The Upside-Down Tree | Ep. 228

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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Have you ever gotten angry?

It’s natural to feel angry sometimes. It can even be useful, since our anger can tell us when things aren’t fair or right. What matters is what we do with our angry feelings so they don’t get out of control.

But in today’s tale, we’ll meet an animal who lets her anger get so out of control, she turns things upside-down!

Our story is called “The Upside-Down Tree.” Versions of this tale come from parts of Africa. Voices in this episode include Feodor Chin, Joe Hernandez, Erika Rose, Alexia Trainor, Chris Tucci, and Alonzo Bodden.

Comedian Alonzo Bodden is a regular panelist on Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, the NPR news quiz, and a grand-prize winner on NBC’s Last Comic Standing. You grown-ups can check out Alonzo's comedy special, Heavy Lightweight, on Amazon. And you kids can hear him in another Circle Round episode, “The Mountain Guardian”!

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Sofie Kodner. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

GROWN-UPS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook and Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRoundPodcast. To access all the coloring pages for past episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Now it’s your turn!

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

When Hyena got angry, she found a pretty extreme way to let it out. So next time you get angry, what are some helpful ways you can deal with your feelings?

Check in with a grown-up and make a list of strategies. Here are some ideas:

  • doing jumping jacks
  • squishing up Play-Doh or clay
  • writing all your feelings down – or drawing a picture of them – then crumpling up the paper and tossing it away!
  • listening to a calming song or story
  • talking about your feelings with someone you love

After you make your list, remember: anger is natural. It’s normal. Just so long as we don’t allow our anger to turn things upside-down!

Musical Spotlight: Ngoni

Eric Shimelonis plays the ngoni: a string instrument originating from West Africa and played mostly in Mali and Burkina Faso. (courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)
Eric Shimelonis plays the ngoni: a string instrument originating from West Africa and played mostly in Mali and Burkina Faso. (courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)

The West African instrument known as the ngoni (also written ngɔni, n'goni, or nkoni) was once described as having “a great gourd for a belly at the bottom of a long neck with six strings.”

And indeed: a traditional ngoni has six strings over a rounded body made of gourd (or wood), with dried animal skin stretched over it. The number of strings has increased through the years, to eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen and eighteen. Holding the strings in place are thin leather strips, which you move up and down the neck to change the tuning.

Depending on whom you ask, the ngoni is classified as either a guitar, rhythm harp, harp-lute, or harp-oud. You play the ngoni with the index finger and thumb of both hands. When you pluck it, the ngoni makes a deep, resonating sound.

Historically, the instrument was called Donso Ngoni, or “Hunter’s Harp.” The first ngoni known to historians was spotted in 1352 in the court of Mansa Musa: the ninth ruler of the Mali Empire. Experts believe the ngoni is the African ancestor of the modern-day banjo: both are played by plucking, and both of their body shapes are similar to drums.

Story Transcript:

NARRATOR: The tree known as the baobab [BAY-oh-BABB] can be very old; some baobabs have been around for over a thousand years!

The baobab tree can also be very tall, often stretching higher than two telephone poles, end on end! And its hollow trunk can be so wide around, you could cram dozens of people inside!

But one of the most interesting things about the baobab… are its branches. They’re all twisted and gnarled, so when they lose their leaves, they look like a wild mass of roots sticking up into the air, as if someone had actually planted the tree upside-down!

So it’s no surprise that the baobab is sometimes called the “upside-down tree.”

As for how the baobab came to be this way, well… legend says that it began at the beginning, when the Great Spirit first created the world.

GREAT SPIRIT: …And on this world I shall create land! Like mountains, plains, and deserts! I shall create water! Like rivers, lakes, and oceans! (beat) And I shall create animals! All sorts of creatures who will make this new world their home!

NARRATOR: Once all the animals had come into being, the Great Spirit invited them to a sunset meeting on the tropical grassland known as the savanna. 

GREAT SPIRIT: Greetings, my children! I have news to share. But first, I want to make sure all the animals are present. (taking roll) Elephant?



GIRAFFE: Present!


EAGLE: At your service!


MONKEY: That’s me!

NARRATOR: As the Great Spirit went down the list, all the animals dutifully chimed in.

All, that is, but one!

