Trees Talk…and Sometimes They Also Tell Lies

Out on a limb in Grenada in August, I had the fine pleasure of sampling such a special sweet fruit of the “Spice Isle”. It is a fruit that should be the seed for another familiar Caribbean proverb: that if one eats it, one is bound to forever return to Grenada. This fruit turned out to be so exceptional, and it brought so much knowledge and even generated friendship, that it deserves an essay of its own. Such a potent and unusual fruit, it is one that has played a special part in history—a history about which I knew absolutely nothing until recently. In all my years in the Caribbean I had never once come across the tree that produces this attractive, inviting fruit. But as Trinidadians like to say, “what eh meet yuh, eh pass yuh” (what has not met you, has not passed you). There is another saying of relevance that I used to hear from my Trinidadian mother in-law, and heard repeated again by an elderly gentleman in Grenada: “who can’t hear, will feel”. The Maytones sang about this. If these statements do not make much sense right now, they will soon.

The Encounter

Aerial view of Quarantine Point park, on top the promontory at the top centre of the photograph.

Up on Quarantine Point, there is a broad and well-kept park perched on top of a promontory strategically overlooking two of the finest scenes that can ever great human eyes, this side of Heaven: to the north, marvellous Grand Anse Beach, and just a little beyond it, St. George’s, which is arguably the prettiest capital in the entire English-speaking Caribbean; and, to the south, the tranquil gem of a beach in Morne Rouge, known as BBC Beach. The sun was blazing, during a rainy season that featured no rain. The park appears to be maintained courtesy of Rotary International. There are signs on some trees that say, “Put in bin”—referring to possible litter, though I joked that it must be the name of the tree. The good people at the Rotary Club figure that the only threat in the park is what humans might drop on the ground—let’s call that Lesson One.

In the park at Quarantine Point, Grenada, the Rotary Club neglected to mention the even larger danger lurking in the background.

At the north side of the park, facing St. George’s, there is a line of gorgeous trees. I walked under them, caressing their leaves, rubbing the bark. Then I noticed how the branches were laden with these lovely fruits, many of which had fallen to the ground. They looked like small apples (see the photo below). I picked one up, and broke it open, only to be greeted by the sweetest fragrance. I went to take a bite but my wife cautioned me: “Don’t just put something in your mouth when you don’t even know what it is”. My answer was: “Nothing that smells so sweet and beautiful could ever do harm”. I took it as Nature’s way of speaking to us: “I smell so good and sweet. Go ahead, eat me!

Close to where I picked them, small apples on the ground in the park at Quarantine Point. The ground around the trees was so hard and dry, it was cracking. Grass struggled to grow in the vicinity of the trees.

In a complete reversal of the Biblical story of Eve, I was the one who gave in to temptation, and so I plucked a fruit from the branch, bit into it, chewed it, and then I swallowed the juice. I found the pulp to be not quite ripe, and that is the only reason I spat it out. I then proceeded to gnaw on the large round seed inside, which was seductive in how it was wielding to the pressure of my molars. (That habit, of breaking up large seeds, is one I picked up from Trinidadian yard dogs crushing mango seeds with their jaws. As a result I can never just eat a mango now without eventually taking the seed to task and breaking it open, laying bare its ugly little green mango fetus.) I then dropped the fruit. My wife instead picked up a few of these small “apples” and placed the evidence in a zip-lock bag, for later reference.

Later, while driving south of St. George’s—perhaps 45 minutes after trying the “apple”—I began to strongly sense, even taste, strong pepper sauce at the back of my throat. We had both drenched our dishes in local pepper sauce at lunch, a few hours before, and so I asked my wife innocently: “Is any of that pepper sauce coming back up with you? Do you think that maybe it was expired?” My wife said it had no such effect on her, and then she asked me why I was asking. It is then, while driving, that a strange zap passed through my head, almost becoming visible across my eyes…it was a sudden sense of doubt, and then anxiety. “What if…

Trying to be calm, I simply stated: “There is a strong burning sensation in my throat and at the back of my mouth. Something tells me I made a mistake in trying that fruit”. Like a quiet contagion, anxiety spread to my wife. She advised me to head back toward St. George’s, which I was already doing. As we reached the roundabout in Grand Anse, she recommended that we park in Camerhogne Park, leading to the beach and where locals gathered. We parked.

