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Saturday, Aug 17, 2019

Excerpt: The public life of trees

Many of my generation grew up with trees, and it pains me to note that today’s children have a similar affinity with mobiles and other gadgets.

books Updated: Jun 29, 2019 09:23 IST
Prerna Bindra
Prerna Bindra

Some of my fondest childhood memories are associated with trees — reading in the crook of an old peepul, stealing guavas from neighbourhood gardens, then sheltering in the fold of my mother’s saree to escape their wrath, hot afternoons spent with cousins under the dense canopy of a mango in our darjee’s (grandfather’s) home. Trees also played a part in seeding my activism: An owl nested somewhere in the neem, and it sheltered a den of mongoose beneath in its understory — there was no way I was going to let the municipality to behead it, as I called its ‘pruning’.


Many of my generation grew up with trees, and it pains me to note that today’s children have a similar affinity with mobiles and other gadgets. Authors Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli diagnose this malady as ‘Tree Deficit Disorder’ as cities are shorn of their canopies. I suffer this ailment too, as life gets increasingly boxed in apartments in big, then bigger, cities. I meet with trees in my forest sojourns but that lasting bond with neighbourhood trees is missing.


Even within the conservation movement, there seems to be a neglect of plants. Trees suffer from the tragedy of commons, they were so commonplace, numerous, that we almost didn’t notice when they started to disappear from the urban landscape. Almost, for in most cities today citizens are rallying to protect trees from senseless, relentless destruction, including in Bangalore where the authors are based.

There has also been an upsurge in tree literature. Pradeep Krishen’s outstanding Trees of Delhi and Jungle Trees of Central India are treasures. Sumana Roy’s lyrical How I became a Tree isa deeply personal memoir, and I recently completed The Overstorey , an epic work of fiction on trees and the people who understand and try to save them. Into this treescape, Cities and Canopies is a fresh, breezy cocktail — the one that lifts your spirits yet strikes a note of melancholy, as it maps the ecological and cultural histories of trees in cities and in our lives. At a fundamental level this book is a khichdi of stories about trees. It highlights some favourites like the tamarind, jamun, silk cotton, amaltas, neem, peepul etc. I loved the chapter on our national tree; though I am affronted the magnificent banyan is deemed ‘shaggy-headed’. The Banyan’s Tale, like the life stories of other trees in the book infuses poetry, literature, myths, culture and science. It tells us about the symbiotic nature between trees and their pollinators, a particularly fascinating nugget is how the fate of wasps and the fig are intertwined, and interdependent on each other. It shows trees inspiring, and shaping art; like the intricate painting on peepul leaves. It serves up nostalgia with recipes of neem flower pachadi (chutney) and jamun kala khatta — fare lost in the times of convenience foods. It stirs up debates between the exotic and the native, and the colonisation of ancient knowledge, as exemplified in the case of the US Department of Agriculture and a huge US company getting a patent for ‘Neemix’, neem oil to fight fungul growth, a centuries-old fungal remedy used by Indian farmers.

Read and reread this book on the vital importance of trees in our lives. We may ‘know’ about the role they play in retaining water, binding soils, cooling heated concrete jungles, and filtering polluted air but our sheer disregard for trees indicates that these lessons have not been imbibed. I have little doubt that this occasionally idiosyncratic account, written with passion and a deep knowledge, will make even those who scurry about their busy lives, stop and look up at the canopies with awe and humility.

Prerna Bindra is a wildlife conservationist and writer.

First Published: Jun 29, 2019 09:22 IST

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