Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tall As An Oak

Today, I planted a sapling of Meru Oak in my garden. As my Kenyan odyssey inches towards the finishing line, I felt it would be fitting to give something back to this land – to its soil, sun and savannas – that nurtured my soul. Planting indigenous trees would be my enduring gesture of gratitude to its people who shared their stories with me and helped me evolve and grow. Meru Oak, one of the largest trees endemic to Kenya, was Wangari Maathai’s pet motif, as a symbol of strength and endurance, for any tree planting ceremony. Deforestation and over harvesting for timber has highly threatened it, which is also the reason why Mama Miti (Mother Tree, as Maathai was lovingly called in local lingo) chose to plant this species on every occasion.

I would have loved to plant the baobab - the African quintessence - too, but though the baobab is an indigenous species, it is not the one for Nairobi. Baobabs are not spread over Kenya indiscriminately, but found closer to the plains which experience relatively heavy rainfall. As you travel from Nairobi to Mombasa by road, you step into baobab country. On the outskirts of Mombasa these gargantuan entities stretch endlessly such that you are seemingly driving on a baobab boulevard. With ample breathing space and sparseness around, their girth and canopy spreads copiously, in keeping with their true nature. Just the other day, I came across a 100-year old baobab at the Nairobi Arboretum that would put a true-blue baobab to shame. Not suited to Nairobi’s elevation of nearly 5000 ft, this specimen was stunted and frail like a well-endowed woman shrunk in size as a result of crash dieting!

Time and again, Maathai emphasized the importance of indigenous trees for their capacity to regenerate and rejuvenate microhabitats and in inducing back birds that might have migrated. Plantation trees such as eucalyptus and acacia (the wattle of Australia and not the indigenous savanna species), conifers such as cypress and pine, majestic though they may be, play havoc with the immediate environment in ways that may not be instantly felt or understood.  Therefore, I chose the indigenous East African yellow-wood (Podocarpus falcatus), instead, as the other planting option. By virtue of its appearance, Podocarpus is a perfect substitute for the alien pine and is a viable alternative as a plantation tree. In Australia, this species is considered invasive, but in Kenya, its homeland, it is not an outcast and is, in fact, a great roosting place for birds.

The British with their incurable love of gardens and trees sought to recreate their homeland-highlands atmosphere in almost all nations they colonized, as also to swap species within the colonies. Thus, they sowed the seed of exotic plantations. So, whether you go to India or Kenya, whether you are sitting at the Bombay Gymkhana Club in Mumbai or the Mombasa Club in Mombasa, you see similar flora of Indian almonds and African tulips twig-by-bough jostling for space.

The African tulip (Spathodea campanulata) is truly a native beauty and my personal favourite for its enchanting blooms. Upturned orange-red bells crown the canopy and seen from a distance it appears as though the tree is aflame. Elspeth Huxley, the British author eulogized and immortalized this 'Flame of the forest' in her book, “The Flame Trees of Thika”. (Locally though, it is called the Nandi Flame, after the Nandi county of Kakamega region in Western Kenya.) Until now I had seen only the vermilion blooms, but recently, in Kenya, I came across mango-coloured blossoms (colour of ripe mango pulp), a mutation obtained from grafting, I am told. Our Embassy complex, like all colonial copycats, ironically, sports only the foreign jacaranda and frangipani, but not a single tulip tree, so I let the garden have it, finally.

Nairobi nurses several pockets of “urban forests” such as Karura forest and City Park, deserving of the epithet of “green city under the sun”. Majestic trees are an indispensable feature flanking the streets, and roadsides double as nurseries throughout the city. In the absence of buildings, shopping malls or other man-made structures, it was the trees that served as landmarks or milestones, in the days gone by. This back-to-basics approach still holds in Nairobi, if only in name. Thus, you have the kosher Muthaiga neighbourhood, Mutithi road, Mathare slums and Kamithi prison - localities and streets all named after trees!

Planting trees and tending to nature is an intrinsic ethos in this country which sired one of the world’s greatest environmentalists and inspirations on its soil, Wangari Maathai. Today, on Women’s Day, I pay my respects to one of the tallest women who walked the Earth - as tall as the Meru Oak.   

Meru Oak

On the occasion of Holi, enjoy the riot of colours in this album, "Holi more angana":

And some more splash of colours: 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Baobab Boulevard

Marching column
of Bush men
boles of brawn, heavily armed
Standing still

here, a lone ranger
'neath tanzanite sky
sinewy twigs tracing territory
'tween Eon and Earth

there, mother and child
on horseback astride
 Rani of Jhansi on African soil 
Wooden statue of liberty

Siamese twins
sprouting mirror images
limb to limb, trunk to torso
Miracle of Birth

Ballerina arched
in a taut bough
body’s arrow piercing ether
Yogini in supplication

couples copulating
cavorting, contorting
love's lore lost to light
Khajuraho frescoes embodied

Boulevard Baobabs
adorn human avtaar
   in a moving montage to a motorcar 
Tree of Life Incarnate

Note: The baobabs are not spread over Kenya indiscriminately, but are found closer to the plains where there is relatively heavy rainfall. When one travels to Mombasa from Nairobi, by road, one starts seeing the baobabs that stretch for a good 30 kms outskirts of Mombasa.

Also read, "An Ode to Coco de Mer":