The Remarkable Baobab
Dear Mr. Pakenham:
If a book can change a life, Mr. Pakenham, yours changed mine.
I know it sounds strange when I say my hand found the book by feel, that it was the smooth, silky sheen of the book jacket that first enticed me to select it from the trough at the secondhand book store. If you could tell me what kind of paper they used, I would be most grateful. The sensation was so unlike the actual picture on the front of the book, which truthfully would not have attracted me at the time, when I was more interested in reading about space aliens in Alabama or the illustrated history of Harley Davidson. But here was a pockmarked, space alien of a tree, clinging to the earth with a thousand tentacles. A moonscape of a tree that filled the front cover of your book.
The book felt so silky on my hands I could hardly imagine anyone could part with it. But PLEASE don’t think people are hawking your book as common fodder at secondhand bookstores. I am a frequenter of such venues and this is the first time I have seen The Remarkable Baobab1 – truly a rare find. When I googled it, I found I could have bought it for less at amazon.com – $2.99. Shameful really, not even worth the expensive paper, or the cost of shipping. It’s a travesty, Mr. Pakenham, that such miraculous works as yours are not given the reverence they deserve. Even in the first few seconds I held The Remarkable Baobab in my hand, I could feel this book had been loved, Mr. Pakenham. Indeed the inscription inside invoked love in constrained curlicues: “To Stephanie, A small piece of Africa for you to hold on to. I hope this reminds you of home, Love Michel.”
She must have died, Mr. Pakenham, to part with a gift such as this. I can think of no other explanation. And I am grateful, as otherwise I may have forever remained ignorant of the marvels of the baobab tree.
Just in case you are wondering, I myself am not in the habit of writing to writers, but you have to know what you have done.
Your front cover was a tree from Mars, a genetically mutated elephantine tree. A tiny man on a ladder gave scale to the gargantuan beast. It seemed that any second, one of the tree’s trunk-like branches would swing down and lift the man up, swallowing him inside its massive girth. You must understand, I had never heard of, never seen a baobab. I didn’t care for trees. I nurtured no fantasies about life on the dark continent. Despite all this, the book was sacred in my hand.
I flipped pages looking for a reason to put it down, but each revealed more reasons to keep reading. Baobabs of every bizarre mutation, on some pages even an army of baobabs marching to save my soul, Mr. Pakenham, silhouettes in the African sunset – the brilliance of which leads me to believe I have never really seen a sunset. The sun is the sun is the sun, but sometimes it is more. I’ve never seen the sun anywhere else, who knows what it might look like from another angle, who knows what I don’t know. There are worlds beyond worlds beyond my world, so fantastical that if you hadn’t provided the photographs as evidence, I would not have believed the trees were real but a product of your unbelievable imagination.
I couldn’t put your book down so I took it to the counter and put down my money.
Your book has ruined me, Mr. Pakenham.
You must know better than anyone what kind of logistical problems this poses to my life. You said that an encounter with an elephantine baobab in South Africa was the “start of a dangerous love affair with baobabs.” You said you “needed the self-control of a monk not to let them take over...”
Well, Mr. Pakenham, would it not have been better for everybody if you had kept your dangerous baobab liaison to yourself instead of writing a book and spreading the contagion across the world?
When I picked up your book, I was already well on my way to my business degree, nearly done with my second of three years which certainly would have led to a respectable job as a financial analyst. I would have worked for two years and then earned my MBA from one of the top schools in the country, eventually rising to the upper echelon of the corporate ladder where my leadership skills would be called upon to sit on various boards and organizations and my family would revere me as the patriarch that I am. Instead, I sit in cafes sipping lattes, enraptured by pictures of baobabs, when I should be at study group for my Principles of Macroeconomics exam. But what could I tell my friends, Ike and Justin, Jessica and Martin? How could I explain that I haven’t prepared notes for our study group because suddenly, inexplicably, I just don’t care. How can I turn my mind to thoughts of national income distribution and elementary fiscal policies when there’s a wooden elephant in the room?
This is no ordinary procrastination. I fall asleep dreaming I am nestled in the trunk of a baobab tree like the Namibians you show drowsing after the hunt, safeguarded by the ripples and folds of the baobab trunk, a place for everyone. I awake dreaming I am reaching for the baobab fruit, also alien, dangling from the tree on a small thread over two feet long. In my dreams I roast the seeds, drink the juice from a baobab bowl, bask in the shade of an ancient. Only I can’t reach the fruit, Mr. Pakenham.
Not from here.
Sincerely, Jacob J. MacKenny
Dear Mr. Pakenham,
I’ll have you know I may well be flunking my exams because of your book, The Remarkable Baobab, which slipped into my hands two weeks before I entered the cavernous gymnasium where desk after desk creates avenues of thought. Not unlike the great avenues of baobab after baobab in Madagascar, giant cathedrals of trees worshipping the sun. How is it they pull so much life out of the sand, when I, with everything I need to eat and drink and grow, have not made nearly as much of what I have as the baobab? Growing where little else grows, providing sustenance where nothing else can, you are right to call the tree remarkable, Mr. Pakenham.
I feel very small, Mr. Pakenham, in this large gymnasium. I am dwarfed by high ceilings, a clone among clones. I see my friends across the sea of people, taking their seats, worry notched on their brows, and we all seem lost. What does this matter? Even as I sit down to write my exam, I realize I don’t want this ceiling on my life, a ceiling that will grow closer as the years go by. I want the bright, blue, open sky. I want to walk barefoot in the yellow sand among rows of towering baobabs.
But for now, my only hope of passing is the slight chance my professor will be impressed by my analysis of the principles of macroeconomics in relation to the baobab farming economy in Senegal. Not exactly something we covered in class, but perhaps worthy of extra merit, and certainly deserving bonus points for originality. At least, that is what I hope.
