Under the Flame Tree

Fires, non-native deers, and reincarnation

Archival reproduction of Folio Collection of prints from the Frycinet voyage by A. Pellion titled “Traditional Customs Of The Chamorro Classes” circa 1835 (source: Fine Art America)

Ma susede un desgråsia — An unfortunate incident occurred
as Malilok na lugåt. — at a place called Malilok.
Ya ti ilek-ho na ti un måtai, — I never said you would never die,
na un måtai naturåt.[1]only that you would die naturally.
– Unknown composer

The landscape is unfamiliar, my hands uncertain of which stones sit securely in the fragile soils, the call of birds unrecognizable to my ears, each scaled cliff offering withdrawn knowledge. Only the first few pages of the waterproof notebook contain data, mostly just observations of waterfalls and eroding stream banks with the occasional GPS point indicating a sighting of the endangered Åga, the Marianas Crow. The non-native Sambar deer make the best trails.

The thick canopy of the native limestone forest gives way to towering grasses that cut through flesh like sharpened machetes, the ridgeline above is beckoning me higher. There is no petrichor in the air, the watershed yearns for falling rain at the peak of the dry season when cisterns run empty and the green savannah yields to the inevitable brown. As I approach the crest, clambering over the jagged karst stones, smoke wafts through the air and my heart drops. Across the dark green valley, one of the veins of this landscape, the parched grasses are smoldering, sparks creeping in all directions, closer to the veins.

I knew nothing about the island of Rota, called Luta in the native Chamorro language, before moving to the Marianas archipelago. Move your finger eastward across the Pacific from the Philippines on a map and you’ve likely gone too far. When friends ask me where I live, I offer a measly ‘near Guam’, which most people can locate now after the threatening words shared between the US and North Korea. Maybe you’ve heard of the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on our planet, we’re near there too.

The Talakhaya watershed, a conservation area in the south of the island, contains the only flowing streams and the source of the entire island’s water. Drastic changes with each successive wave of humans continue to alter this ecological unique landscape. On Guam, the pollen record dating back over 9,000 years shows that the island was covered in a dense forest before the arrival of humans 4,300 years ago. When the forests declined, the records show that the grasses increased and so did the evidence of fires, suggesting that the savanna landscape on Guam was a result of the first people repeatedly burning areas for agriculture and hunting.

When driving into the drainage basin of Talakhaya, a large sign welcomes me with images of charred landscapes, sediment suffocated corals, and a warning that setting fires in the watershed is not only illegal but also destructive to the entire ecosystem. The “Real Hunters Don’t Burn” campaign was aimed at the hunters who set fires that would attract deer when fresh shoots of grass would spring up through the soot-covered soils. Intentionally set fires devastated the watershed in 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2017.

Charred remains of the ridgelines after the 2017 fire.

For the last decade, a monumental effort has been undertaken to revegetate the exposed and eroding soils of the badlands. A dozen or so volunteers drive out to the watershed and carry 50-pound backpacks full of grasses grown in nurseries up the steep slopes to dig holes and pray that the roots will hold the fragile surface in place. In a single summer, beneath the scorching sun egged on by the quiet music ringing out from a tucked away phone, the volunteers plant more than 25,000 seedlings. ‘The landscape looks healthier,’ states a local who has watched the watershed change over the last fifty years. The fire of 2012 charred away two summers worth of effort in a single week.

After three hundred years of colonization by the Spanish and the widespread massacre of the indigenous people, the Mariana Islands were sold to Germany and then occupied by the Japanese during World War I. It was during the “Japanese time” that thousands of workers were shipped to the island to raise sugar cane in the fertile soils of the watershed. Only the veins of Talakhaya were allowed to shelter the native limestone forest, whereas the ridges were burned, replanted, introduced to the invasive cane toad, and left barren after the sugar refinery was abandoned a few years later.

The sugar company still exists in the stone markers scattered across the landscape and in the memories of the Corvus kubaryi and the Osmoxylon mariannense, endangered species who rely on the health of Talakhaya as much as the people who survive on the freshwater the place provides.

A change in the wind draws the gray smoke across the valley, the tears in my eyes falling on the notebook as I scratch down the GPS location and any relevant details. ‘The burn area extends past the ridge, need better vantage point.’ There’s no phone service up here, no one else will know there is a fire unless I return to the village. I drive back in my truck, over the dry perennial streams and past unused agricultural land. Pulling open the glass door to the air-conditioned fire station, I try to explain what I saw on the other side of the island. Fire trucks can’t reach the watershed. There are no firefighting aircraft on the island. No one lives near the smoldering grasses. Why is it so cold in here?

Stone remains of the sugar refinery that ravaged the watershed.

The next year, two massive tropical cyclones will pass over the island, destroying most of the vegetation on the island and leaving dozens of families homeless. In a few decades, the sea level will rise enough that the main village of the island will be uninhabitable and residents will have to move to higher ground. There are no plans in place for the worst-case climate change scenario; maybe it’s easier that way.

Anthropologist Laura Thompson details Chamorro folklore about death and dying in The Native Culture of the Marianas Islands. The souls of those who have died a violent death travel to a place called Sasalåguan, the dwelling of Chaife, the god of the underworld. Forging souls and spirits from the fire who serve as slaves, Chaife’s forge exploded one day and a soul escaped by falling to earth. As the god of wind, waves, and fire, Chaife sent multiple natural disasters to quell the escaped soul, only to be tricked by the soul’s ability to turn into a fish, a monitor lizard, and a bird. Withdrawing in resignation, Chaife returned to the underworld while the soul turned into a rock and became the source of the first people of the Marianas.

Rota draws conservationists from all over the world to manage the endemic species and unique habitats that can only be found on the 85 square kilometer island. There’s no military here, unlike the neighboring islands, just crows and damselflies and trees that are visited every week, filling notebooks with valuable data. The island almost lost the Marianas fruit bat, Pteropus mariannus, to extinction before management priorities were set and their populations started to rebound, slowly. There is a feeling of relatedness between humans and nature; of interconnected realities that vanish with each missing species.

Driving up to the highest point of the island, the flat plateau of a mountain, I sit on the cliff ledge and look out over the watershed. It’s been a few months since that fire, the charred area vanishing in the new growth of various shades of green. There’s a different kind of fire covering the landscape, the flame tree, Delonix regia, igniting every spring with deep reds and smoldering oranges. No one knows for certain when these trees arrived, but they are part of the culture now, celebrated with festivals and art and dance. Maybe that’s the best kind of plan after wildfires, ceremonial reincarnation.

[1] The Kantan Chamorrita is a traditional Chamorro four-line poetic verse sung to the tune of a single melody, normally presented as a call-and-response between singers. This verse sings of a place called Puntan Malilok, located on the southeastern shore of Rota adjacent to the Talakhaya watershed.

Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tasmania, studying climate change adaptation, risk perspectives, and coastalscape values.

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