GREAT SPIRIT: Hyena? (pause) HYENA…?!! (pause) Where is that bushy-tailed creature?? I thought I delivered the message to everyone! 

NARRATOR: The other animals exchanged a look. They knew full well that the Great Spirit did deliver the message to everyone. But they weren’t surprised to see that Hyana didn’t heed the call.

Because Hyena had a notorious reputation for being lazy. Not just lazy, but mean! She spent most of her time laughing at the other animals while loafing and lounging in her den… which is probably what she was doing right now!

The Great Spirit waited another moment, then decided to move on.

GREAT SPIRIT: Well, children… The sun will soon set, so I’ll make this quick. I invited you here to tell you about my newest creation to add to this vast land. I call them… trees!

ELEPHANT: Trees?!?

GREAT SPIRIT: That’s right, Elephant! They will grow from the earth and provide you with marvelous things!

GIRAFFE: What KINDS of things, Great Spirit?

GREAT SPIRIT: Well, Giraffe… they’ll give you food for your bellies, they’ll offer shade on a sunny day... For some of you, they’ll even become your homes!

EAGLE: You mean, we can live in them?

GREAT SPIRIT: Absolutely, Eagle! You can make a burrow in the hollows of their trunks – or build nests in their branches!

MONKEY: What about playing, Great Spirit? Can we play in the trees too?

GREAT SPIRIT: Of course, Monkey! You’ll have endless hours of fun climbing and swinging from branch to branch! But before any of that can happen… the trees must be planted. And YOU will do the planting. (beat) First thing tomorrow, at sunrise, meet me right here. I will be waiting with all the different kinds of trees that will grow on the savanna. One by one, you will choose your tree, then find a place to plant it. (beat) Does that sound good? 

ELEPHANT: It sounds WONDERFUL, Great Spirit!

GIRAFFE: Amazing!

EAGLE: We can hardly wait to pick our trees!

MONKEY: And plant them in the earth!

GREAT SPIRIT: Splendid! Now go home and get some sleep, my children. I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning. And then… (dramatic) let the planting begin!

NARRATOR: What do you think will happen when the animals plant their trees?

And will they ALL show up? Or will a certain someone be missing?

We’ll find out, after a quick break.


NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “The Upside-Down Tree.”

NARRATOR: Before the break, the Great Spirit asked the animals to meet at sunrise, so they could each pick a tree, then plant it.

And as dawn crept over the horizon, lighting up the sky with swirling reds, oranges and pinks… the Great Spirit watched with joy as animal after animal assembled on the savanna.

GREAT SPIRIT: Good morning, my children! You will notice that the trees I’ve brought are still young and small; they’re what we call “saplings.” (beat) So one by one, I want you to line up and choose which sapling you would like to plant!

NARRATOR: The animals went about arranging themselves in a single file. Leading the charge… was Elephant.

GREAT SPIRIT: Elephant! Looks like you get the first choice. Which tree will you pick?

ELEPHANT: Hmmmm… I’ll plant that one over there, Great Spirit!

NARRATOR: Elephant extended his trunk toward a sapling with a leafy crown shaped like an umbrella.

GREAT SPIRIT: Excellent choice, Elephant! That one is an acacia tree. I believe you’ll find its leaves to be quite delectable. And its wide canopy will protect you from the sun. (beat) (beat) Plant it with pride… and treat it with love and care!

ELEPHANT: I will, Great Spirit. Thank you!

NARRATOR: Next up… was Giraffe.

GREAT SPIRIT: Giraffe? Which tree do YOU pick?

NARRATOR: Giraffe glanced around, then cocked his gangly neck toward a sapling with yellow bark.

GIRAFFE: I like that one, Great Spirit!

GREAT SPIRIT: Ah! The fever tree! When it gets bigger, it will sprout brown pods that are so very tasty. Nutritious, too! Splendid choice, Giraffe.

GIRAFFE: Thank you, Great Spirit!

NARRATOR: Eagle was next. She chose the sapling known as the bushwillow.

GREAT SPIRIT: Well chosen, Eagle! With its strong branches and large leaves, the bushwillow will be the perfect tree for you to nest in.

EAGLE: Thank you, Great Spirit!

NARRATOR: Behind Eagle was Monkey, who selected tthe fig tree.

GREAT SPIRIT: You will love nibbling on its sweet fruits, Monkey. And playing in its leafy branches!

