For a lot of people, information pills spotting a green vine snake on the road, rheumatologist looking for all the world like a length of discarded ribbon, gerontologist wouldn’t be a big deal. But when you come from a country without snakes, it’s a “Stop the car!” moment.
I was on my way to a town called Chame, about two hours south-west of Panama City, to see a community project which aims to improve livelihoods and preserve mangroves—the kind of win-win scenario that all mangrove-rich developing countries should be seeking.
With me were Rosabel Miro, director of the Panama Audubon Society, and two people from ANAM, the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente or national environmental authority, who were running the project. We had just driven to the top of a hill with a panoramic overlook of the Chame mangroves. Or at least it would have been panoramic if low cloud hadn’t blocked much of the view.
I had missed seeing the snake on the way up (looking out the wrong window, as usual) but in between us going up and coming back down the obliging reptile returned to the warmth of the asphalt. And then it paused in the roadside grass to which it retreated, allowing me a shot of its elegant head.
Two other photo ops during the Chame journey:
1. A group of environmental volunteers holding banners and giving out posters and pamphlets on the Pan-American highway.
2. Stopping for cheese-filled empanadas and chicheme, a refreshing cold drink which is basically corn kernels floating in sweet, thickened milk.
Ansil Saunders, online
a bonefishing guide for 50 years and the builder of beautiful wooden boats, is in no doubt about the value of mangroves to small island communities like Bimini. I caught up with Ansil in his boatshed on North Bimini. He had one skiff at the skeletal stage and one that was finished, awaiting a buyer (a steal at $40,000). The hull of the finished boat was lacquered a deep-sea blue, while much of the interior was an intensely grained blood-red-and-blond timber called horseflesh, or Bahamas mahogany, varnished to a deep sheen. Picking up a big timber “knee” that had been shaped into a bow stem, Ansil remarked: “The hardest timber comes from trees that have faced the strongest winds.”
A big fan pushed cool air around the shed as Ansil spoke of his love of the sea and respect for its saltwater forests. “We had a hurricane come across North Bimini—Hurricane Wilma. It was not much more than 100 mph, so it was a light hurricane by the time it reached us. But it threw boulders out of the sea and into people’s houses. I went down to the Sunshine Inn and the waves had split that hotel in half. The hurricane took that hotel and knocked its walls down. Then that hurricane went around South Bimini and ran into the mangroves, and it didn’t do one iota of damage to houses behind the mangroves. Those mangroves tamed the waves right down.”
In Grand Bahama, where there are fewer mangroves, Wilma destroyed homes and raised the dead, Ansil said. “Coffins floated right out of the cemetery.”
The hurricane showed what happens with and without mangroves. “They’re not there by accident,” Ansil concluded. “They’re part of God’s creation to hold the land together. They save our boats, they save our land, and even when the water floods them they still do their job.”
He praised the mangroves’ role as marine nurseries, too. “We don’t even know what all kind of fish spawn here and go right out on the tide,” he said. “Conch [larvae] float out north, south, east, west as far as 20 miles away.”
Then he told me something unexpected about the Bimini mangroves. On two occasions he had taken Dr Martin Luther King Jr into the mangroves of North Bimini to think and write. The first occasion, 1964, King was working on his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Ansil said he took him to a lagoon in the mangroves (a spot I later visited) and the two of them sat there, filled with the serenity of the place.
At one part in his speech, King wrote, “I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” I wonder if that thought came to him while he sat in Ansil’s skiff in the mangroves.
Four years later, a very different King asked Ansil Saunders to take him back to that mangrove lagoon. Whereas in ’64 King had been jovial and hopeful, in ’68 he looked like a man facing a death sentence. He sought the mangrove tranquility to get his thoughts together for a speech he would deliver to striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
In that speech, he linked his own weariness to that of his people. “We are tired of smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. We are tired of walking up the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. We are tired of working our hands off and labouring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life. We are tired of our men being emasculated, so that our wives and our daughters have to go out and work in the white ladies’ kitchens, cleaning up, unable to be with our children, to give them the time and the attention that they need. We are tired.”
Three days later King was assassinated. The memory was still fresh in Ansil’s mind, and it moved me to hear him describe it. He was wearing an Obama ’08 baseball cap. I was glad this 76-year-old Biminite had lived to see a day that showed that King’s work was not in vain.