Works Best Undisturbed

While we face confounding times, in the bush it’s business as usual.

By B Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

I was that kid in the class who, when group projects were assigned, conjured every conceivable reason to work independently. In a genetic culmination of my mother’s “get out of the way so I can get it done correctly” and my father’s unapologetic introversion, I eschewed distractions of all kinds including workmates and background music. To this day I don’t own a radio or television and while I’ve learned and adapted to group work, I still tend to carry out my best productivity on my own, undisturbed in silence. 

I recognise I’m not the tip of an iceberg in this approach, but being a botanist sometimes means I’m as much plant as I am person—and it’s in the green cohorts that I find my kindred spirits. While this year’s second quarter has presented some severe challenges to our humanity, both obtuse and acute, from financial to emotional to physical, I dare say not everyone in my circle of friends has been so impacted.

A Bahama woodstar hummingbird sips nectar from the flowers on the monkey-fiddle plant.

Throughout the Turks & Caicos Islands’ beautiful bush, the effects of an insidious virus, its travel-assisted motility, and its unprecedented politicization are all sharply missed by the trees and shrubs, epiphytes and porophytes, monocots and dicots and angiosperms and gymnosperms.

In short, the plants just don’t care. They’re not on our timeline, and so they’re not bothered. If anything, they are likely a little relieved that our efforts to bulldoze and uproot and claim their land have slowed. Even the recent seasonal drought, which is doubtlessly stressful, did not see any of our native trees retreating to their couches in bubbles of binge-watching online series and extreme snack food experimentation. 

The seasonal drought, while varying in severity, generally strikes from February through May. In most years, the tail end of the hurricane season’s moist air fizzles out of showers a month past the New Year, and skies become strikingly clear. Our mile-and-a-half deep foundation of porous oolitic limestone becomes thirstier and draws water downward, while a network of root fungi extracts every bit of the retreating water it can and channels it into their symbiotic partner trees’ roots. The trees transpire it, losing the water to the wind. Some close their stomata (the breathing pores on the underside of leaves) to withhold water. Some forego leaves entirely and jettison them. The drought-deciduous tropical trees perform no flamboyant display as temperate deciduous trees do in autumn—they extract all usable liquids as quickly as possible and commit an uneventful lingering leaf dump. Agave plants store up water through the rainy season, their fleshy leaves loaded and succulent. Many annual herbs die back completely, throwing down a scattering of seeds, promising the return of rains in this final gesture.

This year’s drought was especially difficult for our plants, as the temperatures rose earlier than normal and the sky offered little shade from the intense sun. Even drought-tolerant, milky-sapped nakedback tree Euphorbia gymnonota, found only in Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas, had to sacrifice precious foliage to prevent desiccation. Bahama woodstar hummingbirds sought out its nectar, usually a fountainous flow from glandular flowers, but the flowers were thrown off in an attempt to supply the long-growing seeds of older flowers with the resources they needed to form . . . just in case they were needed for a new generation to replace the old.

The trees’ revival begins with the display of five-fingers’ pink blossoms.

The rufous orchid Encyclia rufa has the nerve to bloom in the height of the drought, its swollen pseudobulbs bloated with hoarded water in a way that makes them positively rotund compared to more gracile relatives. These pot-bellied water bottles supply the plant with enough sustenance to rocket a spike a metre skyward, and then to open hundreds of yellow or cream coloured, yeasty-scented flowers. With no other option for nectar, the Mizinum wasps that pollinate Encyclia orchids are given no option but to carry out their task.

Little else blooms, but most plants are busy on the inside. Along with rationing water and managing leaf loss, many are constructing microscopic, embryonic new leaves and flowers. While we see the dry April bush as dust-whitened, laxly sagging and surrendered, it is preparing a surprise party.

That party won’t be revealed until long after those first threatening clouds blow by, not even until after the early season thunderstorms pass. But when the May rains begin—heavy, large-droplet waves of downpours, warm at first, and quickly cooling, the ground is given a signal that passes through the humus, into the symbiotic fungi and roots, up into the branches, as well as downward into the soil.

The trees are the first to awaken. Their arousal is subtle and internal at first. On the other extreme, the land crabs are called forth like an army, digging upward, freshly-hardened new exoskeletons prepared to shield them from yellow-crowned night herons, females with spongy egg masses ready to lay and tote to the sea. They’re depending on the oncoming drop of old leaves that did make it through the drought, especially from the buttonwood trees.

The tree revival begins to appear with the ostentatious display of five-fingers Tabebuia bahamensis, its showgirl crepe-paper, baby pink blossoms cheering up formerly dusty roadsides—the hummingbirds now have lots to eat. New flushes of lime green and bronzy foliage jump out of twigs throughout the bush. The rufous orchid stems push out new divisions, appearing as spikes from the bases of the plants, swelling into the bulbous onion-shaped stem and two strappy leaves, as seed pods swell on the pollinated, now flowerless stalks. Emerald sprouts of the promised annual herbs carpet bare soil, each ready to outcompete its neighbour. The Inagua orchid Encyclia inaguensis snakes its own flower spikes above its foliage, ready to follow up the rufous orchids’ exhibition. The Mizinum wasps will soon continue their pollination cycle on this next species. Spangles of Havana stars vine Jacquemontia havanensis festoon branches bearing unfurling leaves, and everything rushes to make and store food, flower and fruit, and complete another life cycle in this precarious window between the drought and the most intense storms of the year.

This is business as usual for the plants, which thrive on the stress of being thrown between dearth and plenty, calm and chaos, and the onslaught of insects about to begin gorging themselves on all the new growth, and yes, even the threat of age-old viruses that can infect them and thwart their growth. They take it all in stride, silently and stoically, if not sentiently.

Like most wild things, their lives are a balance of terrifying events and barely-squeaking-by, fortune and failure, tension and tenacity. They neither require nor request assistance; they perform their best left alone to their own devices, to survive another year and prove their evolutionary worth by passing on the swiftest survival traits to their following generations.

As long as we leave them alone—protect them, admire them from a distance, and not attempt to intervene—they’ll continue to be successfully dedicated to survival. It’s only with interference that they’re truly in danger—the threat of a bulldozer, a machete followed by a fire, a dangerous pest we’ve introduced, or a human plan for the land that doesn’t include them. It’s then that survival becomes a challenge with poor odds.

That’s why I prefer to see them left alone. I can identify with the impact of unwelcome distraction. Their potential destruction reminds me that we, too, are neither invincible nor immortal. Our survival depends upon our adaptations, wise use of resources, knowing when to let go of things we think we cannot live without, giving every resource we can to upcoming generations, and having some capacity to work on our own. Or, at the very least, being able to adapt to being on our own without binging on online series and plethoric snacks.

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Gary James at Provo Pictures (www.provopictures.com) used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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