The aura of trees

Every living being has its own aura, or energy field. Working this month on my chakras (energy centres, with their related channels up and down the body, the nadis) I am not surprised to read that we can learn to see auras. What really interests me is that it’s possible to develop the power by practising with trees.*

A huge and ancient tree may have a vast energy field – a kind of glow all around it that throws the plant’s shape into subtle silhouette. By training the eye on the tree and then moving our focus to the sky beyond, we can actually see the light energy as the particles vibrate on different frequencies, producing a swirling pattern of colours around its form.

I have always felt a profound connection with these wonders of nature. I rather think they are the true “wonders of the world”, far superior to the man-made monuments that have all disappeared, with the exception of Egypt’s Giza pyramids. As a child, I observed and drew them with passion; climbed in them; picnicked beneath them with the teddy bears; ate their fruit; collected their seed pods; composted their leaves and peelings. I helped my mother plant and tend an english oak, with the express wish to leave it for future generations (and scant regard for how big it was likely to grow in an urban back garden!)

Much seasonal colour and fragrance in Egypt is provided by trees, whose varied shapes and spectacular blooms are part of the landscape in countryside and town alike. Far more of them grace the streets of Cairo than you might imagine: Somehow amid the traffic and pollution, they hold fast, providing rest for the eyes and oxygen for the lungs by day.
Jacaranda 4.17

From Bombax malabaricum and Chorysia speciosa in March, through Jacaranda mimosifolia (above) in April and Delonix regia – the flame tree – in May right through to the gorgeous frangipani (Plumeria acuminata) whose waxy white and yellow flowers perfume our summer days, trees are integral to life in Cairo.

Right now, the flame trees predominate:

We can’t fit many of the big ones inside our garden. But we have set aside a fair amount of space for fruit trees, and the newest addition to the collection, the delightful pomegranate (Punica granatum) has just begun to flower:
Pomegranate flowers

Nearby, our lovely Calliandra haematocephala (the “powderpuff” tree – there’s a name to conjure with!) is flowering profusely. She arches over the grass, repeatedly flowering throughout the warm months; full of vitality, Calliandra is a great favourite with the bees just now.

I think the energy of trees works on many different levels; every part of them is filled with fascination for me, from the bark and the roots to the extraordinary variation in seed distribution. What we have around us in Cairo is just a snapshot of their vast wealth – and it never, never ceases to fill me with wonder.

* The Chakra Bible – Patricia Mercier, pub. by Godsfield Press, part of Octopus Publishing


Sheer indulgence

We came back from downtown Cairo last week not with a few books from my favourite store, nor stocks of organic food from the bio-shop, nor even gifts of locally made soaps, skin creams and cotton towels for family and friends overseas.

Rather, we had a boot full of plants, a bag of pepper and aubergine seedlings, and a pomegranate tree stretching almost from boot to windscreen. It was rather fun turning corners, negotiating roundabouts and getting through traffic on the flyover all the while holding on to the tree with love, trying to keep her steady.

The pomegranate is one of my favourite trees, not only for the bright green softness of the young leaves, nor the slightly whimsical form of the branches. I love them also for their luminous orange flowers, and for the strange beauty of the fruit.

We had spent a productive morning at Cairo’s Spring Flower Show. Armed with a list of items we needed, we were remarkably successful in tracking them all down, from traps to deal with fruit fly (to protect our guava crop) to bedding plants as gifts for relatives.

But there’s much more to the event than this. It’s sheer indulgence to take the time to wander round and enjoy the show, set in the once glorious – though now somewhat faded – former royal gardens in El-Urman Park, among splendid palms and a fascinating collection of conifers from around the world.

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Businesses represented were mostly from Cairo and the surrounding countryside. The breadth of items, covering everything from gardening equipment to seedlings, beekeeping paraphernalia to irrigation materials, was impressive and useful; normally we would have to travel all over to track them down.

Among the herbs were quantities of rosemary, thyme and oregano, but the selection was less extensive than last year. Seedlings, purchased by the plug, included aubergines, cabbages, capsicums, lettuces and tomatoes. I’m always interested in the packets of seeds: We usually buy basic seeds – coriander, dill, parsley, rocket – from a kind of general store or grocer’s shop, but more specialised seeds are harder to find. At the show, they come either commercially packaged or sorted into simple brown paper packets with handwritten labels:

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There were not so many fruit trees this year, as far as I could tell, but still there was a reasonable selection of citrus, mango, apple, peach, pear and so on. You can see bananas (which are not trees, but grasses) in the foreground here:

Fruit trees

But you have to be vigilant when you buy: Our pomegranate, lovely as she is, turned out to have been recently uprooted and placed in a suspiciously small container. At least it wasn’t an old tin formerly used for industrial glue or paint, which is common practice in Egypt! But this meant that the gardener had to be extra careful in easing her out of the pot and into the garden: More on this in a later post, as well as on the amazing cultural, historical and culinary story of the pomegranate tree.