Camerhogne Park (using the Indigenous name for Grenada), is a thin sliver made available to the Grenadian public, shown above between the red lines. The rest is occupied by hotels.

Rushing out of the car, reaching for her zip-locked evidence, my wife approached a local family which was then just getting ready to leave the beach. She took out one fruit, broke it with her fingertips, and pleasantly interrogated them, “Have you seen this fruit before? Do you know what it is?” The young lady smiled and replied: “It’s Guava, you can tell from the smell. And it will have all these little seeds in it…” but then she stopped. My wife had exposed the single large ball at the centre of the fruit. The young woman looked genuinely perplexed and said, “I don’t know what that is then, sorry”.

Just then we spotted a nice group of limers (if you don’t know, liming is one of those great Caribbean cultural institutions, a gift to humanity: it is the art of doing nothing while in good company). One of those liming turned out to be Jacob Scott, Caribbean Artist, the very words he used to introduce himself (he is shown in the photo). There was also Karen, a Trinidadian-Grenadian, who is at the entrance to Grand Anse Beach every day with her cooler full of soft drinks and beers. Then there was a lady from Pearls, in the northeast of the island, who one would normally see walking the length of the beach asking if people wanted their hair (or beards) braided. There was also an elderly lady, a fruit vendor (I think). Finally, there was a local “celebrity,” a certain Mr. Pilton Campbell.

Jacob Scott (centre), and Karen to his right, at Grand Anse Beach in Grenada.

My wife approached them, holding out two of the “apples” in the palm of her hand, about to ask them what it was, when the lady who braids hair let out a scream. She yelled at us: “Get that thing away from here! Don’t bring it near! Throw it away!” An hysterical uproar followed. I got worried…deeply, darkly worried. Every one of the limers was alarmed at what my wife was holding, as if they were live hand grenades. Together, they exclaimed at us:

That is Manjinin!”. I recognized the word: it’s the Grenadian word for the Manchineel Tree.

It Keeps the Doctor Away and Speed Dials the Funeral Home

Wikipedia: “The manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella) is a species of flowering plant in the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae). Its native range stretches from tropical southern North America to northern South America. The name ‘manchineel’ (sometimes written ‘manchioneel’) as well as the specific epithet mancinella is from Spanish manzanilla (‘little apple’), from the superficial resemblance of its fruit and leaves to those of an apple tree. A present-day Spanish name is manzanilla de la muerte, ‘little apple of death’. This refers to the fact that manchineel is one of the most dangerous trees in the world. Manchineel is also known as the beach apple”.

Encyclopaedia Britannica: “also called Poison Guava….Its attractive, single or paired yellow-to-reddish, sweet-scented, applelike fruits have poisoned Spanish conquistadores, shipwrecked sailors, and present-day tourists….The manchineel is so poisonous that smoke from its burning wood irritates the eyes, and latex from its leaves and bark causes skin inflammation. Carib Indians used the sap to poison their arrows”.

Guinness World Records:the world’s most dangerous tree is the manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) of the Florida Everglades and the Caribbean coast. The sap that its trunk exudes is so poisonous and acidic that the merest contact with human skin causes a breakout of blisters, and blindness can occur if it touches a person´s eyes. Even standing under it in the rain is enough to cause blistering if the skin is wetted by raindrops containing any sap. In addition, a single bite of its small green apple-like fruit causes blistering and severe pain, and can prove fatal. And if one of these deadly trees is burned, the resulting smoke can cause blindness if it reaches a person´s eyes”.

