Friday, May 09, 2008

The King's Stilts

Well, perhaps I shouldn't have started making entries in this blog again. Each of the recent ones has been about bad news or disaster. And I'm at it again today. I'm sorry to be depressing. I will try to make my next entry a happier one.

A terrible storm, Cyclone Nargis, hit Myanmar (Burma) on April 27 and it looks like the worst is yet to come. While the storm has gone, the ruin it left is not being cleaned up and help is not getting to the people who need it. A lot of the trouble comes about because of the repressive government in that country. Government officials worry about outsiders coming into the country to "stir things up" (my quotes for emphasis, not to quote a person). Those leaders are willing to trade the death and misery of their people for holding on to power and keeping outside influences at bay. But my entry today is more about the past and about how current events sometimes mirror fiction.

I read a report today from the International Herald Tribune. The report, titled "Before cyclone hit, Burmese delta was stripped of defenses" by Michael Casey of The Associated Press, says that one of the reasons the storm was so devastating was that the mangrove forests along the coast have been stripped away. They haven't just been destroyed all at once but over the years since 1924. These massive forests, with their twined and entangled roots that can grow in salt water, could have impeded the water and lessened the damage.

The idea of these trees with their entwined roots holding back the water to save the country reminded me of a story I read to my kids (over and over again:-) - The King's Stilts by Dr. Seuss. In the story, the low lying Kingdom of Binn is protected from the sea by a row of Dike Trees whose roots are thick and entwined and can grow right at the edge of the sea. Sound familiar? In this case, though, the threat to the Dike Trees was not pollution or humans chopping them down to build condos. The threat comes from Nizzards - birds that look like a cross between vultures (or buzzards) and crows. They like eating the roots of the trees. To guard against the Nizzards, the Kingdom has its Patrol Cats. One thousand trained cats work twelve hour shifts (five hundred to each shift) chasing away the Nizzards. The King, Bertram, is in charge of all this and is responsible for organizing the Kingdom's defenses against the sea and the Nizzards and it takes most of his day to get everything done. The title of the story comes from the fact that after Bertram has worked so hard in the defense of his kingdom, he takes some time every day to get out his stilts and enjoy himself. When he works, he works hard and when he plays, he plays with abandon. One of his ministers doesn't like the spectacle of the King acting like a child and gets rid of the stilts. Bertram is so overworked and depressed that he can't do his job right. The Patrol Cats get lazy and don't do their job and the Nizzards start eating away the Dike Trees. Everything is made right when the King's page boy gets the stilts back for the King which lifts his spirits and gives him the will to get the Patrol Cats back into shape who drive off the Nizzards and save the Kingdom. This story has a happy ending.

In real life, it's too late to grow back the mangrove forests - for this storm anyway. There are many groups from all over the world trying to save the mangrove forests we have and help the ones that are destroyed to make a come back. We can't just count this up to some poor countries having to make choices between saving their natural resources or surviving. We're doing the same with our salt marshes and our own mangrove forests (they're often called mangrove swamps here - it lessens the outrage when they are destroyed). We humans have a very hard time seeing trends and acting on problems before disaster strikes. Think about bridges collapsing; fuel in short supply and prices rising, food prices rising, rain forests disappearing. And those are the obvious things. Dr. Seuss wrote this story in 1939. The mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy Delta were probably still in pretty good shape then.

No comments: