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Voices of the trees of the cities

[This piece draws its roots from the previous article In Forests Trees Fall, and focuses on the trees particularly of cities with an insight into their existence; their past, present, and, if ever bleak, the future.]

I faintly recall the last time I clambered up a tree to fetch a juicy fruit – it was probably more than fifteen years ago, in the heart of a wooded city which was then less a city but more than a town. When I was a kid, I was told that our co-operative housing society boasted largest number of trees of the city – indeed it did, for it was also supposedly the largest co-op housing society of Asia. It had old, really old – some over 25 year old trees; if they stood today they would be nearing their half a century of existence on this planet. Fortunately, a few still stand. And all these trees were, as I later came to realize, exotics – Gulmohar (Deloix regia); Copperpod (Peltophorum pterocarpum), Rain tree (Albizia saman), and Subabul (Leucaena leucocephala). Back then, though, they were just trees – magnificently curvy in their girth with branches like a thousand arms spreading all around – providing the much needed shade during the walk back home from school, and a display of radiating flowers during summer vacation.

The fruit I was to pick was a guava (Psidium guajava), again an exotic, but a tree that had been in the backyard of our old house since before my birth. In fact, it stood until recently when the ground was paved – and smothered. Our neighbour had a far more magnificent garden than ours, and we would almost always end up in there only to be yelled at for picking the ripest fruit. All of this now rests under the weight of a grand apartment building.

In the front yard stood an exquisite Suru (Casuarina equisetifolia) – and today, although a grand apartment building stands in place of the verandah, this tree still stands tall, its dark trunk a silent witness of the urbanization around it, its horse-tail branches swaying in the little wind that comforts from the narrow passages between a network of buildings. A Split-leaf Philodendron, Monstera deliciosa, an exotic liana, still adorns its trunk, using it as a support just as it did 40 years ago. Much has changed in those years, but these two remain inseparable.

The Gulmohar were very young, I can tell from the photographs of my cousins posing in front of it over the roof of our old house, taken by my father. He also collected their seeds, and, after nearly 40 years, he still has them – tiny, flat, ebony-coloured beads with an obtuse on one side ending in a blunt point on the other. In fact, he has nurtured an offspring of this very Gulmohar and Split-leaf Philodendron, bonsai-ed them, and keeps on watering and caring for them in the hopes that they will flower one day. These trees-in-the-pots are older than I am.

They are in the new house now. In front of this tree, rather a line of potted trees most of which happen to be my elder brothers and sisters, is a row of other older trees – over thirty years old – swaying in the wind just as they did when I was a kid playing hide-and-seek with my friends in the shadow of these lumbering eucalyptuses. During my school days, a Coppersmith Barbet had made a hollow in the eucalyptus facing our kitchen window, and from there the pair reared at least two successful generations. In fact, I had reared a baby of one eucalyptus as well, until my small terrace garden was raided by someone, and now all I have with me is a miniature-tree stump of the eucalyptus, polished and carefully preserved in one of the boxes.

On the way to the school and back, we harvested tamarind in winter and jamun in summer by pelting rocks but making sure not to break someone’s windows – we never did, I attest – but we did eat lots of fruits belonging to the trees saved from the ever expanding roads – because they were just out of reach of the proposed plans for expansion. Life was beautiful with these trees around, most of which have now gone under the axe. Common synanthropes, including sparrows, crows, mynas, and city visitors like the parakeets, have come and gone, some also nested on these urban trees. The most disheartening in my experience was the mass  felling of the old Gulmohar and Rain Trees in front of my school – those magnificent trees I told you about, which my family has seen become too massive, and majestic. One day on my way to school from the new house all I saw was short stumps. Had we been there, these trees would still stand, I thought. I imagined that they will give out at least one small shoot – but the shock of being cut from the very base was too overwhelming for them. It is true that trees lopped for branches can manage to bear the brunt, but when the tree is hacked entirely, it dies, even though it has the totipotency of giving out one shoot – a last remaining hope I carried.

