Mightiest in the forest
One of my favorite parts of my own book, if you’ll forgive this self-involved and almost solipsistic observation, is a chapter introduced by various musings on the Ceiba tree, that towering, massive denizen of American tropical forests. In Cuba the Ceiba has been incorporated into both home-grown biblical fable and local folklore, including a Camagüey version of the great flood. It is the only species in which the rare and endemic Giant Kingbird will deign to make its nest, and it is of immense metaphorical and curative value to santeros, those practitioners of African forms of healing and magic imported to the Caribbean by the slaves. The tree is even recognized as its own santería orísha, the deity Iroko. But, as I point out (citing the anthropologist Lydia Cabrera in Walking to Guantánamo), the elder generation of Africans transplanted to Cuba recognized that the Ceiba “is not the legitimate Iroko.” They called the mighty Ceiba Iroko because it reminded them of home, of Africa’s most majestic tree, which grows across the length and breadth of sub-Saharan Africa.
The true Iroko is of course the Baobab. Under the right conditions it can grow to dizzying heights, but the tree is perhaps most impressive for its ability to convert sunlight into raw bulk and girth. The leaves and branches are disproportionately small and spindly in comparison to its trunk, a mammoth woody reservoir from which the tree draws in the extensive months of African drought. On Manda Island, just across the channel from Lamu, where I have been enjoying a few days of pure rest and relaxation courtesy of my old friend Fazal, the Baobabs are not overly tall, but some of them have the diameter of a Midwestern grain silo or the watertowers whose function they essentially share. In the same way that a whale or an elephant can only be seen as an awesome and impressive creature, the Baobab has a dignity, gravity and majesty that befits it as the leader among trees.