Hooked On Herons



 
 
 


November 2014
 

Hooked on Herons: Confessions of a 'Citizen Scientist'

 
 
By Gail Karlsson, Harbor Herons Foraging Study Volunteer

When I first stopped by  NYC Audubon this past May, I didn’t realize I was in danger of developing a serious addiction problem. You may scoff, but first hear my story.

I was initially exposed to herons in the Caribbean, and soon found myself searching for sources closer to home. Not so easy in Manhattan, though I did once spy a couple of great egrets by the pond at the south end of Central Park.

Then one day a friend passed me a copy of the NYC Audubon newsletter and I saw a notice about a Harbor Heron Foraging Study training—that very night! Hours later, with high expectations and a sense of destiny, I found myself in a small room cluttered with bird books. About 15 of us sat quietly on folding chairs, nervously checking each other out, not sure what to expect.

Before long an enthusiastic ornithologist came in and started her sales pitch. She showed us enticing images of wading birds on a big screen, and told stories about enchanted islands in New York harbor where hundreds of herons came to meet lovers and build their nests. Of course, these islands were off-limits to the uninitiated. But we could get a taste of the excitement by agreeing to check other sites in the City for possible heron traffic over the summer.

A Snowy Egret Flies Above the Jamaica Bay Marshes © Gail Karlsson
A Snowy Egret Flies Above the Jamaica Bay Marshes © Gail Karlsson

When the sheet came around, I signed up without hesitation—not even stopping to read the fine print about protocols, reports, and data entry. Finally I was going to get access to lots of herons, and it was all for science! I chose the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge as my site, mostly because I knew I could get out there on the A train.

As the time came to get started I got nervous about doing it on my own, so one of the staff members went along and showed me how. Made it seem so easy. Nothing to worry about.

At first it was just an occasional thing. More talk than action. Then they sent me a CD to show my friends. My husband and a few others got interested and wanted to try it too. Before long, we were on the A train every weekend, spending hours going from one point to the next in the refuge, searching the ponds and marshes, hoping for the big score.

Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron © Gail Karlsson
Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron © Gail Karlsson

It was mostly egrets for me: great and snowy. I also loved the night-herons, but those were mostly off our official route and so off the record, when we crept into the bird blind by the East Pond. One self-satisfied couple we met on the path said they had seen 86 black-crowned night-herons back in there, but we never caught sight of more than a few at once.

When I was out of town I missed my heron fix. I started looking for them everywhere. Even smaller birds would do when I felt desperate: a belted kingfisher at my friend’s house in Rhode Island; puffins in Maine. On a business trip to Nanjing, China, I hardly saw any birds at all, and had to make do with images of cranes woven into silk tapestries at the city museum.

By fall, my work performance and my social life had both suffered. If friends weren’t excited about going bird-watching or admiring my pictures, I had no time for them. I lost interest in my reports for work, and only wanted to write about birds.

Then I started hearing voices. At the end of September there were large groups of egrets gathering on the east pond over by the subway tracks, getting ready to migrate.

Great Egret  © Gail Karlsson
Great Egret © Gail Karlsson

They chattered amongst themselves and then one called to me: “Come south with us, where it is warm all winter. It will be fun.” I knew they were right. I didn’t want them to leave. I wanted to go with them. I couldn’t face the long winter in New York, with only the pigeons on my windowsill for company.

So I listened to the egrets and followed them down to the Caribbean. As I write this, I can see four great whites and a snowy roosting in the mangrove trees around a small pond. A great blue heron just flew past, and noisy green herons cackle whenever anything moves. No, it is not just a fantasy. It is real—but a potentially risky journey.

My message for prospective heron watchers is this: “Beware. There is a dark side to this habit. Once you get a taste for it you can become hooked, and find yourself in a position you would not have expected when you first set out with your binoculars and survey sheets—willing to give up everything to satisfy your constant need for herons.”

Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer and UN consultant, and author of The Wild Life in an Island House. She can be reached at gkarlsson@att.net.
 
 

The Complicated Sex Lives of Papayas


Female papaya tree with fruit


The St. Lucian workmen laughed when they saw our handsome papaya tree.
"That pawpaw is the wrong sex. You’ll never get any fruit from that one."

"How can you be sure what sex it is", I asked, thinking of all the effort we had put into growing it from a seed, planting it in the yard and nurturing it to maturity.

"No way to know until it grows up", they told me. "Then you can tell by the flowers." 

It seems the female flowers grow close to the stem of the plant, where the leaves are attached. The male flowers are smaller and thinner, and grow on stalks farther away from the stem. Sure enough, our papaya tree had flowers drooping far out from the stem.

"Nothing to do but chop it down. It’s no good" they said. Then one of the men suggested chopping off its head – the distinctive crown of leaves at the top of the stem.

"Maybe that will make it turn into a female."  Closer questioning produced more laughter and insinuations that maybe our papaya tree was an ‘anti-man’. Now I suspected they were just fooling with me. I had heard of fish changing sex under stressful environmental conditions, but not transsexual fruit.

The story got even more complicated when I looked up ‘papaya sex’ on the Internet. It seems that papayas come in three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite. The male flowers produce pollen, but not fruit. The female plants have ovaries that can produce fruit, but their flowers need to be fertilized with pollen from another plant, otherwise the fruits won’t develop and will drop off while they are still small.

The third sex - hermaphrodite papaya trees - have flowers with ovaries as well as ones with pollen, so they can fertilize themselves without needing a partner - or even any help from the birds and the bees. Apparently papaya farmers prefer them because they are more dependable and produce the sweetest fruit. Their fruit is also longer than the fruit from a female papaya tree, which is rounder in shape. 

However, although hermaphrodite papaya trees have both male and female flowers, their yin and yang are not always exactly in balance. Some of the hermaphrodites have more male flowers and some have more female ones - and some flowers can actually change their sex. Warmer temperatures can make the hermaphrodite trees produce more male flowers, whereas cool temperatures or wet soil can make them have more female ones.

One article described efforts to do genetic testing on papayas to try to determine the sex of seedlings without having to wait for them to grow up. Commercial growers - or even backyard gardeners like me -  don’t want to waste their time and effort nurturing fruitless trees. Genetic mapping recently revealed that papayas have developed specialized sex chromosomes carrying genes that determine the sex of their offspring, remarkably like humans.  But it appears that sexual identity may not be all in the genes.

The female papaya trees were described as the most stable ones, with clearly defined sexuality.  Some seedlings, however, were identified as ‘sexually ambivalent males’.  It turns out that it is not just the hermaphrodite trees that are sexually unstable. Despite their sex chromosomes, male papaya trees can also end up changing their sexual orientation in response to seasonal changes and climate conditions.

