What’s in a Name? (Part 1 of 3)

(Blogger’s note: This is the first in a three part series introducing you to the blog, myself, and my upcoming trip. Sorry for the verbosity and self-centeredness, this place should be more narrative and cinched down storylines in the future)

Welcome to my new blog, The Sycamore and The Baobab.

I have only blogged while traveling, and this blog begins as I prepare to travel yet again. While I used to journal only while traveling, I have somehow been able to journal regularly since this past January.  Likewise, I hope this blog’s ideas – if not the blog itself – will steadily reproduce themselves long into the future.

Getting to the name of this blog requires going back a few years into the past. In the fall of 2008 I was a senior at Hillsdale College. I’d never lived in West Africa or Indiana, and I had no intention of visiting either. I was set to join the Peace Corps, but was to work in Eastern Europe, my second and third options being Latin America and Southeast Asia.

On that day in the fall of 2008, I listened to a lecture by Mark Kalthoff (an IU grad). Dr. Kalthoff had, through a lecture as a visiting High School senior, been instrumental in bringing me to Hillsdale, but I’d never had him as a professor. Using the stories of Russell Kirk, Wendell Berry, and Edmund Burke, among others, he first introduced me to the idea of “a sense of place.” I couldn’t figure out whether this meant I shouldn’t drive on the interstate, should farm in rural Kentucky, or step back aghast at events like the French Revolution, saying, “You may have subverted Monarchy, but not recover’d freedom.”

The problem is, I am not Kirk, Berry, or Burke. And I am certainly not a natural academic. While I have been in academia most of my life, my “natural state” has never been one of withdrawal, but of using moments of withdrawal to inform points of engagement with the world around me.Having lived (through work or study) in Michigan, Indiana, Taiwan, France, Niger, Germany, and Suriname, and having traveled to a number of other countries and cultures, I often wanted to drop the idea of “a sense of place.” Despite the fact that I found it a juggernaut of an idea, it was hopelessly romantic.

The problem is, I am a hopeless romantic. Nearly five years since that lecture, and many formative years later, I am attempting to reconcile that idea of place with my exquisitely globalized sojourns in a frighteningly globalized world.

In the last few weeks I have had the privilege of chauffeuring two rockstars to and from the Indianapolis airport in my blue and gray ’98 Chevy Prizm. The first is an anthropologist, one of the world’s foremost experts on Mali, and an avowed opponent of the modernizing mission of “globalization.” The second is a billionaire entrepreneur, a friend and advisor to some of the world most exciting presidents, and avowed disciple of the modernizing mission of “globalization.” I mentioned to both my ideas about the Westside of Indianapolis and the Sahel of the Westside of Africa. Both asked plenty of questions, but neither of them “got it.” You know who “got it” ten times fast than either of them? A young undergraduate senior, son of a dairy farmer from rural upstate New York. This speaks volumes.

The Sahel and its neighbors the Sudanic and Sudano-Sahelian Zones
(source: http://oceanworld.tamu.edu/resources/environment-book/Images/sahel.jpg)

Why the Sycamore?

My two home states in the US call the white pine and the tulip tree (or tulip poplar) their state trees. Neither tree’s name has a ring to it, but the sycamore is not a specifically Midwestern tree. In fact, the word is derived through ancient Greek. I choose this name in part because of my work for the Sagamore Institute, under the false connection I made between the words “sagamore” and “sycamore.” According to Sagamore’s website, their name comes from the “Algonquin word sagamore, which refers to a trusted individual.” One of my aspirations in life is to become a sagmore to series of specific people. The tie to the word sycamore comes from a weekend in January, which, through a series of events, constituted a pivotal moment of my life. On that weekend I attended a church named Sycamore.

Why the Baobab?

The biggest and most beautiful baobab trees in the world arguably come from Madagascar, and the trees in general grow much bigger in Southern Africa than in West Africa. If I had to choose a tree for Niger or the Sahel, one might choose the Acacia or Shea. The baobab tree has many legends and uses associated with it, and may be overused as a symbol of Africa (see the Economist blogger for Sub-Saharan Africa). But my story is a much more local and globalized one. To cut a very long story short, I was identified by a Nigerien in Greensboro, North Carolina, as “the white man who loved to visit the giant baobab near the haunted well,” roughly a kilometer west of Lido, Niger.

The Sycamore and The Baobab

The baobab and the sycamore are by most accounts rather ugly trees. Their bark is not smooth and uniform. They often grow gnarled and rarely straight up and down. “Gritty” might be the right word. When I told some friends I wanted to “pinch 16th street” in Indianapolis, I was given some bizarre looks. I told them how I loved Long’s Bakery and the mom-and-pop restaurants along a strip between there and the Indy Speedway. “It’s dirty and dangerous” they retorted – “Indy is bland and boring,” I’ve also been told. I’ve been given the same responses when I talk about Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger: Rwanda is sexy, Kenya is exciting, Ghana is up-and-coming. The Sahel is dirty, dangerous, and poorer than any other region of the world. The first four countries I listed above are respectively ranked 178th, 182nd, 183rd, and 186th of the 186 countries listed on the 2012 UN Human Development Index. But now I have personal ties to both places: one a mere section of the Circle City, the other a mere subregion of West Africa.

Through this summer and into the future, I pray that these locally globalized connections and friendships might grow and prosper, and that I might grow to love these places even more. But even if this does not happen, I know that in the end I am but a “sojourner in a land that is not [mine]” (Genesis 15:13). I know that my citizenship is heaven, and that my task on this Earth is to glorify God, extending His kingdom and bringing its shadows closer to the final reality.


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