THE HISTORY OF MANGROVE

By: Ángela Corvea
Photos:
Orlando Villa, Luis Pérez and Leidy González

The Miraculous Mangrove

If you do not believe in miracles, it would be a good idea to read this simple story about this small mangrove tree...
The bush that you see in the middle of the water is of the species Laguncularia racemosa, better known in Cuba as “mangle blanco or patabán.” But its not just any mangrove, it is special in that has lived for more than 40 years in the waters near the Río Quibú outflow northeast of Havana and directly in line with 166th street in the Flores neighborhood of Playa municipality. This green little shrub was a symbol of stoicism and beauty at the same time for all the neighbors who watched it grow and used its presence to measure the ebb and flow of the tide. For decades, this fragile little mangrove withstood so many threats of nature and human irresponsibility: hurricanes, severe cold fronts, the “storm of the century”… and worst of all, the high contamination of the area by whatever type and amount of refuse and garbage that travels down the riverbed to the ocean.


On 24 October the large and powerful waves of hurricane Wilma ripped the little tree out by the roots and placed it in the middle of the street. The most saddening part of seeing that event was to discover that the tree’s branches and roots were totally entangled, by ropes and all kinds of trash, like a horrible mummy or a terrifying Christmas tree. That is the impression I felt upon seeing it what was captured in this image taken days after the hurricane passed..
However, a young man remained at its side constantly, with the hope of saving it, to replant it on the coast… but how?, it weighed a lot and nobody thought that such a feat could be achieved. Much less did we believe that the horrible thing, apparently dried up and moribund, could be revived. He seemed crazy and romantic unaccepting of the evident and hard reality. I myself advised him to give it up, but it was something he really believed in.


Swept up in the vortex of routine, I forgot or better said, I tried to forget that bit of green that was once a healthy mangrove, which all the children and professors of the primary school “Eliseo Reyes” in the Náutico neighborhood watched and loved from afar, without perhaps noticing this sentiment much, since they were so accustomed to seeing it as part of the landscape surrounding the school. The residents of Flores were also saddened and missed the tree. Simply put, it wasn’t there anymore and its absence pained us. Near the end of November, on a visit to the school, I saw in the distance (I live in Náutico), a dry bush, very similar to the mangrove of our story, located atop some rocks along the shore. I thought to myself – it couldn’t be that this is the same little mangrove, and if it is, I have to find out what happened. I confess that I continued thinking that the young man was fixated on the impossible and if he had placed the tree there, it would itself become just more garbage at sea…

How wrong I was! A few days later, I approached the place where the little dry bush was and I was astonished, absolutely delighted. Before my eyes and to my surprise there was the little mangrove, free of the entangled trash and covered with green sprouting leaves.


But how could this have happened?… Fortunately, at that moment, the young man appeared and told me everything. Taking advantage of the persistence and constancy of the community workers gathering and picking up all that had been scattered about by the inundation of the sea in the neighborhood, he tried to convince a worker with a forklift to move the mangrove and put it some 200 meters to the west of where it had been ripped out by the waves. But since the machine couldn’t enter the water, he had to compromise and have it placed on the rocks. Thanks to the tide its roots are periodically submerged in the water. I asked him how he managed to free it from all that garbage… -with much patients and with the help of some scissors and a friend. When I told him that I was going to tell this charming story, he asked that I do not include his name as he said that he didn’t do anything important.
I am sorry to disobey, but I am not only going to mention his name, I am going to display to my audience a photo of him, which cut out and amplified from a group picture taken at an activity called “To Clean the World” that was held in September.


José Fresneda Astorquiza, a young man of 33, a lawyer by profession, but he is also fully convinced and supportive of all causes in defense of the environment. He was born and raised in the Flores neighborhood and his house is located on the corner of 166th street and 1st, only a few meters from the mangrove, protagonist of this story. His mother Alba, taught him from a young age to observe and love this small mangrove, an excellent tide indicator for her. Jóse (with accent on the o, in order to pronounce it the way we do) participates as a volunteer, in similar environmental projects, one of them being ACUALINA, always with his characteristic smile and friendliness. He collaborates by planting trees, cleaning shores, talking with children and a mountain of other activities.
The good news for him and for all of us is that the hurricane damaged zone is being cleaned-up and reforested with coastal plants by the Municipal Government of Playa. There are also grandiose plans with a specialist of the Oceanography Institute to experiment in the planting of other types of mangroves on the coastal strip, in this way our recently saved mangrove will have more friends and will continue, through ACUALINA and other similar projects, the necessary and urgent task of raising the environmental awareness of the public, especially the children, through diverse school and neighborhood activities.
I am almost finished, but in order to conclude I believe I have to return to the beginning. –My friendly reader, let me now ask you if you believe in miracles? I am sure you will agree with me that YES they do happen. Jóse exists, is real, alive and part of us all, his example is worthy of imitation by many, in contrast to the example of those who deforest, burn and wipe out millions of hectares of forests every day on the planet. His love, persistence, and confidence in the possibility of saving this small tree, forced all the powers of the Universe to converge in order to grant his wish. A true miracle.


