The Last Tree of Ténéré

Look at this satellite view of central Niger. Zoom out, and then zoom out some more, and you’ll eventually see that you’re staring at a vast expanse of the trackless and empty Sahara. Except for this historical footnote: at the very center of this map stood, for several decades, a single tree, as well known by the desert-crossing caravans as an island would be in the middle of the Pacific.

I came across the heartbreaking story of the Last Tree of Ténéré while visiting the estimable Athanasius Kircher Society. Here’s what they had to say there.

The Ténéré wastelands of northeastern Niger were once populated by a forest of trees. By the 20th century, desertification had wiped out all but one solitary acacia. [It] had no companions for 400 km in every direction. Its roots reached nearly 40 m deep into the sand. In 1973, the tree was knocked over by a drunken Libyan truck driver. It has been replaced by a simple metal sculpture.

What a story! A desperately poignant one-tree recapitulation of Jared Diamond’s Collapse thesis. Diamond tells in his book how, some time around 1680, the Easter Islanders chopped down the last of the great palm trees that once covered the island. And he poses the rhetorical question: “What did they say as they chopped down the last palm tree?” Which makes me wonder what our friend the truck driver said on that fateful day in 1973.

Was it: “Oh great! I got the whole freakin’ Sahara and somebody puts a tree right in front of my truck! Now I’m gonna be late for poker night.” Or maybe: “Dude, I am so wasted…” Or my favorite: “Hey, watch this!”