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.