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26 May 2008

Paradise lost

As you've no doubt noticed, I've been a tad busy lately. I had to study for finals, did a load of microscopy, got my first tangible results in the lab, and went on a roadtrip across the Southwest US. Now I'm home, listening to the rain (and Róisín Murphy), but thinking about deserts.


When I was very young, I discovered an old book on the dark shelves of my grandfather's house during one of our December holiday visits. The text and photographs in this book detailed vanished cultures and the mysterious objects they left behind: the jungle ruins of the Maya, the moai of Easter Island, the standing stones at Carnac. The most arresting image in the whole book was of a gravel plain in the Sahara simply littered with abandoned millstones. That was the moment I realized that the environment is not a static thing: the Sahara was green once. Buried beneath its dunes and sand drifts lie intricate networks of river valleys carved into the bedrock. Some 10,000 years ago, the continued retreat of the European ice sheets of the last glacial period had shifted the monsoons to the north. This converted the plains of the Sahara to grassy savannah and covered the slopes of its mountains with forest. Humans settled in the area; the art they created illustrated herds of cattle and a menagerie of wild animals like antelope, elephants, giraffes and even crocodiles. About 6,000 years ago, the Sahara began to dry out again. Rock art from this period depicts the rapid loss of once-plentiful grazing land, as well as subsequent battles over the diminishing resources. The savannah and the forests are gone. The Sahara is a place for nomads now.


The Ténéré is a vast sea of dunes bordered by mountain ranges in the Sahara region of Niger. For centuries the Tuareg have run their azalai salt caravans through this hostile environment, traditionally with caravans numbering up to 20,000 camels - as witnessed by French colonial forces in the early 20th century - and using smaller convoys of off-road vehicles today. In this featureless wasteland, bereft of water and shade, grew a solitary, stunted Acacia tree. Even though its height was no more than three metres, it was visible from miles away. It became an important desert landmark, a sacred place for repose and the only single tree to be indicated on maps with a scale of 1:4,000,000. With its closest neighbours more than 400 km away, it was the most isolated tree on Earth: the last surviving member of the ancient Saharan forests.


In 1939, a well dug by the French military at the Tree of Ténéré revealed that its roots reached down to the water table, 35 m underground. To the Tuareg this tree, estimated at 300 years old, was not only a navigational point of reference but also a symbol of life itself, protected from harm. Not a single leaf was fed to a camel, not a single branch was broken for firewood. In his notes for 21 May 1939, Michel Lesourd, Commandant des A.M.M. of the Service Central des Affaires Sahariennes, wrote, 'There is a kind of superstition, a tribal order which is always respected. Each year the azalai gather round the Tree before facing the crossing of the Ténéré. The Acacia has become a living lighthouse; it is the first or the last landmark for the azalai leaving Agadez for Bilma, or returning.' A true miracle, this tenacious tree. So why am I writing about the Arbre du Ténéré in the past tense?


When Raymond Mauny travelled to the tree during the 1959 Berliet-Ténéré Mission, he noticed with alarm that the tree no longer resembled Lesourd's photograph from 1939 (above), noting that, 'It was the victim of an automobile accident; a military lorry, backing, had broken one of its principal branches. This branch had been sawn up and used, and the bit of trunk that remained had been trimmed. Is it not still considered to be taboo?'. Fellow explorer Henri Lhote, who had previously seen the tree in 1934 remarked, 'Before, this tree was green and with flowers; now it is a colourless thorn tree and naked. I cannot recognise it - it had two very distinct trunks. Now there is only one, with a stump on the side, slashed rather than cut, a metre from the soil'.


In 1973, an - allegedly drunk - Libyan truck driver lost control of his vehicle, veering off the road and right into the Arbre du Ténéré, the only tree in a 400 km radius. The tree did not survive this second collision. On 8 November 1973, the dead Tree of Ténéré was taken to the Niger National Museum in Niamey, where it can still be seen, caged off in a sad little enclosure. A sculpture has been erected where it once stood, a metal tree that doesn't require water, doesn't mind a couple of knocks. And so the slow and inevitable desertification of the Ténéré region was completed, albeit with a little help from us and our machines. The Sahara desert is inexorably expanding, drowning the Sahel to the south, reaching with sandy fingers towards the Mediterranean. Time brings change. Although not in our lifetime, or even that of our children's children, a time will come when the Sahara will be green once more, rest assured. In geological time, one wretched little tree means nothing, I know this. Yet I can't help feeling sad for its passing. Not in my lifetime. Not in my lifetime...



