Tree at the End of the World

The Tree at the End of the World: El Ceibo

Note: This is the third reflection in a series by CRE director Andy Thompson called “The Tree at the End of the World” that will eventually be part of a book (very) tentatively titled The Tree at the End of the World: Essays in Unsystematic Tree-ology. See the other posts here and here.

I am looking down at the crown of the tree of life. Epiphytes – so-called “air plants” that live their entire lives on the limbs and trunks of other trees – are scattered around me. The drone of cicadas ebbs and flows through the hot, wet air, drowning out birdsong, and a smell of dead vegetation rises from the mud-covered leaves at my feet. A ribbon of bright yellow caution tape trails across some of the limbs, bringing to mind a crime scene.

Like the Arbol de la Paz, this once-majestic kapok (ceiba pentandra) also has a name, albeit a much less illustrious one: this is El Ceibo, simply “The Kapok.” And it – most of it, at least – is lying in the ankle-deep mud, blown down by a storm only a few days before we arrived. Before that, it had stood for around four hundred years in the Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, surrounded by dense forest. Now sunlight streams through a gaping hole in the canopy the size of a soccer pitch, lifting steam from the wet ground. The storm split the kapok into three pieces: a roughly forty-foot section of trunk that still stands, its towering buttress roots now sloping up to a jagged, broken top; a middle section comprising about twenty feet of trunk; and the massive crown, with individual limbs as large as mature trees themselves, an island of forest now fallen sideways across the trail. It is among these limbs that I stand, surrounded by sprawling bromeliads that, not long ago, basked in the tropical sun one hundred feet above the muck in which they now sit decaying. 

The kapok, the Mayan axis mundi, bears the weight of heaven and earth on its branches. Sometimes, perhaps, the burden is too much.

Like Arbol de la Paz, El Ceibo was beloved. It had survived the 1968 eruption of the Arenal volcano at whose base it sits – one of the most devastating in the volcano’s history – and it became a symbol of the forest’s recovery. Tributes to the fallen matriarch – la abuelita ceiba, “grandmother ceiba” – flood social media, recounting memories of visiting the tree, giving voice to grief and shedding tears. I share some of their grief, though I hadn’t made her acquaintance before this.

For their part, my fellow visitors to El Ceibo seem unfazed, mostly annoyed that the cataclysm has diverted the hiking path and transformed it to a marshy, buggy pit. I circle around the sun-drenched hulk and make my way to the still-standing base of the tree. I scramble under the caution tape and over buttress roots that extend out twenty feet and reach up the trunk about the same distance. A brilliant blue morpho butterfly the size of a salad plate floats up and around the top of the root and disappears to the other side, where my wife and children wait, hidden from view by a gray wall higher than my head.

The destruction is tremendous. The characteristic gray bark punctuated by bumpy lines is torn and scarred, revealing medium brown interior wood with caverns of dark, crumbly rot within. When it collapsed, El Ceibo took many of its neighbors with it – young understory trees as well as other giants, figs and younger kapoks that would have towered over another forest. These lie splintered and broken all around, shards of light brown and deep red wood pointing in all directions. 

The tree of life is fallen, but still magnificent. In the clearing, I can see up close all the life that lived suspended throughout its great height – colorful heliconia, draping mosses, long spiky grasses. Some of the bromeliads alone are almost as tall as I am. In the scarred forest, I can imagine the awful roar of the tree’s fall, rending the air across the park, thundering over the sounds of the storm. 

In the expanse of open sky, I can see the hole left by the piece of the world that El Ceibo used to hold up.

Published by Andrew Thompson

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