New Internationalist

The breadfruit tree

Issue 398

Lindsey Collen finds herself coaxing the man with the buzzsaw.

sarah john
sarah john

The breadfruit tree out front has got too big. Glorious, but ridiculous. That’s what happens if you miss one pruning season. Trees get out of hand. Now it’s gone and grown too tall. Too wide, as well. And generally spreading. Everything’s like that here. Grass invades the tar on the Government’s motorways, weeds have to be fought back from people’s verandahs and paths. An old abandoned sugar mill soon has a full-sized tree growing from its highest chimney, your house can get a pawpaw tree growing out of its gutter if you don’t watch it, while mango trees push the wooden tiles out of the roofs of abandoned houses from the inside. Any neglected back garden turns into a wilderness of green.

So we ask Fareed Tronsonez to come around – he makes a living in our village from his electric saw. Which he does, little grandchild on his hip, to discuss the matter of the breadfruit tree.

We know we’ve got a big job on hand. How to persuade Fareed, although it is his living, to cut back such a beautiful tree. Not cut it down. Just cut it back.

He stands with one hand affectionately feeling the smooth grey bark of the three-trunked breadfruit tree. He looks up adoringly at its huge leaves. Half a metre long, almost as broad. And thousands of them, layer upon layer. He smiles.

It will all depend on our arguments. Only the most delicate and the most rational will do. They will have to be developed at some length, and at a gentle pace. Fareed loves trees.

So we stand around, his grandchild playing about our legs. Ram begins. ‘You’ll notice, it’s impinging a bit on the sun-space of the mulberry and the fig. They could end up stunted.’ Subtle argument.

‘A problem,’ Fareed nods. Anyone can see he is unconvinced. The trees both looked spindly anyway.

Silence. Then I mention that we’re having this bit of difficulty managing the pruning now that it’s that tall. The ladder doesn’t reach, and the branches are rather too thick up there to cut with an ordinary saw. This could perhaps make upkeep dangerous.

‘True,’ Fareed mumbles. Not too convinced. We look too fit for such arguments.

More silence.

I try another tack. The profusion of fallen leaves, going dry, that we have to sweep up. Day in, day out. And if we can’t keep up, how this will breed mosquitoes, what with each leaf being like a big bowl on the ground, catching rainwater; how mosquitoes will in turn spread Chikungunya (viral fever). Not to mention, I add when he seems unmoved, the hundreds of male fruit that fall male-shaped all over, that also have to be swept up. I make them sound positively rude.

‘Exercise,’ he says, now swinging his grandchild between his legs, ‘is good for everyone.’

And another thing, I go on bravely, is that the bright green football-sized vegetables, with their tiny hexagons carved all over, so beautiful to see, to pick, to hold, are now growing too high up to get to. So, we can’t harvest them properly anymore, nor share them with neighbours. We can’t get to boil them and serve with butter, salt and a bit of chili. Nor to make mash, nor to use them as stuffing in faratas. Nor to parboil them, and cut them up for chips, nor to make a dry curry, nor to let them ripen, pull out the big stem, fill the hole up with brown sugar, rum and raisins, and bake them in their skins.

They get left up in the sky until, of their own accord, they plummet down in a big over-ripe plop. This is hard to clean up.

‘Problem,’ he nods, reverting to the second-last point, pointedly ignoring the last one as invalid, ‘when you can’t enjoy the fruit. When neighbours can’t either.’

I’m pleased. At last an argument worthy of consideration.

Ram thinks it’s time for our trump card. The most important argument must be left for last. ‘You know, there’s a danger to such a big tree in the next cyclone. Isn’t the season getting nearer? And now this side of the tree is right above the corrugated iron roof of Lindsey’s writing den. Those huge branches break so easily.’

‘Yes, maybe,’ Fareed says, ‘maybe she’ll have to be cut back a bit.’

We’ve probably won. But he adds. ‘I’ll think it over, let you know tomorrow.’

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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