The Monkey Puzzle Tree Harvest

by William Moult
From The Steel Crown No. 6 -- Copyright 1997 NAARS

Paulina, the lonko's wife, reached another ladle full from the square wooden barrel and filled the enamel mug once more. She passed it over to me and I took another swig. It was a bit like watery porridge with the tang of out of date yogurt. I was having chavi or muday, a drink of fermented monkey puzzle nuts made specially for occasion. From my position on a bench inside the Lonko's cubicle I looked out at the dancers as they tripped their way around the sacred monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucano) in time to the drum beats, pipe blowing and chanting of the assembled Pehuenches.

Every January, the 25 or so families of the valley gather together to celebrate the nguillatun. That's the Mapuche name for the summer festival cum prayer meeting that goes on nonstop for three days and nights at Quinquen about 100 miles east of Temuco in the region of Araucania. The people of Quinquen are Mapuches, but because they live high up in the Cordillera of the Andes and live amongst the trees they are known as Pehuenches, people of the Pehuen or monkey puzzle tree.

The festival site consists of a semicircle of cubicles made from wooden poles dressed with branches of the ire tree. For the nguillatun each family sets up home in a cubicle bringing all the food drink and blankets they will need for the 3 day event.

The men did not appear to put on any special clothes but many of the women were wearing colorful dresses and scarves as well as traditional Mapuche silver jewelry like the trarilonko necklace, big dress pin (punzon), long silver linked breast piece (sikell or akucha), and silver earrings (chawai).

I chatted with Ricardo the lonko or chief of this community. By now he had passed me some mate, the tradition herbal tea drunk all over Argentina, but here in Chile particularly used by Mapuches. As I sucked the hot liquid through the metal straw he explained to me what was going on in the circle.

Groups of six men at a time took it in turns to dance round the ring. As they flapped their capes and nodded their heads to the sound of the music they simulated the dance of the South American ostrich (choique), which today can only be found in Chilean Patagonia many miles south of here. The dance expresses the close link many Mapuches feel to nature. The Pehuenches believe that all the components of their environment are invested with spirits which must be appeased or venerated to promote a happy and successful life.

In Mapuche mythology different animals have different properties. The puma or South American lion (nahuel) is one of the most noble animals whereas the miniature deer (venudo), the skunk (shani), the coipu (koip) and the hare (marra) are associated with bad luck. They say that pregnant women should avoid the frog (ponono).

The music at the nguillatun was provided by the various traditional instruments: the drum (kultrun) which has a wooden body and a leather skin marked with a cross to represent the four seasons of the year, the trumpet (trutruka) usually made from a cows horn, the two-tone whistle (pifilka) and the Jew's harp (trompe).

Close to the monkey puzzle tree in the center of the circle a goat was tethered to a stake, to the other side sheep was similarly fastened up. These animals were tokens and would remain in position throughout the festival. A little while later Paulina served me a salad of tomatoes and onions together with boiled potatoes and invited me to cut a piece of meat off the large piece of flesh which impaled on a steel spike was gently roasting in front of the fire.

It was horse meat. The day before I had been present at the slaughter of the chosen animal under the trees at a small farmstead a few miles away. The horse was butchered by a group of men and women from the valley. Everyone helped prepare the big animal for eating. The men butchered the heavy muscle tissue and sawed through the animal's big bones while the women and children busied themselves with cleaning the horses intestines in the nearby stream. These would be used later to make sausages.

Alvaro, the man in charge of the slaughtering and butchering, told me that it was his horse that had been killed and that now each family would buy meat from him to take to the nguillatun. At first I didn't take him seriously when he said that God had indicated that this animal was to be killed for the festival but he admonished me for my disbelief and stressed that this was really the case.

Alvaro also explained that to honor the occasion of the slaughter of this special horse we were to eat a little part of it immediately. A sword spit and camp fire like the one at the nguillatun was set up and small bits of the horse were duly sampled by all present. Lemon juice was added to blood drawn from the horse and the mixture was seasoned. Called achis, the coagulated blood was passed around for everyone to try.