And then I saw what I was looking for. Confirmation that the St. Lucians weren’t just pulling my leg. “Some male trees can be induced to change into female trees by decapitation.”  What an interesting manifestation of intelligent design. It may seem more like the French Revolution than the Garden of Eden, but sometimes heads just have to roll.   

 
Pearly-eyed thrasher eating papaya off the tree

 

   

Cantaloupe Surprise


When we were building our house, the workmen from St. Lucia sometimes threw seeds from their lunchtime melons onto the bare slope in front. We had put in some plants to stabilize the soil, but they were still small and the space was looking pretty raw. Since all sorts of stray plants can sprout up on a clear spot of land, no matter how steep, we didn’t even realize what sort of vine was crawling up and down the hillside until we noticed a nest of tiny cantaloupes right in front of the house.  

Even though my sons now tower over me, it still seems like a miracle to me to see how much exuberant growth can come from just a few tiny well-placed seeds. My husband and I felt like proud parents when the first furry little melon balls appeared on the vines, but were as innocent as babies ourselves when it came to understanding how the miracle of conception had actually occurred.

I had learned a few things from my earlier research on papaya reproduction, and wondered if cantaloupes enjoyed similarly complicated sex lives. I discovered that unlike other vines (but like the notorious hermaphroditic papayas) cantaloupes can produce some ‘perfect’ flowers that have both male and female parts. But this proximity on the same plant does not necessarily lead to propagation. They aren’t very successful in mating by themselves, and generally need some help from the bees, which carry the pollen from male flowers to the female ones.  

Also like papayas, the sexuality of cantaloupes is affected by climatic conditions – high temperatures can cause plants to become homosexual, producing only male flowers, and therefore no baby melons. Fortunately our brood had cool, wet weather and the ornamental flowers we planted had drawn plenty of helpful bees into the neighborhood.

Though I had never seen cantaloupes growing before, I learned that they have a long and illustrious history. The name is French, but comes from the Italian town of Cantalupo near Rome, a former summer estate for the Popes where the melons were first grown in Europe. The melons probably originally came from Persia. Certainly they were around in Biblical times, because when Moses led his people out of Egypt into the desert, they reportedly pined after the mouth-watering melons they had enjoyed during their years in bondage.

What we call cantaloupes were probably introduced to the ‘New World’ by Columbus, planted in Haiti during his second voyage. They are different from the smaller, harder ones currently found in Europe, and are actually a type of ‘muskmelon’, though they smell sweet to me, not musky at all. The ones grown commercially in the United States have been specially bred for sweetness, and are known as ‘Netted Gems’, since they have raised veins on their skins that make them look like they have been caught in a fishnet.

Just before Christmas, my husband couldn’t resist picking one of the cantaloupes that looked big enough to eat. Despite its size, it obviously wasn’t ripe yet because when we tasted it, it wasn’t sweet at all. After that we learned that you are supposed to leave them on the vine until the skin under the netting is completely sandy colored rather than green, and the fruit easily comes loose from the stem.

Unlike some other fruits, cantaloupes will not ripen more or become sweeter after they are picked, so they need to stay on the stem until they reach their peak sugar content – about five percent sugar. When the melon is ready, a buffer forms between the stem and the fruit, preventing more nutrients from passing through, and the fruit disconnects easily.

Besides sugar and water, cantaloupes also contain lots of vitamins, cancer-fighting anti-oxidants, and potassium, which lowers your blood pressure. Still, the best part for us city-born folk is the simple gift of eating something that grew in our own yard, knowing that its seeds have been passed down through generations and traveled across continents, connecting us with ancient ancestors and the miraculous fullness of life.  

 

At the Base of the Baobab Tree


 

 
 
In pictures the dark space in the trunk of the baobab tree looks like a small doorway, or a fireplace set into a chimney. Up close, it looks like there was an entry hole once but the bark grew back and covered it over, leaving a shallow indentation with bark stretched over it the way scar tissue grows to fill in a wound.
 
Some people think the tree is haunted. The space certainly seems big enough for a person to creep inside and close up the magic door, so surely a spirit could enter it. I didn’t dare touch it, even though I don’t usually hesitate to feel the bark of strange trees. This one seemed to warn me to stand back.
 
I had heard about the one baobab tree on St. John, and even set out to look for it recently, down the L’Esperance trail, but without any clear idea of where to find it. This time I came at it from a different direction, after the Island Resources Foundation researchers said they had been looking for bats near there. I stayed up late one moonlit night and met them in Fish Bay to see what bats they had caught in their nets. They showed me a pregnant female and I touched her silky wing before they weighed her and let her fly off again. And they told me about the trail to the baobab and the ruins.
 
Walking up there with a friend on a bright afternoon it was hard to imagine someone choosing to hike along that trail at night. It wasn’t hard going, but narrow, with a steep drop-off to the side in some places. Not a good place to stumble in the dark. Before long we came to the ruins, which looked like the sort of place bats might like, but we didn’t see any big trees. Most of them seemed relatively small and young, filling in the spaces around the old buildings.
 
Soon we heard voices – not ghosts from the past as it turned out, but a couple from California who had hiked up the L’Esperance trail from Reef Bay. And right in their guidebook was a picture of the baobab tree we were looking for, so we weren’t exactly in uncharted territory. Thinking it must be close by, we backtracked through the area around the ruins looking up for the branches of a big tree.
 
When we finally found the baobab there wasn’t any tall crown or dense foliage, just a fat tree in among the skinny ones. It is the size and shape of the trunk that makes it unusual and, of course, that dark doorway at the base of the tree.   
 
Baobab trees tend to have a sort of bottle shape, round and stubby in proportion to their height, with no low branches. The ones in the Caribbean are native to Africa. Their bark is smooth looking and soft, and the trees can hold large amounts of water in their pulpy tissues during dry periods. Because of this they are called the ‘tree of life’ in Africa  (remember The Lion King?) and are said to be able to live for thousands of years. Over time, decay and fungus can hollow their trunks, creating internal spaces that people have used for shelter, hiding places, burials, altars, and jails.
 
I read that sometimes people hollowed out these spaces themselves. They would carve a hole in the trunk to make a door, remove the soft, pulpy tissue, and then light a fire inside to dry out the space. Eventually, the bark would grow over the internal surface of the tree to form a solid inside wall, and the tree would live on unharmed.
 