Eating a manchineel ‘beach apple’,” by Nicola H. Strickland, British Medical Journal: “I rashly took a bite from this fruit and found it pleasantly sweet. My friend also partook (at my suggestion). Moments later we noticed a strange peppery feeling in our mouths, which gradually progressed to a burning, tearing sensation and tightness of the throat. The symptoms worsened over a couple of hours until we could barely swallow solid food because of the excruciating pain and the feeling of a huge obstructing pharyngeal lump. Sadly, the pain was exacerbated by most alcoholic beverages, although mildly appeased by pina coladas, but more so by milk alone. Over the next eight hours our oral symptoms slowly began to subside, but our cervical lymph nodes became very tender and easily palpable. Recounting our experience to the locals elicited frank horror and incredulity, such was the fruit’s poisonous reputation….In our case swallowing just a tiny amount of the juice from the fruit had clearly resulted in oral and oesophageal ulceration and severe oedema. Drainage of the toxin to regional lymph nodes had presumably caused the subsequent cervical pain.”

Do Not Eat, Touch, Or Even Inhale the Air Around the Manchineel Tree: “You might be tempted to eat the fruit. Do not eat the fruit. You might want to rest your hand on the trunk, or touch a branch. Do not touch the tree trunk or any branches. Do not stand under or even near the tree for any length of time whatsoever. Do not touch your eyes while near the tree. Do not pick up any of the ominously shiny, tropic-green leaves”.

The Manchineel Tree: “Through history explorers have had encounters with the harmless looking tree. It was called ‘The little apple of death,’ by conquistadors. Captain James Cook and his crew came upon the Manchineel while on a voyage. His men needed supplies, so Cook ordered them to collect fresh water and chop Manchineel wood. During this process crew members rubbed their eyes, which reportedly resulted in their blindness for two weeks. Shipwrecked sailors have been reported to have eaten Manchineel fruits, which caused them inflammations and blistering around the mouth. The natives of the Caribbean used the sap of the tree to tip their arrows. Juan Ponce De Leon led his first European expedition into Florida in 1521 and then returned eight years later to colonize the Peninsula. The Calusa fighters struck Ponce’s thigh with one of these poison saps tipped arrows, during the 1521 battle. He fled with troops to Cuba where he died of his wounds”….

If the fruit is consumed one can expect ‘hours of agony,’ and potentially death after one bite. People who have eaten the tempting fruit is diagnosed with severe stomach and intestinal issues. Symptoms of eating the fruit is abdominal pain, vomiting, bleeding and digestive track damage. Death is a risk, but mortality data is scarce. Burning the wood or bark of the tree can be dangerous because the smoke it toxic, it will burn the skin, eyes, lungs, and blind anyone standing nearby. The tree poses a danger to shade seekers, as standing to close to the tree may cause asphyxiation as a person’s throat closes breathing in the toxic scent of the tree. If its toxin is inhaled or enters the bloodstream death is likely”.

The Manchineel Tree: One of the Most Toxic and Dangerous Trees in the World”: “….According to people who have tried them, the fruits taste delicious at first and then start to taste bitter and peppery. The person then experiences a burning sensation in the throat and the throat swells up and makes swallowing difficult. The pain is excruciating and can last up to eight hours. The person may suffer from gastroenteritis, bleeding, vomiting, shock, digestive tract damage, and bacterial infection. It may be necessary to hospitalize them. Some of the Manchineel toxins may even cause cancerous tumours”.

Why manchineel might be Earth’s most dangerous tree”: “The manchineel tree may be endangered, but so is anyone who messes with it. That’s because this rare tropical plant, which offers deceptively sweet fruit, is one of the most poisonous trees on Earth…Resembling a small green crabapple about 1 to 2 inches wide, the sweet-smelling fruits can cause hours of agony—and potentially death—with a single bite”.

