If I could tell you my story as little Rose, I’d tell you about my little chubby arms, always with a beaded bracelet on both my wrists. Nothing small, everything grand and majestic and exaggerated. But now I’m telling you my story as a branch on a tree, and mother bark is dying.
In 1972, I was born as Rose Wamuyu, daughter of Njenga Wa Muguda and Beatrice Wawira Wamuyu. From as early as I can remember, I was fascinated by beads. My mother was the daughter to a member of the Mau Mau uprising. Although I never met my grandfather, who died with three bullets in his head, his stories lived on in the vivid rebellion tales told by my mother as nighttime stories. It was these bloodline stories, I believe, that instilled affirmative stubbornness in me, eventually leading to my death in 1976.
A morning in June, 2021
A man the size of daddy was walking up towards us with an orange plastic hat and dirt ridden black boots. He had on a pair of black headphones and a luminous orange vest with green lines going through the middle, worn on top of an orange t-shirt. He was bobbing his head up and down, and one of the branches from our tree begun to swing more vigorously with the help of the wind. You see, for the whole week, we heard loud rumbling noises coming from the East side of the forest, getting closer everyday like a song nearing its climax. Most of us knew what this was. In our earlier lives, we had seen it on TV screens and some had even witnessed it with their own eyes. Some others had no clue what was going on because they had not yet travelled to be human beings, so the wind was kind enough to pass stories on from leaf to leaf to tree to tree.
This man came and leaned his back against mother bark. What a gift it is to have a back. He took out a notepad and a black pen from the back pockets of his blue faded jeans and begun to write something down. A poet- how wonderful. In unison, we showered his face and breath with breeze. Write dear poet, write about the lightness of wind. A few minutes into his writing, three more men showed up dressed like him. The two walking together had a handsaw and an axe and the one walking behind him had a chainsaw. This man seated with us shoved the notebook back inside his pockets at lightning speed, even tossing the pen away. They walked up to him and once they had said their hellos, the one with the chainsaw walked to the front with a big grin painted on his face and the chainsaw half-way raised.
“Who’s ready to make some money?” he asked, and on went the orange chainsaw, basting through the air and turning its teeth like the fastest train wheels I had ever seen. Definitely faster than those in toy story.
An evening in December, 1976
The day I died -apart from the dying bit- had altogether been so wonderful. Even though mummy and daddy split, they came together that day to celebrate my first book. I had asked mummy to call him over because I wanted to show them my illustrations book which I then wanted them to publish and give to their friends.
Of course the first page was a drawing of daddy holding a red umbrella over us. I was holding four balloons and mother was next to me, her arms around mine. I heard daddy tell mummy later that day that the drawing looked like a knotted up ball of yarn and though they both chuckled, they also agreed to encourage my art and print out five copies. I was so happy about this that I run outside and submerged my feet in the water. Mummy had always told me never to go by the lake unsupervised but that was a special day! I took off my beaded bracelet and started stretching the band back and forth until it slipped away from my fingers and fell into the water. On impulse, I leaned towards the river stretching my hand as I watched the pink and blue beads give off their last reflection, sinking. One minute I was seeing my braided hair reflect on the water and the next, I was inside it.
Where mummy and daddy took me, I met with some crawling things. We became friends and they told me about the life of a tree; how it can grow to be thousands of years old. I met a mite and a beetle that confirmed the same thing and said that when it was their turn, they too would become trees. When I jumped on the back of one of the wiggling little creates, he told me that he would take me to the fly who would then fly me to a tree nearby but once I was with the fly, he told me that he would take me to a farm with seeds in the ground. I fell off his back on the way and splashed across the ground with the subtlety of a bedsheet, never meeting impact till this day. I joined with the soil and water and went in and up a young, tree a little taller than a bar stool. In this tree, I met others who welcomed me like I had always been family and what we know we cannot tell until you find us or others like us.
Now, these four men had their machines cutting through our dreams of old age and a forever breeze. Mother bark was coming apart, pieces of wood scattered about. It was when the poem man offered up to ‘take a fun spin’ that I was most crushed.
