In the end, everyone is a story. There is a before and there is an after, and the in-between.
For years, until recently when strange new gadgets with blinking faces crashed the scene in a scorched-earth blitz, the tree, or its afterlife, helped keep stories from generation to generation.
The afterlife is of course the paper, that timeless tabula rasa upon which mankind has scribbled the success, foibles, accidents of life, and also its romance.
Not even the unrelenting onslaught of technology has relegated the tree.
The fallen tree, which resurrects as paper, has never been more present, and alive.
The tree bears stories, but is also a story.
There is a tree that stands in the crook of the intersection of two roads, or rather where two roads branch out from the whole, left and right.
It is an old tree, so old that no soul walking the face of the land today was born when the tree was a sapling; or in its teens when it shed its first flowers.
Not too long ago, the oldest living person in this little corner of the world I call home died at 113 years of age.
About nine months before her death, I travelled to her home down a dirt road that empties into one of two big rivers.
The plan was to document the stories of people born before 1925, harness their recollections, and also commit them to camera.
The tree, the old lady told me, was already established in its own little patch of land when she was still a small girl.
The bark of the tree, or more accurately the shreds of bark that still remain, are callused and knotty. All the beauty that the morenga tree once had has fled.
There are holes in the trunk, holes wide enough to accommodate a nest full of birds. This tree is the last of its kind.
In a land quickly getting tired of the indigenous trees in favour of the exotic, perhaps the only reason the tree of this story has weathered the seasons year after year is that no man can claim ownership, for it is property of the State.
But for tree-huggers, it wouldn’t matter who owns the old girl, because in the branches and the cracks in the trunk are stories.
NATURE’S BEST OFFICE
Over the years, this tree has held various offices. Mugshots of politicians seeking votes have smiled down from the tree; sheets of paper announcing free eye check-ups, and several years ago, a wooden signboard pointed the way to the local secondary school.
The surface is etched with graffiti and tattoos, left behind where tree made contact with bare shins of boys sliding down to earth.
It is likely that you, the reader, knows of a tree like ours, a tree that has earned landmark status even without the acknowledgment of stiff local authorities.
The tiny village my forebears migrated to and called home is named after a tree.
Mpeketoni in Lamu derives its name from a tree, and it is possible that your own village, has an arboreal identity.
In February 2017, a year before a temporary embargo on cutting trees was enforced, a logger cut a huge tree whose straight trunk beekeepers prized for hives, crashed to the ground, just a few miles down the road from where I grew up.
The mighty tree, an indigenous species known locally as muroha, had existed for years, singing its way in the wind, and in the aftermath of its demise, there was some uproar from a few conservationists and the tree-huggers brigade.
To be sure, it was the right of the owner of the land where the tree stood to aim the razor at his tree, but to the keepers of stories, the question was simple: Why would one cut a tree that iconic; one of the last of its kind?
If one can tell the age of a tree by the contours orbiting the pith, as some people believe, the fallen grand tree was well over a hundred years.
Later, it would be confirmed that less than 30 trees of the species remain in Nyeri South.
A week later, a laminated sheet of paper was found pinned to the old morenga tree introduced in this story.
The piece of literature summed up the biography of the tree, ending with the exhortation: Anoint this tree a landmark. The paper went missing that very night.
MARKERS OF OUR IDENTITY
Nearly all counties have a person in charge of forestry, commonly referred to as a warden, tasked with safeguarding tree cover.
Before such a department was created, there were foresters, and some were truly passionate about the science of trees and the ties between human existence and the well-being of trees.
“There is something about trees that goes beyond just cover, or even the environment,” Tiras Kimathi, a retired forester whose career began before the State of Emergency in 1952, told me.
“There is history there, there is some divine purpose.”
There are stories in the trees; that’s what Mzee Kimathi wanted to say. When trees fall, they fall with their stories. They fall with their rain, and their vacuum cleaners, ridding the air of the unwanted.
Kimathi’s home sits in the hulking shadow of the Muhoya Hills in Tetu, Nyeri.
His compound is shaded by trees that roll down the farm, and when the wind rustles among the branches, there is only music.
Under the request of President Jomo Kenyatta, Kimathi planted a tree in the old man’s compound, while a young Uhuru Kenyatta stood by.
Most evenings before the sun fades from the earth, I am able to see Mt Kenya and its snowy jagged tip.
Recently, amid a hushed-up fire that is reported to have decimated acres upon acres of its trees, I saw the great mountain as if for the first time.
It still stood in its postcard glory, masking the pain of its loss.
DON’T KILL OUR LIBRARY
Afterwards, I caught in the frame of the camera the land between my vantage point and the mountain. The trees didn’t appear green at all; rather they bore an off-blue colour.
In the stretch, homes and signs of human living were absent, save for a blue smoke uncoiling in the evening air.
It felt as though the sheer expanse of the trees and the jogging land had swallowed all forces, the trees asserting will and identity.
Beyond the trees, where the land met the sky, were other places; Garbatula and its sun, on towards the great desert of Chalbi where trees dare not inhabit.
The morenga tree of this story was still there and I shuddered at the thought that at some point a lumberman might come with his saw and send the tree crashing to the ground.
I remembered how the tree had kept going; stark and without the green of flowers in January through April; and also in its second wind; flush with snowy flowers and the green of leaves in May.
How do you kill a library? I pulled out my Rolodex and ran a finger; I was looking for the phone contacts of the county warden. Do not kill this library.