This week, Sunday Writers’ Club member Sandra Völker takes us to the futuristic city of Serengia for a poignant story about trees and the destruction of their habitat in the name of progress, about waking up to their importance all too late. But perhaps in Sandra’s story, like the climate emergency we’re all living through, there is a glimmer of hope. What do you think?
We hope you enjoy reading The Last Tree of Serengia, and we encourage you to leave a comment
Writing inspired by the Sunday Writers’ Club creative writing prompt: The last person who still remembers trees on Earth
The Last Tree of Serengia
By Sandra Völker
Fajoun stood on the stage of the university’s auditorium and looked at the students’ eager and expectant faces. They had all come to hear his story as he had told it many times before. Long gone were the days when people had laughed at and disregarded him. He was one of the last people of his generation who could still remember original forests and he had been there when the last tree in his native Serengia had been felled. An old, wizened man with wrinkled black skin that resembled the bark of an ancient teak tree, he filled the sunset days of his life with the same purpose he had found in his youth. Doing everything he could to save the planet from destruction, to stop his fellow human beings from their continued parasitoid consumption that ends in the death of the host. These days this consisted in passing on his experience and knowledge to the younger generation. Fajoun was impressed by most of the young people he met. They were the ones who shouldered the burden of saving their world from the brink of destruction, suffering the consequences of previous generations’ stupidity and carelessness.
He had returned to his home country for the first time since he had left 65 years ago. Fajoun looked at his hands that were calloused and wrinkled like most of the landscape on his home continent Africa. When he left Serengia his hands had still been smooth and strong and not impaired by Arthritis. He heard some stirring and quiet mumbling in the audience and snapped out of his reminiscing. He turned his attention back to the crowd of young students, trainees and professionals who were waiting for him to start.
“Mr. Diallo,” a young man in the first row said, “are you alright? Do you need anything before you begin your story?”
“No, young man,” Fajoun replied. “I just wondered how different this place was when I left and how young I was back then.”
“Were there really still trees in this area when you were born?” a voice from the audience asked.
“Did they sell trees for profit back then? Unpunished?” another voice asked.
“Did they make furniture out of wood?”
“Were there really 54 different countries in Africa?”
Fajoun held up his hand and the auditorium became quiet. The expressions of disbelief and incredulity were evidence how much the world had changed since his youth and that his life’s struggle had been worthwhile. There was still hope for the planet, he felt. Fajoun sat down on the chair provided for him and adjusted his microphone. Long gone were also the days when he could tell his story standing up. He closed his eyes for a moment and recalled the outline of a spindly tree….
“I was a young man, around your age, when the last tree in my village was cut down. I was born in what was then called Serengia, a country that is now part of the Northwestern Union of African States. In fact, the village I was born in was not too far from here, maybe 50 miles, and the area where your university and green houses now stand was still a forest, although a dwindling one. Most business, agriculture and forestry was controlled by big multinational corporations who sold our resources and wealth to the former nations of the European Union, to Greater China and Russia. They were aided and supported by our political leaders and local authorities who became rich in the process or believed the promises of technical assistance and business development programs. As you well know today – it was all a lie and the political and financial elites in the North and South destroyed the environment out of greed and shortsightedness.
But I did not care about any of that when I was young. I lived in a small village in the countryside that had not changed much in decades. All around us was wide land and teak forests. I remember walking trough those forests with my father when I was small. He was not a rich man but kind and wise and he cared about the world and nature. He taught me everything about trees that he knew. How they form their own ecosystem, how they are home to specific fauna and flora, how they prevent desertification, how they regulate the local climate, how they not only provide shade to people but also a place for self-reflection and peace. He also made me aware of their beauty and told me how they communicate with each other. I thought they were the most beautiful creatures in the world and as a young boy I believed they had souls and thoughts and could feel pain and joy.
My parents unfortunately died when I was still young and I was raised by my relatives. I kept hiking trough the forests because they reminded me of my father and so I experienced their gradual deforestation and disappearance. Representatives of a powerful multinational corporation had come into the village and talked to the village leaders. They told them they wanted to invest into the country in exchange for logging rights. Our village grew richer for a while, the houses grew larger and were made of better material, new shops were opened as well as a school and medical center. Most villagers worked for the corporation, everybody seemed to be happy about the money pouring in and no one seemed to be bothered by the forests that disappeared around us. With the trees wildlife disappeared and then the little arable land we had was blown away by storms or destroyed by floods. The village authorities said that we did not need to worry, the corporation would take care of all we need and provide work and further development. In the meantime more and more trees were felled until all the forests were gone.
I can still see our last tree when I close my eyes. It was not a proud or mighty specimen of its kind but rather scrawny and sorry-looking, a little bit like me back then, come to think of it. Its thin trunk with its light-brown barks showed few cracks and did not rise high into the sky but stood only about three times my height. Its few spindly branches had few leaves and left little living space for birds or insects. Its canopy gave little shade and heavy storms would constantly destroy the tree’s best efforts to turn itself into a proud and strong example of its kind. And so its fate was to serve as a reminder of what had been, of all the other trees felled, sold to the privileged rich to be made into furniture and other tools. Soon the office of the corporation closed and most village people became unemployed. Poverty settled upon us and many left to find a new life in the big cities.
I had just finished school and tried to figure out my options for the future. Should I follow my friends to try my luck in the city or abroad? Or should I stay and try to help my community?
