The Name of the Tree

by Vicky on May 22, 2012

The week before Earth Day, I told one of my favorite stories, The Name of the Tree: A Bantu Tale Retold, by Cecilia Barker Lottridge and illustrated by Ian Wallace.

There is a terrible drought that goes on and on, and the animals grow hungrier and hungrier.  An old tortoise remembers that there was once a wonderful fruit tree who would bend down and offer its fruit to the animals if they called it by name.  They trek for many days until they find the giant tree, but the fruit is too high to reach and no one can remember the name of the tree. 

The old tortoise tells them that the king must know the name, and someone must go and ask him.

When the first animal arrives to ask the lion king for the name of the tree, the monarch is at ease and benevolently offers the name.  However, he warns her not to forget the name.  But because she is thinking only of how the other animals will admire her for bringing the name, an unexpected fall knocks it completely out of her mind.  The next animal to make the attempt finds a considerably agitated king, but still succeeds in leaving with the name.  This animal is so preoccupied with showing off its prodigious memory, a mishap causes the name to vanish without a trace.  When a very young, slow tortoise volunteers to try, everyone scoffs, but the young tortoise points out that he is the great-great-grandson of the old tortoise who remembered that the tree had a name.

The tortoise finally arrives in the jungle, only to find that the king is in high dudgeon and has no intention of revealing the name.  While ranting about the forgetful animals, the king lets slip the name, and young tortoise meekly takes his leave.  So as not to forget the name, the tortoise chants the name all the way home:

The name of the tree is Ungalli.

And he keeps chanting all the way back to the foot of the tree, which bends down to offer its fruit to the starving animals.

Afterwards, the kids made tortoise puppets.

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