A Home in the Trees

A refuge in the garden (source: treehouse company)

Climbing a tree is a universal joy while growing up and constructing a tree house is a further source of fun, especially as an exclusive meeting place barring adults. Schemes for alien defense, gender battles and plots for world domination are often hatched, until we are told to come down or grow up, or when such an abode no longer inspires our imagination.

Nutritious Sago grubs are a delicacy

However, there are some people who are never told to grow up and climb down, and for whom the tree is an endless source of joy, shelter and essential part of family life. These people are the Korowai and Kombai tribes who live in the dense forest of West Papua in Indonesia, and until 1975 had hardly any contact with the outside world. A large portion of their life is spent 20 to 40 metres above ground in tree houses, and on notable occasions eating the nutritious delicacies of sago grubs.

The tree houses are constructed relatively quickly and provide a good defense against warring tribes, floods and biting insects. The pig is the local currency and a sacred animal, while ritual cannabilism was apparently practiced more in the past. However, once dead, the Korowai believe their souls travel to the underworld along a ‘Major Causeway’ and are welcomed by their ancestors. After a while there they can choose to reincarnate back into a child that is about to be born.

Korowai tree house

Home, sweet home

Constructing a tree house is begun by choosing a sturdy Banyan tree and then removing the crown. Thinner poles provide the framework while the bark of the sago palm is used for the floor and walls, and leaves provide roofing. Similar to most cultures, marriage normally initiates a new house.

For these two tribes, the tree is far more than a provision of shade and beauty, but a home and a source of comfort. Contact has been growing with the outside world, but I imagine there would be some confusion when describing current rates of deforestation and the behaviour of more ‘civilised’ humans.

Vistas of the forest: an old Korowai tree house

The Art of Trees

Namibian rock art by San people, giraffes, hunters and a tree.

As we became more conscious of ourselves and the landscape we inhabited the tree played a part in our early art. This could be representing their form as a background to a story, as in hunting scenes by the San in Namibia or early Mesopotamians, or possible use as a marker by Australian aborigines to signify a sacred site. Representation over the years has been influenced by the tree’s innate symbolism (The Meme of Trees) as well as their natural beauty.

Early Mesopotamian hunting scene in the forest. Stone tablet (2250 – 2150 BC)

Aboriginal carvings most likely showing a sacred site in the area, New South Wales, Australia. (http://www.australiangeographic.com.au)

Drawing trees starts early for most of us…

We start building links to our environment at an early age and all of us would have drawn a tree at pre-school or while scribbling with crayons at home. Those who chose a life in art have given us a vision of trees in many different ways, and I shall be sharing some of them below.

View of la Crescenza, 1648-50. Claude Lorrain, oil on canvas.

With its disciplined simplicity, Japanese ink paintings have often provided scenes of contemplation and harmony. Persimmon Tree by Nakamura Hochu, early 19th century

The vivid colour of Vincent van Gogh. Peach Tree in Bloom, 1888.

Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life, 1908. “Ornament to Klimt is a metaphor of matter itself in a state of perpetual mutation, ceaselessly evolving, turning, spiralling, undulating, twisting, a violent whirlwind that assumes all shapes, zigzags of lightning and flickering tongues of serpents, tangles of vines, links of chains, flowing veils, fragile threads.” – Ludwig Hevesi, art critic

An example of American impressionism. Golden Afternoon by Childe Hassam, 1908.

The Three Sphinxes of Bikini, 1947. The U.S. conducted 23 nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll after WWII. This inspired Salvador Dali’s ‘Les Trois Sphinx de Bikini’. Is it a tree, a human head or a mushroom cloud?

Trees and Their Afterlife: The Story of Wood

A guitar crafted in zebrawood

Few living organisms are as beneficial to humans during the course of their life, and thereafter, in their death, as the tree. After its demise it continues to provide wood for human construction, furniture and fuel, musical instruments and works of art, cricket bats, chopsticks and toothpicks. It seems natural to admire a beautiful wooden table or parquet flooring often above their manmade material counterparts. It is a substance familiar to humans and there is a story in all our homes tying wood to the course of our lives.

