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Ethnology of Tongareva




The coconut was fully utilized in Tongareva. Though it is conceivable that a people could subsist on fish supplemented by the fruit of the hala, the population would of necessity be small. After its introduction the coconut was planted on all the islands surrounding the lagoon, and the rich crop obtained enabled a larger population to subsist than would otherwise have been possible. On atolls the spread of the people is intimately associated with the spread of the coconut, and the part played by the coconut in improving the conditions of life and increasing population cannot be overestimated.

The need for the coconut as the main staple of vegetable food led the people to study every phase in the growth of the fruit. This resulted in such a minute practical classification of the stages of growth with analyses of food values at each stage that the student, aware only of its food uses in the high volcanic islands, realizes for the first time the full value of the coconut. Every part of the nut that was possibly edible was utilized. Besides the flesh and fluid, parts of the enveloping husk and the growing plant within the cavity were constituents of the diet. The growth of the nut was divided into ten named stages, and eight of these had their particular uses as food. The stages of growth could be distinguished unerringly even from the ground, so that the person requiring nuts for a particular food preparation walked through his plantation, scrutinized the tops of the trees, and only climbed the tree when he had recognized the right fruit.

Botanical Features

The coconut palm is designated niu; its leaves, nikau. The tough spathe which incloses the flower is the taume, which opens and droops down as the flower increases in size. The dry taume is used as firewood. The flowers are in spikes branching from a central axis. Near the base of each lateral axis is a single female flower. The numerous male flowers grow on all sides of the axis between the female flower and the apex. The whole collection of flower spikes attached to one central axis is termed the rōrō. The female flowers are termed pei.

The nut of the coconut consists of the epicarp, mesocarp, endocarp, testa. endosperm, embryo, and contained fluid.

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The epicarp is the smooth, tough, outer coat. The mesocarp consists of the fibrous covering commonly alluded to as the husk and termed puru in Tongareva. The mesocarp, according to Winton (34), consists of a hard outer coat a few millimeters thick, a soft portion 3 or 4 centimeters thick on the sides and much thicker at the base, and longitudinal fibers. The longitudinal fibers are the coir fibers used to make sennit cords and ropes. The soft portion consists of soft ground tissue composed of thick-walled parenchymatous cells. The thicker soft portion at the base is free of fibers in the early stages of growth, and as it was used as food by the Tongarevans it received the special name of karisi. In the later stages of growth the karisi becomes dry and fibrous and ceases to be edible. In certain varieties of coconut termed mangaro, the whole husk is sweet and is chewed like sugar cane. The endocarp forms the shell (ipu), which becomes hard and brittle in the later stages of growth.

Three ridges on the outer surface of the shell pass longitudinally from the base to the apex, and between the ridges at the base are three depressions, or eyes, where the tissue is softer and thinner. Winton (34) states that the ridges are equidistant, but if the basal end is closely examined it will be found that of the three spaces bounded by the three ridges one is always wider than either of the other two. It is the depression in the wider space that the natives term the mata. The mata is filled with soft tissue, and it is always through this depression that the growing cotyledon point of the embryo emerges when it sprouts. My attention was drawn to this depression by the natives, who also demonstrated that it is the only depression through which a coconut leaflet midrib can be pushed to make a hole into the nut so that the fluid may be extracted without breaking the shell. The other two depressions do not pass through the shell.

The testa is light brown in color and is united with the inner surface of the shell and the outer surface of the endosperm. The raphe, with branching veins of vascular tissue, runs through the substance of the testa. If the mature endosperm is separated from the shell with a knife the testa splits at the branching raphe, the outer part adheres firmly to the shell, and the inner part adheres to the endosperm as a brown outer layer. While the mature nut is being grated the brown inner part of the testa adheres to the shell, and thin parts of the endosperm stick to the testa.

