Tuesday, June 01, 2010

In a Nutshell

At long last, I'm back to civilization (the part of it that's connected to other parts, at least).* I'm writing from Meligma, a small village in the upper reaches of the Great Shwamp. It's a tangled cobweb of a village, a collection of little tents and pod-houses strung between the branches of giant cypress trees. Most of the villagers say they've never seen the ground. The few who have ventured below the canopy say that, in fact, there is no ground; the trees grow straight out of still black water. The knobbled knees that grow from their roots were carved by the ancient tribes into strange shapes, like totem poles or watchtowers. So much new bark has grown since then that it's impossible to tell what any of them were. Gnarled, lumpy shapes are all that remain. They have grown mysterious with age.

Most of the houses in Meligma are the hollowed shells of calabrash nuts, which grow on three ancient calabrash trees in the village. The largest shells are big enough to comfortably house a family of five or six, and even the smallest can serve as gardening sheds.** The chief's house has windowpanes cut from the clear shells of coracle snails. They distort the trees outside into bulbous shapes that look like they might float away at any moment.

The nut experts of the village are called Calabrashers. They know exactly when to harvest a nut - the point at which it has reached its maximum size, just before it drops from the tree and is lost in the swamp below. Calabrash nuts are sturdy and will float a long way before they rot and drop their seeds. They've washed ashore in nearly every river in Hamjamser. Sailors have even found them in the ocean near Kennyrubin.

When a nut is judged ready, the family in line for it (there's always someone ready to leave their tent) gathers to bore through the shell and empty it out.*** The insides are fibrous and squishy - more like a squash than a nut, really. The nuts have to float, so they're mostly air. The large ones still weigh several hundred pounds each. Once the shell is empty, it's light enough to cut from the tree and hang in a different one. The family cuts windows and a smoke-hole and connects the house to the village's network of rope ladders and bridges. Most people paint their houses with fruit dyes. They hang in the cypress branches, colorful balls with doors and windows, connected by garlands of climbing vines.

Staying in Meligma is a bit like living in a giant Christmas tree.

*My apologies, by the way, for another long silence - where I've been, postbirds have been scarce. I was unable to write at all in November, as I usually do. I will try to do so in June instead.

**There's a surprisingly large amount of hanging agriculture in Meligma. Grapes grow high in the trees, where it's sunny, and the lower branches are covered in squidvine, marsh-bloat, and climbing potatoes. Even the giant cypress cones have edible seeds in them.

***Most of the Calabrashers use saws and axes, but there are a lot of rodents in Meligma who still do it the old-fashioned way and use their teeth.

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