Page images
PDF
EPUB

Then while the sailors busied themselves preparing coffee, v? dispersed in search of pleasant pools for bathing, a luxury never more prized than after such a scramble in a tropical valley. Hitherto the day had been quite lovely, now it rapidly overcast, and heavy clouds came down and hid the Diademe—the beautiful crown-shaped mountain, that heads the valley. It is called by the natives Maiao, and though its height does not exceed 4363 feet, it is one of the most remarkable forms in Tahiti .

Ere we had finished our welcome coffee it began to pour so heavily that I voted for camping where we were; but the others feared a freshet, such as might make the streams impassable for days. So they voted for starting instantly, and of course carried the day; and we descended the steep mountain-path in blindinc: rain, which blurred all beauty, and rushed in rivulets beneath our feet. We were so thoroughly saturated, that crossing and recrossing the stream ceased to give us a moment's thought; and by the time we reached this house, I confess to having been thoroughly exhausted, as was to be expected, after a scramble of fully eight miles without any time to rest.

Of course, as soon as we got back the weather cleared, and we had a most lovely evening, followed by an exquisite moonlight night, and a sunrise which, seen from Fautawa, would have been too fascinating. It was with sore regret that I gazed upward to the sunlit peaks; while for days afterwards I felt too utterly done to do more than creep about the garden.

The upper heights of the valley are wellnigh inaccessible. They culminate in a crag-ridge about 4000 feet in height, forming a crest so narrow as to be a mere saddle barely three feet across—literally a gigantic crag-wall, wooded to the summit. Few are the bold spirits who have cared to scale this barrier in their endeavour to cross the island. Only by painful climbing from ledge to ledge, clinging to overhanging trees, trailing screw-pine, and sturdy vines, which act as natural ropes, is it possible to make any way. Indeed it is necessary to carry strong ropes in case of emergency; and little help can bo expected from native guides, who never dream of expending toil so fruitlessly, unless worried into doing so by some PALM SALAD AND SPROUTING NUTS. 343

unrestful foreigner. I am sure I do not wonder at their being rttisfied with lower levels, seeing how enchanting these are. I find lay after day gliding by in such peaceful enjoyment, that time passes unmarked, and the further expeditions, of which we have sometimes talked, seem to involve too great exertion. Evidently II am becoming indolent in these dreamy southern islas!

January SO/A.

I have just been feasting on a cocoa-palm salad, which would

make the fortune of the happy chef who could introduce it at an

alderman's feast. That, fortunately for the plantations, is quite

out of his power, unless some process be discovered by which to

preserve uncooked vegetables. For this dainty consists of the

embryo primary shoot of the tree—the unborn fronds, which lie

curled up within in a close compact white mass, about the size of a

man's arm, and resembling a gigantic stick of celery, with a flavour

of filberts. Of course so costly a dish as this (which sacrifices the

life of the tree) is rarely indulged in, save when a hurricane has

snapped the crown of the tall palm, or when some rich chief wishes

to entertain a guest, regardless of expense.

Another very agreeable product of the cocoa-palm, which you in England can never hope to taste, is an over-ripe nut, when in the very act of sprouting. Previous to this, a very curious change has occurred. As you must know, the germ of the plant lies just within the three little eyes, which we used in nursery days to call the monkey's face. Indeed I fear that in those days of our ignorance we imagined they were the marks left by the stalk, quite forgetting that the nut lies in a large outer case of that brown fibre which, in these our later days, we know as "coir." Well, the sharp end of the nut lies next the stalk, and the monkey-face at the further end, so that nursery theory was fallacious, like some others.

When the nut is fully ripe, a fibrous, spongy substance begins to form all round the germ, and this gradually extends, absorbing both the so-called milk and the hard kernel, till the whole shell is full of a soft, sweet, white growth, like a very light blanc-inange. If at this stage the nut escapes the gourmet of the South Seas, the young germ will soon force open one of the three eyes, and, working its way through the fibrous husk, begin its heavenward growth; while from the other two eyes will sprout two rootlets, which instinctively turn downwards, and likewise penetrating the thick protecting outer case, find their way to mother earth, and there strike root. Still the white sponge within the nut goes on expanding, till at length it splits the hard wooden shell, and then gradually decays, and so forms a light nourishing soil, which acts as mother's milk to the baby tree in its delicate early days. After a while it needs no such provision, but flourishes, in grace and beauty, where other trees would starve.

