Love the Trees Until the Leaves Fall by Dan Keeble

Dan Keeble's character hurts his ankle while hiking in Azerbaijan, and has an encounter with the locals that teaches him a surprising lesson.

I rested above the path that followed the stream. My back leaned against the grassy hillside, and I tried to ignore the throbbing in my ankle. Bright green moss cloaked damp bodied trees. Water-waving moss in the stream clung to the wet stones. It made crossing the stream hazardous. My steps across last year were confident with the guided group.

Returning alone to Azerbaijan's Hirkan National Park maybe wasn't a good idea. It was simply because I wished we could have stopped a little longer in this or that spot to drink in the beauty of the rapids that spent their energy on the mountain.

Now immobile, I had plenty of time to watch them meander down the hillside before splashing onto the rocks. I savoured the solitude and peace of the woodland. Tall chestnut oaks and ironwood trees emerged from lush green fern fronds that bobbed in the dripping autumn moisture. Only the echo of a single woodpecker chipping in the distance broke the silence.

Hopping back seven miles along the trail wasn't an option. Neither was waiting out of hiking season for someone to pass by. I had gone off piste trail-wise, so resigned myself to trying a few hops and slow painful steps with a full rucksack, hoping to reach a road or village. The mountain blocked out phone signals, even if I knew who to call, and the late afternoon sun was already halfway down the trees.

I looked about to find a stick for support, but could find nothing substantial. So I dragged the rucksack behind. I reasoned that my best route to civilisation was to follow the stream. Progress was slow and I watched the sun becoming deeper orange as it crept further down the tree trunks. The guide had mentioned that lynx and wildcats lived in the park. He also said it was the habitat of the Persian Leopard, although none had been caught on camera for three years.

During a rest, I was pondering on my loneliness and vulnerability, when a rustling from above startled me. Turning, I saw the dark brown eyes of a boy about twelve years old. He was in a traditional robe with what looked like a home-made tunic of woven coarse cloth. Certainly not clothing I had seen on modern youth about the hotel in Lankaran. He held a string over his shoulder that had a couple of rabbits tied behind him. We were both speechless. Not that it mattered, as I had very little command of his language. Then, surprisingly, 'You okay, sir?' he said in clear English.

I could only presume I looked English, if that is possible. I responded automatically.

'Well, not really. I've hurt my ankle.'

He looked confused by my response, as I was with his appearance and language. Presumably he hadn't understood me, for he turned and ran back up the hillside. I called after him, but to no avail. I stood up wondering if he had gone for help, but he didn't look back. Maybe he was frightened. Or perhaps because of his catch, he feared I would get him into some sort of trouble.

I hobbled a little further along the stony pathway, taking frequent short breaks. Each effort draining, until even a few minutes' rest wasn't enough. Propped up against my rucksack, I took in the dying rays of the sun that were now barely peering over the ferns skirting the trees. The colours were breathtaking, and despite my situation, I revelled in the tranquillity and contrast to my normal City life, where the sun sets below the skyscrapers well before it meets the horizon.

Soon, the seriousness of my situation dawned on me. I was miles from where I set off, uncertain where I was heading, and dusk was closing in fast. So I forced myself up, realising that I might have to walk through the night if I wasn't to succumb to the cold and the damp air. I didn't dare take off my boot in case the swelling prevented me putting it back on again. Instead, I eased it down into the stream. The icy cold water was soothing, and I left it there until it became numb. It was enough to get me moving again, avoiding the pebbly patches where possible.

I was resting again when behind me I heard something swishing down through the undergrowth. I turned to see a man heading towards me waving a large stick. He wasn't in modern clothing, and was shouting in Azerbaijani something which I interpreted as stop or no. Not in any position to defend myself, I held up my hands and forced a smile. He approached and carried on talking excitedly. All I could do was point at my mouth and shrug my shoulders. Then another figure appeared from above, legs brushing swiftly through the ferns. It was the boy from earlier. He waved, breathlessly calling, 'I have brought my father Afiq to help you.' With that, he slung my rucksack over his boyish frame, despite its weight. His father took hold of my arm on the side of my bad ankle, gave me the stick to support myself, and pulled me against his shoulder. I leaned into his body in relief, like he was a long lost-friend.

The climb up through the darkening wood, though painful, lifted my spirits. I was closer to help than I had imagined, for we soon came to a grass clearing on the hillside. It was a hamlet of five wooden huts spread out and overshadowed by the Guru Nabi mountain. Despite being almost carried by Afiq, I was in a lot of discomfort when we arrived at their home. But the welcoming smile of the man's wife and a worn leather sofa to rest on soon had me struggling to stay awake.

'My name is Raul,' the boy said. 'Mother will make you tea. She is called Elmira.'