MONKEY: Thank you, Great Spirit!

NARRATOR: On and on it went, with each animal choosing their sapling…

GREAT SPIRIT: The marula tree! The butterfly tree! The jackal berry!

NARRATOR: … and going off to plant it in the earth.

GREAT SPIRIT: Plant it with pride… and treat it with love and care!

NARRATOR: Eventually, all the animals had selected their trees and begun to plant. Well, all the animals…

HYENA: (annoyed, angry) What’s going on here?!??

NARRATOR: …but one.

HYENA: Are you having a party? Why wasn’t I invited?!???

NARRATOR: Everyone froze and stared… at – you guessed it – Hyena! Her dark eyes were blazing, and her bushy tail hung low.

ELEPHANT: Um… for your information, Hyena, we are NOT having a party!

GIRAFFE: We are planting trees! 

EAGLE: Like we discussed at last night’s meeting!

MONKEY: Didn’t you get the Great Spirit’s message?

HYENA: Message…? About a meeting…? (realizing) Ohhhhh! Riiiiight! I got the message, but I decided to go to bed early. I had a feeling it would be a real snooze-fest anyway, so I might as well hit the sack! (beat) What did I miss, Great Spirit?

GREAT SPIRIT: (trying to be kind to all creations) Well, Hyena… I told everyone about the new TREES I’ve created. And how you all get to plant your OWN tree. In the earth!

HYENA: Trees…? Huh. (beat) Okay. In that case, I’m thinking I’ll plant the BEST one then! The most BEAUTIFUL! Elegant and graceful! Just like ME! (lets out a big hyena-like LAUGH)

NARRATOR: As Hyena collapsed in hysterics, the other animals exchanged an uneasy glance.

ELEPHANT: (uneasy) Um… Hyena…? Here’s the thing.

GIRAFFE: (uneasy) We already planted the trees!

EAGLE: (uneasy) You arrived so late today…

MONKEY: (uneasy) …there’s only one tree left!

NARRATOR: The animals gestured toward an unusual little sapling with a plump trunk and twisted, gnarled roots. Just one look, and Hyena knew it was NOT the “elegant and graceful” tree she’d been expecting.

HYENA: Oh, come on! You gotta be kidding me! That’s the only tree left??? (beat) Great Spirit! Say it isn’t so!

GREAT SPIRIT: It IS so, Hyena! And it’s all yours! (beat) So go ahead. Plant the tree!

NARRATOR: Hyena stared at the Great Spirit. Then she stared at the sapling. Then her lips curled into a sneer.

HYENA: (up to no good!) Soooo… You want me to “plant the tree,” do you…? Huh? (beat) Then fine! Okay! I’ll plant the tree. (beat) WATCH THIS!!!

NARRATOR: Hyena lowered her furry head, then took off running toward the last sapling. She stuck out her muzzle, and clamped her teeth around the tree’s trunk. Then, with every ounce of strength she had – and every bit of spite – she whipped her head to the side.

HYENA: (ad-lib efforting sound of whipping head)

NARRATOR: And as she did, she snapped open her jaw, so the young tree went flying from her mouth and rocketed toward the sky!

HYENA: (ad-lib efforting sound of tossing sapling)

NARRATOR: The sapling flipped and tumbled through the air. And when it hit the ground, the other animals could hardly believe their eyes.


NARRATOR: Because when the tree landed, its branches hit the ground first, and sank down into the earth! Which meant the twisted, gnarled roots were sticking up in the air!

So, with the branches at the bottom, and the roots at the top, the tree was upside-down!

Hyena let out a laugh…

HYENA: (lets out a big hyena-like LAUGH)

NARRATOR: … then bolted off across the savanna, pleased with her rambunctious prank.

But once she was gone, the Great Spirit did something Hyena never expected. The supreme creator took that little upside-down tree… and touched it with magic. 

And ever since, the baobab tree has been one of the most precious on the savanna.

Animals have relied on the baobab for food, shade, and a place to live. People have used its bark to make rope and baskets; they’ve used its roots and leaves to whip up medicines; they’ve even taken shelter inside the hollow trunk on the hottest and sunniest of days.

So… while Hyena may have laughed at the little upside-down tree… she didn’t get the last laugh. Because all this time later, we now know that the laugh… was on HER!

Headshot of Rebecca Sheir

Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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