Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Cacao Grove


I wrote in a previous entry how from time to time I’ve wanted to reproduce some descriptive writing written by others that has impressed me for various reasons.  In my previous entry, I presented Willard Price’s description of the Polynesian body of the 1950s.  Here, now, I am presenting something else from a generation ago, but that may still be true today.  This is an excerpt from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.  Probably everybody knows the movie, South Pacific, and the story of Ensign Nellie Forbush, the World War II nurse from Arkansas who met and fell in love with and ultimately married the French planter, Emile de Becque, whom she meet there.

Tales of the South Pacific is based on pieces of reality experienced by Michener when he was in the Navy, stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.  Others have since gone to the places where Michener had been and sought to discover the reality of the people and places whom Michener had used to fashion his tales, and they have found them.  If there really were no exact “Ensign Nellie Forbush” and no specific “French Planter Emile De Becque”, there absolutely WERE nurses stationed on South Pacific islands during the war and there certainly were French plantation owners.  In fact the mystical island of “Bali Hai” was actually a real place (although that is not its name), but how it figures is less than “mystical”—it was where the French planters safely secreted their women, especially their young beautiful daughters, to protect them from being raped by the American sailors.

I very much love this passage from the book about De Becque’s lifestyle, and particularly the description of his cacao grove.  It refreshes and inspires me to think that something like this maybe still exists.  This occurs at an occasion when De Becque invites Naval doctors and nurses from the base hospital to come to his home for dinner.  Nellie Forbush was at that dinner, and De Becque took a special interest in her.  It's all wonderfully beautiful:

The long room with its deep veranda faced south, and from it one could see four lovely things: the channel where the great ships lay; the volcanoes of Vanicoro; the vast Pacific; and an old Tonk’s flower garden.

Nellie thought she had never before seen so florid a garden. There were flowers of all kinds, azaleas, single and double hibiscus, hydrangeas, pale yellow roses, and types she did not know. About the garden were flamboyant and bougainvilleas, red flaming bushes. And everywhere there were capriciously placed frangipani trees. De Becque pulled half a dozen branches for his guests and showed them how native men wear the four-leafed, white and yellow flowers in their hair. The nurses smelled the flowers their host gave them, and were delighted. The frangipani was the odor of the jungle. It was sweet, distant, and permeating. In addition it had a slightly aphrodisiac quality, a fact which natives learned long ago.

De Becque’s dinner put to shame any the doctors had ever offered him. It started with soup, grilled fresh-water shrimp, lobster and rice, and endive salad. Next came in succession three courses: filet of porterhouse, lamp chop, and a delicious concoction of rice, onions, string beans, and black meat of wild chicken. Then De Becque served the “millionaire’s salad”, consisting of tender shoots of coconut palm sliced wafer-thin and pressed in olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Cup custard with rum, small cakes, coffee, and a choice of six liqueurs ended the meal. And this was on the edge of the jungle, 550 miles from Guadalcanal!

To say that the hospital staff was astounded would be an underestimate of their reactions.

“Where do you get the lobsters?” a doctor inquired.

“We catch them here by various means. Out in the deep water.”

“How about the wild chicken?”

“Those black men you saw by the gate when you came in. They shoot them with arrows or with .22’s. They are wonderful shots, I think.”

“I think so, too,” the doctor replied. “But where do you get such big shrimp?”

"Far up the island rivers. You see, my friends, we don't eat this way every day. That's obvious. Not more than once every two weeks. You see for lobster I must tell the men five days in advance. For shrimp a week. For wild chicken, two days."

. . .

After dinner, the guests sat in the screened-in veranda. A doctor had brought along two mosquito bombs to keep the pests away. Their host served whisky, beer, coke, ginger ale, root beer, and rum. As the evening wore on and a fine crescent moon rose into the midnight sky talk turned to the islands.

“How can a man have stayed healthy here,” one doctor inquired.

“Hard work and temperate living,” the Frenchman replied. “I serve a great deal of alcohol but use it sparingly, myself. I have tried to do all things in moderation.”

The nurses wondered what “all things” covered. "Do you think other white people could live in the tropics too?" one asked. That is, as well as you have?”

"They do," he said. "I think will power has a lot to do with it. You take the island of Malaita in the Solomons. Oh, what a place! Yet a man I know well, fellow named Anderson. He found life there quite successful."

"Tell me, M. De Becque," a nurse asked. "Is it true that most white men in the tropics are running away from something?"

The Frenchman turned in his chair to face his impertinent questioner. She was a young girl, so he smiled. "Yes," he said, "I believe that is true. Suppose I was running away from something. Where could I find a lovelier spot than this?"

He swept his hand across the front of the veranda and pointed toward the silent peaks of Vanicoro. "As a matter of fact" he said in a quiet voice, "is not each of you running away from something? You were not married yet, your lovers were at war, or your wives were beginning to bore you. I don't think it wise to inquire too closely into reasons why anybody is anywhere!" He smiled at the embarrassed nurse.

“Oh M. De Becque,” she said. I didn't mean it that way!"

“I know you didn't, my dear! But that's the way I understand the question. It's no good to think that all the men in Marseilles are normal and happy without secrets and everyone out here is a fugitive! That sort of thinking is foolish in today's world. I wonder how many men and women in Marseilles envy me right now?"

