My informant on Bird Island was George Norah, the manager of the tourist facilities there, which include a large open-air dining-bar pavilion with a thatched roof, and a dozen or so conical cottages for overnight guests. A young man with sun-bleached blond hair and a large new beard (which in the manner of new beard growers he kept stroking as if to check its presence), Norah was wearing a pair of worn shorts and sandals; he had served his apprenticeship in the Grosvenor House in London, where pinstriped trousers, a cutaway and highly polished shoes were the uniform of the day. He had been on Bird Island for 2� years and could not imagine himself in a better situation. The days drifted by with little to mark the passage of the seasons except the vast yearly breeding movements of the terns.
The most publicized island in the Seychelles is Praslin—second largest to Mah� and 15 minutes away by air—where in the upper reaches of the crescent-shaped Vall�e de Mai is the extraordinary forest of giant palms (the tallest of them rising 100 feet) known as the coco-de-mer. Even before the Seychelles were discovered, evidence of these trees caused considerable astonishment. Enormous heart-shaped coconuts weighing up to 40 pounds would wash up through the surf onto the beaches of India. Inside the husk was a double nut formed in striking similarity to the bottom half of the adult female torso. Because no one knew of trees with such fruit, it was at first supposed that the nuts grew on underwater trees rooted to the ocean floor, and that they broke loose from time to time, bobbed to the surface and floated shoreward—thus their name, "coconut of the sea." Naturally, any number of properties, especially aphrodisiacal, were ascribed to the nuts because of their shape. General Charles (Chinese) Gordon thought that the coco-de-mer came from the original Tree of Good and Evil, and he spent a lot of time theorizing that the Garden of Eden was not in Iraq, as had been supposed, but that Praslin was originally part of a submerged continent and that the Vall�e de Mai was the Garden. General Gordon was apparently shaken by the appearance of the nut itself, believing, as he did, that the female sex was "the true seat of carnal sins."
From the first, the huge nut was a highly prized object in the civilized world. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who lived from 1552 to 1612, offered 4,000 gold florins for a coco-de-mer that was in the family of the Dutch Admiral Wolfert Hermanssen. He had received it from the Sultan of Bantam in 1602 as a gift of gratitude for recapturing the sultan's city from the Portuguese. History does not record how the admiral reacted on receiving a large nut as a reward for his feat of arms, but his family was apparently enough impressed with its value to turn down Rudolph's offer, doubtless to the chagrin of the heirs nearly a century and a half later when a surveyor on an expedition to the Seychelles in 1768 discovered the coco-de-mer on Praslin, and not only brought out 30 specimens but also spoke of a thick forest of them. The going rate for one nut must have lowered considerably.
Nowadays the Seychelles government controls the sale of coco-de-mer. Those who bring them in get some 80 rupees a nut from the government, which in turn sells them to tourists for 600 to 700 rupees apiece—about $100.
Frankly, I do not know why one would want to have one of these nuts lying around the house. To begin with, I can't imagine anyone getting a coco-de-mer through U.S. Customs without blushing and stammering and looking down at his feet. A friend of mine who brought a coco-de-mer in found the experience comparable to what he felt it would be like to declare a full-size inflated rubber "Suzy Sultry" doll—which he had seen in a Copenhagen sex shop. He had not actually bought the doll, but he had thought of it when the Customs official peeled back the wrapping paper and stared down at the smooth apple curves of the coco-de-mer. He had asked, "What do we have here?"
"A nut," my friend said, "just a very big nut."
"At least," I pointed out, "you could have deflated the doll before bringing that through."
He said that after the Customs official had allowed the nut through, he had settled it into his living room as a conversation piece; the nut had provoked a lot of comment. He knew of one other coco-de-mer owner who had put underwear on his.
I was taken through the Vall�e de Mai by an attractive Seychellois girl guide. It was named, she told me, after an early woman settler, Madame de Mai, who was one of the few who dared venture into the place. The forest canopy rose high above us, the morning light barely filtering through, so that we seemed to be moving through a green twilight. The girl giggled as she pointed up at the coco-de-mer palms.
I asked her if anyone had ever been hit by a falling nut. (The thought had crossed my mind: How long would humankind have taken to figure out the Law of Gravity if Sir Isaac Newton had been a Seychellois and had made the tragic error of resting against the trunk of the coco-de-mer?) The guide said she had never seen the nuts of the coco-de-mer fall. They dropped only at night, she told me; she had never heard of any fatalities because no one would be fool enough to wander into the Vall�e de Mai after dark. She said that one of the legends about the valley was that the palm trees sway toward each other on windy nights and entwine to procreate, and that anyone unfortunate enough to witness the awesome sight is struck dead on the spot.