Baobab trees were first brought to the Caribbean in the early 1700s from Guinea, in Africa. Robert Nichols, in his book Remarkable Big Trees of the US Virgin Islands, reports that the large baobab at Estate Grove Place in St. Croix is 53 feet high, with a trunk 53 feet around. That tree has a huge hole in the trunk where people are said to have taken shelter from hurricanes and even given birth to babies.
 
Nichols’ book highlights the connections between African beliefs about trees and the traditions and folklore of the Caribbean. In Senegal, baobab trees are thought to hold ancestral spirits that guard the people living nearby. And in the Virgin Islands, older people told Nichols that jumbies or spirits love to hide in baobab trees. One woman in St. Croix told him that as a child she heard if she went to the baobab tree during a full moon the hole would open up and she would be transported back to Africa.
 
So maybe there really was a doorway cut into the St. John baobab tree at one time, and then eventually the tree grew back and covered it over. Maybe it really does contain a magical passageway to another world. I just hope that the spirits forces in the St. John tree are protective rather than threatening. I am careful to treat their tree with proper respect. 

Blooming Capers

 


My husband said I should write something about the beautiful caper trees that bloom on our property. We had no idea what they were until a couple of years ago when we really started looking around the lot at the native trees. Then it seemed like there were capers everywhere.
In fact, there are several different kinds of caper trees here, including black (or Jamaica) capers and white capersboth of which are common in St. John's coastal areas. They are very attractive trees that don’t require any special attention because they are already well adapted to the environment. Most importantly, they don’t need any water from our cistern to thrive during the dry periods, and don't drop their hard, leathery leaves.  

The flowers from these two types of trees are showy and very fragrant, and when the trees are in bloom they are covered with bees. The difference is that the flowers from the Jamaican caper start out white and then turn a lovely light purple.
The caper trees here are related to the ones that produce those funny little green things in a jar that are used in French and Italian cooking. Those are the unopened buds from Capparis spinosa, a thorny tree that grows in the Mediterranean. When the Europeans arrived here they found trees that were similar to, but larger than, the caper trees they knew back home. The buds here are not as tasty as the European ones, though, which have been cultivated since ancient times.                                                                                                                                 
                                                                                                  
Sometimes caper fruits are also eaten, but apparently not always with great relish. The trees produce long brown bean-like pods that split along one side at maturity, exposing a bright red interior and black seeds covered with a thin layer of red pulp. The appearance of these pods sometimes seems to be disturbing.

In Puerto Rico, one type of caper tree is called rat-bean, and the white caper is known as sapo prieto, which means ‘black toad’. Maybe that’s because the pod takes on weird shapes as it gets dried up and twisted around while it’s still hanging on the tree. Caper pods have also been called pois mabouye, or evil spirit beans, from the native Caribbean Taino word 'maboya', so it was not just the Europeans who thought they were creepy.

On a somewhat different note, Linneus, the great Swedish botanist who gave Latin names to many of the world’s plants, mischievously named the black caper Capparis cynophallophora, due to what he claimed was a resemblance between the seed pod and a dog’s genitalia.

In Eleanor Gibney’s Field Guide to Native Trees & Plants of the East End, St. John, she reports that “Teas and infusions of bark and roots have been used both externally for skin ailments and internally for hysteria, venereal diseases and worms.” It is interesting to imagine the types of experiments that went into determining which types of bark and roots can be used to cure hysteria and/or venereal diseases. I wonder how many types of infusions someone would have to try before finding one that worked, while in the meantime the hysteria or venereal disease, or both, raged on.

Elsewhere I read that the roots have also been ground up and used like mustard or horseradish. For myself, I am content just to look at them and admire their low-key beauty, their hardy evergreen foliage, and their occasional shows of frilly white flowers. I did taste one of the buds – not very palatable, but maybe I should try pickling them.   

Bay Rum Trees



 
 
Hiking briskly down the forest trail towards Reef Bay, I was hoping to reach the bay trees while there was still enough light to take some photos and then return before sunset. By then the shadows on the path could make the climb back uphill perilous rather than just exhausting.

On bright days the bay tree grove provides a welcome relief from the heat of the open trail. The high canopy of trees provides shade, and there is usually at least a trickle through the gut that waters the trees before running down towards the east end of Fish Bay. The cool, quiet air is scented by the bay oil, and who can resist reaching up to catch some low-hanging leaves and crushing them to release the spicy fragrance. If any mosquitoes come by, rubbing the oil on your skin should keep them away.

There isn’t much underbrush, and the smooth tree trunks seem to glow slightly in the shadowy forest. It is a place that seems timeless, removed from the noisy activity in other parts of the island, and the seascapes that generally define the visual experience of the place.

But why are these trees here? Are they remnants from a ruined plantation nearby, or just naturally enjoying this spot?

I have seen the bay trees on the loop trail across from Cinnamon Bay, and I know that bay oil production was an important industry on St. John at one time. In fact, when the islands were sold to the United States in 1917, it was the only significant commercial activity, and St. John’s trees were world-renowned for their excellent quality.  

You can see the remains of the still that was used to produce bay oil among the ruins near Cinnamon Bay. The bay rum factory operated there from 1903 up until the end of World War II. Those bay trees were cultivated by the Danish West India Plantation Company, which bought the land around Cinnamon Bay in 1903 and produced oil for bay rum manufacturers on St. Thomas. The bay oil was distilled from the leaves, mixed with rum from St. Croix, and distilled again, with spices added, to create the bay rum after shave lotion.

There were already bay trees on St. John when the Europeans first arrived, used by the earlier inhabitants to flavor their food and drinks. Only the Europeans called these trees (whose Latin name is Pimenta racemosa) other names, including wild cinnamon, or wild ‘caneel’, the Dutch word for cinnamon - and named some of the bays on St. John in a way that confuses people looking for cinnamon trees.

The cinnamon most of us are familiar with (Cinnamon zeylanicum), is a member of the laurel family, not the myrtle family like the bay trees, and comes from Asia, particularly the island of Sri Lanka off the coast of India, formerly the British colony of Ceylon.

To add to the confusion there is another tree called wild cinnamon (Canela winterana) that is native to the Virgin Islands, and its bark was also sometimes used similarly as a spice.    

Meanwhile, I learned that the bay leaves you cook with are not the same ones that are used to produce bay rum. The cooking ones are from the laurel family, and are generally used as a savory flavoring in Mediterranean cuisine.

