Pradip Krishen talks of making the gigantic Central India forests accessible to laymen through his book

As some of us start our journey back to nature to reclaim and celebrate it, works like “Jungle Trees of Central India: A Field Guide for Tree Spotters” (Penguin Books) only help in speeding up the process. Pradip Krishen, a filmmaker-turned-naturalist has laboured over the subject for years and created an exhaustive book which takes a nature lover many steps closer to his/her muse. By presenting the content in an impeccably designed layout, it enables the reader “to play an elaborate but also a very simple detective game to work out what trees they’re seeing”.

Edited excerpts from an e-mail interview with Pradip Krishen, who has earlier authored “Trees of Delhi”.

Who is a potential tree spotter and how is the book going to enthuse him/her?

A ‘tree-spotter’ for me is anyone who is interested in nature who wonders what trees they are seeing around them or when they visit other places. I know it’s a relatively new idea in this country. But look at it this way — we are used to bird-watching as a hugely popular pastime now, but it is actually just a few decades old in India. Tree-spotting could catch on too together with wildflower-watching (or spotting) or butterfly-watching. I guess what I am saying is that as a culture we haven’t actively gone out and celebrated our natural diversity by making it accessible to laymen. Our threshold of awareness is very low. But I feel we are at the beginning of a surge of interest in all things natural, so don’t be surprised if you see field guides to dragonflies, lizards, wildflowers, ferns, mosses and umpteen other things beginning to appear in the next few years.

Is it possible to identify a tree by just one key element or all elements together distinguish one tree from another? For instance, can saaj (Indian laurel/Crocodile-bark tree) be identified by just its deeply cracked bark or can siharu (jasmine) can be recognised by its flowers alone because they are unique?

It varies. Some trees have very distinctive features, like the dark tiled bark of the tendu or the crocodilian bark of the saja that you mention. Tree-spotting is a game that one gets better and better at with practice, so the more one ‘plays’ the easier it becomes to recognise a tree. Many trees have singular attributes that stand out.

Can you explain your fondness for dhok?

I find dhok remarkable not just for its ability to adapt to extremely harsh conditions but also its amazing change-ability through the year. There are few sights more beautiful than dhok in new leaf, but its gaunt, bare phase is in lovely contrast to that and it also has lovely purply leaves before the leaves fall off. I must admit that I am also drawn to dhok because it has this ability to form ‘clonal forests’ which are gigantic organisms.

You have discussed the repercussions of colonial forestry on the forests of Central India. Which are the other forests in India that have been affected by colonial forestry?

It is hard to generalise because there is so much diversity of forest types in India. Remember that a huge chunk of India’s land area was under the control of Princely States and they would largely have been unaffected by colonial forestry practice except where they consciously adopted it. But in one way or the other, we will look back on colonial forestry in India with regret because it caused a lot of damage. Unfortunately, we haven’t learned enough lessons from that.

What kind of research has gone into this book? Do you owe a lot of it to your walks in forests?

There is limited scientific literature about the forests and trees of the region I write about. It was obviously important to get all of that under my belt. Brandis and Stewart’s work on the forests in the late 19th century were important, as were Witt and Haines slightly later on. The Botanical Survey of India (BSI) has produced a “Modern Flora of Madhya Pradesh”, but it’s disappointing both in the way it was researched — mostly from herbarium specimens — and the ways in which the BSI writes and describes plants. Touring through this vast tract and walking were of course important for me. I was covering an area the size of France, and even after 36 or 37 field trips I can hardly claim to know it all. But I did try and sample as much of the area as I could.

What was the most challenging aspect of the book?

For me, without doubt, it was writing the introductory sections because I was grappling with an enormous amount of information that needed to be presented to a reader without drowning him with facts and data. It took me about four months to write this section. I find it hard to tell if it ‘works’. When I read it I'm aware of all that I could have or should have included. I'll have to ask my readers if it works for them. Designing the book was a lot of fun and I was lucky to work with Kadambari Misra who brought a real flair and boldness to the job.