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Vol. 16, no. 1
February/March 2013


Walking Among Ancients 

Story by Paul Wood

Photographs by McCullough


One day a lone man named Hai On was wandering over a barren desert. He rounded a cinder cone and to his great surprise came upon a living tree. It stood alone in a heap of rocks. Orangeish in color with a strangely glowing trunk, the tree jutted into the air, then exploded into a mesmerizing tangle of limbs that stretched outward widely, as though yearning to touch something or anything else.


The place was hot and sere. Even the invasive plants in this desert had succumbed to the drought—the fountain grass bleached, the mesquite trees dead. The tree itself had no leaves. And yet it was covered with orange flowers, intensely orange, in thick inflorescences with pink-rose stamens all arcing upward like so many dancers. The fruits on the tree—twisting brown pods that had cracked wide open—each held just two or three kidney-bean-size seeds that were all uniformly bright red.


At the base of the tree’s chunky trunk grew a patch of grass, the only thing green to be seen for miles around. Otherwise the tree looked completely sealed inside itself, its bark a kind of glaze, like a translucent skin. Its internal glow suggested to Hai that some liveliness was happening within, perhaps even photosynthesis. Within the folds of the tree’s bark, he imagined seeing faces and rivers.


“What is this plant?” Hai wondered. It’s a common question for travelers, of course—“What’s that?”—and most people simply ask and move on. Hai, though, couldn’t let it go.


He began searching for other specimens of this strange tree, and he came to realize that only a few hundred still existed in his area. These last trees had somehow survived the collapse of their ancient dryland forest home. As a defense against drought, they had dropped their leaves and withdrawn into their tightly sealed trunks to wait for rain. Hai asked around and learned the plant’s name: wiliwili, which rhymes with “really really.” No one seemed to know much about them.


For example, nobody knew how old the trees were. At least five hundred years was the best guess. Almost all the trees seemed to be that same size and age. As he kept wandering Hai discovered a few that looked somewhat smaller and younger. But he was able to locate only one keiki—that is, only one sapling—in the entire district.


Hai decided to adopt the trees and to visit them regularly. He developed a notation system to help him monitor individual trees and measure their health. Whenever he visited a tree, he always said, “Hello, old friend.” If anyone asked him why he cared, he would answer, “They’re so lonely.”


Two years later when Hai rounded that same cinder cone to revisit the first wiliwili of his life, he saw that it had changed. Its bark had hardened into a kind of copper. Its trunk had sundered and collapsed onto the blistered clinkers of dry lava, its creamy white inner wood exposed and light as foam. The thick branches had snapped like chalk with clean ninety-degree breaks—no woody fibers in this tree. Hai picked up a huge limb and raised it into the air. The weighty heft of the tree had turned to meringue. The corpse of the tree was powdering in the hot lava-field wind.