I am in yoga class. My left leg is fixed high on my right thigh, and my arms are stretched over my head. I don’t know why they call this position “tree” pose. It should be flamingo pose or crane pose, but nevertheless, the instructor is imploring us, “imagine what tree you want to be today, with your roots tapped down into the earth and your branches reaching towards the sun. Are you a majestic oak? Or an elegant willow?”
I clear my mind and feel connection to earth through the pads and toes of my right foot. My fingertips are energized as they reach for the sky. Into my mind pops the image of Pinus virginiana. What? I clear the image and try again, but P. virginiana stubbornly refuses to vacate the premises. I am forced to resign myself to embodiment of the tree that my mother derisively refers to as a “trash pine” (a.k.a. scrub pine). I try to think of some positive qualities. The trees do possess a kind of wild beauty and tenacity. Growing in barren areas often shunned by other trees, their twisted, bonsai-like structures and needles are readily adapted to the scarcity of their environment. Cut down and cleared relentlessly by those who would label them as “trash,” the persistent P. virginiana just keeps coming back.
|The humble scrub pine
After wallowing in my species-based prejudice for a moment, it dawns on me. Who am I to judge the relative values of tree individuals? Why is the “lowly” scrub pine any less worthy of my admiration than the venerable oak? The sun shines equally on both. If you cut them down, do they not bleed? Of their consciousness, we cannot know, but surely the scrub pine feels the same joy of existence shared by all living things. My bias is based on a lifetime of anthropocentric conditioning. We admire that which is useful to our own purposes and disdain the rest.
The revelations of P. virginiana have caused me to reevaluate my entire attitude towards many organisms great and small. Last spring, I cheered when a black snake ransacked the nests of the starlings nesting in the eaves of our guest cottage. My bias against the starlings manifested as an almost virulent hatred. I was glad to see them devoured. I am still glad I didn’t interfere and let nature decide the victor of that conflict, but now I am trying hard to refrain from wishing the same fate on this year’s nestlings. I do like black snakes.
I am even considering an overhaul in my attitude towards my arch nemesis Hippomane mancinella or “manchineel” as it is commonly known. In my field studies in the tropics, I have had a few run-ins with this tree. Tellingly, in the first encounter, I was mesmerized by the tree’s stunning beauty.
|The impressively toxic Hippomane mancinella
In the dwarfed dry tropical forests of outback Turks and Caicos, the manchineel literally stands out from the crowd. Its deep, green canopy of glossy leaves contrasts sharply to the surrounding browns and yellows of neighboring, desiccated vegetation. And it is loaded with little apple-like, sweet-smelling, golden orbs. The dwarf dry tropical forests do offer up a variety of edible fruits, but like the vegetation they grow on, they tend to be small, tart and relatively dehydrated. The fruit of the manchineel is succulent.
I ventured a taste. It was sweet and delicious, and fortunately, erring on the side of caution I didn’t swallow and spat it out. It wasn’t long before the tingling in my lips foreshadowed the telltale signs of poisoning. Later that evening, I thought my head was going to explode with the worst headache of my life. This torture was followed by a sleepless night of retching and diarrhea. Lesson: manchineel fruit is not good to eat.
Intrigued by my discovery, I did a bit of research and discovered that manchineel is an expert of toxicity. The botanical name reflects another common name “manzanilla de la muerte” (little apple of death). Indeed. Every part of the manchineel excretes poison. In addition to my near-death experience with the fruit, I have had the misfortune of brushing up against the leaves from time to time, which results in caustic skin blisters that burst, only to blister again on the same patch of red, raw skin. Oh manchineel, how I have loathed thee.
In the state of Florida, the negative human judgment of manchineel, and subsequent removal of offending trees has rendered the species practically extinct. Some would say good riddance to bad news, but apart from its animosity to humans, the tree provides invaluable habitat for other species such as land crabs and certain iguanas that thrive on the toxic fruit. As with all things in nature, when you pull at a single thread, the whole garment begins to unravel. We cannot pick and choose those things we deem useful, while simultaneously annihilating the rest. The beautiful complexity of nature needs both the humanly condoned and the disdained.
I am at a client’s house and notice a spectacular specimen of manchineel. Its thick, gnarled trunk and long, winding branches tell of this sentinel’s advanced age. In the past, I would have offered a warning to the resident. “Cut it down or you will be sorry.” Now, I merely admire the tree’s architecture and note its remote location on the property. No need for warnings. Hopefully this impressive specimen will be able to continue its life of obscurity, minding its own business, completely oblivious to the pettiness of the human priorities that surround it.
No longer will I be enamored with only the useful among species. My admiration and respect will extend to both the harmful and the understated, for in this world of diminishing ecological returns, we can’t afford to lose any of them.