Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 25.djvu/65

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

by bit, and gets down at last to the hard shell. Then he hammers away with his heavy claw on the softest eye-hole till he has pounded an opening right through it. This done he twists round his body so as to turn his back upon the cocoa-nut he is operating upon (crabs are never famous either for good manners or gracefulness) and proceeds awkwardly but effectually to extract all the white kernel or pulp through the breach with his narrow pair of hind pincers. Like man, too, the robber-crab knows the value of the outer husk as well as of the eatable nut itself, for he collects the fiber in surprising quantities to line his burrow and lies upon it, the clumsy sybarite, for a luxurious couch. Alas, however, for the helplessness of crabs and the rapacity and cunning of all-appropriating man! The spoil-sport Malay digs up the nest for the sake of the fiber it contains, which spares him the trouble of picking junk on his own account, and then he eats the industrious crab who has laid it all up, while he melts down the great lump of fat under the robber's capacious tail, and sometimes gets from it as much as a good quart of what may be practically considered as limpid cocoa-nut oil. Sic vos non vobis is certainly the melancholy refrain of all natural history. The cocoa-nut palm intends the oil for the nourishment of its own seedling; the crab feloniously appropriates it and stores it up under his capacious tail for future personal use; the Malay steals it again from the thief for his own purposes; and ten to one the Dutch or English merchant beguiles it from him with sized calico or poisoned rum, and transmits it to Europe, where it serves to lighten our nights and assist at our matutinal tub, to point a moral and adorn the present tale.

If, however, our cocoa-nut is lucky enough to escape the robber-crabs, the pigs, and the monkeys, as well as to avoid falling into the hands of man, and being converted into the copra of commerce, or sold from a costermonger's barrow in the chilly streets of ungenial London at a penny a slice, it may very probably succeed in germinating after the fashion I have already described, and pushing up its head through the surrounding foliage to the sunlight above. As a rule, the cocoa-nut has been dropped by its mother-tree on the sandy soil of a sea-beach; and this is the spot it best loves, and where it grows to the stateliest height. Sometimes, however, it falls into the sea itself, and then the loose husk buoys it up, so that it floats away bravely till it is cast by the waves upon some distant coral reef or desert island. It is this power of floating and surviving a long voyage that has dispersed the cocoa-nut so widely among oceanic islands, where so few plants are generally to be found. Indeed, on many atolls or isolated reefs (for example, on Keeling Island) it is the only tree or shrub that grows in any quantity, and on it the pigs, the poultry, the ducks, and the land-crabs of the place entirely subsist. In any case, wherever it happens to strike, the young cocoa-nut sends up at first a fine rosette of big, spreading leaves, not raised as afterward on a tall stem, but