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Updated: May 3, 2014 15:20 IST

Tree walk

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Jungle Trees of Central India: A Field Guide for Tree Spotters by Pradip Krishen
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Jungle Trees of Central India: A Field Guide for Tree Spotters by Pradip Krishen

Beautifully packaged, the book documents the trees of Central India with remarkable precision.

Twenty years ago, as a researcher living with Adivasis in the forested hills of the Narmada valley, I asked a group of children to list all the trees they knew. Their answer came in such a volley that I couldn’t write fast enough. Within minutes, these 10-year-old boys had named more than 70 trees and described what they were used for. Under their tutelage, I gradually learned to identify the trees that they valued the most: teak, mahua, tendu, salai, anjan, karay, along with the mango, neem and amla I knew from before. They taught me how the trees reflected the seasons and, in turn, gave a rhythm to Adivasi life. How spring was spent collecting fallen mahua flowers to make a drink that pleased gods and humans. How, when the rains ended, they worshipped new teak leaves, a symbol of growth and fertility, of nature’s bounty extending from the forest to the ripening crops in the field. And along with an appreciation of how much these trees mattered to Adivasis and why, I also became aware of their beauty. The blood-red of tender anjan leaves sprouting from its dark trunk; feathery salai etched against a blue sky; the orange-velvet blossoms of palash littering the rocks along a stream — these were part of what made the Narmada valley a place of wonder and joy.

Jungle Trees of Central India is a remarkable book because it not only captures that beauty and wonder but also conveys it to readers with an infectious delight. Yet it is outstanding for a number of other reasons too. It is a field guide to identifying trees, lavishly illustrated and superbly organised. It is a primer on ecology that situates each tree in the habitat in which it lives, linking landscape to geology and climate, trees to earth and sky. It is a handbook of economic botany that documents the medicinal and other uses of each tree and the quality of its wood. It is a survey of the distribution of trees and their conservation status. An enormous amount of research has gone into producing this guide but the expertise is wielded with the lightest of touch. Imagine the collective knowledge of the Adivasis combined with insights from a range of specialised disciplines, written lucidly with no jargon whatsoever. Imagine someone translating from these multiple languages and yet, astonishingly, keeping the poetry alive. One can only marvel at this quite extraordinary accomplishment.

As author Pradip Krishen says in the preface, “I like trees. Especially wild ones. ... But getting to know them, to the extent I am capable, lies at the core of my relationship with trees. It has to do with cultivating their acquaintance, with trying to understand how they live and why they die, their infinitely clever ways of adapting in their natural settings to the turning seasons, to drought, wind and fire, and, of course, to attack and attrition at the hands of man.” This curiosity about the fundamental processes at work in trees leads Krishen to tackle puzzles that often perplex tree-watchers. Why, for instance, do trees put out new leaves at the start of summer, just before a prolonged period of severe water stress? From the biology of the tree organism, Krishen zooms out into the wider world, presenting trees as part of complex living, changing ecosystems. Many tree lovers are content to stop at identifying a tree and knowing a bit about its uses. Yet, understanding the web of relationships in which trees are rooted enables one to better appreciate their crucial role in protecting the well-being of the Indian subcontinent. This guide is thus a breakthrough for those enthusiasts who are sometimes unable to see the wood for the trees, literally.

The woods in focus, or jungles to use Krishen’s preferred term, are the forests of central India, a region bounded by the Chambal basin and the Vindhya range in the west, the Satpura range in the south, the Maikal Hills in the east and, in the north, an elevated tract in Bundelkhand, ‘a rumpling of low hills that are here just a premonition of the unruly highlands that lie beyond’. These highlands are the source of rivers like the Narmada, Tapti, Sone and Chambal. They are home to magnificent fauna, including the tiger. They are also home to millions of Indians, most of them Adivasis. Botanists call the jungles that sustain these ecological and cultural worlds ‘dry, deciduous forests’. Krishen, however, suggests that ‘monsoon forests’ would be a more apt term for vegetation ‘finely tuned for one big pulse of summer rain’. The range of many of the trees extends into Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, as well as the Deccan plateau, so the guide is also useful beyond the specific geography of Central India.

What makes the book so easy to use is the classificatory system that Krishen has devised. By looking just at the leaves, and then the flowers, fruit and bark, one can work out which tree it is. Also handy is that names are listed in local languages. It was from this that I came across mokha, which triggered the memory of an old Adivasi describing eating its leaves when there was nothing else: ‘We would boil them and then wash them in the stream to get the bitterness out’. Sure enough, Krishen mentions that mokha ‘saved lives in the calamitous famine of 1877-78.’

Jungle Trees of Central India: A Field Guide for Tree Spotters; Pradip Krishen, Penguin Books India, Rs.1,499.

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