by guest contributor: Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju

Figures evocative of the human family seated at the base of the Tree of Life as the baobab is known in South Africa evokes the unhuman vitality of the tree, “a powerful painting with an almost unearthly luminous glow about it”, as described by the Baobab Foundation, an image projecting the tree’s numinous presence, and overpowering massiveness, in harmony with the fragility and minisculity of the trusting human presences resting against it.

J. H. Pierneef’s painting “The Baobab Tree”

In spite of their relative littleness, the human beings, through their control of tools that amplify their physical capacities, embody a power that can decimate the tree, but they recognize the benevolent presence of the massive creatureas a gift beyond human creation and thus worthy of reverence and protection , ideas suggested to me by this painting. 

“An old Baobab tree can create its own ecosystem, as it supports the life of countless creatures, from the largest of mammals to the thousands of tiny creatures scurrying in and out of its crevices. Birds nest in its branches; baboons devour the fruit; bush babies and fruit bats drink the nectar and pollinate the flowers, and elephants have been known to chop down and consume a whole tree.

The tree serves as a massive store of water, and bears fruit that feeds animals and humans. Its leaves are boiled and eaten as an accompaniment similar to spinach, or used to make traditional medicines, while the bark is pounded and woven into rope, baskets, cloth and waterproof hats.

Old living trees that are naturally hollow or have been hollowed out are used for water storage. The empty space is filled with water and then tightly sealed. This will hold water and keep it potable for many years and serve as a reserve during drought.

The fruit contains tartaric acid and vitamin C and can either be sucked, or soaked in water to make a refreshing drink. [It] can also be roasted and ground up to make a coffee-like drink. The bark is pounded to make rope, mats, baskets, paper and cloth; the leaves can be boiled and eaten, and glue can be made from the pollen. Fresh baobab leaves provide an edible vegetable similar to spinach which is also used medicinally to treat kidney and bladder disease, asthma, insect bites, and several other maladies. Pollen from the African and Australian baobabs is mixed with water to make glue.

“I pay homage each day to the great one, immobile yet dynamic of presence, rooted in earth yet offering veneration to the heavens, ancient yet fecund, my brother of a different race but of the same mother, thankful I am that we grace the Earth together at this point in time and space. I arrived before dawn, ready for my encounter with the baobabs, the majestic sentinels who had called me incessantly, preparatory to beginning my meditation on the iconic beauties who mirror the unity of that beyond and that beneath, of the stars and earth, the unknown and the known.” The baobab mystics of Madagascar are inspired by the numinous presence of the island’s baobabs. 

Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By plizzba – pat1_14_11a-lg, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The earlier picture in this essay of a man walking into the mist wreathed avenue of the baobabs may be taken as evoking Jean Razafy’s entry into the fateful meditation space and the picture directly above of a man walking away from the baobab space as his return from the day long meditation.

I spent the night in meditation and returned home at dawn. I had become as Siddharthain the first knowledge attained by me, in the first watch of that night-ignorance dispelled and knowledge won, darkness dispelled and illumination won, as befitted my strenuous and ardent life, purged of self.

(Third to fifth lines from Further Dialogues of the Buddha, I . Translation by Lord Chalmers(London, 1926), p.17. Quoted in “Buddha’s Enlightenment,Life Afterwards, Teaching and Miracles” in Facts and Details.)

The power of this picture consists in the evocative force of its juxtaposition of man and baobab, the frail, moving creature representing the consciousness recording the scene through a photograph, and the still giant, mute but eloquent of presence, a presence presiding over the observations, the comings and goings, of the human and his fellows, within the misty haze just before the rising of the sun.The littleness of the human form against the backdrop of the majesty of nature is dramatized in a quietly powerful manner evocative of the methods of classical Chinese nature painting, facilitating the viewer’s conjuring of various stories as emerging from this deeply atmospheric tableau.Hence, for me, it becomes evocative of the origins of baobab mysticism as Jean Razafy, the first of the baobab mystics of Madagascar, returns home before dawn, having spent an entire day and night meditating on a specific baobab that particularly intrigued him, in that context developing the insights into roots and meaning, tree and life, growth and transformation within consistency of being constituting the origins of the philosophy and spirituality of the baobab mystics of Madagascar.

“Avenida de los Baobabs, Madagascar”, by Pierrot Men, showing people walking through the avenue, magnificently illuminating each other in their combination of grandeur and mystery, expressed by the eloquently mute glory of the amazing trees in the picture, silhouetted against mist in the soft light as the diminutive forms of humans make their way through the richly evocative landscape.

Photo of ” Avenida de los Baobabs, Madagascar”, by Pierrot Men

The baobabs seem to oversee the human passage even as the trees themselves live within a different order of time overshadowing that of the comparatively fleeting human life cycle, the “strange, familiar eyes” as another translation of the Baudelaire poem may go, watching the animate organism as it comes and goes on what it understands as issues of importance to its fleeting existence.

Pictures of children amongst baobabs are particularly striking, perhaps on account of the contrast between their not fully formed bodies and the stentorian size, suggesting formidable age, of the trees. 

“Photograph by Sandra Angers-Blondin, Baobab Alley, Morondava, Madagascar.

Perhaps such juxtapositions of youth and age, of fresh and anciently mature and yet still vigorous growth touch a deep cord of association suggesting the relative youth of humanity on Earth and cosmos, orienting themself among the immensities of nature, concrete and abstract, space, time , Earth, life and death, as may be evoked by the crouching child in the picture addressing himself directly to the immense tree within the quiet of dusk, as atmospherically evocative mist lingers in the background, out of which the other child seems to emerge.

“Alle des Baobabs, Madagascar, 1997” Picture by Chris Simpson in LensCloud,

The somber luminosity of the picture tones, in harmony with the majesty of the landscape in its shaping by massive trees outlined against distant sky, embowelling the human figures as they move forward, gives the image an epic resonance, evoking all journeys of great significance, an archetypal quality amplified by the human figures being children, and one older than the other, guide and guided, growing together into the wonders and challenges opening up in the world represented by the baobab majesties.

My name is being called from some distant place, which feels like home, though I don’t recall ever having been there.

This picture of a Mmamagwa sunset, Northern Tuli Game Reserve, Botwana, by Vincent Grafhorst achieves its power through its use of perspective, its highlighting of relative distances, between the setting sun in the background, the tree in the mid-ground and the rocky outcropping in the foreground, spatial values evoking both temporal possibilities and inward resonances, the time the eye takes in traversing these constitutive elements of the picture and the suggestion, by this temporal frame, of inward time, the time it takes to process what one is seeing, resonating with echoes of immense but inspiring distances, as between the gloriously setting sun and the landscape it illuminates and the eye taking in the illuminator and the illuminated, evoking, in turn, aeons of evolutionary time echoed by the sun, enabling the long, slow development of tree, rock and the watching intelligence represented by photographer and viewer of photograph.

The Baobab Mystic 
I am small as a baobab seed 
I am nutritious as a baobab fruit 
I thrive and regenerate myself with the strength and creativity of a baobab
I am massive as a baobab tree
As long as space abides, as long as the world abides, so long will I abide, nourishing my fellow beings

I am a Baobab mystic.

Excerpted from ‘The Web,’ October 31, 2020, Samhain Issue, pp. 23—32.



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