The tree graves now rest under a thick layer of tar, and vehicles, as large as buses, ply over them every day. What remains of these gigantic organisms today is the dense network of roots rotting beneath our feet. The urban trees are probably the only organisms that experience so much but take their knowledge in silence to their grave. From the day they were planted, in a prettily painted tree guard to protect their young bodies, to these large trees, sometimes menacing and threatening the material assets of mankind, they live a life only an elderly member of our families can relate with – a life both wise and kind.

I called them the previous generation trees – a generation of my parents when they were introduced to the city landscape. The ones planted in my generation, in other parts of the city, are of a different kind. There are avenues of the Indian Devil Tree (Alstonia scholaris), whose flowers are so fragrant, their scent still lingers with me far from home. There are Semal (Bombax ceiba), clad in pretty pink flowers in the heat of the summer, and trees of little materialistic but immense intrinsic value.

But their future hangs by a thread. Their history, their story, the story of the lovers who carved their names on their trunks, and the kids who hung by their branches, and relished their fruits and flowers, and played in their shade, holds no value in the rapidly pacing urban life. Urban trees, those unheeded sentinels of our cities, are akin to chapters of a book of urbanization not half-a-page long, for there are no voices of the trees of the cities heard by the people who live and walk by every day. And if you hear them, I thank you.

In the corners of the cities where the urban sprawl is at its epitome, I’ve seen no trees for miles at an end, not a single living tree. Here people are busy, they’re aggressive, irritated, and have no time in this world for anything. If you don’t have air conditioners, you will breathe the air that is stale and thick with dust and smoke. It is an urban oven meant for incubating all kinds of disorders in the world – the mental being the worst kind. I later realized that all of these reasons narrow down on one aspect of such areas – lack of trees and in essence the greenery around. That simple quintessential – and unknown – friend of ours, when missing, gives rise to chaos and misery in our lives. I only wish we could realize this, but we wouldn't, for chaos and misery has become our life.

If I said I hear the voices of the trees I’ll be considered eccentric, but their voice is not made by the resonating waves in the air, but by simply being there. In their silence a tree teaches – and provides – us innumerable things – material and spiritual. I wonder why the sages of old chose trees to sit under – certainly there was more than just shadow and coolness that the trees provided.

In the countryside of India, people still hangout under the shadow of giant trees – Ficus, Mahua, Jamun, to name a few. Perhaps it is also the shadow, and the support to lay your back against, in places lacking comfort chairs – but perhaps, and more possibly – there’s more than this. What it is, or what it was, is now lost. We don’t know whether it is spiritual, metaphysical, or merely psychological. If you ask what I believe in, I will say that it is natural.

Man has been more with trees than with any animal or material he ever domesticated or invented. There is an inherent connection between the two that is rapidly rusting and decaying. To be under a  tree is now more natural to man than to sit on it, but just to be under a tree, or along it, is like knowing no other poetry.

Back in the cities, my father and I have rescued several saplings – his favourite was a Neem (Azadirachta indica), which was dripping with oil and dust along a busy highway, and he has harvested seeds of several others which rest in the seed-bank of his, their parents long gone. The Neem grows flamboyantly today, and has become our friend. I compare these acts with the spiritual-unknowns of a tree’s spell on man, it is a connection that has been described by many, and many have hinted at it, but it has not been described yet. The naturalist in me identifies an exotic, invasive species from the native, but the man in me identifies a tree for a tree, at least in a city, where a tree, if you’re lucky, is your only long-lasting neighbour and a friend. Perhaps this is the connection, the description, of the primordial friendship between man and tree.

