Enigmatic stranglers

Strangler fig is a name for a tree I’d never heard until I found it today, and one that’s hard to like. Apparently that’s their name in Florida: here, they’re called amate (ah-MAH-teh) trees.

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An amate and its rock-buddy.

Available online info is contradictory, supplying two different Latin names – Ficus tecolutensis and Ficus aurea. Not that anyone is going to remember that information two sentences from now. This village takes it name – Amatlan – from their original Nahuatl name, the suffix -tlan meaning simply “place.” (Nahuatl was the tongue of the Toltecs and the Mexica, better known as ‘Aztecs.’)

In preHispanic times, the underbark of the trees was processed into a paper that had  sacred significance, and our village was probably one centre of production. The Spanish rigorously eliminated its production as part of measures against non-Christian religious practices of all types, though the skill somehow passed down and was revived as a cottage industry in the late 20th Century.

Amates are plain except for their roots. These emerge above ground, and cling tightly to the rocks nearest to them. The roots spread and rejoin, with contours that are more like the legs of some animals (think reconstructed dinosaurs) than other trees.

I look at an amate with roots clinging to a rock in a nearby valley, and have to wonder whether it’s pulling the rock down, or holding it up. I assume the rocks (or walls, sometimes) offer support, yet the trees don’t lack for rigidity. Perhaps they know they’re botanical celebrities, and are just showing off?

It’s hard not to stare at one when you come across it. People are proud to have them on their property, and they confer a kind of surreal dignity on any place they grow. I can’t imagine anyone dreaming of cutting one down.

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An amate in front of a house in the village, with its own protective wall.

Amates were placed around the civic plaza in the centre of the village thirty years ago, and someone with an obvious lack of arboristic knowledge poured a concrete sidewalk between them. When I first came to live here nine years ago, the roots of the trees were cracking the sidewalk, and making it hard to use. Today,  the roots have chewed up the whole thing. For anyone scared that all our wildness will one day be banished, it’s encouraging to see what a tree with the right attitude can do to concrete.

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It’s encouraging to see what a tree with the right attitude can do to concrete.

My favourite spot with amates is a short hike up a valley trail to where two huge boulders once crashed down and formed a cavernous passage. To one side is a small grotto that people often visit to light candles and make spells for good fortune. Inside it, an amate’s roots have become the slanting pillars of a small, natural temple. It’s damp and musty, and not a place I like to stay in: I always figure it must have a population of spiders, some perhaps poisonous. But the twisting, spreading and rejoining amate roots, like a plumbing system designed for Shrek’s castle, give the place a special aura of secrets and mystery.

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The slanting pillars of a small, natural temple.

Each time I’ve found a new amate, it seems to have come up with its own creative approach for taking over the spot it inhabits. Sometimes, they go up 80 feet or more, a third of the total being the root system. The result confers the presence of a particular genius loci, a spirit of place that seems to grow from an aristocratic attitude of being a tree for a tree’s sake … but which entertains dreams far beyond that.

Personally, I think they’re listening to us, and reporting on their findings. To what, or whom, I have no idea. I’m just careful not to offend them.

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