In the Field

Pohnpei, Micronesia

I see the island of Pohnpei as a rare orchid growing on a highway median between lanes of heavy traffic. It’s only there because the place is overlooked and hard to get to. But sooner or later someone will find it and be tempted to pick it or dig it up and put it in their home garden where it will probably die, or a highway crew will come along and plow it under, not even having known it was there. For now it still just is.

In March of 2008, I went to Pohnpei (as the final trip for a book I’m writing on eels for HarperCollins) on rumors that the local people there considered the abundant freshwater eels to be sacred. I found that for the members of the Lasialap clan—the clan whose “totem” is the eel—that the eel is not only sacred, but is considered human. Eels are part of the hydrology of the island. The Pohnpeians believe that if you take the eels out of the rivers that the water will stop flowing.

For an island of its size—an average of 13 miles across and 2595 feet high—Pohnpei has an impressive number of endemic species, including 110 plants, and 13 birds. The girl pictured here has the island’s endemic parrot perched on her finger, the Pohnpei lorikeet.

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Girl with Pohnpei Lorikeet.

Anguilla Marmorata, the tropical freshwater eel.

Lasialap boy with eel.

Nan Madol ruin.

Clownfish and atoll.

Yellowfin tuna at market.

Pounding sakau.