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Holding fast

Between the giant mulberry and the bitter almond in the old garden stood the dried trunk of what must once have been a noble tree. I was never able to decide if it was the trunk of an ironwood from which assagais are made and which had grown there when the garden was planted, or if it was what was left of a bitter almond. It was gnarled and twisted, iron-hard in that barren and bitter land of ironstone boulders and the black lavas in the craters of volcanoes long extinct.

Year by year the old almonds burst into blossom, some 50 feet of frail white petals that seemed to light up the whole garden and set the pattern for apple, pear, and peach, all of them also wrung and twisted by the years. Year by year, at silkworm time, the mulberry buds broke small and green with renewed life out of the sere bent branches, so that in contrast the dried trunk stood like Lot's wife, petrified not in salt at a moment of looking back but as if twisted round and round through a century of indomitable growing.

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Wood was scarce on the high African plateau, and so each year the dead branches were cut off for the winter fires and the old trees became more and more gaunt as the young trees, planted to replace them, grew firmer into the earth and taller into the air under the overpowering heights of the old giants.But for some reason no one ever thought of the dried old trunk as firewood, though in its twenty foot height and its girth of some eight feet across there must have been enough wood to keep the house fires going through one whole winter.

There is in a farmer's life not much time for sentiment, and so inevitably the day came when I thought of how much wood there was in that dried trunk, and with no more than that thought in my head I tried, in passing, to sink the blade of the ax into its knotted trunk. I might as well have tried to sink it into one of the ironstone boulders on the hill.

The blade bounded back and I stopped in surprise. Such hard wood really would burn like coal, I thought, and what else was coal but petrified wood? The heat and the dry air of those sun-smitten heights must have turned the trunk into coal as it stood.

That was how it began, and it was to last a week. Those were the days before power-driven tools, and so we tried ax and saw, sledgehammer and a wedge, between the great knots. We dug holes in the ground, but even 10 feet out from the trunk, the roots were twisted with a solid ivory core, seared and yellow.

We lighted fires under them. All that happened was that the ivory turned black from the smoke. We dug a hole under the main trunk and filled it with wood and for good measure poured a can of paraffin over it and the trunk. But all we got was smoke in the eyes. I fetched a ladder and went up to see what was at the top, and indeed there was a hole going inside from between the twisted arms where they had been cut off in what I felt was some forgotten age. But at the sides of the hole charred lumps still clung to the wood, and that made me think that probably in that forgotten age a bolt of lightning had struck the living tree so that the two main branches were split and were then cut off while still green.

I sent for a span of oxen and all the trek chains on the farm. With a chain looped round one of the arms and eight pairs of oxen pulling at the other end, I hoped to split the trunk. But the great beasts strained till, with the whip cracking over them, they sank to their knees. The trunk did not even shake. That evening I looked sadly at the trampled and ploughed-up earth. The chains were still lying where they had been thrown aside under the mulberry tree, and one of the lower branches of the bitter almond lay where it had been flung aside after it had been torn off by the veering of the span of oxen.

In the falling night, with the first of the cool night wind blowing ashes over the trampled and outraged earth, I saw more clearly how grotesque and bitter were those years of growing, knotted into the trunk, and as I turned to go I lifted my hat and said good night.

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Next morning I remembered I had some sticks of dynamite left from blasting the floodwater furrows through the ironstone slabs at the side of the river. But one bit of the breast drill broke and a second was blunted after a few turns. To place the dynamite loose in a hole dug under the trunk would merely blow earth away. Once more I climbed the ladder and filled up the hole at the top, put in three sticks of dynamite, tamped them down with clay, and waited till evening for the clay to set.

All the farm assembled to see the final drama of a play that had been going on for almost a week and about which everyone on the farm, and even on the neighboring farms, was talking.

I lit the fuses, slid down the ladder, and ran, and everybody else ran. The detonations came almost together. Lumps of dried clay flew into the heavens and the blast scattered leaves and branches from the surrounding trees. But for the old trunk even the dynamite might as well have been the crackling of thorns under a pot and the excited gabbling of all the onlookers no more than the laughter of fools. It stood serene, unmarked, unshaken.

The next day we filled in the holes we had dug along the roots and under the main trunk and tamped down the earth. Soon, I knew, with the coming of spring, the scars of the outrage would be grown over by the all-forgiving grass, and I could only hope that my violence would be condoned with as gentle a compassion.

It was astonishing what feelings of respect, even reverence, that old trunk gave me. With today's power-driven tools and tractors its invincibility might have been broached. But I like to think now, more than 30 years later, that it is still standing there, by some immutable law or an act of providence, its silent reproaches of my assaults forgotten. It is an indispensable part of my life and of life.

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