Recently, Delhiites were up in arms to save over ten thousand trees from being cut down, a commendable feat, but we need to go a step further and view trees as not just providers, but dynamic living beings. This is the first of a series, by Edible Routes, which will touch upon themes of sustainability and how to raise children with a green thumb.
By Sachin Gupta
Humans have always viewed all living creatures through an anthropomorphic lens. The more something resembles us (physically and intellectually), the more valuable it becomes. The world mourned at the recent passing of Koko the ‘talking’ gorilla, effectively putting all other gorillas, orangutans and dolphins a notch below her. Then on the rungs come the monkeys and dogs, mice and sunbirds, lizards and ants each slowly descending the ladder of worthiness. But still human-like, for every one of them more-or-less digests, breathes, moves and procreates like we do. The unlucky ones are the silent ones, who in their physiology are so different from us that we have condemned them to death by objectification. I’m talking about plants and trees.
To a layperson a tree gives oxygen, shade and fruits. To Delhiites, a pollutant sponge, to a more enlightened person, a haven for biodiversity. All noble reasons to save over ten thousand trees, that got hundreds of people out in the streets of Delhi, swiftly moving the high court to put on hold all further felling. A commendable feat, though one cannot help but notice that much of the motivation was still limited to trees being viewed as objects, as providers. A dehumanising view, a view we would not bestow when dogs are culled en mass. Trees are dynamic living beings, but they interact with their environment so remarkably different than us that it becomes difficult for us to empathise with them the same way.
A healthy tree may live several hundred years; some even live to be over a thousand! That means a tree that started its life when your great-great-great-great grandmother was born may still be a straddling young lad when you come of age! This slow lifestyle means trees do everything a bit slowly including communicating and moving. Trees ‘talk’ over vast distances with other trees and plants through underground fungal networks that connect to their root systems called mycorrhizae. They trade like us in nutrients and information.
It is a well-documented scientific fact that a tree that may be deficient in a particular nutrient sends out chemical signals through the mycorrhizae to other trees in the vicinity to exchange the much desired nutrient for nutrients that it may have in excess. They trade information too through these networks, about approaching fires, droughts and diseases.
Young seedlings under heavy canopy of its parent trees are nurtured with the support of extra resources. Is this not child rearing? Is the network not exactly like the internet? Or should we say the Wood Wide Web.
So you get it. Trees communicate much like any other community of animals but can they travel long distances like we do? Well, of course! An average nomadic tribesman can travel several thousand kilometers in his lifetime and probably after him his daughter will cover another several thousand kilometers. Trees can do just that. A coconut from a beach in Goa might travel the high seas to wash up on the Kenyan coast, to sprout into a lovely coconut palm. A 250-year-old banyan tree at the Calcutta Botanical Garden covers an area of over four acres. Its aerial roots fastened firmly to the ground it continues to spread. Though the main trunk of the tree was removed after sustaining injury during a cyclone, the tree continues to thrive. So technically, the tree has physically moved from its original spot of birth by over four acres.
One of the best ways to learn more about trees is to involve your kids in it too. A child’s observation power and innate appreciation of nature goes beyond all the knowledge any biologist can muster. Here are some activities you can do with your kids:
* Go to a forest or a dense part of a park and observe the community of trees, its elders, teenagers and young babies.
* Mycorrhizae are often too small to observe, plus they are underground. So how do you know they are there? Well, look out for mushrooms growing on the forest floor. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the mycorrhizal fungi. A sureshot sign of the presence of the Wood Wide Web under your feet! (Many mushrooms can be poisonous, so it’s best to admire them from a distance.)
* Set up a kitchen garden, grow fruit trees and vegetables. Companion planting and layer planting encourages better distribution of nutrients for the plants.
* Inoculate your garden or potted plants with myccorhizal fungi and other beneficial microbes. Dig up some soil from under a banyan tree or bamboo (be careful not to dig too deep so as not to disturb or damage the roots) and sprinkle a thin layer in your vegetable beds and under your fruit trees. These soils are rich in microbiology!
* Start composting at home. Use all your kitchen and garden waste to create rich and nutritious humus for your plants and trees to consume. This not only takes care of over 80 per cent of all your household waste but also gives you a healthy and productive garden.
Let us not confine trees to the realms of the inanimate or even semi-animate. They are vibrant, thriving and dynamic beings. They form communities and nurture their young, they move when they can and share when in need. Perhaps it is essential to anthropomorphosize them, seeing ourselves in plants and trees may be the only way that massacres like the one in Delhi don’t happen again.
(Sachin Gupta is a natural farmer and food forester. He is passionate about sustainable living and ecological practices. He works as a consultant at Edible Routes. Follow on social media @EdibleRoutes)