Ain’t No Tree High Enough

Even the world’s farthest reaches feel the sway of global forces

“Djuna, we need MoluccaNuts for the President of America!”

I choked on my passion fruit juice. “Um, MoluccaNuts for George W. Bush?”

“Yes, that President,” said Naldo, founder of a Maluku conservation group. “You must get kenari.”

A big kenari tree was my introduction to the rainforest canopy, back in 1998. In Indonesia’s Maluku Islands, I hooked up with bird trappers feeding world demand for exotic pets. In search of endemic, salmon-crested cockatoos, the trappers scaled 50-meter trees on wobbly iron stakes. Great system, if you’re built like a forest pygmy. But when a stake popped out from under me, I knew I needed ropes.

At camp that night I taught Buce, the best climber, to tie a figure-8. But he didn’t see the point. On the principle that bigger is better, he improved the knot with lots more.

The next morning I stood at the bottom of a long rope, aiming binoculars up at Buce and a puzzling wad of macramé. I bounced on the line, hoped for the best, and clipped in with ascenders.

Big tree climbing is not like big wall climbing. One, there’s no wall blocking half your view. Spin around and you’re treated to a sweeping 360. Two, when you climb a tree, you climb an ecosystem. Your rope is a freeway for ants, you’ll be lucky to dodge the bees’ nest and even moderate winds set you swaying in confused canopy seas.

At the top of the rope, my ascender hit Buce’s tangle of rigging—well below where I needed to get off. To Buce’s horror, I began untying his masterpiece. I was relieved to find an actual figure-8 beneath the knotty equivalent of 108, but Buce was not. Ignoring my protests, he grabbed my harness and hoisted me onto a branch, dragging my puny knot behind me.

That day in the kenari I learned that Buce knows more about his forest than scientists do. He knows every bird call and what some of them mean. When doves cooed, he yodeled to friends who dashed beneath the roost and speared a pig for dinner. And he knew that salmon-crested cockatoos were getting rare. Before I rapped out of that kenari, Buce and I had plotted an ecotourism project.

The rainforest canopy platform we built had an “if you build it, they will come” attraction. We had no phones or internet, but word spread quickly through the backpacker grapevine. Within weeks, bird trappers vowed to protect wildlife as a tourism commodity and kicked out a village head in cahoots with illegal loggers. Things were looking up—until the war.

When President Suharto was ousted by unrest, Maluku fell apart. So in 2001 I teamed up with Naldo to find alternative income for bird trappers. Enter MoluccaNuts, our trade name for the macadamia-like kernels of kenari fruits.

We had the name, the packer, the labels, the licenses and about a thousand bucks. All we needed was a metric ton of kenari from an island where it grows on trees. And publicity. In Tennessee, a golf resort owner offered help. As Naldo explained, the President of America was coming. Could we serve MoluccaNuts? Hey, if George could do for kenari what Jimmy did for peanuts…

After a year with no guests, I climbed back up to our canopy platform, where I was met by two rewards. First, there were birds. Lots of birds! The ex-trappers weren’t making money, but they were sticking to their commitments. By sunset, a cockatoo and hundreds of great-billed parrots swarmed in to roost. Second, there were nuts. Our platform was covered with kenari kernels, crapped out by all the birds. Clearly, I’d hit peak season.

But there was a hitch—it was also peak season for cloves. Under Suharto’s reign, no one cared about cloves. The president’s son, Tommy, monopolized the market, refusing to pay what they were worth. But now Tommy, charged with murdering the judge who convicted him for corruption, was on the lam. As the nation played “Where’s Tommy?” (odd sightings reported at shopping malls and the like) the price of cloves jacked up 35 fold.

I’d come for the trees and stayed for the people. Little did I know they’d teach me so much about armed conflict and corrupt dynasties.

Maluku, a.k.a. the “Spice Islands”, is the native home of cloves. This is what Magellan was after when he set sail around the world, kick-starting globalization. Now, recalling a scene from centuries past, locals were on a “clove rush”. Fishers and farmers scrambled up trees in old, neglected plantations, shaking down clove buds and laying them out to dry. The village smelled heavenly but there wasn’t a bite to eat. Production of anything non-clove stopped.

Joining the fray, I put my new satellite phone to use. Fittingly, the first call ever placed from that corner of the Spice Islands directed a clove ship into port. By brokering a sale straight to Surabaya the village got top price. Which made it even less likely that George Bush would eat MoluccaNuts.

Villagers stuffed that Surabaya ship so full of cloves that it broke the dock, then the reef. But no one cared. They were hauling in 6 billion rupiah. My 10 million on offer for hard-to-crack kenari now seemed like peanuts. But how many nuts can a president eat? I collected a few bird droppings and shipped them out FedEx.

Some weeks later, I boarded a ferry to Jakarta. I wondered if I might find an email from the President of America, requesting more MoluccaNuts. But fellow ferry-goers crushed that fantasy. “Kasihan WTC!” they said. Pity about WTC? The World Trade Center? What about it?

On the boat over the next three days I heard a thousand rumors—and no official reports—on 9/11. The world had watched war unfold live on TV, while I sat in a tree, watching bird of paradise.

The email awaiting me was an old one from Tennessee. The golf club owner received the nuts and would be serving them to the President. On September 11.

On that day Americans played “Where’s George?” And Air Force One did not serve MoluccaNuts.

Creative Commons License
Ain’t No Tree High Enough, © Djuna Ivereigh, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. Excerpts may be reproduced with a credit to DjunaPix Indonesia Photography, linked to