1. Let’s start with other trees. The baobabs are what got me thinking of big trees, so here’s what is labeled as the world’s largest spruce tree, near Kalaloch Lodge in Olympic National Park. This isn’t my favorite park, but the trees were impressive. It’s somewhat humbling to think of this tree having been standing here so many years. It has seen more than any of us ever will.
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2. Not to the baobabs, yet. Staying on point with the idea of trees witnessing more than humans, here’s a coffee table book you may enjoy. I have a habit of buying books like these because they look so interesting, which they are, but they are also a bit unwieldy. Still, weighing heft against content, Wise Trees measures up.
Landscape photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel traveled the world in search of trees that have seen something, so that we might see these trees and know more of why they are significant. Some have been central parts of a society, while others have been present for monumental events. The photographers do a great job of highlighting the ways in which humans and trees co-exist, sharing both spaces and stories. No complaints about the simple yet inviting layout, either.
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3. Now, on to the decline of baobab trees. I read this week that baobab trees, which I first encountered in The Little Prince many years ago, are imperiled. Several of the oldest African trees have died or deteriorated over the past dozen years.
My initial impression of these trees, upon reading Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s tale, was that they were a menace.
“Now there were some terrible seeds on the planet that was the home of the little prince; and these were the seeds of the baobab. The soil of the planet was infested with them. A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces…”
Of course, this is not true. The trees are remarkably useful, as well as visually striking, and losing them would not be the gift le petit prince might imagine. Scientists had been studying the trees’ remarkable life spans (thousands of years) when the trees began dying or showing signs of deterioration. The most likely explanation for this is that the baobabs are suffering negative effects of climate change.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Saint-Exupery’s uses these “trees as big as castles” as a symbol for evils that must be tended to and kept in check, lest they overtake their surroundings.
“It is a question of discipline,” the little prince said to me later on. “When you’ve finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend to the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care.”
It is not difficult to see the connections between warnings of a planet overtaken by an overlooked menace and the current reality of baobab trees (and so, so much else) that is in a state of decline due to a changing climate.
Let, then, the actual baobabs be reminders of the fictional plight that bears so many parallels to that of our environment today.
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4. Want to read prose poetry about trees and other natural spaces? Then Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places may be for you.
The book opens with this Walden-esque line: “The wind was rising, so I went to the wood.” Earnest though Thoreau may be at times, I’ll argue for Macfarlane’s authenticity instead. Additionally, his imagery-rich writing delights the inner ear as you read. Take, for example, the second paragraph of the text:
“Rooks haggled in the air above the trees. The sky was a bright cold blue, fading to milk at its edges. From a quarter of a mile away, I could hear the noise of the wood in the wind; a soft marine roar. It was the immense compound noise of friction — of leaf fretting on leaf, and branch rubbing on branch.”
I’m not sure I’ve read a more accurate description of the sound of rustling leaves in the woods. It’s lovely.
I have admittedly not read the whole book; this is one I paged through now and again, while I had it from the library, just to enjoy the ideas and their expression.
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5. A poem, “To a Redbud,” by Debora Gregor, shown on Poetry Daily June 30, 2017.
Because a tree is never just a tree, and because it’s impossible to make sense of, or even begin to process, our human lives without a lens that looks outside ourselves.