Vojta: The Tree and I

The Tree and I

Christina Devin Vojta

I twist open the jar, insert a hand, and scoop out some salted nuts. With an inquiring finger, I search for a dear friend among the notable shapes that lie in my palm. I feel the crenulated folds of pecans, the artful curves of cashews, the feng-shui lines of almonds, the circular fullness of filberts. I’m looking for a Brazil nut, the one I affectionately call the Ugly Duckling—a nut shaped like a blob of clay that’s been rolled once or twice and tossed aside to dry.

The nut’s not there. I know it can’t be hiding, because, like the Ugly Duckling, it’s always the largest among the mix. With a growing sense of dread, I toss the handful of nuts into my mouth and pick up the jar to examine the list of contents. Sadly, I realize that my beloved Brazil nut is not listed. It’s gone missing, pure and simple. I would have scarcely noticed the nut’s absence five years ago, but recent events have totally changed my relationship to both the nut and the special tree that produces it, and now our lives are inexorably entwined.

My attraction to this particular hunk of protein was born from a love affair with the Amazon rainforest, the only place on earth where Brazil nuts naturally grow. In spite of the name, Brazil nuts are not limited to Brazil; they also grow in Bolivia, Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, and the Guianas. My fascination with the Amazon began in Peru, long before I knew

anything about the Brazil nut, other than the peculiarity of its earthy flavor and the way its sleek sides made my teeth squeak. My original reason for going to Peru was to see tropical birds, and my husband and I saw over a hundred species during our idyllic guided tour of the Manu Biosphere Reserve. I still remember the haunting calls that emanated from dense foliage, the flash of brilliant feathers, and the list of colorful names in our field guide: rufous mot-mot, purplish jay, blue-crowned trogon, scarlet macaw. I’m embarrassed to say, however, that I paid little heed to the trees and bushes that served as perches and nest sites for these species. I remember the thick, ropy trunks of the strangler fig and the flared buttresses of the ceiba tree, but that’s about all. We must have walked beneath several Brazil nut trees, oblivious to their presence.

It wasn’t until my second journey that I finally met a Brazil nut tree, although I had arrived in the Amazon with another objective in mind—I had volunteered as a field assistant on a harpy eagle research study. The hypothesis under investigation was that monkeys prefer not to be eaten by eagles, and will therefore take all precautions to avoid them; thus, my primary duties were recording monkey behavior and taking observations at an eagle nest where monkeys were the standard fare. This month-long position gave me free reign to wander through the rainforest in search of monkeys for hours at a time, completely alone.

The rainforest has a bad rap for being hot, dangerous, and full of sinister creatures that want to suck a person’s blood or invade intestines, but I found it to be one of the most enchanting places I have ever been. Each day, I came across a frog, bird, or insect with either extravagant colors or fanciful shapes. Sometimes I found tracks in the mud left by tapirs and jaguars, and once I spotted an arboreal anteater. I watched brown capuchins feast on the finger-like fruit of the cecropia and saw a family of howler monkeys creep through the canopy with a stealth that belied their large size.

The forest was always cast in a twilight gloaming since the dense canopy of trees effectively blocked the sun. Browns and greens were the dominant colors of this shadow-filled world. The occasional splash of yellow or red blossoms that drifted down from the sunlit overstory were like colorful aliens from another planet. Humidity clung to me like an extra layer of skin, and the aroma of musk reminded me that myriad, unseen organisms were involved in the daily toil of recycling.

I wandered off my usual path one day and came across a living being so beautiful it seemed surreal—an enormous tree, nearly aglow in the faint light of morning, outclassing all normal-sized trees in the vicinity. The massive trunk was a near-perfect cylinder that would have required four pairs of outstretched arms to encircle. As I followed the arrow-straight form upward with my eyes, I saw magnificent limbs spreading sideways, the bulk of each branch exceeding the girth of a

man. If a tree can command presence, this one surely did, and the effect on my consciousness was nothing short of spiritual. Several minutes passed before I could break the spell and look around me. When I did, I found beneath the stately tree a number of curious black orbs that resembled cannonballs, and I recognized these as the outer husks of the Brazil nut fruit, based on one that I had seen in the hands of a rainforest guide. The tree, I surmised, was a Brazil nut tree, Bertholletia excelsa, and tucked inside those round, hard fruits were the seeds of the tree, which I had come to know as nuts. The Ugly Duckling, as the fable goes, was never a duck, but a swan. Likewise, the Brazil nut is not really a nut, but a seed. Both of them, I had just learned, grow into something more beautiful than ever imagined.

