No one is more capable of explaining that role than Kahu Lyons Naone, an acknowledged authority on Hawaiian spirituality (Kahu, at the request of Mikhail Gorbachev, once gave the opening convocation at an international gathering of native leaders in San Francisco). An expert in the art of la‘au lapa‘au (healing through medicinal plants), the 67-year-old teacher inherited the knowledge from his grandmother, a woman who had drawn her own expertise from a lineage that traces to those who first carried ki on their doublehulled canoes.
Kahu Lyons Naone
At Kahu’s forest retreat in the uplands of Maui’s Hana district, the ki leaves (which in Hawaiian are called la‘i) have exceptionally rich dark green hues; they relish the showers that regularly roll through the island’s eastern bluffs. It is only up close that one can appreciate the size of a Hana la‘i—the choice leaves that Kahu has just stripped from a nearby thicket are a good three feet long. And they take on even more impressive dimensions in Kahu’s hands as he reveals a few of their many uses. “If I’m in the mountains and need something, most likely the la‘i will help me,” he tells me when we meet. “It’s my kako‘o. It’s my support.”
Kahu—who was taught as a boy that all of nature is imbued with a spirit—always pays his respects to the plant before he picks leaves. “The la‘i actually sacrifices its body for our benefit,” he explains. “You say ‘Mahalo, e kala mai [excuse me] but we need you.’” His first task is often deveining the la‘i by removing the midrib that runs down the length of each leaf. He does this by first biting and severing a thin part of the midrib located near the tip. Then, gently holding the severed point with his thumb and index finger, he uses his other hand to pull the tip of the leaf away from him, allowing the midrib to detach itself. What’s left is something pliable and very useful.
After splitting a few leaves in half lengthwise, Kahu begins to braid the la‘i three at a time ponytail-style. The leaves crunch and crackle. When their lengths run short, Kahu inserts another leaf into the weave. In the span of a few short minutes, a rope of several feet hangs to the floor. He ties the ends off and pulls it taut. “Maybe you went hunting and now you have to carry a pig down,” he says. “This is enough to tie the legs around you.”
He goes on: You could also make a basket and carry kalo (taro). If you’re walking over sharp coral or pokey dried lava, braid a pair of kama‘a, or sandals. If you’re stranded in the forest one night, a layer of la‘i will keep you warm. A kui la‘i, or rain cape consisting of layers of leaves attached to netting, has the shielding power of a windbreaker. La‘i can even quell a hunger pang. At one point Kahu goes back to the thicket of nearby ki and lops off what he calls the mu‘o, the tender coil of leaf buds that shoots up like a small pole from the plant’s crown. He hands me the stalk, saying, “The white part at the bottom will give you protein.”
As I chew my crunchy, slightly astringent snack, Kahu is already busy at work on another ancient ki innovation. Holding two pliant la‘i in one hand and in the other hand a leaf that still has its midrib intact, he initiates a series of blinding sleight-ofhand knotting and folding movements. In a minute he’s gripping his creation by the lone stem that’s jutting out from the weave work; it resembles a covered miniature frying pan. “You use this to cook your medicine,” he says.
According to Kahu, la‘i harvested specifically for use as la‘au, or medicine, require a more stringent protocol. This, he explains, is because on a spiritual level any leaf used for healing acquires a unique frequency that matches up with a particular person. “I ask the la‘au to show itself,” he says. “You can have a forest of ten million la‘i, but only one or three will be meant for this patient. Those la‘i will naka, or quiver, in a certain way that’s going to draw your attention.” And what happens when he can’t find the right la‘i? “Then I go all the way back outside the forest,” he responds, “and start over again. I’ll find it.”
Once the right leaf is found, the plant is ready to heal. Kahu illustrates its simplest application by pulling another leaf, just drenched by a rogue downpour, and pressing it across my head. It’s as cold as a glass of ice water and the perfect salve for a fever or headache. “The only problem is that after the first kid gets one, all the kids tell you they have a headache, too,” he says with a laugh. Next he scrapes at the leaf’s dull underside with a utility knife until a sticky green pile of shavings accumulates. “This,” he says, “will drain out and clean a boil after it breaks.” Used with popolo berries, ki can treat cataracts: First the popolo burns the cataract, then the white part of the mu‘o is mashed and mixed with water; the resulting juice is used to wash out the eye.
Kahu has saved his explanation of ki’s spiritual significance for last. He preps himself by tying together the base ends of two pliable leaves, then slices the leaves lengthwise several times with his fingernails until they resemble strips of green ribbon. Placing the garland around his neck and over his bare chest, he proclaims, “This is the only lei I know.”
He is, he tells me, frequently called upon to appease what he refers to as “restless spirits”—though he makes it a point to say that it is not the spirits causing the affront. “The humans have done an offensive thing,” he explains. “I come in to say, ‘E kala mai.’”
To appease the spirits it’s essential, Kahu says, that he find la‘i that come from ki in the area where there is disturbance. “The spirituality of the place is all in that plant,” he says. Once the leaves are found, the ceremony can begin. Initially, he brings in ‘ohe, or bamboo, to dispel negativity. Then, while reciting the appropriate oli (chant), he repeatedly dips a few la‘i into a mixture of mountain water and sea salt, then shimmies the leaves toward the areas of concern. In doing so, he says, “I bring peace to the spirits.”
As I take my leave, Kahu offers me a piece of advice on preventing those kinds of disturbances: It’s good Hawaiian “feng shui,” he says, to plant ki along paths frequented by the spirits of the ancestors or in places their remains are interred. “For us in the physical world,” he says, “we think those people who walked on this earth a thousand years ago are gone. No, the spirit is still going. The la‘i honors their connection to that place.”
Driving from Hana back to the town of Pa‘ia that day, I took the dry and rocky southeastern route past Kaupo. The landscape reminded me of Makua Beach, a barren, beautiful stretch of sand back home on O‘ahu where my grandfather lived for most of his life before passing away seven years ago. A moment from the past suddenly leapt out at me, illuminated by what I had just learned from Kahu: Several months after my grandfather’s funeral I revisited his camp. In the middle of a small clearing, I found a newly planted ki just beginning to take root in the loamy soil. I now realized its significance, and I was grateful to whoever planted it—for the fact that they knew of the ki’s goodness and the fact that they remembered.