I am young but hollow enough already to be worried about growing old the wrong way. Not all baobabs grow straight, not all trees grow tall.
You said that when a baobab tree gets old enough it becomes hollow to belie the secret of its age. And some baobabs live a thousand years, bearing witness to countless crimes. In Australia, you showed a hollow tree where prisoners were chained inside before their trial. Like a horrid wasps’ nest, with messages from prisoners-past etched into grey, withered bark, the baobab invites prisoners in.
Prisoners like me.
I want to see a baobab, Mr. Pakenham.
Jacob J. MacKenny
Dear Mr. Pakenham,
After reading your book I began to notice something different around me. Not that anything had changed, just that I could finally see it.
I couldn’t put your book down and when I did, I was frantic, already too late for class. But it didn’t matter, because I didn’t even make it past the threshold of my parents’ house before the single eye of the birch froze me in my tracks, hypnotizing me, scrutinizing my life. I felt I was looking straight through a vortex into another time before this manufactured world. How had I walked by before, not noticing it there watching me my entire life, my elder by far with bone-smooth skin, growing as I grew. My hands passed over the cold, damp tree. All the leaves were gone, raked away, but even in this winter I felt life inside it.
I had assumed trees to be mere inanimate objects, decoration if you like, something to be maintained by gardeners and admired by ladies in botanical gardens. Here was one, as quietly alive and reaching for the sun as me.
I looked beyond the birch for a moment and saw another, the Pacific silver fir, its mottled bark etched with ancient, fading stories.
And on it continued to the bus stop, so much that by the time I got there the bus was long gone, and by the time I arrived at the university there was no point in attending the Principles of Microeconomics class which was almost over, not when there were so many stunning trees on campus that I had never really seen. Each one stopped me in my path, differently and elegantly fascinating. Before I might have almost unconsciously admired the sheen of a sports car or the fine musculature of a girl’s legs. Now I see almost nothing except for the trees.
Not baobabs to be sure, but have you ever seen the western red cedars that grow 300 feet high, dwarfing your baobabs, Mr. Pakenham? Or the monkey puzzle tree, which seems to be a reptilian monster of a thousand, prickly frozen snakes, hanging down and reaching out, about to come to life?
I’m guessing they were always here, but how is it I never noticed?
Now I have a new problem. Walking down the street has become almost impossible. Distractions are everywhere: the peeling derma of the cedars, the armadillo-like leather of the Sitka spruce, the bone-smooth birch, the deep grooves of the Ponderosa pine.
I admit when I graduated high school with stellar math scores and an impressive stock portfolio (my dad had my sister and me start junior bank accounts when we were eight) there was nothing else I wanted to do. But that’s because I wasn’t aware there was anything else I could do. My narrow view of the world. For 16 years (ever since I was old enough), I’d heard how a career in finance was the pinnacle of existence. I could be a player with the big bucks, king of the world and all that, which even now has its appeal because then a plane ticket to Madagascar would be mere petty cash.
But there are other ways to Madagascar.
All it took was a field of baobabs reaching their twisted arms to the misshapen sky and I was found.
My father doesn’t approve of my new double major of biology and environmental studies but he doesn’t know about it yet. By the time he finds out (hopefully not until graduation), I will have passed the point of no return, having not attended a business course for two years.
I can only hope that by then he will understand.
Jacob J. MacKenny
Dear Mr. Pakenham:
You have not responded to any of my letters. Never mind. This will be my last. What started the moment I opened your book has taken root in my mind growing into something strange and wonderful and you are responsible for that.
At first it was just the bark that fascinated me and drove me back to that secondhand book store where I bought every reasonable book on trees of the Pacific Northwest. While I was there, I offloaded several weighty business textbooks that were taking up valuable shelf space in my room. At this point I noticed the nearby spines of books on flowers, and birds, and insects and mushrooms and each seemed more fascinating than the last. So I lugged home a library of books, books of the life that surrounds us, the life that sustains us, brings us air and keeps us whole.
As I walked home, again, something has changed. It is not just the bark that fascinates or the shape of the tree but the sense of the tree.
A truly wonderful thing, Mr. Pakenham. I can feel the trees, Mr. Pakenham.
I’m telling you, Mr. Pakenham, because there’s no one else who would understand, not just yet. I tried to explain to my friend Ike just the simplest thing about your wonderful book but it morphed into a conversation about why he should not, under any circumstances, let my father know that I dropped all of my business classes. This he could understand, even if in his mind I’ve become as alien as a baobab. His eyes were full of questions, and there lurking in the background, I saw just a hint of envy.
I’m not crazy, Mr. Pakenham. I’m just beginning to understand that in an illogical world that inexplicably creates baobabs and monkey puzzles, anything is possible.
Some of the trees are healthy and robust, but others are plagued by pestilences, under attack by forces we hardly see. Rooted to the ground, they are trapped by the fates, suffocated by shade, smothered with car exhaust, and still some overcome it all and grow to improbable heights.
Some days poisons rain from the sky. Sometimes I can help their predicament by dealing with an invader, snipping tentacles of strangling ivy, but even then I feel it, for the ivy only wants life, the way we all do.
I have so much to learn, Mr. Pakenham. And it’s all because of your book, The Remarkable Baobab. I’m sorry not everyone loves your book as much as I do, that it doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, because it truly is a wonderful thing to capture the essence of the world like that and send it halfway around the globe to my bedroom.
Someday soon, Mr. Pakenham, I will go to Africa and touch a baobab. Then it will tell me all of its secrets, and perhaps yours too.
Jacob J. MacKenny