Every day, I wake up to news of something going awry in the animal and plant world.
Blame my Google news feed, but one day it’s news of an oil-spill leading to sick turtles; a few days back it was a montage of the coastal road project and how it is destroying Mumbai’s mangrove ecosystem. Or, the animals of Kyiv Zoo who are under acute stress due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. It is not a happy picture of the world and I mostly start my day feeling anxious.
I live in Mumbai, a city of skyscrapers, chawls and malls. There’s lots of good to be said about Mumbai, but the lack of trees, sky, and open spaces takes some getting used to. I worry about the dearth of trees, birds, insects, snakes and other denizens of the natural world. Then, I worry about the effect it has on us humans and our little ones.
I am not alone. In a survey led by Bath University and funded by the campaign group Avaaz, the true depth of eco-anxiety has come to light. Nearly 60% of young people surveyed said that they felt very worried about climate change. It is especially concerning that India was one of the countries with the highest proportion of “worried” responders at a massive 68%, according to the survey findings released in September 2021.
We all know that trees keep us healthy by keeping our air clean, but what we don’t realise is that trees make us happy too. The Japanese practice of “Shinrin-Yoku” – or forest bathing – has evolved around the same principle. Research shows that simply spending time in nature has a positive effect on our mood and emotions and reduces stress. In her book Nature Fix, Florence Williams tells us that our physiology is adapted to nature. Throughout our evolution, us humans have spent 99.9 percent of our time in nature. So, spending our lives in urban cities is alien to our psyche. No wonder many of us suffer from a nature-deficit.
I used to live on the topmost floor of an apartment building in Mumbai and I barely saw any green aside from the broccoli on my plate and the puny money plant on my desk. I never saw much life, barring the ubiquitous pigeons. I began to believe that Mumbai teems only with the hum of humanity. After all, it’s the most bustling city in India. There’s construction and metro work everywhere. Trees are routinely felled if they don’t fall themselves in the rainy season. There’s a constant hum of vehicles and the toot of auto rickshaw horns. Every bit of land is tarred, tiled or cemented. There is not much space for animal life, I lamented.
Then a small change in my situation gave me hope. I moved from the topmost floor to the fourth floor of the same apartment building. Suddenly, I realised that Mumbai, even seemingly sterile, is alive with animal life. Just like the tiny weed that springs up between the cracks of a footpath, life was bubbling all around me. William Wordsworth famously said: “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her, and truly nature was fighting hard for all the hearts that loved her.”
Out of my new apartment window, I see three wonderful neighbours – a straight and sober peepal tree who I think of as a wise old grandmother, a vivacious pink-and-green rain tree who reminds me of a happy new mother, and a demure false Ashoka tree who takes on the part of a maiden in my imagination. Together they embody a benevolent trinity of goddesses standing guard over the smaller flora and fauna.
In the last one year of living next to them, I realised that they are not just trees but mini ecosystems. Come summer and we are visited by courting pairs of Asian koel and the trees resound with the glossy black male koel’s ku-hu ku-hu. A usual sight is a couple of female Koels sitting nonchalantly on the branch of the peepal, while a male Koel kuhu-ing from his perch on the Ashoka suddenly takes flight and lands next to the ladies. The ladies then relinquish their perch and swoop down to the Ashoka tree in mock outrage. This game of musical chairs goes on for a while until one party gets bored and flies further away.
Then there’s a sparrow couple who has made its home in a nook above our window – quite a mouth-watering view for our cat. There’s an abundance of squirrels scurrying up and down the trees and an occasional flock of parrots. Sometimes we are visited by Mumbai’s official bird – the coppersmith barbet. In the late morning, the golden oriole flashes its wings at us like the flaming Phoenix of a fairy-tale world. Come dusk and we can see fruit bats with leathery wings swoop down with enough momentum to swing a whole branch. It is a picture of a happy, thriving ecosystem.
I once read that Bali, Indonesia imposes a height restriction on buildings to ensure that no building is taller than the tree canopy. After moving to tree canopy level, I understand the true purport of such a rule. Even in India, traditional wisdom dictates a similar height restriction. How I wish we could all abide by it. Living next door to trees has brought me so much joy.
Now, whenever my phone beeps with ill news of a forest fire or mass deforestation I simply look outside my window and reassure myself that perhaps all is not lost. There are nooks and crannies even in busy Mumbai where nature retains its stronghold. We just have to slow down and look.
Yashodhara Sirur is a part-time writer, full-time IT professional based in Mumbai