All You Ever Wanted to Know
- and More -
When I am away from home, musing about my childhood in Southwest Georgia, Chinaberry trees always occupy a spot in the peripheral vision of my mind= s eye. They grow along the fences that parallel fields beside red dirt roads. They stand in the corners of horse lots or shade the sides of barns, and they cast long, enigmatic shadows over the well-swept dirt yards of tenant houses, tin-roofed, paintless houses, weathered gray as the smoke from their calico brick chimneys.
A house squats on low pilings of native fossiliferous limestone and has an open porch that runs its length. Under the porch are dogs, an undetermined number of scourged mongrel dogs - - razorbacked, threadbare dogs so randomly bred and inbred as to have a uniformity as distinct as any purebred variety. I= m sure this vision must mean something, especially the dogs.
The wooden steps and the threshold of the door are worn smooth by generations of bare feet entering and leaving. There is sometimes a leaning outhouse and sometimes a field of dry cornstalks that rustle in the light afternoon breezes. There may be a washtub hanging by a nail on the side of the house, and there may be a blackened iron washpot. There may be a large live oak tree with a tire swing. These things may be there. But one feature of the picture is always present - - the inevitable Chinaberry tree, a tree that grows so fast you can almost hear the ground squeak under it.
For all I know the Tree of Knowledge may have been a Chinaberry tree. Adam may have squatted beneath it and scratched his head while Eve demurely nibbled at a cluster of the yellow semi-sweet fruit and a white oak runner loafed in the umbrella branches. As far back as I can remember into my childhood there were Chinaberry trees.
We climbed Chinaberry trees and chunked the fruit. We stepped on Chinaberries and felt them squish beneath our bare feet. We calibered the muzzles of our popguns (hollow wooden pipes with plungers) to the diameter of Chinaberries., which, because they were not reputed to put out eyes, were the only permissible missiles we could employ in the presence of adults. We flipped them at each other, cradling them in our index fingers and ejecting them with our thumbnails. We launched them from popguns, slingshots, and flips.
We flicked them from desktops and shot them from bamboo blow guns that occasionally backfired into our windpipes and had to be dislodged by a comrade= s sharp slap between the shoulder blades. We spit them at each other and swallowed a few, and we tossed them at the girls to stain their dresses. We played war with them in the schoolyard during recess. School yards always had Chinaberry trees. In the classroom we sometimes tossed them at each other when the teacher= s back was turned.
One day Edsel Sizemore stuffed two Chinaberries up his nose, one in each nostril. Edsel was the classroom clown, who made grotesque faces and put on a straight one before the teacher, Miss Shipp, could turn around and storm, with an upraised yardstick and a sure promise of retribution, to the backside of whoever giggled.
Her yardstick was not, by the way, one of the puny modern lightweight imitations that are given away by hardware stores and funeral homes. It was a solid hickory prototype thick as a surveyor= s rod. A scepter of her sovereignty over the eighth grade, it doubled as a walking stick Miss Shipp carried to break the backs of luckless snakes that trespassed her way to the schoolhouse. It was the kind of staff that wold bring comfort to Miss Shipp in the Valley of Death, where she would have been its most formidable creature.
Edsel pushed the Chinaberries up his nose and scrunched down behind Ben Swilley, the eighth grade intellectual, to make a monkey face, a creation he affected by inserting his tongue between his upper lip and front teeth, crossing the eyes and pulling the ears perpendicular to his head. Edsel made the monkey face, but Miss Shipp was upon him like a thundercloud before he could uncross his eyes. She snatched him up by his Red Camel overall straps, dangled him at arms= length to make full advantage of the yardstick= s leverage and struck him a - - THERRWHACK - - lick that shot a Chinaberry from Edsel= s left barrel clean to the blackboard. It was the first time we had ever seen Miss Shipp surprised.
It never could have happened, Swilley subsequently reckoned, if Edsel hadn= t had his tongue under his upper lip, diverting through the nose any air that would otherwise have been expelled orally when Miss Shipp dusted him. The same theory accounted for the nasal gasp that inhaled the other Chinaberry so far up into his nose that Mr. Finney, the principal, had to take Edsel uptown to Dr. Rhyne= s office to have the Chinaberry removed with an instrument we imagined to look like barbed wire chopsticks.
I swear that Chinaberry flew out of Edsel like a rifle ball, his nostrils being calibered, like our popguns, to the approximate diameter of Chinaberries. A Wow,@ we said respectfully, A Wow!@
I can remember sitting beyond the shade of the Chinaberry tree in early December and watching the robins perch in the branches and eat the waxy yellow Chinaberries until they were too drunk to fly. We believed that the children who lived in the tenant houses ate Chinaberries regularly, though our mothers told us they were poisonous. They may well have been poisonous. Nobody is living in the tenant houses anymore, although the gray skeletal remains of the houses haunt the agricultural landscapes of the South. They are now empty and dilapidated. The porches are broken in and the yards are overgrown with blackberry bushes, broomsage, kudzu and, yes, Chinaberry trees. Maybe Chinaberries are poisonous. Maybe they have a lingering and accumulative toxicity that has killed off all the people who used to live in tenant houses with Chinaberry tees in well swept hard dirt yards. Maybe the Chinaberry tree is an unrecognized historical cause of the downfall of the antebellum South.
Recently I was driving down a lonely stretch of county road with a friend who owns a forestry management company. A Why is it,@ I asked him, A that abandoned tenant houses are always overgrown with Chinaberry trees?@
A Don= t know,@ he said.