Photography credits: Ténéré desert landscape © Alessandro Vannucci; the Tree in 1971 © Peter Krohn; new tree sculpture © Shepherd family; Please visit these astounding photographers for more desert delights.

13 comments:

ChrisEldin said...

I'm on my way out, but will be back later to read yet another fascinating post.

Hope your road trip was fun!

Aine said...

Part of me wants to weep for the passing of that tree and part of me wants to howl with laughter at the irony that a drunk driver managed to hit the only obstacle in a 400 km radius!

It is a fascinating story-- one that should be shared again and again. As humans, we really must understand our power to protect as well as our power to destroy an environment.

I wonder how that tree came to grow there-- the area was desert long before the tree existed. Did the seed get carried to that location by a passing animal?

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

chris: it was a lot of fun! The Mojave is gorgeous. And Las Vegas is evil.

aine: what are the odds? And it happened twice! Desertification is a slow and gradual process. As the forest slowly withdraws over a matter of centuries, there are always a couple of stragglers left behind. Who knows what the tree density of that part of the world was like 300 years ago? Probably not much different from today, but perhaps there were a few more scattered and isolated trees such as this one, keeping the desert scantily populated, but populated all the same. Arid environments are seldom devoid of life.

Lisa said...

This just brings tears to my eyes. It makes me think about the species of animals and plants and insects that quietly die out, unnoticed. See? There goes another...

Shimmerrings said...

Beautiful story, and an important one... it is sad, indeed. I believe as you, that things will come back 'round again. Us humans, we are so small in the scheme of things. As my nephew so aptly put it, Mother Earth will, one day, take a dip in a gigantic flea bath, and just shake us off like a bunch of pesty fleas,

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

lisa: and there goes another. Not all creatures have been catalogued. The worst is that we are losing what we don't even know we had.

shimmerings: I like your nephew. Wise young man.

Angela said...

Wow. The entire story of what we've done, are doing, to the planet, right there in the tale of one tree in the desert. Then again, no tree lasts forever. Always interesting here.

ChrisEldin said...

What a sad story. I'm going to share this with my desert-husband (I have mountain blood).
I heard or read a long time ago that when you are driving, you inevitably drive toward whatever you're looking at. So if the drunk driver were looking at the tree, in a way fixated by the tree but in no way intending to run into it, he was still going to hit it.

Very sad though. How do you find these topics? I thoroughly enjoy the photos and how you write about them.

singleton said...

Ahhh, you write for my soul....true story fables...to learn from, to grow from....
Why is it that we always destroy what is most precious, sacred?

Beautiful, beautiful telling of the giving tree....
the one who lent his arms and shade to years of change, dreams, strangers, hope....

I love the way you see.....

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

angela: "no tree lasts forever". What makes us think the words we print on their bodies will?

chriseldin: seems like a pretty sound explanation. I like the photographs too. Especially the really grainy b&w one from the 1930s.

singleton: I love the way you feel... that is the purpose of my writing here. To stimulate the senses. And the conscience.

jason evans said...

What a jaw-dropping story, EOH.

Thank you, as always, for introducing us to those tremendous dramas which nevertheless seem to get consumed by the constant avalanche of lesser things.

Claire said...

I was fascinated that the tree's roots were able to get all the way down to the water table. Quite an accomplishment. Its demise is a sad story, but one often told regarding the interactions between humans and nature. We are all part of a bigger cycle that I don't think we really understand. I would echo what shimmerrings wrote about mother earth shaking off the parasites. Isn't there some way to find balance? Not anytime soon, I fear.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

jasonevans: thank you, as always, for showing an interest in my digital garden.

claire: much of what makes plants interesting is hidden beneath the surface.