Thursday, April 4, 2013

How the mighty have fallen

There are many beautiful, interesting plants and trees in Ikland. But my favorite tree is the African Pencil Cedar (Juniperus procera), which the Ik call asunán. These magnificent trees only grow in this area on mountain slopes and plateaus above six thousand feet in elevation. They give the otherwise typical East African landscape a strange alpine aura. This blog is a tribute to these wonderful trees whose very existence in this area is under serious threat. They have been sentinels overlooking these lonely hills for centuries, and now they are succumbing to man-made dangers.

Here is a picture of one asunán standing tall and proud not too far from our home:


And the tops of two others (bottom of the photo) in the valley east of our home (see the grass-thatched roofs):


Like other types of cedar, the wood of asunán is very strong and aromatic. It is so strong that you cannot put a nail in it, and because of its potent resins, the wood is impervious to both termites and water/soil damage. The Ik say a structure made of asunán wood will outlive its human inhabitants. Because of this, asunán wood is very valuable, not only to the Ik but also other neighboring tribes like the Dodoth. This means that asunán timber is being harvested at an unprecedented rate. Most of the living trees in the vicinity of human habitations show signs of being hacked and dismembered for their straight limbs:



The result is hundreds of beautiful, straight, sweet-smelling, and naturally 'treated' poles used for making houses, doors, fences, or whatever:


This (mostly illegal) harvesting of cedars is one major threat to their survival. The other is also mostly brought about by people: fire. Natural wild fires do occur during dry season, but usually they are set by people, either hunters wanting to burn off brush to make hunting easier, shepherds who want new grass for their herds, or villagers who want to reduce cover for snakes and other pests. The problem is, unlike many other trees in this area, the mighty asunán are susceptible to fire damage. The resins in their bark and wood readily burn and smolder. Even adult trees are nearly defenseless. When a brush fires rages through the grass and underbrush, it can reduce an adult asunán to charcoal:



When this happens to the bark of the tree, the tree might continue living for years, half dead, half alive, like the tree in this photo (I should also mention that lightning also tends to them):



Or, like the tree below, it might eventually die completely:


Then, year after year, and fire after fire, the remains of the dried out trees are gradually turned to dust and ash, living macabre monuments of time's destructive power across the landscape:



By this time, in the area where we live, there are far more asunán stumps than there are living trees. In dry season, if you talk a walk through the bush, you will see stump after stump, like these below:




How the mighty have fallen! When I reflect on how slowly these trees grow, and in what hard, rocky soil they put their roots down into, I have great respect for them. If only these old trees could talk, could tell us stories of the past. How the drought and floods ravaged the land. How generations of warriors spilt each other's blood over cattle. How many sunrises and sunsets marked the passage of years. But they cannot tell us, not directly at least, and now I fear their future is in jeopardy. These giants will continue to fall until there are no more of them. Unless, of course, we can figure out how to propagate them and learn how to grow and manage them as a renewable timber resource.

Asunáník, I salute you!


1 comment:

rln said...

Son, I couldn't help but notice the "kinship" between the name of the tree "asunan" and your signature "asunaik." Is that a play on words or mere happenstance or . . .? -dad