A long long time ago, my great great grandfather came and slapped his name on a tree that was growing here before he came. Hayon Lagu became “Serianthes Nelsonii” for Western botany. Today, it is rare on island. There is only one left inside the wildlife refuge at Ritidian and it was hit hard by the recent storm. People (relatives) kept reposting and sending messages about the rare “Nelsonii” tree today, some of them reminding me that the destruction of this tree is of particular tragedy because it is OUR FAMILY tree. A Nelson discovered it! But there’s something I feel really needs to be said, something I think needs to be acknowledged: our great great grandfather did NOT discover this tree. It was there before him, growing on the island. It had a name. It was called something by our indigenous people, by our great great grandmother’s people. There were Chamorus on island who already knew about it. There were Chamorus before him who had seen it. It is not our tree; it is Guam’s tree. It feels really ugly and arrogant to say that this tree is special to me or my family because a relative named it for a new audience. It feels very… Christopher Columbus to keep perpetuating that narrative. I’m mamalao when I hear someone tell others our relative “discovered” the tree or that it is our “family tree.”
I’m just as disturbed by what is happening to our birds, our coconut trees, and our reefs as I am about what’s happening to this tree. I’m worried about what’s going to happen to the refuge now that our leaders have so easily offered it up for war training. I’ve noticed an annoying trend with some of the people in my life and on this island: they only react or move into protective action when something they feel personal ownership of (ownership in the Western sense) is threatened. I’ve heard people explain that they didn’t react to certain plans or actions because their family’s land was “already taken” or because they “don’t live in that area.” I think we should react even when the land isn’t our family’s ranch or if it isn’t our grandfather’s name on a tree. If we all thought about stewardship of the land in a more communal way, I think our island could be better off. If we all reacted as if every act against our island’s environment were against something we personally owned, things will be better for our children.
The loss of the tree is sad. It’s disgusting that the refuge it is on is being offered up for military training. It’s a loss for all of Guam. The loss of all native species sucks. If you’re paying attention to what is happening on this island, you will see that on many levels, our government and people participate in things that hurt our native plants and animals often. There are also a lot of wonderful efforts to help preserve things that you can participate in. I’ve been to a few workshops, tree plantings, or classes hosted by different agencies on island and walked away really inspired and excited each time. You don’t even have to go to those things to take action. Read up and ask questions, then do things in your own little way. It doesn’t always take public display (though public displays really do help with raising consciousness in the community). You can respond or comment to plans. You can stay aware by following the stories circulating in the news. You can have meaningful discussions with friends and families that make them more likely to speak up or take further action.
What really excites me is that the young people who walk around our College and University campuses seem more aware and willing to participate than ever. When people from my generation or older make me feel it’s hopeless (or only worth getting upset about if it affects us individually), I look at all the young adults who know better coming out of the school systems lately. Thanks, all of you awesome Science and Biology teachers on Guam! You’re helping to make my English and Comm classes more interesting, too!
I guess I’m writing this because I want all Chamorus (and Guamanians) to be concerned with the loss of our wildlife, culture, and land. This tree is one of many things that deserve attention. You don’t need to have some random story about your grandfather naming something to feel furious about its loss. So you’ve never been to Pagat? You can still believe it’s worth protecting. Your feelings and urge to say “No” are still valid. Whether you feel you have a familial connection to a specific cultural resource or not, you can (and should) participate in a productive way. And if you don’t feel you have a personal connection to our jungles or beaches, you should take some time to reevaluate your relationship with the island whose soil and water you depend on. If your family’s land has already been taken or sold, remember that helping to preserve another sacred area still benefits you and your children.
In my classroom, our island’s environment and our native species always come into play. There are so many ways to work our environment and culture into a curriculum. For me, this is how I do my part. I am not a scientist. I’m not a botanist, but there’s a way to help for everyone. I try to encourage my students to find the way that they are most effective and start. I still have a lot to learn. Getting our community to see how we all have a stake here is important. Getting our Chamoru community to see that not everything is gone and what we have left is still worth fighting for is even more important to me. I’m really sad about the Hayon Lagu, not because it’s a special tree to my family, but because it’s special to OUR (you and me) family.
Here is an article about the tree in the PDN today about the tree. Super grateful for all the people at UOG and at the wildlife refuge who work with enthusiasm and interest in ALL our wildlife.