The endosperm forms the flesh, or meat, of the nut. It commences to grow from the base of the nut and spreads over the entire inner surface of the shell. In the early stages the flesh (varevare, “slimy”) is thin and slimy. It is edible and may be removed with the fingers. As the nut matures the flesh becomes white, thick, and firm, and is from 1 to 2 centimeters thick. It adheres closely to the shell and has to be removed with an implement. The mature, firm flesh is termed katinga. The cells contain bundles of needle-shaped fat crystals and lumps of protein matter. The fluid has popularly been termed “coconut milk” because of its milky appearance in the mature nuts which appear on the market. The fluid (vai) used for drinking is obtained from the nuts in the stages before absolute maturity (sakari). It is a clear fluid and closely resembles albumen or barley water, not milk of even the most watery consistence. The fluid forms in the shell before the appearance of the flesh. In the earliest stage in the growth of the nut the fluid is bitter and unfit to drink. After the bitter kawakawa stage the fluid makes a most refreshing beverage and is used until the mature sakari stage is reached, when the fluid is too bitter to drink. It gradually diminishes in quantity, due to the action of the absorbing organ of the embryo.

The embryo is imbedded in the flesh near the base of the nut. After the nut has reached maturity a soft spongy mass (uto) spreads out from the region of the embryo near the base, and, gradually absorbing the fluid and part of the inner surface of the flesh, it fills the entire cavity of the nut (fig. 12, i, j). At the same time a sprout penetrates the mata depression at the base, and as it pushes its way through the husk envelope it develops into the growing plant, with leaves, stems, and roots. Dr. Forest B. H. Brown informs me that the cotyledon which develops from the embryo has an absorbing organ, termed Sauforgan by German botanists, which develops within the cavity, and another part divided into plumule, caulicle, and radicle, which pushes out page 110 through the eye of the shell. From the plumule, caulicle, and radicle are developed, respectively, the leaves, stem, and roots of the plant.

The Uto

The absorbing organ of the coconut cotyledon (uto) is most appreciated as a food, for it provides a vegetable food distinct from the ordinary flesh of the nut. Mature nuts with the husk intact are collected and stored to await the uto stage of growth. From the size or length of the growing shoot the householder can tell whether or not the uto has filled the entire cavity of the nut and is ready for use. The uto at this stage forms a light, spongy, somewhat watery mass which may be eaten raw, grated, or cooked. The small amount of unabsorbed flesh that still remains is also utilized.

To obtain the full good from the uto an ingenious method is adopted. The uto nuts which have begun to sprout are laid in a shallow pit in layers and covered with earth to the depth of about 1 foot above the upper layer. When the shoots of the upper layer appear above the earth they are allowed to grow for another foot. The pit is then uncovered, and the shoots of all the nuts are nipped off above the stems of the two lowest leaves. The nuts are replaced and covered. When the shoots again reach a height of 1 foot they are nipped once more. Growth usually ceases after the second nipping, but some nuts may require a third nipping. During this period the uto absorbing organ has completely absorbed the endosperm flesh within the nut cavity. As it has no more room for expansion, the uto not only fills the cavity but becomes firmer and more compact, thus increasing in value as a food. It has also absorbed the fat crystals of the endosperm and is accordingly richer and more palatable. If the growing sprout is nipped off close to the husk, growth is stopped altogether, the absorbing organ ceases to function, and the uto remains thin and spongy, and, of course, a portion of the flesh remains unabsorbed.

In some mature nuts the fluid dries up and there is no growth. Experience has shown that the flesh of such nuts keeps for some time, so attempts are made to dry up the fluid artificially. It has been found that the nuts grow when in contact with the ground and exposed to moisture, but even then some nuts do not sprout. To prevent growth the mature nuts are collected and placed on a scaffolding above the ground and under cover. The nuts are selected from those newly plucked or fallen mature nuts that show no signs of growth. Nuts exposed on the ground to form uto that show no signs of growth after a reasonable time are removed and stacked on the covered scaffold. Nuts on the scaffold that commence to sprout are removed and added to the uto reserve. From the sakari mature stage the fluid gradually dries up. When the fluid is not quite dried up and the flesh is still white the nut is termed maimasa. In the last stage (takataka) page 111 the cavity of the nut becomes quite dry and the flesh brown or dark in color. The stages are distinguished by shaking the nut and listening to the sound made by the fluid within. The flesh of some nuts becomes mouldy, and such nuts, when opened, are discarded as unfit for consumption. When the flesh assumes a reddish-brown color the nuts are called kura (red). The kura is regarded as the best form of takataka.

Stages of Growth

The stages of growth of the nut are shown in figure 12. The characters and use of the nut at its different stages of development are given in Table 8.

