Wednesday, 30 November 2016

IMITHI: Grahamstown's Tree Memory Project

 If water is our life-blood, 
plants are our very flesh.

Over millions of years plants have created the atmosphere we breathe; the soils from which we harvest food; and the fossil fuels on which our present economy runs.  Without plants, without trees, we are dead.  It’s that simple, and no exaggeration.  Yet fossil fuels and arable soils and water-generating ecosystems are all under huge stress from human activity.  Trees are being cut down at terrifying rates globally, un-homing orang-utans and gorillas and butterflies, lemurs and wolves and owls, as well as age-old human communities from the Amazon to Myanmar.

We may feel we can’t do much about the destruction of forests in New Guinea or Brazil, but we can do something in Grahamstown.  We can write about, document, record the memories of local trees that once graced our streets or hills or gardens.  We can try to preserve the trees we still possess.  And we can try to take the long view and try to plant new trees that in a hundred or two hundred years will be places in which ecosystems can thrive and great-grandchildren can play and new cultural meanings can be forged.

Makana's Kop: Impression (c) Dan Wylie
Trees carry meanings and memories. 

Trees are havens in which we hid or cried or shared secrets or companionship.  They housed other mammals or intriguing birds or threatening insects.  They heaved up our houses’ foundations or suffused our mornings with beauty or yielded sweet or bitter fruits that became who we are.  They are scented with seasonal weathers and ghosts.  Our town is dominated at one end by the grove on Makana’s Kop, with all the cultural weight of those who are buried there; and at the other by the Botanical Gardens, with its quilt of foreign trees at once imperial and beautiful, both alien and educative.

Our relationship to trees is not always just beauty and benefit.  They break walls and harbour venomous snakes.  Some alien species are astoundingly lovely, but others are ecologically damaging and have to be rooted out.  But overall, remember – without trees, we’re dead, and so are a zillion other species, upon every one of which a functioning ecosystem may depend.  Dead simple.

So here is the call.  Send in your memories of trees.

You may know of and direct us to photographs or paintings of Grahamstown’s now-forgotten and vanished trees of the past.  You may know of old travelogues, or letters, poems or stories.  You may have photos or paintings or drawings of trees you once played in, or planted, or cut down, or that still exist, on your street or in your back yard.  Certain trees may commemorate or recall specific individuals or events.  Write down what you know and remember, and send it in.  Anything.  It doesn’t have to be literary or polished.  Be sentimental, or scientific, or angry. The more specific your information – the precise location, the species, the exact time or age – the more useful it may be.  Take more photos.  Get your kids and students doing projects.  Let’s think afresh about our trees.  Let’s think about what we can leave behind, not just for tomorrow, or next year, but for fifty, a hundred, a thousand years.

We don’t know what we’ll do with it yet.  The Facebook page is just a start.  In time we can start compiling and correlating and mapping and sifting it all into something that will find its own shape.  It’s for everyone to participate in.  Just keep it to Grahamstown-Rhini and its immediate surrounds for now!

Send what you have to the
              Imithi facebook page

or to Dan Wylie at

or mail to Dan Wylie, Department of English, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.