Technically, it’s not murder–at least not yet. The victim is an aging beauty, a former home-coming queen, well past the first bloom of youth, but one of the rare ones that acquires in grace and stateliness more than what they lose in freshness and energy. You’ve heard about people poisoned with arsenic so slowly that the possibility of murder is never discovered. They just seem to wither and die of natural causes. The process of dying is so slow no one suspects the truth of what happened. This is worse; what’s going on outside the front door of this schoolhouse is death by slow suffocation. Silent, deadly, unbelievably stealthy. It must be what it is like to be eaten alive by an anaconda. I read that the green anaconda, the big one, the largest snake in the world, always puts the head of its victim in its mouth first, so that the kicking and struggling legs don’t get in the way of progress. The anaconda can unhinge its mouth so that it can open it wide enough to ingest victims many times wider than its own girth. That’s what’s been happening here. The strangler is youthful and energetic, a friend of the family, you might say. And the victim has no concept of danger.  It doesn’t suspect. This is like a preying mantis that mates and then kills its lover. An embrace, a light touch on the shoulder that ends in death by strangulation; not as in a sudden snap of the neck but in slow motion, one frame at a time. It’s creepy. To have the life force squeezed out of you so slowly no one notices, no one rushes to the rescue. They walk right by you, barely noticing that you don’t look your usual self. The victim keeps presenting herself in public as if all is well, but just looks a little more piqued than usual. There’s no cry for help, no dramatic terminal event.

At least the anaconda hunts because it’s hungry. But this–this is evil.

It’s happening here, in this bucolic schoolyard:

The scene of the crime: in front of the schoolhouse Eco Taller Timbo, in the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, Corrientes province, Argentina.

 

A Tale of Two Trees

I am of course talking about two trees, one well known, the ceibo, the national tree/flower of Argentina. An aging queen. This is the  ceibo in full flower.

The Ceibo tree, and national flower of Argentina with carmine red flowers. Gorgeous, isn’t she? She’s also called the Cry Baby Tree. Turns out she’s got good reason.

 

The Legend of the Ceibo

The ceibo has inspired tangos, poetry, and folklore music as a symbol of courage and strength in the face of adversity. Once there was an indigenous woman named Anahi, who lived on the shores of the Parana River (pronounced pah-ra-NAH). If you know anything at all about the local history here, a lot of very bad things happened on the shores of the Parana. Anahi was small and not particularly pretty; however she was forgiven her defects when she opened her mouth to sing and her mellifluous voice filled the summer nights with melodies about her tribe, their gods, and land.

When the conquistadors came a-conquering, they took Anahi and others from the tribe as prisoner. When her guard fell asleep, Anahi seized the opportunity for escape. The guard woke up and Anahi stabbed him in the ensuing struggle. She was condemned to be burned at the stake as punishment for his death. The night of her sentence Anahi was tied to a tree and a fire was lit. As the flames roared higher, Anahi began to sing about her land and tribe.

The next morning the soldiers were astonished to find a flaming ceibo tree in full bloom where Anahi’s ashes should have been.

The Strangler Tree

The other tree, the killer tree, is a member of the ficus tree family. In the SE of the United States it is commonly called the Florida Strangler, and on the Indian subcontinent and other places it is known as the banyan tree, one of the largest trees in the world. It is called the higueron in Latin America, and the igueron or the strangler fig in other regions. It is odd in that germination takes place at the top of the tree, in the canopy, and not in the ground. The seedlings grow downward until they reach the ground. From there it grows until it becomes a tree in its own right, and it eventually strangles and kills its host.

Here’s what it’s doing to the hapless ceibo tree in our schoolyard:

The embrace of death: the strangler higueron slowly kills its victim ceibo tree. It has split the trunk of the ceibo in half, pushed up between the two halves, and new rapid growth is finishing off the job. The irony is that the higueron does not appear to draw nutrients from the ceibo; it derives no obvious parasitic benefit from killing its host, other than perhaps eliminating a competitor for sun and soil.

 

The dead-looking tree is the victim ceibo.  In the lower right of the photo, just above the stump, you can see the higueron wrapping itself around its victim. Two thirds of the way up on the left side where the dying ceibo branches to the left, you can see a young higueron shoot wrapping itself around a bend in the ceibo. The higueron’s tendrils exploit any opening in the host tree, and in time can split its victim wide open or grow through it, like a runaway burrowing cancerous tumor. Please note in the top photo above, the poor ceibo is still carrying some blossoms in its terminal state.

 

A Close-up of the Death Grip

A close-up of the higueron strengthening its grip on the ceibo. The only thing left of the ceibo in this photo is the small vertical growth with old bark on the far right. It has already been split off from the rest of its trunk, and the higueron devilishly has a tight arm wrapped around what is left of the ceibo’s trunk, as if to prevent it from escaping.

 

Tightening the straitjacket

In this close-up of upper left limb of the victim ceibo, you can see the higueron wrapping itself around an elbow of a big ceibo limb.  The section of the higueron you are looking at is a little more than an inch wide at this point. It has grown this far from the base of the tree. If you look carefully at the right side of this photo, you can see where it has grown forward from the back side of the ceibo, almost as if it is lassoing the big branches of the ceibo into an ever-tightening strait-jacket.

 

The Anaconda Tree

I like to call it the anaconda tree because the higueron will strangle victims many times its own size. I have heard some claim that a tree experiences fear at the swing of the logger’s axe. I don’t know about that, but if so, what might the ceibo feel at the first tender caress of the higueron tree? Flattered or fearful?

 

Is it doomed from the first caress of the higueron as it descends, still rootless, from above? In the eternal contest between predators and prey it seems there is always a fleeting moment in time when the prey decides that further resistance is futile and submits to the kill; the seal to the polar bear, the caribou calf to the pursuing wolf pack, the prisoner to the firing squad, or someone so entangled in a bad relationship that they consider it impossible to extricate themselves and they submit to what seems to them the inevitable. Is it always too late to struggle? Is the higueron evil, or does it just do what its DNA destines it to do? Does it make sense to feel sorry for the victims, or is it just the circle of life (and death)?

 

The gorgeous ceibo may be resistant to fire and ice, but it’s no match for the higueron. If the ceibo is a symbol of courage in the face of adversity, I think the higueron  could be a fitting symbol of evil that you never see coming.

 

As always, thank you for reading. As my subscribers know, the higueron in my life is the poor internet signal in the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.  Posting these articles requires a round trip of six hours over a rutted dirt road to Mercedes, a town with stronger signal, unless it is raining, which is often, in which case the road becomes a very muddy version of the New Jersey Turnpike. It keeps getting wider. So lately my fight with the internet has taken over my life. Please subscribe and you will get every issue and I don’t have to concern myself with advertising my post on Facebook or other social media to get it to all my friends and readers. Your reading is my reward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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