Midnight, 1st April 1999
I was born at 23 weeks weighing 1 pound 11 ounces, blind and with less than a 50% chance of survival, but played piano all my life from when I was five until forty three. I had nine surgeries done to try and save my sight with the warning from the doctors that I might never crawl and hence, walk, because of my blindness. Apparently, I would have no motivation to reach towards something because I could not see it, so I would not be aware there is something to reach for. One day, I reached for the speaker and sat there with my ear pressed against the bass, drawn to the sound, feeling an electricity in my body I had never felt. From then on, music would be my reality and escape, my circle of life.
I don’t know whose idea it was to place the stage of a blind man three stories above a crowd with no railings at the edge. Either way, after my performance of ‘Once the blue eyes blink’, my bestselling jazz piece, I walked forward to take a bow, expecting to touch steel or stone or something but instead, the last thing I heard was a loud wave of gasps and screams echoing through the theatre.
I had left special instructions with my lawyer that in the event of my death, my ashes should be scattered around my favorite tree. It was a yew tree that we planted with my mother in 1973 on a small hill in a green movement initiative, just a few meters away from home. The music took me to the tree to look for stillness and the tree gave me the music in the stillness. By 1999, most trees had been cut down and roads built on that land. Industrialization came closer to our home and I feared the yew tree would be gone soon as well. On April 1st, while inside this deep sadness, mourning a tree that was still alive early in the morning before my performance, I met a little boy sat under it, dressed in a black bat costume with white rabbit years. His head faced the ground, his little fingers pinching the grass over and over again. I sat next to him and he told me of how his friends promised to give him a batman suit and how saddened he was by the fact that the bunny ears had ruined HIS ENTIRE LIFE and he would never find happiness again or be able to enjoy costumes. I reminded him that it was April fools and with a sudden jolt he was up and, bending slightly, gave me a tight hug then run off.
Under this same tree, I once saw a couple lie facing the stars and the non-X-rated version of whatever else came after that is love was shared between bodies but for romance’s sake, we’ll say heart. A priest with his beads was down on his knees facing the tree and a mother was taking shade with her baby in the stroller under the providence of this gift. A cat and a bird once shared some secrets between each other before the cat was rescued. A jogger who had passed out was resuscitated within the shade of the tree and whenever a morning came with its temptation to see paradise, I would sit under the yew tree and watch the sun rise.
When I died, my spirit felt like a breeze. In the wind, I was everywhere with everything at a lovely peace with no pace but joyful living. I found that I did not need the specificity of location to exist, that this tree or that stream were all welcoming. Everything felt so loving and I let the wind decide where I ought to be next. It was in and up a yew tree that I went, meeting all manner of former lives for the first time but never again, experiencing all their stories at once when I first felt the root of the yew; a playful child humming throughout the tree saying welcome in, welcome in. The forest filled with a village love song, the leaves rustling with eager wanting to show me a trick and the sun dancing right above us saying welcome in, welcome in. Entering, the place was not the tree.
Forget about blindness and music, mother bark was a quarter way cut. The man with the chainsaw pulled at the string about eight times before finally giving up. “She’s dead.” He said. “It’s all the way to town now. No shops close by. I need a cigarette anyway so I’ll go. Thirty minutes tops.”
As he walked away, I wondered, what next? It was peculiar that even here, I could not see my life after this tree. I was dust and so finally, I went back to my original form. I was spirit and so finally, I came back into majesty. My peculiar wonder now is about these men. If we could tell them a secret, maybe they would listen and stop with the cutting. Maybe the dream could be saved from premature rotting.
When two men went away to piss, a muscled man with a puffed chest and overalls remained. He was humming to the tune of Life is hard and then you die by Johnny Winter. From smoke, carried to us by the wind, and with the help of murmurs from the colliding leaves, we asked, “Are you here to heal or destroy?”
The man jumped up, turning first to the left then to the right and back again asking, “Who is there?”
“I am a living joy. Like you.” To be with him in this sacredness would be love. Conjured up by this force, we came in like a shadow with an echo from deep inside the forest repeating, “I am a living joy. Like you.”