Evolutionarily speaking, the trees of the cities are at a dead-end to what would have been a line of finely moulded, and even more magnificent, generations of trees of the future. Most if not all of them will pollinate, and fertilize, and form voluptuous fruits and seeds, but very few ever get dispersed, fewer get a chance to germinate, and fewer still, a chance to grow up. We rarely ever eat fruits borne by the urban trees today – which we all happily did not more than 10 years ago – from the fear of pollution. Our urban populations of birds, from sparrows to bulbuls to robins, are dwindling, so are our butterfly populations and our bat populations. Our ancestral trees of the cities are in peril.

Their presence therefore is for the very present, their purpose is for those around them – and that happens to be us. But what we’ve given rise to, essentially, are aliens in the form of trees in urban areas – just the way we are alien to the forests. But trees are far more resilient than we are. Put one of us in a forest and we’ll soon starve or get rescued a moment before death. A tree in an urban environment, with all the carcinogens and dust and smoke in the air, survives. They are definitely the fittest survivors – but this illusion soon drifts away when we look at trees being hacked for roads and malls – we are not talking about survival of the fittest then, but the wittiest and the craziest – an incidence I consider to be an evolutionary paradox of advanced intelligence. If one is to argue that on an ecological scale these urban avenue trees mean nothing but increase the potential of their dispersal to natural, native ecosystems – the point-of-view expressed here can only be matched by the emotionalism and the ecological-goods and services provided by a tree on a  global scale. We should not encourage plantation of exotic trees but on the other hand, should also discourage felling of trees of the cities which are non-native.

Some of the cities of the world have started monitoring their tree populations, creating an inventory of number of species and their density, as well as launched massive state-wide afforestation programmes especially on city fringes. What of the health of the elder trees of the cities I know not, but there is hope in the shape of individual naturalists and environmental organizations petitioning against felling of our city’s oldest residents. We ordinary residents must also heed to their voices.

I won’t ask you to baptize a tree and expect you to hear a voice. The thing that concerns me today is that we know, or at least try to keep up, with the names of the cars plying our tree-graves. This materialistic grip over us is louder in cities, and, if you think you can’t listen to the voices of the trees of the cities, you certainly can hear the materialistic world yelling into your ear. I can. But indeed, if there was a world with speaking trees, I wouldn't be writing this.

Thing About Owls

There is certain intelligence to animals that can captivate you with their gaze. Owls happen to be one of them. Those who have seen an owl have been enchanted by their gaze forever. Hardly anyone ever forgets seeing their first owl. I’ve mostly seen them in their natural habitats– where they belong – blissfully sitting still in the afternoon sun only to become active during dark, and unfortunately, I’ve seen them where they don’t.

