Environment Reviews

‘Cities and Canopies – Trees in Indian Cities’ review: What nature’s museums teach us

Some of my best childhood memories are connected to trees. Sitting on a makeshift swing on a huge tamarind tree in an unkempt garden in Thanjavur and watching birds, animals and insects and peppering the long-suffering person in charge with “what’s that?” for hours. Later, in Chennai’s Central Government Quarters, I remember helping organise a raid on the mango tree in the neighbouring Shastri Bhavan complex: One batch to distract the cantankerous gardener-cum-watchman, another to collect the salt, chilli powder and knives, a third to pluck the mangoes so that everyone could enjoy the fruits of the thievery. It taught me the value of precision and synchronised timing.

Why am I on this nostalgia trip? That’s the problem when you read Cites and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities. It’s hard to read this book in one sitting because you have to take time off to deal with the flood of memories it triggers. Right from the first chapter, engagingly titled ‘A Khichri of Trees’, the authors bring together scientific facts, history, trivia and personal experiences to outline how our cities can continue to co-exist alongside trees; not in a preachy or didactic way but by outlining the connections that many Indian cities already have with what they describe as “nature’s own museums”.

The exhibits include the banyan, the jamun, the tamarind, the silk cotton, the neem, the peepul... A chapter on native, naturalised and exotic species offers some surprises. Did you know that the tamarind and coconut are not native to India? Sacred groves, the various creatures that live amid trees, why palms are found especially in gated communities and IT companies, games played with seeds and flowers... all get a look in as do recipes, home remedies, poems, riddles, and stories.

One chapter, ‘Tree Deficit Disorder’, explains the value of having trees around us. “Recreation in Nature helps us relax, makes us creative, gives us energy and improves blood circulation and health, and helps us reconnect with friends, neighbours and family,” write the authors as they talk about the various studies that prove this statement. Alisha Dutt Islam’s fabulous illustrations offer a strong visual element to the writing.

On the day I finished this book, a massive tamarind tree that stood at the crossroads of Kanuvai, Coimbatore, was chopped down. The reason: it was obstructing traffic. What people didn’t realise was that it was not the tree that was the problem, but their own hurry to get forward — anyhow, somehow — that created the traffic snarls. As our urban sprawl continues to grow unchecked, we need reminders of what is important in our lives. More than expressways and flyovers and concrete structures, we need “a deeper appreciation of our emotional and evolutionary connect to these sublime creations that have been around for far longer than us on this earth.” Cities and Canopies certainly helps in this regard.

Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities; Harini Nagendra & Seema Mundoli, Viking/ Penguin, ₹499.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 8:10:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/cities-and-canopies-trees-in-indian-cities-review-what-natures-museums-teach-us/article28293490.ece

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