Tree

Maximilian Chen - Senegal


January 6, 2014

An unfortunate burden that I’ve had to shoulder for most of my life has been my troubled history as a juvenile con artist. In my earlier years, I recall exhibiting a predilection for faking advanced literary capability. As do most delinquents, I started small. Scores upon scores of elementary school classroom minutes were spent frantically turning through installment after installment of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, each of which was functionally a first-grader’s equivalent of Joyce or Faulkner. On dozens of arbitrary grade-level reading proficiency benchmarks I made sure to announce that I was placing myself at the highest possible level. It didn’t take long before I gained the adoration of my classmates, I Jordan in a class of Pippens and Rodmans.

In reality I took just as long as any of my peers to finish any book sans cute illustrations à la Quentin Blake, but in the classroom I was the Ayrton Senna of children’s literature, effortlessly blazing through two tomes a week in plain view of my peers, the pinnacle of six-year-old erudition incarnate. Another time, toting my newly-borrowed library copy of Homer’s The Iliad around during a Boy Scouts of America information session, making sure to furrow my brow quizzically at the exact moment that a parent tossed an errant glance my way, then catching his or her eye with a piercing stare, as if to say, yeah. Your son? Literary plebian. But my eight-year-old self would then look back to the words on the pages in front of me, most of which I had absolutely no contextual understanding. I knew these words, I could look them up in my dictionary, yet to a mind solely concerned with flaunting its catalogue of read books, they meant nothing to me.

Antoine Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince was not a book that I felt had very much potential in the showing-off department. The juvenile drawing on its cover suggested that it lacked the classical virtues of Homer or the accessible intellectualism of Vonnegut, and it was a slim excuse for a novel, barely thicker than an eraser. Nonetheless, I chose to slog through it, and in a somewhat obvious turn of events its significance was lost on me (as were most things). Yet one thing from this time that held a strange longevity in my mind was the oft-mentioned image of the baobab trees, threatening to crush the Prince’s planet by merely existing. More specifically, Saint-Exupery’s rendering of the baobab itself, the much-maligned tree that was also one of the most recognizable ambassadors of African biomass, somehow slowly began to infect my psyche.

Following my first reading of Le Petit Prince, the baobab, whose likeness is one of two prominently-displayed images on the Senegalese coat of arms (the other being, somewhat predictably, a lion), quietly took its place as one of the most bizarrely fascinating objects in the world in my mind’s eye. For all intents and purposes, the Baobab Tree was a lofty myth, an exotic emblem of lands beyond my own. While the consensus interpretation sees Saint-Exupery’s baobabs as an allusion to the then-unprecedented rise of Fascism, I was enthralled with the idea of the baobab as symbol of virtue. For what, I had no idea.  By no means was my coming to Senegal merely a vehicle for facilitating my first encounter with the baobab, but I’m sure some part of me relished this as such an opportunity.

It has taken me eighteen years of my life to come face-to-periderm with a baobab, or at least to recognize that I was seeing one. The evergreens of the American West Coast may win out in sheer size, but the baobab is ineffably majestic by comparison. The barren streets of Dakar were almost completely devoid of vegetation, the road to Ngaye even more so. Often, traveling these roads, we would zip by a lone baobab planted imposingly in a clearing highlighted by dry, parched grass. Each time I would take note of the way its growth made it look the very picture of an inebriated Ent, its gnarly branches attempting to tear the skyline into tiny morsels of cloud and aquamarine ether. This baobab was Saint-Exupery’s Baobab As An Allegory For The Nazis, a sort of leech, storing the lion’s share of available water as the grass around it suffered a ceaseless, excruciating death.

Yet as each day passes in Ngaye, I find that my unhealthy fascination with the baobab has failed to wane in the slightest. Each day that I spend on the rooftop of my living space, I can make out the faint dotting of the baobabs in the distance against the crimson of the retiring West African sun. Not once has that image failed to invoke in me the unwavering timelessness of the baobab, of its endurance in a landscape that suggests, and simultaneously obfuscates, a verdant former self. Above all, the baobab serves as a constant reminder that I am but a fleeting presence in a ceaseless natural landscape. I’ve encountered my fair share of difficulties while in Ngaye, and my compulsion to think on them with great depth and more clarity often consumes me, but I am comforted knowing that in some small way, I have realized a lifelong goal of sorts. Maybe it’s not one of world-shaking self-discovery, but then again, maybe it is.

Maximilian Chen