Hazy Meditation Day

It came, and quite possibly went, in a cloud of dust:

Those of us who gathered in El-Azhar park on Saturday 18th to join in the worldwide day of meditation faced a few challenges probably not found in a forest ashram … Wind, air laden with dust and, by the afternoon, a thunderstorm passing over Cairo.

It may be spring in Cairo but there is still an unpredictable element, and that’s the weather. We are now in the month of Baramhat by the agricultural calendar (a system based on ancient custom and still observed today, especially by farmers). This is associated with Montu, the pharaonic god of war, for whom at least one pharaoh was named – which may explain a thing or two about yesterday’s conditions.

Early in the day the dust had not arrived, and I enjoyed mango trees in flower:

Passing beyond the elegant walk where the mangoes are planted, I came across citrus, a mix (I think) of bitter orange, orange and lime trees. The wind had blown quite a lot of blossom to the ground, but the perfume of oranges trees in flower was still delicious, and I loved the starry carpet:

Citrus blossom on the groundBy the lake, we practised pranayama and asanas, the former a little easier to do than the exercises in a crowded spot on uneven grass. Where better to do tree pose than in a park, you may wonder, except you do need a smooth surface to balance properly. So we wobbled around, showing little inclination to hold steady in a breeze – more like ships at sea than trees standing tall in the forest.

From laughter yoga to Raja yoga meditation: We tried a little of everything, passing from quiet and still inner contemplation to exuberant laughing along with our neighbours and back to withdrawal to the peace of our inner space. It was a great morning (I couldn’t stay through the whole day), a breath of reviving air whatever the weather chose to do. On my walk back through the park I was rewarded with sightings of a lovely stand of Bombax malabaricum trees, and what I think was Parkinsonia aculeata – all in flower:

Once back home, I heard the thunder rolling overhead as we caught the southern edge of a vast and turbulent weather system affecting the eastern Mediterranean over the past week or so, and – by next morning – found lettuces and beetroot in the raised beds covered in great blotches of dusty dried rain drops. What an odd day it had been!

Spring – actually

When Cairo bursts into flower….

This weekend – that is, Thursday and Friday according to our system – has been a gardener’s delight. Thursday in particular, as I was out and about in Heliopolis: the old Korba district, El-Shams Club and the streets near the airport. The trees have declared spring is here:  Bombax malabaricum (above left) and the coral tree, Erythrina coralloides (right), are bedecked in spectacular red flowers, joyful responses to the warmth in the air.

I’ve never photographed the coral tree before, partly because I don’t find too many good specimens in the neighbourhoods I know. By contrast, B. malabaricum – the red silk cotton tree – is quite a favourite. Both trees tend to flower before the leaves appear, but, whereas E. coralloides is fairly small and compact, the red silk cotton towers up to 25 m in height, may sprawl in ungainly fashion, and produces spectacular, waxy, orange to red blooms that may be 20 cm across when you spread the petals out a bit.

Taking a walk through the Club and passing through an arched promenade of Indian laurels (Ficus nitida), visual feast turned into heavenly perfume: Bitter orange, Citrus aurantium, in full bloom, its heady aroma among the loveliest of essential oils, neroli.

I turned into the plant nursery at the back of the Club – an area I’ve only recently discovered, as full of delights as it is of surprises – and nearly fell over sideways when I discovered sweet peas growing close to clouds of glorious bedding plants. There among the snapdragons, “balady” or non-hybrid petunias, calendulas and zinnias, looking for all the world as if they are quite accustomed to growing in Egypt, several sweet peas were apparently waiting to be transplanted to sunny spots in the Club’s grounds. Or not, as the case may be, since the gardeners told me they have trouble with kids spoiling their work. Maybe the nursery is the safest place for all these lovely plants!

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I have a thing about sweet peas. At the start of every year, I envisage a row of these lovely climbers along the green fence, blessing the late spring breezes with the sweetness of their fragile flowers.  I always plant them too late – and then watch as they wilt and sizzle in the summer heat, fading to sad and crisp skeletons before I’ve gathered even a handful of flowers. It seems I’ve just made the same mistake, as I have only just soaked the seeds and popped them into pots and – desperately – straight into the bed. The odd thing is, I’ve never seen them growing anywhere in Egypt before, and I wonder what they are doing displaying their rare beauty in a corner of the Shams Club, without even a frame to climb on.

