I often wonder what the forests around Chengalpet looked like before they were cut down to make way for agriculture centuries ago. When we first moved here, botanists from Auroville drew up an inventory of the trees and plants found in the adjacent forest. Surprisingly, the list included satin wood, ebony and bullet wood. These were huge timber trees that ought to have been 15 to 20 mt high, but were no more than stunted bushes — the result of continuous hacking for fodder and firewood.

For much of my life, I had heard the environs of Guindy National Park and Madras Christian College referred as the ‘scrub forest'. It didn't inspire respect such as ‘rainforest' or ‘deciduous forest', but seemed more like a poor country cousin. I assumed that the forest around our farm was ‘scrub' until the botanists called it the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest, and mentioned that this was even more endangered than rainforests. It is estimated that today only one per cent of this forest remains. That's so typical — we fret about distant rainforests when the forest under our noses is in worse shape!

Since it was only a Reserve Forest, not a Sanctuary or National Park, it seemed to be getting the short end of the stick. Armed with long lists of trees, reptiles, mammals and birds and with all the zealousness of a new father, Rom lobbied the Forest Department to provide greater protection to a 40-km swathe of forests from Vandalur to Palar. Except for a few gaps, the forest was nearly contiguous. Greater protection meant declaring a Sanctuary and the officials demurred; there were too many villages and people in the way, they said.

Around that time, there were some Joint Forestry Management funds available, and the Forest Department included this area under the project. The bare-bones of the scheme were to wean people off the forest by providing gas cylinders and milch cows, and growing fodder trees in the village commons. Two years later, the change was dramatic.

The trees were beginning to emerge head and shoulders above the other shrubs. The bald silhouette of the hill against the setting sun began to appear woollier. The paths through the forest became over-grown and impassable.

When the funds ran dry, some people went back to exploiting the forest, but nowhere near the previous numbers. There was just not enough manpower left to herd goats or cut firewood. People were migrating to the city in search of better opportunities.

We joined our fellow tree planters in rubbing our hands with glee; urban migration was going to solve all the problems we faced in regenerating the countryside. The fact that city people use far more resources that had to be brought from further and further away was an inconvenient fact that did not tarnish the impending victory.

The three-sq.km Guindy National Park was one of the last remnants of dry evergreen forest, and I fantasised that one day our forest would grow to that stature. Then sometime ago, we visited Wilpattu National Park in Sri Lanka, and my visions of grandeur climbed loftier heights. Spread over 1,300 sq.km, the trees were familiar in name, but unfamiliar in numbers and girth. Sloth bear scats left at regular intervals on the main dirt road, balls of elephant dung, a leopard, mugger crocodiles, and an array of creatures big and small were the highlights of the memorable day.

At the farm, we had a leopard for starters. Elephants could possibly make the approximately 150-km hike from Tirupati or Hosur. Sloth bears could feel at home in the rocky caves on the hills.

As I assessed the possibilities of future colonisation by these animals, Rom interrupted my wistful dreaming: “The city is definitely creeping our way and we are enjoying the best years of the place.” Thud! It was a nice dream while it lasted…

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)