There are little islands of shade in the ocean of asphalt filled with cars glinting in the midday sun. Across Kanaloa Avenue, a lush growth is a green beacon. A crosswalk leads to a bright yellow fire hydrant with the numbers 248 painted in black. On the other side of a fence is a set of plastic, lawsuit-proof playground equipment. There's an unlatched gate to the playground.
Looking to the left of the playground summoned up a memory from the 1970s. A solitary carabao was the biggest inhabitant of a menagerie grandly called a zoo. County Council Member Goro Hokama was the man behind the creation of the Zoological and Botanical Gardens.
Honolulu Zoo Director Jack Thorpe was commissioned to plan the zoo. The first and only phase was a "Robinson Crusoe Shipwreck" exhibit occupied by goats. The county didn't want to put any money into it and menageries were rightfully condemned by animal lovers. The botanical part of the gardens was an afterthought, but has proven to be a legacy that Goro could be proud of.
Eddie Smith was in charge, but after 1976 it was Rene Sylva who supplied the soul. In 1988, Sylva told how Smith had called him and said, "I could do whatever I wanted." What he wanted was to renew a vital link between Hawaiians and the land - a living museum of endemic, indigenous and Polynesian-introduced plants.
Sweat begins to trickle in the sun. Right here, right now, there's no cooling breeze. Hala trees, once known as money trees and often planted outside island banks, mark the entrance to the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens. The way in is shaded by kukui and ulu. The green growth drops the temperature noticeably.
This is going to be a walk in a foreign land. A rock-wall comfort station is nearly covered by plants. In the old days it might have been called a hale li'i, a hale lepo or simply the lua. On the other side is the office. There's a guy and two women on a full-length covered lanai.
Smile, say hi and just keep walking. Nope. Kiope Raymond calls a welcome. Almost didn't recognize him. Just back from a olelo o Hawaii workshop with Hawaiians from Niihau. The greeting is gentle. The handshake is firm. We've known each other for a couple of decades.
"What brings you by?" asked Kiope's wife, Lisa Schattenburg-Raymond. She's the boss at the gardens. The explanation is a little embarrassing. "I got up this morning and didn't know what to write about."
Lisa appears delighted. "Let me get my hat, and I'll give you a little tour." A guided tour wasn't the plan, but there's no resisting.
A smooth concrete path loops around the grounds. Lisa rattles off the names of plants. Even in the open, the sun seems less intense, the temperature a little lower. She stops in front a lush growth of 'anapanapa spilling out onto the sidewalk. "It needs trimming," Lisa said and began stripping off a handful of leaves. "It's a soap plant." With a little water from a hose, she turned the leaves in her two hands into a bright green lather that had a chlorophyl aroma. A weird thought popped up. Hawaiians invented Irish Spring body wash.
Lisa led the way down to a grove of kukui and sat on one of two benches. "This is where The Native Plant Society was born," she said. The society was founded by Roberta Derris and Joyce Thomlinson in 1979. It's a good spot for a meeting. "It's always cool here. There's always a breeze," Lisa said.
There's a selection of taro species. "All taro can be dryland. It takes a specific kind to be grown in the water." A bunch of striped bananas hang from a tree. "Manini, like the fish. The only variegated banana in the world." On your own, a brochure and little white on black plagues supplies all the basic information about the plants.
There are more than 2,800 native plants that have been identified. The mission of the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens includes "providing a center for environmental education, Hawaiian cultural expression, conservation, biological study and recreation." Groups of senior citizens, schoolchildren, plant lovers and Hawaiian practitioners visit regularly. A botanical illiterate needs time to soak up the mana.
Work calls. Gotta go. Away from the green and back into the glare. I'll be back.
* Ron Youngblood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.