I took a trip to Hawaii a few years ago, and while there I visited the tomb of Joseph Campbell. A friend was asking me about it, and while I don’t have pictures – my camera vanished from my checked baggage – I did have a typically thorough journal. So this is my journal entry from my first day in Hawaii, March 2008:
My priority this day, my first in Hawaii, was to see the Foster Botanical Garden, and use its educational resources as a gateway for understanding the flora of the whole trip. But since they had a guided tour at 1 p.m., I had some time to head off to Waikiki’s major landmark, an old volcanic crater called Diamond Head.
Not quite understanding the bus system and very up for a walk, I hiked there from the hotel. Though it was quite early – I had left by 7 a.m. – the sun got high quickly and I eventually received a severe sunburn on my neck, indeed one of the worst I have ever gotten.
I walked past some middle-class districts, and then the community college, which appeared to be an evolutionary descendant of some missionary school, and finally I turned up the road into the Diamond Head crater.
From Waikiki, this formation appears as a hill; it is only when you pierce its outer shell that you realize it is hollow on the inside. The military fortified the highest point with a lookout and with guns, and they pierced the side of the crater with a tunnel, whose outer walls were plastered with concrete, for what purpose I do not know; but this concrete was then camouflaged, making it as similar as possible to rock. The overall effect is very 20th century, like the set of a bad Hollywood movie, or the Batcave, or a “secret government installation.” I suppose Hollywood had to get their ideas from somewhere.
The peak was something like 700 feet from the floor of the caldera. I found this fairly winding, which surprised me, although I suppose it shouldn’t: if my office were on the 70th floor, I think I would be winded in the morning if I took the stairs. That said, it was an easy climb, and perhaps thousands did it on that day: the trail was quite crowded going in both directions. From the summit you could see all of Honolulu and out over the bay, where porpoises were visibly frolicking. The weather was spectacular as usual. I was intrigued to learn that the Diamond Head crater receives only twenty inches of rain a year. It was quite dry and wore a brown aspect, like the hills of Italy near Terracina. I was beginning to be initiated into Hawaii’s astounding microclimates.
I then walked back to my hotel where I caught a bus into Honolulu, after an enjoyable conversation with an elderly Japanese-American woman, who gave me tips on using the buses and seemed to get a kick out of my intention to visit Pearl Harbor. “My ancestors!” she exclaimed. “My ancestors did that!” When I told her that I could see why Pearl Harbor was so important, as it was a remarkable natural harbor, she replied, “Yes, but then they were like sitting ducks! No where to go!”
The bus took awhile, but I eventually arrived in downtown Honolulu. Despite the high-rise buildings which make it look like any other Asian trade emporium like Singapore or Shanghai, Honolulu has also a core of historic buildings, including the old Royal Palace (which looks like a 19th century Victorian parson’s stone house), at least one missionary building (a clapboard hall) and a few other odds and ends, a stone bank and a congregationalist church. These buildings were refreshingly lovely to me, a little bit of home in the middle of the Pacific. Mark Twain wrote about these same buildings. It gives you a feel for the depth and history of the colonial presence.
A short walk brought me to Chinatown, a low-rise late 19th century brick-building enclave of run-down shops and smelly food markets. It was cleaner and neater (and 80 degrees and sunny with fine breezes) but it had some of the flavor of New York’s Chinatown. I was impressed.
From there it was a short walk to the Foster Botanical Garden. This garden reminded me instantly of Bartram’s garden in Philadelphia, which it resembled in size, position, and mission. It was located at the edge of the old town, near the harbor; and it functioned as a kind of botanical Library of Alexandria in the center of the Pacific, during the great days of botany. The main botanist there (a German whose name I cannot remember, though of course Foster would seem correct) gathered as many specimens as could be had from every ship that crossed the Pacific (and nearly all that did so stopped in this central harbor). In the end he introduced more than 10,000 plants to Hawaii. The older gentleman who led the tour, a former navy man from Iowa who looked almost exactly like Joseph Campbell, deadpanned, “Some of them some people wish he hadn’t introduced to Hawaii.” That about sums up the age of botany.
The tour was admirable, giving a good introduction to the major trees and some other plants. On the tour was a gay couple from San Francisco (who had some oddly negative feelings about Spanish Moss, strenuously claiming “it shouldn’t be called an epiphyte, it should be called a parasite because it kills trees”), and a group of French women in their 50s being conducted by an American woman of the same age, whose son was about to get married somewhere in Hawaii. This woman mesmerized me somewhat, because she represented, to me, the English forebears (and now aristocrats) of America: she had a lithe and fit body, an adequate tan somewhat freckled, a flat face with a thin nose, and extremely thin ear-length blonde hair. She spoke good French and translated for her guests. She was still attractive and was an image of a colonial materfamilias: one could imagine her owning a ranch in Kenya or an island in the Caribbean.
The garden itself was truly magical. It was as lush as could be imagined, and the major tree species there were all extraordinary in one way or another. Over the welcome desk was a giant tree with yellow blooms: a tree version of the trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans. The growth was entirely different, but the flower was almost the same. There was a giant crepe myrtle – 60 feet in height! It was the same genus, but a more exalted species.
In the place of honor was a Bo tree (Ficus religiosa, a fine name), said to be a scion of one growing in Sri Lanka, with a direct link to Sakyamuni himself (whether he sat under it in Serendib, or whether that tree be a cutting from the tree at Benares, I know not). I was surprised to discover that this tree was of the Moraceae, the mulberry family. And in general, this was the great revelation of this garden. One sees the same families – the same basic stock – varied in the most fantastic ways across the world. Some plants, of course, are quite unique or have no relatives I know of in, say, the northeastern U.S. But that the fig, the Bo tree, and our Morus rubra should be of common stuff! It was almost more than I could bear, I found it so exciting. Similarly we saw on the tour a spider-lily. I can see how our humble trout-lily can be related to an Easter-lily: their flowers do look similar to one another, as a pygmy resembles Alexander the Great; but that this monster, an aloe-looking plant ten feet in diameter, with leaves as thick as arms and with cactus-like flesh, should be a lily is astonishing. And there were its flowers, which were indeed like lily-flowers, especially in their substructures (particularly the pistil).