I wonder that no one has ever discovered in the cocoa-palm a meet emblem of charity. Of all plants that grow, none asks so little, or gives so largely. It matters not how dry and barren is the shallow soil, or how briny the coral-sand, washed by every rising tide, the hardy palm strikes its roots among the fragments of coral, and, bending to the gale, weathers the wild storms, and yields its generous increase as abundantly as its more fortunate brethren in the rich soil of sheltered, well - watered valleys. The poorest islander on the loneliest atoll, possessed of a few cocoa-palms, can exist. They give him food and drink, a fibrous material, all ready woven, like coarse canvas, for dress; leaves for thatch, and oil for light, and for personal adornment and comfort. To obtain the latter, he collects a lot of old nuts, such as those we, see for sale in England, and scraping out the kernel into some old canoe, leaves the whole mass for some days exposed to the sun, till the pure oil exudes, and without further trouble he stores it in any vessels he may possess—-gourds or bamboos. Of course, a European who trades in palm-oil prefers to collect it in the form of eqppra—£.«., dried cocoa-nut—as a much larger amount of oil is obtained by pressure of machinery.

Another hardy child of these coral-isles is the pandanus, or screw-pine, as it is commonly called, because its leaves, which grow in tufts at the tips of the branches, are all set like a screw, twisting PALMS AND PANDANUS. 345

round the stem, which is thus marked with a spiral pattern from the root upward. Like the cocoa-palm, it grows in the clean dry coral-sand, where there is apparently no moisture; yet when cut it is found to be full of oily sap. The wood is close and hard, and though rarely exceeding five or six inches in diameter, it often grows perfectly upright, for fifteen or twenty feet, and yields excellent posts for building; they are, however, hollow like a bamboo. The long drooping leaves are valuable for thatch, being from three to five feet in length, and about three inches wide. They are edged with sharp prickles, but, when torn into strips, are useful for plaiting mats and canoe-sails.

The women steep the leaves in sea-water, and then beat them with a mallet till all the green skin comes off, leaving a beautifully white silky fibre, which they dye red, yellow, and brown, and then plait into wonderfully fine sashes, about a foot wide. It has been suggested that this pure white fibre would prove a valuable material for paper-making, but I have not heard of its being tried. A stronger fibre is obtained by crushing the aerial roots, which this strange tree throws out in all directions, forming stays by which it protects itself against the violent gales,—a necessary precaution, where the main root grows only in the sand.

The flower of the pandanus is exceedingly fragrant; but though I have seen thousands of screw-pines, I have rarely had the luck to find one in blossom. Its fruit resembles a coarse pine-apple. When ripe it becomes bright scarlet, and the Samoans use it for making necklaces. It is divided into honeycomb sections. When the fruit is ripe these fall apart, each being a separate conical lump, of which the inner end is soft and saccharine, and can be chewed like sugar-cane.

When the capsules are thoroughly dried, they can be cracked, and yield a kernel, which is edible; and in the barren isles, near the equator, this fruit is considered a valuable product. It is dried and grated, and the sweet brown sawdust thus obtained is stored as the only substitute for flour; and cakes of it are baked, as occasion may require, to eke out a fish diet, which is not always forthcoming. It is said to be wholesome, nourishing food; but in these more luxuriant southern isles I have never seen it eaten by the natives, only by the foreign labour—i.e., the men imported from the groups to the north-east, who are engaged to work on the plantations. In their own isles they have discovered a means of steaming and mashing the fruit which, when fermented, yields a strong and highly intoxicating spirit. The whalers who years ago settled among them, taught them to improve on this liquor by distillation, and also instructed them how to obtain'a fiery spirit from the innocent palm-trees. So, thanks to their tuition, and generally civilising influence, the Line islanders have become infinitely more debased than they previously were.

It does seem too bad, does it not, to extract poison from these useful trees? But whether it be orange-rum in Tahiti, or barleybree in the isles nearer home, I suppose the white race will find means to procure fire-water wherever it goes, and seems to turn every sort of plant to the same use. What with rum from the sugar-cane, and fiery spirit from the sweet dracama root, and even from innocent bananas, it appears as if every good gift of heaven was liable to be misused in like manner.

I hear some people say that they weary of the monotony of the cocoa-palms; and certainly a low coral-shore, with an unbroken line of palm-trees, is somewhat dull. Here, however, there is an amazing variety in the foliage of the seaboard. Besides the many beautiful large-leaved shrubs, there are various handsome trees, which attain a great size, and, as I described to you, many grow so close to the shore that their boughs literally dip into the sea. Some of these are fruit-bearing. The vi bears bunches of large yellow plums, and the ahial yields a lovely pink fruit, with white juicy flesh.

But of all the indigenous trees none can compare for beauty and value to the bread-fruit, which, though it demands a richer soil in the first instance, rivals the cocoa-palm in its manifold uses. Though it does not give drink to the thirsty, or coir for ropes and matting, its resin forms a strong glue which is useful in caulking the boats, and the bark of the young branches yields a fibre from 1 The Malay apple, familiar to us in Fiji as the iaveeka.

« PreviousContinue »