When I was growing up in San Diego the REALLY tall eucalyptus trees in Balboa park were part of the background scene. As it turns out these tropical trees are basically weeds that were a solution to an Ethiopian energy crisis.
First, some Ethiopian sociology and history: Ethiopian food is usually eaten on injera, a large spongy pancake-like bread that is used as tablecloth and eating utensils at the same time. Injera is made from teff, a local grain (actually a "pulse" but I don't know the difference between a grain and pulse), and has a slightly bitter taste because the batter is allowed to ferment slightly during preparation (hence the bubbles). Meat and vegetables are heaped on the injera and each person in the group tears off a piece, scoops up some food, and eats. Cooking a two foot diameter injera just right is something of an art form using special clay plates heated over an open charcoal fire. Many traditional kitchens have an injera cooker built into the masonry but most folks use a standalone cooker (newer ones are even electric). Unfortunately the process uses a lot of fuel. (Think of injera cookers as the 10 miles per gallon S.U.Vs of East Africa).
To make charcoal to cook your injera you need wood...(remember this random thought)...
Emperor Menelik II is a significant figure in late nineteenth century Ethiopian history. He unified much of central and northern Ethiopian, defeated the Italians when they tried to colonize (more on the Italian connection in a future journal entry), and brought modern conveniences like electricity and telephones to the country. His first capital was established on the top of Entoto Mountain (about 10,000 feet above sea level) because it was easy to defend. After things settled down a bit his consort, Taitu, decided that it was just too cold and lonely at the top of the mountain. I've been to see the former royal palace and, yes, it has a great view of the valley below but it sure is cold and windy. Getting up the mountain is no easy task, either. Taitu looked out from her perch and requested that a house be built for her in the beautiful foothills below (near a hot spring, even) in an area she named Addis Ababa, (which means "New Flower").
One thing led to another and the capital ended up off the mountain and in the foothills. Warmer, easier to get to, and generally a nicer place to live. But (isn't there always a "but"?) there was one thing missing: enough trees. The growing population soon deforested the hills and valleys surrounding the new city and Menelik started looking for another place to settle. Before they could pack up their injera cookers and head west some French guy named Mondon-Vidailhet (or it could have been an English guy named Captain O'Brian (Do you suppose his first name is "Captain"?)) rode into town with some eucalyptus trees from Austrailia (too bad they didn't bring koala bears, too), and demonstrated how fast they grow and what great things could be done with them. So the solution to an 1896 energy crisis was a fast growing tree that now covers thousands of acres of the land around Addis Ababa.
Eucalyptus trees grow very straight and tall. Think longer and fatter bamboo. But (isn't there always a "but"?), they tend to suck the water out of the soil but, hey, you can't have everything. Besides the obvious firewood uses, eucalyptus oil can be used for cleaning and functions as a natural insecticide. Eucalyptus logs make great scaffolding and other building materials like roof beams and columns, and even fences. Seven and eight story high scaffolding made of eucalyptus trunks lashed together at construction sites is pretty amazing. (See the picture below to get an idea of what I'm talking about.) There is A LOT of new construction in the city and it seems like all of it is encased in eucalyptus scaffolding.
So here we are over a hundred years later and Addis Ababa is surrounded by eucalyptus forests. There is a whole "industry" of firewood carriers that trudge down the mountain with loads of branches and twigs on their backs to feed the injera cookers. (A pretty lousy way to make a living and very hard on the body. These are some of the poorest of the working poor.) The imported eucalyptus tree solved an energy crisis and has become a ubiquitous feature of Ethiopia. It gives me hope that the developed world can come up with energy solutions that are as beautiful and useful.
So the next time you see a eucalyptus tree think about me in a forest of eucalyptus scaffolding or walking on Entoto mountain surrounded by skinny eucalyptus trees.