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A very, very long time ago, say some African legends, the first baobab sprouted beside a small lake. As it grew taller and looked about it spied other trees, noting their colorful flowers, straight and handsome trunks, and large leaves. Then one day the wind died away leaving the water smooth as a mirror, and the tree finally got to see itself. The reflected image shocked it to its root hairs. Its own flowers lacked bright color, its leaves were tiny, it was grossly fat, and its bark resembled the wrinkled hide of an old elephant. In a strongly worded invocation to the creator, the baobab complained about the bad deal it’d been given.

This impertinence had no effect: Following a hasty reconsideration, the deity felt fully satisfied. Relishing the fact that some organisms were purposefully less than perfect, the creator demanded to know whether the baobab found the hippopotamus beautiful, or the hyena’s cry pleasant-and then retired in a huff behind the clouds.

But back on earth the barrel-chested whiner neither stopped peering at its reflection nor raising its voice in protest. Finally, an exasperated creator returned from the sky, seized the ingrate by the trunk, yanked it from the ground, turned it over, and replanted it upside down. And from that day since, the baobab has been unable to see its reflection or make complaint; for thousands of years it has worked strictly in silence, paying off its ancient transgression by doing good deeds for people.

All across the African continent some variation on this story is told to explain why this species is so unusual and yet so helpful. Indeed, dozens more stories surround the baobab, a species that not only incites imagination but also induces something akin to reverence. Senegal chose it for its national tree and throughout the lands below the Sahara the sight of a baobab inspires poetry, legend, compassion, even devotion. Africans everywhere almost instinctively protect each and every one.

Seen from a distance, the results of the creator’s prank come into clearer perspective: baobabs certainly do seem to grow with their roots kicking the breeze. From the top of the trunk the boughs splay upward at a sharp angle, and they are crooked enough to seem like they should be underground. This eye-catching profile makes each baobab unique, and no matter how many you’ve seen before the shape seems always fresh.

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