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From a Tahitian Commonplace Book

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

Grass and fern underfoot, growing blossoming things on all sides, wide-arching branches of mango and breadfruit trees to catch and scatter the sunlight: so carpeted, walled round, and canopied is the green solitude where stands my little house.

Throughout the afternoon there is deep silence here, but at nightfall the village wakens to life. I hear Mama Tu’s voice, and old Nuna-Vahine’s, and Paoto’s, and Rima’s, and Teura’s, and many more. They pass to and fro, unseen in the darkness of the groves, their bare feet making no slightest sound, and I imagine that I am listening to the voices of ghosts, floating slowly along on vagrant currents of air.

Their speech has the same charm for me that it had years ago when first I heard it. Only children of nature, isolated for centuries on such islands as this, could have fashioned words so warm and fragrant with the breath of the land, so cool and refreshing with the breath of the sea. They have words for morning moods as airy as bubbles of foam on the slope of a subsiding wave, and they seem, somehow, as evanescent, as though created for the moment only. They have drowsy noonday words, and words moist and fresh and beautifully sculptured, like fungus flowers, a yellow purau blossom, or a newly-burgeoned rain-tree leaf.

The texture of their voices is like that of smoke—the moonlight-filtered smoke of their supper fires; but often when children are speaking I hear cadences that remind me, by their tissue of resilient sound, of wind-blown spiderwebs sparkling with a mist of dew. Even in phrases of simple and commonplace meaning one feels the warmth of tropical sunlight and seems to catch the humid spicy fragrance of tropical vegetation.

It is a light-hearted speech of a laughter-loving people. More than a century ago, after the advent of the early missionaries, it was set down in written characters wholly inadequate for the purpose. So it remains to this day, and students of the language must study it in this form, represented by these alien symbols.

But one need not, of course, study it. For my own part, I find it pleasure enough and profit enough to sit on my veranda in the darkness, while rich and harmonious sound-patterns are thrown, now here, now there, upon a curtain of starry silence.


Taio-Vahine lives at one end of the village street, Nuna-Vahine at the other. Their children have long since grown to manhood and womanhood and have gone elsewhere, on this or other islands, to live. Now the two women are at leisure and take their ease from year’s end to year’s end. Through long afternoons Taio-Vahine sits in the shade of a breadfruit tree in her dooryard, her hands folded in her lap, gazing inland where cloud shadows move slowly across the slopes of the high fern-covered plateaus. Through long afternoons Nuna-Vahine sits in the shade of a tamanu tree on the lagoon beach, her hands folded in her lap, gazing seaward where cloud reflections, now blurred, now clear, are mirrored on the surface of an ocean that seems never to have known a storm.

Yesterday, passing her bamboo hut, I paused for a moment to greet Taio-Vahine.

“Is there news at this end of the village?” I asked.

She deliberated long before replying. Then she said: “One little news: Taura and his sons have gone bonito fishing.”

Silence followed.

“Taio-Vahine, you spend many hours sitting under this tree. I often wonder what you are thinking about?” “Eaha?”

“What do you think about as you sit, day after day, under this old breadfruit tree?”

She regarded me with an expression of faint surprise.

“I think of nothing,” she replied.

Returning by way of the beach I found Nuna-Vahine in her accustomed place.

“May you live, Nuna-Vahine,” I said.

“And may you live. Where are you going?”

“For a swim in Vaipopo river.”

We listened to the waves lapping on the sand, and watched the hermit crabs dragging their snailshell houses up the long slope to shelter from the westering sun.

“Plpasant to the eyes is the lagoon viewed from this spot,” I observed.

She replied in the silent native fashion, with a swift, barely perceptible lifting and lowering of the eyebrows.

“I suppose you think of many things as you sit here these long afternoons?”

Then she too raised her head slowly, as Taio-Vahine had done, and looked at me with the same expression of faint surprise.

“Why should I be thinking?” she said. “I am an old woman now. I am resting.”

The trees that shade them are not more at peace with their world and with themselves than these two old women, ready and waiting patiently for what must soon come.


This small bay seems to have been fashioned by nature for the perpetual enjoyment of sea-loving children. The beach is of coral sand, packed hard and firm, and shaded by iron-wood, tamanu, and pandanus trees. On its western side, sheltered by a sickle-shaped promontory, are sandy shallows where the two- and three- and four-year-olds may splash about in safety. Farther along, the lagoon floor shelves steeply to six fathoms, and at this point three coconut palms lean far out so that the older children may run easily up their trunks, swing from their tattered fronds, and leap into still water, twenty feet below. Farther yet, the smooth swells of the open sea sweep in through a break in the reef, gathering height as they approach the land, to crash in splendid combers. Here the skilled swimmers ride the surf, their brown bodies lacquered with foams and tropical sunlight.

They are no longer shy in my presence. I have become a part of the setting, like the coral mushroom, barely awash, thirty yards offshore, where they sit to watch the colored fish; like this ancient aito tree where, perhaps, Captain Cook himself, one hundred and fifty years ago, took shelter from the climbing sun.

And long before his time—three centuries, five centuries, perhaps a thousand years ago, one would have witnessed at this spot just such a scene as I have witnessed this morning. When I feel saddened at thought of the winds of change blowing so steadily and so fiercely from the northern latitudes, and how they sweep over even such lonely islands as this, I am comforted by the reflection: “But a thousand years hence cocks will crow at dawn, as of old, wakening children to bathe in the sea.”

