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  • Craig Santos Perez

Family Trees: Craig Santos Perez

The boar at ZVONA i NARI are not going anywhere. What do we mean? Almost every night after midnight, up to thirty wild boar conduct their nightly forage, scrounging the property for delicious roots. The scientific name for these roots is Arum maculatum, and the common names include snakeshead and wake robin. There is nothing common about this situation. We can hear the snorts of the boar, but we cannot see them, only the holes they leave behind. Digging, digging, digging, not unlike the work of the writers who visit us. Are we not always looking for roots of some kind?

The boar have become just another part of the swirling ecology of the residency. Recently, they uprooted a small tree while looking for a midnight snack. We just replanted it, and are now busy learning how to better identify the meals of our nocturnal residents. Did we sign up for horticulture? There is clearly no choice.

​​It was timely to receive these poems by Craig Santos Perez while we were engaged in this work. The first poem, “Family Trees” was commissioned for The Guam Soil and Water Conservation District’s 4th Annual Educators Symposium on Conservation, held at the University of Guam in 2016. The theme of the three-day symposium was “We All Need Trees,” which featured farmers, agricultural experts, environmentalists, and “green” companies giving presentations to local educators, who could, in turn, teach environmental studies in their classrooms throughout Guam. The presentations focused on native trees, leaf identification, seeds, composting, forest ecosystems, climate change, permaculture, and tree planting. “Family Trees,” was performed at the beginning of the symposium to speak to indigenous views on the value of trees, as well as to protest the ongoing deforestation by the United States military in Guam.

We’ve asked Craig if he’s interested in coming to help out with our tree-planting challenges, and he said he would think about it.

Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamorro from the Pacific Island of Guam. He is the author of three books, most recently from unincorporated territory [guma’], which received an American Book Award in 2015. He is an associate professor in the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa.


Family Trees


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

towards 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 the jungle

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?


Listen, an ancient wind rouses the jungle.

Ekungok, i tronkon Yoga' calls us to stand tall!

Listen, i tronkon Lemmai calls us to spread our arms wide!

Ekungok, i tronkon Nunu calls to link our hands!

Listen, i tronkon Ifit calls us to be firm!

Ekungok, i tronkon Niyok calls us to never break!

Listen, i halom tano' yan i taotaomona call us

to rise, to surround our family of trees and chant,

Ahe’! No! We do not give you permission!

Ode and Elegy to Drinking a Can of Coconut Water with My Dad in California

Once, I bought a can of coconut water for my dad

because he felt homesick for the island of our birth.

After the first taste, he can’t stop talking story

about the tropical past. He claims, as a barefoot

child, he climbed tall coconut trees that touched

the Western Pacific sky. And he swears his grandpa

removed the husk with his teeth and cracked the shell

with his knuckles. And he swears his grandma grated

the meat with her fingernails, and squeezed it into milk

and oil. These products are trendy and expensive now,

I tell him, imported from plantations in Sri Lanka,

the Philippines, and Thailand. He laughs and says

his great-aunties sat in a circle weaving coconut leaves,

and if you pressed your ear to their woven mats,

you could still hear their gossip and singing, even after

they died,. And because circles make memory seem less broken,

he recalls his great-uncles, too, sat in a circle braiding

dried coconut fibers into rope, used to lash canoes

and thatched houses, just as our veins bind our genealogies

to endure the lashing of waves and conquest. I read aloud

the nutrition facts label: 45 calories, 30mg sodium,

470mg potassium, and 11g sugar. Fat and cholesterol free.

He responds with this origin tale: once, a young girl,

beloved by our entire island, dies during a time

of drought. The family buries her and weeps upon

the grave, from which an unfamiliar tree sprouts.

They watch it grow and bloom until its hard, strange

fruit falls and opens on impact. The girl’s mother braves

the first sip, then smiles for the first time in years,

as if her body, after having been completely emptied,

is finally replenished. From that harvest, we planted

a sapling whenever a child was born. As generations

passed, the trees became kin, teaching us how to bend

without breaking, how to create without wasting,

and how to take without depleting. My dad tells me,

during his last visit home, that invasive beetles

are devouring our coconut trees. We discard the aluminum

cans in the recycling bin and swallow the bitter aftertaste.

Author photo credit is Hannah Ensor.


From the shelves of ZVONA i NARI: “Origami Shipwreck”, a collaboration of Craig Santos Perez with Katy Acheson.


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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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