This Tree Is So Toxic, You Can’t Stand Under It When It Rains

The Manchineel Tree: How Even Standing Near The ‘World’s Most Dangerous Tree’ Could Kill You

And so I have managed to encounter the Manchineel,” I thought. I met the Conquistador Killer. How funny, since I refused to read anything about it before the trip, even when my wife had uncovered several articles warning about its presence in Grenada, which she read, and which I left aside. This is a deep flaw in my research approach, and I had been warned about it repeatedly by a Carib shaman in Trinidad, who urged me to acquaint myself more with botany. After all, what can one really know about the Indigenous Caribbean without studying their knowledge of local plants—and in the past I had immersed myself in studying research on the Indigenous Caribbean produced by archaeologists, linguists, biological anthropologists, and ethnographers. However, my knowledge of local flora was still relatively limited, something which is slowly changing.

Jacob Scott rushed to a particular bush, known locally as “soap bush,” ripped up a large bundle of stalks and leaves, and made my wife and I wash our hands with it, with some water. “That should help, let’s see, maybe it will keep down any inflammation”.

But we didn’t just touch it,” my wife added, “my husband also ate it”. Once they heard those words, a big cloud passed over all of their faces. Silence followed. That is when I thought, excuse me: “Oh boy, I am royally fucked now”. Then I thought: “So this is it then, this is how my story ends. ‘Max Forte died from poisoning while on a trip in Grenada’”. And so I got my wish, I thought, “After all, it was always my intention to die in the Caribbean, and to have my bones buried in Caribbean soil”.

Just Another Survivor Story

Still, I refused to consider going to any doctor, let alone the emergency room of the local hospital. Too bad: with hindsight, it would have been a useful learning experience to witness the local ER and how things work there. Not only that: I really did not feel all that bad. It was just a sense of spicy, even tasty pepper sauce.

I gargled with water, and spat out the water, three times. The elderly lady I thought was a fruit vendor, gave me a bunch of delicious local chenets—fighting one fruit with another fruit. “Suck on them,” she advised. Karen, the drinks vendor, brought me a Sprite: “Drink something sweet”. They all tried to help. Pilton Campbell tried to lighten the mood by joking. After hearing my wife recount how she had warned me, Mr. Campbell commented: “Those who won’t listen, will feel,” and he chuckled.

Chenets

Later that night my wife found some practical advice: “Drink milk”. I drank two glasses of milk, then gargled with the milk. I was sure that the burning sensation had died down, and there was really nothing to be alarmed about. I went to bed, and had a peaceful night’s sleep.

The next morning I was still alive, and there was only an extremely vague hint at the very back of my mouth of what transpired the day before. I was basically fine. This “deadly poisonous” tree was not so bad after all. I even began to think that it should be “tamed,” because the fruit would make a powerful pepper sauce.

One lesson I learned, apart from the need to take nothing for granted and to acquire new knowledge—because what I ate here was also the fruit of my ignorance—was the need to not fear. Over the course of my life I have had many close brushes with death: gastroenteritis as a child (the doctor even advised my mother that it was time to consider last rites); a ruptured appendix that infected my blood; electrocution, while showering; scraped by a speeding car; and, some even more recent emergencies prior to this meeting with the Manchineel. We are not immortal, but we are not necessarily fragile, imperilled little creatures either.

On a following day we returned to Grand Anse Beach and presented ourselves to the limers. They were dumbfounded by my recovery. Perhaps they never expected to see me again? The question now became: Why was I still here? My simple little half-baked theory was this: I had luckily stumbled across a weak Manchineel tree, one not so potent, or at least one that had not yet reached its full prowess. That prompted Jacob to opine, “Just as there are weak people, then there must be weak trees”. Others joined in, and then the lime really began:

You know, trees do talk to people, but we don’t listen!” said one.

All animals and plants talk, it’s not true that is only we who talk,” added another.

Because who says is only we who could talk? Who says humans are so special?” asked another.

Trees, plants, flowers, herbs…they all try to speak to us all the time”.

I recalled my wife’s large Spanish Thyme plant, which slowly left the sunlit windows to try to reach my fingers, where my hand would usually rest on the side of the armchair. Over time, you could see the odd shape it had taken, its young branches extending and curling towards where I sat, as if it was attempting to reach out and shake my hand.