After that encounter, I was hooked. I wanted to learn about the ecology of the tree and how the fruits were harvested, so I returned to Peru a year later with Bertholletia as my primary focus. I travelled alone; my husband had his own work to do and wasn’t fond of tropical heat. The solitary nature of my journey seemed appropriate since this wasn’t a vacation, it was a quest. Or rather, a personal invitation from the Brazil nut tree to sit at its feet and learn.

Fortunately, my ability to speak Spanish had greatly improved since my first visit, but I still found it difficult to understand a complex string of information delivered at normal speed. Not to be daunted, I set off for the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, hoping to find someone who could lead me to a

The Brazil nut tree. ©Christina Vojta

Collecting cocos with a traditional tamishi vine basket and pallana. ©Christina Vojta



Brazil nut harvest. I had already learned that in Peru, the nuts are only gathered from February through early April. I also had learned that Brazil nuts are harvested under the concept of concessions, in which the government leases to individuals the rights to harvest nuts within prescribed areas. Thus, my plan was to arrive in February and ask around for a Brazil nut concessionaire who would be willing to show me the harvest.

Brazil nuts, or castañas, have long been valued by people. Archeologist Anna Roosevelt and her colleagues found carbonized Brazil nuts at an eleven thousand-year-old site in Brazil, and indeed, a combination of genetic, archaeological, and ecological studies indicate that the current distribution of Bertholletia is strongly linked to the activities of ancient Amazonian people. In other words, the trees primarily grow where humans have long had a presence. In spite of the relationship between nuts and people, however, the trees are rarely cultivated in orchards. To this day, the vast majority of Brazil nut trees are sprinkled throughout the rainforest at a sparse density of only one tree for every one to two acres, each one rising above a host of smaller arboreal species in the same manner as the magical tree I had discovered the previous year. In order to see how the nuts were harvested, I would need to plunge into the interior of the rainforest once again.

Fortunately, I found two concessionaires, or castañeros, who were willing to help me. The first, Margarita Rodrigues, was a heavy-set woman in her sixties whose allocated area was accessible by a series of muddy roads. The second, Sofía Rubio,

was a vivacious young woman whose family had permission to harvest in the Tambopata National Reserve, accessible only by river boat and foot path. Although the access to each concession was different, with motorcycles and trucks used at the first site and only handcarts at the second, the methods of harvest were nearly identical, as I soon learned. And as far as I could tell, nothing much had changed since nuts were harvested by the ancient peoples of the Amazon.

I was only an observer for the harvest at Margarita’s location, but I got to participate in the process when Sofía took me to their concession. We traveled three hours by boat and spent several nights sleeping on a tarp-covered wooden platform, which made me appreciate the difficulty of harvesting nuts in a protected reserve. That first morning, I struck out with my fellow nut harvesters shortly after the howler monkeys had finished their dawn chants. Some of the trails had not been used since the previous year and were overgrown with brush and vines, so the man in the lead sliced open the way with a steady ping of his machete. I followed behind, galumphing in my rubber boots, slapping mosquitoes, stepping over harvester ants, and reveling in the aroma of musk that I had grown to love.

After a short walk, we arrived at the base of a colossal tree, and I was handed the tools of the trade—a four-pronged stick called a pallana and a backpack woven from tamishi vines. With the aid of the three-foot long pallana, our objective was to pick up the hard fruits, known as cocos, and fling them

Cutting open the coco. ©Christina Vojta

over one shoulder into the basket on each of our backs. The pallana enabled us to collect cocos without bending over, and helped us avoid contact with any creepy-crawlies that might be hiding beneath the fruits. Sofía showed me the necessary technique: thrust the pallana onto a coco until the prongs spread into a finger-like grip, then swing the stick over the head and tap it against the upper edge of the basket. Presumably, the coco would fall inside.

At first, I was fearful that a slime-covered coco would slip out of the prongs and land on my head. At a weight of nearly five pounds, the cannonball could potentially leave a dent in the skull, a fact that keeps castañeros from walking below Brazil nut trees in January when the branches are laden with fruit. But a coco never slipped from my grip, and in fact, the greater challenge was getting the ball to drop into the basket. I had to tap the rim several times to get the coco to break loose. Eventually, however, I got into a rhythm—walk, jab, swing, tap. Walk, jab, swing, tap. Finding the cocos was simple, because they were everywhere. On average, a single tree will produce about one hundred of them. Carrying the basket was more difficult. A basket half-full weighed nearly fifty pounds, and that was enough for me.

