OAXACA, MEXICO — In Mexican cities, trees are often treated like wild, unruly intruders that must be hacked back periodically to leave nothing but the wounded, naked trunk.
And in the Mexican countryside, trees are often seen as obstacles in the way of another house or cornfield - or at best as a source of daily firewood.
So it is all the more surprising that one tree in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca has its own fan club.
But then, what a tree it is. El Tule (which means "rush," as in rushes) has been growing in the once-swampy lands east of Oaxaca city for more than 2,000 years. Today the ahuehuete tree, a variety of cypress known scientifically as taxodium macronatum, is considered to be one of the largest trees in terms of biomass in the world.
"That means El Tule has more life to it, literally, than just about anything else on Earth," says Jorge Agusto Velazco, president of Oaxaca's committee Mi Amigo El Arbol (My Friend the Tree).
"But it's not just size I mean when I say this," the retired civil engineer adds. "This tree is magic."
People have been coming to see this rather squat behemoth for centuries. At more than 160 feet around, it is wider around than it is tall, and it takes more than 50 people to encircle its base (see photo, Page B1). The first Spaniard believed to see the tree, Jos Acosta, reported coming away a little disappointed from his visit in 1586. But El Tule had just been struck by lightening and had a huge gap in the center.
For millennia, lightning was El Tule's principal enemy - at least until a rich Oaxaca businessman proposed cutting down the tree in 1837 to make tables. Now a falling water table caused by agriculture and a booming and thirsty human population is the principal menace.
But through it all, El Tule has inspired those who come near it. Sometime early this century - before a fence was built to keep admirers at bay - someone carved into its trunk, "Tree, you are a god." A short time later, a correction was made. "God," carved another visitor, "you are a tree."
Today the members of My Friend the Tree work with the few resources they have to call attention not just to El Tule, but to the battered ecosystem it depends on.
"El Tule looks vigorous and alive, but overpopulation, deforestation, nearby industrialization, and water pumping are all a threat," Mr. Agusto says. "We've really done very little."
That's not as true as he thinks. After all, El Tule's caretakers did get their enchanting friend its very own lightning rod.
* For more information about El Tule write to: Mi Amigo El Arbol, Tinoco y Palacios 411 Altos, 68000 Oaxaca, Mexico