Tree at the End of the World

The Tree at the End of the World: Lahaina Banyan

Note: This is the first 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.

At the end of the world stands a tree. The tree, according to the book of Revelation, grows in a holy city, on either side of a great road with a crystal-clear river at its center. In its leaves, we are told, is healing; at the end, after war and chaos and judgment, the emerald leaves over the shimmering water come as a vision of relief and hope.

After the end of the world stands a tree. This tree, like the tree of life in Revelation, grows in a city of spiritual and political importance: Lahaina, Maui, in Hawaii, where the world ended when wildfires of unprecedented destructive power destroyed most of the city and killed over 100 people. In images of the devastation, the tree stands out, an immense blackened cloud in the midst of white-gray seas of ash and shells of buildings, looming, like its biblical counterpart, over a main road alongside the water. The husks of burned-out boats and ruined cars speak of life before the fires, and also of the speed with which the flames overtook the city. In this monochromatic landscape, stark against the backdrop of a blue sky and azure waters, the hulking tree is a dry shadow. It offers no intimation of healing.

The tree, which occupies a whole block of Lahaina, is a 150-year old banyan. Banyan trees (ficus benghalensis) are a variety of strangler fig, which typically begin life as epiphytes, growing on the branches or trunks of other trees (or even on human structures). The young seedling sends down vine-like roots that begin to draw sustenance from the ground, eventually merging with one another to form a lattice of trunks. The Lahaina banyan was brought from India, where they are native, and planted as an eight-foot seedling in 1873 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the town’s first Protestant mission. As its branches spread, members of the community tied jars of water to those aerial roots they wanted to encourage and pruned others, encouraging and shaping the growth of the tree until its mass of dozens of trunks covered two-thirds of an acre and reached a height of sixty feet (still dwarfed, though, by banyans in India that cover four or five acres). Like its Indian siblings, the Lahaina banyan was a gathering place for the community, where children played, adults gathered, and celebrations were held.

The bleak images from Lahaina show an apocalypse wrought by capitalist extraction: by economic systems powered by fossil fuels and governed by a logic of extracting as much as possible from people and places. In the midst of an extraordinary global heat wave, the connection of the wildfires to human-caused climate change is impossible to miss, but less frequently discussed is the way monoculture plantations of sugarcane and pineapple decimated the island’s natural ecological defenses. This is what the end of the world looks like in the Anthropocene epoch.

And it is an end not only in the sense of ending, of cessation and destruction, but also in the sense of telos, the goal or purpose of a thing. Because the ash and shells that surround the Lahaina banyan are the telos of this system of extraction – they are its purpose. That this purpose is unstated, that the ostensible goals of the system are other, makes no difference. If we understand the telos of a thing to be not the purpose it claims, but rather the thing toward which all its actions inevitably lead, the thing it unfailingly chooses in decision after decision, then the telos of this extractive system can only be this. This is the end of that world.

Banyans are stubbornly resilient; yet their thin bark provides less protection against fire than other trees’ bark. There is widespread speculation regarding the future of the Lahaina banyan. Immediately after the fires, water trucks began to saturate the tree and surrounding soil in an effort to protect it. Although the images show charred trunks and scorched leaves, it is not clear whether the damage is fatal, and an inspection revealed live tissue under the blackened bark. If the monumental tree survives to put out new leaves, those leaves will indeed carry healing.

Update: There are signs that the tree may have survived the fire.

Published by Andrew Thompson

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