Some days ago, in the peaceful back garden of a friend’s house, I watched pink kachnar (bauhinia) flowers drop gently on the grass as parakeets, babblers, sunbirds, red-vented bulbuls and ‘rufous treepies’ feasted on the branches above. It was a very haiku moment, said my friend, of reflective calm and poetic grace.
Everyone knows that trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air; that they remove and store the carbon. They know that trees absorb pollutant gases like nitrogen oxides, ammonia and sulphur dioxide, and filter particulates out of the air by trapping them in their leaves and bark. They do all this while releasing the good oxygen back into the air. But it can be a bit of a shock when we have a haiku moment with a tree and are made to remember that it’s not only our physical health but also our mental and spiritual well-being that trees profoundly affect.
Such a moment can bring back the nastiest stories, like the one I was told by the best-selling Chinese writer Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans. She told me that the late Chairman Mao, in his determination to completely desensitize his people and thereby make them mindless and obedient, had thousands of trees cut down all over China, especially the beautiful flowering ones. We could obviously do ourselves a mighty favour by conserving ours and planting more – by not staying on the ‘theory tree’ but by making it real on the ground as ‘the tree of life’.
However, a haiku moment with a tree is really about good thoughts. So it also recalled a moving tribute to trees – to life itself – that had come my way. It was by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), the German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter whom movie mavens in India will recall for his book ‘Siddhartha’. It was made into a film in 1972 with cinematography by no less than one of the all-time masters of visual haiku, Sven Nykvist (1922-2006), the Swedish cinematographer to Ingmar Bergman.
Herman Hesse said,”For me, trees have always been the most profound preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves.
And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.
Nothing is holier; nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured”.
(The views expressed are personal)