Up in Ermera this week, on a morning walk, I was truly taken with the spectacular form of the madre cacau (acacia) shade trees. Their leaves add this complexity and softness to them, they are what offer cover to the coffee plants. These leaves are the texture of coffee growing regions.

But what really caught my attention time and time again were the dead trees. The ones standing pale, protruding into the sky. I noticed even fallen dead trees were not scavenged for fire wood. There must be a bandu against using that wood.

Why were these trees so haunting to me? Some times in life, and in Timor, there are images or events that tap into some dreamlike subconscious, some place in my brain that keeps forms, the sublime, hyper-reality.

Later I realized that these trees were reminding me of a sculpture installed near the Saint Louis Art Museum that I walk past every time I go “home.”

By bombpopsaregood on Flickr

It is a metal tree called “Placebo” that was commissioned by the museum from Roxy Paine. I remember being dismissive of it at first. But the more I passed it, the more sense it began to make in the landscape.

A leafless tree, one forged of metal means something so different than a dead madre cacau. Those trees, some of them, must be reaching 100 years old. It’s hard to imagine the western landscape without them, or without coffee for that matter.

Sometimes it is easy for us to forget the rapid changes that have happened within three or four generations in Timor. In Ermera, people told of the pressure of the imposto which forced them to work on Portuguese plantations, of servitude and slavery, of being shut out and cut off from their land.


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