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Coconut palm – the tree of life

Monday September 29, 2014 Written by Published in Return to Pukapuka
Coconut palm – the tree of life

“Do they climb coconut trees in the Czech Republic?” asked some students of Jari Zapp the English teacher at Niua School, Pukapuka.

When he replied “no coconut trees,” they looked surprised.
They could not imagine living without coconuts.
It would be like trying to survive without water.  
A friend from Rarotonga recently posted on her Facebook page: “daughter’s homework is to make something with coconut.”
The photo showed her daughter with a grin holding a tray of coconut cookies.
In Pukapuka, the homework would be “to make something without coconut.”
It’s coconut daily, whether an uto for lunch, a niu after school or tai for the fish. Still, if I give my niece the option between a pot of cooked uto and a can of spaghetti, she’ll choose the can of spaghetti.
The boat food, not the coconut, becomes the treat for its rarity. But it’s the coconut that provides the staple diet. An uto a day keeps the doctor away.
Upon returning to Hawaii, in my culture shock, I kept photographing the blue supermarket cardboard boxes of five-dollar coconut water.  Even though we have abundant coconut trees, they get trimmed often and the unripe nuts discarded as rubbish. Few coconut trees in public have ripe nuts so that no tourist faces a head injury. “I weep for the coconut trees in Hawaii,” said Pukapukan Johnny Frisbie. Fresh niu, yakali, uto only exist on private property, and even then it is rare. In Hawaii we buy cans of coconut cream from the shop and coconut water from the little blue boxes imported from Brazil. “Even in Rarotonga,” said Pukapukan Lewu Katoa, “we buy the Thailand coconut cream from the can.” Once the tree of life throughout Polynesia, its value cannot be overemphasized. For so many atolls, like Pukapuka, the coconut tree meant survival.
Throughout Polynesia there is a common myth about the origin of the coconut, emphasizing its importance.
In the Pukapukan version, Mauieuli and Mauiepopo were a Pukapukan man and wife.
As Mauiepopo became pregnant she desired special and strange foods to eat. She refused all sweet, fat, delicious fish. The only fish she desired was the tuna eel. After much patience and chanting, Mauieuli managed to hook his wife an eel. Just as he went to club the head it spoke: “When I am dead cut off my head. Let your wife eat my body, but my head you must plant in the ground in front of your house.” The man listened to the words and planted the head. After a time the head grew up into a tree that bore nuts. Mauieuli collected all the nuts and divided them into two parts; one part for the islands of the western Pacific, one part for the islands of the eastern Pacific. He took one nut at a time from the western pile and threw it into the air. As he threw it he called out the name of an island and there the nut landed. When he finished with the west, he threw a nut in the air for each island in the eastern Pacific. “I almost forgot Pukapuka,” he declared, “since we are neither east nor west.” Mauieuli found one shriveled dry nut left and planted it on the motu. Mauieuli listened to the tuna eel and blessed the islands of Polynesia with abundant food and shelter. Now, when you open a coconut you still can see the face of the eel. Everyone knows that to drink the niu, requires piercing the mouth of the eel.
In Pukapuka alone, there’s over six types of coconut trees and seventeen classes of coconut tree according to nut bearing qualities.
The growth of the nut has fifteen stages and a woman is often compared to the nut in her stage of maturity. A young girl is pua koua, a flower bud and a mature woman niu mata, at its sweetest. A woman past her prime is a yakali. At times of minimal food, a person could survive on seven niu mata a day. On white Sunday, church communion consists not of wine and bread, but here of niu and uto.
The nuts in different stages provide different food and recipes. My favorite recipe is blank uto. The ripe uto are baked overnight in the imu and then grated with water and sugar for a refreshing drink, usually served on Sundays and special occasions.
It took the children to teach me all the uses of the coconut tree. As exhibited in a drawing I found in the classroom, they see the use of each and every part for survival and shelter. The coconut shells get used for firewood and lamplight. “I remember,” said Pio Lavalua, “lining up all the coconut shells, lighting one end and the blaze igniting the line like dominoes. You don’t see that much anymore but once we have solar you won’t see it at all.”
The shells also become bowls and cups and containers. When polished they can be used for adornment and jewelry though that’s not seen here today. The tamanu sheaths light the fires for cooking. The husks get burned as firewood. The wood of the trunks, while too porous, build houses and stools. The leaves become baskets, mats, fans, hats, mosquito switches, plates, brooms, roofs and shade. No one makes tapa out of bark here anymore nor uses the tree for clothing unless as a playful costume. The husks do get buried, soaked and carefully plaited into the valuable sennit rope. Right now, it’s the season for reroofing pola houses on the motu and so long rows of coconut leaf plaited and soaked roofing sits in the sun ready for thatching. Wealth has something to do with the number of coconut trees you have. Today, even in Pukapuka, we only use a small part of the rich coconut wealth on a daily basis.
On the last boat, I sent back to Hawaii from Pukapuka a koyo for husking and a grater. “Do you have coconut trees in Hawaii?” little Pati asked me. I nodded, but I had to leave Hawaii and come to Pukapuka to learn about the tree of life.             - Amelia Borofsky on Pukapuka