Figure 12. Stages in growth of coconut: a, pei; b, kawakawa; c, rau; d, kaipu; e, ni mata panapana; f, ni mata; g, ni motomoto; h, sakari; i, maimasa; j, k, uto; l, takataka. 1, mesocarp, husk (puru); 2, edible husk (karisi); 3, endocarp, shell (ipu); 4, endosperm, flesh; 5, fluid (vai); 6, embryo; 7, absorbing organ (uto); 8, plumule; 9, caulicle; 10, radicle; 11, leaves; 12, stem; 13, roots.

Figure 12. Stages in growth of coconut: a, pei; b, kawakawa; c, rau; d, kaipu; e, ni mata panapana; f, ni mata; g, ni motomoto; h, sakari; i, maimasa; j, k, uto; l, takataka. 1, mesocarp, husk (puru); 2, edible husk (karisi); 3, endocarp, shell (ipu); 4, endosperm, flesh; 5, fluid (vai); 6, embryo; 7, absorbing organ (uto); 8, plumule; 9, caulicle; 10, radicle; 11, leaves; 12, stem; 13, roots.

As shown in Table 8, the word ni is used in the fifth, sixth, and seventh stages of growth, but it is qualified by adjectives to indicate the particular stages, usually referred to as panapana, ni mata, and motomoto. No term is used to indicate the fruit in general. The different stages have become so distinct that a general term is not only vague, but useless. If a European should ask for a “coconut” the word would convey no meaning to the Tongarevan, for the Tongarevan associates directly the name for the kind of nut and its use. It is in practical circumstances that the Polynesian dialects have enriched their vocabularies with specific terms. Older, more general terms have even been lost.

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Table 8. Development and Use of the Coconut
Stages of Growth
(See figure 12)
Characters Parts Used Prepared Dishes
a. Pei Fertilized female flower.
b. Kawakawa Cavity filled with clear fluid, too bitter to drink.
c. Rau Husk well formed. Fluid clear and ceases to be bitter. No flesh formed. Husk (karisi) fluid (vai)
d. Kaipu Flesh forming in base half of nut, thin, slimy, easily detached. Husk, fluid, flesh (varevare)
e. Ni mata panapana Flesh spread over whole of inner surface in thin, slimy layer. Husk, fluid, flesh
f. Ni mata Flesh thickens but still soft. Husk dry and unfit for food. Fluid, flesh Suisui Ni varu
g. Nimotomoto Flesh thicker and firmer; embryo developing. Fluid plentiful and clear. Fluid, flesh Nita
h. Sakari Flesh mature, thick and hard. Fluid less, bitter, unfit to drink. Embryo develops into absorbing organ. Flesh Roro Kapani ota
i. Maimasa Cotyledon pushes through mata hole and husk at base. Fluid being absorbed. Flesh
j,k. Uto Fluid completely absorbed. Cavity filled with spongy uto. Flesh thinner and in artificially produced uto, flesh entirely absorbed. Plumule developed into leaves, caulicle into stem, radicle into roots. Sprout nipped off above lowest two leaves. Absorbing organ (uto). Flesh (when present). Takarari Kohu Ipusaka
l. Takataka Embryo undeveloped. Flesh thick and very hard. No fluid; no sprout. Flesh
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The fluid

From the few springs on the islands water for drinking was collected in coconut shell vesssels. However, the main beverage of the people was the fluid of the coconut obtained from the rau, kaipu, ni mata panapana, ni mata, and ni motomoto stages of growth. As the coconut grows luxuriantly on all the islands except some of the rocky islets, water was always close at hand, albeit it was on the tops of trees instead of on the ground. The introduction of metal tanks and concrete reservoirs to catch rain water from corrugated iron roofs has of late years made water more available. The coconut, however, still continues to afford an important part of the drinking supply, and the fluid of the coconut is regarded not as a luxury, but as a necessity. A much larger quantity of nuts is used for drinking on atolls than on high islands. In fact, traders and government officials favor the use of rain water in order that more nuts may be available for the copra trade.

