Down the memory tree
Trees matter because they have the power to shape our lives and our memories
We were standing under a banyan that I had known my whole life. I was wearing a white dress with sunshine yellow flowers on it. Those days I always imprisoned my curls in two neat braids. Can I kiss you, he asked. No, I said, and ran away. I didn’t speak to him for months afterwards. I was 12. This story just leaped out of my treasury of dormant memories when I was reading scientist Hope Jahren’s brilliant Lab Girl, about a scientist’s passion for plants. The banyan even bested the memories rooted in the 200-year-old jamun tree we had spent our summers climbing in Matheran, a forested hill station outside Mumbai; the coconut trees that reminded me of Juhu beach Sundays with my father and brother; and the champa tree in our school compound which shed sweet-smelling flowers that we twisted into ring ornaments and tucked between our fingers.
“Like most people, I have a particular tree that I remember from my childhood. It was a blue-tinged spruce that stood defiantly green through the long months of bitter winter," Jahren, who has spent a lifetime studying plant life, writes. “I remember its needles as sharp and angry against the white snow and grey sky; it seemed a perfect role model for the stoicism being cultivated in me. In the summer I hugged it and climbed it and talked to it, and fantasized that it knew me…. As I got older I realised that the tree didn’t actually care about me…"
The banyan, our national tree, is indelibly stamped in so many Indian minds probably because its undated beauty combines the I’ve-seen-it-all appeal of a veteran earthling with the playfulness of youth. It’s equally at home with shirtless ragamuffins swinging from its aerial roots and senior citizens who have travelled from faraway villages to the city taking a break under its ample shade. Or as Tagore, more poetically, said of the tree’s enormous canopy, The women would come to fill their jars in the pond, and your huge black shadow would wriggle on the water, like sleep struggling to wake up.
Artist Aparna Bidasaria has been reimagining the banyan tree on canvas for several years now. The Indore-based artist splatters acrylic paint, and, sometimes, she holds the canvas up and lets the paint drip naturally to recreate those magical hanging roots. She uses words like grounded and infinite to describe her favourite tree.
Last year, before a solo show of her banyan tree paintings, she told India Today that the tree was a childhood fascination. “Its swinging roots, the silent permanence of the tree, the powerful spiritual connotations attached to it—all this and more is deeply embedded in me…. "
If you grew up around trees, it’s unlikely you can narrow it down to just that one specimen that had an impact on your life. Harini Nagendra, ecologist and author of Nature In The City: Bengaluru In The Past, Present, And Future, a book that examines the city’s changing relationship with nature, has a list of trees that were important to her. There were those in Delhi’s woody Deer Park, where she went for long Sunday morning walks with her father when she was a chatty six-year-old who enjoyed feeding the deer that lived there. Later, in a Bengaluru house with a sprawling garden, there was that monkey and child magnet—Ficus racemosa, a sprawling cluster fig tree. “The figs were incredibly tasty—when you could manage to get one that was not already taken by a squirrel or a monkey. The tree was easy to climb, shouting distance from the kitchen back door so my mother could keep an eye on me. It was my favourite spot to sit on, or under, with or without a book in hand," she says. Then there was that Bengaluru avenue lined with orchid trees (Bauhinia variegata), which shed long bean-like seed pods every summer. “It is pure joy to step hard (or even better, jump!) on these dry, ribbon-like twisted pods, and flatten them, with a very satisfying ‘scrunch’ sound," she says. Now she has orchid trees on the street outside her home and she’s lucky she can repeat that childhood activity with her daughter.
Soon there may come a time when our children, asked to draw trees, conjure images where the green of the leaves is overwhelmed by the messy black tangle of high tension wires. Every few years, the National Green Tribunal appeals to power distribution companies to remove these wires but nobody listens.
I’m lucky I live in a community bound by its love for trees and its belief that people who cut them should be imprisoned. Spam on the neighbourhood WhatsApp group can include Thich Nhat Hanh’s ode to a leaf; last year, one enthusiast organized a guided neighbourhood tree walk. Participants learnt about the monkey puzzle tree, imported from Kew Gardens, and about all the avenue trees that stand proudly in our area, such as African tulip, Nile tulip, Indian mahogany, honge, copper pods, jacaranda and rain trees, all Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel’s legacy for Bengaluru. In a world where we can be divided about everything, trees bring us together.
When we think about why trees matter, let’s heed the childhood echoes of those that influenced our formative years. Maybe that will inspire us to give future generations a chance to make their own tree memories. As for my Mumbai banyan, I’m sure it’s collected many more stories since the time a little girl refused a kiss.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
She tweets @priyaramani