A Tree-Tale on the occasion of World Environment Day
I first saw a Baobab tree in Tsavo National Park, on safari in Kenya. With a huge bulging trunk and branches that looked like roots spreading in a wide canopy, it was unlike any tree I had seen. I was intrigued. As I read more about Africa I found that this tree, which was native to Africa, Madagascar, and Australia, played a significant role not only in the ecology, but equally the folklore of these regions.
Across Africa, there seem to be many stories passed on from generation to generation, that explain why the Baboab looks the way it does. One of the most popular, and my favourite one, goes like this.
The first Baobab grew near a small lake, along with many other trees. One day it saw its reflection in the water, and it was shocked. It saw a huge fat trunk covered in bark that looked like the wrinkled hide of an old elephant; small leaves and pale flowers.
Now this Baobob was a complainer. “Why did you make me so ugly?” it asked the Creator. “Why did you make me so big and fat? Why can’t I be tall and slender like the Palm tree?” “Why is my bark so rough and tough? Why can’t I have a smooth trunk like the Mahogany tree?” “And such insignificant flowers, why not bright ones like those of the Tulip tree?”
And the Baobab went on whining and complaining, comparing itself to every other tree, and feeling short-changed in every aspect. Until finally the Creator had enough! In a fit of exasperation, he came down and yanked the Baobab up from its roots, and replanted it upside down! No longer could the Baobab see its reflection, and no longer could it compare and contrast!
But the Creator could not be heartless. The vain whiner had to be taught a lesson, but after all this too was one of his own creations! So the Creator gave the Baobab some special features that would make it one of the most valued of trees for countless other living beings, including humans.
This Tree of Life, as it is called by some tribes in Africa, creates its own ecosystem, as it supports the life of countless creatures, from the giant elephants to the thousands of tiny creatures scurrying in and out of its crevices. Weaver birds nest in its branches and owls and Hornbills roost in its hollows; baboons and warthogs devour the seedpods and the fruit; bush babies and fruit bats drink the nectar and pollinate the flowers. The tree can store hundreds of litres of water in its trunk, an adaptation to the harsh drought conditions of its environment. This water is tapped in dry periods by elephants and Bushmen.
Every part of the tree is valuable for the local communities; its lumber is used for storage, its bark is pounded to make rope, fishnets, mats, baskets, paper and cloth. More recently, its fruit has joined the ranks of international Superfoods–it is known to contain six times as much vitamin C as oranges, twice as much calcium as milk, and plenty of B vitamins, magnesium, iron, phosphorous, and antioxidants.
Baobabs can reach up to 75 feet in height, and the trunk can grow more than 60 feet wide. Humans have used the hollowed trunks for a variety of purposes—from a post office, to a jail, and even a pub!
Baobabs are some of the longest living of trees, believed to live for more than 2000 years! When they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a heap of fibres, and so the local belief is that they do not die at all, but simply disappear! No wonder the Bushmen call it the Magic tree!
Some years after I returned from Kenya, we visited Diu, an island just off the coast of Gujarat. As we walked around, we were astonished to come across a Baobab tree! Solidly ensconced in majestic, solitary splendour among the Hoka palms and green fields, it brought back memories of our Safari days! No one seemed to know when and how it came to be there. Thereafter, on our annual Diu trip with the children, we all eagerly looked forward to spending a morning exploring the Baobab. Over the years, as the children grew, it remained a reassuring and comforting presence. This year, the Baobab was introduced by my now-grown daughter to her husband, as an old friend!
Happy World Environment Day!