Christianity, Climate Change, Capitalism, and Innocence

The limers thus proceeded to totally revise, and even scrap, the basic dichotomy at the heart of Christian theology, about the supremacy of human beings in creation. Likewise, in introductory Anthropology texts students are taught that human beings are unique among all creatures, allegedly for our ability to engage in symbolic communication. I never bought that, and felt embarrassed to teach it—I have lived with dogs since I was a baby, I know better. These people at Grand Anse were way ahead in their thoughtful rejection.

One point of this essay was to share knowledge with readers of Zero Anthropology, most of whom are in fact North Americans, a group that is more likely than others to vacation in the Caribbean. Should you travel, or return to the Caribbean, hopefully like me you will now be more aware of some of the dangers. Also, since there are no recorded mortality statistics for Manchineel ingestion, this essay might be useful for researchers, and they should know that neither death nor even severe pain is necessarily a consequence.

Yet there were broader lessons that reflection on this experience raised, following also from the opinions of the limers at Grand Anse, to whom we repeatedly returned during our stay. First, that there are two basic deficiencies with our received cultural repertoire. They appear in the form of two propositions that are polar opposites of each other, and both are unable to stand tests of reason or evidence. On the one hand, our tendency to always put humans at the top, at the centre of the story, as if we were not only what is most interesting and important, but also most powerful. On the other hand, that there are no consequences to how we live and the choices we make. One proposition has us affecting everything around us. The other proposition dismisses our impact altogether. We are either overly significant or insignificant.

Hence, “climate change”. Climates do change—they always have, and always will, with or without us. The Caribbean was first settled by people who walked into it, because there was a land bridge between what today are known as Venezuela and Trinidad. Likewise, Australia’s Aboriginals walked into Australia over a series of land bridges. Then there are those who maintain the thesis that North America was peopled by groups walking over an ice bridge covering what is now the Bering Strait. None of these bridges exist any longer: sea levels rose, and ice melted, and it all happened thousands of years before industrialization, even before agriculture in some cases. Until just about 1,400 years ago, North Africa, and particularly Libya, were hailed by Roman conquerors as the granary of the empire. Before industrialization, the region was transformed into how we see it today.

Climates change, even without human input. Thus one question I have is whether current human input is simply accelerating climate change, not “causing” it. Hopefully no climate scientists are arguing that climate change would not happen, were it not for us—such an assertion would be theological, not scientific. As for the supposed consensus among scientists, that fact worries me: it smacks of the work of politics. Science is not supposed to be a warm, nurturing environment for consensus. This is not supposed to be about denying versus believing—it should be about knowing or not knowing. (Update: thanks to negligible media coverage, like others I also missed the “European Climate Declaration,” in which more than 500 scientists have written to the UN Secretary General asking for a debate, and alerting that there is no climate emergency. Whatever semblance of a consensus there may have been, it might have been an artifact of a politicized media, for it certainly seems to be fraying if it did in fact exist.)

In asserting humans as the driving force of climate change, we place humans at the centre of the story, except it’s a story that started before humans arrived on the scene. All of the talk is about what humans can do to stop climate change. None of the talk is about what humans can do that humans supposedly always did: adapt. Either the climate stops changing (impossible, by definition), or we go extinct. Wait, what? When did humans stop adapting to their environment? We have, according to some, become such products of authoritative instruction by managers, technocrats, experts, etc., that we have ceased to autonomously respond to what is around us, unable to rely on our own sensory systems. Every year in Quebec, as elsewhere in North America, when the snow starts falling drivers fail to modify their driving—it’s as if winter was something new to them. They need billboards to tell them to pay attention to road conditions. There are the inevitable pileups on highways, cars sliding off roads, and so forth. We have ceased to be organisms that respond to environmental stimuli.

