The Tree Of Death



SONY DSC [Source: Wikipedia]

The little apple of death hangs from the branches of the tree of death.

On a hot July day in 1521, Ponce de Leon, his body ravaged by agony, rolled his eyes toward heaven and, most likely, screamed his way into the hands of his God.  The man who searched for the Fountain of Youth in Florida,  found the Well of Death in Havana, Cuba.

He had battled the Calusa indians near the Calossahatchee River, not far from present day Fort Myers.  An arrow struck him in the thigh.  Normally, a soldier would survive such a wound–and he did, the wound was not the cause of his death.  It was a coating of sap on the arrowhead, the essence of the manchineel tree that killed him.

It could not have been a peaceful or graceful death.

After the battle, his army took him to Havana where he succumbed to the poison.

The Spanish called the tree the Arbol de la muerte, the tree of death.

The manchineel tree (Hippomane manchinella) is (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) the most dangerous tree on the planet.  To stand under it in the rain will cause your flesh to blister and fester.  If you stand in the smoke of a burning manchineel, you will likely go blind.  If you ate the little apple-like fruit from the tree, you would most likely die a painful death caused by your stomach lining being dissolved, like a salt crystal in warm water.

The indians of Meso-America, who knew of the trees potency, would sometimes tie their enemies to the trunk–ensuring an agonizing demise.

The toxins of the tree are complicated and hard to pronounce, but are spectacularly effective.

I sat on a tour boat in the Buttonwood Canal in the Everglades National Park and snapped a photo of the tree not twenty feet from where I stood.  To even brush against the leaves will cause a painful eruption of fistulas.  From the description of the effects, I thought that this tree would make poison ivy seem like a mosquito bite.

Manchinell Tree

[The Manchineel Tree]

For over ninety minutes, I heard about alligators, crocodiles, water moccasins, rattle-snakes, coral snakes and vultures.  This is a landscape of death–these Everglades.

But hearing about the dangers that lurked and slithered around the roots of the mangrove trees, I still found profound beauty and nature in its most elemental form.  I only regretted that the Everglades were so plundered, assaulted and raped by the developers and agribusinesses that only a fraction of the original ‘glades exist today.

Objects of beauty often come with lethal attachments.

Buttonwood Canal

[The Buttonwood Canal]


Evening Reflections On The Fountain Of Youth


[Ponce de Leon seeks the Fountain]

Tomorrow, October 31st , I’m going to post my Halloween blog.  I’ve been saying it’s going to be scary.  I hope it is.  It is a description, mostly fiction, of my fear of graveyards and the hours after midnight when dreams go dark as ink and visions are bleak and fearful.

It’s a verbal collage of nightmares I’ve had and ones I hope I will never experience.  I hope you will see it as my Halloween treat to you, my faithful readers.  My sensible readers, who know when its the proper time to go to bed and mumble a prayer.

“Now I lay me down to sleep…”

However, after missing out on a day in St. Augustine, I began to reflect on the idea of the Fountain of Youth.  I did a web search and found some interesting but very confusing facts.  When you’re dealing with a myth, reality and legend get mixed into a ‘stew’ that tastes good, but is hard to separate into individual factoids.  Tales of sacred waters that can heal and give you back past glories are cross-cultural and date back thousands of years.

In a memoir by Hernando d’Escalante Fontaneda, he writes about Ponce de Leon and his search for the legendary waters of restoration in Florida.  There is even a Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine.  It was excavated by the Smithsonian Institute several decades ago.  They found very old burial sites and evidence that pretty much confirms the fact that St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited city (by Europeans) in North America.

But, I’m more interested in mythology than science when it comes to topics as ancient and humanistic as this.  It’s the Romantic soul of an Irishman, I believe.


[The Fountain of Regeneration.  Lucas Cranach, artist]

Searching for the Fountain of Youth is a motif that is as timeless as the Greek Myths, the Celtic Legends and the Quest for the Holy Grail.  It’s the Heroes Journey.  ALL good and proper literature contains the elements of a search for something–an object, an idea or a God.  J. K. Rowling understood this very well.  Harry Potter is the embodiment of everyone who wishes to attain a truth by overcoming obstacles.

Me?  I doubt anyone could have convinced me to don heavy armor and plunge into a rainforest–only to die of thirst, heat stroke or some insidious disease that comes with a bite of an insect so small, you don’t even see it on your wrist.  Perhaps it will come as a bite from a magnificently colored reptile whose quick bite will render you paralyzed and raving mad before it stops your heartbeat for eternity.  It may even come from a snake as thick as the leg of an obese man and longer than a city bus, that will slowly coil around you and slowly constrict itself until you can not even suck a cubic centimeter of Oxygen into your lungs.  They say its a slow and extraordinary death.

I don’t need these kinds of bodily abuses to seek out the Fountain of Youth.  I have sought it out by keeping my eyes open–and I have found it!  Does that come as a surprise?  Does it impress you to know that I can find that Fountain nearly every day.  And, I can take you there as well.

The Foundation of Youth, the Well of Regeneration, the Source of Life is just around the corner from your house.  I find it every time I see a young couple walking hand in hand.  In their eyes, you can observe both love and desire.  In their youth, you can sense their vitality.  The water of the Fountain is a tear, a drop of sweat from passion, a raindrop on a seed, the alluring gaze of a young woman or the glint of male lust in a male eye.

They are the Fountain of Youth, because from their shared love, a new life will emerge.

Stand for moment at a playground.  Look at the children.  They have no idea where they came from, yet.  They have no concept of the part they are playing in the continuation of life.

That’s the real Fountain of Youth.


[Spring by Pierre Auguste Cot]