I must have been seven the first time I saw one, or at least the first time I became aware that I was looking at one. Dad always parked his station wagon under its shade, next to a couple of tame saddled horses waiting to be ridden by us city dwellers. Maybe he told me its name, or maybe mom did. That I don’t remember. What I do remember is that the long, black pods that hung from its branches and carpeted the perimeter outlined by its shadow made the perfect scimitars for our endless battles. These curved cases loaded with beans produced a dramatic sound effect when they clashed in the air. The violence of our fights would often break our weapons, but we didn’t care. There were always plenty of pods on the ground to replace our broken sabers. The acacia not only provided arms, but a cool battlefield to fight on.
Once a year—I can’t really tell if it was around May or earlier—the acacias bloomed. On the road, we would admire the endless parade of flaming treetops moving at different speeds. Up in the mountains, their shades, I had learned in school, helped to protect the coffee bushes from the tropical sunlight. And it only took a few minutes outside the comfort of our air-conditioned car to realize that in that scorching western climate life was only possible under the acacias.
The last few times that my family visited Boraure—that’s what the sugarcane farm was called—I was already a teenager. Seedpods, flowers and battles with my siblings no longer aroused my interest. I had replaced them with post-punk music, girls, and cheap cigarettes. The big acacia was still a valued shelter from the sun—and from everything else—during those photophobic days. Wrapped in black clothes, sitting on its roots, sweaty and miserable, I would take long drags at my ciggies, missing the recently developed bodies of girls that I didn’t even talk to in school, while Bela Lugosi died one more time in my earphones. What would have been of us young tropical vampires in the Venezuelan countryside without all those acacia trees?
When I became an immigrant, over twenty years ago, the acacia, along with the mangos, mahoganies, palms, and rubber trees, got pushed to the back of my memory, as new geographical and linguistic realities flash-flooded my brain. My senses were filled with oaks, maples, elms, birch, and other northern species I only knew from books and pictures. Then one day, on the platform of Park Street Station, in Boston, I bought a cheap copy of The Spoon River Anthology. And on the train back home I saw it once again, more beautiful and real than ever, on the epitaph of Francis Turner:
I COULD not run or play
In manhood I could only sip the cup,
For scarlet-fever left my heart diseased.
Yet I lie here
Soothed by a secret none but Mary knows:
There is a garden of acacia,
Catalpa trees, and arbors sweet with vines—
There on that afternoon in June
By Mary’s side—
Kissing her with my soul upon my lips
It suddenly took flight.
The old acacia, blacksmith of my childhood, had returned to set the only plausible stage for a kiss that made a garden fly. It brought back the familiar in the form of English verse. It bloomed in the poem and connected to my experience, offering a safe refuge in a language that, as much as I loved and wanted to make mine, I had always perceived as a foreign and not always friendly landscape.
I was fascinated by the beauty of Guernsey Street years before I decided to make Greenpoint my home. The acacias that grew on its sidewalks displayed an unusual vertical elegance, in contrast with the horizontal, radial beauty of the acacias I had seen before. Their trunks and branches were taller than the facades of the buildings they shaded, and their tops intertwined right above the middle of the street, forming a green gothic vault: an outdoors nave that filtered the sunlight like the glasswork windows do in the nave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
These trees, however, were not real acacias, just like St. Patrick’s Cathedral is not really a gothic cathedral. Leafsnap, the Columbia University app I use for tree identification (after all these years I am still clueless when it comes to most northern trees) tells me that these are actually black locusts, or Robin pseudoacacia. They certainly are part of the same Fabaceae family, though their smaller pods resemble curved daggers rather than scimitars, and the architecture they generate calls for a different kind of narrative, one that includes a haunted house, long shadows of faceless predators, and armies of wild children; one unwritten narrative that on certain sleepless nights coils around my head like a turban in flames.
The last acacia tree I saw was made of air. It grew on the stage of Le Poison Rouge while the band Imarhan performed its unique blend of Tuareg rock. Leaves and branches grew bigger and taller as the melodies watered the roots that feed from the fascination of the audience. That last encounter made me realize, as I wrote in another space, that the shade of the acacia, where songs and stories flow like the breeze of the Saharan night, is the only home of the nomad. It also helped me realize that the acacia, in all its many incarnations and species, has been a constant in life, one that has sheltered my imagination and prevented it from scorching under the blazing sun of reality.