I passed through a cloud of red dust one day a while ago, heading from Paia to Kahului, one so big it filled the sky as I approached. The fields on either side of the road were stripped of cane and the strong trade wind lofted the red dirt high into the air.
Maui's red dirt has long been the subject of perennial notoriety and concern.
In the 1870s, the barren plain of the central isthmus was perennially cloaked in a cloud of red dust blowing out to Kaho'olawe, so thick that sea captains used it as a navigational aid. "Sand, sand, sand!" complained the British traveler Isabella Bird about a ride across it.
"Sand-hills, smooth and red; sand plains, rippled, white, and glaring; sand drifts shifting; sand clouds whirling; sand in your eyes, nose, and mouth; sand stinging your face like pinpoints; sand hiding even your horse's ears; sand rippling like waves, hissing like spin-drift, malignant, venomous! You can only open one eye at a time for a wink at where you are going."
Then came Henry P. Baldwin and Samuel T. Alexander who started their famous Hamakua Ditch in 1876, bringing water from as far away as Nahiku. Claus Spreckels soon built a copycat, and voila, the plain bloomed with sugar cane.
Once Kaho'olawe, celebrated in legend as a dolphin, known as Kanaloa in olden times, was a dry but viable Hawaiian habitat, covered with trees and grass and 4 to 8 feet of good topsoil.
The great pyramid of Haleakala deflected northerly winds, making it the windiest island, and the mountain stole moisture from northeast clouds, reducing the island to dependence on kona, southerly, storms. The island's vegetation, however, was sufficient to capture the na'ulu raincloud that formed above 'Ulupalakua and draw it across the channel.
That is, until goats and sheep were introduced. Kaho'olawe was chewed down to hardpan by the sharp little teeth of goats given in 1793 to the high chief Kahekili by Capt. George Vancouver and sent over there to multiply. Early leaseholders from the territory for 60-odd years between 1858 and 1910 overstocked the island with sheep with no concern for its carrying capacity.
By the '20s, Kaho'olawe was denuded and barren like "a huge wounded beast," in the words of Armine von Tempsky, "a red heap of desolation." She called her book about the island "Dust."
Then came the Protect Kaho'olawe Ohana, the historic return of the island to the state from the federal government - which took it over in World War II - and the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission's efforts to make the island green again.
In 1831, Lahainaluna Seminary was built on land granted by the chiefess Hoapiliwahine on an upland behind Lahaina, which turned out to be 13 acres of valley land and a thousand acres of dry red dirt and rocks.
One of the banes of the school, wrote Laura Fish Judd, was "the red dust, which sweeps down the hill in clouds that sometimes threaten the neighborhood with the fate of premature burial. With the aid of the slightest breeze, the red powder is in circulation, and leaves its trace on everything indoors and out."
The dust whirled down to Lahaina, "great, suffocating volumes of red dust, that envelop all the town, and even roll off to ships in the roadstead and redden the sea," remarked the Rev. Henry T. Cheever, a visiting American clergyman. "Closed doors and windows are as mere lattice-work for it. It traverses stone walls and adobes, human lungs and ears, and I know not but livers, and permeates everything."
A cloud of dust descended upon Lahainaluna Seminary the spring of 1840 so immense the teachers concluded "a residence there was intolerable" and asked for the school to be moved. Rather than incur that expense, the mission and Hawaiian government came up with $1,000 to construct an aqueduct and keep the dirt down.
When we lived in Kihei, the red dust blew through the windows and cracks of our cottage in Maui Meadows leaving a thin film everywhere. When we moved Upcountry we were able to buy beautiful cream-colored couches quite inexpensively. "Nobody wants them because they show the dirt," the saleswoman explained.
Our sugar industry creates dust and ash during harvest season. Some days my eyes itch, but I don't care. I grew up with the sweet smell of molasses from burnt fields, and I am grateful that we are the only - the only - island left in the state with waving cane and an operating sugar mill.
Just think what Maui would be like without it.
* 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.