“Who’s Got The Coconut...
If I remember correctly, I first came into contact with a coconut in a musical setting as a founding member of my scout group, singing along near our campsite far away from civilization somewhere in the German wilderness. During the evenings, we sat around the crackling campfire listening and staring into the flames and believing we could hear the monkeys racing through the forest. Following the proposal of our attentive Rovers, we had a mouth organ ready for the cubs and a red softback songbook, both for the drive and the time at camp, which was something of a kaleidoscope of folk songs and canons. There were socially critical songs that particularly youngsters love and Christian songs for bible study designed to show us wild cubs the right path to take in life. All led and accompanied by the mouth organ. Thanks to the mouth organ that those singing in tune didn’t fall apart after the first verse due to not being sure of the words. Sitting by the yellow-orange glow of the campfire, we sang the lyrics proposed by our leader of the pack, who began to sing with a forced vocal range:
“The monkeys are racing through the forest, Each one wanting to kill the other. The whole monkey tribe yells”
At which point, we cubs roared:
“Where’s the coconut, Where’s the coconut, Who stole the coconut? Where’s the coconut, Where’s the coconut, Who stole the coconut?”
The irresistible appeal of this song came from the fact that it was an expression of our adventurous and fantastical imagination: an angry horde of monkeys looking for a stolen coconut racing through the forest.
What’s more? This folk song provoked us. Our interpretation had less to do with singing in the convention sense and more like a bawling mob. This matched our frenzied mood, which escalated with each verse and fitted in perfectly with our fantasy of the jungle. We cubs also enjoyed certain titillation when singing, which came from the lyrics conflicting with the social niceties of the adult world – “each trying to kill the other.” We had a lot of fun alternating between singing and bawling.
My second coconut experience was audio-visual and provided by the Monty Python9 satire “The Holy Grail.” In 932, King Arthur roams through England in search of the Knights of the Round Table. After finding Lancelot and Co., according to God’s prompts, he seeks the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, the budget for the feature film was rather tight so the King had to go on his quest without a horse. However, the directors showed their real inspirational talent and gave the impoverished King a squire named Patsy to trot alongside him during his ride. Beside carrying the royal baggage, the squire’s task was to beat two coconut halves together in time so that, closely following on the King’s heels, the latter could at least enjoy the acoustical experience of riding through his kingdom as a pioneer of the ‘Knights of the order of the coconut’.
I had my third remarkable coconut encounter 20 years after the story of the knights. It took place during my cycling trip in Vietnam, in the dreamy coconut trees’ forest on the Mui Ne Peninsula, not far from Phan Thiet on the South China coast. I’d never thought that such a paradisiacal atmosphere, at that time not marred by 5-star resorts, could also have its pitfalls; that is, until I heard a deep hollow thud right next to me. In a little more than a hair’s breadth, a coconut had fallen from heaven that could have determined my whole future itinerary. At best, I would have had to cycle with a headache following its impact or it could have landed me at the local hospital. In the worst case scenario, I could have ended up in a zinc coflin on my way back to Germany. Had the latter been the case, something positive could have come of it even though I was already far from home and away from the bosom of my family. At least, it would have happened in a paradisiacal place. You may think I’m exaggerating or even fantasising, which I admittedly didn’t do after the deep hollow thud in the Mui Ne coconut forest. At least not until my creative imagination faced the sober facts uncovered by my research.
Fact 1: In people’s minds, no other plant shapes their image of tropical coasts as much as the coconut tree. These tufted evergreen trees with pinnate leaves are called ‘the trees of heaven’ by locals because their fruit falls from right up above and descends in treacherous silence without warning.
Fact 2: The far from treacherous coconut doesn’t belong to the nut family at all, as its name might suggest. It’s a ‘solitary-seeded stone fruit’ which has nothing to do with it being lonely because it matures in groups. It’s rather an indication of the number of germinating seeds the coconut yields - just one. Less obvious is the term ‘stone fruit’, which is the reason why it’s dangerously rock hard.
Fact 3: Any coconut palm tree grows up to 25 metres high and not just those under which I perilously and recklessly walked in Mui Ne.
