Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Topsy Turvy Tree

African Baobab - Adansonia digitata

I find trees to be veterans of great character. The dignity with which they stand rooted watching over us, silently, in selfless dedication marks them a species apart. I have been particularly fascinated by giants like banyans and baobabs whose gnarled existence of generations bespeak of passage of time. If banyan is akin to my mother, someone who I have grown under (metaphorically speaking) in India, then the baobab is my Godmother that has adopted me into its fold, into its African identity.

The baobab, first leaped at me, out of a children’s book, “Tree of Life” scripted and illustrated by calligrapher-artist Barbara Bash of San Francisco’s Sierra (nature) Club. The picture-book - a forever keepsake - explores the circle of life through cycle of seasons of a baobab from sapling to seedling. Brought for my toddler, a decade ago, it held me riveted as I explored the foliage world with him page after page. Imagine my surprise when the strange bulbous tree in my neighbourhood of South Mumbai suddenly assumed a name and identity. This century old animate monument was a testimony to colonial history and passage of people, continents apart, through the Indian Ocean. In an interesting development, when the hollowed out mature tree buckled as a result of death of a segment, it was salvaged and rejuvenated by Friends of Trees. Today, it stands a living heritage in its foster land, albeit forlorn and out of place.

India boasts a few baobabs on its coastal belt, but for all that, the baobabs are fixtures of African savannas that evoke mystique and romance of that land. Years later, destiny took us to Kenya, the home range of the mighty baobabs, where I saw the tree of life, more intimately, bark and blossoms.

The first time I saw the baobab on its native soil, it was in profound profusion. Rows and rows upon baobabs in multitudinous forms stretched out kilometer long like a file of military men. The ‘baobab boulevard’ came upon us serendipitously en route from Nairobi to Mombasa as the hill terrain gave way to coastal plains. Leafless, the bare boles and boughs looked as though a sweep of lightning strike had shorn them of their fuzz. Sinewy twigs flailing skywards seemed like many roots on top of an upturned uprooted tree. This fall phase of the deciduous tree lasts three seasons earning it the epithet of an “upside down” tree.  

Bullet-riven baobab bole at Taita
Baobabs do not flourish in Nairobi’s cooler climes as they are essentially natives of the coast. The one specimen that I saw in Nairobi at the eponymous Arboretum was a puny parody of the real thing to the point of being unrecognizable. In fact, the tree does become unrecognizable when it adorns a foliar crown. From a grotesque disfigured giant, it suddenly transforms into an Amazon of a bride.  And then come the blooms - pristine white and sweet scented. The only time I saw a baobab in bloom was this summer, smack on the historic railway station, Voi, of the erstwhile Uganda Railway. This tree was obviously the same age as the railway station (which was built towards the end of 19th century) and if trees could talk it would have tales to tell of the tyranny of colonialism and camaraderie of indentured labourers and locals. If the Voi baobab was mute witness to the dynamics of infrastructural development in the context of colonialism, the one in Taita will go down in history as a sniper post that actually was a minor battlefield in the EastAfrican theatre of war of WWI.  Legend has it that a German lady wished to avenge the death of her husband who was killed in the Battle of Tanga, and therefore, hid herself in the tree to ambush soldiers of Allied troops. The pockmarked bullet-riven bark bears out the lore.

Flowers give way to pendulous gourd-like fruits, the seeds of which taste like tart tamarind. With great fondness, I recall how Joseph (my son’s local friend) loved to barter mbuyu for a stick of gum.  Mbuyu (baobab seeds, candied and coloured) lollies found on the shelves of stores everywhere in Kenya are a favourite kiddy snack.

Like our indigenous coconut palm, the baobab is called the “tree of life” as all its body parts from leaves to shoots to seeds can be used productively by humans. Besides it is an entire ecosystem in itself supporting bio-diverse critters and creatures from snakes and bats to monkeys and bushbabies. Baobabs live for hundreds of years, some species even for a thousand, seeming almost invincible. A baobab reaches great height but is not tallest among trees; the bole though is unparalleled in its girth bloated as it is with hoarded water. For that reason, during drought it is the elephant’s last resort. Elephants strip the bark to get to the water spelling its doom. It is that knock of death from one giant to another (if the tree does not die of old age) that completes the cycle of baobab’s journey bringing it down dust to dust. Only for the Phoenix to rise again…

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