It’s spring time, and our thoughts return to nature. Specifically, writing on nature. Here is JFK’s coconut, from when he was stranded in the Solomons. I was reminded of this by seeing at Tate Modern the film Guadalcanal Requiem (1977–1979) by the artist Nam June Paik and musician Charlotte Moorman.
In the August of 1943, John F Kennedy was serving with the Navy in the Pacific, trying to intercept and torpedo Japanese ships. One night of ‘inky blackness’, Kennedy’s boat was rammed, and the 11 surviving crew members swam ashore. After five days shipwrecked on some islands, they encountered two Solomon Islanders, who agreed to paddle away through dangerous waters carrying a message to Australian forces. Kennedy carved a plea for help onto a coconut shell: “11 alive need small boat,” was part of the message, which summoned the rescuers.
Later, a war hero and president, Kennedy kept this shell, encased in plastic, and used it as a paperweight in his office. Writing on nature saves his life.
Dating from a couple of years before JFK’s naval heroics, we find Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books, a series of more than thirty stories first published in 1929. Though Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff’s Babar books (first one, 1931) have been critically and decolonialisingly studied at length, the world of Little Grey Rabbit might also repay further investigation, for its depiction of class, culture, history, anthropomorphism.
There’s one incident, from Little Grey Rabbit’s Washing Day (1938), that ties in here. The cunicular heroine and her crew are visited by an itinerant gipsy rabbit, who sells lovely things.
This gipsy has a interesting role within the story: some of the claims she makes are not quite true – she’s selling clothes pegs that aren’t actually bound in ‘silver from a silver mine I know.’ But they are magic, anyway; they have a power to tinkle and scare away the fox, and she sells Hare a nutmeg that grows overnight into a tree. She’s happy to take catkins as earrings, for payment – is an item what we call it, or how we use it, or what we imagine that it could be? So when she claims that she’s sold her pegs all over the world, ‘and I have had many a letter thanking me’, what’s the status of that? “She dived in her pocket and brought out a bundle of leaves. Even as she sorted them – holly leaves, beech leaves, oak leaves, in her brown paws – a gust of wind seized them and tossed them away. […] ‘Plenty more where these came from,’ and she pointed to the great woods. ‘Thousands and thousands of letters all thanking me,’ said she.”
As you can see from the illustration, they’re just leaves. But she’s also magic. She can make items change status, depending on need, on interpretation. The other animals do write on nature, they write invitations on a holly leaf (though they also use paper books, and slates, and other technologies). The gipsy is ambiguous; her letters aren’t quite real letters, though they do have a status and a meaning. They’re as real as she needs them to be.
JFK’s coconut is a preservable object, a tangible text that he used to activate specific, urgent action. But the strange thing about the shell is that it doesn’t seem, from here, to have been actually necessary, as a text. What he wrote on it was a plea for the Australians to come, and he said that the Solomon Islanders could show them where to find him. They could have just gone empty-handed and told the rescuers, by voice and navigation, where to go. The shell, and perhaps its signed ‘Kennedy’, is more a token of proof, a gold standard, than it is a text of essential information.
I like these various examples of writing on nature – vitally important but not always necessary, tied up in power relations, sort of unbelievable; a sort of magic.