Damien Enright: Rats off their tree on La Gomera, but for very good reason

Damien Enright: Rats off their tree on La Gomera, but for very good reason

We will soon be returning to West Cork from La Gomera, in the Canary islands. Yesterday, I found the text of a light-hearted radio talk I gave about island life in the late 1980s. In 40 years, it hasn’t lost its magic. This is what I wrote...

There are many things wonderful about La Gomera. One is the whistling language, two is the forests, and three is the suicidal rat. Gomera is the only place on earth with a whistling language. It has been studied by anthropologists from far and near. 

I hear it often, on quiet afternoons, in the vast, deep, green Valle Gran Rey, when I sit typing, my door wide open for light, for there were no windows in our rented farmhouse.

Haunting, clear and thrilling, a phrase rings across the valley. Another answers. Sometimes, another whistle breaks in. Perhaps, the third party is simply interrupting.

I guess just as there are people who talk too much, there are people who whistle too much, too.

Gomera whistles aren’t signals, like a hill farmer gives to his dog. They are conversations; one can hear it; there is no doubt. Sometimes, one can almost guess at what they’re saying: “Hey, Jose, if you’re going to la villa in the morning, can you fetch me two adzes and pick up Conchita’s dress?”

So, they make arrangements to do this or that or, sometimes, simply chew the rag.

Conversational whistling was evolved by Gomera’s ancient Guanche people. Guanches from Gomera were forced to help the Spanish conquest of Tenerife and Gran Canaria by communicating military information across the deep gorges of those islands.

The forests are vast; one can walk all day and never meet a soul. Once, they were a hunting domain of Spanish kings. Then, wild boar roamed the highlands; now, a rabbit is the most dangerous thing one might meet. No snakes, no scorpions, no nasties.

The flora is unique and spectacular, with flowers all year, and butterflies in their thousands in their season and, in autumn, the forest mushrooms must be the biggest and best on earth. Paths are legion. The 40 sq km of Garajonay cloud forests was designated a National Park in 1981 and a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1986.

Up there, the mist swirls like great, lost galleons down the deep, emerald valleys. Trees are hung with Spanish moss. Thirty miles eastward, on Tenerife, Mount Teide rises, clear and crystal, 3,600m out of the sea; it’s sheer immensity makes it seem near. There it sits, like Fujiama in Japan, the perfect cone volcano, capped with snow.

Mount Teide on Tenerife, a still active seamount volcano rising 7,500m from its base on the ocean floor
Mount Teide on Tenerife, a still active seamount volcano rising 7,500m from its base on the ocean floor

But the Cañadas of Teide are cinder deserts and wind-worn buttes, ideal locations for a spaghetti western, bad lands or worse. Gomera’s highlands are fecund and fertile. Giant heathers, laurels and wax myrtles reaching 20m cover the plateau. Only the crowns catch the sun. 

The trunks, in half-darkness, are hung with Spanish moss. Huge Canarian pines, and the ubiquitous palmeras, surely amongst the most beautiful trees on earth, form stately groves in hidden forests.

This is the domain of the endemic soft-winged, sweet-voiced laurel pigeon and — if it may be believed — the famous Gomera addicted rat.

Rats are not endemic: The only mammal to reach Gomera without human help was the bat. Rabbits were introduced, mice and rats arrived aboard ships. The ‘suicidal rat’, as my friend called it has, it seems, developed a unique way of partying.

Amongst the vast and varied forests there are many trees of great interest. A biochemist friend told me that she had identified more than 200 toxins in one particular tree, which attracts forest rats when it flowers. The seeds provide quite a cocktail. The rats love it; they can’t get enough.

Their behaviour was first observed when a group of scientists, exploring insect life in the forest at night, began to hear loud plops all around them in the forest. This was eerie, especially when something large, soft and furry fell on one of their heads.

It was a rat, very placid and intoxicated. They found more under a tree, staggering about or asleep. Some, having fallen from the branches, climbed up again, ate some more leaves and seeds and once more fell to the ground.

Finally, they retired for the night, blitheroe.

My friend said that individuals eventually either OD or damage themselves so badly in the fall that they stumble into the undergrowth and die. Apparently, the seeds are especially tough and, instead of dissolving in the dead rat’s stomach, they sprout, using the rat compost to give them a great start in life. Thus, the tree enlarges its range more than it could otherwise.

And the rats never learn...

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