The mangrove is alive!!!

Sharing happiness with our fellow men is something nice and exalting, but so much more if the happiness contains miraculous solutions to situations or issues that we believed hopelessly lost.

Why allow days to pass without letting the boys and girls of the Eliseo Reyes School in Nautico know that their dear and seemingly lost mangrove was alive? This involved the always enthusiastic help of the teachers of the school and their promise not to reveal to the little ones the secret of what would happen on December 27 at 2:00 o'clock p.m. As a part of the plan, they were made to believe that it was just another of the environmental activities that I periodically share with them; they probably considered it to be a nice present for the end of the year.

Some days before, I went to the school and announced that I would speak to them about the mangroves: what they are, their importance, how many species there are in Cuba, among other things. It would also serve as an excuse to remember that bush they all were used to seeing every day that one day had disappeared because of the powerful hurricane Wilma. We also organized a contest of drawing and literature": My mangrove".

The participating judges, almost all neighbors and friends of the Nautico neighborhood, were: Eslinda Núñez, famous actress in theater, cinema and TV; Joaquín Baquero, writer; the architects and painters Maritza Verdaguer and Georgina Enríquez; and the young painter and sculptress Liam Eylé Perdomo. It was beautiful to see how the boys and girls expressed their feelings of love and at the same time sadness in their artistic works on the "loss" of their mangrove. They presented more than 70 drawings and 13 writings, including prose, poems and mixes of both: it was an arduous and difficult task to choose the best.

The National Aquarium, the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation of Man and Nature and our friend and journalist Karen Wald, among others, donated a number of simple but very much appreciated gifts as prizes for the contest.

The last part of the educational activity was to make a trip to the Flores neighborhood to see all the trees that were planted to beautify the area by companies such as Communal and CUBALSE. Perhaps it is useful to explain that the neighborhoods of Flores and Náutico are separated by, or rather (I like it this way) they share the estuary of the River Quibú and in the absence of a bridge that joins these two communities you have to make an extensive journey to travel from one to the other.

I admit that I could not control myself anymore and I revealed to them the great news that the mangrove was safe and ALIVE and I told them that it was in fact not Harry Potter who saved it, but this young man Jóse, whom they already could see in the distance on the other side of the river waiting to tell us the history. Suddenly, everyone began to greet him, waving their hands and shouting: Jóse, Jóse, Jóse!!!... I believe that it was a very touching moment, so much for the children, as for Jóse himself. The professors and everybody enjoyed those moments of the children’s surprise and happiness.

 

Without more delay we started off immediately, carrying the flag of ACUALINA (remember that this project was born in the community of Náutico), with backpacks marked "Cleaning the World", a great poster that said "My Mangrove" and with lots of noise, so everybody that we met on the way smiled and perhaps wondered: what is happening?

Jóse awaited us on the exact spot where the waves of the Wilma uprooted and deposited the mangrove on October 24, 2005. The children shouted to him, greeted him with affection and gave him a gift on behalf of them all, thanking him for having saved "their mangrove." The face of Jóse, who is shy and modest by nature, seemed like a red tomato because of this treatment, which in his opinion was unnecessary, but for me and the others, it was what he deserved. Then he started to tell them the story of how it all happened, what that mangrove meant for him, and all the pain, despair and effort he had to endure in order to prevent if from dying. Nobody breathed, they only listened in absolute silence and respect to what this young man told them in simple words that everyone understood, words told not with the mouth, but with the heart.

Then we all walked about 200 meters further and approached the rocks on the coast. There we contemplated with amazed eyes the green leaves that already covered the tree all the way to its upper branches.

We wanted to put a large red ribbon on the mangrove for good luck, and also to make it more elegant and presentable for the pictures.

 

I am sure we agree that for some of these boys and girls - and why not for their teachers - it will be very difficult to forget such a vivid experience. Also I am optimistic and romantic, and therefore I keep up my hopes that after this day some change will happen in their minds, although perhaps very small or insignificant. They may feel that they too can be heroes just like Jóse, and maybe one day, these boys and girls will become conscious and passionate adults, true defenders and saviors of LIFE ON THE PLANET.

Perhaps the end of this story will be written in a few months’ or year’s time, by me or who knows by one of the children. That will be the moment when our dear mangrove will have recovered and strengthened sufficiently live in the sea again.


 

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