Illustrations by Lucille Clerc
Laurencecking, 2018, 240 pages
Hbk £17.99 ISBN 978 1 78627 161 7
Review by Rick Minter
There is a constant output of books celebrating trees. Here is another offering with strengths and weaknesses to add to the list. The book is a mixture of economic geography and plant science. Trees from a varied sample are discussed from each continent.
The reading is a strain with a small font size but the book is distinguished by striking artwork across each page from French illustrator Lucille Clerc. Her illustrations are both allegorical and botanical, resulting in some inspired compositions. She works by drawing and screen printing. The colours are a dull tone but result in pictures with a refined elegance. The trees and their fruits, flowers and leaves are depicted in their cultural context, amplifying the book’s focus on the place of trees in communities, local economies and in civilizations.
Clerc’s double page montage on Quinine (Cinchona Spp.) shows hand stripping bark from the tree, hummingbirds at the pink hairy flowers, and a Quinine-Cinchona medicine bottle. Author Jonathan Drori explains how Spanish colonists and Jesuit missionaries, in association with the native Quechua of Peru, developed markets for the treatment for malaria from the white powder extracted from the bark. “Quinine alkaloids have the rare capability of making certain components of our blood poisonous to the malaria parasite”. We then get reminded of the origin of gin, as the British Raj depended on a daily dose of quinine in their ‘tonic water’. “To disguise the bitter taste, gin, lemon, and sugar were added to make it more palatable, resulting in the forerunner of today’s G&T. Modern tonic water has more sugar and much less quinine…”
Elsewhere in the South America section the book includes the blue jacaranda and the now endangered monkey puzzle.
Flipping to the East Asia chapter reveals some of Clerk’s most stunning artwork, showing Chinese lacquer and Yoshino cherry or ornamental cherry (sakura). The deep association of these trees with cultures and traditions of their regions is brought to life again.
In the central and south Asia section I was pleased to see the inclusion of the Neem (Azadirachta indica), a ‘miracle tree’ I was introduced to once in Kenya, where a research station was exploring its properties and their applications, and recognising its tolerance of arid conditions. It is native to India where it is widely used as a household remedy for many ills. I was encouraged to chew it as a substitute tooth brush in Kenya.
Neem extract seems to excel as an insecticide. Drori points out that neem trees have been used successfully within cotton crops in India and vegetable fields in West Africa. “… given that neem insecticide is effective, cheap, sustainable and biodegradable (and that its supply would have the positive side effect of requiring environmentally helpful tree planting), perhaps the most perplexing question is why it isn’t in wider use across the world”. Drori confirms what I heard in Kenya: the long-established and widespread local use of neem thwarts the creation of patents for commercially harnessing neem-oil products. Synthetic chemicals, even if not so effective, are an easier bet to patent.
Other trees featured from Central and South Asia include an emphasis on edible products: the pomegranate, cashew and the wild apple from Kazakstan, the latter the primary ancestor of all apples we consume.
In the Oceania section I met with other memories from my travels. In north Queensland I once backed out fast from a forest, having confronted a cassowary. As it emerged from the shadows and casually strutted towards me I wasn’t prepared to risk admiring its prehistoric manner for long – its imposing size and confidence unnerved me. Clerc’s illustration depicts the cassowary camouflaged amongst the huge and corrugated buttresses of the blue quandong, a tall evergreen tree of Australia. This is precisely the situation of my encounter. The blue fruit-seed of the quandong is marble-sized bush tucker, important in the diet of cassowaries and other forest dwellers.
Rummage through this book and you will no doubt be reacquainted with your own fascinations with different trees near and far.