Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: Travel in the White Man's Grave

I just finished listening to Travels in the White Man's Grave by Donald MacIntosh, and I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is MacIntosh's memoir about his career as a forestry man on the coast Africa. The time he served was especially relevant, because the area transitioned from colonial rule to independence.

The book is organized into chapters that are either stories or general topics, and all the usual suspects are covered. There's talk about the crazy wildlife, foreign culture, whacky personalities, turbulent weather. As adventure stories, you really can't go wrong. Sure, the author comes across as a bit of a curmudgeon - but my guess is that's part of his appeal.

Seeing, I mean really Seeing, Trees

But the real gift of the book, for me anyway, was the description of the trees. Being part of the forestry service, MacIntosh pays special attention (and reverence) to the trees of the area. His descriptions of the rain forest actually got longing to get back to one.

And then two unrelated thoughts hit me. First, I saw stumbled on this blog about urban foraging. Second, I considered the lesson I learned from Vagabonding: the exotic adventures we travel to seek are often right here.

Applying these principles, I got thinking - what kind of trees are in my own neighborhood? On a walk to shul I decided to pay special attention to the trees as I walked along.

That walk left me in total awe. I had no idea how many different types of trees I would encounter on my 1.2 mile walk. Nearly everywhere I looked I realized I saw, what appeared to me, to be a unique species. Consider the leaves I: sure, I found the classic maple leafe style -but I also saw leaves that resembled tiny finger tips; or bouquets of flowers; or were as big as my face; or were tiny; or were plasticy; or looked rubbery. Heck, I don't even have the adjectives to describe what I saw, when I actually took the time to look. And the trunks - some trees had a single trunk, while others multiple small ones. And some, when I took the time to care, I realized were gigantic and could provide cover for a whole lawn (just think - it started as a single seed. A single seed!) - while others were nestled in with shrubs, almost invisible. And what about the berries and flowers I saw?

Anyway, you get the point. And what about their stories? What were are they used for? Are any of them edible or medicinal?

Turns out, I'm not the only one who wonders these sorts of things. I've picked up The Urban Tree Book from the library, which tackles this exact topic. I've also book marked the mobile tree identifier site by

In the end, it's hard to believe that a book about travels in Africa could open my eyes to my own neighborhood. But, well, there you go.

Enjoy the book. Enjoy the adventures. Enjoy the trees.


  1. Yes, I love to think of the city that way. Isn't it fascinating stuff?

  2. It sure is! And thanks to you for blogging and helping me see it that way.