Umululu, The Big One – A Story About a Tree by Fr Michael O’Shea SMA

A reflection by Fr Michael O’Shea SMA: They call me ‘The Big One’, the biggest tree in the forest, in the local language ‘Umululu’.   I’m a hundred feet tall and a dozen feet thick at my roots.  I support a million leaves and thousands of twigs and branches – home to myriads of creatures big and small.  No wonder they elected me ‘King of the Forest’, I didn’t want to be but, considering my size, I suppose it was inevitable. 

Sad things have happened in my kingdom which for long was a realm of relative harmony.  The weather changed, rains failed, temperature soared.  Winds from the north whispered that humans were slaying the forests for profit, not re-planting and leaving nothing for regeneration.  These profiteers have no concern for future generations neither mine nor their own.  They invaded my kingdom, relentless as soldier ants, axing, sawing, chopping, burning.  I saw my own family, relatives and friends cut down mercilessly.  I was spared because I’m venerated as a Sacred Tree around here and also because I was just too big and tough for these miserable unbelieving loggers to bother with but, rooted to the spot, I couldn’t help my kin.

I had a partner once, a lovely acacia tree.  We had many children; she and they were amongst the first to fall.  I’m the last.  People come to me for my herbal fruits and medicinal roots and bark – healing for everything from heartache to toothache.  These herb seekers never take anything without leaving a token of gratitude – a coin, a cob of maize, a bunch of flowers.

At dawn my leaves awaken and turn to face the rising sun.  Throughout the day they follow its gilded orbit soaking in carbon and hydrogen and breathing out oxygen – purifying the air for all living creatures.  Each one of us trees can account for forty tons of carbon in our lifetime.  While living we provide a safe habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and millions of other creatures, not to mention our function of giving shade, attracting rain, holding moisture, reducing erosion and moderating floods. 

By day a yellow-billed kite perches on my top branch and tells me how the world is doing – not too well just now, he says.  By night a wise old owl sits there meditating soulfully.  Lower down during the day great concourses of birds: sun birds, black-eyed bulbuls, scarlet-winged turacos, hoarse horn bills, deep-voiced coucals, red bishops, green pigeons, yellow canaries and little blue wax bills enliven the air, and my life, with choruses and conversation, singing, whistling,  humming, honking, hooting, fluting, croaking, laughing, crying.  Adult monkeys too confer, usually courteously, in my hallowed havens while their little ones frolic on my bending boughs.  Sad, all are doomed, as I am.  Humans, the owl says, will destroy nature until they themselves become the endangered species and then they’ll destroy one another in their greed, violence and sickness.

Despite the wisdom of Brother Owl, something in my deepest soul tells me that the Supreme Mysterious Tree, the sap of life, who lives, rejoices and suffers with us, will somehow see us through.  Once before, so the story goes, he sent his son to correct our ways and lead us to a new life, a way of love.  Some humans didn’t like his simple ways which threatened theirs and, as they couldn’t change him, they nailed him to one of my kind and left him there to die.  Since then some trees have red sap, red bark and red berries.  They and many other trees and species believe he never left us.

Michael O’Shea SMA, Mpima Forest, Zambia, July 2020