The Sameness Tree

I am, should you have been kind enough to follow this blog, still here. I’ve just been a little busy of late. Hello again.

If you are one of those kind people, you might have gathered that I am fond of trees. So it might come as a bit of a surprise to know that I loathe pine trees. Despise them.

I’m sure that if I had to see them in their natural home, marching in serried ranks over the jagged slopes of the frozen north, I would feel differently. But they don’t belong here. They don’t fit in. A pine tree in Southern Africa stands out like a middle-aged accountant at a nightclub. You want to walk up to it and gently explain that everyone, including itself, would be much more comfortable if it just went home.

You're not fooling anyone...

You’re not fooling anyone…

It’s not that pine trees are exotics. There are many trees from foreign climes that fit in just fine. Jacarandas and Brazilian pepper trees don’t look out of place at all (unless you’re a botanist- they just happen to be rather nasty invaders). Pine trees just don’t look right. They are jagged and angular, like the jagged, angular, glacier hewn-contours of their natural home. They are built for one thing; snow.

We don’t really have any snow. Or jagged contours. The glaciers left us alone. Our contours are rounded and soft and ancient, and sometimes a little stark. And so, like pets who grow to look like their owners, the trees that fit in here are rounded and soft, and sometimes a little stark. What they are not are spikey, uniform, angular fascists of trees. Like pine trees.

But maybe I’m being a little unfair. Because the cardinal sin of pine trees is not the way they look. It’s what they happen to be useful for; paper.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

We don’t have much in the way of indigenous forest here in South Africa. But what we do have is simply breath-taking. Our forests are dark and damp and crawling with life. Soaring ancient giants like Yellowwoods and Stinkwoods lift a cathedral ceiling over clear, dripping streams and creeping ferns, and everything is softened by moss and fungus.

Nice.

Nice.

And noise. So much noise. Cicadas buzz, water drips, monkeys chatter, birds chirp and shriek, duikers crash unseen through the undergrowth, and the trees themselves creak and groan at the slightest breeze. But it is a curious sort of noise, somehow muted and respectful, like old men talking in a library. Until some bastard rips out the forest and replaces it with pine trees. Then there is no noise but the wind.

Paper. Computer age be damned, the world still runs on paper. We need it. And paper comes from pine trees. So we need pine trees. Pine trees just happen to grow in the same places that indigenous forests grow. The paper companies claim to follow strict environmental guidelines, but I have walked through their forests and crossed the bones of the world they replaced; old drainage lines, once dripping with water, now barren and dry, where the ancient forests would have been thickest. A world once fit for Arthur’s Avalon now fit only for crows.

Less nice.

Less nice.

The pine trees don’t just take over the forests, they take over the high grasslands, too, with their own sounds and life. And they replace it all with something unforgivable. Sameness. Uniformity. Every pine tree looks like every other pine tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. And I hate them for it. Until I need to write a cheque. Or dry my hands. Or read a book. My only defence for my hypocrisy is that being unreasonable has always been one of the simplest of human pleasures. Angular, needle leaved bastards.

Which is all a rather depressing (and characteristically long-winded) introduction to my rather more cheerful post. Trees. Lowveld trees. Ones I don’t hate. Mopane trees. That’s mow-par-knee said fast. These;

Nice again.

Nice again.

Nice, aren’t they?  You might have noticed something interesting about them; Sameness. Uniformity. Every Mopane tree looks like every other Mopane tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. It’s all rather fetching.

I am, I must confess, being a little disingenuous here, but it’s my blog and I’m allowed; the Mopanes in that picture are superstars. Brad Pitt Mopanes. Johnny Depp Mopanes. And they’re not from here. They grow like that way up in the Northern part of their range. Here, In South Africa’s Lowveld, we get Danny DeVito Mopanes. They look like this.

I'm on the fence on this one.

I’m on the fence on this one.