Guided by the delusion of human centrality and human power, some are calling for instantaneous and total changes—always the messianic call to crisis and mass response. Personally, I am all for a return to the hunting and gathering lifestyle of our distant ancestors—except I do not hunt, and my gathering skills have recently been proven to be questionable. As for everyone else, one cannot expect the same degree of unrealistic enthusiasm. So-called “Green New Deals,” if taken seriously, could entail the most massive excursion into the severest and most globalized forms of political dictatorship ever known. If not drastic, the program is not feasible; if drastic, the program becomes politically unsustainable; and, if it is less than drastic, then it lacks credibility. Such massive and rapid change is inevitably a project of extreme authoritarianism and great violence, led by élites monopolizing power, and there can be no question and no room for resistance. It is about cultural engineering on a scale never even imagined before.

We see it today with so-called carbon pricing, and the new wave of austerity visited upon the working classes of nations such as France and Canada—a new wave of austerity for the masses coming at the same time as unprecedented plenty for the richest. Increased prices for fuel, thus increasing prices of heating and food, are prices that weigh most heavily on those least able to afford them, who are also the ones who were not responsible for either creating or enforcing an economy powered by fossil fuels. If you can justify Green Neoliberalism, then I would like to share this Manchineel apple with you.

Does anyone else tire of Noah crying about an impending deluge? We now have an angry little Swedish child lecturing supposed adults, because we always need one more iconic female child to guide the way for mass hysteria. The message is one of shaming others, and hopeless despair over what is allegedly to come. Some speak of not having children, or giving up their plans for the future. If they are sincere, they are inching their way towards suicide; if insincere, then it’s empty melodrama. The only thing missing from the scene is a sun-glassed American pastor, pouring out cups of Manchineel juice.

That is why I think it is both more practical, and more humane, to talk about how we could adapt to climate change, while seriously reforming our lifestyle over time—and that means rethinking our economies and societies altogether.

What is less disputable than human-induced climate change is the massive amount of toxic pollution that we create, infesting our world with chemicals and plastics that poison the air and breed all sorts of cancers—people are talking more about temperatures now, even while still snacking on toxins. Of course, as we know from the Manchineel, even perfectly natural substances can be carcinogenic. Unfortunately, in an effort to dismiss climate change, some go as far as dismissing any and all human impact on the environment, even individuals who might otherwise boast of humans’ mastery over nature. This idea, of the consequence-free lifestyle, has become the leitmotif of North American culture. It is the same idea that supports “American innocencethat unsupportable belief that you can do whatever you want to others, and there should never be any response. If there is a response, then somehow you are entitled to “retaliate,” as if the response was what initiated the argument. You can do whatever you want to others, and the job of others is simply to put up with it as if they were merely experiencing bad weather.

Warning: Tree of Knowledge Ahead

This Manchineel tree is really pretty powerful for all that it can generate, good and bad. The peculiar thing about the experience is how well it tied in with an extremely vivid “nightmare” I had in recent years, which was apparently about the “Tree of Knowledge”. In that dream, it was not an actual tree as such, as much as an intensely blazing network of circuitry in a vast dark hall, the size of a galaxy. You could hear it burn in the distance. I held my hand up in front of my face because the nuclear-level heat was so intense, and then I saw the skin on my arm crackle and bubble. “Are we too close?” I asked out of fear. An absolutely gigantic “usher” whispered into my ear: “It is 777,777 miles away, and you can’t take one step closer or you will turn to ash”. I asked him, “What kind of tree is that?” as I watched it drop flaming “leaves” which turned into bright hot bulbs as they hit the horizon and then sped off at astounding speeds in opposite directions. You could even hear the “whoosh” sound of the flaming leaves as they fell through space. Another “usher,” without a face save for a hole that spoke, answered: “It is everything one could ever know”. Everything we could ever know, always beyond our reach. We are not even made in such a way that we could know it all. Reaching for the fruit we were never meant to eat, we ingest fire and poison. Ignoring the fruit we were made to eat, we grow in sickness.

2 thoughts on “Trees Talk…and Sometimes They Also Tell Lies

  1. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 09/29/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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