THE REDANG AIR is electric during the monsoon season. Breezes rustle through palm trees and the air swirls into a fog before bursting through the sky with a welcome breath of cool on this tropical island in Malaysia. It’s November, off-peak season and a strange time to visit a resort town. Bad weather has suspended travel, and on my first night here I am the only guest. There is no public transportation on the island, and Malay farming families make up most of the permanent population. On walks I meet more roving monitor lizards than people. I share my meals with nearby chattering monkeys. But I am here to grieve a family tragedy and to work on a manuscript that feels both cathartic and impossible to finish. The solitude suits me.
One day, another deluge begins just as I reach a tiny lunch shack overlooking the frothing sea. The thatched roof is so leaky I am seated with two strangers at the only table safe from the invading rain. Hashimi Ismail wears a fluorescent shirt and luminous smile. Over the din of pouring rain, he tells me he is in Redang to lead a group of students in a replanting effort to restore the coastal mangrove forests decimated by rapid tourism, including the creation of a new airport runway. The mangrove communities on the island’s northern coast provide important habitat for numerous species, including the endangered green and critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles, and this habitat destruction has Malaysian scientists and global environmental activists concerned. Hashimi has been involved in local restoration work for over a decade and invites me to visit one of their nursery sites.
The next evening, I join his group, a gaggle of about thirty ten- to twelve-year-olds and a handful of teachers gathered around some beached boats. Despite the humid heat, everyone is covered from head to toe, socks on feet, hats on heads, even their necks protected by scarves. I quickly understand why when a mass of mosquitoes descends to feast on my uncovered skin. Everyone is dressed for the bugs and mud and prickly branches, and I feel like the idiot from Chicago in my shorts and open-toed sandals.
The children jostle and tease one another as we trek along a narrow path toward the first nursery site. Their excitement is palpable. As Hashimi calls out the various plant life surrounding us, a hush comes over the boisterous group. He points to the buta-buta oozing a milky latex that can cause temporary blindness, the smooth-barked tumu merah with narrow elliptic leaves, and the teruntum merah with fragrant tubular red flowers. The children repeat the names in Malay; one asks a question about the putat laut seeds, which can be ground into powder to stun or kill fish for easy catching. I nearly stumble over a mengkuang laut fruit, part pineapple, part grenade, as the conversation turns to mangroves.
Mangroves have a unique reproductive strategy in the plant world, Hashimi tells us. Most flowering plants release dormant seeds, but mangroves are viviparous, meaning their seeds, or propagules, begin to germinate and develop while still attached to the parent tree. When a propagule detaches from its parent, it continues to develop as it floats in the water, eventually sprouting roots and leaves if it finds suitable habitat.
We arrive at an open marshy area where previously gathered mangrove propagules are heaped onto the sand like bundles of green cigars. The students flock around, examining the samples. At first they are shy with me, the only stranger. When I ask how you can tell if a propagule is ready for planting, Marsya just covers her face with her hands and giggles before Mohammad grabs a handful and points to little roots and tiny emergent leaves. When I carefully pick out just one sample from his hand, he patiently schools me. “You must take six,” he urges, holding out the entire bunch in his hand, “not just one.” They won’t all survive the transplantation, so there is safety in numbers. Together we crouch next to Nur as she maneuvers propagules into the swampy ground. All the girls wear traditional tudung head coverings in various colors, and many of the boys don hats or wear bandannas wrapped around their heads. They hunker on the ground together, a sea of color bobbing above the soil. Beyond them a forest of mature mangroves rises, verdant leaves reflected in the water, a small soaring in the distance.
The children are good mentors. They have traveled far by boat to come here from their rural primary schools in the coastal state of Terengganu. For them, Redang is a big town full of new experiences. But they seem at home in the forest, laughing and ribbing one another when one plants a seedling badly. Their enthusiasm and stamina are contagious, and I imagine them making this country bloom for generations to come. Already the neighboring restoration sites with more mature transplants form a growing curtain along the airport’s fenced boundary. I am tired and sweaty, my hands are wet and muddy, and my knees creak from so much bending, but it feels like the evening melts into night too soon.
Dipika Mukherjee is a writer and sociolinguist. She is the author of the novels Shambala Junction, which won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction, and Ode to Broken Things, which was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. She teaches in Chicago.