A Guess,@ I challenged. A Your business is trees.@
A Not no damn Chinaberry trees,@ he said. Then he paused pensively and added, A Different trees like different conditions, different amounts of sun, different soils, different amounts of water. Some have taproots; some have diffuse roots. Some are geotropic, and some are phototropic. Some like rich loamy soil. Some like sandy soil, and some like tenant houses. Your Chinaberry tree, it is one that likes tenant houses.@
A How about looking it up for me? Aren= t you curious? I mean, the only place you see Chinaberry trees around here,@ I said spanning the landscape with my arm, A is a fence row or in a head with an abandoned tenant house in the middle.@
A Nope,@ he said.
A Nope, what?@
A I ain= t curious, and I ain= t gone look it up.@
Some months later I stumbled upon a book of poisonous plants. To my surprise, I found that the Chinaberry was included. I quickly turned to the cover to verify that the book was not written by one of our mothers, then began to read:
"Melia azedarach L. - - Chinaberry, China tree, Chinaball tree. Poisonous principle. The exocarp and endocarp of the drupes contain a toxic substance of a narcotic nature attacking the whole nervous system. The bark, flowers, and leaves, are poisonous. The toxic principle is probably a resinoid which causes narcotic effects, vomiting and diarrhea, paralysis, irregular breathing , and respiratory distress. Six to eight fruits caused death to a young child."
Elsewhere, I discovered that the Chinaberry trees are in the mahogany family, and they are not, as I had thought, as Southern as grits, but a A deciduous native of tropical Asia@ that has naturalized itself in the southern United States and Hawaii, the West Indies, and South Africa. Also called Persian-lilac, pride-of-India, Indian-lilac, and White-cedar, the Chinaberry was brought to many parts of the world as an ornamental tree. Its leaves can be used to repel insects, and its fruit was used as a medicine for domestic animals. Melia means beads, and the seeds of a Texas variety called an umbrella tree are used for beads and rosaries.
I bumped into some titles which I= m sure were enlightening in other ways but which I did not send for to read, among them, A Toxic Tetranortritenpenes of the Fruit of Melia Azedarach@ and A Poisoning by Melia Azedarach in Pigs.@ I had an intuitive feeling that these articles would not tell me why Chinaberry trees grow around tenant houses. So I did what I generally do when I am looking for information not easily found in books. I went to see Tillie Hicks.
Tillie was raised on her father= s farm in Leary, Georgia. She came to work for my family soon after my sister was born and I was two-and-a-half years old. She knows everything, at least everything worth knowing. She is, of course, wonderful, and it is her father= s house that roots so vividly in my memory, although it may be that I have never seen it.
A Chinaberries? What you up to now, boy?@
Although I am 44, Tillie stills calls me A boy,@ just as she did as she was raising me, just as she still calls my sister A girl.@
A Are they poisonous?@
Tillie was as her sink, banging around pots and pans for no apparent reason, just as she seems to have done most of my life.
A Poison? Lawd no!@ Bonk! A Chinaberries ain= t poison. Chinaberries been poison, I'd been dead long time ago!@ Clang! A We eat plenty Chinaberry. Birds did too. Chinaberry make birds crazy so they cain fly.@ She slammed a cabinet. Blam!.
I read to her what I had found in the book.
A Well, maybe I better write me a book.@ Clank! Bing! A Old folks say they keep the chirren from being wormy. But nobody never say they poison. I eat plenty Chinaberries growin' up, I still walkin= .@
A Chinaberries kill worms, boy!@
A Intestinal worms?@
A What kind worms you think? You think you eat Chinaberry, it gone kill worms on the cabbage an= the fishbait in the groun= ?@ Bling! Bang! A College ain= t done NOTHIN= for you!
A Did the Chinaberry trees keep away mosquitoes and gnats?@
A > Round Leary, Georgia, an= that swamp don= t nothing keep away skeeters an= gnats.@
A Do you remember Edsel Sizemore?@
A He the boy always cuttin= the fool?@
A He knows something about Chinaberries.@
A Lest he changed, Edsel doan know nothin= bout nothin= .@
A The Chinaberry trees in your yard, how did they get there? Did you plant them?@
A They jest there. You don= t plant no Chinaberry tree,@ she said turning from her sink, one hand on her hip and the other on the kitchen table. A The birds leaves them. You sweeps the yard, you sweeps dirt over the seed. Soon the Chinaberry tree come. Den mo= birds come to the Chinaberry tree, eat the Chinaberry, drop more seed, you keep sweeping, the Chinaberry keep coming.@
A Why did you sweep the yard?@
A > Cause my momma tell me to. Why YOU ax me too many questions?@
A I= m writing an article. Want me to put you in it?@
A Don= t you put me in no book! Do, you have me sayin= Chinaberries poison.@
I was able to sustain my faith in the wisdom of Tillie= s A old folks@ by finding at least one botanist, Dr. William Chambers Coker, who calls the pulp of the Chinaberry an A active vermifuge,@ an agent that expels or destroys intestinal worms.
I guess that I must now suppose that Chinaberries are poisonous, but that doesn= t bother me. It= s even appropriate, if the Chinaberry was the fruit of the prelapsarian or even the antebellum fall. What bothers me most, even saddens me, is the discovery that the Chinaberry tree - - the tree which I had held to be the most Southern of Southern trees - - is an import that must be added to the list of those other artificially introduced foreign species that have become so typical to the Southern landscape: kudzu, water hyacinth, cattle egrets, investors, tourists, and carpetbaggers. It= s really hard to imagine what the land of cotton (another import) looked like when it belonged to the American Indians.