Review: Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli
A book that maps the ecological and cultural histories of trees in cities and in our livesUpdated: Jun 28, 2019, 17:59 IST
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 absolute treasures. Pradeep also pens a beautiful foreword to Peter Wohlleben’s book that reveals the astounding Hidden Life of Trees. Sumana Roy’s lyrical How I Became a Tree is a 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 — one that lifts your spirits yet strikes a note of melancholy, rekindling lost loves and associations, kindling new knowledge and wonder, as it maps the ecological and cultural histories of trees in cities and in our lives, past and present.
At a fundamental level this book is a khichdi of stories about trees — the most visible face of nature in Indian cities. It highlights some of the favourites like the tamarind, jamun, silk cotton, amaltas, neem, peepul etc. I loved the chapter on our national tree; though am affronted by the mighty and magnificent banyan is deemed ‘shaggy-headed’. The Banyan’s Tale, like the life stories of other trees in the book, draws on 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. It reminds us of our place in things; like it is really the jackals (also pollinators), who are crucial to the successful fruition of the gorgeous amaltas that showers gold each summer. 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.
The book draws attention to wildlife that inhabits trees. The prose is simple yet layered, with the authors making a caustic comment on how resident birds — like human citizens are subject to a caste system, with the relatively common ‘black kite’ being relegated as a pariah, while the saffron and white counterpart, the ‘Brahminy’ Kite, belongs to the upper echelons of society . 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.
Read more: Vijay Nishanth: The man who talks to trees
So intimately are cities and canopies linked that some derive their names from trees that dominate the cityscape; like Vadodara is named after the banyan, though it says much about the changing character of a city whose growth destroys trees, and its identity, in its wake. The loss of trees also threatens cultures and traditional livelihoods. The silky tufts inside the seed capsule of the silk cotton trees are soft, white, fluffy and used to stuff pillows and mattresses. Come summer, the Dhunia community in Tamil Nadu would patrol the roads using a string instrument to announce their arrival, and to clean and pluck the silk cotton. With the vanishing of the trees, the Dhunias are a rare sight as well.
Cities and Canopies is not a lament, though, nor is it a rallying call. It is a celebration of trees, a charmingly penned paeon to these great givers. I do wish it had made a pressing case for the inclusion of trees in the planning of cities, or ‘Smart Cities’, critical as urban India expands at am unprecedented rate.
I have little doubt that this occasionally idiosyncratic account, written with passion and a deep knowledge and affinity for trees, will make even those who scurry about their busy, regulated lives stop and look up at the canopies. And I think with awe, wonder, and humility.