A thick white sap oozed from the diagonal slash in the bark of the tree. Gravity gently pulled the liquid downward toward half of a coconut shell fastened to the tree trunk to collect this precious resource. I stood in the middle of a rubber tree forest in the rural inland foothills of Sri Lanka, watching intently as the plantation superintendent explained the process of latex extraction.

“I found it miraculous that the white latex I saw dripping from the trees that morning could produce the sterile medical tubing that could save a life,” Brenda E. Smith writes. Photo courtesy of Brenda E. Smith

Prior to our walk among the tall, smooth-barked trunks, we rubbed bars of dry soap all over the skin of our calves. I was assured soap would repel the bloodthirsty leeches thriving in the feathery greenery on the floor of the forest. The forest was divided into sections leased to local farmers who cared for the trees and collected income from the latex they harvested.

The barefoot farmer who accompanied us extracted a short knife with a curved blade tucked under his belt and skillfully shaved off a strip of the bark no thicker than that of a fingernail, barely enough to start the sap bleeding again. Any thicker slice was wasteful, causing shortened productivity of the tree. Following ritual, farmers visited each of their trees every morning, slicing the scabs off the bark wounds to restart the flow of sap. Three hours later their wives followed, pouring the sap collected in the coconut shells into galvanized aluminum buckets. Because latex begins to dry within hours after exposure to air, the women hustled to the collection center where their harvest was weighed and tested for purity to detect any dilution from added water.

We watched as the incoming buckets were then dumped into large rectangular cement collection tanks, enzymes added and contents stirred with wide wooden paddles to promote controlled coagulation. The dense, pliable product was then fed through presses to squeeze out remaining water. This formed inch-thick sheets of raw rubber, which were then hung over wooden racks in smoke houses to purify them of any remaining microbes. Once smoked, the sheets were rolled into bales for export.

That night as we watched the deepening colors of sunset from the terrace of the superintendent’s bungalow, we discussed all I had learned that day. I found it miraculous that the white latex I saw dripping from the trees that morning could produce the sterile medical tubing that could save a life. As the last vestiges of daylight slid below the horizon, the superintendent jumped up and beckoned me to follow him: “Now I will show you magic.”

We drove for a mile to where the road led us into the Milky Way. Emerging from the car, a billion small twinkling lights encircled us. The glimmering lights appeared both right in front of us and infinitely far away. The pricks of light flashed on, only to be suddenly extinguished. After a moment, I realized we were surrounded by an impossibly dense swarm of fireflies. Awestruck by this rural magic, I twirled like a child, ecstatic with joy.

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