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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A City in a Forest Welcomes the Man Who Speaks for the Trees

Lee-Ann Clark & Thomas Pakenham David Netherway, Dee Rissik & Karin IretonIt is perhaps a little-known fact that Johannesburg is home to one of the largest man-made forests in the world: the urban forest created by the city’s trees in backyards, parks and those lining the pavements. For acre upon acre, ridge after ridge, the stately trees of the suburbs stand – many of them planted this century – ensuring that names like Parktown, Parkview, Oaklands and Hyde Park don’t disappoint.

Neither did the citizens of these suburbs (and beyond) at the launch of Thomas Pakenham’s latest book, In Search of Remarkable Trees: On Safari in Southern Africa, at Exclusive Books, Hyde Park last night. It was extremely well attended.

John & Sarah Dewar, Thomas Pakenham & Gillian Dewar Jan & Riana DijkmanJill van Zyl of Exclusive Books introduced the author as a highly regarded historian who had written definitively on the Boer War and the so-called scramble for Africa in his books by the same titles. Having subsequently turned his attention to trees, she said, he has become equally respected as a dendrologist.

Thomas PakenhamDi & Cary GoodwinThomas Pakenham demurred, however, protesting that he was not an expert, but an enthusiast. He said that this Remarkable Trees book – the latest in the well-established series – was unique among his titles on Africa, as it was his only book that had been both commissioned and born on the continent.

After sharing many anecdotes of fabulously exciting trips through African countries looking for trees, he expressed his concern at the alarming rate at which the great ones – large and ancient – were disappearing.

Tony Levine, Rebecca & Sally MacRoberts Zameer Ambaram & Tinus SteynThree main factors account for this, he told his audience, donning the cap of an activist in a highly specialized movement.

Firstly – and quite controversially, as those following the debate in local papers will know – he took to task the “ecofascists” and their “inflexibility”, who have black and white rules about what is alien vegetation and what is not. “Instead of being more flexible, and applying the rules pertaining to alien vegetation with intelligence, these ‘Talibans’ insist on removing all alien trees,” said Pakenham. “Trees are immigrants, just like the rest of us who came from somewhere else.”

Simone Hope & Karen Shkudsky Lionel & Norma SachoHe suggested that jacaranda trees – so well know to those who live in the “forest of Johannesburg” – are not invasive in urban streets. By contrast, they threaten water courses in Mpumalanga, where they do need to be removed. A blanket ban on them, however, is not necessarily appropriate.

The second factor, Pakenham continued, is the uncontrolled breeding of elephants in the wild. They are pushing down trees everywhere, reducing forest to savannah, and Pakenham suggested that elephant culling should be reinstated to deal with the problem. A person of great conviction, he has no hesitation about wading into sensitive debates!

Liegh Voigt & Kevin Gill Karen van Niekerk, David Jeppe & John LightfootThe last factor affecting tree growth in many areas, he concluded, was global warming – a note with which all in his audience could sympathise. He expressed hope that, if the matter was addressed soon, it would contribute to the saving of the great trees.

The author signed many books; and the denizens of Jo’burg’s forest waited in line for a long time to exchange a few words with him. Here are more snaps from the launch:

Ian & Diana Madden Gary Taylor & Baxter Brown Gail O'Keeffe & Gilly Ward Eugene Ashton & John Fawcett-Peck Alex Scott & Glenn Cowley

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