I love watching their arms reaching down for the rich brown, wet, primordial muck at the edge of the bay, their fingers outstretched with dark brown tips almost like nipples, yearning to be sucked into the wet earth. They are longer every time I visit, visibly showing their increasing fervor for the brackish back bay water. These are the Red Mangroves, whose intimacy with the edge of the seawater is that of a fiercely protective mother.
When we decided to come to Florida for two months this winter, I knew I would miss my West Virginia forests. But here in Florida, the mangroves have pulled on my heartstrings, and as mothers of all types know, there is always room for more love. From afar, as we zoom over the causeway to the island, the mangrove forests just look like green bushes on the edges of the bay. Once there, I can only see the mangrove preserves from their back side along the road showing an impenetrable wall of green. After entering a preserve area, however, there are boardwalks that have been built into the heart of these magical mangrove forests to provide access for humans so that we can be with them up close and personal, something we could not do easily otherwise. And the Florida winter is the most pleasant time for humans to visit the mangroves – not hot, buggy, or muggy.
These mothering mangroves, that hug the warm seacoasts of the world, are sometimes called walking trees because, well, they rather look like they are walking. Their jumble of “prop” roots extend over each other, every which way, making for quite an entanglement that does a good job of keeping people out while providing lots of hidey places for many types of fish, insects, crabs; birds, like herons and cormorants; reptiles, invertebrates, and untold amounts of microorganisms, algae and fungal life. It is quite a glorious party!
Literally weaving the sea and the edges of the land together in a three-dimensional mothering web, the roots look like they are hugging each other. They reach down through layers of decayed and rotten plants and animals and microbes, recreating all the dead matter, the dead ancestors, into new life. Having recently read Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, these mangrove roots look like I imagine the almost microscopic mycelium must look if we could see the full extent of them with the naked eye. And surely the mycelium are thick in the mangrove!
The prop roots of the Red Mangrove also look like the branches of a lung, which is quite appropriate because these roots do literally breathe for the tree’s roots below the ground that can’t breathe for themselves in the waterlogged soil. And they are breathing for all of us, literally, as they pull carbon out of the air, and the habitat they create becomes a breathing space for all the different life they protect. I love seeing them as lungs, Mother lungs breathing for us.
Our human lungs love breathing in the salt air, and it must be the same for mangroves. But the mangroves actively live IN the salt. This adaptive genius, the mangrove, has figured out how to live in the harshest of environments – saltwater and waterlogged muck, subject to the whims of the waves and winds and tides. She has learned to thrive where few other plants can. She knows her boundaries and when to close the door to the salt.
Until recent decades when we humans learned that mangroves are key to seacoast ecosystems, and that they protect our coasts from erosion, wave action, hurricanes and other threats, mangroves were considered useless and were destroyed at random. They were looked at as gnarled and impenetrable. While they are now increasing in Florida, due to environmental protection laws and warming climates that allow them to grow farther north, worldwide they have decreased 35% in just the last 10 years. One big destroyer of mangroves is shrimp farming. These shrimp farms feed the American average of 4 pounds of shrimp per person per year, totaling over one billion pounds of shrimp for the United States, and 90 percent of it comes from shrimp farms in southeast Asia and Central America. Do we really need to eat shrimp when we don’t live near the sea?
Mangroves are WILD, unmanageable, and not hospitable to “normal” human habitat, and that is their beauty. They are connected to the earth and are of the earth in wild uncontrollable ways that we desperately need more of. We need their tenacity, their wildness, their ability to adapt to the edges, to environments that most no one else is interested in. They have so much to teach us about survival, starting with the need for deeply interwoven relationships with all the life around us.
I hear the Mother Mangroves say: “Breathe. Breathe with Me.” And as I watch those prop roots that are literally breathing, I say “YES, thank you, I will breathe with you”.