Palms and Cedars

The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedars in Lebanon.

The year was 1998. I was a little boy. I had learned to read the previous year and was consuming every written thing- scraps of newspaper, grocery lists, pamphlets, novels, Children’s storybooks and doodle collections, The Bible, dictionaries even, with a voracious appetite. The inscription was on a calendar on the wall of our living room. The conditions we lived in then were squalid to put things modestly, but that is a story for another day.

There were a few trees like that in the forests close to where we lived. The palm in the picture looked like one of them in particular. I always found myself wondering if they had taken a picture of that one for the calendar. I was young and my mind was free from the clutches of real life thinking. I could dream. 

We moved from there and lived in many other places, before returning here, to the same place where we lived then. The place is quite different now. The forests that once surrounded us on every side are gone. Only a few trees from the old guard remain. There is a vast open place that houses some kind of industrial complex. There is a section for woodworking, another that makes plastic bottles and bottles mineral water from the underground aquifers, another section makes styrofoam mattresses, another section processes agricultural products, yet another section works aluminum and a few other metals on a small to medium scale. 

The forests didn’t just disappear like mist. They were cut down- one tree at a time, slowly, steadily. In some parts of the compound, erosion started making gullies where there had been none before. They made the gullies into a landfill.  There used to be a beautiful small hill, more like a knoll, not too far from where we used to live, but one day I heard while we were away, they called tractors and bulldozers and levelled it. They tore away all the shrubs and bushes growing on it. Luckily, they didn’t need dynamite. It was mostly earth and some loose rock. They made  concrete sidewalks and paved the roads with interlocking stone-dust tiles. There used to be some fruit trees around the hill. We used to climb them and pluck the ripe fruits during their seasons in those days. They were cut down. Then for shade, or to break the newfound monotony of the landscape, I don’t know which, they planted ornamental pines and a few other such trees to line the sidewalks and roads. 

Development had come to these parts. In my dialect, that would transliterate to ” the land is opening up”

Yesterday, I went to refill some water bottles at the water purification and bottling factory. I looked North, towards the Styrofoam factory and again they were cutting down some trees. My heart was literally breaking with the branches. As the chainsaw hacked away at them, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. There were some Neem trees, a tree I didn’t know it’s name, the only one of it’s kind in the vicinity and… you guessed it, a tall, nicely greyed over Oilpalm tree. Rustic and majestic, head and shoulders over everything else.

I saw them mark the Neem trees for destruction. And I heard the collective sigh of relief from those who didn’t make the cut. I saw them mull over that lone tree, disagreeing on whether it was to live or die. They couldn’t agree on what exactly needed to be done, and the tree was let be for the time being. Then the chainsaw was directed to the root of the palm tree. 

 do you have any idea how long it takes for a palmnut to germinate? My guess is no. 

For commercial industrial/ plantation production, it takes around 6 months of hydration, drying, rehydration and incubation to get sufficient germination. In the wild, it can take up to 2 years for a palm nut discarded on the forest floor to become a tender shoot. Now think about how long it takes for the tree to mature. It requires careful grooming. Successive branches are cut down, while new ones sprout from the centre and thus it grows. Meanwhile, you have to be careful no to cut too close to the centre or the tree will die. Imagine how long it takes for it to start flowering and fruiting. Most palm trees do not fruit every year. The bunches often require more than one year to grow to full size and then start to ripen.  

Palm oil is the life blood of the cosmetics industry. Soap, creams, shampoo, make up, virtually everything that is applied on the skin involves palm oil at one stage or the other, of production.  In my culture, we use the branches- they are called fronds- to sweep the outer courtyards of our homesteads. We strip the leaves and bunch the spines together to make brooms for sweeping the interior hard floors. Every single house in Nigeria has several such brooms. The leaves are fed to livestock. When trees are too old and are no longer friting, the trunk is used for timber. The wood is very strong and has natural termite repellent properties. Some of the ferns that grow on the body of the tree have medicinal properties, or so I have heard. The fibre that grows over old, cut branches are used to make sponges. Perhaps most famously, palm wine is tapped by making strategic cuts towards the crown and leaving containers to collect the juice. It is sweet when freshly tapped, but can be left to ferment a little to acquire some sting and of course, some buzz. Every weekend, indeed every other day, spicy meals are downed with fresh palm wine- the Nigerian panacea to the menace of everything wrong with our society. 

Such efficiency. 

In a few minutes, a tree most probably older than all of us standing in the area came down. In true royal stoicness, she didn’t utter one yelp of pain, not one moan, not one groan. When she was flat on the ground, I saw that she was bearing fruit- it hadn’t had the time to ripen yet, though. 

They turned around and started talking dimensions and measurements. I never heard anyone talk about planting any trees to replace these fallen giants.

Now, several years from our days of squalid living, we have a decent roof over our heads, pipe borne water, comfortable furniture, pots, dishes and kitchenware a-plenty, clean clothes in our closet and on our backs. From our balcony on the front, we can sit  and enjoy some of the most vivid and colourful sunsets known to man. From here too, at night, we can see the gas flares from the oil rigs in Port-Harcourt. If you want to catch a pretty sunrise, then the back balcony is your spot.

We paid more than money to get here

Oh, I didn’t mention. My father was there too, as the trees fell down, wearing a hard hat. The project had to go on. 

The irony!


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