Because trees are so abundant, it is rare for a single one to become well-known. Some trees become distinguished due to their historical significance. The Bodhi Tree in India, for example, is where Buddha is thought to have gained enlightenment; and the Liberty Tree in 18th-century Boston was a gathering place for American colonists who objected to British rule.
A few trees are also worthy of note due to being record-holders. The state of California is home to several such trees: the tallest one known, a 155.5 meter redwood called Hyperion; the largest, the 1,450 cubic meter giant sequoia named General Sherman; and the oldest, a 4,800-year-old bristlecone pine known as Methuselah. It’s difficult to be certain of which individual tree is the most remote. For several decades that distinction belonged to the Tree of Ténéré, an acacia tree standing alone in the vast, hostile expanse of the Sahara Desert. However, in 1973 this tree met an exceedingly improbable end.
Also referred to by the French ‘arbre du Ténéré’, millennia ago the tree was part of a sizable forest. Gradually, climate change reduced the area to a desert as the trees perished. The Ténéré region became one of the most inhospitable areas, with little vegetation and an average annual rainfall of only 2.5 cm. Water ended up being scarce even underground. By sometime around the early 20th century, a small group of the thorned, yellow-flowered acacias were all that remained of the trees of the Ténéré. Over time, all but one died, leaving it as the only surviving tree in a 400 kilometer radius.
As a result, the three-meter-tall tree was one of the few interruptions in the landscape of sand. Visible from a considerable distance, it became a landmark for desert travelers. Its ability to survive on an unforgiving patch of sand was a mystery at first, but passers-by reasoned that there must be a water source. During the winter of 1938-1939, the French military coordinated the digging of a nearby well to increase the utility of the site. Workers discovered that the tree’s root system was drawing water from a source 35 meters underground. Meanwhile, sometime during or after the construction of the well, a truck at the site backed into the tree and broke off one of its main branches. The tree managed to survive the impact, though its previously distinct ‘Y’ shape was lost.
In the decades that followed, caravans shipping grain, salt, and dates across the Sahara often stopped to take water from this well. The tree was so essential to locals’ navigation of the large, barren desert that damaging it was inconceivable. As Michel Lesourd of the Central Service of Saharan Affairs wrote after seeing the tree in 1939, “[t]he Acacia has become a living lighthouse.” It appeared on large-scale maps of the desert as one of the sole reference points.
By the 1970s many of the passing caravans were trucks rather than camels. In 1973, one such truck was being driven by a Libyan – allegedly drunk – and despite the flat, wide-open expanse he lost control of his vehicle. The truck veered off the road and slammed into the only tree in the entire region. This second impact with an automobile was more than the solitary Tree of Ténéré could bear, and it snapped from its trunk. It was estimated to have been 300 years old.
In November of that year the remains of the legendary tree were retrieved and transported by another truck to the Niger National Museum in the capital of Niamey, where it still resides today. At the Tree of Ténéré’s original location, an anonymous artist constructed a metal monument made up of recycled pipes, fuel barrels and discarded auto parts. Thus the location still stands as a landmark – at least until the next drunken truck driver comes by.