El Ombú

The Ombú Outside the La Biela Café in Buenos Aires’s Plaza Francia

One of the most spectacular trees to be encountered in Argentina is the Ombú. The one in the above picture is in front of my favorite Buenos Aires café, La Biela, where Jorge Luis Borges frequently dined with Adolfo Bioy-Casares. Also, it reminds me of the tree described by W. H. Hudson in his first story in Tales of the Pampas (1916):

IN ALL THIS DISTRICT, though you should go twenty leagues to this way and that, you will not find a tree as big as this ombú, standing solitary, where there is no house; therefore it is known to all as “the ombú,” as if but one existed; and the name of all this estate, which is now ownerless and ruined, is El Ombú. From one of the higher branches, if you can climb, you will see the lake of Chascomus, two thirds of a league away, from shore to shore, and the village on its banks. Even smaller things will you see on a clear day; perhaps a red line moving across the water—a flock of flamingos flying in their usual way. A great tree standing alone, with no house near it; only the old brick foundations of a house, so overgrown with grass and weeds that you have to look closely to find them. When I am out with my flock in the summer time, I often come here to sit in the shade. It is near the main road; travellers, droves of cattle, the diligence, and bullock-carts pass in sight. Sometimes, at noon, I find a traveller resting in the shade, and if he is not sleeping we talk and he tells me the news of that great world my eyes have never seen.

They say that sorrow and at last ruin comes upon the house on whose roof the shadow of the ombú tree falls; and on that house which now is not, the shadow of this tree came every summer day when the sun was low. They say, too, that those who sit much in the ombú shade become crazed. Perhaps, sir, the bone of my skull is thicker than in most men, since I have been accustomed to sit here all my life, and though now an old man I have not yet lost my reason. It is true that evil fortune came to the old house in the end; but into every door sorrow must enter—sorrow and death that comes to all men; and every house must fall at last.

But my memories of this Ombú are all happy ones. I have eaten at the café there twice, both times having excellent meals. The first time was with Martine in 2011. In 2015, I met with my friend David Benesty there. Below is a picture of David sitting between Borges and Bioy-Casares at what was once their favorite table:

Jore Luis Borges, David Benesty, and Adolfo Bioy-Casares


I would love to go to La Biela again and have a cool bottle of Imperial beer on a hot Buenos Aires afternoon.

 

Serendipity: The Ombú

Ombú Tree in Recoleta, Buenos Aires

Ombú Tree in Recoleta, Buenos Aires

I first grew curious about the Ombú trees of the Pampas when I read W. H. Hudson’s Tales of the Pampas. Following is the beginning of his short story entitled “The Ombú”:

IN ALL THIS DISTRICT, though you should go twenty leagues to this way and that, you will not find a tree as big as this ombú, standing solitary, where there is no house; therefore it is known to all as “the ombú,” as if but one existed; and the name of all this estate, which is now ownerless and ruined, is El Ombú. From one of the higher branches, if you can climb, you will see the lake of Chascomus, two thirds of a league away, from shore to shore, and the village on its banks. Even smaller things will you see on a clear day; perhaps a red line moving across the water—a flock of flamingos flying in their usual way. A great tree standing alone, with no house near it; only the old brick foundations of a house, so overgrown with grass and weeds that you have to look closely to find them. When I am out with my flock in the summer time, I often come here to sit in the shade. It is near the main road; travellers, droves of cattle, the diligence, and bullock-carts pass in sight. Sometimes, at noon, I find a traveller resting in the shade, and if he is not sleeping we talk and he tells me the news of that great world my eyes have never seen.

They say that sorrow and at last ruin comes upon the house on whose roof the shadow of the ombú tree falls; and on that house which now is not, the shadow of this tree came every summer day when the sun was low. They say, too, that those who sit much in the ombú shade become crazed. Perhaps, sir, the bone of my skull is thicker than in most men, since I have been accustomed to sit here all my life, and though now an old man I have not yet lost my reason. It is true that evil fortune came to the old house in the end; but into every door sorrow must enter—sorrow and death that comes to all men; and every house must fall at last.

Do you hear the mangangá, the carpenter bee, in the foliage over our heads? Look at him, like a ball of shining gold among the green leaves, suspended in one place, humming loudly! Ah, sefior, the years that are gone, the people that have lived and died, speak to me thus audibly when I am sitting here by myself. These are memories; but there are other things that come back to us from the past; I mean ghosts. Sometimes, at midnight, the whole tree, from its great roots to its topmost leaves, is seen from a distance shining like white fire. What is that fire, seen of so many, which does not scorch the leaves? And, sometimes, when a traveller lies down here to sleep the siesta, he hears sounds of footsteps coming and going, and noises of dogs and fowls, and of children shouting and laughing, and voices of people talking; but when he starts up and listens, the sounds grow faint, and seem at last to pass away into the tree with a low murmur as of wind among the leaves.

As a small boy, from the time when I was able, at the age of about six years, to climb on to a pony and ride, I knew this tree. It was then what it is now; five men with their arms stretched to their utmost length could hardly encircle it. And the house stood there, where you see a bed of nettles—a long, low house, built of bricks, when there were few brick houses in this district, with a thatched roof.

The ombú in the photograph stands in front of La Biela, an old café that Jorge Luis Borges and his friend and collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares used to frequent. It is on Plaza Francia not far from the entrance to Recoleta Cemetery.

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The Liberator and the Ombú

I Had to Come All the Way to Peru to See This Argentinian Tree

I Had to Come All the Way to Peru to See This Argentinian Tree

It is a tree from the pampas of Argentina, which, although I have been to that country twice, I have not yet seen at ground level. My first acquaintance with the tree is from W. H. Hudson’s little known (but excellent) Tales of the Pampas:

In all this district, though you should go twenty leagues to this way and that, you will not find a tree as big as this ombú, standing solitary, where there is no house; therefore it is known to all as “the ombú,” as if but one existed; and the name of all this estate, which is now ownerless and ruined, is El Ombú. From one of the higher branches, if you can climb, you will see the lake of Chascomus, two thirds of a league away, from shore to shore, and the village on its banks. Even smaller things will you see on a clear day; perhaps a red line moving across the water—a flock of flamingos flying in their usual way. A great tree standing alone, with no house near it; only the old brick foundations of a house, so overgrown with grass and weeds that you have to look closely to find them. When I am out with my flock in the summer time, I often come here to sit in the shade. It is near the main road; travellers, droves of cattle, the diligence, and bullock-carts pass in sight. Sometimes, at noon, I find a traveller resting in the shade, and if he is not sleeping we talk and he tells me the news of that great world my eyes have never seen.

Then, in September, while walking in Lima’s Pueblo Libre between the Museo Larco and the National Museum of Anthropology, I saw my first Ombú, which I photographed.

Sign Identifying the Ombú Tree

Sign Identifying the Ombú Tree

What I find interesting about this sign, and this particular tree, is that the seed was purported to have been sowed by José de San Martín, an Argentinian who is considered by the Peruvians as the great liberator of their country. Curiously, Simon Bolivar did more than San Martín to actually free the country from the Spanish yoke, but it was the Argentinian who first declared Peru’s freedom. In the end, it was Bolivar who finally sealed the deal by his military victories.

They would have done it together, if it were not for the fact that they didn’t get along well together. Bolivar felt that San Martín was horning in on his action, and that he was quite capable of actually liberating Peru by himself. The discouraged San Martín returned to Argentina.

In 2011, Martine and I visited his tomb in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, where a military honor guard protects his remains.

So it was not only my first Ombú, but it was a historically important one at that.