Cultural Keystone Species: Piper Methysticum

Stepping off the plane into the humidity of Hawaii, we arrived at someplace that resembled more of a tiki village than an airport. Somehow, tension in my body dissipated, an experience I would never have associated with an airport. The lack of friction between my sandals and the rainkissed ground facilitated a fall that almost appeared like an intentional lunge, except for the evidence that I clumsily scraped my toe while regaining my balance.

The only piece of advice I had been given before coming to Hawaii was to steer clear of cuts because of the prevalence of staph infections, but here I was, immediately raw, exposed, and vulnerable. Friends insisted that I keep the wound protected and to apply either goldenseal powder or fresh turmeric. Though the phytochemistry of both plants are different, both have essentially evolved to protect themselves against invading pathogens, an adaptation that our own species has flourished from.

From what i understand, this ability for plants to protect themselves is linked to their secondary compounds. Simply put, plants have primary and secondary compounds. Primary compounds in plants correlate with things like metabolism and basic function to keep the plant alive, but it has not always been widely accepted in the scientific community that secondary compounds have an ecological purpose. Secondary compounds include the curcumin found in turmeric that is widely known for its antiviral, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties. But it also includes things like the sedative and relaxing properties of other plants that I have encountered.

It’s easy to imagine why a plant might produce these properties for its own protection from invading pathogens, but I wondered about plant constituents that impact the human brain.

What could be the ecological function of plant properties that are stimulating, sedative, that relax the nervous system, or that produces a feeling of euphoria? There is not a consensus about this question, which leaves a lot of room for imagining.


After driving down a coastal Hawaiian road in the most timeless meander, I found myself at what locals called “Uncle Robert’s.” The main hub was comprised of a diversity of local entrepreneurs selling locally crafted food & art and to the left of me appeared something like another tiki-hut, but as we moved closer, it was clear that this was a kava bar. Carl, a playful character showed me a small ritual or prayer he does before drinking the kava.

I sipped on the bitter and earthy root extraction, and within a few moments, I felt a refreshing presence in my body and the world around me. I was relaxed, but not drowsy. For someone who is constantly challenged by social situations with my own species, this moment made being human feel so easy. The world in which I was engulfed felt increasingly like kin.

Kava bars are a relatively recent phenomenon, springing up just in the 21st century.

This was not my first encounter with kava and oddly enough, despite this plant thriving in tropical regions, my first meeting of this plant was at a kava bar in North Carolina.In my own Kava bar at home, there is a map of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, where many believe the plant originated.  

Kava, Piper Methysticum, or ‘Awa in Hawaii was introduced nearly 1,500 years ago by Polynesian voyagers. This plant gained such a bold prominence in the culture that it was integral to all aspects of life. In ceremony, Kava was a tool for communicating with the spirit world, but it also helped to navigate the social and political realms. The significance of this plant is so strong that some use the term, “cultural keystone species,” as a reference to its cultural salience, as it collaboratively molded the identity of these people. With colonization of Hawaii in the 1820s, the suppression of what Christian missionaries deemed to be “Pagan” resulted in a decline of kava usage, traditional knowledge, and ultimately culture. Though the link between humans and kava has been irreversibly transformed, this relationship is still alive.


Ecopsychologists see environmental and psychological imbalances as having a common root, which is our severed connection to our larger ecological community. As the multilayered process of human development continues, not only are ecosystems being degraded, but our psyches also suffer. There is research to show that living in an urbanized world correlates with higher levels of stress. So with the rise of this kind of development, there is a simultaneous rise in the need to alleviate anxiety. Anxiety disorders are considered the most common mental illness in the U.S, affecting 18.1% of people every year. This percentage does not account for the numbers of people seeking alternatives to mainstream treatment, like herbal medicine to support well-being and reduce stress. Kava’s most alluring psychoactive compounds are a group of kavalactones that have been widely studied for its potential to calm the body and mind. Though not considered to be endangered, rapidly shifting Earth is increasing the demand and popularity of this plant. Either way, this bond between Kava and humans is one that deserves recognition before it’s too late. Our own species’ entanglement with this plant is so strong, that the plant itself is sterile, meaning it no longer produces seeds and depends on humans for propagation. Essentially, humans and Kava have co-evolved together.

