About Place Journal, Volume II Issue I
The Wedding Tree
“The earth will have an answer,” he said, as we sat on the roots of our favorite tree in the gardens, just off the Main Rd. in Claremont, a southern suburb of Cape Town, where nearly ten years ago, I spent a winter and a spring. I wanted to believe him, too, this kind Zimbabwean musician-friend, Dingiswayo, who had spent hours upon hours playing the mbira, more commonly known as a “thumb-piano,” with me. That afternoon, he had wanted to meet outdoors, in public, for my first “jam session,” my culminating “concert,” before I boarded the plane to return to the U.S.
The Arderne Gardens were a stone’s throw from my apartment; I walked through them almost every day on my way to the university. Some of the oldest trees on the continent stood in those gardens, hosts to hundreds of visitors strolling under the canopy of leaves, getting married on the lawns, taking a respite from the city’s asphalt. The Wedding Tree whose roots served as our benches that day was a Moreton Bay Fig tree, native to Australia and known for its eruptive and disruptive roots that stretch interminably across terrains. From the day I set foot on the Cape, I was transfixed by these trees. Their roots seemed to be branches themselves, holding the earth like fingers.
One day, as I stood by a tree on the campus of the University of Cape Town, a passer-by stopped to tell me his Xhosa mother boiled the leaves for medicinal use. “It’s not just a tree,” he said, “it breathes life.” Although there are Moreton Bay Fig Trees in the U.S.—primarily in California and Florida—I had never seen one. There was something about these trees that brought me a new awareness of myself as a living being. Their size, their roots, their life occupied a demanding presence, and for the eight months I spent in their midst, I yielded to that demand.
When Dingiswayo and I had arrived in the gardens that day in November, we had walked on the paved path around the pools where the ducks swam, spring emerging from a southern winter. As we arrived in front of the Wedding Tree, without exchanging a word, we sat down. Dingiswayo began to play his mbira. I took mine from the towel I wrapped it in, held the crafted wood in my hands, and joined him. The notes carried across the garden, and as we played, a small audience formed around us, under the tree. My fingers held the instrument, and I closed my eyes, feeling the tree below and around me, as if its fingers were the ones playing.
When Dingiswayo’s fingers stopped, mine did, too. We sat in silence with the tree, and I wept—for my impending departure, the distance it would put between me and Dingiswayo, the Cape, the tree. “You know,” he leaned in, “I made your mbira out of this tree. It will always be with you.” I stared at him, baffled. He had made my mbira. I had played for several months on a borrowed instrument, but he had noticed that I have small hands, and every instrument was in one way or another awkward for my fingers. He set to work making me my own instrument, hammering the keys in a friend’s blacksmithing shop.
When he was nearly finished, he invited me to the shop, to uncover his gift and make any final adjustments. The instrument is the only souvenir I brought back from Cape Town. I brought no camera. I bought to gifts. Dingiswayo did not make my mbira out of that tree; it seemed unlikely that he even made it out of a fig tree. Yet there was, there is some part of me that wants to believe that maybe he did. I did not contest his statement.
“The earth will have an answer,” he said, as if the tree were carrying my fears, my uncertainty, my longing to stay there forever straight to him for an answer. “The earth will have an answer.” I don’t know that I ever knew exactly what the earth would answer. And it’s possible that I will never know what that answer is, but Dingiswayo’s words have echoed through the years, through the trees, providing their own enigmatic roots as I have moved from South Africa to New England to the Midwest. I have heard the Wedding Tree’s voice among the Maine pines, on the streets of Detroit, and in the forests of Yellowstone.
People called it the Wedding Tree, because it seemed as if every couple in Cape Town got married under its leaves, taking vows among the roots, and embracing its trunk. For me, it became the Wedding Tree, because its roots wedded it—and me—to the earth. Seeing those roots made me want to plant my fingers in the earth, imagining what it could feel like to be that tremendous tree. When I returned to the U.S., I sought out trees, ran my fingers over their bark, stood below their barren winter branches. No tree, I found, is just a tree.
Genevieve Creedon is a poet and non-fiction writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine and is currently completing her PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation focuses on environmental history and the experience of wonder, particularly as promoted by U.S. parks—national parks, zoos, and theme parks.