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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Jungle Book

Not all nature lovers take an interest in botany. Here is an exhaustive field guide that could change their way of seeing.

March 29, 2014 12:19:18 am
Semra flowers start opening after midnight and are visited by fruit bats and, in the morning, by a range of nectar-feeding birds. Semra flowers start opening after midnight and are visited by fruit bats and, in the morning, by a range of nectar-feeding birds.

Pradip Krishen has pulled it off again. After his eye-opening field guide, The Trees of Delhi, he’s done an encore, larger (naturally), more lavishly illustrated and more elaborate. You can flip back and forth through this book for entire afternoons and wonder where the time went. As a so-called nature lover, I am woefully ignorant about trees and really there’s no excuse, because unlike birds trees don’t fly away — you have all the time in the world to check them out. Which, hopefully, I am beginning to do.

It must have been a gigantic task, checking out the jungle trees in an area almost as large as France, and it took Krishen three years. He’s gone about the task with a clear mind and logical precision that makes it easy for every reader to follow and get sucked into the amazing, if quiet, world of trees. For starters, he tells us “what counts as a tree” (debate rages over this too!), defines its parts — and then, very importantly, how to use the book.

In the Overview section, he defines his boundaries (of central India), the geology of the area — the kinds of soil, rocks and minerals found there, and the character of the jungles and the rainfall patterns. Also , and very dear to foresters, the forest types to be found (which again depends on rainfall), from the tropical broadleaf dry deciduous to the tropical thorn forests of the western and north-western sections of the area.

This is followed by sections describing the seasons and flowers of the jungle, followed more soberingly by the impact of forestry operations in India, both during the colonial period and after Independence. (The philosophy remained the same: encourage commercially viable or profitable plantations, get rid of the rest.) While forest departments have been blamed for “losing their commitment to conserving forests”, there’s a more serious sickness at work in our society: “A deeper truth seems to be that as a culture and civilization we have shown little inclination to value and protect our natural assets and heritage,” writes Krishen. “…[their] sins of omission are merely reflections of a much wider set of shared values in India today.

Perhaps we will only learn to value our jungles when we are on the brink of losing them altogether.” There is hope however, in the reverence many Indians still have for trees, and laws enacted to protect wildlife and jungles.

To help easily identify trees, and locate them in the book, Krishen has provided a set of simple “keys”. Most important, and according to which the arrangement of the trees has been decided, are the leaves: Their types (simple untoothed or compound digitate, for example), are defined by their shape and the way they grow in relationship to each other on the stalk. Don’t panic — there are clear, labelled photographs of examples to help you on your way. As there are for the other “keys”: flowers (arranged by colour), bark (according to texture) and fruit forms.

What’s really nice is that the trees have been primarily identified by their common Indian names. Aliases in other Indian languages and dialects — as well as the popular English name and of course, the scientific name — also figure, but in this book, a tree will answer to the name Aam, and not Mango. Each tree is identified, its seasons defined (fruiting/flowering), and described, with clear photographs providing backup support. Kadambari Misra, who has designed this book, has made it a treat to behold and browse.

A section at the end deals more elaborately with nomenclature and the usual quarrelling that goes on in the botanical world over it: there’s a war going on between Australia and Africa, with both continents laying claim to the genus Acacia.

This book has obviously been a labour of love (coupled with clear thinking!), but I’m afraid that Krishen now really has put his foot in it, good and proper: The trees of North, South, Eastern and Western India wait patiently…

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