So back to the question about why plant constituents can influence our brains or nervous systems. Could it be said that medicines that allow humans to cope with stress allow for greater diversity in our own species? Without being able to cope with a world that is overwhelmingly engulfed in crisis after crisis, it’s possible that a more tolerant and insensitive kind of human would dominate. Perhaps that is where we are-in a desperate leap to save not just the life around us, but to rekindle and support sensitivity in our own species.




5F0D0E31-0146-4875-94AD-08180F5BEEB2Though I was in Hawaii a little over a month ago, part of my consciousness still lingers there…

I recently feel so boldly awake with a creative / destructive presence that I associate with Pele.

Pele is the fire goddess of Hawaii. She manifests in fire, lightening, wind, volcanoes, & is believed to be the creator of the Hawaiian islands. 

Her presence is sublime & sensorily engulfing. 

The kind of humbling presence that shatters every attachment, but only for the purpose thrusting you toward greater authenticity. 

In the dim light, the only clear words I can see on the back of a friend’s shirt are “cannot suppress.” Is that a threat or a gentle suggestion? I could feel the cosmos giggle at me a little.

The planet feels very on the verge of something…..or maybe it’s just the in between anticipation space of winter and spring

What have you been feeling today?

Paranoia on the Big Island

The world was darkening and we were ready to sleep. We had slept in the car the night before in a street lamp lit parking lot. Sensitive to every sight and sound, moments of actual sleep were rare and I found the boundary between dreamworld and “reality” to be indiscernible. I imagine this extreme paranoia has some adaptive advantage for our species, but it often leaves me feeling frazzled and delirious.
So we decided to avoid recreating that scenario by finding a place to camp. The best thing we could find was a mostly dark beach tightly nestled against a busy main road.
There were no signs explicitly stating not to camp, so we settled.
The sounds of rushing waves nearly drowned out everything else, but my body was left cold without a sleeping bag or a mat. I’m not sure why I neglected to bring those things..perhaps it was my assumption was that I was in Hawaii world where things seem to manifest as you need them, which is valid, but it’s also a place that lets you feel the rawness of existence–of being uncertain, cold, and exhausted against a rough patch of Earth.
There were moments of a flickering sleep, until around 4am. I heard someone and could see their headlamp wandering through the beach. I got out of the tent, leaving behind my sleeping friend and got inside the car to warm up. Through the rear-view mirrors, I could see this person digging through trash-bags, walking to their car, and back again. Part of my mind tried to find consoling thoughts, but yet again my animal senses heightened and I felt extreme anxiety.
I watched closer as they communicated with someone in another vehicle. I tried to sink down and not be seen. The vehicle then pulled up next to my car, paused parallel, then drove away-honking its horn repetitively.
Every cell in my body said to abandon the situation. I drove away as quickly as I could, semi-guilty that my friend was still asleep in the tent.
Immediately, I felt safe—and delusional. The world was still dark and nothing was open, except for a gas station. I rested there for nearly an hour, sipping on some coffee until I felt ready to confront the situation..and to hopefully find my friend still peacefully sleeping.
Yep-there he was.
It was 6am and the sky was dappled with serene hues of pinks and blues. Somehow everything softened into innocence.
Everything from the previous few hours seemed like a comedy and though in the moment felt entirely vivid and authentic, I’m not positive that it was.
This is part of sharing genes with a “paranoid schizophrenic” mother. That term is extremely vague and subjective, but I think at the root it is mere sensitivity. All experiences are valid, but when the typically unseen & unfelt of one world merge with this “reality,” it can be sensory overload.
Do you struggle with moments of felt insanity or paranoia? I encouraged shared stories~~~