Elmira looked much younger than her weather-hardened husband. Sporting a traditional beaded tunic over a long-sleeved white blouse, she could easily have passed as the boy's older sister. She handed me a plate of rough biscuits, black tea, and a blanket to warm me as I sat by a pot belly fire. All three fussed around me, and as much as I tried to stay awake, I fell asleep, with my head supported by the back of the sofa.

I awoke late in the evening to find that my boots had been removed, and my swollen ankle was immersed in a bowl of warm water. The blanket had been tucked about my neck. I revelled in the Azerbaijan hospitality. Looking around their wooden cottage I could see they had little, and I felt guilty for imposing upon them.

Raul sat beside me, translating for the three of us. He explained he had learned English at school, so that when he grew older, he could travel to the UK to watch Manchester United play football. His mother and father searched his face with pride as he relayed my gratitude.

'Tell them,' I said, 'I am grateful for looking after me, but would be glad if they could find how I can get to a hotel so I could rest there until my sprained ankle mends.'

As he spoke to them, they waved their arms and knitted their brows.

'They say no.' Raul said. 'You must stay here and we will nurse you until you are well enough to move again.'

As much as I protested about taking advantage of their good nature, they insisted they could look after me better than the hotel in the town.

These rural folk, Raul explained, eked out a living trading horses and keeping geese and chickens. He and his father also helped with coppicing in the National Park. I wanted to pay them for their hospitality, but discovered that it was regarded an insult to their culture, rather than a gesture of gratitude.

Raul explained, 'My mother and father say it is wrong of you to offer money. We do not live the way of the life you come from. They say it is a privilege to help a stranger that comes to their home.'

I felt a jerk and apologised profusely. All I could do was to clasp Ramira's hands and hold my head in shame like a naughty schoolboy in a gesture of contrition. She took one of my hands and gently slapped the back of it, frowning like a mother would when pretending to be angry. I felt a youthful comfort warm me.

For days, I enjoyed their hospitality. It was obvious from their humble home that they had little to share, but it didn't stop them from giving me all they could in simple food, care, and comfort. They were happy people, despite their poor lifestyle. After tending the animals, or working in the fields, Raul and his father would come home smiling. I reflected on my own life and how in my City world I had everything, but really nothing. I struggled to recall the last time I sat back and felt joy, or gratitude for the abundance of my material possessions. Was I happy? Would I ever experience the contentment these people had? How I envied them.

As the days passed, the need to check the news, read emails, or wonder what was happing at home faded. I hobbled around their home and the patch they called a garden. I marvelled at the calming effect the cool air and the comforting presence of the mountain rising above the valley was having on me. During the day I chopped vegetables while talking to Ramira; her head always shyly dipped showing her separation from the outside world. In the evenings we all played Mancala. Afiq with great concentration, Raul desperate to win, while Ramira smiled mischievously each time she dropped a shell into a cup. Such a simple yet stress-free way of life; joyful.

One evening I went with them to a neighbour's home. It was the grandmother's birthday. There was a bonfire with meat roasting outside, accompanied by a lot of singing and dancing. As the fire reduced to hot embers, the men who had been drinking a local brew began leaping over the fire. Everyone became hysterical with laughter. It was so infectious that I wished my ankle was fit enough to join in.

I lay awake that night thinking about how my home life had no real experience of the day in it. All I ever did was reflect on the past and work furiously in anticipation of a different future. I was not living each day, but planning for tomorrow, while trying not to repeat errors of the past. Normally, I would pity the simple lives these people led. Yet now it was something I desperately needed. They had none of the modern world luxuries, but had the very thing I thought I could obtain by amassing more possessions - happiness.

One day Raul moved a blanket, and for a brief moment I saw a flash of the Nike logo on the side of a new pair of trainers. He swiftly covered them. They were in sharp contrast to his simple rough footwear. He brought out a cardboard box from under his bed and revealed a piece of bone. It was about 8 inches long and age had given it a rusty appearance. He said it came from the Areni cave complex in Armenia where 3000 years old human bones had been discovered and an ancient winery. I recalled the guide during the previous visit talking of the area where the people lived underground. At first I thought the lad was joking, but I carried out some research online. It was obvious Raul could not know the value of what he had, and was reluctant to say how it came into his possession, so I didn't press him.

Whether he had something of immense value didn't really concern me. It was a way of recompensing the family for looking after me. That evening as we sat eating, I said that I would love to have the bone as a valued reminder of my stay. I convinced them it was worth a reasonable amount of money, and was something I could take back home and sell to a museum, if they would let me buy it. I thought at first they saw through my plan to repay them as I was offering a large sum of money. But after explaining that the £500 I was offering, I would recoup easily, they were more amenable. It seemed they wanted to extend their hospitality even further by helping me to make a profit, as though a win-win situation would be acceptable. However, they insisted that the relic should be authenticated before I parted with any money. Ramira had a cousin who worked at the Dept. of Antiquities at the Baku University. She would ask him to examine the bone.

