Photographs by Nick Hall
Before you enter the Yela forest, it's a good idea to get permission from the Alik family, and not just because it’s polite. The Aliks and a related family have owned the forest for many generations, ever since it was given to them in the 19th century by native rulers on Kosrae, a lush volcanic island in the Federated States of Micronesia. According to local lore, the forest is haunted by the spirits of the Aliks’ ancestors, who are said to play malevolent tricks on uninvited guests. Trespassers supposedly suffer fierce nightmares and wake up with their mouths filled with mud.
“Ghosts,” confirms Tholman Alik, head of the family landowners association, with a twinkle in his eye.
For the record, Alik is a highly educated man, a doctor at the only hospital on Kosrae, which at 42 square miles is barely a blip in the western Pacific. So, no, he doesn’t really believe these campfire tales, even if his late father, a fisherman and farmer, once related them as gospel. But he does take his ancestral connections to the forest seriously. The forest has provided generations of the Alik family with a rich bounty of food, medicines and timber.
It’s also among the last of its kind, forming the heart of the world’s largest remaining stand of ka trees (Terminalia carolinensis). Found only on Kosrae and the nearby island of Pohnpei, ka trees are graceful giants known for their umbrella-shaped crowns and huge, moss-covered buttresses that resemble the fins of a rocket ship.
The forest is part of the 1,400-acre Yela Valley—an “unusually pristine tropical watershed,” according to a 2006 assessment by the U.S. Forest Service’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. The assessment described the Yela forest as “perhaps the most valuable intact landscape remaining in Kosrae, despite the high value of its timber.”
But when the local government proposed putting a road through the Yela, its future was in serious jeopardy.