Trekking in the “Jewel of Micronesia” Introducing “MossMan”

Opinion Editorial

By Patricia Gillette, PhD
trekking 01Trekking into the rainforest to view the Menka Ruins on the stunningly beautiful island of Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia, was one of those experiences which was surprisingly impressive and energizing. My husband and I met Salik Wakuk by the bridge in the small village of Utwe, Kosrae. He guided us to the Menka Trail down a bumpy dirt road. Having no idea where we were going or what we were about to see added to my excitement for the trek. The ruins were not noted in any research I had done on the island. The path through the rainforest was relatively flat but very challenging due to the wet and slippery terrain. Salik quickly crafted two walking sticks from the local forest for us. Annual rainfall is 5,000 millimeters per year in Kosrae, so we were destined to get wet. But no worry, the forest provides wonderful coverage .
We crossed the Menka River 5 times, sometimes walking on tree roots which were submerged underwater. The water was crystal clear. Salik explained to us that this was his family’s land and that his grandfather had kept information about the ruins a secret until he eventually confided in Professor Emeritus Harvey Segal, a noted teacher and longtime resident of Micronesia, in the 1960’s. Since that time, there has been more interest in the ruins and other archeologists have come and visited the site. However, the ruins have never become as popular as the nearby Lelu Ruins or the neighboring island’s Pohnpei Nan Madol ruins. Our goal for the day was to visit the ruins but, as is so often happens, it is never the destination where the joy lies – IT IS THE JOURNEY. Salik was engaging and informative as he introduced us to native plants of the rainforest, rich with food, tools, medicine and sheer beauty. Come join us for the walk.trekking 02
We were first introduced to the Ka Tree (Terminalia Carolinesis-Combretaceae) considered endemic only to Kosrae and its neighboring island, Pohnpei. It is a tall (up to 28 meters), straight, highly valued and remarkably strong tree with a fluted trunk at the base that may be several meters above the ground and can stretch out 10 meters. The straight trunks are a major source of wood for building canoe hulls which are an integral part of the Micronesian culture. Ka is also used for house construction and is a source of medicine. Additionally, if ever lost in the forest, you can pound the root with a rock and alert others of your plight because it resonates like drums in the forest. Above you see a family of Ka’s interconnected to one another.
trekking 03So let’s say I have my canoe, but as any boater knows, time will come for the inevitable leak and need for repair. Again, the forest delivers. Salik introduced us to the “acid tree’ which produces a natural caulk. When you peel off the bark, the tree produces an epoxy type material which is mixed with local ‘lapa soil” producing a caulk which can be used to repair many things, including canoes.
Time for a rest on the bamboo bench Salik built along the trail. Giant bamboos are the largest members of the grass family. Think of it, certain species of bamboo can grow 3 feet in a 24 hour period at a rate of almost 1.5 inch an hour. They are of notable economic and cultural significance and used as food (in Nepal a delicacy; in Indonesia, as a spice; pickled; sweet wine), medicine, construction (scaffolding), writing surface, weapons, fishing lines and musical instruments.
While resting, Salik demonstrates the use of the red round fruits, locally called “Srifacf” which are found all over the forest floor. These fruits eventually dry out and can be eaten. They taste like walnuts. Delicious!
Another delicious and nutritious plant caught our attention – see the stunning Fiddlehead. These furled fronds of young fern can be harvested for use as a vegetable. Fiddleheads have antioxidant activity, are a source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and are high in iron and fiber. The f i d d l e h e a d resembles the curled ornamentation (called a scroll) on the end of a stringed instrument, such as a violin. They are majestic plants.trekking 04
Ginger is a beautiful forest flower in bright pink with white trim. But don’t be fooled by its beauty – it is much more than an ornamental flower. It has a long history of being used in lots of medicinal treatments. The root or stem, known as the rhizome, is packed with phenolic compounds that help improve the digestive system when consumed regularly. Ginger also reduces nausea and muscle pain from those long canoe rides. It bolsters your body’s immune system to combat the common cold, flu and other similar problems. Locals also use the ginger leaves to wrap fish in before putting on the fire resulting in a moist, delicious grilled fish.
And, now for a heavy hitter – the medicinal plant of Noni (Morinda citrifolia L) which has been used in the Pacific region for over 2000 years. Everyone has heard about Noni as it is commercially available all over the world. Noni was one of the those plants that Pacific Islanders brought with them in their canoes when they migrated from their native land years ago. Salik said that verbal history given to him has him keeping the plant in a jar for a few days until the plant softens. The plant creates a horrible stench and is difficult to ingest. However, he states the one time he did this, his nasal passages opened widely and his sense of smell increased considerably. There are many scientific papers on noni and this particular treatment method is noted to be quite effective for joint pain and arthritis.
As we continued our hike, I encountered a different type of problem –a broken camera strap. No – not to the internet or the local hardware store, the forest provides. Known locally as “lo” the Beach Hibiscus (Hibiscus Tiliaceus). The wood is used for canoe parts, crafts, and fuel wood.
The fibrous inner bark is utilized for cordage and parts of the plant are used medicinally. Beach hibiscus is culturally significant throughout the Pacific.
The rainforest abounds in beautiful colors with rich dazzling hues. One of the stunners is known as the Australian rainbow eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus deglupta). This tree thrives in these lush, wet tropical forests. The unique multi- colored bark draws immediate attention. Patches of outer bark are shed annually at different times, showing off their bright green inner bark. These patches then darken and mature to give blue, purple, orange and maroon tones. This continual peeling results in vertical colorful streaks of bright blues, greens and orange.
After a couple of hours, alas we come to the hidden ruins. The ruins consist of hundreds of two rectangular parameters built from rocks piled together. The parameters are approximately 10 x 12, some being larger. The one parameter consists of only the outer rock formation but the second structure (or room) has an inner pile of rocks built up about 1 meter in the center. Historians note that visitors to Kosrae in the 1800’s spoke with local elders who knew some English and were good informants. The Menka ruins are similar to religious structures found in other Pacific islands. Salik says that it appears the structures are from the 12th Century BC at which time Micronesians practiced ancient religious ceremonies. Three gods in particular were served by a group of priests: Sinlanka, the breadfruit goddess and her husband, Nosrunsrap, god of thunder, and Sikaus, associated with many taboo places. I asked Salik what he believed would be “taboo” places. Salik stated that at times the priests would sit in a circle and drink kava. Salik thought long and hard and I think perhaps I was invading on private space. Eventually, Salik stated that there were rituals – often involving kava – practiced by people often involving flesh cutting.
As we sat surrounded by these mystical ruins deep in the rich green, lush forest, I imagined what living here would be like centuries before. All I needed was right here – nourishment for the body, clean water for bathing and drinking and various woods to build with and keep me dry. Plants were medicinal should I become ill. I imagine that with the limited knowledge of the world of that day, it would be easy to believe that the gods were somewhere “out there” providing for me and my family. So, as we said goodbye to Salik, I felt grateful to be living on this wonderful planet and was reminded again of the need for environmental protection and global conservation. Thank you Salik for the gift of your journey and sharing a part of your history with me..