By Harini Nagendra
Walking into the rainforests of the Western Ghats is a magical experience that is not easy to recreate in a book. In Pillars of Life, Drs Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman have pulled off the impossible. This slender book describes 28 characteristic rainforest trees from the Western Ghats, bringing the forest to life through text and illustration.
The rainforests of the Western Ghats rank amongst the most biodiverse forests in the world. They are packed with trees of all shapes and sizes. Well-known ecologists, Mudappa and Raman stepped away from a more traditional academic path several years ago to live in the rainforests in the Anamalai and Valparai region. Their research on the rainforest directly informs the innovative approaches to rainforest restoration that they adopt. Pillars of Life describes some of the most charismatic, landmark trees in these threatened forests. Mudappa and Raman’s rich, intuitive understanding of these species comes from countless hours spent there, staring down at the floor, and up at the canopy, binoculars in hand. Through these narratives, their love for trees and passion for the rainforest is both visible and infectious.
There is rich science here. Nageia wallichiana is a conifer that looks very different from the pine and fir trees we more commonly associate with the term. The tree comes from the family Podocarpaceae, an ancient family of gymnosperms that has been around since the dinosaurs. The differences in trunk, leaf, flower, fruit and seed structure are related to pollination and dispersal strategies. Trees can be pollinated and their seeds dispersed by wind, water, insects, and animals. Wind-dispersed trees stand tall above the forest canopy, enabling the wind to distribute their seeds to far-flung corners of the landscape without obstruction from other trees. Sunlight is a precious resource in the rainforest, and many species of Ficus use an ingenious strategy to grab the sunlight. A seed, dropped onto a higher branch of a host tree, germinates to give rise to the aptly named strangler fig — a tree which grows over and surrounds its host tree, and which eventually dies, starved of access to sunlight.
Mudappa and Raman are equally knowledgeable about bugs, bees, birds, bats, civets, squirrels, sloth bears, monkeys, elephants and the other non-plant life that sustain the forest. They began their academic life as wildlife biologists, and details of plant-animal interaction are embedded throughout the book. We learn that the Pallaquium ellipticum, an elegant, tree with a milky sap that stands tall above the tree canopy, is one of those trees whose bark is a favourite with elephants. There are equally fascinating details about other, more common species. I did not know, for example, that the leaves of the jackfruit are edible — eaten by deer and other ungulates during the day, and by flying squirrels at night.
Finally, the book would not be the same without Nirupa Rao’s gorgeous sketches. Her illustrations, coupled with the evocative pen sketches of the Anamalai landscape by Sartaj Ghuman, help the book to come alive. In a particularly striking two-page spread on the wild rudraksh (trees of the Elaeocarpaceae family), Roy uses a series of six sketches to show us how the leaves turn from bottle green to flaming red before they finally drop onto the forest floor, forming a vivid carpet of scarlet colour. Visuals like this help us paint a picture of the forest, floor and canopy, in our minds in a way that photographs simply cannot, prompting our imagination to fill in the rest of the picture.
Trees are keepers of history. A giant banyan tree at the south-eastern edge of Bengaluru, not far from where I live, has witnessed a number of rulers come and go — from Kempegowda’s descendants to the Marathas, Mughals, Wodeyars, Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan, and the British Raj. The tree witnessed the Independence movement, saw the transformation of the agricultural landscape around it during the Green Revolution, and now stands next to a four-lane highway connecting Karnataka with Tamil Nadu, one of the last remnants of a once green and fertile landscape.
Standing tall over the rainforest canopy for centuries, as the authors say, the trees they write about have acted as “historians and record keepers of the local environment.” Some of the trees in the forests they describe are hundreds, even thousands of years old. Yet we chop them without thinking, decimating the last few remaining rainforest fragments thoughtlessly. Once lost, we can never recover them. Their hope is that books like these can inspire more of us to understand the ecology and be inspired by the magical experience of living with trees. We need a forest of books such as these.
The writer is professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University and the author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future