The Salt Leaf by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Last week, I was down in the Florida Keys fishing for tarpon. In case you don’t know, tarpon are locomotives disguised as fish. They are nocturnal feeders so fishing for them is a midnight-to-dawn affair, in this particular case under a full Florida moon. My first hook-up resulted in an hour and a half battle with a 160 pound monster that ended when the steel hook broke releasing fish and fisherman from their tenuous monofilament connection. He was ten feet from the boat; I declared moral victory.

But that’s a story for another day. Today’s tale is about the lowly mangrove, the ubiquitous shrub that thrives throughout the Keys and many other tropical climes as well. That the mangrove thrives at all is nothing short of a miracle because it roots in very salty water, water that is, in fact, saline enough to kill any other species. How does it do that?

Look closer. Mangrove leaves are a brilliant jade green. But interspersed among their green finery are bright spots of yellow. These are the salt leaves. By a science I do not pretend or presume to understand, these leaves are programmed to extract enough of the concentrated salt in the water rendering it sufficiently fresh to nourish the host plant. Theories abound about how this actually works. Some botanists posit that it is the roots of the mangrove that filter as much as 90% of the salt from seawater, thereby providing enough fresh water to feed the plant. However, other botanists believe that the alchemy of turning salt water into fresh water is done by the leaves of the plant. By some evolutionary miracle, each mangrove is programmed to produce a precious few salt leaves that are capable of excreting such enormous quantities of salt through glands on their surface that they, in effect, sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the host. I like that theory a lot.

One afternoon, I spent some time trying to count the number of salt leaves on a given plant. It was a futile effort. The roots of the mangrove are so intertwined that it’s impossible to distinguish one root system from another and anyway, after a while, they all began to look alike. So I did the next best thing: I estimated. Best guess? Maybe one leaf in a thousand is a salt leaf. Even if I’m off by a factor of ten, that’s still quite a burden to bear for a single tiny yellow leaf.

By the time you’re reading this, we will have marked another Memorial Day on the calendar. It’s the one day of the year when we officially remember and honor those men and women who were and are our nation’s salt leaves. Let’s pledge to remember what these heroes have sacrificed—some ultimately—for our greater common good.

There is another interesting aspect to the mangrove: the locals say it “walks.” As it thrives, its roots spread. Silt collects and eventually new land begins to form, land that is host to all manner of other species and all other manner of immigrant life. Life begetting life.

Thank those who sacrifice. Thank the salt leaves.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

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