Further on, there’s an even more intensive nursery area: rectangular beds of cuttings and young plants, each bed defined by a ridge of soil to demarcate it from the neighbouring ones and to facilitate basin irrigation. Not my chosen way of watering, but it seems to work:

Against the wall, a spectacular bank of bougainvillea obscures the ugly brick structure – but it’s not so tall that it can hide the dense urban sprawl over the road.

I’ve come to the conclusion spring must have arrived many days ago, and I somehow missed it, possibly because New Cairo is at a higher altitude than Heliopolis and more subject to chill winds. Then again, Friday turned out to be different and the chill wind returned to Heliopolis, blowing blossoms in all directions.

For previous posts about B. malabaricum, neroli et al see:

A spring morning in Al-Azhar ParkA return to the village

A plea for the trees

walking-in-the-parkOur Christmas Day outing was a walk in one of my favourite Cairo parks: Hadiqa’t Al-Azhar. Wonderfully positioned on rising ground close to the citadel and Mohamed Ali mosque, overlooking the domes and minarets of medieval Cairo, it is a gem of a garden in a densely populated and polluted city.


Roystonea regia in the main walk

The park is beautifully designed and planted, with particularly impressive trees from Acacia to Jacaranda, Bombax to Roystonea palms. I love the water channels and fountains in marble basins; the lake with nearby stream where egrets congregate; and, most of all, the hillside extending the length of the park that sweeps down to the restored walls of Salah Al-Deen (Saladin), thickly planted with shrubs, succulents, and yet more trees.


Bombax malabaricum near the old walls

In my experience, this is Cairo’s most popular public park, the one where families, young people, old people, exercise and yoga trendies, and all the wannabe cool dudes of the neighbourhood gather.

Paradoxically, it is also a place of peace and gentle reflection, where breezes cool the air on warm summer days and the sunsets are spectacular. And where the sound of the call to prayer as the sun goes down is carried into the park by currents of air, filtering through trees and over the bubbling of water… A touch of paradise, perhaps.

I’ve often walked in Al-Azhar Park; I’ve done yoga exercises on its grass; I’ve hugged its trees; and I’ve listened while a whole crowd practised laughter yoga (!)  I wasn’t surprised to read recently, in Mircea Eliade’s classic text “Yoga – Immortality and Freedom”, that: “For Indian consciousness, the vegetable modality is not an impoverishment but, quite the contrary, an enrichment of life. In Puranic mythology and in iconography, the rhizome and the lotus become the symbols of cosmic manifestations… Vegetation always signifies superabundance, fertility, the sprouting of all seeds.”*

So as we enter a new year, cross a threshold, make our resolutions for 2017, I would like to make a plea for this Earth’s beautiful trees: Respect them, tend them, feed them, love them – they are our friends, our support, our life.


Jacaranda trees by the hillside

I wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful year in 2017. May it be filled with the contentment of a perfect walk in the park!

(For more on the park see also:  A spring morning in Al-Azhar Park  )

Yoga – Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade, pub. Princeton University Press 2009, originally pub. in French in 1954.

In the season of Hator

II With abundance, scarcity

To travel through the countryside to Saqqara, or for that matter anywhere along the Nile valley or in the Delta, is to journey into abundance. Fruit, vegetables, herbs, fodder for animals – all are present at almost any time of the year but especially now, in the season of Hator.

Food in Egypt remains largely seasonal. Now is the time to stop by the roadside and indulge in sweet potatoes baked in a portable stove; or to buy a cabbage so gigantic it’s almost surreal. Amazingly, this might be for a dish of great delicacy, mahshi kurunb, the individual leaves filled with rice and herbs, then tightly rolled up and stacked closely in a pot, covered with broth and cooked until tender. Friends in the countryside tell me the best results are achieved if the pot is set on an open fire.

Also in the fields: celery, cauliflowers – and clover. This last is food for livestock, and for bees, and clover honey is very much in season at the moment. The way from Saqqara to the Cairo Ring Road is filled with small shops selling the produce of local hives.

The fruit right now are citrus above all; but also bananas, small, sweet and tasty (the larger varieties are also available); and some dates. The pomegranate and mango season is over for another year.

