Arbre du Ténéré
L’Arbre du Ténéré was the world’s loneliest tree. Situated in the Sahara, some 250 miles distant from any other forestation, the tree became a signpost of sorts for desert travelers.
There is no mystery as to how the tree came into existence, and how it survived in the desert, alone. Arbre du Ténéré was the final offspring of a much larger forest that hat once stood in what is now the Sahara Desert, hundreds of years ago, when the landscape was much more rich in water. The tree’s roots reached more than 100 feet into the sand and soil, in to the thinning water table that had continued to recede over the centuries. Eventually, through chance or some fatal competition, Arbre du Ténéré was the only tree with the roots in the right place. Its siblings all perished by the early 20th Century.
Image courtesy Michel Mazeau
The first Westerners who happened upon the tree marveled at not only its ability to survive the harsh environment, but also the constant passing-by of travelers, who could have most certainly used its wood as a resource in the cold desert nights. How could one spoiling soul arrive with an axe and a desire to destroy? Michel Lesourd, one of these explorers, wrote:
One must see the Tree to believe its existence. What is its secret? How can it still be living in spite of the multitudes of camels which trample at its sides. How at each azalai does not a lost camel eat its leaves and thorns? Why don't the numerous Touareg leading the salt caravans cut its branches to make fires to brew their tea? The only answer is that the tree is taboo and considered as such by the caravaniers. There is a kind of superstition, a tribal order which is always respected.
To further understand the mystery of Arbre du Ténéré, French explorers bored out a well alongside the tree during the winter of 1938 and 1939. It was there they found a water table more than 100 feet below the sand—the answer as to how, biologically, it continued to live.
The nomads and other camel-based travelers continued to use the tree as a “lighthouse” during their travels over the next few decades. As Lesourd had previously written, the tree was symbolic for these people, so important to their survival that not a one of them could consider causing it harm.
Of course, that does not mean the tree would be free from damage. In 1959, Frenchman Henri Lhote came upon the tree for the second time in his life and found it violated. While Arbre du Ténéré originally had two trunks, one was struck by a lorry which likely stopped at the “lighthouse” for a short break during the long drive through the Sahara. One can only imagine what was going on at the moment the lorry drove into what had become, essentially, a revered symbol of the desert. And how they must have felt as they drove off across the sand.
The tree would later suffer an even worse fate. In 1973, the Arbre du Ténéré knocked down entirely—by a Libyan drunken driver, according to rumor. Apparently, no one thought to gather up any information about this driver. He left as anonymous as the day he arrived, and is still unknown.
On November 8, 1973, the dead tree was taken from the desert to the Niger National Museum, where it remains today.
In place of Arbre du Ténéré, an artist welded together a new tree, constructed of whatever refuse had been left in the area over the years: metal pipes and automotive parts. The new Arbre du Ténéré still has the classic Y shape of the original living tree.
Beneath the surface, those roots, diving 100 feet into the soil, are now dead. And the forest that had once stood there, however many thousands of years ago, will never return in scales measured in human experiences. Perhaps in geologic time. And, perhaps, the statue will remain as well, so that future travelers there will continue to wonder what beacon once stood there.
Image courtesy Holger Reineccius