In London last month, I took a walk by the Thames from Hammersmith Bridge to Chiswick on a crystal clear afternoon, and found myself enchanted by the sight of the riverside trees. Bare of leaves, silhouetted against the winter sky, they were spectacularly beautiful – take for example this weeping willow:
Trees fascinate me. Perhaps paradoxically, I find them most compelling in the winter when their pure structure is laid bare – at least, with the deciduous sort. Not everyone agrees: when a friend saw the photograph, she commented: “Que c’est triste!” (“How sad it looks!”) I can’t see this; after all, with spring just around the corner the trees will be coming back into leaf any minute now, at least in Egypt.
As living organisms go, trees have an epic story to tell. Their origins are lost in the mists of time – conifers go back over 300 million years, while the glorious magnolia may be the most ancient of the flowering trees. Their majestic forms soar upwards, making the human being look puny by comparison – witness the north American redwoods, the Sequoia species. Trees spread their leafy shelter far and wide, literally in the case of the Indian banyan (Ficus bengalensis): one specimen in Calcutta has formed so many additional trunks from myriad roots connected overhead that thousands of people could shelter in it.
Their adaptability is astonishing – the Sequoiadendron of California positively needs fire in order to regenerate; mangroves, by contrast, grow in water and can even survive in the incredibly salty, hot waters of the Arabian Gulf. And, as Colin Tudge points out in his wonderful book “The Secret Life of Trees”*, vast numbers of creatures depend on them for their survival – 4,000 separate species were identified on one tree in Costa Rica, and still counting!
At a rather late point in their evolution, trees had to learn to get along with mankind. We’ve burned their wood for aeons of (our) time; used them for shelter; sailed in them and flown contraptions made from them; shaped them into every kind of tool and utensil and even, sadly, weapons (how the English turned the hard wood and sap wood of the yew tree into longbows is another story). And we have carved them and painted them according to our artistic taste for millennia – not to mention turning them into bats and cues and I don’t know what for our sport.
Ancient Egypt seemingly had few indigenous trees, and wood was scarce. Most carving was done in a wide variety of stone, writing was on papyrus, painting on walls. There were exceptions: the Egyptian Museum has a superb set of carved wooden panels from Saqqara portraying the scribe and eminent official Hesira at different stages of his life, dating from the third dynasty, c. 2,600 BC. But these are rather the exception.
Wood in Ancient Egypt was usually sourced either from what is now Lebanon via Egypt’s trading partner, the port city of Byblos, or from countries to the south of Nubia, such as the land of Punt.
This is odd. A visit to Cairo’s “Hadiqa Al-Zahriya” (Botanic Gardens) on the island of Gezirah confirms that trees from all over the world – tropical Africa, the Americas, Asia and India – don’t just grow in Egypt, they truly thrive. Climate has changed, for sure, but arguably it was more, not less, benign in very ancient times when Egypt was a land of savannah, and ostriches, gazelles and lions roamed the grasslands while hippopotamuses wallowed in the river. Perhaps the alternate seasons of flood and near-drought along the Nile explain the lack of trees – an Indian story goes that weeds bend before floodwaters and then spring back to life, while trees are washed away.**
That said, Cairo has a wonderful Indian banyan tree, planted in the Botanic Gardens in 1868 and now strangely stranded owing to a road that was presumably forced through the middle of the gardens at a later date – after the motor car was invented, perhaps…
In winter many of the city’s trees are without leaves, though the hardy conifers retain their dusty green appearance year-round. Now is the season of drastic pruning and lopping, when trees are cruelly cut down to size and into all sorts of shapes, the public parks are turned into wastelands for a couple of weeks, and lorries carry great loads of sadly torn off branches away for disposal.
Native to India, the red silk cotton tree and other Bombax relatives are the source of kapok – the fluffy filling traditionally used in bedding and clothing. Distant relatives of baobabs and limes, they are also related to balsa, hibiscus and even okra (which, it turns out, is a form of hibiscus, H. esculentus).
At least, this is what I read in Tudge’s book. But it is difficult to understand how plant taxonomy works: the efforts of scientists to ‘bring order to’ the natural world over a few hundred years don’t chime with what we see. I’m not sure that genetics holds the key either, given that, according to Tudge, some trees have an extraordinary capacity to generate new species as and when they feel like it. But then I come across this point in the section on the order rosids, of which Bombax are a part:
“In the present state of knowledge, the rosids do seem to form a coherent group. If future scholars decide that they are not so closely related as it now seems – well: that’s the way science goes. Nothing is ever absolutely certain.”
* “The Secret Life of Trees” by Colin Tudge, published by Penguin Books, 2006
** As related by Sri Swami Satchidananda in his commentary on the “Yoga Sutras” of Patanjali, edition published by Integral Yoga Publications, Yogaville, Va, USA, 1990