“Who are you?” he asked, sweat beads forming on his forehead. Shaking it back and forth, he murmured to himself, “You go one day without antipsychotics and suddenly you’re talking with the wind?” “I am a living joy. Like you,” we whispered again but this time, he slapped his head three times with a growl.
Maybe it is because we had no fear but we wanted to make the man feel safe. It was our moving force, again this loving energy to give.
As he begun to walk away, he was met with a crowd of protestors walking towards the forest. “No green, no peace!” They barked. A short man with a bold head run towards one tree to my left. He pulled out a thick chain. His friend tied him up against the tree, securing the chain with a padlock and swallowing the key. No sooner had he finished this than the rest of the protestors followed suit, each finding a tree and chaining themselves against it. Immediately she was against mother bark, I knew this was the child in the stroller that I saw all those years ago. She had come back and she might not have known her presence was forever left in this place. Oh, sweet peace! If I could, I would hug all these humans with it. Perhaps, that yew tree was never just mine to experience stillness with. It was an escape for many.
The muscled arborist rung up his other friends who then came back with police reinforcement. Between the protest song and the sirens and now the swarm of journalists and onlookers with phones pulled out streaming live on social media, the place looked more like a market. But what was being sold and more importantly, what was the price?
When I came out of my body, I heard, more as an assured feeling than the words themselves, Give me the sadness you had learnt to hide so well. Suddenly, it was taken. All the words I could not say came out of me as hot tears rolling down hot cheeks now these salty streams were dropping from a teenage boy who, instead of being chained with his back against a tree, was chained with his belly against it. The tears on his cheeks could be felt by all of us.
In the next few minutes, six black Mercedes Benz pulled up in front of the camera. A tall man in a black suit stepped out of one and walked up to mother bark while surrounded by bodyguards. The girl handed the man a chain. He ordered his bodyguards to tie him up against one of the trees forcing the journalists, who had since been barricaded by the police, to move past the barricade to the trees.
Immediately the barriers were moved to the side, the crowd standing behind the journalists also proceeded with a rush towards the man. In his speech, he said that Wangari Mathai did not strip naked and get beaten down by the police for us to be here again wanting to fight the same war. As it goes, he was vying for a political seat and was involved in as many green movements as he could find the time for.
In between a pause, the leader of the movement would shout, “No green, no peace!” and the crowd would follow suit. It turns out that this young man was the son of the Vice-president and his actions had made the UN environment assembly turn their attention on him. He too had declared on live TV that he would love to be returned to the earth through a scattering of his ashes around these trees. The Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry arrived soon after and behind him, a UN representative. They stood next to the chained down but heavily protected VP son, one on each side, and a silence infused with uncertainty filled the air. Even the trees were curious enough to settle their leaves. The cameramen adjusted their lenses with some making room for others to squeeze in.
The cabinet secretary said that there will be no tree cutting around the area now or in the near future because it had immediately gone under preservation.
“Human greed has led to the point where people would rather kill a whole generation of our seeds than see us live on pockets not overflowing with gold and silver. Swift action will be taken against the company that unlawfully sent its workers to destroy this beautiful nature behind us today. I ask that each person take the case of deforestation as seriously as they would take the news of their own illness because these actions are nothing but a disease. Don’t wait for a protest to make you plant trees. Take it upon yourself as a duty to your existence here on earth because time will not be kind to us if we continue with these trends. The forest will remain,” he finished, a loud applause following.
As the commotion came to an end and protesters were unchaining themselves, the girl grazed her fingers against mother bark, going over the cut. Worried, she asked a friend, “Will this tree die or continue growing now that it’s cut up like this?” Her friend bounced her shoulders and said, “I don’t know,” and walked with the crowd back to trains and buildings.
The girl remained behind and sat under us, taking pictures of mother bark with her fingers placed over the crack. She posted the photo on social media with the caption, ‘We won her back! To Mother Earth’ and a blushing monkey, a recycle sign and a heart emoji next to the text. She sat with us that evening as we experienced the sun go down and I was sure she would join us too someday. Maybe the VP’s son would also come to mother bark and make his own branch of temporary shelter to temporary tragedy.
The child and I were in the choir singing welcome in, welcome in, when the puff chested arborist swept in. Welcome, welcome, we kept singing.