Tobago’s Avatar – ‘The tree of life’

By Environment TOBAGO

Rising some 40 metres above the Northside Road is a vital part of Tobago's heritage. This magnificent specimen has witnessed 250 years of the island's history, including emancipation and independence, and has become a major part of folklore here, connecting Tobago to its African roots.
It's been photographed hundreds of times by tourists, survived the full force of Mother Nature when Hurricane Flora hit in 1963, but now, is under threat by the very people who should be protecting it as part of this island's wide natural and cultural diversity.
We are of course referring to the famous Silk Cotton tree at Runnemede, one of the largest specimens on the island. Due to heavy rains, a section of Northside Road close to the tree is subsiding again. An article by Adamson Charles in the Tobago News of Friday 13th January 2012 reported the Secretary of Works as saying that his Division has been conducting intense investigations with a view to solving the road problem. He was apparently of the considered opinion that the root network of the silk cotton tree could be the reason for the depression in the road.
He was quoted as adding : "We are in the process of conducting certain tests and if it is found culpable, then we may have to take down the silk cotton tree in order to save the road."
Removing the tree would be a disastrous mistake.
In the first place, everyone knows that trees play a big part in protecting the land from erosion thanks to their enormous tracery of roots that hold the earth in place. Like bamboo growing alongside the river and holding the bank firm. A spokesman for a well-known road contractor on the island confirmed that trees pay a vital part in stabilising soil, and it is very unlikely that the silk cotton tree is responsible for the slippage of earth at that point in the Northside Road.
Furthermore, the Runnemede silk cotton is a major tourist attraction, featured in guide books such as Tobago naturally, nature lovers flock to the tree which is a mandatory stop on every island tour. Returning islanders go there to reconnect with their past and some tourists have even climbed it.
Does it make any sense at all for the THA to spend millions of dollars with one hand, promoting the natural beauty and bio-diversity of the island while with the other hand it destroys the very product it is selling? Obviously not.
The people who live on Northside Road have a right to good road access to the capital, but that does not have to come at the expense of our iconic landmarks. The THA will find another way of solving this problem if it looks for it.
Silk cotton trees are revered in many cultures. In parts of Africa, it is the home of the spirits, and it is not a coincidence that early European settlers actively cut down the silk cotton trees to undermine their strong cultural influence. The large number of these trees on Tobago reflect our African roots.
The folk story of Gang Gang Sara, the most well known in Tobago folklore, is the epitome of this. Gang Gang Sara was the resident village obeah (voodoo) woman in the 1700s. She had flown to Tobago straight from Africa and settled in Les Coteaux, but after her husband died, she tried to fly back home. She launched herself from a silk cotton, but sadly she had eaten salt and could no longer fly, so she fell to her death beside the great tree.
The ancient Maya of Central America believed the silk cotton tree was the source of human life and that the tree stood at the centre of the earth, connecting the terrestrial world to the spirit-world above. The long thick vines hanging from its spreading branches provided a connection to the heavens for the souls that ascended them. Even today, these grand trees are mercifully spared when forests are cut.
The writers, poets, artists and musicians of Trinidad and Tobago are regularly inspired by the silk cotton tree. Trinidadian poet John Lyons wrote collected works called Voices From a Silk Cotton Tree. At Pan Jazz 2011 in New York, this tree was the focus for the entire show, entitled Tales from the Silk Cotton Tree. Trinidad carnival designer Brian Macfarlane created the magnificent silk cotton tree on stage. Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott, who spent most of his life living in Trinidad, refers to them in his verse.
JD Elder in Folk Song and Folk Life in Charlotteville tells how obeah men would "set up court" under silk cotton trees to treat the sick. It is believed to be one of the places where, under the full moon, witches would gather. Obeah men claimed to be able to cast a spell by driving a nail into its massive trunk then calling on an evil spirit to cause someone's soul to leave his body and live in the tree. They were the home of duppies, the ghosts that roam the earth at night, and The Castle of the Devil is a huge silk cotton growing deep in the forest in which Bazil the demon of death was imprisoned by a carpenter. The carpenter tricked the devil into entering the tree in which he carved seven rooms, one above the other, into the trunk. T&T folklore claims that Bazil still resides in that tree.
Every year this island remembers its diverse culture with the Tobago Heritage Festival, celebrating what is rich and unique about the island and its people. The great silk cotton tree is part of our living, breathing culture. It is our responsibility to preserve it for future generations and for the delight of our visitors.

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tobagoboy said on Tuesday, Mar 6 at 4:24 PM

@pen10. Sorry pen10, cannot run for office. The position of court jester has been made redundant, and even if it would still be around, I do not have a PhD in BS to successfully apply for the job. Thanks for the thumbs up. I understand, since this is an election year, the "suits" have decided to leave the tree alone. Have you read the comment from KENTEN? Now there is a highly literate candidate for the THA:-)Long live the 15th century jungle (no politicians!)

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THE KEN TEN said on Sunday, Mar 4 at 7:53 PM

Ok then just end the road right there and build a park around the tree, we don't really need to get beyond that point on the northside road,and lets find the people that cut all the trees to create the roads to the areas we live they must have been mad.Come on people, some things just have to happen or the island would of still been and uninhabited jungle as it was found in the the fifteenth century.

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kurtdeflirt.... said on Sunday, Mar 4 at 10:45 AM

waw I am in tears right now....I live in new jersey now ,,,but I lived in tobago for 12 years and I know the tree....I took many a tourist there and they were so amaised at the tree...especially when I told them stories that it holds....''PLEASE LEAVE THE TREE RIGHT WHERE IT IS''

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T-Angel said on Saturday, Mar 3 at 9:51 PM

That tree needs to stay!! It is part of our local heritage. Our cultural heritage isn't a traditional heritage with built monuments etc, our heritage is in our land and nature. We cannot lose part of it, when it should be saved. There are other options...forget testing for the most viable option. Assume the tree will be staying and then figure out what's the best option based on that fact.

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Pen10 said on Saturday, Mar 3 at 2:22 AM

@tobagoboy. Every time I read a comment of yours, I am left in stitches. You realll funny! But, I do agree with your suggestions and opinions on the matters and issues that the government needs to address in Tobago. Great idea! You need to run for office.

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tobagoboy said on Friday, Mar 2 at 6:35 PM

Since the THA has money coming out of all their bodily orifices, maybe the tree should be uprooted by international experts and then transported to the new Shaw Park facility and planted in the middle of the complex. At least this way the new cultural complex will serve a purpose....

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ATLANTA GONIAN said on Friday, Mar 2 at 6:01 PM


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Bacolet said on Friday, Mar 2 at 8:14 AM

Take down the tree to save the road!!!! How ridiculous. The tree is over 200 years old and the THA Division of Works wants to take it down? What about all the talk of preserving Tobago's heritage? It would be an absolute crime to remove this tree. The road should have been constructed properly in the first place, i.e. the proper substructure and drainage. We should be respecting this great tree by moving the road and not the other way aroundl.

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