The Tree Where Man Was Born by Peter Matthiessen: A review

The Tree Where Man Was BornThe Tree Where Man Was Born by Peter Matthiessen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book had languished on my bookshelf for far too long. With the recent death of author Peter Matthiessen, I was reminded of its presence, and, somewhat shamefacedly, took it down and began to read.

I had read several of Matthiessen's other books, both fiction and nonfiction, and I had always found his writing to be quite lyrical and spellbinding. That was true of The Tree Where Man Was Born as well.

Matthiessen combines his skills as a nature writer and as a travel writer here in order to vividly bring to life the East Africa that existed in the 1960s when the adventure he is writing about took place. It is a snapshot of a time and place, people, animals, and plants even, that no longer exist or else they exist in greatly changed circumstances. The countries that he names have sometimes passed into history and become different entities with different names. Tanganyika is now Tanzania, etc.

Matthiessen travels through this vast region along the Great Rift offering us his impressions of the land and the people. He writes of breathtaking landscapes and of the herdsmen and hunter-gatherers who make their livings on this land. He gives us their daily lives in rich detail and makes us respect the dignity with which they lead those lives, so very different from our own - and yet the same in essentials. Theirs was a way of life that was dying even then, fifty years ago, and it is likely that it is mostly gone today.

Much can be said as well for the animals he describes. Some of the most harrowing passages of the book, for me at least, were his dispassionate and detailed accounts of prey animals being hunted down and sometimes torn to pieces by predators. I have no stomach for this and I admit I skipped some passages and glided swiftly over others that were too painful for me to bear. But this was very much a feature of life for those living among the great company of game animals on the plains of East Africa and experiencing the wildlife spectacle of that place, and so it was essential to his telling of the story.

The writer refers to some of the famous people of whom we have all heard who were working in the area at that time - the Adamsons of Born Free fame and that famous family of anthropologists the Leakeys. He rubbed elbows with many of these individuals in his travels and met representatives from many of the different native peoples who call the area home - people like the Maasai, the Kikuyu, various groups of Bushmen, and, most interestingly, the Hadza.

Matthiessen lived for a while among the Hadza, a group whose origins were lost in the mists of prehistory. It is from their own account of their origins that the title of the book is taken:
The Hadza themselves came into being in this way: a giant ancestor name Hohole lived at Dungiko with his wife Tsikaio, in a great hall under the rocks where Haine, who is God, the Sun, was not able to follow. Hohole was a hunter of elephants which were killed with one blow of his stick and stuck into his belt. Sometimes he walked one hundred miles and returned to the cave by evening with six elephants. One day while hunting, Hohole was bitten by a cobra in his little toe. The mighty Hohole died. Tsikaio, finding him, stayed there five days feeding on his leg, until she felt strong enough to carry the body to Masako. There she left it to be devoured by birds. Soon Tsikaio left the cave and went to live in a great baobab. After six days in the baobab, she gave birth to Konzere, and the children of Tsikaio and Konzere are the Hadza. "The Hadza," as the people say, "is us."
The great baobab tree as the cradle of mankind. As an origin myth, I have to say it makes about as much sense as any other.

Matthiessen deals lightly with the political turbulence of the region. Of course, the almost fifty years since this book was written have seen even more turbulence and more degradation of the environment and amalgamation of the distinct groups of people who populated the area in the 1960s. His elegant writing is more concerned with the natural and social history of the region and, as such, he gives us a sound basis for understanding some of the events of the intervening years.

I'm glad I finally picked this book up. Matthiessen was a master of nature writing. He will be missed, but his words live on.

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