flowing into the sea, so hot you couldn't get within two feet of it.
I've always been fascinated by accounts of eruptions left by 19th-century travelers. In 1841 the missionary Gerrit P. Judd went down into Kilauea crater to see if he could dip up liquid lava into a frying pan. (What was he thinking?)
"Suddenly I heard the report of an explosion," he wrote. "A fiery jet burst up from the center, and a river of fire rolled toward me." Were it not for Judd's heroic Hawaiian guide, he would not have survived.
In 1875, the very literate and very proper Victorian lady Isabella Bird journeyed to "the glorious Hale-mau-mau, the grandest type of force that the earth holds."
"The 11 fountains of gory fire played the greater part of the time, dancing round the lake with the strength of joyousness which was absolute beauty," she said. "Indeed after the first half hour of terror had gone by, the beauty of these jets made a profound impression upon me, and the sight of them must always remain one of the most fascinating recollections of my life."
When Pele turned against me I finally realized I needed an air filter. Fortunately, I discovered Jim McCall, a Kula architect who didn't think I was crazy. He, too, suffered when the vog came in. "I noticed if I couldn't see Kihei I couldn't move at all. If I couldn't see West Maui I was feeling listless. If I couldn't see Lanai, I felt tired but functional."
The news is full of advice for people with inhalers (vog particles measure at around 0.1 to 0.3 microns, an excellent fit for the human lung), but precious little about the other symptoms of canaries in the coal mine like Jim and me.
No existing air filters were up to the job, so Jim, who is also a mechanical engineer, did something about it. He thoroughly researched the subject and in June 2008 journeyed to Switzerland to talk to leaders of IQ Air about designing products to screen out Hawaiian vog.
He came away with a business called Air Filters Hawaii, featuring three different units for home use on the various islands oriented to shifting levels of gas, aerosols and particulates, and the ability to outfit hospitals, schools and homes with large, effective systems.
I spent a little more than $1,000 on the Maui version and installed it in a safe room in my house, where I remain on days when the trades cease, health intact but haunting the Windguru website hoping the wind will change.
I'm told some people on Hawaii island welcome this development - "It keeps the tourists away." It keeps me away, too.
Beautiful and brilliant as the volcano is, creative and profound, some days I wish the EPA could just shut the whole place down.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.