Cities and Canopies: On trees in urban spaces, and discovering our private histories with them

Two conversations about trees.

One. I recently met a young man called Dilip who spent an hour explaining permaculture to me. You can look it up like I did afterwards but the transformations he described: the growing of edible forests in Telangana where once there was barren land, the creation of low-cost, unfussy farms in Haryana where there is now only dry, arid soil and more… I can’t say it any other way. It blew my mind. It sounded like the vision of the future from the most dated sci-fi TV shows. The kind where you put a capsule in water and get a plate of biryani to eat while wearing your purple, space-friendly jumpsuit. Permaculture has a way of putting intention, intelligence and new ideas where many of us might think of trees as something that happen without human intervention. It’s nature, after all, the first and last word in inevitability. Which is perhaps also why many people participate in the most well-intentioned urban ritual, tree planting, without the most minimum of thought. Let Nature manage the trees that we are planting even if it is the wrong species or even if there is no follow-up in any way.

Two. A friend and I recently had an argument that stumped me. I told her that I have known for years that I live where I live because the ever-spreading tree outside my apartment made me so happy. She replied that I was ridiculous to feel grateful for the vision of one tree and urban cities should be so much more. And while I was still trying to think through that one – is it one’s duty to the larger community to not be satisfied – I began reading Cities and Canopies, Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli’s wonderful book on trees in Indian cities.

 Cities and Canopies: On trees in urban spaces, and discovering our private histories with them

Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli’s Cities and Canopies

Early in the book, the authors describe a sequence from the 2nd-century epic poem, Asvaghosha’s Buddhacarita, in which women draw the Buddha’s attention to beautiful trees in Padmakhanda, outside the Sakya capital. ‘The romantic image of trees that this poem conjured was very different from the directions of Buddha’s thoughts. He retreated from this conversation, eventually renouncing the city altogether and making his way to the forest in search of a higher truth.’ Here was the Buddha turning away from the urban luxury of individuated trees. (Breaking news. I finished writing that sentence and looked up to see a rose-ringed parakeet flying past my window – a sight I have never seen in six years of living here.) This is a book that builds on the mission of Nagendra’s previous book, Nature in the City, expanding one’s conceptual understanding of trees in urban spaces. It’s also packed wall-to-wall with factoids and potted (giggle) versions of the big tree debates. Did you know that the jamun trees that line the roads from Rajpath to India Gate produce over 500 tonnes of fruit every year? Are eucalyptuses dirty rotten interlopers or sadly misunderstood? Can trees talk to each other? And, of course, the big question that stumped me: when does tree-loving go from necessity to a reflection of greed?

Cities and Canopies is also full of the people who can answer these questions. Tree whisperers, tree racers, botanical artists, bird-watchers, poets and others who live in the same Indian cities as we do, just with their eyes on a green horizon. They catalogue, they write, they argue, they love and they know trees.

I know so little about trees and if you are like me, while reading this book you will be delighted to register that despite varying degrees of ignorance, despite the dystopia we are currently living in, we each have private histories with trees. For me, that moment came when the discussion turned to the yellow glory of amaltas. I didn’t know it was the state flower of Kerala but as I read the amaltas chapter I remembered again and again, my father’s face from a few years ago. My father likes trees and plants fruit-bearing trees wherever he lives. As I read about the amaltas I understand what a special place this particular tree has had it in his Malayali youth. The moment I remember was one when he was pointing out his Bangalore neighbour’s konna (as it is known in Malayalam) to me. “In a month or two it will be in full bloom,” he said to me and his face filled with anticipation and gratitude for the miraculous poem that is a tree.

Updated Date: Aug 13, 2019 09:20:28 IST