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Opinion: Cities and Canopies will change the way you look at your backyard

  • Sometimes the best parenting books are not about parenting
  • This book will transform you from a screen-time inspector to a parent who knows how to conjure up many hours of joy from seeds, fruits and flowers

Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli’s book ‘Cities And Canopies’ can help children develop an interest in the great outdoors. (iStock)

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Riddle: He has three eyes but is not Shiva, he has long tresses but is not a hermit, perches at the top of a tree but is not a bird, gives milk but is not a cow. Answer: Coconut.

Quiz: Which tree is called a “parrot’s despair” in folklore? Answer: Silk cotton. Parrots get all excited and peck at the tasty-looking seed pods, only to find they contain boring cotton.

Games: Peel the gummy undersides of the gulmohar tree’s oval sepals and stick on your fingernails. Brandish your claws, green on top and scarlet tipped below. Or play uffangali with tamarind seeds. Collect a pile of the seeds and a group of friends. Blow hard to scatter the seeds. The ones you blow away from the pile belong to you. For messier fun, make a ball from the fruit of the rain tree, blow bubbles with the fruit of a soapnut tree, or squirt the watery liquid from the buds of the pichkari or African tulip tree.

History: During the 1857 revolt, sepoys took cover behind trees while firing at the British. Later, the British felled all the trees in a 500-yard radius around Delhi to allow for a clear line of sight. Or the tale about how the Mauryans defeated Alexander the Great’s Greek army because they were fed an extract of the drumstick leaf, which kept the stress and pain of war at bay.

Pithy native wisdom: Kaavu vettiyal kulam vattum (If you cut a grove, the pond will dry).

From the moment I start reading what is now my new favourite book, Cities And Canopies: Trees In Indian Cities, by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, who teach at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, I know it’s summer-holiday gold.

The book is a luscious romp through the fruit, fun, poetry, folk tales, history and healing properties of the trees we live with. It also serves as a cautionary reminder that the magic we grew up with may not be evergreen after all. Cities And Canopies has the potential to transform you from a screen-time inspector to a parent who knows how to conjure up many hours of joy from seeds, fruits and flowers. It doubles up as an easy handbook to making your child appreciate and respect nature.

Reading this book reconfirms what I have always known: The best books on parenting are rarely about parenting.

Believe me, I have read enough of those. The husband is a hands-on dad and publishers send him a steady stream of How To parenting books, probably believing that he’s their perfect target audience. Little do they know his eclectic reading taste centres around books on Japanese soldiers in World War II and philosophical accounts of flying. I am the one who occasionally feels guilty about the neglected parenting books, only to encounter scary ideas such as “...the goal of parenting would be to empower and help children to self-regulate their eating habits based on the structure that has been formulated by you over the years”.

In one recent book, the author, a well-known educator, had this to offer: “If you want your child to get ahead in life...then there is one unbreakable rule: you must help them become readers; not simply people who can read, but people for whom reading is as much a part of their lives as breathing; the quality of their lives depends on it.”

My child just turned 9 and she dislikes reading despite my every attempt to get her to embrace the skill that allowed me to coast comfortably through so many “boring” summer holidays and lunches with relatives. Trees and playing outdoors, on the other hand, she can’t get enough of. There are plenty of big and small ideas embedded in Cities And Canopies, where chapters on favourite trees (jamun, banyan, tamarind, amaltas, neem, peepul, silk cotton, drumstick) alternate with essays about different aspects of these gnarled beauties.

Along this meandering and most delightful nature walk, you will encounter an ode to the crow, a hair-oil recipe that uses banyan roots, tales on how the jamun features in every story from the Ramayan (Ram and Sita feasted on this fruit during their exile) to Babur’s memoirs (he disliked the bitter taste and thought the mango was the best fruit of Hindustan) and a lingering sadness about the “vanishing memories of the chinar”, a tree that was considered sacred by the Dogra kings and the Mughals. “We need to reconnect with the heritage value of trees in our cities for our own survival,” the authors believe.

The book even devotes a chapter each to the controversies that surround two commonly spotted trees in our cities: palms and the eucalyptus. Techies who returned home from the US in the first decade of the millennium can be held responsible for our infatuation with imported ornamental palms, visible in innumerable office complexes and gated communities. “They brought with them a preference for palms, which they associated with ideas of progress and upmarket living,” Nagendra and Mundoli write. “Many IT companies also landscaped their campuses with palms, aiming to give their employees and foreign visitors a great visual experience.” These ornamental palms continue to grow in popularity while homegrown palms such as the palmyra, date palm and coconut are slowly disappearing from our cities, the authors caution.

As the concrete and steel sprawl gobbles up the greenery in our cities at an alarming pace, it’s time we got to know our trees better and acknowledged that our survival is dependent on them. This book shows you why you should be in a committed relationship with the trees around you. I am predicting it will even improve your parenting style.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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