Saving the Spirit Trees: By Cataloging the Virgin Islands' "Remarkable" Trees, a University Professor Hopes to Save Its Wealth of Stories about Ancestral Shrines and Jumbie Trees-And Create a Link between Environmentalism and the Islands' Cultural History

Article excerpt

There are spirits in the baobab tree. Many older residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands know this to be true. Look at its trunk, massive and columnar and reaching towards the sky, its branches like interlaced fingers. When all the world was made, the baobab was the last tree created. That's what the grandmothers say.

Large baobabs are old, old trees, but they are comprised mostly of water. When they die, the water evaporates. The bark and bole turn to dust and blow away. Like human flesh, the tree goes back into file ground. That's only one reason the spirits live there. Jumbles--the spirits, the undead--love to hide in the baobab. For hundreds of years, Virgin Islanders have known this to be true.

But for how long will they remember? Will these stories survive the next few decades? And will a host of culturally and historically significant U.S. Virgin Island trees and tree species remain a viable component of the changing landscapes of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John?

Those are questions being asked in an intriguing study called "Remarkable Big Trees or Cultural Interest in the U.S. Virgin Islands," now underway on the West Indies islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. Thanks to the efforts of University of the Virgin Islands professor Robert W. Nicholls and the university's sponsorship, the USVI's largest trees are being documented under the protocols of AMERICAN FORESTS' Big Trees program. In the project's initial two years, 78 of the islands' largest trees have been located, measured, and proposed for a U.S. Virgin Islands Register of Big Trees. Now the hunt for more soaring specimens of kapok, wild ficus, Dead Man's Tree, and gnarled kenip continues, as efforts to save the trees gain steam.

But that's only part of the initiative. Many the trees of these Caribbean islands have deep cultural and historic significance. Native Carib Indians believed that certain trees and tree species were the homes of spirits. As untold thousands of West African slaves poured through the West Indies in the 17th through the 19th centuries, they brought with them their own spiritual traditions, many involving tree spirits and the magical powers of trees.

This reliance on trees as a cultural reference eventually evolved a historical counterpart, Over time, certain island trees were established as significant meeting places for slaves fighting for emancipation and later for workers struggling with labor issues. The result: Many of the remaining big trees of the Virgin Islands are indeed remarkable, in addition to being sites of significant historical interest, they are a collection of ancestral shrines, portals to ancient homes, repositories of healing and curses, and jumble tree where spirits were said to live ill the roots, and the souls of the dead were stored--and were not to lie trifled with.

Save the trees, figures Nicholls, and you save the stories. "An by saving the stories," he explains, "we save the important affective dimension of experience--the ability of our environment to truly affect us emotionally. Our forefathers had that; maintaining that continuum of experience is important to maintaining community."

An associate professor of education, Nicholls admits that his initial interest in the island's largest and most storied tree specimen had little to do with tree o1" forest conservation, in the 1980s he'd conducted deep research into the music, dance, and mask-wearing traditions of the Igede people of Nigeria, where he was on the faculty at AhmaduBello University. There he learned that musicians clustered around huge trees that shaded traditional meeting grounds. As a curiosity, he started collecting stories and spiritual traditions based on trees, and tucked them away.

In 1993 Nicholls arrived at the St. Thomas campus, his work on the spiritual aspect of African trees an intriguing footnote to a budding academic career. A few years Inter he ran across a request for proposals for projects that would increase public appreciation of local trees, put out by the Urban and Community Forestry Assistance Program of the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture. …


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