Excerpt: A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira

A brief history of civilization threaded through the eaves and fronds of the humble palm.

Under the paving stones, the palm. This little book can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract. The palm is a symbol traced through history, a hidden portal to intimate moments that bring geographies and situations to life. A vital presence, it coaxes out vitality. It’s everywhere once you start to look, a secret joyful emblem. A Luminous History of the Palm would have been very easy to have spent a lifetime writing. Why the palm? Why not? Are abstract categories any better? Run your fingers over the leaves, help the plant to take root, sprinkle the water of your attention on the first story so it grows. Repeat the exercise a couple of dozen times. If you like, go on to create your own history on the basis of other trees, other flowers, other animals. Infinite stories proliferate, yet sprout from the same soil.

Jessica Sequeira


Friar, Ireland

When I began to write these annals, my inspiration came from the straightforward accounts of priests in other times, writing on such matters as the black mold that touched the palm trees on their farms, or the number of piglets born to their sows that year. This straightforward account of the good and the bad pleased me, as it gathered all of the divine workings into a single ledger. Thus I embarked on this attempt to record what I have seen for posterity, should there be a posterity. The events of this year have forced me to put greater stock in my journal. No longer is it a mere inventory, for the black mold I must now chronicle is infecting not palm trees, but the skin, the inner organs, the brains of those in my parish. I am just another Franciscan friar, one replaceable member of an eternal order, but I hope that one day the world will wake from this nightmare, and look upon these annals to say: ‘God has vanquished evil.’ I have visited the ill in Kilkenny; I have made journeys to Dublin where the blackness is even darker; I have read out eulogies for the best of men. This is an evil that attempts to seize control of our earth not through arms or shows of brute physical strength, but by these insidious means, through fever, headache and vomiting, which can lay a man low, swell his parts and in ten days drop him into the coffin. Yet an evil exists that is possibly even greater, which is the response of the spiritual guides. My order is composed of the mendicants who go amongst the poorest men without fear, trusting that God has a great plan which can encompass even this horror. But I see the men of other orders cowering, or retreating to their monasteries to seal up the doors, or giving big sermons to the healthy from a distance, speaking blasphemous phrases about a link between bodily purity and purity of soul, as if the poor sick folk themselves were responsible for their rot. I am leaving a few blank pages now at the end of my book for whoever next takes it up, as I see no end to this. My own death is approaching, I can feel it, thank the heavens from natural causes. Yet this plague will rage on, this blackness that burns through the population and ravages the strength of even the most robust; may I curse a thousand times this black mold that not only afflicts the bodies of men, but strikes black into the souls of those who profit from their deaths.

Train Driver, South Africa

Glory, the greatest glory, this is what was drummed into my head when I trained to be a Cape Government Railways officer, a glory that I do feel, even if it seems to be a big word. I drive the men who will make our nation wealthy, the ones will build frontier towns and fight necessary battles, who will come back loaded with jewels and gold. Before they would have gone by ox-wagon, but now there’s steam, beautiful dark gray steam that blasts from the metal like a powerful cousin to the steam from horses’ nostrils. The men are anxious to reach the end of the line, but first it is necessary to pass through much terrain, the whole of the Great Karoo with its crassulas, euphorbias, stapelias and aloes, bristling up from the territory to dizzy those not made of iron. It is a strange land, a land that is all at once so dizzyingly arid that you begin to believe anything is possible. I have begun to see this movement in the eyes of the men: as the dawning of a miracle. Out here, where dinosaurs once lived, we whizz over the fossils. It’s a miracle, too, that I am at the wheel, since these trains did not even exist a few years ago, when I qualified as a mechanic. Often, I think of the chance of things: I could well have been on the greener Eastern line, looking at palm trees, leading my men into wars on the frontier. But no, here I am in this broad barren loam, this scorching fire that turns to bitter cold at night inside the unheated train. And then we are through, and it’s bliss to see the sheep of Beaufort West, the simple whitewashed houses of De Aar, and at last Kimberley, where the men fall with their picks and shovels upon the Big Hole, to gouge as many diamonds as they can. Already the diamonds are glimmering in their eyes. None of that for me; I will keep driving this train to eternity, my only diamonds the train headlights, the closest I get to palm trees the green scrub of the terrain, the closest to sea salt the constant dust which still shivers in the air long after the huge mountains were blast through by a feat of engineering, for the greater glory of our railways.

Jessica Sequeira has published the novel A Furious Oyster, the story collection Rhombus and Oval and the essay collection Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age. She has also translated many Latin American authors, contemporaries as well as figures like Winétt de Rokha, Sara Gallardo and Teresa Wilms Montt, whose playful imaginations remain vital. Currently she lives between Santiago (Chile) and Cambridge (UK).