The plan was to hunt antelope, so he rented a skiff, paddled to a nearby East African island, hopped out, and wandered into the woods, when all of a sudden, there it was—a staggeringly enormous, weirdly shaped plant towering over him and looking, one imagines, something like this:
Right away this young French explorer, Michel Adanson, put down his gun (“I laid aside all thoughts of sport”) and decided to measure this thing. “I extended my arms, as wide as I possibly could,” he wrote later, and it took him 13 turns to complete a full rotation. That worked out to roughly 65 feet around at the base. Deeper into the woods he found even bigger ones.
The locals called them “baobabs.” Scientists now name these trees Adansonia, after the young explorer who, in 1749, was the first white man to see them. To many humans, these trees look ungainly, like they might have been plucked from some other spot, then tossed upside down onto the ground, with a bunch of hairy roots dangling upward. That’s how we see them.
But we don’t matter. Because the baobab has bigger things to worry about. It is being stalked—dangerously, ferociously stalked—by the biggest mammal in Africa.
When a thirsty elephant sees a baobab, what it sees is a big fat bottle of water. The trunk of a baobab can store 100,000 liters, or 26,000 gallons, even during harsh drought conditions. The water concentrates in the spongy center of the trunk, keeping the branches small, dwarflike, so when the leaves drop off, what’s left is a wet, chewable inside.
The elephant will approach the tree, strip the bark, gouge a hole, and then start pulling out its wetter, spongy insides. Imagine a watermelon in your mouth. That’s what the elephant gets when it strips, gouges, and chews on a baobab. Here’s a mom doing just that:
The strange thing, writes Richard Mabey in his new book The Cabaret of Plants, is that elephants don’t just sip from baobabs, they devour and destroy them. This isn’t drinking. It’s more like murder.
“They attacked them with a ferocity that seemed to go beyond the simple satisfaction of big appetites. They trashed them. They tore off whole branches, devoured the leaves, stripped the bark entirely from the lower parts of the trunk to reach the moisture underneath, and often knocked the smallest trees flat.”
The trees are often bigger than their attackers—this is a clash of giants—and they know how to fight back. When stripped of their bark, they can regrow it. They repair themselves when they can, and when they can’t, if a baobab has been broken and is lying deathlike on the forest floor, it will often reroot, or reboot, writes Mabey, “pushing up new columns, snaking out new limbs parallel with the ground.” Count the many distinct trunks on this baobab tree; it looks like it’s come back five or six different times:
They look like silent giants, but they’re not. They have moves (in slow-motion, yes), but over time they “can swell, shrink, curl, explode and creep about.” They are shape-shifters. And though locked in mortal combat with these dexterous, powerful mammals, the two sides have—for the moment anyway—achieved a pugilistic balance. They both throw punches, but neither is down for the count. Plus, both stay big and both stay strong.
And the funny thing is, I find myself rooting for both of them. I can’t pick a favorite. Who doesn’t like an elephant? Who doesn’t like a baobab?