Sofía told me to empty my basket onto the pile of cocos that was accumulating a few feet away from the tree. I accomplished this task by leaning my body to the right until the

fruits tumbled out of my basket. The release of weight gave me a sense of sudden buoyancy as I stepped away from the heap. By then, I was sweating like a fiend and was grateful for the natural pause in my work so I could mop my face with a bandanna. I knew I was probably wiping off that morning’s insect repellent, but the sweat had to go.

So far, I hadn’t seen a single Brazil nut during my labor of collecting the cocos that held them, but that was about to change. One of the men was sitting next to the pile of fruits with a machete as long as his forearm and a coco between his legs. He steadied the ball with three fingers of his left hand and swung the machete with his right. Briefly, I feared I might witness a dismemberment, but he whisked his fingers away as the machete made contact with the husk—thwack. He repeated the motion, holding the ball steady again before striking. The third blow left a crack in the coco, and the fourth sheared it in half. The man cupped one of the halves in his palm and extended it toward me so I could see the contents. Nestled together were the Brazil nuts that I had known since youth, the unshelled nuts that Santa had always sprinkled into my Christmas stocking. I noticed how the three sides of each “shell,” or, technically, the coat of each seed, provided an efficient shape for growing the seeds in a circle, similar to the segments of an orange. But in this case, there were two circles, the inner one positioned partly above the outer ring, and when the fruit was broken in half, the upper circle spilled sideways, upsetting the symmetry.

An open coco with Brazil nuts inside. ©Christina Vojta

Still, I could imagine the original placement of the seeds inside the globe-shaped fruit. I dumped the nuts into my lap and counted them—twenty-two in all. This fell within the normal range of eighteen to twenty-three nuts per fruit. With no nutcracker in the vicinity, I had to forego my urge for a nut-tasting experience. Instead, the nuts were added to a woven plastic bag that, when filled, would weigh one hundred and fifty pounds and would be hauled out of the forest on a hand cart. The man said something in Spanish that sounded like, “It’s your turn,” but I feigned a lack of comprehension; I couldn’t imagine swinging a machete so near to my legs. When he waggled the handle toward me using sign language anyone could understand, there was no way I could back out. This was the first time I had ever held a machete, and the fine edge of its blade brought sweat to my palms. Reluctantly, I put a coco between my legs and mentally prepared myself for amputation. Knowing that timidity would get me nowhere, I swung with all my might, but even that forceful blow left only a small dent in the shell. Fifteen swings later, I finally whacked the coco in half, and I called an end to my coco-cracking career. I was happy to use the pallana all day, but I left the machete to the experts.

My short-lived experience with the machete lead to an obvious question: if it took several whacks with a steel blade to break open a thick-walled fruit, how did the seeds ever burst free from their double-shelled bondage to become seedlings?

I saw no evidence that the cannonballs ever broke open on their own. I asked Sofía this question during our lunch break. She explained that only one genus of rodents, the agouti, was able to chew through the tough pericarp. I knew this furry creature because I had seen several of them scurrying under the bushes during our harvest. They resembled large squirrels with their pointed noses and short ears, but they also looked like rabbits due to their short tails, hunched backs, and peculiar way of hopping. Sofía showed me a coco that had been gnawed open by an agouti. The creature had left telltale tooth marks around a hole that was large enough to slip a paw inside. Unable to crack and eat twenty nuts at one sitting, the agoutis typically carried each nut several hops away from the tree and buried it for later use. As can be imagined, many nuts remain buried and were able to begin lives of their own.

I was also curious as to why Brazil nut trees weren’t cultivated in orchards. It was all about the pollinators, Sofía said. She picked up one of the quarter-sized blossoms and showed me the way the six cream-colored petals were arranged symmetrically around a central dome. I thought at first that the dome was solid, but Sofía gently lifted one edge of it with the tip of her fingernail—it was a hood-shaped structure that covered the flower’s pistil and stamens. She explained that only one family of bees (Euglossine, or orchid bees, I later learned) was strong enough to lift the little hood and pollinate the flowers, and that these bees were found only in mature forests.

Although Brazil nut trees could be easily established in orchards, the flowers would have minimal chance of pollination without the bees, and the orchardists would scarcely see a crop of nuts. The only way to harvest Brazil nuts was to meet them on their own turf, in the heart of the rainforest. The Brazil nut tree couldn’t—or perhaps wouldn’t—produce nuts anywhere else.