With a good supply of bearing coconut trees, the Tongarevan population could subsist without fresh water. The fluid of the coconut could supply all the fluid needed for drinking purposes. In the cooking oven no water was used. Food, such as fish, was washed in the waters of the lagoon. The various food preparations from the coconut or the hala came from clean fruit that needed no washing. The clothing could not stand washing and when necessary, it was freshly made from new material. The people of both sexes lived much of the time in the bath provided by the sea and the lagoon. Where fresh-water pools existed, as on Mangarongaro, the people availed themselves of the opportunity of washing in them, but cleanliness of person did not depend upon them. There was thus nothing to make fresh water an absolute necessity to human existence.

During my expeditions to the various islands around the lagoon the older men always insisted on taking some of the younger men to “climb for water.” At appropriate intervals, without being told, these young men procured drinking nuts for us. They examined the trees from the ground for nuts in the ni mata or ni motomoto stages, which provide the best drinking fluid. Failing these, they had recourse to the younger stages and always apologized for them.

Foods Derived from the Flesh

The flesh of the coconut may be eaten in its natural state in all stages from the immature soft kaipu to the hard takataka. People working on land away from their homes, when they have drunk the fluid from the drinking page 114 nuts, break up the shell and eat the flesh, which is readily detached with the fingers or with a piece of shell. The flesh is eaten with as much satisfaction as the consumption of bread gives to people of other cultures. The midday meal was unknown in olden times, and the eating of the flesh from the drinking nuts appeased hunger between the morning and evening meals. Similarly, the fisherman is satisfied with a few coconuts that he carries out in his canoe. If fish or shellfish are available, they are utilized to supplement the coconut flesh, for an appetite can always be developed when circumstances provide extra material to satisfy it. The harder katinga flesh of the sakari, uto, or takataka was also eaten uncooked, a kasi seashell being used to remove the flesh in appropriate mouthfuls.

As shown in Table 8, the following dishes are prepared from the coconut at four stages of its growth:

1. Suisui. A nut in the ni mata stage is opened and the fluid is poured off into a container. The flesh is grated with the hand tuai. The fluid is poured back and the grated flesh is mixed with it. The mixture forms suisui which is eaten uncooked, “ka kai mata.” Some of the hardier people looked upon the suisui preparation as an unnecessary refinement. Hence the song:

Ei aha e varuvaruhia ai ki te tuai?
E hungahunga i e.
Saroa ki te kasi,
Romia ki te rima
Kia uru ko te sumu,
Kia reka te kaki,
Kia papa te manava,
Kia papa te moe.

Why grate with the hand grater?
The pieces are too small.
Scrape with a sea shell,
Squeeze with the fingers
That the oil may enter,
That the throat be sweet,
That desire be fully satisfied,
That sleep be sound.

2. Ni varu. The ni mata flesh is scraped with a hand grater, and the fluid replaced. The top shell is replaced as a cover. The shell with the grated flesh and its own fluid is placed on shredded husk laid over the hot stones of an oven, the oven is covered, and the preparation cooked. The ni varu is the preparation that Lamont (15) so frequently refers to as “neu oara,” and which seems to have been his favorite food on Tongareva.

3. Ni ta. The flesh of the nut in the ni motomoto stage is grated with a hand grater within the shell. A nut in the kaipu stage is stripped of its husk in such a way that the karisi at the stalk end is left adhering to the shell. The karisi is grated with a hand grater and mixed with the grated ni motomoto in its shell. The preparation derives its name from ta (to mix), because of the mixing of two ingredients derived from different stages. The ni ta is eaten uncooked. Lamont (15, p. 153) refers to a preparation which he terms “poey” (poi):

“The ‘moto moto’ is the ripe cocoa-nut, with the husk still green, and from it is made the ‘poey,’ in the same manner as the neu oara, only more coarsely scraped. This is commonly dressed in wooden bowls at their feasts, when there are many to be served, and it is not considered so delicate as the ‘neu oara.’”