Some other highlights: a Mindanao gum tree, a form of the eucalypt, with brilliantly rainbowed bark, notably reds and purples. This may also be called the rainbow eucalyptus. The pseudo-bombax, which produced fantastic dustmops of color, like “hula skirts for a Barbie doll;” Caribbean royal palms, gleaming white and a hundred feet tall, almost like truffula trees; my first-ever baobab tree, large as promised though not awfully pretty, he grew to at least 10 feet in diameter in a mere 60 years; a skunktree, whose lovely seed-pod I decided to donate to the Nancy Whittington seed collection; the cannonball tree, with giant seeds very much like cannonballs; the breadfruit tree, taro, etc. The Kapok tree, apparently a relative of the baobab, also impressed. All in all, a marvellous experience.
I feel also that I marvel a bit less at Darwin, for indeed these things must be obvious to any who have access to this breadth of experience. Of course I now know that the figs are Moraceae, and without the legwork of others I could never have figured that out. But in another instance I have been putting things together myself. That is with the pea family (Fabaceae), a stunningly large and important family. Their flowers, opposite leaves, seedpods, and capacity to fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil are all distinctive. Seeing some yellow-flowered varieties here, I instantly thought how similar they were to our white-flowered locust trees. And in the end, of course, that is precisely what they are. Black locust (Robinia), honey locust (Gleditsia), mesquite, acacia, whatever these ones here in Hawaii are called – they are all variants on the same theme. I never really realized this before. In fact, I always thought that the similarity of the names honey-locust and black locust was a misunderstanding based on their similar appearance. After all, they are from entirely different genera. But this is to be fooled by names. Their relation may be more distant that some others. But they share flowers, seed pods, leaf structure, and ultimately DNA. Similarly I was deceived by the name Robinia pseudoacacia. No, it’s not exactly an acacia: an acacia can’t handle a New England winter the way a black locust can. But they really are the same parent material.
What is it that is so exciting about this? To me, the great question of my life is not so much “Who am I?” or “What is inside of me?” but precisely this sort of question, the question posed by adaptive evolution. In what sort of environment can I grow and evolve the way I want to? How can my reason guide me to a fruitful interaction with the world? Because it is not just the parent material, but the way that is shaped by the universe, that creates a life. The first is merely potential, both combined make the actual.
After leaving this botanical garden, I decided to make the short pilgrimage to the gravesite of Joseph Campbell. It is, indeed, a little strange to find his body here in Hawaii; yet on the other hand, he lived a fairly normal modern life, including a retirement to a warm, sunny location. He is better here, I think, than in Florida. And I can see the value that the Pacific played in his later scholarship, and probably because of his time here: it enabled him to add another layer of depth to the Jungian theory of archetypes by noting that many of the myths may also have been physically dispersed the way the food crops were. And it probably helped him along to his final views of the one-world mythology. For indeed even Hawaii, even the most remote place on Earth, the center of the largest ocean, is part of the world community, whether it wills it or not.
The Oahu Cemetery is one of the respectable places to be buried here in Hawaii, just uphill from town, as a graveyard should be, and filled mostly with the colonial Protestant families who made Hawaii a part of the American Empire. In the plot, which is surrounded by a fine hedge of mock-orange and back by a pair of ornamental trees, there is one major marble monument extolling the virtues of work, with a quasi-communist-style relief of muscled laborers bringing an agricultural sacrifice, including a bull, to a presumed altar (?). The Erdmans are buried there, as is another family. Campbell is the only Campbell. His wife Jean Erdman is not registered there and I believe she is still alive. Campbell’s headstone is a simple granite slab, perhaps 10”x24”, matching the others near it, with a brass plaque with his name and dates and places of birth and death. Below his plaque there is room for Jean’s.
It is strange to find a man who seems so important in American thought – and I do believe he is – honored so humbly, even meagerly, in death. Yet perhaps it is always this way with thinkers and particularly scholars. The British have it right – put them in a place of honor, for it is certain they will not be able to purchase robber-baron gravestones. It was like this in Rome, was it not? The tomb of Cicero is not Cicero’s, nor Seneca’s Seneca’s. But posterity takes the largest grave in the area, and gives it to the most important person, which society does not do. Perhaps it will be so with Campbell.
I remember when I first saw The Power of Myth, and I was mesmerized by Campbell. I remember at the end of the program that it gave his final dates – 1904-1987, and so I had actually been watching the video of a dead man. Yet he of all people seemed to me the most alive man I had seen. But I do not quite feel that way anymore. Now when I see the tapes I find he has a funny accent and his clothing is off and it all seems dated. Everything moves into the past eventually.
But I still have a great and unpaid debt to Campbell, and I pray for his soul and his happiness, and wish that I may have the chance to create life in others as he has in me. I left him a little note to that effect, penning it and putting it on his grave with a blossom from the botanical garden.
Coming from his grave I was filled with thoughts of his life, but also melancholy thoughts about myself. I had no friends to see in Honolulu; no fellowship with the living. What sort of man was I to look for his friends and his solace among the dead?
I walked back to Chinatown, waited for a pizzeria to open for dinner, and ate there. Back at the hotel I worked a bit on the internet, surveyed my sunburn, and called it a successful first day in Hawaii.