New College of Florida, a small public honors liberal arts university in Sarasota, is held in the eye of a current political storm. A recent vote by the governor-stacked board of trustees elected an official school mascot earlier in June, after most students and faculty left campus. The new mascot, which would replace the well-loved empty set of brackets that served as our previous mascot, was the Mighty Banyan. To outsiders, this may seem an appropriate choice for a school full of tree-huggers in the middle of upheaval, but to our community, it’s prickly.
Mascots, like names, carry messages.
First of all, critics say, the banyan is an invasive species, originating in India and thriving all over the world. Secondly, the critics continue, they carry colonial histories. This description always reminded me of my extended and immediate family. Migrants ourselves, I carry our family’s journey each time I speak our names. It’s weird to not feel affinity to trees that travel, that create havens for biodiversity.
And yet. Our school’s previous mascot, the null set, symbolizes a part of our school spirit that feels on the verge of being choked out by new creepers.
For a month I was a null set, an empty set of brackets, a no-name infant sent home with her parents from the hospital. My family called me “baby” for a month until it was time for my 30-day checkup, and my grandmother made the final decision. I like to imagine them — Ba, Foi, Mom — like three fairy godmothers or sisters of fate, filling the bracket. In Sanskrit, Avni means “earth,” from soil to planet, terrain. Inside my null set, they placed a fig wasp.
In his book God, Wasps, and Stranglers, Mike Shanahan writes about the tenuous relationship between banyans and their pollinators, the fig wasp, who is undeniably metal. Upon finding her fig, the wasp “squeezes her head [inside] and, with a resolute push from her slender legs, she forces herself forward into darkness. The narrow tunnel in which she finds herself is tight. As she struggles forwards, its walls snap her antennae and wrench the wings from her back. It does not matter. This is a one-way journey and she will not need them again.” The wasp lays her eggs inside the fruit and her body decays within it. Later, her larvae eat their way out of galls, plant tissue that has encased and sustained them.
How do you say your name?
Avni (UHV-knee), means earth.. “Of the knee,” said really fast. Ahhvni is fine. Yeah, okay, Av. V. Babe. Neez. Sneezer. Ms. Vyas/ rhymes with “biatch.” Four-letter word. Snake. Shark. Bunny. Patty Mayonnaise. Gorl. Gavin. Anvil. Ovary. Avniously. Avni Dangerfield. Dr. V. Bozo. Goon.
What tribe is y’all’s kind of Indian? “Um, a feminist one?”
What language y’all speak? “The.. truth?”
In many Asian cultures, banyans are revered. Their shade and shelter is treated as a sacred, intimate space. (On campus, rumors of students copulating in the banyans near the dorms caused outcry. Some students grumbled that the noises interfered with their peace, and others left the carousers lube, condoms, and dental dams.) In Seasons of Splendour, one of the only books I owned about Indian mythology, Madhur Jaffrey writes of local lore that banyans offer shade, yes, but also ghosts. Banyans were said to be a resting place for Yamaraja, the god of Death.
Death permeates a banyan forest. The plant itself is parasitic, wrapping itself and hardening around a host. Our admiration for these trees, when sped up over decades and centuries, might look like something out of a horror movie: vegetal flesh subsuming the trees around it, bullying the land into quiet complacency.
British occupants during the Raj exploited the Indians’ relationship to the forest. To subdue resistance and maintain control, British authorities hanged rebels in higher branches of the banyans, leaving the bodies to stay for days after, a horrifying reminder to villagers of what would come from dissent.
Earth is not limited to soil, but terrain, vegetation, the relationships across species, the rush of time roaring so loudly we have no choice but to call it a present moment, our lives. My husband and I try to step out of this when we pick a new trail and get lost for a few hours in the palm scrub. What can we possibly know about this land that the flora, fungal networks, burial mounds, and marshes don’t?
Generously, we can accept banyans as a collective symbol of resistance. (Just think of their proliferation in the subtropics and across habitable continents!) They offer havens of biodiversity in environments increasingly threatened by development and deforestation — epiphytes, insects, birds, bats and other mammals benefit from the banyan’s protection. As the Anthropocene shows us, we are at an ecological crux and if our species is to survive, it must do so in tandem with other living ecosystems. What we can learn from the intricate symbioses of life in a banyan forest may be our answer to our future. What happens if our collective consciousness follows suit? Imagining identities as intersecting, interdependent pluralities rather than distinct cultures, sub-sects, nations? In a post-apocalyptic future I like to imagine banyan forest teeming up and through abandoned factories, monkeys and raptors inhabiting one floor, deer stopping to survey the horizon in a time-softened doorway.
I remember sitting on a bench under an enormous live oak in Tallahassee. If you looked up, the weather would flow through the branches like a river of sky. To this day, I place an open palm to the trunk of a tree and introduce myself. I imagine this will embarrass my kid and my friends in the future. In the backyard, all the trees have names (Vimla, Karuna, High Five, Dexter). In many Sarasota neighborhoods, banyans are everywhere. Sometimes as pesky tendrils you shear back to keep in check, but often as full grown entities themselves, deftly woven in and out of adjacent yards, “walking” through sewers and power lines. During hurricane season, many people worry over low limbs and projectile fruit, but I believe it is the
trees who offer the most important shelter through the storm seasons. Each year, the storms arrive gnashing the coastline, and in their wake, the trees witness our insignificant bodies deciphering the wreckage.
“It rhymes with David Duchovny,” I tell people upon first meeting. “But without the David Duke part.” Sometimes a nervous laugh. Sometimes a stare, but I deliver the same line. I don’t do it in Sarasota where I live, unless I’ve misplaced my sense of self-preservation. But if I’m feeling brave, if my words have hope of setting down their heavy tendrils, I will.
What does a name do?
Make space, in a sense. Through a banyan’s lifespan, it strangles a heart tree which it needs at first to survive. Then, it eats. New growth devours its host until a hollow is left in its place. There’s a reason, as an immigrant woman, whose bisyllabic name tangoes gladly with mispronunciations, whose affinity for names and language results in the intentional garbling of Catullus and Marcus Aurelius, that I understand how English, too, vines. How its speakers, regardless of origin, spore. How blurry the boundary between feeding a system, and feeding myself, unable to discern whether I am the host tree or an aerial root, seeking.
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