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In the cradle of kinder humans — Johannesburg’s Wishing Tree

In the cradle of kinder humans — Johannesburg’s Wishing Tree
Individual wishes. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

After the most severe of the Covid-19 lockdowns was lifted in 2020, many more people discovered the joy of outdoors and day-hiking in particular. In Johannesburg, the Cradle of Humankind became a weekend mecca for bikers, hikers and walkers. I’ve visited it many times to exercise my bike and dislodge my thoughts. But I have only recently discovered the Nirox Foundation Sculpture park … and the wishing tree that lives within it.

We believe in houses built in the sky
Love that lifts us high
We believe in a sun that looks over our shoulders
And brings our shadows together

Yes our hearts are one
Our bodies too
And it’s so good every time
We make a wish and let it come true for us – Yoko Ono, Yes, I’m your angel.

In 2018 Yoko Ono visited South Africa to participate in the #NotASingleStory sculpture exhibition at the Nirox Sculpture Park located in the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg. This time her celebrated and sometimes controversial performance art involved the consecration of a secular wishing tree. 

According to a report in The Sowetan Yoko’s ‘Wishing Trees of Hope’ project was:

“inspired by her childhood visits to the temple where she wrote her wishes on a thin piece of paper and tied it around a tree. She chose the African olive tree for this region.” 


Statutes. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Pond in the Nirox Sculpture Park, Johannesburg.

Pond in the Nirox Sculpture Park, Johannesburg. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

The Sowetan reported that all the wishes tied to the tree would be “harvested, collected and sent to the Imagine Peace Tower on Videy Island in Iceland where they are placed with other wishes from around the world. On 9 October each year, John Lennon’s birthday, a ray of light shines from the tower onto the tree until December 9, the day of his death.”

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Four years after Ono’s visit a short note still lies at the foot of the tree and exhorts visitors to make a wish and “keep wishing”. 

Wishing tree.

Wishing tree. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

The Wishing Tree has a feeling of peace about it and after several hard years for the human race, it’s clear from its fruit of parched notes that wishing, dreaming and hope are still very much part of a human’s emotional make-up. For this tree, like a latter-day Santa Claus, is still gathering wishes. In fact, its branches, and those of several nearby trees, are weighed down by little brown notes laden with wishes. In winter they look like leaves; in summer they are hidden in the foliage.

Wishes are usually private things. But these ones hang in public. So on a recent visit, I took the liberty of writing a few down. They are shared because, in this time of war and vitriol, they capture the simplicity of our desires.

“I wish I cold be a good boy”

“I wish Covid-19 would stop”

“I wish my leg cramps would go away”

“I wish that there was peace in the world and I wish to get a new puppy for my dog”.

“I wish to make my dad proud.”

“I wish for peace and freedom for Ukraine.”

“I wish to live the rest of my life with the true love of my life.”

“I wish for wholeness, a clear mind, love, joy, prosperity, a house, car and a happy meaningful life.”

“Please South Africa end poverty + hunger respect one another”

“I wish my mum shall have the best life.”

“I wish to be able to write letters, numbers and hearts and all the things I can’t yet do”

“I wish I could meet Alexander Zverev and Carlos Alvarez and Novak Djokovic”

“I wish for a family of six and house and car to fit us all”

“I wish that I won’t be hated anymore I wish that my dad will come back (I wish for powers)”

“I hope I get a dirtbike”

These are but a few of thousands of wishes.

Wishing tree.

Wishing tree. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

The Wishing Tree in winter, almost naked, except for its offering of wishes. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

The Wishing Tree in winter, almost naked, except for its offering of wishes. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

We now know that trees communicate with each other. But for long before we acquired this knowledge trees have often played a role in the human imagination and therefore literature. Think of the simplicity and poetry of Shev Silverstein’s The Giving Tree or the ill-fated Truffula trees in Dr Seuss’s The Lorax; think of the lone tree centre stage in Waiting for Godot; or of the fig tree that is the central character in Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, who reflects that “loneliness is a human invention. Trees are never lonely.”

This modest tree, to which children and adults have revealed the nakedness of their wishes and hopes, seems no exception. 

Clouds gather to form a heart above the wishing tree. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Clouds gather to form a heart above the wishing tree. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

As spring returns and the scent of jasmine briefly perfumes the air, the Wishing Tree, carrying our burden of dreams and hopes, feels like a fitting reminder of the essential side of human nature: loving, not warring; sharing not stealing; caring not tearing; compassionate not selfish. 

Visit it and make a wish. DM/MC/ ML 

The Nirox Sculpture Park is open to the public on weekends only. Its current exhibition, Good Neighbours, provides a timely reflection on the relations amongst South Africans and our neighbours in the face of growing global instability.


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