It was after midnight, and the nurses had to return. They were reluctant to leave the plantation. At the gateway where the jeeps were parked M. De Becque detached Nellie from the group. She had stood so that he could if he were so minded. “Ensign Forbush," he said. "You have shown great interest in my home. I would like to have you visit the plantation again.”

“I should like to," Nellie replied frankly.

“With your permission I shall stop by for you one afternoon. You would enjoy my cacao grove."

Three days later, in the cacao grove, Nellie admitted that she had never seen anything which so impressed her with its natural, unexploited beauty. Within that grove she was to spend many of the happiest hours she would ever know, and one of the bitterest.

Plantation owners in the tropics usually plant their coconut trees in stately rows along the ocean front and inland for a mile or two. Grass is kept closely cropped beneath the trees so that fallen nuts can be gathered without difficulty. Most coconut groves look very neat. The tall palms appear like thin ballet dancers with fantastic headdresses. But a cacao grove grows haphazardly. It usually forms the boundary between plantation and jungle. Trees spring up helter-skelter from year to year, and around them jungle brush proliferate. At times it is difficult to tell where cacao trees end and violent jungle begins.

At the point where his cacao and coconut met, De Becque had long ago built himself a pavilion big enough for two or three people. Its base was teak wood in eighteen-inch planks, its half-sides of woven coconut palm, and full roof of heavy thatch. Two benches of mahogany and two massive, comfortable chairs of teak were the only pieces of furniture. Four grotesque rootoos, native masks carved of coconut log decorated the four corners. Two were incredibly long-nosed jungle gods and two were native views of white women, with red lips. The masks gave color to what might otherwise have been a barren pavilion.

It is doubtful, however, if anything could be barren within a cacao grove. As Nellie waited in the pavilion while De Becque talked with his natives, she could hardly believe that what she had thought of as the montononous jungle could be so varied. Above her flew an endless variety of birds. White, green, red, purple, and yellow lorikeets more beautiful than any bird except the quetzal swirled and eddied through the grove. Their harsh cries were modified by the delicate chirping of a graceful swa1lowlike bird that flew in great profusion among the cacao trees. This gracious bird was sooty black except for a white breast and belly. Gliding and twisting through the shadows it looked like a shadow itself. Then, bursting into the sunlight, its white body shone brilliantly.

At times sea birds flew as far inland as the cacao grove, and occasionally a gaunt hawk from the distant hills would settle there for a day and drive the darting swallows away.

But it was the cacao tree that won Nellie's admiration.

The cacao is small, hardly more than a bush, reaching at most twenty feet in height. It has a sturdy trunk, thick branches about five feet from the ground, and grows symmetrically. Its leaves are brilliantly glistened like poison ivy, only more shimmering. And they are of myriad color! Some are pale green, others darkest green, some purple, some almost blue, or gray, or bright yellow. And on most trees at least fifty leaves are brilliant vermillion, shading off to scarlet and deep red. Each leaf is iridescent, and dead leaves drop immediately from the tree.

A cacao grove, in rainy weather, is a mournful and lovely place. In bright sunlight it is a hall of mirrors, and at dusk it has a quality of deep jungle quiet and mysteriousness that is equaled nowhere else in the tropics. In large measure these attributes are aided by the beauty of the cacao pods themselves, They grow in fairy-tale manner. In late January and February the cacao puts out buds that will later grow into pods. They appear without reason at the strangest places! Two inches from the ground on a barren, stiff trunk, a pod will suddenly appear. On one branch there may be a dozen pods. On another, none. In the crevice formed where a branch leaves the trunk a cluster of pods may appear and the branch itself may be bare. A mature cacao in full season looks as if someone had stood at a distance and flung a huge handful of random pods upon it.

At first the miniature pods are light purple. Then as they grow to full size, they become a weird greenish purple, like the paintings of Georges Bracque, Next they are all green, and from then on they become the chameleons of the jungle.

On one tree mature pods, which now look like elongated cantaloupes seven and eight inches long, will be bright green, golden yellow, reddish yellow, red, purple, and greenish purple. And on each tree a few will be dead, charred, black, ugly, with small holes where rats have eaten out the sweet seeds, which, when toasted and ground, become cocoa.

While Nellie waited for De Becque to finish the work he was doing, she studied the grove and mused upon the perverseness of people whereby cacao in French becomes cocoa in English. The multicolored lorikeets, the iridescent leaves, and the flaming cacao pods formed a superb picture for a hot afternoon. Later, when her host appeared, tall, stooped, and breathing hard, she asked him to sit by her.

"Why did you build this pavilion?" she asked.

"1 like to be near the jungle," he said, remaining in the doorway.

"Do you come here on rainy days? Is it nice then, too?"

"It's best on rainy days," he said. "But it's strange. The place serves no purpose. It's too far from the kitchen to eat here. There’s no bed, and it isn’t screened in. Yet I think I like it better than any place on my plantation.”

“I was looking at the cacaos,” Nellie said in a sing-song kind of voice. To herself she was saying, “I shall marry this man. This shall be my life from now on. This hillside shall be my home. And in the afternoon he and I will sit here.” Aloud she continued, “They are beautiful, aren’t they.”
–-James Michener, 1946

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