The ruckus of Jungle Owlets, a he-owl calling a she-owl, is omnipresent where I live. It is also the most pleasurable to hear, and mystic. Then there are the Spotted Owlets, the phantoms of the night, with their large bulbous eyes they look at you in perseverance. They sit by the streetlights at night and in their wooden caverns by day. And there are Collared Scops Owls, the fairies of the dark, with their cautious deep dark eyes and tufts of horns, sprinting from branch to branch. All of them, in the day, would be solemnly sitting in their respective abodes – setting up homes and bringing up families at the edge of human settlements.
Living under the shingled roof of an old school, this pair of Spotted Owlets (Athene brama) is known to all the people
in the village, and have let them live unharmed so far.
The first of my discovery of owls was in my childhood when a large (larger then) Barn Owl entered our premises and sent every one of my friends home in terror. By luck or fate, the owl entered our neighbour’s home, and I remember his eyes, with a gaze that passed right through me. We let it rest there until sun down. On another occasion, another Barn Owl was found exhausted and terrorized by crows, which after a peaceful few hours of twilight recovered and flew off at night. People have, on both these occasions, called them a bad omen – for me they were the dark knight of the cities, flying silently from one side of the street to another. What’s so daunting about them that makes one want to have them killed, or in magic pots, and as exotic pets?
The Collared Scops Owl (Otus lettia), rely more on camouflage than fleeing,
and sit by their tree hollows during day-time
At the end of the night as new day’s light casts a blue sky, they return – they always return – to their habitual abodes – mostly hollows in old-growth trees or trees with dense foliage. Some have spent generations just beyond the reach of man – but not all who know where they dwell are friendly.
Poachers intending to sell off owls for black magic purposes usually break a wing - as can be seen on this
Collared Scops Owl fledgling rescued from hunters and being treated by a vet
A wing is usually broken first when they are captured – so that they will never be able to fly. Two bones – the radius-ulna, cleanly sliced. Then they are bagged and transported either to an underground market or to a house, always ending up on an altar or in a soup. Some are brought up to be sold to those blind owl-lovers who prefer a Hedwig in a cage than an owl free to fly through the night sky. Ahmed, in his TRAFFIC report “Imperilled Custodians of the Night – a study on illegal trade, trapping and use of owls in India”, recorded 13 of 30 species in demand primarily for black magic purposes, albeit legal protection to all the Strigiformes (Schedule IV) under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. He says:
“Despite the fact that owls were generally not openly displayed or advertised, it was apparent that their trade was reasonably widespread. One possibility is that recent clampdowns on the trade in domesticated birds is causing traditional bird traders and trappers to shift back to trading in wild birds which have a higher value. Owls fit the bill perfectly: due to the sheer number of superstitions and traditions surrounding them within India they are always in demand and, consequently, attract a high premium. Indeed, prices for traded owls have only risen considerably since 2002.”
I discovered a little fraction of this trade in January when a colleague of mine rescued a pair of Collared Scops Owl from the clutches of villagers in the forests of Central India. Their wing-bones had been clearly broken. In Abrar Ahmed’s report, Collared Scops Owl ranked fifth in the frequency of occurrence of Indian owl species observed in trade (pp. 18), preceded by Jungle Owlet, Rock Eagle-owl, Barn Owl, and, the most hunted, Spotted Owlet.
Night, especially on a full moon, are a time black magicians recommend sacrifice of owls - albeit their legal protection
under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
Although superstitions and traditions are sternly believed and followed in remote communities for generations – probably dating back to several decades or possibly centuries, the blame put upon them for hunting and marketing is justified by the fact that most, if not all, know the ramifications of hunting wildlife in today’s times. It is therefore a serious crime not only because it is saturated with dark superstitions but also because it is the least undocumented underground trade-networks benefitting from these superstitions.
Rescued from the clutches of hunters, I can't help but see pity in the eyes of this owl - pity for mankind
The two owls which could have ended up in a broth of mysticism constitute an insignificant number of owls and other birds hunted for black magic, but they were the victims of it nonetheless. During the course of days we discovered that one of the owls was a fledgling, while the other was an adult, probably the mother, who later lived to see the stars above her head and wind under her wing. Over the period, though, I learnt a great deal about owls, about their mellow, peaceful, yet wild, nature. Over the days I grew fond of them both – it was more than pity towards them. I did not want them to merely survive although I debated against the fact that life is valuable, but it is valuable only when it is allowed to live on its own terms. Under the guidance of experts and friends, medicating and feeding them became our priority.

