You can listen to the voice recording, or read through the narrative below
Most of us walk past trees so regularly that we hardly notice them. Out in the African savannah, they are so abundant that it can easily blunt the senses and the spirit of even the most ardent arborist. But, if we care to pay attention, trees, in life or in death, invariably make all but the most callous among us, want to gush “beautiful, pleasing, charming, soothing, elegant, impressive, sad, quaint,” and the like.
In their natural environment trees are truly magnificent. On the African savannah they are almost infinitely varied. Each one has a unique life story, and each story, patiently shaped over years of violence and tranquillity, abundance and drought, produces a unique individual specimen, even within the same species.
Trees are worthy recipients of accolades, yet they stand silent and modest, humbly going about their business of survival and reproduction, yielding, without bitterness, to adversity and pressure, withdrawing without resentment when not needed, yet thriving gratefully when wanted and given sustenance, all the while providing food and shelter to many.
And what do we know about these wonderful beings, which, in so many ways, can serve (for they would ask no more) as the ultimate icons of our most lofty ideals? To be sure, the botanists know a great deal, in the scientific sense. But most of us are not botanists. We experience trees only in the visual and spiritual sense.
To me, trees are a vital part of what makes the African wilderness alluring. In either dense or sparces stands, they give it its unique character. Wandering among them pleases and soothes me. They regularly shelter and protect me, they sometimes give me sustenance, even encourage me, and often they nourish my spirit and inspire me. They just make out such a large and, I often think, easily overlooked part of my memories of the bush.
And the engineer’s mind finds trees fascinating from a scientific perspective. How did they find the formula for such structural strength, or for such highly effective bark to protect them? How did they arrive at the strategy to produce thorns to protect them against aggression? How did they find the formula for making the thorns so hard and so sharp that many can penetrate the toughest rubber, or cut the skin like a surgical needle? How did they know to shape and position them so cleverly that they will not fail to find their mark, and leave wounds not easily forgotten, or realise that they can save the energy needed to make them, by not placing them in areas that are not vulnerable? How did they find out how to position their pods so that they can be plucked by browsers when they are ripe without too much interference from the thorns, to be distributed more effectively? How did they learn to withdraw their sap from their cells and outer limbs and drop their leaves to keep from freezing when it gets really cold – or to produce custom-made anti-freeze or special wax coating for protection? How did some (or all?) learn to quickly produce more tannins when they come under stress from browsers?
The engineering mind has many more questions about trees – about animals and insects too, and the botanists and zoologists and biologists would have precise scientific answers to many. Most, I suspect, would receive that single and, I am sometimes tempted to think, rather over-weight word “evolution” as answer. That may or may not be true in all cases, and that weighty theory might serve to calm the inquisitive mind, but the precise mechanisms would remain unexplained and leave the engineering mind to defer to the poetic mind, and allow some mystery to creep in.
Yes, some delicious mystique: How is it that we are so drawn to trees? Is the reason a purely utilitarian one – something like “a structural convenience?”
Or is it that we can often see in the life and death of trees expressions of our own sorrows and joys? Is it that they calm us, or inspire our artistic instincts, or are able to beckon us with their beauty and serenity? Is it that they amaze us with their magnificence, or astonishing resilience? Is it perhaps pheromonal, or do they have some kind of sentience that we subconsciously perceive and are attracted to?
The engineering mind understands these questions to belong to a realm where the disciplines and techniques it is master of are of limited use, and it retreats with a nod, not of defeat, but of respect. Now the poetic mind comes to the fore to frolic in the boundless possibilities of imagination.