Then, one day, I heard that they wanted to cut down the last tree which stood just outside the village right next to a small water hole. I tried my best to convince the village leaders to save it but they did not listen to me and told me I was too young to understand their decisions and that I should show them more respect.
Today I am convinced they wanted to get rid of the last tree for the same reason that I wanted to save it. The last tree reminded them of their guilt and shame, reminded them of what they had done to their environment, their community, to nature.
The day the last tree was felled began like any other. Only in hindsight do we ever realize the special significance of a day or event. Had I known that this particular tree was actually the last tree in my country, I might have had a stronger argument to save it. But then again, it might not have made a difference at all.
I got up early that day and walked to the well. I wanted to be there by myself before the others arrived to pay respect to the tree. Like an innocent prisoner about to lose his head the tree seemed to ooze out desperation of the unfairness of it all. It physically affected me and I felt sick to my stomach. I remember stepping very close and touching the smooth bark.
“Sorry, my friend,” I whispered. “If it was up to me, you would live.”
Was I hoping for the tree to respond, for a miracle? I think so but nothing happened and soon a small crowd assembled around the tree.
The task of cutting down the tree had fallen to the village mechanic as he owned an electric saw and soon he stepped through the crowd. After that, it took all of a minute, really. He asked people to step aside and keep their distance and set the blade to the bark. The tree made only a short whooshing sound, some rustling leaves flew upwards, then the scrawny trunk hit the ground with an unimpressive thump.
There was silence which was maybe the loudest sound of all. For a moment nobody said a word or even seemed to breathe. I thought briefly that maybe people had grasped the significance of what had transpired but I was wrong. The moment passed quickly, people started to whisper and talk and some even clapped their hands before they turned around and walked back to the village.
And so it came to pass that the last tree of Serengia was felled.
Afterwards I cried for a week. Every day I went to the place where the tree once stood and looked at the empty space that seemed to lament the stupidity of humankind in voiceless whispers. But I was the only one who could hear its voice. Every day when I walked along the village’s main street the other people mocked me, even sneered at me, for mourning our last tree.
When the week was over, I packed my bags and left my village forever without saying good-bye to anyone. I had found my calling. I wanted to save the other trees and forests in my country but I could not find another tree in Serengia anymore. After a while I realized I had witnessed the felling of the last tree. And so I kept on walking and made it my mission to save the trees of Africa and in the world but I was almost too late.”
Fajoun stopped his tale and looked around. His audience was dead-quiet and hung to his every word. They had suffered the consequences of the environmental damage caused by past human ignorance and the resulting fight for resources . They were left in a hostile world that was almost impossible to live in.
He continued, “You know most of my life’s story after that, I believe. I became an activist and biologist and tried to organize resistance against the destruction of our environment. I was ridiculed, sent to prison and later courted by the decision makers when they saw what had been destroyed and needed experts to reverse the process. For me, it all started with the last spindly teak tree not far from here.”
A young women, tall and proud, came up to him after he was finished with his tale.
“Mr. Diallo,” she said, “we are honored to have you as speaker today and hear your story.”
Her short, curly hair was styled in a fashionable Afro and her long copper earrings swayed gently while she spoke.
“My name is Anima. Please follow me outside. We have a surprise for you.”
They left the hall through a door in the back and took some steps down to a slightly lower building level. There was a small lobby area and a large red double door with an exit sign above.
“Where are we going?” asked Fajoun. This had not been in his schedule for today. The young woman smiled.
“Outside. We have started an experimental reforestation and soil renewal program and recently we have had our first successes.”
She walked toward the door and swung it outward. Orange light flooded into the dimly lit space.
“Please come Mr. Fajoun. At sunset this area is at its most beautiful. We would like you to see something. ”
She beckoned him to follow her. A small group of her colleagues trailed behind them.
Outside was a large fenced-in area with a number of glass houses on either side of a wide, dusty path. It was still very hot but the setting sun had lost its afternoon aggressiveness.
They followed the path until they reached an outdoor plot behind a smaller glass house. With a big smile and a swiping hand gesture Anima directed Fajoun’s gaze towards the right hand corner. Surrounded by some weed and grassy vegetation a young tree had put down its roots. It was about a head higher than Fajoun, its large ovate-elliptic leaves grew close to the thin trunk and had not yet developed into strong branches. Fajoun could see at once that it was a teak tree.
“We have been experimenting with new soil to see it we can make this land arable again. We managed to regrow a small number of originally native plants to this region. Among them was this tree,” Anima said proudly.
“This is the first one that keeps growing outside the protected and regulated glass house area. We were hoping that we could present it to you during your visit. We felt it was just right that the man who tried to save the last tree of Serengia should be honored with the first one returning to the country. Thank you for never giving up and for believing in us.”
In front of the tree there was a small commemorative plaque with the inscription ‘Dedicated to Fajoun Diallo – Protector of Trees!’
Fajoun squinted teary eyes against the golden sunset light.
“Thank you,” he whispered and slowly folded his knobby knees, sinking towards the ground. Gently he touched the soil around the delicate trunk.
“Welcome back, my friend!”
Author and Sunday Writers' Club Member
Sandra was born and raised in Austria. She studied and worked in the US for a number of years and writes in English and German.
She mostly writes short stories and other fictional texts and has taken various writing courses over the years, f.ex. at the Faber Academy in London. Sandra currently attends a 5-months creative writing programme and participates in some writing competitions. Her declared goal is to publish some texts until the new year. In her other life she has worked for an number of international organizations and presently works for an environmental NGO in Vienna.