In ancient Egypt, such abundance featured in countless tomb reliefs and paintings: a plenitude of food to eat, water or wine to drink, perfumed oils to pamper the body, lotus (water lily) flowers and bouquets to fragrance the air…

I think about this whenever I approach any of the pyramids at Saqqara, Dahshur, Giza: There’s such a sharp divide physically between the pyramid sites and the cultivated land: windswept and barren plateaux versus green fields and palm groves, in the case of Saqqara and Dahshur. From the air, the divide is even more obvious.

Generally, the pyramids were part of larger complexes including valley and funerary temples and covered causeways between them. They were conceived as gateways to the life beyond, stocked with everything the king was judged to need for the afterlife.

Beneath the Step Pyramid, extensive corridors and chambers, some lined in beautiful azure faience tiles, re-created King Djoser’s palace in life: the familiar reproduced for the life beyond, so he would not be disorientated.

The chambers housed tens of thousands of vessels containing the goods that would make his (after)life pleasant; Saqqara’s museum has several on show, made from a range of stone from alabaster to breccia to gneiss. It also has some of the contents of this and other tombs, including doum palm nuts and what may be white cheese.

Sometimes, there’s a jarring note. It serves to emphasise how precarious life was: from the causeway of King Unas (Fifth Dynasty)  a scene of starvation and disorder.


Chaos and famine: relief from the causeway leading to the funerary temple of Unas, Saqqara

Scholars are divided over how to interpret the scene. It may depict the fate of a desert tribe, far from civilisation (i.e. order and plentiful food) along the Nile; or a scene of people encountered by a party sent to quarry for stone in a remote area. I am inclined to go with an alternative reading: A portrait of bad governance, of chaos and deprivation when a king is weak and his authority wobbles, to be contrasted with all the plentiful food and prosperity under a regime of orderly governance, that is – the strong rule of Unas.

Whatever the explanation, the scene is highly unusual in Egyptian tomb art, which almost invariably focussed on a an irresistible message of plenty.



In the season of Hator

I. The land renewed

Travelling through the countryside west of Cairo today, on our way to the ancient site at Saqqara, we passed through a land renewed.

Not that the countryside isn’t always green and lovely; but at this time of year there is a particular freshness and beauty to be found, as the fields fill with new crops.


We are nearing the end of the month of Hator in the agricultural calendar: season of renewal and fertility, named for the goddess Hathor who was associated with sexuality, joy and – interestingly – music. Revered in the Old Kingdom over 4,000 years ago as the mother of the sun god and, later on, as the divine mother of the kings (before Isis edged her out), Hathor’s cult centre was at Dendera in southern Egypt. But her influence was felt far and wide.

You can see the connection: at this season, historically following on from the Nile flood that reinvigorated the land along the river valley, the  fields are teeming with life. Sunny days promote fast growth, while cooler nights do not yet have the biting cold of winter. You catch the sense of renewal and optimism as soon as you set foot on the farmland.

Walking along a pathway in the shadow of the pyramids of Abu Sir (pronounced “Seer”), V Dynasty (2494 – 2345 BC) structures that have fared considerably less well than those of Giza, we passed rows of cabbages neatly interplanted with dura (corn-on-the-cob); women trimming cauliflowers by an irrigation canal; and vast stretches of crops for animal fodder, notably berseem or clover.

Further on, men were moving rapidly along a recently ploughed field, making drills with the adze (fas) and sowing wheat.


At the end of our walk, we came to a well-irrigated plot of brilliant green, host to myriad egrets that took flight as we approached. Such a scene is repeated all over Egypt at this time of year.

The countryside was alive with birds: pied kingfishers, all decked out in their black and white plumage, hovered busily over canals before diving down to catch their prey. Hoopoes skimmed over fields; hawks rode the gusts of wind overhead; and egrets were everywhere – the “farmer’s friend” as Egyptians call them.

Not every creature saw the need to rush: while a donkey was occupied pulling along a cart loaded with fodder to keep them happy, the water buffalo looked at life from a relaxed viewpoint.


Once again, egrets kept the buffalo company, hopping on and off their backs to pick insects from their hide – a neat sort of friendship:


Fields stretched into the far distance each side of the road to Saqqara; perhaps according to the lie of the land, or the nature of the crops planted, or maybe according to the individual farmer, they were more or less neatly demarcated, ploughed and planted. Some, I thought, were models of cultivation.


We reflected as we passed along the road, canal on one side, fields stretching into the distance on the other, on the unchanging practice of cultivation in this extraordinary land. Modern approaches to agriculture notwithstanding – and yes, we came across tractors, water pumps and the like – the continuity with what we have seen of ancient Egypt was striking.