Coconut trees and Hawai‘i are inextricably linked. The trees are as essential to Hawai‘i’s self-image as the northeast trade winds that perfect the climate and the aloha that softens the culture. Travel writers, photographers and videographers go nuts for the trees. Lovers swoon, watching moonlight play like quicksilver on tremulous overhead fronds.
Magazines turn them into sentinels: “Basking in the languid warm sunshine, the cocoanut palm has stood for generations at the post of honor by the broad portal of this earthly paradise,” Paradise of the Pacific magazine burbled in 1915. “Breathing the very spirit of the tropics it has come to be the symbol of true hospitality and stands ever ready to cast that magical spell that none can resist.”
Perhaps the ravishment can be explained by Hawai‘i’s gentle and temperate climate that allows the trees to grow taller and more gracefully than on other more be-stilled or storm-traumatized shores; or maybe it’s because the trees are fewer, and thus more conspicuous and singular. Or it might be the aforesaid trade winds, whose constancy sculpts the trees’ sinuous, counterpoised stems and lofts the clacking fronds into a most picturesque attitude, making them lean and sway, sigh and sing.
But all the purple prose in the world, as essentially true as it might be, won’t whitewash what’s been going on between Hawai‘i and its coconut trees: The fact is, they were carried to these islands by man and they never got far from his meddling, loving hands. While elsewhere in the tropics they are lauded as “the tree of life” or “the tree of heaven,” here in Hawai‘i they’re often carted around like so many potted houseplants and regularly clipped like poodles. And a 6-pound nut—or a 15-foot frond—dropping from 30 feet or more? In modern America, that’s real danger, a case-closed legal liability.
In 1950, a Honolulu resident sued the city for $15,000 after a bunch of coconuts fell from a tree on ‘Aukai Avenue and hit him on the head. He was hospitalized for two and a half months. The newspaper report noted that falling coconuts had “conked only four persons“ in the previous fifteen years. More tragically, a 2-year-old girl died in a Honolulu park in 1973 when a cluster of fifty-seven small coconuts fell on her during a diaper change. That horrifying accident remains Hawai‘i’s only recorded death by falling coconuts.
So, at a current cost of somewhere between $20 and $100 per tree, professional trimmers climb 30 or 50 or 70 feet up to chop out the plant matter that fountains out of the trees’ crowns: clusters of coconuts big and small; the long, woody pods called spathes; the waxy yellow flower spikes called spadix; and the constantly unfolding fronds. Trees are usually clipped two or three times a year. The expense, a built-in budget item for the average Hawai‘i hotel or beach park, discourages many other landowners from keeping the trees on their property, so they cut them down, or sell them and have them carted away to the newest resort or fancy subdivision.
Out of necessity, the trees have become ornamentals, neutered luxuries, while the number of adults who have actually husked a coconut and split open the shell, or who have tasted fresh coconut water (wai niu), dwindles. In fact, on O‘ahu you have to do some hunting just to gaze on a coconut tree in its natural state. At the very least, Daniel Anthony’s little crusade recognizes the realities that have befallen the niu since it first arrived in Hawai‘i more than a thousand years ago.
But Anthony’s concerns aren’t exactly new. In 1866, the Hawaiian-language newspaper Ka Nupepa Ku‘oko‘a published a letter from a man named Luhua, exhorting his fellow citizens of the Kingdom to plant more coconut trees. “In the early days,” he wrote, “when our ancient Chiefs were living, all of our beaches were beautiful with coconut groves. However, we, the new generation, are disinterested in the coconut palm, letting them fall down and practically vanish, those beautiful, magnificent groves of Hawai‘i.
“We should be ashamed,” the man wrote.
In the early 1950s, the influential civic watchdog group, the Outdoor Circle, launched a campaign to combat “depredations against Hawai‘i’s palm trees” caused by the rapacious tourist-trade demand for coconut hats. And, more existentially, in a 1999 essay, Honolulu-based scholar Vilsoni Hereniko used Waikiki’s castrated coconuts as a metaphor for the culturally adrift peoples of the Pacific, as “symbols of lost identity.”