Terre Sancte Cruci

By Jheri St.James

     “Pago Pago is where the soil came from. Starkist Tuna Company has the biggest plant in the world in Pago Pago. I would say it’s a poor country. Like Hawaii but a little bit warmer, Samoa is a little tiny isolated dot in the middle of ocean, close to Tonga. You make the trip around the island in two hours, unless you go into the mountains,” says Kevin Wren, our Common Ground 191 soil collector in Samoa. Kevin is an airline employee, working in various transitory locations around the world.

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     Oceania is the name of a constellation of tropical islands in the South Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Divided into three broad cultural areas—Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia—the area has about 25,000 small islands, ranging from large masses of ancient rock to minute coral atolls, many of volcanic origin. Vegetation varies from lush jungles to scanty palm trees. The Independent State of Samoa is a chain of 10 islands and several islets midway between Honolulu, Hawaii and Sydney, Australia. Volcanic and mountainous, Samoa’s total area is about 1,200 sq. mi. In this placement, the country is vulnerable to devastating storms.

     Fishing and farming are Samoa’s main industries, fertile soil producing cacao, coconuts/copra, taro and bananas. Two-thirds of the labor force furnishes 90% of the coconut cream, coconut oil and copra exports. Copra is the dried kernel of the coconut fruit, from which oil is extracted, prepared by drying the meat and pressing the coconut oil out. Copra yields 50-60% of its weight in oil. Declining fish stocks in the area are becoming a concern. But tourism is important and expanding.

     Polynesian and Euronesian, the majority of the people live in villages in Upolu, where Apia, the capital and chief port, stands. Samoans speak probably the oldest Polynesian language in use, as well as English. Christianity is the main religion. There is, after all, a cross in the sky above.

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     Discovered by the Dutch in 1722, Samoa was claimed by Germany, Great Britain, and the United States in the 19th century. New Zealand occupied and administered the German protectorate of Western Samoa from 1914 until 1962, when the islands became the first Polynesian nation to re-establish independence in the 20th century. Samoa joined the UN in 1976. Slightly smaller than Rhode Island, this country occupies an almost central position within Polynesia. The Independent State of Samoa – Malo Sa’oloto Tuto’atasi o Samoa – is a constitutional monarchy under native Chief Tanumafili II Malietoa—also under Terre Sancte Crucis.

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“I collected the soil right outside the Trade Winds Best Western Hotel, at a construction site—here it would be a four-star hotel—a suburban area, houses with ministry buildings next door. There are really no urban areas. Their soil looks like our dirt here, just regular dirt. Now that I’m doing this for Common Ground 191 (China, Iraq, Kuwait), I’m realizing that all dirt looks alike. I’m not seeing anything unusual, maybe a slightly different color.

     “ They like drinking kava and getting anesthetized. Twenty years later you need an operation to take the rock out of your stomach because it solidifies. We get there at 1:00 in the afternoon and leave 2:00-3:00 in the morning. Guys sitting in the same place, looking at you like they’re zombies. ‘Are you guys high?’ ‘Oh no, we just had kava.’ That’s what they’re known for there.”

     The constellation known as Crux, the Southern Cross, is the smallest of the 88 modern constellations, but also one of the most famous, with the highest percentage of very brilliant stars. Surrounded on three sides by the constellation Centaurus, to the south lies the Fly (Musca). With the lack of a significant pole star in the southern sky, two of the stars of Crux are commonly used to mark the direction south. Following the line defined by the two stars for approximately 4.5 times the distance between them leads to a point close to the Southern Celestial Pole. The five brightest stars of Crux (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon Crusis) also appear on the flags of Australia, Brazil, Papua, New Guinea and Samoa; New Zealand omits Epsilon. The image of the Southern Cross is dominant in the national iconography of this area from two standpoints—astronomical and mythic.

     In the language of astronomy: “The Coalsack Nebula is the most prominent dark nebula in the skies, well visible to the naked eye as big dark patch in the southern Milky Way. Another deep sky object within Crux is the open cluster NGC 4755. Better known as Jewel Box or Kappa Crucis Cluster, it was discovered by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1751-1752. It lies at a distance of about 7,500 light years and consists of approximately 100 stars spread across an area of about 20 ly.”

     Then there are the aboriginal myths about the Southern Cross: The Booyong people in northern Victoria saw the stars as representing a tree that protects Bunya, an opossum. The main character, however, is not the stars, but the patch of darkness at the foot of the constellation known in the north as the “coal sack.” To the Booyong, this is Tchingal, the ferocious emu that threatens Bunya. The Pointers are two hunters who kill Tchingal and stick their spears in the tree.

     This constellation also had special meaning for northerners. The classical Greeks included the stars of the Southern Cross in the constellation Centaurus. For European colonists, it represented a quest for spiritual renewal. The cross was once theirs, but now is lost to them because of the process of precession (the 26,000 year cycle of Earth rotation). It was calculated that the last time the Southern Cross was visible on the horizon of Jerusalem was when Christ was crucified. In his Purgatory, Dante describes the “four stars/Ne’er seen before save by the primal people.”

     The flag of Samoa has undergone many changes: a red field with a white crescent and a white 5-pointed star pointing upwards; various Union Jack British flags with three palm trees in a circle, either in the center of the Jack or beside the Jack on the hoist corner. After a period of only four stars, today the flag of Samoa (adopted 24 Feb. 1949) includes all five stars of the Southern Cross.

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     The light of the Southern Cross constellation has lighted mankind and the soils of the earth for eons. Crux will always shine somewhere on earth. Samoa may change. The crux of the matter is that we at Common Ground 191 feel fortunate to have Samoan soil in our collection at this point in the history of an evolving Samoa and its constellations, spots in Oceania reflecting lightpoints in the sky.




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