Teura and Irako have been quarreling again. The dispute began several weeks ago, about a pig which both claim, and it has not yet been settled. Teura is a native of this village. Irako is a Low Island woman who came to Tahiti at the time of her marriage. Their difference of opinion is merely an excuse for the kind of quarrel all Polynesian women love.

Last night they met in the village street, directly in front of my house. In the darkness I listened with interest to the argument. The pig had long since been forgotten and the two women were engaged in a process of mutual defamation of character. There were no oblique hints or allusive remarks. Accusations were as direct as words could make them. Listening to Teura, I realized more clearly than before how flexible to all moods and needs the Tahitian language is. Who would have thought that a speech so largely vowel could hiss and crackle and detonate in this fashion, like a bamboo thicket in flame? For all that, Irako’s Paumotu dialect, with its snarling ng’s and its craggy flintlike k’s, was better suited, it seemed to me, for such passionate discussion.

Long after they had gone the peace of the night seemed troubled with choppy phosphorescent waves.

“The hupe,” Tahitians call the breeze that flows seaward from the depths of the valleys after set of sun. Sometimes it descends with gentle violence from the fastnesses of the mountains, swaying the heavy fronds of the palms, strewing the valley floor with fragile hibiscus blossoms, rippling over the reeds and water grasses in marshy places by the river. Sometimes it moves so quietly as scarcely to stir the flame of a candle.

So it was last night as I followed the path leading into Vaipopo Valley. I had been roused from sleep in the small hours, and feeling wholly refreshed, I rose, dressed, and went for a walk, seeming still to hear a voice, starry faint but clear, that had wakened me from the depths of a dream.

Far up the valley I came to a little glade under the eastern wall, filled with the light of the waning moon. In the midst of it stood a clump of banana trees, their broad leaves as motionless as the shadows beneath them. I sat on a stone and gazed long at them, and I knew then that the fruit of those trees is not alone what men gather to carry to market places.

Presently I became aware of a deeper coolness flowing over and around me from the inner recesses of the valley—an exhalation so faint, at first, that no shadow of fern frond or grass blade stirred from its place. Then a single leaf of one of the banana trees, caught by that gentle current of air, began to move in a stately rhythmical fashion, rocking and swaying on its long stem.

“When you see one banana leaf swaying gently while others on the same tree move not at all,” old Taio-Vahin6 had once told me, “you may know that some spirit of the ancient dead has just passed on its way from the burial caves in the mountains. If it continues to move, then many of them are passing in file, brushing the leaf with their spirit bodies. Stand quite still and no harm will come to you. You may even hear them passing, or see them treading the air but little higher than a man’s head above the ground, as they go down to their feasts and games on the beach.”

So I watched and waited, but the spirits of the ancient dead passed viewless to my northern eyes. I heard only the clear chirping of a cricket, and all that I saw, or even imagined that I saw, was the one leaf of the banana tree dancing in the mooniight to the soundless music of the hupe.

“Do you recognize this?” he said, holding out a small round object in the palm of his hand. “It is yours, undoubtedly. This morning, quite by chance, I kicked it out of the sand while dragging my canoe up the beach.”

It was a Swiss watch, a Longines, I had bought years ago in France. A fragment of the chain still clung to it, but the hands had rusted away and the numerals on the dial had been effaced by the action of sand and sea water.

I remembered clearly the day when I had lost it—in the spring of 1920, shortly after I came to the South Seas— and how anxiously I had searched for it near the stump of a pandanus tree where I had placed it with my clothes while swimming in the lagoon. I turned it over slowly, thinking of the days when that small instrument bad exercised such tyranny over my life, hurrying me out of bed of a morning, ruthlessly and punctually driving me here and there throughout the day. Even now it seemed to be making a mute but insistent demand upon me, and a feeling of nervous tension, of old-time restlessness, stirred me faintly.

With an underhand throw I sent it far out over the surface of the lagoon. It skipped three times from t’iie water and sank with a tiny splash fifty yards offshore.

“May it suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange,” said my friend. “Have you missed it in all these years?

To which I replied, quite truthfully: “No. Never once.”

This morning I went with Taura far into the valley to gather fei, the mountain plantain that forms so important an article of food in every native household. Taura did the gathering. I merely watched as he cut his way with his bush-knife through vines and creepers and thorny scrub, up the steep valley walls to gather clusters of fruit we had seen from below. He collected ten in all, the larger ones as heavy as a fully-matured bunch of bananas. With strips of bark he made them fast to a stout pole, five bunches at each end, a load of at least two hundred pounds.

When he had the heavy burden balanced to Ins liking he lifted the pole to his shoulder and started homeward at a gait peculiar to fei gatherers, between a fast walk and a trot. Unincumbered though I was, I found it difficult to keep pace with him. It was a five-mile journey back to the village, and we crossed and re-crossed the river many times. Once, as we were making a difficult passage below a waterfall, he stopped, poised on a slippery rock, and stooping, still with his load, drank long, scooping up water with his hand.

A splendid figure of a man he was—naked save for a strip of cloth about his loins—as he rose again and swung his load to the other shoulder. I gazed in awe at his huge frame, more particularly at his feet, of heroic size, each toe alive and strong and seemingly conscious of its strength as it gripped the black wet rock on which he stood.

I thought of my own toes, inert, white, withered and chilly, hidden, fortunately, in soggy hobnailed boots. One of them peeped listlessly out through a ripped seam.

“Go back!” I warned it secretly. “Don’t creep into the open to shame yourself and me before Taura’s toes!”


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