People have referred to me as ‘sad’, ‘disappointed’, ‘stunted’ and even ‘depressed’. Maybe I just look like that. I mean, growing on the slope of this funny-shaped little hill, isn’t a bag of laughs. Not at all. But it is the only place I can call home and nobody’s going to move me from here. I have found water, though. Not much, just enough. It’s deep and hidden between the buried rocks; hidden from the animals that feed on me, the birds that nest in me, and that silly lion that sometimes lies resting in my shade.
Most humans will think it’s funny if a tree communicated with them. I can understand that. They say things like: you can’t see the wood for the trees, barking up the wrong tree, and bend them while they are young. If you listen to this, you’d think we are associated with stupidity – or with a serious lack of insight, at the very least. I think it’s because people don’t understand trees.
For one thing, I am a highly efficient air-cleaner. I love smoke and dirty air, and exchange that for oxygen. This, people take for granted; it’s a thankless job and they show their appreciation by cutting more and more of us down. I prevent erosion, as well. Think about it: since Creation, it has rained whenever the season for rain occurs. Okay, it doesn’t happen often here, but just concentrate on the principle for a while. Every shower produces water that runs downhill. Puddles merge, form little streams that join rivers, cascade over rocks and eventually run into the sea. And in every drop, some soil is suspended. Now why, I ask you, have not all the ground been carried to the oceans? Who is responsible for the fact that the world is not – as it were – flat?
Moi. By standing here and doing my thing, I have personally prevented this hill from blocking up some harbour. Do you think anybody thanks me for it? Oh, don’t bother to answer…
Lately, scientists have discovered we trees can talk to each other. Now that is progress! They still don’t know how we do it, though – and I won’t like them to figure it out. Anyway, we can produce tannin on demand, whenever an antelope wants to eat too many of our leaves. We depend on leaves too, see? We make food with leaves – and oxygen people need. So it’s not quite clever to allow some hungry animal to strip entire branches of leaves. That’s why we make them taste bad. What scientists can’t explain is why the trees in the same area also start producing tannin at the same time. This way, we look after each other.
Without bragging about it, we trees form better communities than humans. We don’t get upset if there are other plants around. We enjoy the company of flowers and grass and shrubs. A community consists of different individuals that strive at the same goals. That’s what we do.
You don’t see armies of trees marching across the veld to settle disputes. We don’t do that. When it rained, we all make leaves and flowers. If it’s dry enough, we all die together. Simple. And if the one is bigger than the other, or bears a different flower or fruit – why, that’s okay with the rest. We don’t mind. It attracts more birds to feed on our fruit and then disperse the seed. By working together, we help each other out, see?
There’s another thing you’ll never see a tree doing: moaning and groaning. I’m not talking about the times when the wind bends me this way and that (it can be a lot of fun sometimes to watch the squirrels balancing on the branches!); it’s the way humans go on that makes me shake my branches in frustration. People seem to think it useful to complain. They like blaming others for their own problems. If we fall on hard times, we don’t end up pointing dry sticks at this tree or that bush, not at all. We don’t have meetings to punish or praise or plan. What is, is. What will be, will be.
You may wonder why I have broken the tree-silence? I must agree that it took me a long time to do so. After all the centuries of quiet trees, I’ve decided I cannot remain mute any more.
You see, I am above all else, a time capsule. Look at the marks on my bark: you’ll see where the last elephant used to rub his teeth clean. And over there? That’s the fire that ran through the veld before people came. Here I have the initials some idiot scratched out; you can still see the date: 1876. If you were to cut me down (please don’t) you’ll see the rings: broader ones for the wet seasons and thinner ones for the usual dry years I lived through. I can show you the marks the leopard made when he dragged the antelope up my trunk, but you’ll have to get a ladder to do that. Down there is the spot where that lion sharpens and cleans his nails every now and then…
But there’s more…
In the years to come, I’ll get more scars. I am, you might say, the most enduring record of history. If people insist on wars and battles and fights and arguments, some idiot is going to kill everybody. Maybe some crazy scientist will work out how we warn each other by the low vibrations we emit and turn it into a weapon of mass terror. Humans will rush around, killing indiscriminately. You think it’s impossible? Take a good look at the world you have created for yourselves, and then come back to do what you do best: argue. This one, I’m afraid, you’ll lose.
So the worms will eat at my roots and birds will clean their bills on my branches. Lightning might strike and leave an ugly scar. That’s okay. Me and my friends accept the hardships of life. Despite everything, we’ll still make blossoms every spring.
But I want to warn you: people are on their way out. They won’t last. If you don’t change now, you’ll be the last generation.
In years to come a silver ship with tiny windows will land here. A being will trace my scars with his long fingers and collect a bit of bark. He’ll get back to his ship and take out a machine, and he’ll look at my cells. He’ll find everything there: bits of elephant DNA; the residue of the knife that carved that date; the layers of plutonium in the rings, silent testimony of the last explosion. Then he’ll bring others and they’ll marvel at the accuracy of my record keeping.
So I cannot remain silent any more. I know most of you will read this and tell each other it is a good story. Sadly, it isn’t. Surely you cannot ignore a tree if it starts talking to you?
But then again, knowing humans, I suppose I’m wasting my breath.
So long, then…
(Discrimination was not invented in South Africa. And it still exists, world-wide…)
“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’….”