Camphor tree from the time of tigers

An old photograph of the old camphor tree

Vietnam Heritage, September-October 2011 -- For years now, Nguyen Van De, in Tien Luc Village, Bac Giang Province, in northern Vietnam, has been caretaker of the village’s old camphor tree [dã hương, in Vietnamese].
Before I went to see Mr De I talked to about ten villagers in Tien Luc, and nearly all advised me to look for Mr De if I wanted to know about ‘Cụ dã hương’. The locals give the tree the honorific Cụ, which is used for elderly people to show respect.
Mr De said that when he was a child he and his friends had climbed the tree to look at the full moon and he had stopped under it to listen to the birds, which included peacocks, starlings, mynahs, owls and magpie robins. Friends challenged one another to get a bird’s egg from the top.
According the elderly villagers, in the 17th and 18th centuries jungle, with tigers, covered the region and the jungle had remained until 1985, when local people cut down the trees to create litchi orchards. Deep in the ground camphor-tree root, remained, however, and they grew into trees.
Mr De said that in his time litchi-farming and carpentry had been the most fashionable crafts in the village. He had worked as a carpenter and, though he had not felled timber himself in making beds and wardrobes, he had felt he had been helping illegal loggers. Seeing camphor trees cut down, he had turned to rice farming and bonsai.
In 1989, the Ministry of Culture and Information had recognized the camphor tree in question as part of ‘the national cultural heritage’, together with the village’s Vien Son Temple and Phuc Am Pagoda. In 2004, the three items received about VND2 billion ($100,000) for restoration and upgrading.
The management board spent money on the iron fence around the tree and a stairway for tourists. The tree has been drawing more and more visitors, from near and far.
Besides taking care of the tree, Mr De collects anecdotes about it to tell tourists. ‘No tourist coming to admire the tree doesn’t look for him. And when called up, Mr De never fails to show up, no matter whether he is well or sick, far away or around,’ said 83-year-old Mr Nguyen.
In July 2005 Mr De was voted a member of the cultural-heritage management board and the official caretaker of the camphor tree. The monthly salary for the job was VND200,000 ($10).
Mr De showed me his diary filled with scribbles. He said, ‘I noted down all the incidents related to Cụ.’ The book also contained names and signatures of visitors. ‘Those with a sense of humour call this a historical encyclopedia about cụ and call me a historian.’
Since 1945 the tree had broken six branches, without any symptoms. Every time the tree had broken a branch a very important historic event had taken place. ‘In 1945, a branch on the north-eastern side came off. Villagers named it “national independence branch” because it was the year President Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the nation. In 1954, a branch on the western side broke. In that year Vietnam won the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and people called this “the peace branch”. In 1975, another western branch fell, coinciding with the end of American War, so this was “the reunification branch”. In 1984, a branch on the north-west was broken and people agreed that it was “the reform branch”. Officially it was not until 1986 that the reform policy took effect; yet in reality in the countryside people’s lives had taken a turn since 1984. The
reform started with the contract scheme in
agriculture, marking the shift from a centrally-planned, subsidized economy to a market-oriented one. On 22 October, 2006, a branch up on the top split, the one which pointed to the south. Its diameter was 60 centimetres. I waited to see if something important would happen to the country. And right in November, Vietnam became an official member of the World Trade Organization, so that branch got the name “the integration branch”.
Mr De is also a doctor to the tree. Mr De recalled that in 1984, as if from nowhere, butterflies and birds had come gathering around the tree. The butterflies were a beautiful sight, yet Mr De felt some mishap was on the way.  A couple of days later the leaves started to turn yellow. Looking more closely he saw Eriogyna pyretorum on the tree. He immediately informed the local government, so that they would spray pesticide, saving the tree. Dead insects fell all over the yard. Mr De collected them and got 20 kilograms.
Mr De said there were irresponsible visitors who removed the bark and sniffed at the peeled trunk. He had to follow them around all the time to stop them. ‘Not long ago, a rich man from Bac Ninh came and bargained to buy the decayed branches, but I said this was national heritage, so it wasn’t easy even to buy the leaves. Some people wanted to buy the dried, broken branches at a good price, but I said this was not a market place.’
Mr De said, a royal title which the Emperor had conferred on the tree was missing but noted in the village’s genealogy as follows: ‘In Le Canh Hung’s reign (1740-1786) when going past the camphor tree, the King saw a beautiful giant tree and gave it the title, ‘The National Imperial Camphor Tree’. That meant that from that long ago this camphor tree was already the country’s most beautiful. Scientists had come to calculate the tree’s exact age, so far in vain.


Pictures: The old camphor tree today

Villagers in Tien Luc consider the camphor tree a talisman. As long as the tree grows well the people thrive.
Mr De said, ‘One thing people in my village, young and old, can never explain is that in the war America’s bombs never hit our village, while our neighbours were badly hit. Right under the tree there was a military post, in 1966, 1967. An infantry squad was stationed there. Many military units gathered there and all were safe. Therefore, we are proud that this is a sacred or sound land.’
Mr De has seen a lot of tourists coming to pay homage to the tree, some meditating or practising yoga under it to recharge themselves with the energy from the tree.

Text and photos by Khanh Toan
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