Which is rather less impressive. To be fair, we do have odd, isolated patches of superstars, like those in the first picture, which are rather poetically referred to as cathedral Mopane, but the vast majority of what we’ve got is more like the second, referred to rather less poetically as Mopane scrub. And we have lots of it. Stands of Mopane make pine plantations look rather insignificant. They don’t cover whole mountainsides, they cover whole countries. And where Mopanes grow, almost nothing else grows.

So why am I being so mean about the pine trees, and so nice about the Mopanes? Is grinding sameness not just grinding sameness? No. It is not.

There is one fundamental difference between the two; an ecosystem gets ripped out to make way for a pine plantation, whereas Mopane scrub is an ecosystem. Mopanes dominate vast swathes of real estate not because they have pushed out the competition but because nothing else will grow there. They have a remarkably high tolerance for shallow, poorly drained, highly alkaline soils. Even they have their limitations though; we are stuck with the scrub because the soil they grow in here is so thin.

Despite the grinding sameness of a hundred kilometre long patch of Mopane scrub, an individual Mopane is actually quite attractive. The Mopane is sometimes called the butterfly tree, because of these;

Squint. And use your imagination.

Squint. And use your imagination.

The leaves have evolved like that for a reason. Water. The parts of Africa where they grow are hot, and subject to long periods of drought. Those leaves have more in common with butterflies than you might think; during the hottest, most sun-blasted times of day, the Mopanes close their wings, and line them up so that the sun falls on their narrow edge, letting the tree hold onto its precious water.

This has a rather curious unintended outcome. Even the broad, spreading cathedral Mopanes make lousy shade trees. Yup, you can find yourself in the middle of a sea of leafy green trees with nowhere to shelter from the sun. The leaves aren’t just a nice shape. They come in nice colours, too. The Mopane is one of the few Lowveld trees that puts on a decent display of autumn colour.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

Mopane seed-pods are kinda cool. They are flat, kidney-shaped pods that turn from emerald green to light brown, and fit in nicely with the leaves. They are, however, a little dull. Until you open them up and find a tiny human brain nestled inside.

BRAAAINS!

BRAAAINS!

The wood is kinda cool, too. It is a beautiful, rich, red colour, hard, and heavy. It is so hard that it is rather difficult to work with, but the extra effort is worthwhile, because Mopane wood is termite resistant. It’s used for fence-posts and furniture and parquet floors. And bagpipes. Obviously. But making bagpipes out of Mopane wood is a senseless waste. You are supposed to burn it.

Mopane wood burns for ages, and leaves behind hot, long lasting embers. And it has a glorious and evocative aroma. There are few better woods for making a braai (barbecue), right down to the mandatory wait for the coals to be ready for cooking. Being forced to sit around chatting and drinking beer in a blazing African sunset while your fire burns down to readiness is not necessarily a bad thing.

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

But Mopanes are not about usefulness. They’re about something else. Life. Those pine plantations I was going on about earlier are deserts. Nothing here is equipped to use them. They have no seeds or fruits that our monkeys or birds could live on, and nothing here can digest pine-needles. There isn’t even any undergrowth to speak of; the pine needles coat the ground and leave it too acidic to let anything else grow beneath them.

Mopanes couldn’t be more different. The endless Mopane is bursting with life. Mopanes are rich in protein. They aren’t particularly sought after, since the leaves are quite resinous, but when times get tough, they come into their own. They are supposed to be deciduous, but there always seem to be at least some green leaves about, and even if the leaves have all fallen, they are still eaten. Which means that Mopane scrub is a sought-after habitat for large herbivores.

Don't worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff's lens is he's sure to back down.

Don’t worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff’s lens is he’s sure to back down.

It is not, however, a good place to go looking for them. The Mopanes might be letting all that sunlight through, but that sunlight is coming down from above. When you’re out on a game-drive, you are looking from the side. And you’re not going to see much. To drive through Mopane scrub is to drive between two opaque green screens. A creature as big as an elephant or a buffalo could be standing just a dozen or so feet off the road, and you would be none the wiser. Unless they step out in front of you.