Robert Nicholls, author of the great book Remarkable Big Trees in the US Virgin Islands, wrote an article about ‘Medicinal Trees of the US Virgin Islands and Neighboring Islands’ that outlines the folk-medicinal uses of ten local trees, including the bay rum tree. He reports that Virgin Islanders traditionally used bay leaves for digestive purposes, to quiet upset stomachs and as an appetite stimulant. Also, someone with a cold or fever might be treated by putting bay leaves over their body, or making a tea to get rid of the chills. Rubbing the leaves on your skin can relive pain and soothe irritations.      

For me the smell of the crushed bay leaves brings up childhood memories of my father in New York, freshly shaved and dressed in his suit, leaning down to kiss me on his way out in the morning. Bay rum was a very popular after shave lotion then, sold in all the best stores.

Actually, I began researching bay oil and bay rum production in connection with a project for the United Nations Development Program about sustainable livelihoods based on products made from indigenous plants and trees. From one of the case studies, I learned that on Dominica the members of an Essential Oils and Spices Cooperative are producing bay oil for use in perfumes and cosmetics. Dominica is currently the main producer of bay oil, with exports to the US, Europe and the UK.

I have also come across a number of recipes for making your own bay rum skin lotion at home by soaking bay leaves in alcohol. One calls for putting a couple of leaves in a large sealed jar for a few weeks in a dark cool place (but not in the refrigerator) with 4 ounces of vodka, 2 tablespoons of rum, some allspice, a broken up stick of cinnamon, and some orange peel zest.

It sounds like a good punch recipe, but they warn that the bay leaves will make the concoction toxic to drink. After a few weeks of steeping, you can strain off the liquid and slap it on your face, or wherever. I can’t wait to whip some up as presents for the debonair men in my life.

 

Passion Fruit, Passion Flowers


As some beautiful or palatable fruit is perhaps the noblest gift of nature to man, so is a fruit with which a man has in some measure identified himself by cultivating or collecting it one of the most suitable presents to a friend. – Henry David Thoreau

 



For Christmas one year my friend Rosemond brought us a bag of passion fruit she had picked from a neighbor’s vines. Before that I had only experienced passion fruit as an ingredient in sugary juice drinks. I had never seen or tasted the actual fruit.

When I looked into the bag, there were six pale, round yellow balls. We cut a few of them in half and sat out in the yard sucking the mass of tasty seeds and pulp and juice out of the cut halves of the fleshy skin. It was sweet but tart, and aromatic – and crunchy. I just chewed up the little seeds, since they didn’t come loose easily.

As Thoreau observed, a gift of fruit is always appropriate, but this was more than a momentary pleasure. It was such a delicious treat that I was careful to hide one on the back of the refrigerator for planting later. (Thoreau also said that one who eats the fruit should also plant the seed.)

After the holidays were over, I got some potting soil and a long narrow planter to start some seeds. I read that they needed darkness in order to sprout, so I covered them carefully with soil and then got a board to put over the planter to keep out the light. But they also needed to stay damp, so I couldn’t just leave them covered up. Also, I didn’t want the soil to get moldy, so I compromised by setting the board so it shaded the planter from the sun but still let some air through.

After a couple of weeks I was rewarded with lots of tiny sprouts, and I moved the planter so they could get some sun. Soon, as they started reaching over the sides of the planter, I had to choose the strongest ones, and moved some of them to their own pots. I knew they were vines and would need something to support them. First I tried to get them to climb up the posts supporting the upper deck, but the posts were too thick for the plants’ tendrils to latch onto. They seemed happiest, while still in their pots, when I put them near a tree that they could climb onto. But weak trees like the papayas weren’t happy being overloaded with clinging vines, and when the passion fruit vines climbed up bigger trees, I couldn’t see where they went.

Eventually I cut back the successful plants and put them in the ground next to the stone retaining wall behind the house. The idea was that they could climb the wall, and then the trees on the hill above it. We would be able to keep an eye on them there, and see if there were any flowers. And any fruit would fall onto the walkway for us to gather up.

The flowers, when they came, were first coy, with just a little bit of white peeking out from the fat green bracts encasing them. Then when they opened up, they shamelessly demanded attention. They were round with a frilly white fringe and a deep purple center. They were amazing flowers, the kind that make you feel passionate about the incredible abundance and diversity of life in the tropics.

You would think that these flowers got their name from the way they stirred up passions in those who observed them. But no. It did not come from a celebration of the gaudy joy of the flowers’ fragrant and colorful display. It was bestowed by evangelical Jesuits who arrived in South America to convert the native tribes to Christianity, and used the flowers as a prop in describing the death and rebirth of Jesus. The Latin name Passiflora was first used by the Spanish in the 1600s, and then adopted by Linnaeus, the great Swedish originator of botanical names, in 1753.  

‘Passion’ is derived from the Latin verb ‘patior’ which means to suffer, or be acted upon, as in ‘patience’ or ‘passive’. So passion is not a feeling that we control, but one that takes us over. In the bright Caribbean sun, we may think of giving ourselves over to the joys of showy displays of color and fragrant juices dripping down our chins, but the name is meant to remind us instead of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was betrayed by Judas, abandoned by his other disciples, and arrested by the Roman soldiers, the night before he was crucified.

I can just imagine the rapt tribesmen gathering around as the dark-robed Jesuits shared the good news of the gospel – meanwhile holding up the purple and white flower and explaining that the frilly white corona is like the crown of thorns the Roman soldiers made for Jesus, the five stamens represent his wounds, and the three styles at the center of the flower symbolize the nails used to hold him on the cross.

Our own pagan excitement about the flowers led to disappointment. The flowers dried up and fell off without producing anything. When Mr. Small came by, he said we had to watch for bees. No bees, no fruit. Although some types of passion flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds or bats, the ones cultivated for their fruit need bees to carry the heavy, sticky pollen from one flower to another.

One day my husband saw that some bees had finally noticed our expanding patch of wandering vines and flowers, and then quite a bit later, passing by the back walkway, I saw five or six green balls hanging from a small tree that had been overtaken by one of the passion fruit vines. We were almost as excited as new parents – to have fruit after all those months of effort and then expectancy.

We left them on the vine until they fell off by themselves, but then let them sit on the counter until we thought they were sufficiently yellow to be ripe. Some of them apparently didn’t set well, because the seeds inside were while and undeveloped. Others were just as delicious as the first ones we had tasted, with all the complexity of sweetness and acidity and subtle fruity flavors.

Fun as it is to eat the pulp and seeds out of the skin, swallowing all those seeds can be harsh on the digestion. Soaking the whole mess in a little bit of warm water gives you a fragrant juice, and makes it easier to strain off the seeds. I haven’t tried it, but I have heard that you can use a blender to swirl the pulp around and separate out the seeds – but only at a slow speed or else the seeds will get ground up and show up as black grit in the juice.