4. Roro. The flesh of the coconut at the sakari stage, when minced or scraped, may be eaten uncooked by people with good teeth. Roro is the liquid expressed from the grated flesh of the mature nut. Roro serves as a food, a drink, and a medicine. It is usually referred to by Europeans as “coconut cream.” The sakari may be grated with the coral grater (kau tuai), but in olden days the flesh was usually scraped out in fine, thin strips with a kasi shell. The older generation of women were very expert and quick in the use of the kasi shell and rather despised the kau tuai grater, which is probably a page 115 fairly recent introduction. The scraped material is collected in a wooden bowl until a sufficient quantity has been prepared. The beaten green husk of a ni motomoto is used as a strainer; the husk of a mature nut is too dry. The husk is opened out into a flat layer and a quantity of the grated flesh is placed upon it. (See pl. 1, A.) The husk is folded around the flesh and held in the two hands, the right hand vertically above the left. The round wooden roro bowl is placed below, and by short, sharp twists with the hands working in opposite directions the liquid is expressed into the bowl (pl. 1, B). By the short, quick twists the creamy liquid is caused to froth and issue between the fingers to run down into the bowl. This special form of wringing is termed viaha. A froth forms on the surface of the liquid in the bowl. The process is continued until the liquid reaches the rim of the bowl and the froth stands well above it. The higher the froth, the greater is the success of the operation. This method of raising a froth differs from anything seen in the Cook Islands and is not known in the neighboring atolls of Manihiki and Rakahanga. It seems to be a local technique that has become important as a means of social expression.

The main use of roro is as a drink. It contains much oil and acts as a purgative, and though its use at social gatherings is the more important, its purgative properties are recognized. A pregnant woman is given a bowl of roro a day or so before confinement for the purpose of cleaning out the bowels and hence assisting delivery.

Roro is also used as a relish to mix (ta) with other foods. Though the fluid in the mature nut lessens in quantity and is unfit to drink, it may be used to moisten the grated nut and so to assist in extracting as much of the oil as possible. The straining process with the husk strainer is termed tatau. Lamont (15, p. 153–154) in speaking of “ororo” says the vegetable part (karisi) of the young nut is added, “the acid of which produces slight fermentation. A proper proportion of cocoa-nut water is added, with a small quantity of neu mata. Some of this mixture is placed in the husk of a certain cocoa-nut, after being well pounded, washed, and cleansed of its powdery portions, leaving only a fibrous substance, and the juice is expressed with a churning motion, producing a white, milky substance, which, as it increases in the bowl, foams up like new milk from the cow, and has a pleasant look.”

5. Kopani ota. The grated nut before the roro is expressed is termed roro sakari. The flesh, after straining it, is termed ota. The ota, after all the fluid is expressed, is removed from the strainer into a receptacle. After all the roro has been expressed from the prepared quantity of grated nut the ota is placed in an empty coconut shell and cooked in an oven. The preparation is then termed kopani ota. The cooked preparation will keep for a considerable time. It was therefore used on journeys, and the Tongarevans believe that it was used by Hiro and other navigating ancestors on their long deep-sea voyages. The correct food complement (kinaki) of kopani ota was dried Tridacna (kopani ota te kinaki he pasua maro.)

6. Takarari. The uto may be eaten uncooked and is palatable. For takarari the uto nut is husked, and the contents cooked in an oven without opening the shell. A ni mata is opened and grated with a hand grater. The cooked uto is extracted from the shell, pounded, and mixed with the grated ni mata and its fluid.

7. Kohu. The cooked grated ni mata forming the preparation called ni varu is mixed with roro cream and mashed cooked uto. Other uto are cooked whole and cut at the top to open them out. The kohu is then used as a filling.

8. Ipu soka. Cooked uto is mashed up in an empty coconut shell, mixed with roro and then cooked in an oven for ipu soka.

The Husk

Besides the karisi part of the husk (puru), the ordinary fibrous part of the husk of the variety of coconuts called mangaro may be chewed direct from the shell or after cooking in an oven. A sweet juice is extracted page 116 which is not unlike that of sugar cane. The correct food to eat with the sweet husk is ota. As ota is the grated mature coconut flesh from which the liquid has been expressed by wringing to provide roro, the food is somewhat dry. The liquid from the husk thus forms a natural complement (kinaki). Lamont (15, p. 153) says, “Then there is the ‘mangaro,’ a particular kind of cocoa-nut, the husk of which when chewed has a sweet flavour like sugar-cane, and when cooked is very sweet and nutritious.”

Husking Implements

For harvesting and husking coconuts special implements have been devised. The husker (ko) is a unique implement because of its shortness and because it does not have one end driven into the ground to fix it in a stationary position. For making the husker a stout piece of ngangie wood about 1.75 inches in diameter is selected, and a section about 16 inches long is cut off. One end is cut off blunt to prevent penetration into the ground, and the other end is sharpened to a long mesial point slightly flattened on the two opposite sides. (See pl. 1, C.)

