By James Sturz
October 09, 2015

How do you start building a house in Hawaii? First, you bless the land.

That means you find a kahu, or spiritual leader. In our case, it was Danny Akaka Jr., who’d given the opening prayer at the governor’s inauguration in Honolulu the previous winter, and serves as cultural historian at the Kohala Coast’s Mauna Lani Resort. He arrived with his wife, Anna, and they donned kiheis—sarongs once made from barkcloth—which they knotted across their shoulders. Naturally, there were also leis fashioned from orchids and from maile, a native liana prized for its bright green, camellia-like leaves. A dozen friends we’d met over the years joined us as well. It was 5:45 pm, about an hour before sunset. We made our way through the cattle gates and soaring grasses to our lot.

Two guests stood a yard apart, near the center of what will become our building site. They would be our house’s future “pillars,” and each held the end of a long maile-leaf lei twisted around the other, so that the two entwined leis formed an entrance (although they were also supposed to represent a piko, or umbilical cord, to the land). Following Danny’s directions and explanations, I draped a third maile lei around Anna’s neck, and tied its ends before her, to create a spiritual connection between us, which we then acknowledged by touching noses and breathing in and out—exchanging ha, the breaths we share, or the breath of life. Ha is the root of the word “Hawaii,” and perhaps also of “aloha.” But there also was a smiling old-fashioned mainland-style hug.

Next I untied the leis stretched between the pillars, and Danny took out an ornate conch. “The cows will certainly hear this,” he said, before he blew it in each of the four directions. Then he blew more ha into water mixed with local salt as he continued the pīkio purification ceremony. Using two ti leaves to sprinkle the water across our parcel—the ti plant is a flowering evergreen in the asparagus family, and one of two dozen “canoe plants” that the first Polynesians brought with them to these islands 1,700 years ago—we walked through the untied gate in a procession and along the border of our building site, sending prayers to each corner of the property, while Anna and Danny chanted. Occasionally, there were spiders, and there was plenty of tall swaying grass, which you had to push out of the way with your hands and arms. But there was also a soft breeze and a clear sky, and the ocean was calm and flat. Soon we were back where we started.

‘Ohana is a big word in Hawaii. It’s the word for family, although not necessarily blood-related. And this was the seed of ours, friends we’d met over the years, some of whom we’d known for close to 10, when we came to this particular island and the enchantment started. We walked the perimeter of our building area where we’ll erect a fence, asking the spirits to admit us—not to get rid of them, but for them to invite us to live among them on the land. “This will be your place of refuge,” Danny told me. He was talking, of course, of Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, the city of refuge to the island’s south, where early 19th-century Hawaiians could go to escape the death penalty for committing a kapu, like walking in the king’s shadow. It’s a national park now.

Afterwards, Danny also told me, “This was all meant to be.” We’d met Danny 18 months earlier, when Paula and I were in Hawaii, had just found the land, and were deciding if to make an initial offer. He was soft-spoken and reassuring, even if we didn’t talk about what we were planning then. Another friend, Vicky, agreed. “Everyone says they’re looking at land and houses when they visit Hawaii,” she exclaimed, “but you actually did it! Now we’re here at your blessing. This is the proof.”

A day before, exploring our lot, as we do each time we return, I spotted a bright white feather on the ground in one of the dry gulches near our property’s border. Then I heard rustling in the leaves, and a snowy owl with a four-foot wingspan took off overhead. Hawaiians say seeing a pueo, an endemic short-eared owl, is a good omen, but this was far more startling because of its color and size. And even if I don’t believe in magic but still somehow find myself thinking our land is magical, I’ve also seen a pueo there and kalij pheasants, chirping families of francolins, bright-yellow saffron finches that look like miniature flying corn, and endangered Hawaiian hawks, which only breed on the Big Island. And I’ve also spotted a bunny rabbit, which has got to be the source of much magic as well.

We toasted afterwards with sparkling wine (perhaps a later post will be about how wine is made in all 50 states, and that includes Hawaii, but this was Spanish cava), and ate candied mango, pineapple, and ginger. The ocean was as still as I’ve ever seen it. The sun came down. We trudged through the tall grass back to our cars, just as the last light faded, and we lingered in the glow of our headlights some more before we slowly snaked back out through the cattle gates, into the rest of Hawaii.