Once you have some juice, you can mix it into drinks – fruit punch, tea, rum, or even vodka martinis. Or you can pour it over ice cream or cake, or add it to jello. I am not much of a cook, so I am generally satisfied with simple ways to appreciate my fruits.  

One of the best recipe suggestions I found was to add passion fruit juice to a glass of champagne, for a special type of mimosa. There was also a nice recipe for Passion Fruit Sangria. In a large container you mix passion fruit juice with pineapple juice, white grape juice, some fresh squeezed lime and a bottle of white wine. After they have mixed and cooled for a while, you add ginger ale for some pep just before serving it.   

 

Hey Mister Tamarind Man




 
We were very excited when we found there was a tamarind tree growing near our new house. At first we didn’t notice it because it was so crowded in by other ‘bush’, including the invasive false tamarinds, or ‘tan-tans’, and the thorny ‘casha’ (more properly and aptly known as Acacia torturosa). Then my husband noticed some small, delicate flowers that looked like tiny orchids, and when the tasty pods appeared we recognized what a treasure we had already growing in our garden area.

There used to be a large tamarind tree by the tennis courts in town, which some local kids taught my sons to climb when they were small. It is gone now, removed to make room for the department of Motor Vehicles trailer. I wasn’t sure the strange sticky pods were edible, but my sons assured me that the ripe ones were sweet. Somehow the ones I chose were more sour than sweet, and made my mouth pucker up in a weird way. Later, though, I grew to love the local, hand-made tamarind balls, and the invigorating tamarind juice drinks from the Food Fair at Carnival time.   

 I didn’t realize that tamarind trees were considered ‘spirit trees’ until I read a book published by the University of the Virgin Islands entitled Remarkable Big Trees of the Virgin Islands. The book focuses on ethno-forestry, an approach that links botanical and cultural history. In a bid to protect the remaining important trees, it recounts local folklore about trees, and identifies the locations of some of the long-lived individuals still around. (For example, the tamarind tree on the Lameshur Bay Trail was probably already quite large in the 1700’s.)

There are sixteen types of trees in the Virgin Islands that have been identified as spirit trees, or sometimes as 'jumbie' trees. Including the tamarind – even though it is not really native but imported. According to the book, the first tamarind trees were reportedly brought to the Caribbean from India in 1647. After all those years, it is still only considered “borderline naturalized” – from a botanical point of view. Culturally, though, it seems to have been thoroughly accepted and endowed with social and spiritual significance.
 
Besides producing tasty but tangy treats, the big tamarind trees have provided plenty of shade over the years for social and political gatherings, performances and rituals. Robert Nichols, the author of the Remarkable Big Trees book, draws connections between Taino, African and West Indian traditions. “For Amerindians, West Africans and West Indians, trees sometimes take on ritual and symbolic roles. They are not only seen as providers of wood, food and other products, but also as mediators between human society and spiritual and ancestral realms.”
 
 With roots in the underworld and branches reaching into the sky, big trees have taken on mythical dimensions in many different cultures. In the Caribbean, it is all about jumbies, which may be ghosts, or spirits of ancestors, or just spirits living in trees. Supposedly jumbies can be good or bad, but mostly it seems like they are not very friendly to humans. In the Virgin Islands, children used to be warned not to go under a big tamarind tree at night because the jumbies gather there after dark, and one might follow them home.  

I’ve been feeling quite differently about the tamarind by our house since reading all that about jumbies. I have been afraid of being out at night in the country ever since I was a small child and we went from Manhattan to spend our summers at the family homestead in the wild woods of Maine. Whenever I had to go outside to the outhouse at night it was incredibly dark and quiet compared to the lights and sirens of Third Avenue – except for the whisperings in the spruce trees and the terrifying rustlings in the birches and alders closer to the house. Maybe my ancestors there were trying to contact me but, if so, I ran back so fast I never heard anything more except my own blood pounding.
 
In St. John the night is full of sounds – all sorts of creatures are out there chirping and whirring, swooping, and scratching around by the woodpile. How can I tell if there are jumbies there too?
 
In the Remarkable Big Trees book, it says that the first duty of a migratory people is to make a pact with the land and honor the ancestors of former inhabitants. I don’t really know who was on this land before me. Possibly there was a Taino village. Certainly part of a plantation at one point.
 
Our tamarind tree is relatively skinny, so it probably isn’t one of the old-timers. It is down the hill a bit and still surrounded by bush and stinging nettles. There is no crossroads or flat gathering place beneath it, so I doubt there were any rituals performed there. I went down to give it a closer look and felt a little uncomfortable when I pulled off one of its fruits. What if the spirits didn’t want me messing around with their stuff? Especially since I am not even close to being “borderline naturalized.”

Maybe concerns about the vengeance of jumbies will make people think twice about cutting down the big old trees. Or maybe it just seems stupid and superstitious to believe that trees have anything to tell us about life and death, or what lies beyond our current development plans.
 
 


Bats in Our Ancestry

 
Most of us think that some of our relatives are a little bit batty, but now it seems there might be some literal truth to that idea. Scientists mapping human DNA have discovered that our genetic material is remarkably similar to other animals - and not just other primates. Worms, even. Maybe that is not so remarkable considering how we sometimes behave. However, unlike those who feel that Darwin’s theory of evolution demeans their unique God-given human qualities, I feel enriched by knowing that each cell in my body carries fundamental links with other life forms.
 
Naturally, then, I was intrigued by a recent article in The New York Times entitled “When Bats and Humans Were One and the Same.” It described research at the University of California in Santa Cruz designed to reconstruct the genetic code for a tiny shrew-like animal which lived 80 million years ago and is believed to be the common ancestor of human beings as well as bats and various other mammals. Through computer analysis of the similarities and differences among modern day people and animals, the scientists hope to identify this original ancestor’s genetic composition and trace the ways it mutated to produce different evolutionary branches. 
We in the ‘me’ generation do not tend to venerate our ancestors, but when I was volunteering at the Cinnamon Bay archaeological dig I heard a lot about ancestor worship among the Taino, who were the original settlers on St. John. Bats, which were the only mammals indigenous to the islands, were viewed as physical manifestations of dead tribal ancestors, connecting the natural world of the living with the realm of the supernatural.
 
