The Indian Express | Rohini Nilekani writes: Requiem for a dying tree

Oct 20, 2023


No living being likes to be uprooted. Not people, not trees

For exactly 25 years, almost every morning, I have drawn open the curtains and saluted the sun’s rays diffused through the branches of the magnificent old mango tree outside. Recently, we acquired the site on which it stood, hoping to create an urban mini-forest and add ecosystem services in the vicinity.

The Mangifera Indica along with its many denizens has pride of place in our new design. Dozens of species have been feeding, nesting, and roosting on this heavily branched tree. Koels and kites, barbets and bulbuls, shikras and sunbirds, owls and orioles, to name just some birds. There are squirrels and fruit bats, butterflies and moths, spiders and ants. The list seems endless. “For me, trees have always been the most penetrating of preachers,” said Hermann Hesse. I have spent hours learning from this 60-foot-high tree draped with a creeping monstera, the air heady with its fragrant blossoms, its small fruits much prized for their tasty pulp.

Just recently, we woke up to a shocking sight. The previous night’s heavy thunderstorm had uprooted the tree. At 3 am sharp, it had simply keeled over with a painful thud, knocking down the retaining walls.

It was a revelation that one could feel such physical pain from the loss of a tree. Eyes streaming, I tried to make sense of what had happened. We were creating an urban wetland a few metres from the tree. An extra retaining wall was underway. But the unexpected fury of an October rain shower, put paid to all plans. It felled a thing of ethereal beauty, a 50-year-old companion to birds and bees, a giver of shade, an absorber of sound and air pollution and a veritable king of trees.

Carl Linnaeus described the mango tree in 1753 as belonging to the Anacardiaceae family and probably originating between Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Northeastern India. There are at least 500 varieties of mangos in India. Together with cricket and cinema, the national fruit probably is one of the best unifiers of our people. Who doesn’t love mangos? Who doesn’t boast that their regional one is the best? How many childhood memories are associated with the messy pleasures of sucking the last sweet drop from its seed, or of wincing at the sharpness of a raw mango drowned in chilli and salt?

How does one make reparations for the loss of a tree? By planting 10 more? A 100 more? By prayer or fasting or some other penance? I have planted hundreds of trees in my life and plan to plant hundreds more, but that seems inadequate. You cannot compensate for the time it takes, the wind and sun, the soil and water it takes, and the incredible mutuality it takes to grow a tree to its full-blown grandeur.

Emerging science has shed much new light on the life of trees above our heads and below the ground. Thanks to pioneers like Suzanne Simard and Margaret D Lowman, we have learnt how tree roots use mycorrhizal fungi to communicate with each other on the Wood Wide Web. We know that treetop canopies are like an eighth continent sustaining myriad life, and critical against climate change.

Millions of people around the world understand that those trees that can be saved, should be. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Africa and India’s Chipko agitation are only two examples.

India has 2,603 species of trees and at least 650 are endemic. Almost a fifth of them now face extinction.

Why do some people care so deeply, while others are more pragmatic about cutting trees for development? Maybe, like trees themselves, people are diverse in their thinking and attitudes, shaped through nature and nurture.

Trees will fall. They will die. Not every tree can or should be saved. Many trees are wrongly planted, especially on urban avenues. Several well-intentioned tree planting drives need to be reimagined because trees don’t belong on floodplains or grasslands.

But no living being likes to be uprooted. Not people, not trees.

We decided to replant the tree to renew its lease of life. Swiftly, the benevolent giant had to be chopped down to its bare trunk first. Tree experts prepared the pit with biocides and nutrients. An excavator was brought in, to level the ground. A crane was called for to lift back the tree. More rain made the ground slushy, dangerous. Puzzled bats and kites whizzed about in the absence of the familiar canopy.

Eventually, the tree was put up. A shrunken version of itself, somewhat away from its original spot, but upright again. We heartily hope the replanted tree will survive. We will water it; we will pray; and we will watch keenly for signs of life.

Men and machines had worked late into the night. Masala chai and biscuits were shared around. No one complained about the hour.

Vriksho Rakshati Rakshatah (Those who protect trees will be protected by them) — workers nodded at the phrase.

If this credo remains intact in our samaj, we might yet save ourselves from the worst fears unleashed by our own ambitions. To paraphrase E O Wilson, maybe we won’t destroy our species-rich ecosystems to cook our development dinner. Maybe we will preserve our irreplaceable ancient forests and regrow our dying ones, even as we build dams and highways.

Then the requiem for any dying tree can also become a hymn to an emerging forest.



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