This post is for Calvino’s baron who taught me to love and wonder at the worlds trees contain, and my grandmother who, believe you me, spoke Entish, for vine, flower and leaf came alive to her touch. Enid Blyton, of course, from whom I learnt to listen to tree-whisperings and really ‘see’ their magical turning, and Joyce Kilmer, whose wonderful poem-tribute captures so much of their bendy, generous, leafy benediction. I think that all these people from whom I learnt about trees, recognised trees as sentient beings in the fullness of the term ‘sentient’ as emphasised by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama when he discussed this charged verse by eighth century Buddhist scholar in Nalanda, Shanti Deva: ‘For as long as space endures, and for as long as sentient beings remain, until then may I too abide to dispel the misery’.
Sharing photographs of some trees I’ve met and remembered to photograph:
November 2007, Barkot district, Uttarkashi, India: Everywhere I looked, trees were being used to dry bales of hay in the gloriously languorous winter sunshine that’s so distinctly Himalayan! From afar, shrouded in these scratchy, borrowed browns, some trees looked like giant shaggy scarecrows (as if coat-ed by the storm of hair a bhutia might have carelessly shrugged off, as it got up to follow the shifting sun on its way around a bend in the mountain)!
November 2011, hammock stretched to infinity, Angkor, Cambodia: They all tell you about the smothering, atmospheric take-over of the twelfth century temple ruins in Cambodia by willful ancient, massive trees, but there are steadier trees too, like this one, handy with shelves and firm support!
If you were to wander the countryside, you’d see many a ‘cowboy’ nestled into his tree-perch.
June 2010, Gunung Leusar National Park, Bukit Lawang, Indonesia: gianormous ancient tropical rainforest tree swathed in climbing vines, on which deceptively ponderous orangutans execute thrilling trapeze swings and find such a fine balance. Dwarfed by their seemingly limitless height, you might wonder if you’ll catch a floaty cloud if you climb all the way up… or you might wish for the comfort of their gnarled tenderness were they to scoop you up! Gunung is part of the 2.5 million hectare Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, containing a wealth of bio-diversity, and is among the last patches of critical habitat in the region to not have been cleared for palm oil cultivation.
A little before we entered the rainforest, there were such trees being tapped for rubber.
May 2007, Knights’ Quarters, Rhodes, Greece: slender young Plane tree in an open-armed embrace of the light and space that so overwhelmed Lawrence Durrell when he first came to this medieval fortress town. On the plaque is engraved a hopeful verse about the tree growing taller and reaching beyond the confines of the fortress walls, to trail its leafy-fingers through the gold-flecked sky. Sadly, I’ve lost the scrap on which I wrote down the words.
November 2011, Luang Prabang, Laos: Coloured glass mosaic detail from the Wat Xieng Thong monastery situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Although less grand a vision than the towering tree mosaic that covers an entire façade of this temple housing the Sleeping Buddha, it is animated with all the sparkly wonder of life! Just a tree, yet so much more than a tree.
‘The Tree of the Serpent Goddess’, as imagined by Gond artist Ram Singh Urveti who enchants with his wise transformations: ‘The Serpent Goddess carries the earth on her head. Disturb her, and the whole earth shakes with fearful earthquakes. A tree grows silently above the Serpent Goddess, who gathers up the entire earth and guards her precious eggs inside her coils.’
But this is just one among the wondrous trees in The Night Life of Trees (Tara Books), that stunning, magical, perceptive journey into the matrix that binds us, exploring the connections in our weather-turned world: art and folklore and our lives. Two more Gond artists render their vision of the trees in their forests, silk-screened by hand on black paper: the effervescent Bhajju Shyam who shapes for us a cosmos ‘… so perfect that seen against the sky, it seems to have the same shape as its own leaf. The detail is the same as the whole’; and the all-seeing artist Durga Bai who speaks of the tree in whose thrall you fall at your own peril, for ‘your very form can change, and depending on your character, you may become a mouse or a tiger, a pig or a pigeon’. It’s the very fullness of looking that Berger talks about; in fact, he says of this book, ‘A book where the nightingale sings until morning’.
A conversation comes to mind: “Is it possible to consume less even when you can buy? Is it possible to control consumption, recycle more? Is it possible to expand our concept of conservation and environment and home? Because the resources we are using at home are leaving deserts elsewhere, and one day, these will coalesce, and they will swallow our entire land. Like I’ve been telling people in Africa, these deserts start from when you cut a tree… there is much more to forests than trees; trees are only what we see.” And during the course of the interview I conducted for First City magazine, Wangari Mathaai, 2004 Nobel-commended conservationist and campaigner for women’s rights, explained just how fragile a balance held our world together. This rooted, resilient child of the Aberdare Forest, at the foot of Mount Kenya, shared how as a child collecting firewood, she’d pick only the fallen branches of the sacred fig trees that filled the forest, for her mum had told her that if anyone used their machetes to cut down trees, the trees would bleed. “I grew up hearing my parents and grandparents talking about the fact that god lives on Mount Kenya and the good things come from there – the clouds, the rains, the rivers in which I played with frogs’ eggs and tadpoles, they all start from there. And they said that sometimes Ngai, how our deity is called, he likes to take a walk in the mountains and forests.” I suspect that Wangari Mathaai was being only half-fanciful when she told me, “Sometimes I think I will disappear into the forest and be rejuvenated by the beauty of the mountains.”
(Post Script: This is also for the much-picked-on shehtoot tree on Kasturba Gandhi Marg I remember so well from a childhood tinged purple with its ripeness (i.e. if we were patient enough before raiding her); as for the shiuli not hidden-enough in a corner of my grandmother’s courtyard, for I’d shake her violently for her shower of orange-stemmed starry blossoms if the necklace I was stringing fell short. And she always gave abundantly.)