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 It has been replaced by a simple metal sculpture.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!”

On the road with Wally

Part 42: Signs of Soda
by Wally

We were one sunrise away from watching the reddish glow of the evening sun color the rim of the Grand Canyon, and one sunset away from the first light of daybreak over Zabriske Point, in Death Valley. We were smack dab in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada.

Not to say there isn’t much of anything in Nowhere. Au contraire. George had been enlightening me to the wonder of the alluvial plains that exist here in Nevada. With no rain to wash it all away, all the material that sheds from the tops of the mountains here falls to the bottoms. And stays there. It creates a nice, gradual, slope of residue, once seen (and identified), never forgotten. In fact, on the way out of Death Valley the next day, we were basically driving straight up the alluvial slope for 45 minutes, avoiding tarantulas that darted across the road. But that’s another story.

No, here in the middle of Nowhere there was two-lane blacktop, lots of sand, and some scrubby desert vegetation. (and probably Wile E. Coyote, although he was much too wily to be seen. Unlike Wile E. Tarantula — again, another story.) And Sky. Big Sky. Sky that made Montana jealous. Big, dramatic, desert but-it’s-lookin’-like-rain, and not wimpy pacific northwest micro-rain, but slam it down, cats and dogs, southern summer thunderstorm rain.

A Sky that was so dramatic that George pulls over and comments, “Man, will you just look at that Sky.” Which is one of the things that makes George a good travelling companion — he’ll stop and smell the sagebrush. We hop out and stand agog at the beautiful sunlight spreading through the high dark cumulus. Menacing, yet beautiful. Alone, we appreciate.

An unnatural sound clatters through our meditative silence as a lone Coca-Cola can rolls down the highway. We stand even more amazed, because we’re in the middle of nowhere, almost back to nature, soaking up the desert landscape, the gorgeous almost-sunset and are jolted back to reality by a singular token of civilization, intruding on the road-runner-esque landscape. Our heads both swivel comically to the right, as the can, seemingly out of nowhere, rolls down the double yellow line in the middle of the blacktop. It almost feels like we’re in some weird commercial, but lacking the requisite camera crew and pretty graphics.

Then an even more unnatural sound blasts us both from our left as an 18-wheeler thunders unexpectedly around the bend and thrusts itself into our view before our startled inhales are completed. Its mammoth wheels roll over the can, crush it, suck it up and around, crush it again and fling it out behind, a crumpled, flattened token of what was once the perfect shape, the wheel, the cylinder, the rolling reminder of civilization… now just a flat piece of aluminum on a lonely Nevada highway.

As fast as it came, the juggernaut is gone. We both stare dumbly in stunned amazement at the coincidence of us, the can, and the rig. A collective “Whoa” settles among us.

“Let’s roll”, sez George. I couldn’t agree more.