Who Are the Watchers?: Sightseers, Snails, and Spirits of Guam

The Fragile tree snail of Guam

My wife and I were driving east across Guam, from the tourist center of Tamuning on the west coast through the rural interior. It was a short trip. It’s only a 20 minute drive across the width of the entire island nation, which is about 12 miles wide and 30 miles long. To the residents of Guam, that’s a trip, but to someone raised in the Midwest of the continental United States, everywhere seemed local.

Still, it was a dramatic change of scenery. Almost before the hotels and trilingual signage of the tourist center was out of sight, the scene shifted to lush tropical forest with only sporadic and light human development. Almost half of Guam is forested. The temperature is around 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. And though it rains on three-quarters of the days of the year, the rainstorms we experienced were brief and gave way rapidly to sunshine. It seemed like paradise.

However, like most islands which are exposed to a large amount of traffic from other places, the ecosystem of Guam has not fared well. The forests are almost completely devoid of birdsong, for example. Of Guam’s 13 native forest bird species, three have gone entirely extinct, two exist only in captivity, five persist on neighboring islands, and the remaining three are barely hanging on. This is due largely to the brown tree snakes, which were accidentally introduced to the island by U.S. military transports. The island previously had no native species of snake, and there is no natural predator of the snake on the island. As a result, the snake nearly eliminated the native bird population. And the absence of birds, and thus seed transmitters, has caused the forests to start thinning.

We were visiting my sister-in-law, a traveling nurse, and her partner, who is Chamorro—the name for the indigenous people of Guam and the Mariana Islands. Guam had just opened up from its extended COVID quarantine, and we were eager to escape the feeling of isolation created by over a year of social distancing, masking, and remote work. The Asian countries which supplied most of Guam’s tourism had not yet opened up, so it felt like we were the only tourists on the island. The tourist district was abandoned. Never one drawn to crowds or “touristy” places anyway, I was on the hunt for sites of natural beauty, which are abundant in Guam. On this day, we were headed to Marbo Cave on the east coast.


Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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