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Excerpt: How I Became A Tree

An excerpt from a debut book on understanding the active life of trees, and their vocabulary of silence

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Among all other desires to become a tree, the most urgent was the need to escape noise. There were two things about this—one was the noise of humans, the other was the vocabulary of silence of the active life of trees. The opposition was terribly stark—the complaining tone that accompanied human work life contrasted with the near silence of the industriousness of trees. I wanted to move to the other side. I was aware of quasi-scientific studies on the effect of music on plant life, how heavy metal, a genre I disliked greatly, had produced the ‘best blooms’ while plants which had been put on a diet of Cliff Richard, for instance, had perished. Experiments had also turned the biorhythm of plants into a new genre of music. But this did not interest me. For a new habit had begun to take root in my life. I found myself sneaking out my cell phone every time there was a sharp gust of wind.

I wanted to track the reaction of plants to the wind. This interest came to me almost by chance—I had accompanied my family on a trip to the outskirts of our sub-Himalayan Bengal town. Happy to find myself in rural surroundings, one where the intrusion of the human voice could not change the direction of my thoughts, I walked around until I grew tired. It was early spring and the sting of the mid-morning sun was balanced by the sweet wind that blew unobtrusively. I grew infatuated with the soundlessness of the place—no human, animal, bird, automobile or cell phone could wriggle itself into the soundscape here. But it wasn’t the taut silence of a prayer hall or examination room. The silence was baggy, and soon a breeze began to gather girth in a bamboo grove under which I stood to give my lungs and feet some rest. I had heard it before, and yet it was unfamiliar—like love, it was old and strange and new at the same time. It was the voice of the bamboo. At first feeble, then strong and commanding, eventually growing careless and losing itself. If I hadn’t heard the music of instruments that derive their beauty from the strength of the musician’s lungs, I might have thought of this as strange music.

It could be no coincidence that the most beautiful musical instruments had been created out of plant life. The flute, storing the wind in it, and then breathing it out in instalments—the equivalence of the bamboo being a giant flute did not come to me then. For it wasn’t the giant bamboos that spoke but their leaves. They fluttered in the wind, they complained about it, they grew used to it, they grew indifferent to it. In my mind, the complaint of the leaves, like the shehnai at Hindu weddings, became a song about an absent lover who did not know the discipline of love, and so arrived and left without routine or schedule.

How I Became A Tree: By Sumana Roy, Aleph Book Co., 244 pages, Rs599.

Perhaps I imagined too much. But that started a habit. I recorded the sound of the crisp bamboo leaves moving in the wind—there was something delightfully sensuous and sexual in their refusal to be tamed, and also something terribly sad in the way they let the wind leave them and move on to a neighbouring lover. I recorded the sound of that meeting—mating?—between the leaves and the wind. Later, in the relative quiet of the evening at home, when the dark gradually swallowed the noises of daylight, I watched the video. Then I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds. Though no one would have guessed it, except master sound artists in studios perhaps, I could make out my gasping at two places in this short one-minute video. I felt sad and even envious: why could I not react to the wind like the leaves of the bamboo?

Since then I have been on many sound-catching mini expeditions. Just as music teachers categorize human voices as belonging to different ‘scales’, I began calibrating the reactions of different tree leaves to the wind. Dry sal leaves have the highest pitched voice and long stemmed grasses, drying at the tip, are terribly shrill. Unlike the music teacher, I haven’t named these characteristic sounds after letters of the alphabet.

In fact, I’ve done quite the opposite. I have begun categorizing the voices of people on their tonal proximity to the sound of leaves in the wind. My father’s baritone, for instance, is of the sal leaves, my mother’s is of the jamun leaves, my little nephew’s affectionate mewling the voice of ankle-length grass. My husband, after he’d chuckled at my weird nomenclature, said that he’d found the plant life equivalent of my voice too: I have the voice of ‘dhaaner khetey dheu’, the wind waves on paddy fields.

Sometimes I gave up. Not out of frustration but because recording would take away from the joy of experiencing. One day in March, I was alone in a forest, not completely inside it, but not on the margins either. A kalbaishakhi, a northwester, came without warning. I had spent much of my morning recording the crunchy sound of dried leaves. Just as human hair grows thinner as it grows towards gravity, a tree thins out as it moves away from gravity. And so the trembling and shaking is highest at the tip of a tree. I had no apparatus with which to record the sound of that tremulousness, that diffidence against gravity. I tried to climb on to a neighbouring tree without much success. A few feet above the ground, in spite of sitting in the tree’s valley, I felt scared of being dislodged by the ferociousness of the wind. For a moment I found myself wondering whether trees suffer from vertigo. Or whether a windless day put them in a trance. This sense of keeping my ears tuned to the rustle of the leaves brought a new dimension to my living.

I had, in frustration with industrial noise and human verbosity, mistaken trees as silent creatures. My experiments with the sound recorder had brought about a new realization—that trees shared a natural sound with people. It is the sound of resistance—like protesters ‘raising their voice’, trees produced a sound that held in it their fight against wind, water, rain, to tearing, cutting and breaking. Like everything else, about sound too, they were economical. Revolution. Rebellion. Resistance. All other sounds were noise.

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. This is her first book. Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Co.

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