Shade in the City

Ranjit Lal is an author and environmentalist
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How trees shelter and nurture us

Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities | Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli | Viking | 256 Pages | Rs 299

I’VE ALWAYS BELIEVED that every child ought to have his or her own personal tree (rather than personal trainer) to climb, to eat the fruit of, or just to sit below (or up in the branches), and even kick, if the mood so dictates. On reading this book I now think every one of us needs a personal tree too—especially city-folk. It will be better than any counselling session.

The authors, both in academics, have delved deep into our relationship with trees, especially in cities. Most of the commonly encountered trees—our familiar banyan, peepal, neem, mango, eucalyptus, jamun, etcetera are profiled. Not merely from the botanical point of view, but also historical, mythological and current. Many venerable old trees have seen major historical events unfold before them, most have myths attached to them and nearly all hold immense value for us in some way or the other—whether medicinal, as fuel, as fruit and flowers, timber—or simply as a refuge from the heat and dust and madness of everyday life.

Controversial issues too get a mention, whether it is the debate between exotics and natives (and ‘naturalised’), whether the eucalyptus tree is good or bad and of course, our completely horrendous treatment of them—again mostly in cities, where we think nothing of chopping down a hundred-year-old giant because it is coming in the way of a highway or ‘development’ project. (How trees get in the way of anything has always puzzled me, considering they are not able to move…)

The authors have researched far and wide, and the book is crammed with interesting facts, factoids, stories, and is a mine of information. I for one never knew, for example that those big shiny blue-black carpenter bees use the buzzing vibrations of their wings to shake pollen dust out of the blooms of the amaltas (Indian laburnum) because they are too big to stuff their faces inside the flowers! And they have very powerful flight muscles as anyone who has been ‘buzzed’ by one will testify— they sound like miniature aircraft!

And no, this book is not just another ‘rogues’ gallery’ of tree profiles: there are separate chapters dealing with more generic issues relating to trees and us. For instance, what has been their role in ‘art and play’, what’s the problem with exotics, what is the role of sacred groves—and how entire forests were cut down to build cities (Indraprastha— what’s New Delhi, for example), how army generals sought shade for their troops under the great canopy. The authors also remind us of things we tend to take for granted and not even notice: how even today, trees in cities give sanctuary to so many: taxi and rickshaw drivers, sellers and buyers (entire markets are held under the canopy of trees), and how effectively they cool down the city and purify its toxic air.

The writing is simple and straightforward throughout—and frankly this is a book that ought to be made mandatory reading for all school children and adults, especially teachers and parents. It will serve to make us a little more aware of these great life-sustaining sentinels—without which literally, there could be no life. It’s the sort of book you need to get immersed in while sitting under (or on) your favourite tree with a plate of raw mango, red chilli and salt at hand. And most of all, it should make you more than just a little angry every time you hear the sickening thud of an axe biting into wood.