At the time, I thought the Taino bat imagery was just based on the spooky way they fly around at night when you can’t see them. You know they are there when you can feel the air moving as they fly by, or you hear them squeaking and rustling in the dark. Certainly the Taino were not the only people who associated bats with ghosts, or the ‘undead’. But maybe the Taino sensed intuitively that the bats actually were their closest relations in the islands, linked by common genetic bonds going back millions of years. Bat-like images in cave petroglyphs and pictographs suggest that the Taino saw a remote kinship between bats and early people living in caves.
 
In his report on the findings at the Cinnamon Bay dig, National Park archaeologist Ken Wild indicated that over a period of 500-600 years Taino culture evolved from a simple communal culture to a more complex hierarchical structure. Over time, communicating with the spirits of the ancestors became a selective rather than a commonly practiced activity. In later years, bat imagery in religious symbols or ‘zemis’ was used to legitimate the power of elite leaders. Through offerings and rituals (often involving purging by vomiting and ingestion of hallucinogenic substances to achieve trance-like states), chiefs and priests purportedly obtained advice about politics, war, harvests and weather from the bat-faced ancestral deities.
European Christians, however, associated bats with satanic powers and witchcraft. The Spanish invaders, with their Catholic missionary zeal, sought to save the Taino from their pagan ancestor worship, though few survived long enough to actually enjoy the benefits of conversion, at least in this world. More recently, evolutionary theory has also been viewed as heretical, in part because it undermines the concept of human beings made in God’s image, as distinct from the ‘lower’ animals. We know now, however, that animals are not merely machines, as Descartes thought, but only slightly different in their genetic structure from ourselves.
Even though bats may not actually represent the souls of our ancestors, maybe we should think about them as wild and crazy cousins who took a slightly different evolutionary turn. If we view them in that light, we may find that they in fact have insights to offer us about living together in peace, dealing with the weather and improving harvests. If only we could learn how to communicate with them better.
 

Frog Lovers


 
We had some friends over for dinner and my husband brought out some of his more obscure Bob Dylan music. At one point the conversation stopped and I realized we were listening to Froggy Goes A-Courtin’. I don’t think I had heard that tune since kindergarten. Could Dylan really be singing that?

Not only did Dylan sing the frog song, he also talked about it – noting that various forms of the story about Froggy and Miss Mousie (the sweetheart he was courting) dated back to 16th century Scotland. It gained some political significance when Queen Elizabeth I was known to call her courtiers animal nicknames, and her subjects began referring to her French suitor, the Duc d'Alencon, as ‘froggy’.

I wouldn’t have given the song another thought, except for an instance of the principle of synchronicity. That very night it rained hard as we were going to bed and the frogs outside went crazy, honking and bellowing, singing their own raspy-voiced songs, and carousing around our pool.

In the morning one couple was still in the pool, locked in a lop-sided, four-eyed embrace, the little guy on top, surrounded by glittering eggs.

When we built our new house near Fish Bay, the real estate people said we really should put in a pool because without one we would have a harder time selling or renting it. I was dubious because I didn’t want the trouble of maintaining the pool equipment since everything corrodes in the salty, humid air. And who comes to St. John to swim in a pool anyway? That’s what those white beaches are for. But my husband thought it was a good idea, and might have some romantic possibilities. Little did he know…. 

Since our place is pretty rustic, we didn’t think a bright turquoise pool was appropriate. Instead we designed one inspired by the pool by the petroglyphs, with a dark surface, surrounded by stone. We didn’t realize that we would be attracting wandering frogs rather than tourists.

St. John has cute native tree frogs known for their nighttime calls, especially the two-note whistle of the Eleutherodactylus coqui. These frogs are very small and the females lay their eggs in bromeliad plants, which hang off the trees and have cups at their centers that catch small amounts of rainwater. The frog babies don’t go through a tadpole stage, so there’s no need for a lot of water. Those guys would never want to go party in our pool.

No, the big carousers come from Cuba, and are known formally as Osteopilus septentrionalis, (loosely translated from the Latin as ‘northern boneheads’). They started arriving in the 1970s, probably riding over in potted plants. The Cuban frogs have a very bad reputation. They are invasive, eating just about anything they can fit in their big mouths, including native frogs, lizards, and baby birds. If you touch them, they secrete mucous that can irritate your skin, so most people refer to them as ‘Cuban toxic frogs’. They probably don’t really poison the cistern water if they get in there, but that is definitely gross. Plus they can jam themselves into crevices and clog the pipes.

We usually have a few fat Cuban frogs living at the back of the house. They like to be off the ground during the day, so they climb up and squeeze into the spaces at the top of the window slats and sleep there instead of in a tree. At night they hop down and hunt, or whatever.

On nights when it rains hard, the males get all riled up. Since the eggs have to be laid in water, heavy rain is nature’s signal that the time is right to breed. They would generally use a natural pond, or even a flooded ditch or wetland, but I guess our pool looks pretty good to them. The males gather round the water source and form a chorus. Their loud calls have been variously described as like a barking dog, a squeaking door or a snoring rasp. They use the vocal sacs under their chins to make these sounds, and try to impress the females by how loud and deep their voices are, demonstrating their virility.

(People living on St. John will be surprised to learn that there is an active trade in Cuban tree frogs as pets. Really. They come with a warning, though, that the males are noisy at night so don’t keep them in the bedroom, unless you like that sort of thing. Also, it’s not so good to pat them, because of that mucous issue.)

The Cuban frogs are known as ‘explosive breeders’. Once the females come around, the acoustic competition degenerates into ‘scramble searching’ for mates – sort of like musical chairs when the playing stops.

I was reading about the mating habits of lobsters during my summer vacation in Maine. Like many species, lobsters have a strict dominance system. Only the largest, most aggressive male gets to mate, and he is always bullying the other lobsters – male and female – to prove that he’s still number one. The frogs aren’t so interested in male dominance, and the females aren’t very selective. Most of the males get a partner during the one-night breeding events, and if not, there will be another party soon. Cuban tree frogs can breed any time the conditions are right, and don’t have any parenting responsibilities.

The females tend to be bigger than the males – up to about six inches long. They produce hundreds of eggs at once, since so few of the eggs survive to maturity, and can lay thousands of them over the course of a year. Large females produce more eggs that the small ones – but they don’t need a very big male to fertilize them all. Most any size guy will do, so the males don’t have to wait until they are big and strong enough to fight with competitors to get a chance to mate.  

The male basically sits on her back and grabs on with raspy nuptial pads (like velcro) on his front feet. Over the course of the night, as she pushes out the eggs into the water, he fertilizes them. The eggs hatch in a little over a day, and grow into tadpoles. With luck, within a month they are a new batch of frogs.  