After this revelation, the Brazil nut tree grew even more lofty in my eyes. As humans, we have managed to tame, subdue, modify, and force into slavery nearly every plant and animal that feeds us. Yet here before me was a tree that could not be tamed and a spirit that could not be broken. Due to the singular nature of its floral anatomy, the tree had won the upper hand. Moreover, it was in a position to force a deal out of Homo sapiens—if you want my seeds, you had better preserve my forest.

This ultimatum has worked to a point, because the world definitely wants the nuts and is currently willing to pay $2.5 billion a year to get them, according to global market websites. Moreover, the nuts create an income for thousands of people. Unlike most extractive industries in the Amazon, the profits go to local people rather than to large corporations and are quickly diffused through rural economies. In the Madre de Dios District of Peru where I swung my machete, nearly forty

percent of the population is partially or wholly dependent on Brazil nuts for their livelihood. Because of the Brazil nuts’ economic importance, every nation within the Amazon has established a law that prohibits harvesting Brazil nut trees for lumber. Vast tracts of land have been set aside to protect the rainforest on the trees’ behalf.

Unfortunately, rules are bent and laws are broken because humans want more than nuts—they want cattle, soybeans, and papayas. The clearing of rainforests requires an administrative change in land use from Brazil nut production to one that is deemed more appropriate (or lucrative), but unofficial and even illegal clearing frequently occurs. In Brazil, land use changes have reduced the quantifiable extent of rainforests to the point that, ironically, the country that bequeathed its name to the nuts is no longer able to export them; Bolivia is now the lead exporter. Peru, like Bolivia, has managed to hang onto its nut trees, but it has allowed papaya plantations and ranches to be established beneath them. In other words, the nut trees are not removed from the rainforest, but the rainforest is removed from the trees. After leaving the Tambopata National Reserve, I saw papaya plantations with remnant Brazil nut trees sprinkled among them. The giants looked lost and vulnerable, like indigenous people stripped of their culture, with nothing left of their former community. I knew those trees were doomed to sterility and would die of old age without children or grandchildren.

Tightly curled blossoms of the Brazil nut tree. ©Christina Vojta

By the time I returned home, I thought I had learned all that the Brazil nut tree wanted to teach me. I had learned about its life and the interconnected relationships with agoutis, orchid bees, and humans. I had witnessed its struggle to survive against competing land uses, and I thought I knew what needed to be done. But the lessons weren’t over. When I found none of my rainforest friends among the mixed nuts in my jar, I needed to find out why. This time my journey was only virtual, down the complex and intertwined paths of the internet.

I discovered that the Amazon region experienced a substantial drought in 2015-16 that climatologists Erfanian, Guiling, and Wang called “unprecedented” and with “profound eco-hydrological and socioeconomic impacts” in their article in Scientific Reports the following July. Their research indicated an El Niño year with warmer than usual ocean temperatures, accompanied by non-oceanic factors like land cover change and CO2 emissions. The results were disastrous for Brazil nuts, castañeros, and people like me who hope to find the Ugly Duckling in their mixed nut jar. Because the trees produce flowers during the rainy season and the nuts mature fifteen months later, the drought that shriveled the blossoms in January of 2016 left a scant harvest in March of 2017. Nut exports from Bolivia declined by half while prices increased

sixty percent. As a consequence of this scarcity and corresponding price increase, the Brazil nuts in my jar had been replaced by pistachios.

This manifestation of climate change is alarmingly personal. I love pistachios, but the loss of Brazil nuts seems ominous. That the Amazon could ever lack rain is almost unimaginable—I remember being soaked to the skin while I carried my basket of cocos. Yet if a drought occurred in 2015, it could happen again, and probably will.

I pause to consider the phrase “food for thought” while I toss another handful of nuts in my mouth, including three pistachios. Suddenly I hear the voice of the Brazil nut tree, overriding the sound of my crunching: If you want my nuts, you must tell my story. The message slowly permeates my brain and my jaw stops moving. I now understand the significance of my journey—the one that began with searching for birds and unwittingly lead me to the base of a tree. If Bertholletia can use its nutritious nuts to motivate agoutis to aid in its propagation, why not use the same currency to beseech a human to speak out on its behalf? Truth be told, the nuts are not really nuts, but magical seeds that help keep the rainforest intact. Obediently, I accept my end of the bargain. I place the jar next to my laptop and begin to write.


Christina Devin Vojta worked for the USDA Forest Service as a wildlife ecologist for many years. Currently, she is adjunct faculty at Northern Arizona University and has also spent several months in Peru. Her science publications have appeared in Ecological Applications, Journal of Wildlife Management, and Landscape Ecology.