While sitting around the fire at the nguillatun, clouds of dust wafted through the cubicle doorway and horses hooves thundered amid the banshee cries of riders. About 20 men rode repeatedly around semicircle of cubicles. The lead riders carried flags, one blue with a white crescent and the other yellow and green. Ricardo said the riding keeps evil spirits at bay.

Early in the mornings during the nguillatun time was set aside for praying. At this time all present would kneel down or stand facing the young monkey puzzle tree and recite prayers and place sacred objects and relics at the base of the tree. Although I had been invited to attend the nguillatun, it was intimated to me that the prayers were the most private moments of the festival and so I made myself scarce at those times.

About six weeks after the nguillatun I returned to Quinquen to witness another important part of the Pehuenche year. At the end of March and throughout April the monkey puzzle trees give their fruit.

Each family in the valley had its own area of trees where they go to collect the nuts. Usually these trees are a distance from the smallholding. During the nut season Juan Segundo and his family take their ox cart up a steep track climbing the side of the mountain behind their house. For the duration of the harvest they stay in a simple wooden cabin called a veranada only a short distance from the trees

The abundance of piones, as they are called in Spanish, varies from year to year. 1996 was a good year. On the female trees the fruiting body appears as a large light green prickly pineapple. If the nuts inside don't fall to the ground of their own accord there are two options open to the Pehuenche harvesters. A stone attached to a homemade leather rope can be thrown against the tree to shake the branches or someone nimble like Juan Segundo's son Gonzalo can use the same rope to climb the tree with a wooden pole and bash all the pineapples in reach to knock out the nuts.

Most monkey puzzles don't have many branches at ground level, so the trick is climbing that first bit, after that things get a bit easier. As a conifer, the branches of the monkey puzzle tree are arranged a bit like a ladder. Gonzalo was able to climb right up to the top. He suddenly appeared in almost comical fashion like an angel on top of a Christmas tree and after soon after piones were showering to the ground in all directions. The rest of the family were then all put to work putting the nuts into bags.

Traditionally the piones have been a source of food for the Pehuenches. Each nut, about the size of a Brazil nut, tastes like a chestnut. They are too hard to eat raw and are usually boiled in water until soft. They are sometimes roasted in a cast iron pot over the fire and can also be ground up to make a flour or meal for use in cooking.

Once harvested the piones can be stored for a length of time loose or another method which I didn't see involves a hole being dug close to a stream which is then filled with nuts and flooded with water.

Nowadays the pion harvest is a useful source of cash for the Pehuenches. Traveling merchants will buy nuts and take them down to sell in the towns of the central valley. The price paid is generally affected by the nature of the harvest in a particular year. The season I was with Juan Segundo was a good one and his family collected more than a tonne of nuts but only sold them for around 25 cents per kilogram. Most collectors are eager for cash and are keen to sell the nuts at the first available opportunity and this has frustrated efforts by some to develop a communal store in an attempt to control the supply and improve the price.

The nut gathering is usually over in 3 or 4 weeks and it's not just the people of Quinquen who are busy. All the communities within reach of monkey puzzle trees take part in this harvest. Further east for example, where and the land takes on the aspect of the Argentine plains and the River Bio-Bio begins to flow, at Pedregoso there are no trees. So for the duration of the harvest the whole community packs its bags and camps out under the trees in an unclaimed area of monkey puzzle trees some 30 miles from home.

By the end of April it's getting colder and the days are shorter. In former days the Peheunches were a more wide ranging people. In winter many would leave the high valleys and go down to other lands to the east or west. Nowadays the Peheunches of Quinquen remain the whole year in the valley and so when the snow finally comes they are often cut off for months at a time. Narrow horse tracks through snow drifts sometimes several meters high are the only way to get about.

As Juan Segundo and Ricardo sit round the fire with their families they'll be hoping that the winter won't be too severe and that next year will the monkey puzzle trees will have plenty of nuts.

William Moult is a member of the NAARS. He spent time with the Peheunches and Mapuches working for Television New Zealand and the Discovery Channel.

North American Araucanian Royalist Society