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mona_islandThe weather in New York has turned distinctively wintery, so Ferrebeekeeper is going to compensate by featuring a little known tropical island! Isla de la Mona (“Island of the Bow?” Mona Island?” help me out here, Spanish speakers) is a small island which lies in the strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The island measures 11 km by 7 km (7 miles by 4 miles) about the same size as Manhattan. But while 1.7 million people live on Manhattan, Isla de Mona has only a ranger station and no true permanent residents.

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Indeed, Isla de la Mona is something of an anomaly in the world: becoming less inhabited over time. In ancient times the Arawak Indians dwelled there. Archaeological evidence establishes their presence on the island by at least 3000 BC. However after Columbus (who officially “discovered” the island), the murky affairs of the colonial era caused the island to gradually depopulate. At one point, the island was controlled by Francisco de Barrionuevo, a Spanish grandee who fell afoul of Alonso Manso, the rapacious bishop of Puerto Rico. Bishop Manso was fond of proscribing wealthy enemies and seizing their possessions and retainers. To escape this fate, de Barrionuevo escaped to mainland South America, and he took most of the island’s remaining inhabitants with him. Thereafter, remaining natives were generally impressed (enslaved?) by French corsairs. The emptied island became a haunt of pirates including the infamous Captain Kidd. It passed to American control in the Spanish American War and remains an administrative part of Puerto Rico (although it is actually closer to the Dominican Republic).

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Abandoned lighthouse in the middle of a cactus forest on Mona Island

In the modern era, Mona Island, was mined for guano. During World War II, it was attacked by a German u-boat in what must have been a thrilling “Hellboy” or “Indiana Jones” type adventure (or maybe the submarine was trying to disrupt the Allies’ nitrogen supply). Today the island is entirely a nature preserve, and no more than 100 people can be on it at a given time.

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Because of this enforced isolation, the island has a pristine ecosystem of dry scrublands and tropical forests. There are extensive sea-caves and coral reefs around the island. As you can imagine, it is a refuge to wildlife such as sea turtles (which are displaced by beach development everywhere else). Unfortunately feral pigs, goats, and cats have invaded the island and messed up the unspoiled ecosystem, but they are kept somewhat in check by annual hunts and by the efforts of the Park Service. I think it is thrilling to imagine this empty island out there. It pleases me no end that there are still such places.

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El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest in Puerto Rico

El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest in Puerto Rico

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.

Gaeotis flavolineata, a transparent semi-slug (image credit: exotiskadjur.ifokus.se)

Gaeotis flavolineata, a transparent semi-slug (image credit: exotiskadjur.ifokus.se)

A Tree Snail at El Yunque

A Tree Snail at El Yunque

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.

Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), the titular big tree of "Big Tree" trail in El Yunque (photo by Xemenendura)

Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), the titular big tree of “Big Tree” trail in El Yunque (photo by Xemenendura)

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