Trees are not only beautiful but also useful and that's why they are so important to us. A recently held tree walk – Trees, what they mean to you — was an eye-opener.

“I am the heat of your hearth on the cold winter nights, the friendly shade screening you from the summer sun, and my fruits are refreshing draughts quenching your thirst as you journey on. I am the beam that holds your house, the board of your table, the bed on which you lie, and the timber that builds your boat. I am the handle of your hoe, the door of your homestead, the wood of your cradle, and the shell of your coffin. I am the bread of kindness and the flower of beauty. 'Ye who pass by, listen to my prayer: Harm me not.”(This prayer has been used in the Portuguese forest preservations for more than 1,000 years.)

Trees have fascinated humans from early times and have an emotional bond with this gift of nature. This is the very reason we feel miserable when we see a tree being cut — something beautiful is being brought down, something that cannot be replaced.

So began the talk, “Trees, what they mean to you” by Dr. Narasimhan, Professor, Department of Botany, Madras Christian College, Tambaram, at the Science City, Birla Planetarium recently.

The talk turned to trees found in mythology and the fact that they act as a surrogate (a substitute for another) for mythology. The Prosopis cinerariaVanni in Tamil, was one example. This tree is symbolic of Shiva who represents jothi, the element of fire. The wood of the Vanni tree makes good firewood as it burns without much smoke and grows in hot places.

The Latex trees like the peepul and the banyan, he says, are not cut as they are symbolic of prosperity. Ecologically trees are important as they are known as the Keystone species — they have the capacity to support many lives, like animals, birds, insects, fungi.

The professor also spoke of trees as a livelihood. Toddy tapped from trees help many tribal groups in an economical sense apart from being part of their food. He went on to describe how alien trees grew along with the domestic ones, some with positive and some with negative results. The “Vellikathan” Prosophis, is a great source for firewood and acts as charcoal fuel in the districts down south like Ramnad, Tirunelveli and Dindigul. It's also used as fodder. But planting trees like the Australian Wattle and Eucalyptus had a devastating effect, as acres of hundreds of species were cut to plant just one species, which was an unhealthy move. But the future was hopeful as afforestation drives of native trees were in full swing.

The importance of trees in our lives reflects the need for a greener canopy for our planet — Earth

Sacred groves

Have you heard of the sacred groves — these are tracts of forest which are communally protected. As they have a temple or a deity pertaining to a particular forest, conservation of the sacred grove is high priority and the whole community is involved in it. There is a ban on hunting and cutting of trees.

As the forests are protected, special plants and medicinal herbs were grown there. Ponds and streams were found to be full in these forests.

Tree of life

Trees have formed an integral part of knowledge centres since ancient days, like the Gurukulam — for the abundance of trees meant good clean air and a peaceful environment, where one could attain knowledge with the sense of beauty. Therefore, learning beneath trees was special.

Trees are also culturally integrated in our lives, through paintings, sculpture, folk art and songs. The seals found at Mohenjo-Daro, had trees etched on them. The folk art of the Warli tribes and the Madhubani paintings have trees at times as the central theme as it is close to their hearts.

Khejri tree

It is known as khejri in Rajasthan and the conservation of this tree is a religious tenet of the Bishnoi community. The Government of India recently instituted the “Amrita Devi Bishnoi National Award for Wildlife Conservation” in the memory of Amrita Devi Bishnoi, who in 1731 sacrificed her life to protect the khejri trees in Khejarali village near Jodpur.

What you can do

Find out the botanical names of trees and their local names

Draw the leaf of the particular tree alongside it

Find out whether there is a folk story or a myth about it

Write about “My favourite tree” . Draw a picture of it or its leaf. Start a scrap book with your collection.

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