The Fat Trunk of the Baobab Tree

Performative reading by Kate Pickering for 'Wild Kind'. 

Mountain of Arts Research Event held at Goldsmiths College.

1st June 2018


 An African Baobab

An African Baobab

The Fat Trunk of the Baobab Tree

[Photographic documentation of the performance to follow.]

 

To be performed with the ‘Multiuser Table Interface’, designed and fabricated by Ciarán Ó Dochartaigh.

I sit on the table-ground near the elliptical hole.

I’d like to invite us to gather to hear a story, by sitting underneath this table-ground. If you are tall or claustrophobic, sit towards the edge or outside, otherwise, gather your bodies in tightly. Feel free to move as you wish during the course of the reading.

The crowd moves and sit under the table-ground. I speak into the hole.

This is not a time to be cautious about personal space. If your stomach rumbles, let it rumble, if you feel someone else’s breath on your cheek, think of it as your own breath, if you feel a knee or elbow press into your back, know it is an extension of your own body. This is time to be togethernin the root-branches of a vast tree. This is the time for being in and of the tree.

I climb into the elliptical hole in the table-ground, body half under and half above the table-ground.

The roots of this tree push out rudely into the wide blue basin of the sky, whilst it’s branches hide coyly below the earth. This tree is unabashed, brandishing its leafless underparts for all to see. If you were to stand on your head, you would see it as it should be, the right way down.

But you still cannot see the branches. For that you would need to plunge below the crusty earth of this table-ground where the branches grow. You would need to be headfirst, soil deep, aping the tree. Let us be upside down trees together for a while. Let us plunge our heads down and in beneath the cracked ground of an arid land, which darkens as we descend.

I sit down with the crowd under the table-ground.

In the subterranean earth we peer around rock fragments, burrowing creatures and the decaying remains of plant and animal matter. Our vision entangles with branches that splay out into the hidden tree crown.

Whilst we are nestled in tight amongst the concealed root-branches I should tell you that this tree is a baobab: say baobab with me: baobab, baobab, baobab. Baobab babbles through our lips, the name is formed of sounds on the cusp of meaning. The name is also a little upside down and back to front. The mouth echoes the shape of the lemniscate, the symbol for infinity: the lips move out over the wide bloom of roots and into the tight ’b’ of the trunk’s pith, and out again into the spread of crown. It is also called the tree of life. This tree is a vast storage tank, hoarding up to 120,000 litres of water in arid climes. Outside the tree, the world is sun scorched and parched, inside the swollen trunk is an immense collection of spongy tissue storing up water for the thirsty. Atmosphere surrounds the root-crown. Earth surrounds the crown-roots. The tree is a site for gathering the living, a place where meetings were held by those in search of wisdom: now it is host to a vast and thriving community of variant life forms.

The baobab tree is both heights and planes. It spreads as wide as it grows tall. Its relations are with the earth but also the atmosphere and the networks of the ecosystems it supports and is supported by. We can orient ourselves in the trees roots at a central point, or peer upside down from the roots with dizzying abandon towards a stabilizing ground that is far away. We can look outwards, askance, from the pith, the core of the tree, as the tree pith. We are part of a watery body that moves within the tree. That leeches up-down into the roots and branches from the earth-sky, through the hard heartwood and into the rich sapwood to the small dark spot of the pith, its cells teeming and lively, across the rings, down-up into the branches and roots, and out in the atmosphere-ground. We will move in queer formations.

These queer ‘slantwise’ movements are a generative orientation, enabling us to think a different, but analogous structure, one that is hinged to the tree in thought. Queering is needed for a growth which will fractalise outwards, downwards, inwards and backwards and through into other space-times and dimensions. In this wild, weird fruiting, hybrid connections will be made. Some might endure.

This other structure is also heights and planes. It engenders a dizzying verticality from certain viewpoints, and its spread continues to proliferate until it encompasses the known horizon. It is also deeply rooted in both grounding earth and atmospheric sky. It is a building whose foundations stabilise a vast structure, planted not in African plains but deep in humid Texan swampland, close to the fullness of the Bayou. The foundations are concrete but they are also of atmosphere, brought into being by tongues within mouths that speak a story, a story which in its repetition has materialized into a stable ground. Inside the building a colossal air conditioning system branches inside the walls, expelling all moisture. The air is clinically crisp and dry.

But for now we are deep within the tree’s flows, we pass through the xylem cells in an efficient transport system that echoes the human vascular network. We are taken inexorably up by conducting tissues which begins in the roots and extend out into the branches. A negative pressure, extending back down the tree, as vapour leeches off into the atmosphere, creates an anti-gravitational tension down through the xylem pathway.

At this scale of the molecular, the micro is the twin of the mega. Crowds of particles are drawn towards each other, body-molecules touch in limitless interactions.

I stand up in the elliptical hole, body half below and half above the table-ground.

We are drawn up through the distended trunk of the Baobab tree, bloated with water. The Baobab holds its unseen gallons whilst the earth outside perspires to a hard and unyielding carapace. It lightens to a pale sandstone shade. An arid land causes thirst, and dehydration. The symptoms of dehydration, along with a dryness in the mouth, a swallowing where the tongue sticks to the palate, are weakness, fainting and dizziness. This can lead to disorientation. 

I sit on the table-ground and speak to the crowd into the hole.

Jeremiah 17:5-8: This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.  That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives. “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.  They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes... It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit…I will give water to the thirsty land and make streams flow on the dry ground. I will pour out my spirit on your children and my blessing on your descendants.” (New International Version)

I sit on the table-ground. My legs dangle inside the hole.

