Tuesday, December 12, 2017
 Whistling Thorn Room Divider

 

I fell in love with this tree immediately when we arrived in Kenya in 2000. This was a tree that I had to weave. Over the course of a year, I took so many pictures of this tree, its pods, flowers, galls, etc., that my son began to rib me about this obsession I must have with taking photos of the whistling thorn. 
 
Next, I commissioned a frame room divider to be made for the four panels I would weaver. Only once the panel was made could I begin, since the wood dimensions I gave didn’t respond to the dimensions in the wood available. 
 
With the wooden frame in place, I drew in colored pencils, a composite tree that had all the stages I had witnessed in my year-long study. The vegetative stages flow across the four panels.   If you look carefully, you will see flower buds in the upper left, flowers that develop into pods that drop seeds in the second panel from the left. From the right panel, one can follow the formation of the galls in the upper right corner, across the entire piece to the left panel, and then you can gaze down to the bottom of the right panel again where there are dead broken galls.   This became a natural history of the whistling thorn tree, Acacia drepanolobium, and then some. 
 
This is a natural history study and then some. When water is plentiful, the tree bursts out in leaves, blossoms and then pods. Birds and insects feed on parts of the tree, including the yellow/black beetle Pachnoda ephippiata which is found in the far left panel.   When the Whistling Thorn’s branches are young, stinging ants (Crematogaster sp.) make galls which form their homes (upper right panel in particular). The ants attack browsing animals, resulting in fewer leaves being eaten by these browser.   If you look carefully, you will be able to see some ants woven into the branches particularly in the central panels. Butterfly larvae (Spindasis hutchinsoni) are also associated with these galls (center panels), and I even wove one pupal exuvium into the second panel from the left, one I found left in a gall from an emerging butterfly. The biologist in me couldn’t leave out these important details I had observed.
 
As I wove, I learned more about the tree. Local children bring their goats to browse in the clumps of the Whistling Thorn trees. More than one person has told me that he ate the young galls from these trees for snacks while out in the bush. The name, Whistling Thorn, is given to these trees because when the wind blows, the wind whistles through the old empty galls. 
 
Because I didn’t weave this exclusively but also worked with Kenyans, I began to see something more in this hearty scrub tree. It reminded me of the resilience and inner strength that I was witnessing. Many of the people here live in rural areas or dry pastureland. Their lives are tied to seasons of wet and dry, seasons of plenty and scarcity. This tree has a fantastic ability to adapt to drought and rainy times. As the tree, in times of drought, shelters ants and spiders in their galls, so Kenyans, in the hard times, shelter and help others in their community.   When time and resources are abundant for Kenyan, so life in the Whistling Thorn tree is abundant. The more I study this unassuming tree, the more I see and learn. 
 
On the technical weaving level, each panel is woven of fine linen (2/40 warp and weft and 2/70 tie down linen). The trees and all the other design elements in each panel are made with 10/2 cotton thread that has been inlaid using the advanced Theo Moorman technique. The grass was the most time-consuming to create.  In the far right panel alone, 191 inlay threads were used at the same time to create the grass, taking up to 8 hours to advance ½ of an inch.  The frame is made of East African Mahogany by Kenyans. Both sides of the wooden panels at the base have been carved with images of wild African animals and images of the landscapes found in East Africa.  Each panel is 14.5 x 49.5 inches, mounted in room divider frame of total dimensions 70 inches wide x 70.75 inches high. 

 

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