The next day Ramira's cousin arrived, and took tea with us. He examined the bone, and took away a small scraping for radio-carbon dating. He appeared excited by the sight of it. After an exchange of news, he later left. Ramira followed him outside shortly after. I stepped out to catch the sun settling on the mountain top, and caught sight of Ramira's cousin with his arm around her, kissing her on the mouth. At first I was taken aback, but swiftly dismissed it as perhaps a family custom in Azerbaijani culture.

The following afternoon Ramira's cousin rang and confirmed that the bone was indeed part of a human shin of about 2800 to 3300 years old. During the following day, before I finally left, I took a trip into town. A neighbour had an old Soviet car and offered to take me. There I cashed travellers cheques, and handed over 1000 Azerbaijani manats to Afiq.

The family looked close to tears when I left after two weeks. I knew the money would help them in so many ways, and I felt good that I could repay their kindness. In my head I was already planning my return as I secreted the bone in my rucksack.

Back at my flat in London the world seemed harsh. The transition from a soft to a sharp environment was overwhelming. Noise, smell of the traffic, brick buildings, tall tower blocks, pretentious coffee shops, all grated on me after being close to nature, and I ached to get back to those genuine people and their village. The next few days I spent with my old uni pal Ray, regaling him with my experiences. We smoked and drank a lot, and he brought me up to date with business news. Slowly, I found myself slipping back into emails, texts, watching TV and becoming concerned about the issues of the day.

I discussed the bone I smuggled back, which I figured would be worth considerably more than I had paid the family. I felt guilty when thinking about its probable value and decided to give a greater part of it to them. But there was still a material pull that automatically hoped to make a big profit. I told Ray I intended to go back and start a new life among the family in Azerbaijan, using the money to set up a homestead with a few livestock. He called it madness and said I wasn't being realistic. But Ray and I had lived in a world where everything was artificial and nothing was genuine, so I understood his reaction. A year ago I would probably had reacted in the same way.

Ray still had contacts at the UEA and arranged for me to meet someone to examine the bone later in the week. His professor was an anthropologist and could identify whether it was male or female, determine more precisely its age, and set wheels in motion for others to evaluate it.

It did not go as I expected. On looking at the bone, the first thing the professor did was laugh, which I foolishly interpreted as a sign of his excitement. But then he displayed suppressed anger with Ray for wasting his time.

"Is this some kind of joke?" he asked.

Ray gave me a searching glance.

"I obtained it from a family in Azerbaijan," I explained. "They had a relative from the Baku University examine it. He confirmed that it was from the Areni cave complex in Armenia, where...

The professor raised his eyes and interrupted.

"They have duped you, my friend. This is part of a leg bone from a horse, slowly baked in sandy clay to age it. Following the finds in the Areni-1 cave in neighbouring Armenia, a lot of these have been produced by the locals for unsuspecting tourists. They turn up regularly across Europe."

I apologised to the professor and Ray for my naivety. I was embarrassed, and hurt to think that what I had experienced for that fortnight wasn't genuine, or that it had something to offer that my materialistic world couldn't. The landscape of Azerbaijan's Hirkan National Park suddenly became no different from the Cityscape - simply a different backdrop wherein humanity does what it needs to do to survive.


  1. An engaging tale. The main character’s desire for a simpler life seemed genuine though naive. I don’t know if the author has been to Azerbaijan, but he convinced me.

  2. Thank you for your feedback David. It is much appreciated. Before writing I knew nothing of the country. It demonstrates the value of research. Occasionally, I ask my partner for word prompts to give me a challenge. She suggested Azerbaijan, disappointment, and archaeology. She does like to stretch my abilities. Kind regards. Dan

  3. Great job pulling the reader into this time and place. The characters' motives were believable, and I found the ending very satisfying - unexpected yet following fully from the facts presented in the narrative. Nice work!

  4. Ron,thank you for taking the time to comment. Pleased to learn you enjoyed it.

  5. Dan, this is a most arresting tale--and I am as naive as your protagonist. I was caught up short at the conclusion, but it was a rueful spot-on conclusion! We too often have illusions of the allure of a "simple life" with values superior to our own, only to be disappointed by a painful reality. Great job--vivid details and descriptions. Thanks for a good read.
    Cameron Spencer

  6. One more thing: Great title!
    Cameron Spencer

    1. Cameron, thank you for taking the time to respond. It is only through feedback we scribblers have any idea of how our 'performance' goes down with the audience.