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Long-time readers know that I love trees. So you can imagine how thrilled I was this past weekend, when, for the first time, I visited a tropical rainforest–El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. The only tropical rainforest under the rubric of the United States Forest Department, El Yunque is a very gentle jungle: not only does it lack poisonous snakes or spiders, but there are not even any endemic mammals other than bats (although mongooses have crept in, thanks to a misguided introduction program long ago) and no predators larger than hawks. What it lacks in large violent animals, El Yunque makes up for with astonishing botanical diversity. Immense tree ferns tower over volcanic boulders. Delicate Coquís—tree frogs which are the unofficial mascot of Puerto Rico–sing beneath the umbrella-like leaves of Cecropia trees. The mollusks, that great strange phylum, exist in proliferation which rivals a coastline or an oyster reef. Transparent slugs with green nuclei are virtually invisible on stones. Snails the size of children’s hands hang in the branches.
Among the flowers, frogs, and fruitbats, there are ancient giants–just not animal ones. The most beautiful tree I saw in the rainforest was an Ausubo (Manikara bidentata) a huge, slow-growing evergreen tree rising magnificently 10 stories above the forest floor. The wood of ausubo is coveted by builders and carpenters since it is lovely to look at, rock hard, and resistant to rot and insects (the sap can also be formed into a hard resin like gutta-percha: this material, called gutta-balatá, was used to make golf balls for professional golfers until it was replaced by modern synthetics). Ausubo was once the most important timber tree in Puerto Rico and many of the great colonial buildings feature great halls made of mighty ausubo timbers now hundreds of years old. Today, sadly few large, ancient trees remain. However the forest service has planted great stands of them in El Yunque and some originals still remain like the one pictured below which a sign asserted was three to four hundred years old. It is strange to think that the tree (which is broader at the base than a person is tall) was once a tiny seed dropped by a fruit bat or a bird. It has outlasted all of the lumberjacks and hurricanes since San Juan was little more than a fort above a colonial village.