Final Thought


If you’ve kept up with my musings in this space, you might have concluded that I’m a history buff. You’d be right.


Photograph of the same tree in Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia.

Photograph of the same tree in Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia.

There’s  just something about antiquity that excites me — for as far back as I can remember, even before I could read.

In 1957, when I was 4, my mother bought a set of encyclopedias. They opened a whole new realm of imagination for me. Suddenly, within easy reach, were portals to worlds far more exciting than stories about ducks, puppies and gingerbread men. I would lie on the floor for long periods, studying the photographs and illustrations depicting ancient people and the things they created: cave paintings, sculptures, pyramids, temples and more. Especially captivating was a photograph of an enormous tree growing out of a temple, the roots draping down the structure’s side like the arms of an octopus.

I could not have articulated it then, but I was struck by nature’s ability to overtake artifacts.  I’m still awed by that ability, whether it is vines engulfing a jungle monument or kudzu covering a Delta shack.

Last spring I was able to indulge my love of history like never before. Thanks to an old friend from college, a Vietnam War veteran who organizes trips to Southeast Asia, I took a tour of Vietnam and Cambodia, seeing many remarkable things.

Among them was a place I’d wanted to visit for decades: Angkor Wat, a temple complex in Cambodia that was the crown jewel of Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire from roughly the ninth to the 15th centuries.

The temple, shaped like a lotus bud, is the world’s largest religious monument, standing majestically on some 200 acres enclosed by a wall. Made mainly of huge sandstone blocks, the complex has five towers; the tallest is 213 feet. Built in the 12th century, the temple originally was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu but later became a Buddhist temple. It abounds with artwork, which includes intricate bas-relief depictions of epic events in Hindu mythology. The precision it took to build and adorn this place is astounding.

But I’ve leapt a little ahead of myself. The most mystical part of this trip actually began a month or so before I left the States, starting one evening as I sat in my easy chair poring over travel literature. Our itinerary included a stop at Ta Prohm, one of many temples in the Angkor area abandoned for centuries and consumed by the jungle until European explorers stumbled upon them in the 1800s. I learned that at Ta Prohm the jungle had not been cut back as much as elsewhere. Then I read this: “There are enormous fig trees … which embrace themselves in the stone foundations of the structure, giving the impression of man’s creation being reclaimed by the powerful forces of nature.”

A long-dormant memory awoke. Bounding out of the chair, I hustled down the hall to my office, where the encyclopedias my mother bought long ago now sit on a shelf. It took a few minutes, but I found the picture on Page 164 of the I-J volume  — “I” for Indo-China — of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. The caption stated: “In the tropical forest, ceaseless effort is needed to keep nature from overwhelming the buildings. Here the roots of a fig tree have grown over an abandoned stone temple.” Fig tree? Temple? I wondered if that picture could have been taken at Ta Prohm. The book didn’t specify. So I turned to the Internet to find pictures of the temple. And there was THE tree. Was it possible it still stood, and would I be able to actually step into the scene that had so fascinated me way back when?

Sure enough, on June 8 the preschooler and the, ahem, rather mature journalist came together for a few transcendent moments. As if posing with an old friend, I stood in front of my tree while a guide took my picture (photo of fig tree at top of page). The experience was awesome and slightly surreal. The tree looked much like it did more than half a century ago and appeared likely to stand long after I’m gone.

A child’s imagination is an amazing thing. Mine took me to Ta Prohm long before I knew it existed. I am very grateful to my mother for that. As adults, each of us has opportunities to do things to inspire a young person’s imagination. You might try it — you never know where that imagination might lead.

Tree stories? Email me with your stories at

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