In the Land of the Lotus Eaters-By Patricia Leigh Brown

For native Hawaiians, u-pick-’em waterfalls and remote red sand beaches are not sybaritic water parks. They are part of an ancient land division system called ahupuaa, in which nature’s resources are cared for and harvested in pie-slice segments extending from ocean to forest.

Until fairly recently, Hawaiian culture was “used and abused for its entertainment value,” in the words of Douglas Kahikina Chang, the general manager of the Hotel Hana-Maui, recently named the state’s first native chairman of the Hawaiian tourism authority. “It was a parody involving moonlit hula girls and fire-knife dances at bogus luaus.”

Fortunately, it is possible now to get an inkling of the real thing.

On a sweltering afternoon, I sat with Kamaui Aiona, director of the Kahanu Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, just north of Hana Airport, chewing kava, a ceremonial buzz-inducing narcotic root beloved by ancient chiefs. (This bitter root gave birth to the pu-pu platter, with coconuts and other sweet foods as chasers.)

The garden, which offers self-guided tours, is an ethnobotanical wonder of both native and “canoe plants,” brought from other islands by Polynesians. More significantly, it is home to the Piilanihale Heiau, the largest ancient temple ruin in Hawaii, a brooding rock wall two and a half football fields long. Proof of its spiritual power are the rocks that visitors have taken as souvenirs and then sent back anonymously.

In Hawaiian legend, humans sprang from taro; today, the restoration of centuries-old rock taro terraces is a powerful cultural statement. On an interpretive hike given by Kipahulu Ohana, a nonprofit group dedicated to reviving native Hawaiian practices, including an organic taro farm, we were hiker-gatherers. We learned about the laxative effects of kikui nuts and how awa puhi ginger is used as shampoo (“that’s why Paul Mitchell is so damn rich” said Kema Kanakaole, our guide). Then we entered a Gothic cathedral of bamboo, a silent forest.

“We kept our culture quiet because we thought that was the best way to save it,” said Sol Church, 30, who trains the guides. “Now we know we have to share it in order to preserve it.”

For non-natives, going native can be difficult to resist. Stephan Reeve’s last cooked meal was a batch of acorns in Mendocino. Ten years ago, this matinee idol of self-sufficiency fled the mainland to grow tropical fruits, especially durian, for his entirely self-grown raw food “wackos” diet, in which he dines only on food plucked directly from trees — hundreds of them on 10 acres.

“I wanted to leave the United States,” he said as we plucked and gorged on impossibly luscious litchis. “This was as far as I got.”

He chose Hana for its air quality and lack of agricultural chemicals. His neighbors include a nuclear engineer, an electronics guru, a windmill repair man and Lowell Thomas Jr., a former lieutenant governor of Alaska. He is a scintillating conversationalist about plant ova deposits (really).

When he’s hungry, he simply reaches for the matkuching fruit from Borneo, fetched by walking barefoot on the cool, cushiony peanut cover he has planted to thwart invasive grasses. For him, dining on home-grown fruit and nuts is a sensuous experience — an aesthetic high, really — that allows him to express his artistic soul.

“When you come here,” he observed, “you tend to feel grateful.”

Come Armageddon, I’m hanging on to his number.


Reprinted with permission from The New York Times