The Cuban frogs don’t mind if the water is somewhat salty, as long as it is still. But a chlorinated pool isn’t really a good choice. Especially when there is someone who comes by in the morning and scoops out the eggs with a strainer. Yuck.

Meanwhile, I was inspired to write my own island-style lyrics for Froggy Goes A-Courtin. Since it is such an old ballad, there are a lot of different versions, and I thought I would adapt it. 
 
 
Froggy Went A-Courtin’ - Cuban Style

Froggy went a-courtin’ and he was stout, uh-huh,
Froggy went a-courtin’ and he did shout, kwee-wee,
Hopping from his lair when it rained that night,
Calling to the ladies with all his might, uh-huh, uh huh

Froggy went a-swimming down in our pool, uh-huh
Froggy went a-swimming and the water was cool, uh-huh
His friends all gathered and were calling too
Oh baby, can I spend the night with you, uh-huh, uh-huh.

Froggy wasn’t looking for an inside wife, uh-uh
Froggy wasn’t looking to mate for life, uh-uh
He was no prince who was under a spell
But the ladies they liked the way he yelled, uh-huh, uh-huh

Froggy found a big gal to be his date, uh-huh
Froggy found someone who could carry his weight, uh-huh
He grabbed her belly with his nuptial pads
And gave her eggs everything he had, uh-huh, uh-huh

Froggy went a-courtin’ outside our house, uh-huh
Froggy wasn’t looking to marry no mouse, uh-uh
His whopping big mama took him for a ride
And kept him going until he cried, no mas, no mas, uh-huh

Froggy wasn’t gone by the morning light, uh-uh
Froggy held her close all through the night, uh-huh
The scientists would say that it’s called amplexus, 
When he’s wrapped around her solar plexus, uh-huh, uh-huh

Froggy and his lady left eggs in the pool, uh-huh
That’s not too smart as a general rule, uh-uh
There’s chlorine in there to kill the algae
So Froggy’s poor spawn they never shall be, tadpoles, uh-uh.

 


 

 

 

The Hunter


Just before Valentine’s Day, I started feeling a bit lonely for company out by Fish Bay. My sons had come and gone with their friends and holiday merry-making and my husband and I were back working quietly at our separate desks. I needed something to distract me from the beginnings of a dark turn of mind. And then the universe obligingly provided me with a new interest to dispel my wistful thoughts about city life.

There he was, tall and handsome, standing by the side of the dirt road near my house, next to the wetlands conservation area. He was staring intently at something hidden in the bushes and barely glanced at me as I drove up. Looking for something? In my usual proprietary way, I stopped and asked what he was doing there, but he was already moving into the underbrush and didn’t hear, or didn’t bother to respond. I was used to that.

Still, I let myself think about him all the way into town. He had looked so elegant, maybe he was only here for a short time, happy to escape the northern winter. Like the weekly renters next door. We call them ‘whoopers’ because of their noisy excitement when they step out onto the deck into the sudden warmth and sunshine. He had been quiet, though, definitely not a whooper. Very serious.

Maybe he had been around for years and I just never met him. After all, I am often away, and don’t get out very much even when I am on-island.

Later in the week I caught a glimpse of long legs moving quickly out of sight along the Fish Bay road. Was it him? I found reasons to drive to town, and fantasized about meeting up with him, hoping for a life-altering chance encounter. I imagined him turning to me with the look of intense concentration that had attracted me, his eyes filled with knowledge of faraway lands and exotic adventures.   

Then one afternoon I saw him again, walking very near my house. Had he come looking for me? I slowed down and cautiously watched him. Once again, he had an air of busy importance and seemed to ignore me, though I noticed a quick slide of his eye in my direction to acknowledge my presence. He was probably didn’t want to admit that he was interested in me, too.  

I didn’t want to intrude on whatever his important work was, but as I passed by I couldn’t help whispering very quietly “I love you. I love you so much. Seeing you makes me so happy.”

The next time I saw him my husband was in the car with me. I tried to contain my excitement and nonchalantly said “I’ve been seeing that guy around along the road. Do you know him?” My husband replied: “I don’t know. There are a lot of guys like that around here. Probably hunting for bugs or land crabs or something on the conservation land. Why?” “Oh nothing” I muttered. “Just wondering what he’s doing out this way.”

A few days later my husband came upstairs after a snack break and said “You know that guy you were asking about the other day? He’s out across the road, by our driveway, doing something. Maybe you want to check him out.” Did I ever! My husband had a conference call or something, and anyway he leaves most of the nosy neighbor stuff to me.

I put on my shades and a clean shirt and moseyed out along the walkway. When I saw him, he was near the wall, right there next to my new jeep! Finally a vehicle with a hard top, windows that close to keep out the cats and the rain, doors that lock - what a gift. I had just washed it to get off the mud from the constant puddles in the dirt road. But he wasn’t admiring my ride.

He was doing that thing again where he looked intently into the bushes. What could be so interesting in there?  I watched him quietly from behind the coconut tree. He stood very still at first, then started moving his head back and forth slowly, like a hypnotist. After a minute he began moving his neck and shoulders as well, a strange erotic dance. There was something so wild and untamed about him, I was entranced. But obviously he was not doing this for my benefit. He didn’t even know I was there, or did he? Maybe he had recognized from that first glance that I was a soul mate. Maybe he had found out where I lived....

When the phone rang I was startled out of my reverie. He didn’t seem to pay any attention, but my husband called out “That’s your phone” and I crept quietly back to the house hoping this strange guy didn’t notice I had been spying on him. Back to business. When I was finished, he was gone. That night I dreamed about flying away with him, slow dancing with him on some other distant shore.

The next day he was back, right in our yard, closely examining our flowers and fruit trees. I was afraid to make any noise and reluctant to call my husband, who might scare him off. What could he mean by coming around like this, not saying anything, lurking in the bushes near our isolated house. But it was broad daylight, and he was alone and didn’t look very dangerous. I was drawn to him. I wanted to get to know him, to understand his solitary roamings, his mission, his secret passions.  

As I eased down the outside staircase he turned and gave me a commanding look. I froze. What did he want? It was my yard after all, and he was an intruder. I felt the need to confront him, but something held me back. I didn’t want to ruin everything before we even got to know each other.

He turned back towards the trees and began his dance again, not looking at me, caught up in his own mysterious rhythm. Moving his neck the way a cobra swaying to the piper’s tune rises up out of the basket. Now bringing one foot slowly up to knee level, posing, then creeping forward, all the time waving from side to side. Suddenly he darted his head forward, quick as a snake, then raised his face to the sky, opened his mouth wide, and gulped.    

