Chapter LXIX. The Cocoa-Palm
While the doctor and the natives were taking a digestive nap after dinner, I strolled forth to have a peep at the country which could produce so generous a meal.
To my surprise, a fine strip of land in the vicinity of the hamlet, and protected seaward by a grove of cocoa-nut and bread-fruit trees, was under high cultivation. Sweet potatoes, Indian turnips, and yams were growing; also melons, a few pine-apples, and other fruits. Still more pleasing was the sight of young bread-fruit and cocoa-nut trees set out with great care, as if, for once, the improvident Polynesian had thought of his posterity. But this was the only instance of native thrift which ever came under my observation. For, in all my rambles over Tahiti and Imeeo, nothing so much struck me as the comparative scarcity of these trees in many places where they ought to abound. Entire valleys, like Martair, of inexhaustible fertility are abandoned to all the rankness of untamed vegetation. Alluvial flats bordering the sea, and watered by streams from the mountains, are over-grown with a wild, scrub guava-bush, introduced by foreigners, and which spreads with such fatal rapidity that the natives, standing still while it grows, anticipate its covering the entire island. Even tracts of clear land, which, with so little pains, might be made to wave with orchards, lie wholly neglected.
When I considered their unequalled soil and climate, thus unaccountably slighted, I often turned in amazement upon the natives about Papeetee; some of whom all but starve in their gardens run to waste. Upon other islands which I have visited, of similar fertility, and wholly unreclaimed from their first-discovered condition, no spectacle of this sort was presented.
The high estimation in which many of their fruit-trees are held by the Tahitians and Imeeose--their beauty in the landscape--their manifold uses, and the facility with which they are propagated, are considerations which render the remissness alluded to still more unaccountable. The cocoa-palm is as an example; a tree by far the most important production of Nature in the Tropics. To the Polynesians it is emphatically the Tree of Life; transcending even the bread-fruit in the multifarious uses to which it is applied.
Its very aspect is imposing. Asserting its supremacy by an erect and lofty bearing, it may be said to compare with other trees as man with inferior creatures.
The blessings it confers are incalculable. Tear after year, the islander reposes beneath its shade, both eating and drinking of its fruit; he thatches his hut with its boughs, and weaves them into baskets to carry his food; he cools himself with a fan platted from the young leaflets, and shields his head from the sun by a bonnet of the leaves; sometimes he clothes himself with the cloth-like substance which wraps round the base of the stalks, whose elastic rods, strung with filberts, are used as a taper; the larger nuts, thinned and polished, furnish him with a beautiful goblet: the smaller ones, with bowls for his pipes; the dry husks kindle his fires; their fibres are twisted into fishing-lines and cords for his canoes; he heals his wounds with a balsam compounded from the juice of the nut; and with the oil extracted from its meat embalms the bodies of the dead.
The noble trunk itself is far from being valueless. Sawn into posts, it upholds the islander's dwelling; converted into charcoal, it cooks his food; and supported on blocks of stone, rails in his lands. He impels his canoe through the water with a paddle of the wood, and goes to battle with clubs and spears of the same hard material.
In pagan Tahiti a cocoa-nut branch was the symbol of regal authority. Laid upon the sacrifice in the temple, it made the offering sacred; and with it the priests chastised and put to flight the evil spirits which assailed them. The supreme majesty of Oro, the great god of their mythology, was declared in the cocoa-nut log from which his image was rudely carved. Upon one of the Tonga Islands, there stands a living tree revered itself as a deity. Even upon the Sandwich Islands, the cocoa-palm retains all its ancient reputation; the people there having thought of adopting it as the national emblem.
The cocoa-nut is planted as follows: Selecting a suitable place, you drop into the ground a fully ripe nut, and leave it. In a few days, a thin, lance-like shoot forces itself through a minute hole in the shell, pierces the husk, and soon unfolds three pale-green leaves in the air; while originating, in the same soft white sponge which now completely fills the nut, a pair of fibrous roots, pushing away the stoppers which close two holes in an opposite direction, penetrate the shell, and strike vertically into the ground. A day or two more, and the shell and husk, which, in the last and germinating stage of the nut, are so hard that a knife will scarcely make any impression, spontaneously burst by some force within; and, henceforth, the hardy young plant thrives apace; and needing no culture, pruning, or attention of any sort, rapidly advances to maturity. In four or five years it bears; in twice as many more, it begins to lift its head among the groves, where, waxing strong, it flourishes for near a century.
Thus, as some voyager has said, the man who but drops one of these nuts into the ground may be said to confer a greater and more certain benefit upon himself and posterity than many a life's toil in less genial climes.
The fruitfulness of the tree is remarkable. As long as it lives it bears, and without intermission. Two hundred nuts, besides innumerable white blossoms of others, may be seen upon it at one time; and though a whole year is required to bring any one of them to the germinating point, no two, perhaps, are at one time in precisely the same stage of growth.
The tree delights in a maritime situation. In its greatest perfection, it is perhaps found right on the seashore, where its roots are actually washed. But such instances are only met with upon islands where the swell of the sea is prevented from breaking on the beach by an encircling reef. No saline flavour is perceptible in the nut produced in such a place. Although it bears in any soil, whether upland or bottom, it does not flourish vigorously inland; and I have frequently observed that, when met with far up the valley, its tall stem inclines seaward, as if pining after a more genial region.
It is a curious fact that if you deprive the cocoa-nut tree of the verdant tuft at its head, it dies at once; and if allowed to stand thus, the trunk, which, when alive, is encased in so hard a bark as to be almost impervious to a bullet, moulders away, and, in an incredibly short period, becomes dust. This is, perhaps, partly owing to the peculiar constitution of the trunk, a mere cylinder of minute hollow reeds, closely packed, and very hard; but, when exposed at top, peculiarly fitted to convey moisture and decay through the entire stem.
The finest orchard of cocoa-palms I know, and the only plantation of them I ever saw at the islands, is one that stands right upon the southern shore of Papeetee Bay. They were set out by the first Pomaree, almost half a century ago; and the soil being especially adapted to their growth, the noble trees now form a magnificent grove, nearly a mile in extent. No other plant, scarcely a bush, is to be seen within its precincts. The Broom Road passes through its entire length.
At noonday, this grove is one of the most beautiful, serene, witching places that ever was seen. High overhead are ranges of green rustling arches; through which the sun's rays come down to you in sparkles. You seem to be wandering through illimitable halls of pillars; everywhere you catch glimpses of stately aisles, intersecting each other at all points. A strange silence, too, reigns far and near; the air flushed with the mellow stillness of a sunset.
But after the long morning calms, the sea-breeze comes in; and creeping over the tops of these thousand trees, they nod their plumes. Soon the breeze freshens; and you hear the branches brushing against each other; and the flexible trunks begin to sway. Toward evening the whole grove is rocking to and fro; and the traveller on the Broom Road is startled by the frequent falling of the nuts, snapped from their brittle stems. They come flying through the air, ringing like jugglers' balls; and often bound along the ground for many rods.