Fact 4: In the crown of a coconut palm hang matchstick-thin fruits in groups. With such great tree height, the fruits grow closest to the sun and become some of the largest fruit that the plant kingdom knows. Each has similar dimensions and weight to a human head when static but, in high wind they become extremely unstable. It is quite unlike a heavenly-transfigured vision and, based on my professional knowledge of classical mechanics, inevitably behaving according to nature’s ‘free fall’ law. This describes the motion of a vertically falling body (in my case, a coconut) under the exclusive influence of gravity.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) was the first to concern himself with free fall to understand it and put in place his basic ideas and experiments. However, this student of Plato didn’t observe the movement of bodies through air but in water. The philosopher noted that a ‘heavy body’ descended due to its weight, whereas a ‘light body’ remained on the surface due to its lightness. Today, we refer to this as the physical phenomenon of ‘specific gravity’ – the ratio of the force of weight to the volume of a body. This observation brought Aristotle to the hasty conclusion that, using the same medium, heavier bodies sink to the bottom faster than those that are less heavy. This means that, in an empty room with no medium such as water or air, the rate of descent would be infinite. This Aristotelian theory was to survive a few hundred years until an Italian opened the case again and refuted it on the basis of his calculations. During the long period in between, many physicists, mathematicians and inventors scratched their heads trying to understand the exact process of the free fall of bodies in a gravitational field around the Earth. Driven by curiosity, what happens in those auspicious moments before a free-falling object strikes took priority over the consequences for the person concerned. Today’s industrial age ‘Safety First!’ was only of secondary importance.
The Flemish physicist Simon Stevin (1548-1620) was an experimental pioneer who carried out one of the first decisive experiments of modern science. He took two different heavy lead balls and, scrupulously taking care that no-one was down below, let them fall simultaneously from a height of 10 meters. He ran down to the anticipated place of impact and heard both balls land simultaneously within a fraction of a second. His findings were twofold. Firstly, he realised he could flit at lightning speed and secondly objects of different weights fall at almost the same speed.
A no less curious experiment freak and contemporary of Stevin was Galileo Galilei (1564-1641), who performed similar drop tests. In his hometown of Pisa, he climbed to the Leaning Tower, which would have undoubtedly greeted him with more favourable conditions back then and is still a living legend, probably carved by the Tuscan tourist board in white Carrara marble. The fact remains that, in 1609, Galileo was able to describe the free fall in a mathematically correct manner for the first time. Twenty years earlier, the Italian was still of the same opinion as the Greek – that a lead ball falling from the tower would reach the bottom faster than a wooden ball. But in Galileo’s mathematical description, “Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze”, which he wrote in 1638, he finally refused Aristotle’s theory.
Although the theoretical explanation of the practical experiments dates back many hundreds of years, today scholars on technical committees philosophise about who’s the forefather of the industrial safety helmet – Aristotle, who, although wrong, provided valuable baseline studies or Galileo, who provided the mathematical proof. Be that as it may, at the beginning of the 17th century, mankind was at a very advanced stage in their understanding of the problem of free fall but it took the invention of the barometer by Robert Boyle (1626-1691), the formulation of a unified law of gravity by Isaac Newton (1642-1726) and the theory of general relativity by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) for mankind to develop an all-encompassing profound knowledge. In the mid 20th century, free fall was cleared up and became understandable and predictable.
At the end of our short journey through classical mechanics, we can now travel swiftly back to the beginning of this story – to Vietnam and my third coconut experience. Since I don’t exactly understand the forces acting upon me, let alone the maths, I won’t take into consideration the simplicity of the effects of buoyancy, air friction, an increase in the force of gravity as it approaches the Earth and the consequences of the Earth’s rotation. Simply put, in early 2000, a coconut of about 4 kilos in weight, still ripening and hanging about 25 metres above my head from a feathery palm in the shade, decided that the autumn fruit harvest had come. Continuing to accelerate, the coconut raced silently towards ground reaching a top speed of 79.8 kilometres per hour and falling with the weight of a rhinoceros, upon which, after 2.2 seconds, it thudded heavily onto the ground next to me.
