When Families Become Trees

After my grandfather died, my father and aunt inherited most of his worldly possessions: a wardrobe of suits and shoes, a small village house, and half a dozen fig trees.

My grandfather never worked the few patches of land he inherited from his own father; in a family of farmers, he was the first who could rise above the toils of agricultural life and get a degree in law. He encouraged his own children to pursue intellectual careers, so my father didn’t become a farmer, either. All of which means that the family lands have been left to their own devices for decades.

However, it would seem that the trees there haven’t really noticed the inattention; they calmly go about their business of leafing, flowering and fruiting without a smudge of human intervention. Like living land fixtures, I’d find them barely changed every time I was dragged there by my mother to help her pick the syconia from the trees’ lower branches.

I was never a fan of fig picking. There were brambles, and insects, and I didn’t much care for the sticky fruit oozing milky latex. Yet every summer, armed with blue plastic buckets, we would pay a visit to the family fig trees —once my grandfather’s, now my father’s and, in due time, it’s likely that they’ll be passed on to me.

If you were to read the land’s deed, no fig trees are mentioned in it. Despite the fact that they are the sole reason we visit that field every year, they don’t really count. If my family decided to uproot them and build a house instead, nobody would protest. Never mind about their amazing resilience, or the fact that they are a sweet reminder that connects us to our agricultural roots.

Everybody knows it. Trees are not owned; land is.

I had always assumed this to be a universally acknowledged truth, right? But it turns out it’s much more complex than that.

I have never been to Indonesia. I’ve never tasted durians, either. I had read about them in rather infamous terms, their smell when mature reportedly so bad they’d been banned on some airlines.

Durian illustration from Berthe Hoola van Nooten, Fleurs, fruits et feuillages choisis de l'ille de Java: peints d'après nature (Brussels, 1880).

I grew intrigued about both, however, when I read about durian trees, kinship and ownership rights among some Indonesian peoples. Land didn’t actually matter that much to them.

It was all about the trees, and about their fruit.

Had I been born in their society, I might have found myself a joint co-heir of my reliable fig trees. The only trees I might lay an exclusive claim to would be those I had planted myself. These, I would pass on to my children, and they in turn would do the same for their children, so all my grandchildren would have equal rights to the trees I’d once planted. All this without a single reference to the land on which they grow.

Durian trees, I’ve learnt, enjoy stupendous longevity; they may bear fruit for five to seven generations. This means, of course, that as time goes by, more and more people inherit rights to the tree’s fruit. The trees are given names that often reference the planter, a particular characteristic of the fruit, or even a special event in the community’s life which was connected to the tree.

In this way, the village’s social history is woven into the durian trees, and through them, into the landscape.

This was an entirely novel concept for me, one I couldn’t compare to anything in my own experience. I knew of trees that had in some way acted as symbols of entire communities (for example, the olive tree and the Athenians), or trees that served as meeting places under which community decisions might be taken. Better than any other plant form, long-lived trees are powerful reminders of our past relationships with the land.

But durian trees didn’t only bear witness to the history of a village or an entire society; they were the living, inheritable link that held together and alive a sense of family across generations.

These, I felt, were real family trees. Perhaps even… the original family trees?

If you look up the meaning of family tree, you’ll find no trace of leaves or sap in its definition. It’s a diagram, the dictionary will tell you, that shows the relationship between people across several generations of a family.

Trees have a distinguished career in the metaphoric arena—and when it comes to thinking about kinship, they’re the indisputable champions. Even in biology, despite the modern tendency towards diagrams that look like abstract tangles of lines, a century ago we’d still draw actual trees to visually represent how all lifeforms are connected. The ultimate family tree, so to speak.

I had always believed this to be a wonderful metaphor, nothing more.

But then folklorist, Claire Russell, came along to cleverly challenge my preconceptions.

What if, she said, genealogical family trees were real trees, once upon a time?

What if, in our days as nomadic hunter-gatherers, we began to relate to the fruit trees around us differently?

Olive trees, one of the ancient tree crops in the Mediterranean.

What if trees were the first historical property with roots? Something we couldn’t carry with us, that was tied to the land and that might require an investment of labour to make (or keep) productive… The type of labour that created a relationship between the person and the tree: I work to make a tree productive, so I acquire the right to its fruit.

Okay; let’s suppose you cared for a tree, and it became yours. But a tree’s lifespan is much greater than an individual’s, so once you’ve become the proud owner of a productive fruit tree by dint of labour, what happens to it after you die?

Three possibilities come to mind:

1) The community stops caring after it, abandons it or cuts it down (which seems like a pretty stupid thing to do);

2) It becomes a property of the whole community; or

3) Your children become the new owners, thus literally inheriting the fruits of your labor. (Yup: just like durian trees!)

If they remain productive for many generations and are inherited down family lines, real trees may end up binding together all members of a family tree.

It’s tempting to jump to the conclusion: that tree ownership is at the roots of the family tree metaphor, and that both things are tied to the momentous shift from nomadic hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. However, I haven’t found anyone who has attempted to confirm it, and although I can see it working for tropical arboriculture, I’m not sure whether the same would be true for drier parts of the world such as the Mediterranean where my family fig trees live.

Still, I find it suggestive that ten years ago, some researchers working in the Jordan Valley found domesticated fig remains in a Neolithic village. Nothing too surprising there, if it weren’t for the fact that the remains are some thousand years older than the first remnants of cereal domestication. This could mean that fig trees might have been the first plants domesticated in the Near East… Perhaps planting the seeds that taught us how to think about kinship in tree terms?

We might never know, but I find it a fascinating possibility to explore.

More of Aina’s writing is available to read on her website and blog.