The Wonderwerk Cave in the Kalahari, South Africa. Evidence suggest early humans were around the fire 1.9 million years ago

In older homes, for example, in a massive cave at the edge of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, scientists have uncovered an extensive record of human occupation including the evidence of plant ash and charred bone fragments. In this cavern, called the Wonderwerk Cave, humans were gathered round the fire 1.9 million years ago enjoying the benefits of warmth and more digestible food. These were humans even before our current species, most likely Homo erectus, and one must wonder at the stories within their smoky home.

Irish whisky maturing in oak barrels

We still enjoy the taste of wood smoke, whether it be smoked salmon or Lancashire cheese, the Sunday barbeque or the smoked tofu. And how would our whiskies and bourbons taste without Quercus robur (European oak), Quercus alba (American oak) and Quercus mongolica (Japanese oak)? And let us not forget the natural properties of wood. It is an insulator 15 times more effective than masonry and 400 times more than steel, thus explaining why wooden window frames are thermally efficient. Wood is a natural polymer – cellulose fibers in parallel strands are held by a lignin binder. These long strands of fibers resist stress and spread the load or force over their length, making a break across the grain difficult.

Logging in the Amazon

But these boons provided by wood have made the tree ever so popular, so popular that demand exceeds supply. Traditional logging where only large trees were removed and where natural regeneration was permitted, has changed to commercial logging where yields are examined per unit area, and vast swathes are cut removing many species. Even if replanted these areas are usually poor in life as they contain monocultures. So while an ever part of our lives which will continue for years to come, we should pay attention to the wood in our homes and where it comes from, making an effort to choose varieties from sustainably harvested forests.

Creating Forests: The Story of Abdul Kareem

In the wake of deforestation and unbridled development, cynicism and despondence may be natural reactions. Although negative emotions may eventually be a catalyst for action, some individuals have planted trees entirely alone and unpressured, with no gain other than seeing Nature come into being. One such story began in 1977, featuring a lone Indian, Abdul Kareem.

Abdul Kareem

Strolling near to his village in Kerala, Abdul was painfully aware of the barren hillsides and on impulse purchased 5 acres of desolate rock with a miserable well. He was instantly popular with the villagers, but only as a source of comedy. One year later, with dreams of a sacred grove (kauvi), he began to plant mature saplings between the rocks. He would load up jerricans a kilometre away and attach them to his motorbike, driving back and forth manually watering each tree. The first plantation unfortunately perished, so he proceeded with a second, and these perished too. The dream was using all surplus cash from his travel business and his family was starting to panic. However, with the third planting several saplings survived and started to grow and Abdul purchased another 32 acres of barren and dusty rock, much to his family’s amazement.

A forest created by one man

For 3 years he nursed the saplings using his motorbike and then one day the level in the well began to rise. He also placed little water pots amongst the saplings to attract birds and promote the natural scattering of seed. Over 25 years he eventually planted 800 species of trees and 300 medicinal herbs, not once weeding, gathering leaves or pruning, and never using fertilizers or pesticides, simply allowing Nature to function. Hare, fowl and small game moved in, along with large beehives. The well could now supply 100,000 litres a day and the water level adjusted quickly, indicating his forest had dramatically altered the water table.

Abdul Kareem and his flowing well

Good news spread and Abdul found his face in the newspapers, and the local government rewarded him with a not-so-sustainable petrol pump which became his source of income. When asked about his creation and his efforts he simply said “Deep inside everyone of us is a call to the wild” and that “much of the impatience, discontent or violence around us is due to the lack of opportunity to reconnect with where we came from. For sanity and generosity of spirit, we should be able to witness Nature at its unceasing, rejuvenating work.”

sources:  http://www.goodnewsindia.com/Pages/content/inspirational/abdulKareem.html