In A Nutshell
For hundreds of years, the Tree of Ténéré in the Sahara Desert was considered the world’s most isolated tree and was revered as sacred. It stood alone among miles and miles of sand; the closest tree was 400 kilometers (250 mi) away. Yet somehow, even with all that open space, in 1973, a drunken truck driver hit and killed the tree.
The Whole Bushel
The Ténéré region of northeast Niger was once a luscious expanse of foliage. So when the Ténéré tree was born more than 300 years ago, it held no special distinction. But the growing Sahara was beginning to advance into the region, and the Ténéré became drier and drier. The water reservoirs beneath the surface were receding, and only the trees with the longest roots were able to survive. However, the tree of Ténéré, an acacia, had now grown quite large, with roots stretching more than 30 meters (100 ft) down into the irrigated soil. As the water further receded, the number of trees diminished rather quickly. By the early 20th century, a few other acacias had managed to sink their roots just far enough to reach the water beneath. But soon, only the tree of Ténéré had long enough roots to drink of the distant water. All other vegetation disappeared, and the tree suddenly stood solitary in the vastness and isolation of the desert; the next tree was 400 kilometers (250 mi) away.
As years went by, traveling caravans shipping commodities to and from Africa stumbled upon the seemingly impossible tree. They marveled at it, and sanctified it as a miracle tree of God. Soon thereafter, a few more rational travelers realized that the existence of the tree should be attributed not to a miracle but to water deep underground. And so, the French (in control of the area at the time) commissioned the building of a well nearby for use by France’s military. As the only visible marker in the entire landscape, the tree and its accompanying well became essential to travelers for navigation and water. It was featured as one of only two trees (the other being Arbre Perdu or “Lost Tree” to the north) on a map at a scale of 1:4,000,000.
When Michel Lesourd of the Central Service of Saharan Affairs beheld the tree in 1939, he remarked: “One must see the Tree to believe its existence. What is its secret? How can it still be living in spite of the multitudes of camels, which trample at its sides? . . . Each year, the Azalai gather round the Tree before facing the crossing of the Ténéré. The Acacia has become a living lighthouse; it is the first or the last landmark for the Azalai leaving Agadez for Bilma, or returning.” For decades more, the tree continued to serve fellow traders and pilgrims with guidance and sustenance. Yet, as society rapidly mechanized and trucks replaced camels, the tree of Ténéré became more of a pit stop to grab a quick drink than an essential way station.
On a fateful day in 1973, a Libyan truck driver must have figured that getting a little inebriated before a long, boring drive across the barren desert could do no harm. Must one really be in his most alert state of mind as he drives through an empty patch of nothingness? Despite the fact that the answer to that question is overwhelmingly “yes,” the driver embarked on his trip, driving a relatively straight path until he veered off the makeshift road. In the face of astronomical odds, he slammed into the tree of Ténéré and decapitated the tree from its roots. It was literally the only standing object for hundreds of miles in any direction. On November 8, 1973, the dead tree was transported to the Niger National Museum in the capital Niamey.
Later that year, an anonymous artist erected a monument to commemorate the tree’s existence. Made from recycled pipes, oil barrels, and discarded auto parts, perhaps it symbolized the destruction of the natural world by means of a careless, mechanized society. Regardless, it serves as a reminder of the legendary tree of Ténéré whose majestic limbs astounded, comforted, and guided travelers for many years.