The Baobab’s interior collection of spongy tissue, cells ballooning with water, is an excess of possibility. This watery excess produces lives lived in abundance. Lives that are saturated, that dwell in humid air thick with enchantment. The tree is a body-site, a site-body that fruits many bodies, bodies that are always reproducing and growing, it is a pure fecundity, a fullness that counters emptiness. It is a living house. The Baobab was once “bu hibab”, Arabic for fruit with many seeds. In the heady atmosphere of the damp Baobab trunk we begin to see images of people gathered into clusters emerge, these clusters swell, they crystallise into a vast horizon of bodies, an image of community, an image of togetherness. In the building, all the bodies form a wealth, a sign of the wellness, the fatness of that community. Communities build and grow, they bulge, become bulbous, outgrow the confines of walls and rooves and parking lots and new buildings have to be built or bought. This spread of bodies, at a certain tipping point, forms an image. It is an image of the mega, of greatness.

The word mega means great, mighty, epic. It is also a prefix denoting the multiple of a million for any given unit. The lemniscate is thought to be a form of the Greek letter omega (ω), the last letter in the Greek alphabet and often used to denote the last, the end, or the ultimate limit of a set, in contrast to the alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. In Revelation 22:13 God declares: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End’. God declares himself an infinity, an infinite greatness.

Beyond and beneath the individual is the infinitesimal. The infinitesimal is a multiplicity: both the mega of the crowd and the micro of the molecular.

Let us trace this tributary of thought, drawing us osmotically outwards into an immersion in the fullness of the megachurch.

I sit down with the crowd under the table-ground.

We descend-ascend now through the ground into this other site. Hidden in the darkness, down past the weak topsoil and into the strong subsoil and rock fragments, the structural slabs of the deep foundation piles are still and enduring. These slabs have been thickened beneath load bearing walls and are reinforced with steel. They sit on top of bell pier piles which penetrate deep into the ground, down past the unstable section susceptible to wetting and into the stable zone. The foundation underpins our monumental tree-building of 606,000 square feet. The structure encircles a fearless community. The foundations of this site are strong, and water tight.

The name of this structure is Lakewood, it is water – lake, and tree - wood, a stadium that grew from a small barnstore in the Lakewood Forest area of North West Houston. The website reads: There is a new generation rising at Lakewood Church, a generation who doesn't believe in limits, and who believes all things are possible.  Every week, 47,000 people gather within the vast arena known as the Sanctuary, to hear wisdom, to feel consoled, to find belonging. Gatherings are televised in more than 100 countries, with an estimated 7 million viewers each week, whilst it’s international media broadcast has expanded into over 200 million households in the United States.

Megachurches are described in terms of a phenomenal wellness: ‘thriving’, ‘growing’, ‘flourishing’, ‘prospering’. They are strongly rooted and well-watered. For now they will continue to burgeon and bloom. The megachurch is an entity that has become fat with concentric growth rings of belonging: accountability groups, house groups, clusters, services, conferences, rallies, global networks. The megachurch is more than the sum of its congregants, its conditions propagate infinities, it aims for a total and global reach. The immersion in an image of an endless, frameless spread of bodies is a tangible sign of the infinity of God. At the heart of it, in the pith, is the individual bodily encounter with this infinity: the point at which the limits of the individual are breached. Belief is produced in the bodies of those who encounter the saturating atmosphere of enchantment. Their eyes search outward to an unseen other, hoping that this other will materialize excessively through pleasure, and through a proliferating wellness of thought and body.

Imagine now being crowded into a space that is so large it is hard to make out the individuals on the other side, where the far walls are barely perceptible. We are amongst the many thousands of bodies filling this vast structure to find belonging. This space is an oval womb, encircled by and bathed in the coolness of air conditioning vents. It is a holding space of curved lines containing the mass of bodies arrayed in rows upon rows of bleachers. In the centre of the stage an 11 foot wide sculpture of the globe, rendered in gold, slowly rotates. On either side streams of water flow over an imitation rock feature. The ceiling is painted black but downlit with multi-coloured LEDs, it resembles the dome of the night sky. The stage is also filling with people. Multiple screens multiply the faces. The waiting bodies reach out, faces upturned, eyes shut, palms open. We feel a presence in the prickling sensation in our skin, in the raised hairs and blood vessels dilating. Our breath quickens and our heart beats rise. Despite the cool air we sweat, our pores producing glistening beads which reflect the auditorium from every angle, the bodies endlessly arriving and joining the crowd. We have become dehydrated. Our mouths are dry, we are thirsty.

But the air is thick with magic.

I climb up onto the table-ground. I speak to the crowd through the hole.

In the voluptuous atmosphere of watery excess, molecule-bodies seep and return through the porous membranes. But they return with other body-molecules, cycles are repeated and repeated, bodies drawn together. A crowd inexorably grows, it breeches the limits of the trunk, it exceeds the confines of the site. The borders will no longer hold, the water is leeching out from the Baobab’s trunk and into the foundations of the stadium… a saturating atmosphere has drawn water molecules in and they glisten on the skins of the upturned faces and outstretched hands… the atmosphere has become humid, a mist has caused the sharp contours of the room to fade. Condensation fogs the image on the screens. Water is beginning to trickle down walls and the backs of seats. It is snaking its way across the polished acrylic floor of the stage. The carpet in the aisles is darkening as a bloom of water spreads across it. Rivulets gather, currents rise and swell. The lectern gently topples. A body of water is gathering, an epic inundation, soon the water will immerse us all.