The husking of coconuts is man's work. To use the short husker the man seats himself on the ground and places the blunt end of the husker on the ground between his feet, where it is kept upright by the pressure of the soles of the feet turned against the sides of the implement (see pl. 1, D). The surrounding husk envelope is roughly triangular in section so that three prominent longitudinal ridges, corresponding to the apices of the triangular section, are apparent. As the object is to remove the husk in longitudinal sections, one of the ridges is usually selected as the first section for removal. The coconut, held at both ends with its long axis horizontal, is lifted with both hands and brought down sharply on the point of the implement. Care is taken in judging the line of penetration in order that the point may pass through the segment on the near side of the shell. If the blow is not sufficient for the point of the husker to pass right through the husk the nut is raised again with the husker sticking in it, and the nut is brought down again so that as the blunt end of the husker strikes the ground the point is forced through the husk. After the husker has been driven through a section of husk on the near side of the nut the section is removed by levering the nut outward and downward away from the implement. The impaled section splits longitudinally and is torn from the nut. Other sections of the husk are dealt with in a similar way until the shell is cleared.

In the high volcanic islands, where there is a greater variety of vegetable foods, one method of husking prevails, as the sole object is to remove page 117 the husk. In Tongareva the use of the karisi part of the husk as food has led to different methods of husking in order that the karisi may be left attached to those nuts in which it is used as food. Owing to differences in development of the husk fibers, three methods of husking have been developed:

1. In the rau and kaipu stages the coir fibers have not developed enough to form a firm attachment to the karisi part. The point of the husker is driven in on the apex side of the middle line. Three segments comprising the longitudinal ridges, and then the intermediate sections, are removed. At the apex the husk is thinner and the segments torn off retain the same thickness, so that they run off toward the base, leaving the karisi intact. Any extra fibers are trimmed off with shallow penetrations of the point of the husker. The trimmed nuts are brought into the kitchen with all the food parts intact, the nut with the contained fluid and flesh, and the outer karisi attached to the shell.

2. The ni mata panapana is a later stage in which the husk fibers adhere more closely to the karisi part still used as food. The preceding method of husking is inapplicable, as the husk segments would tear off much of the karisi and so waste it. The base end of the husk is therefore pierced all around with short slanting punctures by bringing the nut down on the husking point with light blows not sufficient to cause the point to pierce right through the husk. The husk sections are then pierced through in the middle line. On the apical end the husk segments run off close to the shell, but on the thicker base end they run off at the punctures already made, and the karisi is thus left intact on the shell.

3. In the ni mata and succeeding stages, the karisi is not used, and it is unnecessary to leave it intact on the shell. The point of the husker is thus driven through near the base end where the husk is thicker, in order that as much husk as possible may be removed with each segment.

The three methods of husking were demonstrated by Pa of Omoka, the oldest man on the atoll. He held that, seated on the ground with the short husker, an expert could husk more coconuts than an expert in the standing position with the longer fixed husker of the high volcanic islands.

Because of the scarcity of timber, the short huskers were kept by the owners. A man going out into the plantation to get nuts always carried his husker with him, but the advent of the bush knife, with which any piece of wood may be sharpened, has now made the carrying of huskers unnecessary.

Carrying Pole and Climbing Bandage

Permanent carrying poles (kau amo) with a notch at either end are made of tou or hano wood. Temporary ones are formed from the midrib (pararaha) of the coconut leaf. Since the advent of the bush knife, which is now an almost indispensable article for one going out into the coconut groves, the old permanent carrying poles are not used.

In the islands where the hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) grows, its bark is used to form climbing bandages. In Tongareva a substitute is found in the skin from the part near the base of the upper surface of the coconut leaf midrib. page 118 Strips of this material (tari) are beaten and twisted to render it soft and so to prevent it from snapping. An appropriate loop is formed, and the ends tied together with a reef knot. With the loops over the dorsa of the feet the climber is able to take a purchase against the trunk of the tree. By raising himself with the hands and lifting his feet, the climber can ascend the loftiest coconut tree.