kava ceremony (shown here in Hawaii) creates respectful
relations with strangers and visitors.
25 MAY 2000
"The morning is clear and calm," the orator intoned from his seat on a
mat in an open-air pavilion amid a vast tropical garden. With an elaborate
fly whisk made of tawny coconut husk resting on his shoulder and a carved
wooden staff signifying his position, Gaugau Tavana plunged into a kava
who directs education at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG)
in Hawaii, had explained that this tradition is used throughout Polynesia
to greet honored guests and to defuse tension before negotiations. Kava,
a tea made from shredded bark of the Piper methysticum tree, numbs the
mouth and calms the spirit.
his native Samoan, Tavana spoke with authority, his rich, sonorous voice
rising above the sensuous rhythm of wind-rustled leaves. Amidst a river
valley devoted to preserving the vanishing native plants of Polynesia,
and Hawaii in particular, botanist Paul Cox, who directs the NTBG, translated
with downcast eyes: "Voices have been heard in the depths of the underworld.
We are glad that you are here. Please listen to the words that I speak."
kahoolawensis, recently discovered on an island off Maui, is the
only species in a new genus. NTBG propagator Bob Nishek shows off
the rare plant; only two are known in the wild. Three live here
at the nursery.
together, or perish separately
though we "honored guests" were actually lowly journalists, not exalted
chiefs, and even though the language was Samoan rather than Hawaiian,
the ceremony retained a certain authenticity. In an era when disputes
were not settled by a phalanx of cellphone-toting lawyers, the kava ceremony
formed a social glue that bridged the void between hosts and visitors
and established a reciprocal obligation to civil behavior. By elevating
us above them in status, our hosts were obliging us to honor their traditions
and mana (spiritual force).
thousands of years, the kava ritual, and the plants on which it depends,
helped sustain the many Polynesian cultures on scraps of land in a vast
stretch of Pacific Ocean.
ceremony took place in Hawaii, in northern Polynesia, in a section of
the tropical botanical garden devoted to plants Polynesian settlers had
brought to Hawaii 20 centuries ago. Because the Polynesians depended on
dozens of plants, their canoes carried seeds and seedlings as well as
people, pigs and food for the journey. These plants included:
Kava, the ceremonial drink
Taro, a food staple
that is poisonous until cooked
Pandanus, a tree that supplies thatching, canoe wood, fruit, and material
Palm, a tree that gives fruit, oil, thatching and cord.
Polynesians crossed thousands of miles of ocean without benefit of navigational
instruments. These were epic feats of navigation, but had the Polynesians
left their essential plants behind, they might have perished on Hawaii.
His oration complete, Tavana dipped a coconut cup into the kava and handed
it to his son, who delivered the libation to each guest in turn. As instructed,
we poured off a few drops, then sipped the strange pale broth.
ceremony was part of an effort to bridge a gap between desk-bound journalists,
the reading public, and the fact that both tropical plants, and the cultures
dependent upon them, are in grave danger. Consider:
Every minute, 64
acres of tropical forest is destroyed, according to the Rainforest
Alliance. That equals 33.8 million acres per year.
Six thousand languages were spoken in 1900. Half are gone, and 80 percent
of the remainder are spoken only by elders.
Hawaii has 1,100 plant species, and more than 90 percent are endemic
-- live naturally only here. Indeed, the tiny island of Kauai, home
of botanical garden, has one-third of U.S. endangered plants. About
100 Hawaiian plants have gone extinct in the wild.
Hawaii has so many
rare plants that one percent of the NTBG's new acquisitions is a new
species. One collector, Ken Wood, has recently found the first new genus
of plant to be discovered in Hawaii since 1913. (A genus is a group
of species with related characteristics, and as such, represents a higher
level of biodiversity.) Exactly two plants are known to live in the
wild. Three more live in the garden.
One-eighth of all
plant species are threatened with immediate extinction, according to
the International Union
for the Conservation of Nature.
Ragone, collector of breadfruit, and Gaugau Tavana, education chief
at National Tropical Botanical Garden, preparing palusami, a traditional
Polynesian sweet treat..
of us had written about endangered and extinct species we'd never seen.
Now, in Hawaii, we were seeing those plants up close and personal. We
were getting a crash course in the complex interplay of native plants,
cultures and habitat. We were examining the flip side of biodiversity
-- the way Polynesians, Europeans and Asians had transformed Pacific islands
like Hawaii from centers of biodiversity into capitals of extinction.
Finally, we were seeing a botanical Noah's ark that included plants whose
wild representatives numbered in single digits.
The private, non-profit NTBG has a momentous mission -- saving the plants
and helping save the cultures of the Pacific. Just
as the extinction of the only bird able to pollinate a plant spells doom
for that plant, when a forest dies, the plants and cultures rooted in
it are doomed. And when a culture dies, so does its knowledge of forest
the kava ceremony is concluding. The gap between ourselves and our hosts
now bridged, we were allowed to enter the taboo section separating us.
morning may have dawned clear and calm. But we knew that gathering storm
clouds were poised to drown cultures, species and landscapes.
the last representative of a plant or animal could
be dying somewhere on our great, disturbed Earth.