How did we love (and live with) trees? Let us count the ways. Before it became customary for the price of development to be paid in trees, Indians, both urban and rural, had a wider relationship with these sentient sentinels. We ate their flowers and roots, we rested in their shade and played around them, we worshipped and raided them for fruits. They were a part of the myths, legends and stories that we told to explain the world to ourselves.
“Our ancient cities were built around nature, by improving it,” says Harini Nagendra, 47, professor of sustainability at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru. “Today, the wealthier we get, the more we move into settings that are disconnected from nature — into high-rise apartments or neighbourhoods with only manicured parks. Nature stays important, but only as a recreational space… People want greenery, but it should not be messy. ‘I want butterflies but not bees. I want squirrels but not snakes or bats’,” she says.
Nagendra’s newest book, Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities (Penguin Random House) — co-written with a colleague and fellow ecologist Seema Mundoli — is an attempt to restore that connection.“Trees are everywhere in cities, but we don’t seem to see them. People engage with trees in so many different ways. For example, when I leave in the morning, people are praying near the atti (cluster fig) tree near my house. In the afternoon, people are having tea under it or chatting. At night, when I come home, bats are flying in and out,” says Mundoli, 41, when we meet the writers in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park. It’s a conversation that unwinds under the large canopy of a mango tree, interspersed by the call of birds and the thuds of ripe fruit falling to the ground.
Through a blend of science, history, memory and whimsy, Cities and Canopies draws lucid sketches of the most common trees found in Indian cities and the life-systems they support. “When we try and talk about the environment, we can’t just use science. We have to use emotions. That is going to make people want to protect it…And so, we wanted to revive the memories and stories that could help connect people better to trees,” says Mundoli.
When they did an informal survey of similar books from around the world, Nagendra says, “We realised they were all written by men.” But this is, unmistakably, a book written by women. “Would anyone but women insert a hair oil recipe into a book about trees?” asks Nagendra, whose grandmother’s concoction found pride of place in it (For those who are curious, it involves infusing your choice of hair oil with amla, curry leaves and tender banyan roots.) “The first chapter we wrote was on arts and games. We were sure that we must have myth, legend, recipes, and games. We were interested in how to make jewellery from seeds, we were interested in recipes. We can do the science part of it, but we don’t need to keep the everyday separate,” says Mundoli. The result is a book that evokes a poignant nostalgia for a time when childhood games were played with tamarind seeds and gulmohar sepals.
For both the writers, this came from a childhood spent “with trees, and on trees”. Mundoli grew up in the woody Andhra University campus in Vishakhapatnam: “We could climb on the frangipani tree, take our comics and spend hours there. We would leave messages in tree hollows for friends and feast on raw mangoes.” Nagendra remembers an early childhood spent going on long walks with her father in Delhi, summer holidays spent at her grandmother’s house in Salem, and, later in Bengaluru, living with an old fig tree in the backyard.
It’s a connection that Nagendra wishes should live on in her daughter, and indeed, the experience of all children — though an entire generation is growing up with nature deficit syndrome. “An American journalist was looking at the research in psychology in 1970s America, which was going through all the transitions that we are now. He said kids who grow up in cities are connected not to nature, but to electronic media — TV then, iPad and phone now. But that makes them distracted, and unable to pay attention. Nature has slow processes. You get bored, your mind wanders and you become creative. It also creates a stillness within you. When children grow up with nature deficit disorder, they are prone to depression and ADHD,” Nagendra says. Through its chapters, the book highlights these tangible but ignored benefits that accrue from trees, encouraging readers to discard the punishing calculus of trees versus development. “With the crisis of climate change, we can’t see the two as being always at odds. We have to prioritise nature, otherwise by 2050 we won’t have a liveable planet. This is not fear-mongering,” says Mundoli.
Despite their sensitivity to these concerns, Nagendra and Mundoli chose to keep the fears out of Cities and Canopies. “It is a conscious decision. We struggle with getting people motivated about the environment when it becomes about doom and despair. We wanted to look at the positives. Hopefully, the end result will be that you will come out to fight for your trees,” says Nagendra, whose last book, Nature in the City (2016) looked at the relationship between Bengaluru and its environment. It is not surprising that this quietly passionate book arose out of research and conversations in Bengaluru, a city with a strong culture of love and activism for trees. Nagendra’s surveys on the city’s trees, for example, were important interventions in the drive to save them from the reckless push for infrastructure development, such as the six-lane steel flyover that was to have come up in the north of the city. Mundoli, who has had phases of cynicism, says it is teaching that helped her turn a corner. “I realised I should not be teaching if I had no hope to share. And while things are going downhill, we want to focus on the possibilities too,” she says.
One of the possibilities, the writers say, is to think of ways to incentivise planting and maintaining natural wealth in cities by raising a labour force through an urban employment guarantee scheme. “We look at a grove and a lake and think it can only be an economic commodity once it is built over. But we have worked with another centre at APU to suggest a ward-level scheme which can address both the ecological and employment crisis. Where should the works be created? On all the common lands in the city — groves, lakes, grazing grounds. There is a daily-wage component to it. But also, those with graduate and postgraduate degrees could be involved in monitoring and maintaining trees, archiving knowledge about natural life through interviewing people,” says Mundoli. “Let’s create jobs through nature protection. You will have spillover effects in terms of more groundwater, less pollution,” adds Nagendra.
In one of her interviews, a priest in a gundu tope (grove) tells Mundoli. “We know there are gods, because there are trees.” On a planet hurtling towards doom, if we can renew our bond with trees, it is a sign that the gods have spared us the apocalypse.