At this moment in the U.K., a huge number of our forests are suffering from the ominous-sounding Ash Dieback. While all the media is talking of the impending (or not) Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy, ash trees are being wiped out by a fungal disease apocalypse of their own. “Well, so what,” you might be thinking, “a tree is just a tree”.
But trees are not just trees. Besides cleaning the air we breathe, providing us with wood, paper, fuel, chewing gum, and rubber tires, among other things, trees are often a big part of a nation’s folklore, identity and culture (for example, The Ashtree is a beautiful and popular folksong in the U.K.). One tree that this is particularly true of, with regards to the Americas, is the guayacán.
The guayacán is the name given to the Guaiacum species of tree found in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas and the Caribbean (it is the national tree of the Bahamas), from where its wood (the hardest of the trade woods, also known as lignum vitae) was in the past transported to Europe as a purported cure for syphilis. Originally used in medical preparations by the Taíno, it continues to help the ill today: its resin is used to detect the presence of blood in stools (which can be a sign of bowel cancer), and a drug derived from it is used to alleviate respiratory problems.
It is especially associated with the Taíno people, the indigenous population of the Caribbean, and it is their language which has given the guayacán its name. In fact, a visit to the British Museum on a freezing day in November revealed a number of artifacts carved by the Taíno from this tree, including a statue of a man in a trance, crying tears made of gold, and a ceremonial chair used by shamans and chiefs inhaling a hallucinogen called cohoba.
It is apparently an important part of Nivakle Indian (Paraguay and Argentina) mythology, lends its name to a port in Chile, which reportedly conceals hidden treasure buried there by the English pirate Francis Drake, is said to be a powerful aphrodisiac and features in songs (such as Daddy Yankee’s Sabor a Mela’o), books, and salsa bands (Orquesta Guayacán, from Colombia).
So this winter, with pine needles from the Christmas tree on the floor, bare branches outside, and chestnuts roasting on a (log) fire, don’t forget the importance of trees in the lives not only of our ancestors, but in our own. Hopefully the new year will see us grow more like the guayacán: legendary, strong and beautiful, and thankfully still around… at least for now.
Camila Garces, Guest Contributor