Family Trees

A close up photograph of the fronds of a Serianthes nelsonii sapling
The endangered Serianthes nelsonii sapling on Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. More than forty of the endangered tree species saplings were planted around Andersen by biologists from the University of Guam, Guam Plant Extinction Protection Program, and the US Air Force in an attempt to protect the species from extinction. Photo: U.S. Air Force / Airman Audra Young

written for the 2016 Guam Educators Symposium on Soil and Water Conservation


Before we enter the jungle, my dad 
asks permission of the spirits who dwell 
within. He walks slowly, with care, 
to teach me, like his father taught him, 
how to show respect. Then he stops 
and closes his eyes to teach me 
how to listen. Ekungok, as the winds 
exhale and billow the canopy, tremble 
the understory, and conduct the wild 
orchestra of all breathing things.



“Niyok, Lemmai, Ifit, Yoga’, Nunu,” he chants 
in a tone of reverence, calling forth the names 
of each tree, each elder, who has provided us 
with food and medicine, clothes and tools, 
canoes and shelter. Like us, they grew in dark
wombs, sprouted from seeds, were nourished 
by the light. Like us, they survived the storms 
of conquest. Like us, roots anchor them to this 
island, giving breath, giving strength to reach 
toward the Pacific sky and blossom.



“When you take,” my dad says, “take with 
gratitude, and never more than what you need.” 
He teaches me the phrase “eminent domain,” 
which means “theft,” means “to turn a place 
of abundance into a base of destruction.” 
The military uprooted trees with bulldozers, 
paved the fertile earth with concrete, and planted 
toxic chemicals and ordnances in the ground. 
Barbed wire fences spread like invasive vines, 
whose only fruit are the cancerous tumors 
that bloom on every branch of our family tree. 



Today, the military invites us to collect 
plants and trees within areas of Litekyan
slated to be cleared for impending 
construction. Fill out the appropriate forms 
and wait 14 business days for a background 
and security check. If we receive their 
permission, they’ll escort us to the site 
so we can mark and claim what we want 
delivered to us after removal. They say 
this is a benevolent gesture, but why 
does it feel like a cruel reaping? 



One tree my dad never showed me is 
the endangered hayun lågu, the last 
of which is struggling to survive in Litekyan
its only home. Today, the military plans to clear 
the surrounding area for a live firing range, 
making the tree even more vulnerable 
to violent winds, invasive pests, and stray 
bullets. Don’t worry, they say. We’ll build
a fence around the tree. They say this is an act
of mitigation, but why does it feel like 
the disturbed edge of extinction? 



Ekungok, ancient whispers rouse the jungle!
Listen, oceanic waves stir against the rocks! 
Ekungok, i taotaoʻmona call us to rise! 
Listen, i tronkon Yoga’ calls us to stand tall! 
Ekungok, i tronkon Lemmai calls us to spread our arms wide! 
Listen, i tronkon Nunu calls us to link our hands! 
Ekungok, i tronkon Ifit calls us to be firm! 
Listen, i tronkon Niyok calls us to never break! 
Ekungok, i halom tano’ calls us to surround 
i hayun lågu and chant: “We are the seeds 
of the last fire tree! We are the seeds of the last 
fire tree! We are the seeds of the last fire tree! 
Ahe’! No! We do not give you permission!”

Read an interview with Craig Santos Perez as well as his essay, "Guam and Literary Activism," from this same issue.

Craig Santos Perez is an indigenous Chamorro poet from the Pacific island of Guam. He is the author of four collections of poetry and the co-editor of five anthologies. He is an associate professor in the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. WLT nominated his poem in the New Native Writing issue (May 2017) for a Pushcart Prize.