Tobago’s Avatar – ‘The tree of life’
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.