Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Trees as Historians

Recently I’ve been talking with people in my village about deforestation and the history of the village, and I’m starting to see our village’s trees in a new light. In training, we emphasize the utilitarian aspects of trees –live fencing, fruit, windbreaks, fodder, etc. – but trees are also markers of local history. (I also got thinking about this while reading A Sand County Almanac, in which Aldo Leopold gives a beautiful elegy for an oak as a marker of Wisconsin history.)

According to those I’ve spoken with, my village is about 100 years old. It was founded by my host father’s grandfather, a Wolof man named Biran Gone, who came from Sama Toucaleur, a nearby village that is today mostly Pulaar. Biran Gone decided on the location of the new village, Sama Ndiayen, when he saw a suitable pénc tree, a soto (Ficus) that is still a regular meeting place and hang-out during hot afternoons. It’s probably 50m tall and is the tallest tree in the village today.

When I heard that the village was founded 100 years ago by Wolofs, I wondered if there was more to the story. I’d heard that Toucaleurs and Sereers dominated the area until about 100 years ago, when more Wolofs came in to farm peanuts with French encouragement. I asked my friend Papa if Sama Ndiayen didn’t replace an old Sereer or Toucaleur village that preceded it in this spot, as I’ve heard happened elsewhere. He said no, and look at the baobabs if I didn’t believe him. He explained that planting baobabs was one of the first things people used to do after founding a new settlement, because they were useful for so many things – bark for rope-making, leaves for cere (cous-cous), fruit for the dish laax. Papa pointed out a large baobab, and said that it, like most of the others, were the age of the village.

I was skeptical about this - the tree was one of the biggest, nearly 2m diameter, which I thought was too large for only 100 years. I wanted to see for myself, so I counted the rings on a similar-sized baobab that had recently been cut down. (Papa says that decades ago, it was a big deal to cut down a baobab, but now that there are synthetic ropes and people use milk to make laax, they have less use for the tree and cut it more often. I’ve seen three baobabs cut to make space for new concrete houses, and felt the earth shake as they hit the ground, in the year I’ve been here.) Anyway, dating the tree was a challenge since the core was rotten, but I counted 33 rings in the unrotten outer 37 cm, and found that the total diameter was 185cm, i.e. the radius was 92.5 cm. If the ring width stayed the same throughout the cross section, that would make for 83 total rings, but since rings in the center are usually fatter, 83 might be an overestimate. But by how much? And people harvesting bark from the tree presents another complication. How many years did bark removal erase from the tree’s record? It’s hard to be sure of the trees’ age, and thus of the village’s age. If only trees could talk. In the meantime, it seems like 100 years is not a bad estimate.

Some recent photos from the rainy season:

My host sister-in-law, Nday, pointing out the camera to her 7 month-old daughter, Fatou. I'm no baby connoisseur, but I have got to say that this is one of the cutest babies I've ever seen.

My friend Papa's granddaughter, Anta. She's not as cute as Fatou. In Senegal, it's culturally appropriate to tell someone their baby isn't as cute as someone else's, in fact it's a popular joke to tell someone that their newborn is ugly. I still feel foreign enough that this sounds offensive to me, so I won't go that far...and I must say Anta is getting cuter - she's already improved remarkably in the month or so since this photo was taken. And you know what they say about the ugly duckling...

My friend Mandow, the master farmer's son, in the rice field at the master farm. The master farm has clay soil that is difficult to farm other crops on, but it worked well for rice.

A mango tree we grafted at the master farm.

Goats are conniving pests. This one is not only tied up but also has its mouth seeled shut, yet I wouldn't be totally surprised if it still finds a way to invade and eat someone's garden.

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