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Elegy for the St. John Baobab Tree

The St. John Baobab seemed to be doing well in July 2020. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

Oh, our dear Baobab, how can you truly be gone? You stood tall on the ridge for so many years and then survived the two terrible hurricanes in 2017, only to be hollowed out and brought down by a throng of larvae from invasive borer beetles.

You were badly battered by the storms and lost parts of your upper branches. But when the skies cleared, we rejoiced to see that you were still standing.

After the 2017 storms, the Baobab was damaged but still standing. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

Soon tiny new branches sprouted from your fleshy trunk, and we thought how great that you were able to compensate for your losses and start anew.

By the pandemic summer of 2020, you were bursting with blossoms and lifted the spirits of those who made the hopeful pilgrimage down the L’Esperance trail to witness your exuberant flowering.

The Baobab’s flowers opened at night and then dried up over the next day. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

Although your fabulous flowers would only last for one day, we thought you had fully recovered your life force and would live on into the next century.

The large Baobab flowers opened up like white puffballs. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

The bees returned to their spot in the crease of your trunk and rebuilt their hive, feeding on your pollen and nectar even though the flowers were more designed for attracting the night-flying bats as pollinators.

There was usually a hive of honeybees on the backside of the tree. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

Sadly, that burst of energy was your last. By the following summer, your limbs were crippled by the thousands of larvae laid by the big beetles that bored into your broken places. Your porous, pulpy trunk, which from the outside seemed as strong as an elephant, offered little resistance to its tiny attackers. And was quickly consumed.

Did you already know the summer before that your time was up after the first generation of beetles arrived? Is that why you threw off so many flowers, hoping to preserve at least some legacy for future generations? You must have also known, though, that, without a partner to fertilize them, your flowers had never produced viable seeds throughout all those long, lonely years.

Still, the flowers were lovely and filled the glorious pandemic summer days with delight for bees and birds and human witnesses and charmed the bats at night.

There have been baobab seeds brought here from other islands in recent years, and young baobab seedlings might someday attract as many admirers as you once did. I even have a fragile baby baobab, still in a pot, that I tried to raise myself, thinking about providing you one day with a mate to fertilize your flowers.

My Baobab seedling has been growing very slowly. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

I never thought that I would outlive you.

When I wrapped my arms around you years ago, I was drawn to your strength. And then, when I pressed my cheek to your trunk, I felt that I too could be strong, as it turned out I would need to be, for those who would come to lean on me.

I didn’t know all the challenges ahead and still don’t. There will be more losses to come, but I need to say now that you brought me days of unexpected joy that I will always cherish.

Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer, writer, and photographer. She is the author of The Wild Life in an Island House, plus the guide book Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John, and has just published A Birds’ Guide to The Battery and New York Harbor. Follow her on Instagram @gailkarlsson and gvkarlsson.blogspot.com.

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