In the misty rainforest near the Nuuanu Pali overlook on Oahu, Butch Richards gives me a brief education in laau lapaau, the use of plants in Hawaiian medicine. Butch is a member of an ever-dwindling number of kahuna in direct line of transmission for this knowledge; he trained with his great-grandfather, who was a respected kahuna laau lapaau. Butch is careful to point out that proper training is key; healing with plants is more complex than simply knowing their properties. "Anyone can rattle off lists of medicines," he says, but the true role of the healer is to establish a connection between the plant and the patient. And for the healing to be effective, the healer must first find the right plant for that particular patient. Not simply the right plant species, but the right individual plant. Different plants of the same species, Butch explains, may have different properties depending upon a variety of factors, such as where they’re growing or how old they are. It may take days of searching before the right one reveals itself.
Looking at a patch of non-descript lawn, he picks out five or six different grasses—all of which appear identical to my untrained eyes—and recites their uses. "It’s only now that scientists are beginning to look at what makes these things medicinal," he says. "The Hawaiians didn’t have microscopes and chromatography to check it all out. How did ancient people find out this grass was medicine? How did they learn the right way to prepare it?" The questions hang in the air. The implied answer challenges my logic: The plants told them. I’m curious about what form the communication takes. Butch smiles. "I guess you call it mental telepathy. My great-grandfather taught me to go out and spend time in an area. Let out why you’re there. What’s your purpose? Then, ask permission. Which of you plants can help me to help this person who is sick?’
"Why are we asking permission from the plants first? We’re working not only with the physical part of the plant, but with the spirit of the plant and the spirit of the person. This is the difference between how I’ve been taught and how others practice." Without permission and intention, he says, you’re just handing out drugs.