Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Poison Tree

When I chose the title for this short story that I wrote for my wife, I was unaware of a similar title of a poem by Wm. Blake. Can't be too original these days as all the knowledge of the world seems to be at the tips of our fingers on the Internet. Are we smarter?

Since I have been writing these cultural christian entries, I notice how many things can be broken down into the sacred or secular side of an equation. Interfaith matters touch the sacred end of the spectrum. Cross cultural matters are not at the other extreme but most definitely within the secular side of any analytical gauge of life.

Here is the story. I think it self explanatory. As always, part of the education of this person along the journey.

Her grandfather, who had raised her, was exclaiming something loud in the back garden as we toured all the structures that now were built on the once empty patch of land.

The old man had been allotted this fairly large plot of land by the state. It had been sold to him very cheaply. I estimated the original lot to be about three quarters of an acre.

On that lush tropical landscape had once been many more trees than were now present and situated in between structures. Even so, the existing species of large trees grew avocados, mangoes and bananas. These had helped feed a large family on a state road worker's salary.

The main house was plain. Large dormitory like rooms were where the boys and girls had sleep. There was a common room or living room and a small kitchen. This structure had been built wall by wall, room by room, over the years. Extra savings went into concrete blocks on a regular basis.

The back of the property had once housed a large pig sty. Pork had been the cash crop that supplemented tropical fruits and the staple rice and beans diet. Pork had helped purchase the blocks. Piglets had been temporary play companions to poor children.

In fact, she had told me that as a child, the only dolls she played with were homemade things made of corn husks, the corn of which had fed the pigs. Corn silks adorned the corn husk dolls as hair.

The old man was quite animated.

The land now held five houses where at one time stood one.

As the nearby town grew outward, modest houses started to dot the countryside. Streets were paved. Second generations built a second story onto parents' houses.

Zoning laws changed in the expanded town. No pigs could be raised within the new city limits. Now only a few old hens pecked at the ground and made the occasional stew.

I asked for a translation. What was the old man shouting about?

Her cousin had inherited a one room house on the back of the property. He had recently married and his new bride had planted some shrubs to decorate this desolate corner of the original lot.

The literal translation of the bride's plantings came to words translated as "poison tree".

"It is a poison tree!" was what he repeated over and over again in Spanish.

The old man was upset. Everything on his property in terms of plants had been always been edible. Now, a stranger, the wife of a grandson was planting a decorative plant and not an edible one.

The old man's bubble had burst. The world outside his front porch could have changed in some measurable way over the years but it somehow had not touched a chord.

His sons had gone to college. One daughter was a registered nurse. The ones who had emigrated to the mainland had their own measure of material success in the post World War II boom in America.

He had at least thirty grandchildren and umpteen great grandchildren. All the changes over the last half a century registered in some proportion that matched the land that he stood on and owned.

Now, on this day, paradise seemed corrupted and lost. The people on the land now did not understand his vision for the land. The land must feed his family. A tree from the outside world had invaded.

The seeds of the destruction were planted. His vision, his temporary footprint in the scheme of things, was disappearing before his eyes. So he shouted in his own way.

His time had passed. Now he knew and recognized that fact.

This he expressed with great passion.


P.S. This story is reflective of a visit to Puerto Rico in 1990. It is one thing to learn to deal with your new in-laws. It is still another to learn to deal with the situation in a cross-cultural situation. My advice is to listen and observe and try to translate both language and emotions into something you understand and feel comfortable with. Passion and how it expressed itself was something I would learn about over time.

- -