Pneumatophores

by Jane Langley


Just keep reaching.
The mangrove roots probe up through the mud.
Little stubs of hope.
Not elegant, but essential,
silently absorbing more carbon than a
loudly lauded forest giant
ten times her size.
Just the tips of her skinny brown roots poke above the rising tide
like the tips of wizened fingers,
tiny drowners underwater
grasping for rescue.
But the truth is she breathes easily
and we’re the ones quietly drowning.
We’ll be buried under the weight of motorway extensions
and indecisions,
while the mangrove extends fresh fingers,
replicating her simple survival plan in each pneumatophorous root:
just keep reaching.


Estuaries, Shoal Bay, Auckland, New Zealand. Writer, Jane Langley. Artist, Becky Ollivier.

Give me a dense damp beech forest deep in the centre of the South Island. Send me to a violently windswept alp where life and death meet at the apex. Let me lie in the golden dunes watching bleached tussock strands tumble along the beach. But estuaries? Somehow I felt I’d drawn the short straw in this assignment.

Estuaries are not what I’d call beautiful landscapes. You wouldn’t paint that shallow wash of murky tidal water. You can’t admire the boats when they’re rolled over on their sides, looking so awkwardly undignified. You wouldn’t go for a romantic stroll across the slimy grey mudflats, exposed at low tide like the dregs of a dirty sink.

The bare honest truth is that when I’m driving across the motorway extension past Shoal Bay, my eyes slide quickly towards the mangroves. If the tide is high enough to cover their roots, I feel a flash of relief – as if I’ve been spared from having to glimpse a naked neighbour through their not-frosted-enough window.

But embarking on this project has revealed a more interesting truth. Those mangrove roots jabbing out of the mud like prehistoric weeds? They’re ugly, yes, but they’re a lesson in survival, too. Faced with silt and sediment runoff, many species simply suffocate. But the mangrove has turned our careless disregard for proper stormwater management into an opportunity to thrive.

The more runoff we create, the more rapidly the mangroves spread. And those funny little roots poking out of the greasy mud? They’re actually highly sophisticated snorkels. Roots that can breathe, properly known as pnuematophores. Those root networks extend far beyond the trees’ above-ground canopy – a genius survival mechanism that lets them breathe easily, despite all that sediment and silt.

They tell a story of adaptability in inhospitable conditions. They remind us humans not to give up. If we asked them, I imagine they’d say, “Fuck Mars, let’s find a way to survive here on Earth, no matter what.”

Jane & Becky: 26-word Pledge

We don’t have to be buried under the weight of indecision. We can decide to survive, like the mangroves. Decision one: donate to Forest & Bird. 

2 thoughts on “Estuaries

  1. Liked the poem and loved the description. Dirty sink, boats awkwardly leaning, naked neighbours- makings of another great poem there. 🙂

  2. Fuck Mars, let’s find a way to survive here on Earth, no matter what.” this made me laugh! I love Jane and Becky’s combined efforts to show us the beauty in the downright ugly – like the dregs of the kitchen sink! We need more wild. Great work!

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