A tree with a circumference of 47 metres beggars belief.
But it exists. Sitting, squat and stout in Modjadjiskloof in Limpopo Province, South Africa, it has a still more incredible facet to its existence: it is reputed to be 6,000 years old. You can take a look inside here.
The baobab tree is one of nature’s metaphors. Humans and trees have always had an affinity; we each have trunks, and we are but a skip, and jump and a myth away from trees which move around. As Dunsinane Woods would prove. Look at their branches: and then take a look at the human lung. With trees, we share the very way we breathe.
We share alveoli. Nature has put a tree upside down inside us, close to the heart of our being.
So it is little wonder that the baobab, with its extraordinary longevity and great strong, stable stem, has become an emblem in the new South Africa.
The order of the Baobab, created to be awarded by the President of South Africa, was instituted in 2002. It is awarded to South African citizens for distinguished service in business and the economy, science, medicine and technological innovation, and community service.
Trees weave their branches through our mythology, as they do through our lives and thoughts. The Greeks told stories of humans pursued by gods who sought refuge by coming trees – Daphne escaped from Apollo in just such a way. The Japanse had the gods dig up and decorate a sakaki tree, to tempt the goddess Amaterasu to come out of the cave, look at her reflection, and restore light to the world. And many of us, right now, have one in our main reception room, hung with glittering glass.
The World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) contains several sacred forests: the Aboriginal forests in Queensland, the Forest of the Cedars of God in Lebanon; the sacred forests of the mountain rice terraces of Luzon, in the Phillipines.
Trees R us. They breathe in what we breathe out. We are intertwined by the very gases which swirl around this globe. Their stems are our stems.
And in the fourth lesson from Nine Lessons and Carols, there is the tree once again. And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
A story does not ever get firmer roots than that of a tree. It begins with something tiny and small and helpless, and grows into something mighty, and living, and stout, and wide, and breathing.
As this holiday season begins, whatever creed we are, there will be some tree or other in our traditions. Over the next weeks, may you stretch out your legs beneath its mythical wide branches.