Summer Reflections: A Love Letter to Puerto Rico
Back in August, I wrote a sun-bathed reflection about my experience this summer in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When Hurricane Irma hit, I updated the story to highlight the critical role Puerto Rico was playing as a hub for staging and coordinating aid for its neighbors. Then came Maria.
The photos and stories of an island ripped apart, of people (who, by the way, happen to be U.S. citizens) left without running water, power, and reliable communication for weeks now, and the agonizing slowness of getting desperately needed resources to the people who need them is a jarring manifestation of how far we haven’t come with preparedness for the type of natural disasters that climate change is already producing. As a neighbor, we have a responsibility to help all of the communities impacted by Maria, but a standing obligation to provide aid in this domestic disaster to those in the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico. At the end of this article you will find resources on some ways to do just that.
Here, offered in a spirit of hope for the recovery we know will come is my story, a love letter of sorts to a place that stole my heart. I will go back, and I hope you will be called to visit, too.
Somewhere back in mid-January, I decided not to submit an abstract for the Society of Wetland Scientists Annual Meeting in Puerto Rico.
A few days later, I got an email saying that the deadline had been extended. Because it is not smart to make a practice of ignoring signs from the universe, I went for it, figuring maybe I would be asked to do a poster. I put it out of my mind, and went on with the harrowing business of spring semester. Then an email arrived asking me to create a 20-minute oral presentation.
The prospect of presenting about wetlands to a room of wetlands experts is a bit daunting, so I sought out the services of the ebullient and motivating Julie Vance, a communications coach who serves the F&ES community. (I highly recommend Julie’s services, but do not ask about the time she kept chickens in her yard). I had far more ideas about what to include than minutes to present, so I set to work winnowing down content and drawing illustrations of core ecological concepts. My presentation was about using constructed floating wetlands to improve badly degraded juvenile Chinook salmon habitat in the Duwamish estuary, which, in addition to being Seattle’s only river, is home to an eight kilometer stretch of river that is a Federal Superfund site.
Thanks to the conference funds available for students presenting at or attending conferences (commonly known as “Gordon’s Fund”), most of my travel and registration costs were covered, which allowed me to participate fully in the conference.
I arrived in Puerto Rico ready for adventure; specifically, in field gear (it is either wear the boots, or carry them). After a quick airport costume change, I was ready for a day of exploring the Island.
Wetland enthusiast that I am, I had signed up for a tour of hydric soils held before the conference started. Fun fact: Puerto Rico is home to 10 of the 12 soil orders, lacking only gelisols (soils with permafrost) and andisols (soils that form in volcanic ash), which is probably a good thing. Led by soil scientists from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Mayaguez and W. Lee Daniels from Virginia Tech, we visited three compelling wetland ecosystems across the island:
El Yunque National Forest-Elven Forested Wetland
We began our day in El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States Forest Service system, and home to endangered native parrots and the dedicated park rangers who care for them during Hurricanes.
In addition to being an important part of the cultural and environmental heritage of Puerto Rico, El Yunque is home to an “Elven” forest.
Through a brief break in the the rolling clouds, we set our sights on a low peak, and hiked up toward the clouds, winding through trees covered with epiphytes on a narrow, slippery path that cut through a thick blanket of sphagnum moss. As we climbed above 900 meters, the clouds closed in around us, obscuring the view and diffusing the light. We emerged onto the ridge, our heads just above the chest-high canopies of the nearby trees.
As if to prove itself a rainforest, we were doused several times by a passing rain shower. The level of precipitation on the slopes and ridges of the mountains at this altitude is far more than the amount that evaporates or is transpired by plants, meaning that the ground is almost always saturated to the surface. This wet soil (for you soil fans out there, a Dwarf Series very-fine, mixed, isomesic, Humic haplaquox) is nearly devoid of oxygen, meaning that decomposition is slow, acids build up in the soil, and the plants that grow there must contend with limited supplies of oxygen. The soils on the top of the mountain were home to many impressively sized worms, whose holes through the soil allow oxygen in, turning the hydric soil around the hole a rusty red, the result of oxidation.
Additionally, the near-constant cloud cover limits the availability of light, while still allowing high levels of UV radiation. This suite of pressures has resulted in a unique and beautiful miniature forest, where the same species of trees seen lower on the mountain can be found with fascinating adaptations such as thickened waxy leaves.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated forests across Puerto Rico, but regeneration and recovery are already beginning their process in the forests.
Palmas del Mar Pterocarpus Swamp
Having successfully, though muddily, descended the mountain, our next stop was the Palmas del Mar Pterocarpus Swamp in Humacao. Surrounded on all sides by a resort community, this small patch is a beautiful remnant of the forests that historically existed here. Much like Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) found in the southeast, Pterocarpus (Pterocarpus officinalis) grow tall, with buttressed roots that anchor the tree to the ground, and spread, shallow and wide.
It was here in the swamp that I finally caught sight of the owner of the sweet chirping voice I had been hearing since my arrival on the island— it was the sound of the charming Coqui frog, named for its call of “Co-qi!”, a sound I would later be amused to hear emanating from a fern in a fountain at a very buttoned-up restaurant in San Juan.
Las Cabezas de San Juan Mangroves
Our final stop was the Mangrove swamps at Las Cabezas de San Juan in Fajardo, home of the conservation organization Para la Naturaleza. The reserve visitor’s center is home to a large and gorgeous Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), the buoyant cottony fluff of which was once used to fill life vests.
The mangrove swamp on the reserve is home to white, black and red mangrove trees. As happens in many systems, they grow along a gradient according to their tolerance for salt, inundation, exposure, and competition. (Conditions in the mangrove swamp can be severe- from inundation to exposure). Because of a prolonged lack of oxygen, the soils in the inundated part of the mangrove swamp produce the same hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg) odor familiar to those who have visited salt marshes or other similar systems.
My time in Puerto Rico was incredibly enriching, and a valuable experience both personally and professionally. Having the opportunity to present on a topic I was passionate about a place that inspired me to learn more has deepened my interest in wetland science and the importance of working across disciplines and political boundaries to improve our understanding of wetland science, and each other. The theme of the conference was human and ecological diversity, which the Society of Wetland Scientists is building through mentorship and fellowship opportunities for people under-represented in wetland science, expanding their chapters internationally, and by focusing on the importance of effective science communication.
Now that I am back at F&ES, I am glad to know that these themes also resonate in our community, and I look forward to what this next year will bring.
Hannah Peragine is a Masters of Environmental Management Student at FES, where her concentration is in Water Resource Science and Management. Hannah spent her summer as an Edna Bailey Sussman Fellow in the Office of Wetlands Oceans and Watersheds at EPA Headquarters in D.C., an internship opportunity wrangled by the indefatigable Kathy Douglas in the Career Development Office. She encourages you to visit Puerto Rico, first as a volunteer, then as a tourist (or send your money first, and later your self). It is a short, inexpensive flight to a complex and transporting place full of delicious food and lovely people (no passport required for U.S. Citizens!).
Volunteer and donation opportunities:
Financial and material donations
Financial donations and volunteer opportunities at the crux of society and the environment
Society of Wetland Scientists Natural Disaster response page. Find more volunteer opportunities here (once things stabilize).
For more on the topics covered here:
A bit on the history of Puerto Rico
The Society of Wetland Scientists
Para La Naturaleza (information, ‘voluntourism’ trips, etc):
Published soil surveys for Puerto Rico