My experience of Maunakea

My first visit to Maunakea dates back to the spring of 1982. At that particular time I was observing satellites of planets, mainly of Uranus as part of the preparation for the fly-by of Voyager 2 scheduled for January 1986. I had spent more than three hundred mostly solitary nights over the previous five years using the 1m telescope at the top of Pic du Midi de Bigorre, another very special mountain: an isolated peak north of the Pyrenees mountain range which marks the natural border between France and Spain.

Obtaining six half-nights of observing time at CFHT was a treat for the young astronomer I was at that time. I had a very wrong idea of what CFHT was: In my mind the observatory was a little piece of France in the middle of Hawaii. So i got on a plane to the US without visa. You can imagine the reaction of the immigration officers when I landed in LAX... After one night with officers watching me in my hotel room, the immigration judge who listened to my story and how important this trip to Hawaii was to me, smiled and gave me a two-week pass, saying: "Don't do that again."

Snow storms caused me lose my first two half-nights. The following four nights, spent in the focus cage at the top of the telescope structure, have been so far the highlight of my life as an astronomer. I saw for the first time with my eye an elusive satellite, Miranda, which had been discovered on photographic plates by Kuiper in 1948, and which I had observed on plates myself but never seen, was a stunning view. Beautiful skies, as well as the need to actually use a human eye on an eyepiece to check the field before loading a plate, made for an amazing show. As I was also observing co-orbital satellites around Saturn, I had to look at Saturn too and it was as stunning as seeing Miranda!

Photographic plates became obsolete. CCDs replaced them and spending the night in the cage was no longer needed. New projects made me move to other fields of astronomy and I did not come back to Maunakea for nearly 25 years.

An application for a resident astronomer position at CFHT made me reconnect with the Island and Maunakea for an interview visit in 1996. During my visit, I spent an afternoon and evening on the mountain. It was like traveling back in time and I felt home. The summit had changed a lot, but at the same time was just the same. There was the same very special quality of the air, the same stillness, the same silence, the same apparent purely mineral nature of the place, the same vast landscapes, in spite of the accumulation of domes, which dotted the summit area.

I was offered the position and I accepted with much joy. Moving to Hawaii as a family of six (four kids and their parents) back in 1996 has changed our lives forever in many ways! Maunakea certainly was, and still is for me today, one of the core elements of our evolution on the path of our respective lives.

Nearly 30 years after my discovery of the mountain, I am still in awe and each trip to the summit is a fuller experience ans gives me a bdeeper feeling about the place in addition to using it for my work. The highlight of my experience of Maunakea is meditating at Lake Waiau. It is a wonderful experience I like to share: every time I give tours of the observatory, I propose a walk to the lake before going to the summit, sharing the unique experience of a silent (a challenge for some of my guests!) walk with feet crushing the cinder andm at timesm the howling wind making the only noise, a walk ending with silent time for meditation on the shore of the lake.

About the current struggle around Maunakea development

Maunakea is a unique place in so many ways!

The unique geological features of Maunakea's summit modeled by a mix of volcanic activity and glacier erosion, its spiritual importance in the Hawaiian tradition (and beyond), its appeal to local keikis and visitors alike when Poli'ahu manifests her presence, covering the mountain with snow, and its pristine atmosphere, making it one of the best astronomical sites on Earth, are just a few of the many reasons why Maunakea is indeed a very special place.

Add the feeling of some that such a place should be left alone or that old traditions should be maintained, add the resentment felt by others that ownership was taken away or that the initial development was not done with much consultation or that the usage of the mountain was not compensated with proper retribution, add the desire of some that more development should take place in order to benefit even more from its clear skies, mix with a pinch of bad faith, personal or political interests coming from all sides, and a slice of power games and you end up with an interesting cocktail which is in many ways the epitome of the struggle encountered on Earth in many places when tradition faces modernity, preservation faces development, comfort of the present faces changes to come.

This cocktail is here and now for us to drink. Let us make it as sweet a potion as we can for most, and let us share it in a circle gathering as many as possible, hoping that even those who will not drink will join the circle anyway.