I fear Mopanes. Because of these;

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Yup. The creature that specialises in stepping out of the Mopane in front of me is the elephant. Elephants aren’t quite as dangerous as you might have been led to believe. If you treat them with respect, keep your distance, and move slowly and deliberately, they tend to leave you alone. It is, however, quite hard to keep a respectful distance from a four-ton behemoth that steps from behind a screen of green into the road ten feet in front of you. Moving backward not very slowly or deliberately isn’t always an option, either; elephants are not solitary animals. Another four ton behemoth you failed to spot might just be stepping into the road ten feet behind you. At which point your best option is to slowly and deliberately curl up into a foetal position and weep.

It’s not just herbivores that lurk in the Mopane. Lions tend to avoid Mopane scrub, which means that it’s a good place to find their smaller competitors, like wild dogs and hyenas.

I said "tend to"...

I said “tend to”…

But that’s the big stuff. Stuff you can find anywhere in the Lowveld. What makes the Mopane scrub so rich is the small stuff. The deeply fissured bark and hard wood make an ideal home for any number of creatures like hole-living birds and cryptically coloured geckos and snakes.

But that’s not all. As I mentioned earlier, anything as widespread and dominant as Mopane becomes its own ecosystem. This isn’t always a good thing.

Those charming creatures are Mopane flies. Which is a curious thing to call them, since they are bees. Stingless bees. Which sounds nice, but isn’t. They make up for their lack of a sting by swarming all over you and trying to crawl into your eyes. They try to compensate for this rather annoying habit by producing honey. Tiny little bits of honey. Made, apparently, from the moisture they find in human eyes. They don’t seem to be trying too hard.

They don’t really have to. Other creatures have stepped in to take up the challenge. Who needs honey when you have manna? Yup. The stuff from the bible. Nobody really knows what manna was, but one of the more plausible theories is that it was the crystallised honeydew from scale insects that lived on tamarisks. Which just sounds silly.

It’s not, though. A sap-sucking insect called the Mopane psyllid lives on Mopane leaves in its larval stage. It covers itself in a scale of sweet tasting, crystallised resin, which is picked off the leaves and eaten the local people. It’s called Mopane manna. But that’s just a snack, not a meal. This is a meal.

Yummy!

Yummy!

That is a Mopane worm. Just one is a mouthful. But there isn’t just one. At the right time of year, there are tens of millions of the buggers. They are gathered by the locals and dried. In Lowveld towns, you can buy bags of them to snack on like potato chips from the seventh circle of hell. Don’t, though. They taste like the dried out inner-sole of a hobo’s shoe.

And look like the hobo's toenails...

And look like the hobo’s toenails…

They do, however, sound adventurous and exotic. And so, over the last few decades, a couple of adventurous and exotic restaurants have tried to work them into their menus. You can now, should the mood take you, order a steaming bowl of stewed Mopane worms. Don’t, though. They taste like the stewed inner sole of a hobo’s shoe.

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick...

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick…

So there you have it. There are enormous patches of scrubby, unrelenting sameness out in Africa that are brimming with life and unpalatable delicacies. There is a rest-camp in the Kruger Park called Mopane, on the crest of a hill overlooking a large dam and surrounded by a sea of butterfly-shaped green leaves. If you visit the park for the first time, don’t stay there. You won’t see the forest, or the life it holds, for the trees.

But if you do choose to stay there, stick around for a while. Slowly but surely, all that life will start to reveal itself to you. You will start to see the birds in their holes, and the giant potato-chip worms, and the manna from heaven.

And maybe, just as the relentless sameness of it all starts to get to you, a four ton behemoth will step out in front of you as another one appears in your rear-view mirror. And you will wish, as you slowly (and deliberately) curl up into a foetal position and start to weep, that you were driving through a pleasantly barren pine plantation.

05-August_017

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