The Tree of Life

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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What that flower bed by the front door can do to your life

OUR BEAUTIFUL Labrador, Rocky, passed away on 26 December 2015. He was 12. I began a garden in my balconies in January 2016, mixing his ashes in the soil and compost, and pouring it into cement, ceramic and terracotta pots that held a dozen roses and hibiscuses, three bougainvillea tree-shaped plants, two peach trees, two pomegranate trees, a wood apple tree, two lemon trees, a mandarin orange one, and a pair of bottle brush trees. One section on the other side of the brick railing was reserved for a dozen pots filled with the seasonal variety: in this instance, dahlias. It may sound macabre to those who don’t have pets, but it was my way of holding on to him. Every morning I would inspect the flowering plants for buds or for a flower, and when I found one, it seemed as if Rocky’s ashes had created life.

We had decided to plant a flowering hibiscus bush in the garden in Rocky’s memory. Since I had no experience with gardening, I had taken the maali with me to the plant nursery to pick one that was guaranteed to survive. He did, and we planted it. Unfortunately, there was no morning sunlight in that part, and the poor plant wilted. Remember, it was still winter. So we transferred it to a pot. It was so traumatised that it lost all its leaves and looked wan and sickly. I took it up to the balcony on the first floor, and fed it with the choicest fertilisers, but there was no change in its demeanour. Finally, even the maali threw in the towel. The hibiscus was taken down again and left in the pot in the sunny side. The minute we stopped paying it attention, the plant revived. And bloomed. Two buds appeared and despite the absence of leaves, they bloomed a vivid scarlet colour. At least a dozen hibiscus flowers have appeared on it since then.

For me, the whole experience has highlighted the strong creational and nurturing element present in all of us. We want to grow something—whether it is a child or a pet or a plant, or whether it is a book or a painting or a composition. In An Absorbing Errand, Janna Malamud Smith writes: ‘The good life is lived best by those with gardens—a truth that was already a gnarled old vine in ancient Rome, but a sturdy one that still bears fruits.’ She means the moral equivalent of a garden, one where ‘you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort; a plot of ground that gratifies the wish to labour and create—and, by so doing, to rule over an imagined world of your own.’

Virginia Woolf experienced a great epiphany while contemplating the bloom in her garden. ‘I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower.’ She was to return to this experience again and again in her writing.

One discovers interesting things about one’s dream landscape—colour-wise, I found I disliked terracotta and gravitated towards white marble. I painted the pots with white acrylic emulsion paint. One also discovers the sort of person one is. In the world of gardening, there are flower people, fruit and tree people, and vegetable folks. My mother-in-law is a flower person—she grows fabulous chrysanthemums whose yellow and white colours are so vivid that they glow in the dark. She dries and preserves the seeds in clay pots and reincarnates them the following season. As I write this, the dried flowers of cineraria are lying on a newspaper, awaiting their storage.

I AM, BY inclination, a tree person. I wander past the gnarled trunks and the glorious plumage of the bombax ceiba (silk cotton tree) and peepul and nagphali trees along Asiad Village road abutting the Siri Fort sports complex, or gaze at the gorgeous palash in the Delhi Gymkhana Club parking lot, or stand at the bottom of the hill to view the stately tree (whose name I have not yet found out) framed against a blue sky in Nehru Park. I dip into Thomas Pakenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees, which is on my bedside table, and Beth Moon’s fabulous black and white photographs of the gnarled trunks of ancient trees. (Did you know trees are among the most difficult of subjects to photograph?) Who could resist gazing at the amorous Baobab of Madagascar, the Dragon tree of Tenerife, or the cypress of St Francis in Italy? But sadly, one needs acres and acres of land to indulge a fondness for trees.

Then there are the vegetable folks. I was one of them too. In my first foray into gardening a year ago, I grew cauliflower, spinach, radish, aubergine, chillies and tomatoes, and of course, herbs—basil, thyme, mint, dill and coriander—all in pots. The main garden being reserved for flowers. Cauliflower was useless— one showed up after ages, and frankly, it was not worth the anticipation, the fertiliser and the time taken to water it. Much easier to buy it in Navdanya. The tomatoes did not appear at all. Spinach, chillies and radish were the most rewarding of the lot. In the garden I created in Rocky’s memory, I returned to my first love, trees, and also discovered that I preferred three flowering plants—roses, bougainvillea and hibiscus—and a colour palate that veered towards cool mauve, light pinks, yellows and whites, with splashes of scarlet.

Formerly, in the hierarchy of gardening, vegetable gardeners seemed to occupy the bottom rung, then came the flower growers, and on top were those who nurtured trees. But like the erosion of the caste system, one sees a similar move in the gardening world. Urban gardening with its emphasis on nutritious and non-chemical infused produce now hobnobs with traditional garden show folks who exhibit chrysanthemums, roses and dahlias, while the relative paucity of land to grow trees in urban settings has relegated tree lovers to the position of having to go to parks to commune with trees, or growing them in large pots. The multiple sites that advise urban gardeners on where to buy seeds or seedlings, and how to deal with aphids and other plant eating infestations, and how to create produce that is organic, stand testimony to this.

It got me thinking about why there has been a shift towards urban gardening in many cities. Could it be that more people are actively following up on their instinct to create? Our motivation to garden may be rooted in our subconscious. A Stockholm study found that regular gardening cuts strokes and heart attacks by up to 30 per cent for those over 60. Another study estimated that daily gardening reduced the risk of dementia by 36 per cent. The mud or the soil under your fingernails helps fight off psoriasis, asthma and allergies, and even depression. The body may be charting its own course and gravitating towards a practice that will produce beneficial results.

The view that plants are sentient beings that feel emotions, prefer classical music and can respond to the thoughts of their human nurturers was posited by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird in the 1973 bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants. In What a Plant Knows, Daniel Chamovitz argues that plants can see, smell and feel. It can create a defence against danger and can warn its neighbours of trouble on the way. It can even have a memory. He points out that rootedness—the fact that a plant cannot escape a bad environment by moving elsewhere— makes plants develop incredibly sensitive and complex sensory mechanisms that would allow them to survive in ever changing environments. Plants may not be able to hear music (that seems to be an old wives’ tale according to Chamovitz), but they do respond to vibrations. He highlights a very recent study that showed that plants also communicate through signals passed from root to root. ‘In this case the “talking” plant had been stressed by drought, and it “told” its neighboring plants to prepare for a lack of water. We know the signal went through the roots because this never happened if the two plants were simply in neighboring pots. They had to have neighbouring roots.’ But all this does not mean that plants think or have a brain in the way humans and animals do; we do not yet have proof to confirm it.

Perhaps the biologist Edward O Wilson is right—we are instinctively drawn to other living things and we feel the urge to be part of a web of life. So, by taking up gardening, we may be trying to re-connect with our fellow sentient beings, a link that is gradually disappearing in a world awash with gadgets. From the cognitive development of a child’s brain to making the right brain more responsive to increasing our attentiveness to generating serotonin to staving off Alzheimer’s to becoming a coping mechanism for grief, gardening seems to be the panacea for not just the body but also the soul.