 Oh lordy, what a fool I was! It wasn’t a dance of romance. My husband had been right, he was just a hunter after all. He wasn’t looking for love in the afternoon. He was there to catch lizards in my garden! 

I still see him around sometimes. He wasn’t just a passing visitor. I have let go of my silly fantasies, and yet - I am not ashamed to say that I still love him.

One night when I found myself awake at 3am feeling anxious and agitated, I picked up a meditation CD I got from one of the visiting Unitarian speakers. It was about angels. Not usually my thing, but I decided to give it a try. As the soothing voice lulled me with detailed images of beautiful seraphim eager to greet me with healing light and celestial love, I found my mind lingering on the descriptions of their gleaming white wings. I imagined the joy of being enveloped in strong muscles covered by soft feathers, being sheltered, validated, at home. I drifted off hugging my down pillow with unusual intensity.

 

How ‘Intelligent’ Are Trees?


 

When it rains every day for months, the trees start closing in around our house in Fish Bay. We left most of the native trees on the property, and planted Arica palms and bougainvillea in the yard. When they all get bushy they block the path and the view. Definitely time to sharpen up the machete and get out the clippers.

Sometimes I feel a little badly about chopping back the native trees, but most of them don’t seem to mind a trim. The invasive trees I wish would disappear, like the false tamarinds, often grow back even more aggressively no matter how much I cut them.   

 I mentioned my tree-trimming work to a friend in the city, and she recommended that I read a recent article in the New Yorker magazine on ‘The Intelligent Plant’ by Michael Pollan. www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/12/23/131223fa_fact_pollan. Back in 1973 a book called The Secret Life of Plants had suggested that plants could feel stress when people even thought about harming them. I wondered if she viewed me as a tree mugger.   

In the article, Pollan reported that the claims about plants having feelings have not been substantiated. However some scientists have documented plant behaviors that “look very much like learning, memory, decision-making and intelligence” as plants respond to a wide variety of information about their environment – including available levels of light, water, and nutrients, as well as temperature and soil conditions.

Even in the 1880s, Darwin’s research led him to believe that there was a type of intelligence in the root tips of plants that allowed them to process sensory information and in that way adapt to their environment.

More recent studies have shown that plants also communicate through chemical and electrical signals, and even share and information through widespread underground webs of fungi. Although most scientists do not conclude from this information that trees are ‘conscious’, it does seem that they may actually be ‘intelligent’ even though they do not have brains.

In fact, the lack of a brain may make plants more resilient to the impacts of environmental changes and destructive events.  They can lose up to 90 percent of their mass and still survive and grow back.  (Plus they can make their own food from sunlight and water.) 

Rather than viewing plants as insensate, lower life forms, Pollan suggests that their way of adapting to the world could provide a model for our own future, one that is “organized around systems and technologies that are networked, decentralized, modular…and green, able to nourish themselves on light”.

It’s interesting to think about what we could learn from the trees about survival skills – especially the trees that are well-adapted to island life. In the short term I am still planning to cut back the trees in my way, knowing they can manage okay with a few less branches. I’m sure some of them will still be going strong long after I am gone.      

Pig Turds, Gri-Gris and Water Mampoos


 


 

Generally, if you show people a picture of a landscape they don’t think ‘Oh look at all the interesting types of trees.’ They will focus on the other things in the picture – the flower, the deer, or the couple on a blanket – with the greenery mostly just a backdrop for the real action.  

So, for years I drove around in St. John and didn’t pay much attention to the trees unless they had fruit on them, or the ‘bush’ got so thick it encroached on the road. But now I have finally gotten acquainted with some of the more noticeable local trees. I give them a nod as I pass by, and the road seems less lonely.

I was inspired by a book Remarkable Big Trees in the US Virgin Islands. I had just identified a few of the native trees on my own land, and thought it would be interesting to see what remarkable big trees I could find in my Fish Bay neighborhood. Much of the area nearby is owned by the Island Resources Foundation as conservation land, so that seemed like a good place to start.

We took digital photos of some of the larger trees, and GPS coordinates so we could map them, or find them again later. We sent the photos to Eleanor Gibney, a local plant expert and author of a book about native trees, who helped us identify some of the trees. To me, many of the trees and leaves looked very similar. It’s like learning a new language, reading the tree leaves to figure out their identities. It helps a lot to distinguish them if the trees are in bloom, or have fruits on them.
 
Our top ten list of trees in the Fish Bay flat land included: black and red mangroves, genips, gri-gris, hog plums, mahoes, pig turds, sandbox or monkey-no-climb trees, tamarinds and water mampoos. 

Big trees have long had cultural significance as boundary markers, landmarks, shady areas for open markets and spaces for cultural and political assemblies. Eleanor Gibney told us that during the 20th century the large old trees in Fish Bay probably provided shade for cattle, while the rest of the land was cleared for grazing. In the colonial era there were cotton plantations in the area and much of the flat land was cleared of smaller native trees at that time, but until recently the hillsides around Fish Bay were some of the least disturbed on St. John, with an abundance of rare and threatened species.

Several of the trees we found – tamarind, gri-gri, water mampoo, sandbox and genip – were highlighted by Robert Nicholls in the Remarkable Big Trees book as ‘spirit trees’. These trees were traditionally viewed as mediators between human society and spiritual and ancestral realms, in addition to being providers of food, fuel, wood products and medicines. The book explains that beliefs about spirits in trees were transplanted from Africa and attached to similar tree species found in the Caribbean. Some trees were believed to be inhabited by ‘jumbies’ – a term usually thought of as meaning ‘ghosts’, but also referring to animistic spirits that occupy natural objects.

Large boles, buttress roots and caves formed by protruding roots are all indications that jumbies are living in a tree. I have to say I did notice that some trees really look like they have strong personalities, and I try to always be very respectful of them.  

On the eastern side of the flat land, past the one-way bridge, there is a long stretch of road skirting the edge of a wetland area that is mostly covered with black mangroves. The land here is salty and appears to have been flooded at times by water coming in from the bay. Closer to the shoreline there are red mangroves whose above-ground roots seem to walk out into the bay. Egrets and herons roost in the mangroves, along with pelicans and other indigenous and migratory birds. The shallow water around their roots serves as a nursery for many types of fish – and watch out for the baby sharks! The mangrove roots also filter storm water and collect silt, which helps prevent erosion, and runoff of sediments and pollution into the bay during periods of heavy rain.
 
For more information see the report

TREES IN THE FISH BAY FLAT LAND - Island Resources Foundation

www.irf.org/mission/protection/IRF%20TREES%20report.pdf