06 Jul Journey to the Center of the Limestone Forest
Picture this: you have just finished snorkeling over a vibrant coral reef, abounding with palakse’ (parrotfish) and hiyok (blue-banded surgeonfish), and you are now ready to head back up to the land. When you get out of the water, you find a strange track in the white sand beaches. Upon closer inspection, you realize that the track may have been made by the tail of a turtle laying her eggs! You follow the track up the sand and find a nest amongst half-flower shrubs and beach heliotrope. Luckily, the biologists at the Ritidian Wildlife Refuge have already taped off the area to protect the eggs from humans, and have placed a grid over the nest to prevent hilitai (monitor lizards) from eating the turtles.
Continuing up the beach, you find yourself in a beautiful coconut grove. Understory is sparse, but the coconut trees towering over you provide enough shade to relieve you from the hot sun. The sound of waves crashing on the beach becomes more and more distant as you make your way through the grove. Soon enough, you happen upon the ruins of an old Chamorro village. The air seems to stand especially still in this part of the forest, and the only noises are those from insects and small animals in the shrubbery. Before going closer to the ruins, you stop and ask permission from the Taotaomo’na (ancestral spirits) to approach: Guella yan Guello, dispensa ham låo Kåo siña ham manmaloffan yan manmanbisita gi tano miyu sa’ yanggen un bisita i tano’må mi faloffan-ha’ sin un famaisin. Amongst the moss-covered rocks lay the haligi and tåsa that made up the latte stones of the past: pillars that held up houses and prevented rats from climbing into living areas. Looking more closely at the ground, you find pumice grinding stones, guesgues (scrapers), and adzes used by the ancient Chamorros. When you pick up the grinding stones, they fit perfectly in your grip. Grooves on the pumice made hundreds of years ago provide a perfect tool for smoothing stones and shells, or sharpening other tools.
Going past the latte village, you begin to enter the transitional zone of the forest. Here, breadfruit from tall lemmai (breadfruit) trees litter the ground. Small palms and ferns fill the space between pandanus and nonak trees. Beneath the thick canopy, the forest is abuzz with life. As you make your way further up, you find yourself at the bottom of a limestone cliff. Here, roots from the trees of the limestone forest reach the ground. Following the roots up the side of the limestone leads your gaze to a colossal Taotaomo’na tree (banyan) growing over the side of the cliff. According to Chamorro legends, ancestral spirits — called Taotaomo’na — take up residence in these trees and protect the forest from anthropogenic harm. Cutting down a Taotaomo’na tree is taboo in the Chamorro culture, as it displaces the spirits from their home and often results in hauntings and harm done to the humans who cut down the tree.
After pausing to admire the Taotaomo’na tree, you continue along the bottom of the limestone cliff.
Your fingers trace over the cool rock, falling into the grooves of the fossilized coral reef.
Every now and then, the imprints of the various creatures and coral that made up the reef are especially visible on the limestone.
As you walk, you come upon a large chunk of limestone on the forest floor.
You examine the rock, and find that it was made by one coral over millions of years!
At the top of the rock, calcified coral polyps are visible, while the side of the specimen shows the skeleton of the organism.
Soon enough, your journey along the bottom of the limestone cliff leads you to a deep cave. You walk inside the cave, observing the many stalactites and stalagmites. Shining a light on the cave wall reveals pictographs dating back to the Pre-latte and Latte eras in history. The pictographs are high up on the cave walls — too high to reach from the present-day cave floor. However thousands of years ago, when the sea level was higher and the cave was smaller, ancient Chamorros would have easily been able to reach higher on the cave wall.
Venturing outside of the cave, you continue to walk along the limestone. Every now and again, you come across places where the thick roots of trees create a curtain between the limestone wall and the transitional forest. These roots are not soft and weak, like vines or rope, but are instead as sturdy as tree branches and trunks. You also notice medicinal plants sprouting from the limestone. These plants are used by suruhanus (healers) to make åmot (medicine) for various ails.
Your journey is nearing its end, but before you head back to your car, you decide to explore one more cave. On your way in, you are careful not to touch the walls of the cave; pictographs are littered throughout the cavern, decorating nearly every wall and pillar. The pictographs resemble animals, people, latte stones, and technology used by the ancient Chamorros. It was here that they took shelter from typhoons, buried their dead, and engaged in spirituality. In fact, one wall in this specific cavern resembles an altar, with a handprint-littered pillar opposite the wall. While you ponder your working theory about the altar, you explore the cave more and discover a smaller cavern off to the side. After crawling into the cavern — and being careful not to hit your head — you find more pictographs. Here, a calendar is drawn onto the limestone. This chart may have been used for navigation, tracking seasons and solstices, and so on. The months of this calendar would have reflected the movement of constellations across the night sky.
As you make your way out of the cave and back down the path, you thank the Taotaomo’na for granting you a safe journey through the forest.
Special thanks to Ranger Marybelle Quinata at the Ritidian Wildlife Refuge for giving me a tour of their grounds, and to the family that allowed me to accompany them on their cave tour with Ranger Quinata!