Each compassionate reader with a basic understanding of weight and speed will certainly be able to understand that I haven’t exaggerated here. As I mentioned earlier in my rather gawky choice of words, in little more than a hair’s breadth, a coconut could have determined the course of my Vietnamese bicycle trip because of this near-death experience and from which I know that a walk in a coconut forest is one of the most unpredictable and treacherous outdoor adventures. Dr. Peter Barss covered this grossly underestimated danger in 1984 in a scientific journal called ‘The Journal of Trauma’, where he published the findings of an examination of ‘Injuries due to a falling coconut’. Due to his work in 2001 in the US magazine ‘Annals of Improbable Research’, he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine. This satirical prize for his performance caused ‘people to initially laugh and then to think’ since he stubbornly maintained that, every year, 150 people in the world die from falling coconuts.
At the other extreme, coconuts were believed to make people immortal. This was alleged by August Engelhardt (1875-1919), who was born in Nuernberg, Germany. A recluse and sect founder on the island of Kabakon in the Pacific, he was a proud coconut plantation owner and, during his short but pretty crazy life, believed that consuming coconut flesh made humans immortal and leading to a unification with God. Based on this, Engelhardt developed ‘Coconutism’, where worshipping the coconut was the centre of everything. Theoretically, he believed in the immortal coconut diet. To all intents and purposes, Engelhardt was only 44 years old and whether he departed this life as a result of a falling coconut as he wandered philosophising through his palm plantation or died from overdosing on coconut grass (a form of drug) isn’t known. Instead, I came across a list issued by the defence league ‘man and nature’ which has a ‘list of the most dangerous killers known to nature’. According to this, insects cause the most fatalities on humans and an encounter with a hippo is more dangerous than one with a great white shark. In seventh place for the most dangerous killers in nature, the coconut stalks its victims. Anyone who still thinks I’m exaggerating by giving the dangers of coconuts so much attention, whether they like it or not, the evidence remains in the coconut forest of Mui Ne. I dare those to find this heavenly place and discover who has the tougher nut – man or palm tree?
After my experience in Vietnam, 15 years passed before I had my fourth and, so far, final remarkable coconut experience. I was again far from the safety of my home, where there are no palms to pose a daily threat to life and limb. In a strange way, this was the culmination of all my previous coconut experiences, as if the three previous ones were preparation for the school-leaving exam to come. I’d like to reveal that this exam was a damned hard nut to crack because, ultimately similarly to the Vietnam experience, it came at a premium. But unlike in Mui Ne, where the coconut fell from the sky, this coconut had to be found. The large-scale search operation didn’t take place in a youth camp, nor on television and certainly not in paradise. It took place in real working life for a customer in India, Reliance Industries, at their industrial site in Dahej. From my cycling trip, I knew that coconut palms grow in India but it was a new experience to find out they also grew at our customers’ premises. Instead of creating a paradisiacal atmosphere, the sight scared the life out of me. Considering that, I can’t put into words how happy I was when the customer announced that, as part of their safety policy, the entire plant had to wear hard hats and I was given a shiny white visitor’s helmet with a chin strap and gold-coloured Reliance logo on the side. I had to sign to confirm I’d received it and understood its compulsory use. This duty of care inspired me so much that, at the end of the safety talk, I embraced the safety boss in sincere gratitude.
After a few routine working days, the launch preparations were over. The thin film evaporator was now heated to operating temperature and hung vertically in its steel casing at the industrial plant. There it was in all its fine steel splendour with the Buss-SMS-Canzler company nameplate competing with the sun for prominence. The countdown began. Thanks to the team placed on the customer’s site by me, there were mechanics, electricians, a young project engineer, plant operators, process engineers and a general project manager. He had a name only e-e-easily pronounceable under the influence of alcohol - Shashank Shelat., I met and grew to appreciate this man, in his mid-50s, with profound knowledge and inner peace of mind who followed his religion and even practised it in his professional life – to do as much good as possible to escape the ever-rotating wheel of reincarnation.
Dahej, Gujarat, India, July 2015
"359° - Worker, Writer, World-Traveller"