Saturday, March 19, 2011


As a writer I am always looking for something to write about. Something unique, extraordinary, important. I often overlook the obvious and ubiquitous.

When Michael and I arrived on Little Corn Island on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, we were not the only travelers there. There were Canadians and Italians, one French woman and some permanent residents from Holland and Sweden. Oh, and coconuts. Though nearly every tropical beach worldwide seems to be graced with coconuts (Cocos nucifera), they are relative new comers to the shores of the New World. They were brought here by the Spanish and Portuguese from the South Pacific where they had been cultivated and spread for over 3000 years from their original, if only speculative, home of Malaysia.

Now I am not much of a beach bum. I burn too easily for one thing and I’m way to curious for another. So as soon as we settled into our little cabana at Farm Peace & Love I headed into the jungle clad interior of this tiny island to see what I could find. The canopy was primarily mango trees (Mangifera indica) native to India, breadfruit (Atrocarpus altilis) another South East Asian native and Indian almond (Terminalia catapa) I was beginning to wonder what might be native here. Even the under-story thick with bananas (Musa acuminata), cannas (Canna edulis) and pineapples (Ananas comosus) was manmade. This unruly jungle as it turned out was a great big garden. An Eden even.
When we disembarked I heard someone say, “ Welcome to paradise”. He most certainly was standing under a coconut palm. They were everywhere at the single dock that served as the port to the island. There were coconuts everywhere. Their propensity for sandy soils, their shallow roots like lots of air, has made them the iconic beach plant. Iconic to the point of being trite. No desert island cartoon is without it’s coconut palm. No sunset postcard from Hawaii with out a palm’s silhouette.
Since we were only 5 days into our two week stay on this very small island, only 1.1 square miles, and I was getting lazier by the hour, I cut my hikes into the jungle down. And began to stare at the palms. It was easier from my towel in the sand, or the hammock on the porch of our cabana. I realized how much I took then for granted, almost hated them for there idle presence. Though they rattled in the wind with gusto on some days, they had a benign sort of easiness to them that was what we came here for. A rest.

A few mornings later, I had to contemplate my intent in the spa like heat and humidity for a few days, I thought I’d give the coconut palms a closer look. I got out my point-and-shoot camera and avoiding the leaning palm tree icon for high light beach shots, fiddled with the manual settings and moved in on the palms. They were lichen splattered, twisted, decaying and emerging. What I saw first as a pole with a mop on top had an elegant architecture and a vitality. They can be crowned with over 30 leaves and in the process they drop one leave a month and create a new one, with leaves that can reach up to 6 meters this is no lazy plant.

Though my little camera helped me look closely at the mighty coconut palm, it became like taking a picture of my freckled sunburnt knee and saying it was a self portrait. So the next day I pulled out my sketch book and pencils. There is something about drawing from life that really gets you to see. I wanted to see the palms.
Getting a rough cartoon of a palm was trouble enough, my skills as a draftsman are sorely rusty. But my eye is still strong and I absorbed information like a sponge. It was hard to capture the disheveled architecture of the palms. The raggedy motility. The crisscrossed shagginess was exuberant, joyous as each palm lifted it’s giant pre-shred leaves as a sacrifice to the wind in order to capture the sun.
Now I know I should have been spacing out looking at the aqua waters, napping, lolling in the warm waves, but I couldn’t help but get more and more fascinated with the palms. To think I had over looked them as trite icons of the tropical vacation just a week earlier and now they were becoming dynamic living beings.
In many cultures they are called the tree of life. They have become integral to coastal tropical life. From thatching to glycerine for explosives they are in all ways useful. And delicious, we ate cocos bread every morning baked by our hosts and drank coconut water right from the shell, prying and nibbling the tender white flesh as we half-snoozed under the palms, the grit of sand between our toes, in our ears and in our mouths . I was getting to see why this tree was so icon of the pleasures of tropical life, tropical vacation. And beginning to enjoy it.

The name 'coco' comes from the Spanish meaning “goblin”. Certainly their little 3 eyed faces remind one of monkeys or even more mischievous beings. Michael always sited us just out of reach of the falling nuts; they can be lethal. One night when they fell during a storm it was like being bombed. The leaves crashed thunderously too. As a gardener I speculated on the size of rake one might need to clean up the mess, of the slow, even in the heat and humidity, decomposition of the leaves and husks. The downed leaves became barricades around homes. The nuts germinate everywhere. Coconuts are easy to grow from seed, thought they need a lot of room until they can be “limbed-up”. They also produce their first crop of nuts only 4 years after germination. Not at all an indication of laziness.

Now that I am home writing this at our kitchen table looking out at the cherry orchard with it’s buds just beginning to swell, the orchards of coconut palms seem like a dream. The heat, too, a dream. Had we actually gone? I turned one of my palm photos into a screen saver. It’s iconic of the well being I felt resting on a tropical beach. I’m setting a goal by looking at it every day and imagining returning to a coconut lined beach next year.

At least in my dreams.