Madhya Pradesh is one of the principal Indian states where actual trapping of owls is organized, ranking second to Uttar Pradesh (Ahmed, 2010). This could be because a number of tribal communities living in the area are traditional hunters, which have now seen the flair of economy that hunting brings to them.  The grimness of this situation is probably best described by Ahmed, “Sometimes Spotted Owlets were dyed (with tea-leaf water, Acacia catechu extracts, or lamp-black mixed with mustard oil) and feathers struck with latex to the head to make the bird appear horned. Red colouring was also sometimes inserted into their eyes to alter their yellow eye colour so that they appeared like the larger horned owl species.” (Pp. 20).
The most common owl of India, the Spotted Owlet ranks first amongst the most exploited owl species in India.
The TRAFFIC report clearly details the magnitude of the trade of owls in India, but also the desperate attempts made in order to make quick money. What lies in the centre of this activity is the demand for owls. When a living being is price-tagged, it is done so to lure customers who can afford to pay the price. In context of owls, which are sold in a range of Rs 200 to Rs 4000 (Ahmed, 2010, pp. 38), the customers primarily come not from the hunting tribes but from well-to-do families wrapped in false beliefs, superstitions, and, disturbingly, infatuation.
If it is their charm that makes people want to keep owls as pets, it is also their curse.
Owls are wild and hard to tame, keeping them, or any wild animal, as pet is cruel and inhuman
An article in BBC talked about an increase in people in India demanding to buy owls irrespective of their legal protection. Mr Jairam Ramesh, the  then Minister of Ministry of Environment and Forests, blamed “fans of boy wizard Harry Potter” for their role in the dwindling number of wild owls, quotes the article published in November 2010. Probably the most infuriating quotes from Harry Potter series, albeit its innocent intention is, “Harry now carried a large cage that held a beautiful snowy owl, fast asleep with her head under her wing.” - Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
A Brown Fish Owl (Ketupa zeylonensis) looking through thick foliage in a Sacred Grove - some of the oldest
community-protected forests areas of India which also act as a safe haven for wildlife
Curiously, and equally disturbingly, Huffington Post in May 2012 highlighted an increase in abandoned pet owls in animal sanctuaries in England, saying, “Harry Potter fans enchanted with the boy wizard’s owl sidekick Hedwig drove up demand for the birds during book and movie releases […] now that all book installments and film adaptations have been released, many owners are abandoning their pet owls into the wild, where they are unprepared to care for themselves.” What’s endearing is that the author J. K. Rowling made strong pleas to fans to discourage keeping owls as pets.
Owls generally use their piercing gaze and puff their feathers to intimidate an opponent,
as displayed by this Brown Fish Owl.
In Indian mythology, owl is the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth). According to the TRFFIC report, they are most sought-after ahead of Diwali for ritual purposes, and is traditionally sacrificed on auspicious occasions, or to become prosperous through heinous ways. From the eyes to the claws, almost all the parts are consumed in bizarre rituals. Today, law is the only means to curb this menace, for stopping people from believing in superstitions will require a cultural shift and a change in attitudes which will take several human-generations to realize.
One of the small members of the Scops group, an Oriental Scops Owl (Otus sunia) is an active hunter of insects
I often feel exhilarated to sight an owl on a nature trail. With their supreme camouflage and stealthy behaviour, they have evolved over millions of years to become perfectly still and silent. To seek them in their natural surrounding is therefore a challenge. Yet if you sit quietly on the nights, you will be able to hear the conversations that owls have. Whether it’s a hoot, a whoop, an eerie tune or a ghoulish scream, owls are expressive in the cover of the night and a delight to listen to.

Now when I think about the Scops, I wonder what they would have to say about mankind. I’m certain that they hate humans for more valid reasons than mere superstitions for one. What I intended to do was to undo what my species did to theirs, but somewhere I failed, for the Scops would never live the same life she led, even when today she is a free owl. What they would say about mankind would be too embarrassing to talk about any species. I learnt it by listening to her threatening hiss and snarls… that she did not like what was happening around her. But we respected that, for the intention was never to tame her but to set her free.
Jungle Owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) is a rather vocal species of owl that can be seen quite commonly during day-time
The owls are in danger. There’s probably not a great deal that many of us can do, except by being aware of this other thing about owls, the fact that they are hated (or prized) for ridiculous reasons, amongst things which have made owls our favourites.

I would recommend you to read the detailed report published by TRAFFIC on the illegal owl trade in India; to keep an eye out on any owl residences in your area; and to record and inform the authorities and wildlife rescue NGOs (especially the latter) if you find captured owls or a person keeping pet owls.
An owl being an owl - Collared Scops Owl preening itself
The pleasure should be in letting an owl be an owl, and an owl is an owl only when it is free.