How ‘The Great Kapok Tree’ Became a Symbol of Hope for Rainforest Preservation

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Written By Lakeisha Ethans

Heritage Gardener with Grafting Expertise

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Home » Ancient & Remarkable Trees » How ‘The Great Kapok Tree’ Became a Symbol of Hope for Rainforest Preservation

In the heart of the bustling 1980s, while the world’s forests echoed the rumble of chainsaws, one book sprang from the train tracks between New Haven and Washington, DC, like a seedling reaching for the sunlight.

This was “The Great Kapok Tree,” crafted by the hands and heart of Lynne Cherry, a student then at Yale University.

This is the front cover art for the book The Great Kapok Tree written by Lynne Cherry. (Fair Use)

Stirred by the alarming deforestation of the Amazon, Cherry set pen to paper, her resolve as mighty as the roots of a great tree.

The story unfolds in the lush, vibrant expanses of the Amazon Rainforest, where a kapok tree stands tall.

Kapok Tree in the Jungle
A Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra)

Here, two woodcutters arrive with intentions to fell the giant. As one woodcutter succumbs to the forest’s lullaby and slumbers under the kapok’s canopy, the creatures of the tree—frogs, birds, monkeys, and more—whisper to him.

They share tales of their lives, their reliance on this majestic tree, and its role in the health of their world.

Awakening with their voices echoing in his mind, the woodcutter faces a choice that tugs at his conscience: obey his orders or protect the tree.

His decision to leave the tree standing marks a transformative moment, not just for him but as a symbol of hope for all readers.

Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra)
Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra)

Cherry’s inspiration wasn’t solely academic. Encouraged by Tom Lovejoy of the World Wildlife Fund, she ventured into the very lungs of the Earth—Manaus, Brazil.

There, she was cradled by the biodiversity of the Amazon, which fueled her illustrations and narrative, all vividly capturing the essence of the rainforest.

Upon its release in 1990, timed with Earth Day’s 20th anniversary, “The Great Kapok Tree” sprouted discussions and debates.

While some critics found the prose preachy, others were enchanted by its lush illustrations and the urgency of its message.

Cherry’s vision was clear: to plant seeds of environmental stewardship in young minds.

Colorful roots of the Kapok tree
Colorful roots of the Kapok tree

As the book reached classrooms, it didn’t just sit on shelves; it took to stages with students performing plays and musicals, echoing the book’s call to preserve nature.

The kapok tree, with its towering presence in Native American mythology, serves as more than just a story element.

It’s a symbol, an ancient connector of the heavens, earth, and the underworld, much like the Norse Yggdrasil. In choosing the kapok, Cherry linked every reader to a larger narrative—a cosmic call to action for conservation.

A majestic Kapok tree in Florida
A majestic Kapok tree in Florida

Decades have passed since its publication, and while the book has celebrated milestones—selling over a million copies and being translated into numerous languages—it also reflects a bittersweet truth.

The battle to save our forests continues, with Cherry still at the forefront, empowering young environmentalists.

As “The Great Kapok Tree” marks its anniversaries, it remains a poignant reminder of the power of story and the impact of individual choices on our planet’s future.

Deforestation in the Amazon
Deforestation in the Amazon

For many who grew up with Cherry’s tale, the message endures, a whisper through the leaves urging us to cherish and protect our natural world.

The book pays tribute to Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper who fought to preserve the rainforests and was tragically murdered in 1988.

Want More?

If the tale of the Great Kapok Tree has piqued your interest, you might be thrilled to explore other remarkable trees from diverse regions of the world.

Journey to the impressive Sunland Baobab in South Africa, renowned for its vast trunk that once enclosed a pub.

Admire the Great Banyan in India, a tree whose far-reaching roots mimic a forest unto itself.

Contemplate the time-worn Olive Trees of Gethsemane, where each twisted trunk has a story to tell of ancient days.

These unique trees offer more than a glimpse into the past—they provide a profound experience of nature’s enduring beauty.

Joining the ranks of the Liberty Tree and the Lone Cypress, these trees serve as powerful reminders of our world’s rich ecological heritage.

Source – Wikipedia

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Lakeisha Ethans

Heritage Gardener with Grafting Expertise

Lakeisha grew up in East Africa, literally surrounded by nature which sparked her interest in learning more about trees and plants from a very young age. She belongs to a family of gardeners, so for her, gardening is a way of life, a tradition she’s proud to uphold. As a self-taught gardener, Lakeisha has successfully grafted trees to produce hybrids for gardens and landscapes. When she’s not gardening, she’s writing about her experience with nature or watching baking fails!