The old man and the tree: A fable from Second Main Road Kotturpuram

A freshwater mangrove that has thrived on an avenue illustrates the need for greater awareness about our green neighbours

August 28, 2021 06:14 pm | Updated 06:14 pm IST

A barringtonia acutangula tree on Second Main Road in Kotturpuram. Photo: Special Arrangement

A barringtonia acutangula tree on Second Main Road in Kotturpuram. Photo: Special Arrangement

In Aesop’s The Woodcutter and the Trees , the axe the trees help the woodcutter fashion is cruelly turned on them. Deeper meanings have been milked out of this fable, some with convoluted reasoning. The meaning that needs to be — and in all likelihood, meant to be — taken away from it is just this: betrayal of trust.

Reading between the lines, betrayal waits to happen to the defenceless. The betrayal may often be unintended, being unthinkingly handed out to them.

For Shobha Menon, founder-trustee of Nizhal, a lone and full-grown barringtonia acutangula tree on Second Main Road in Kotturpuram has assumed a similarly “fablesque” stature over the years. She underlines how it recently became a victim of unintended betrayal, as the gashes on its body show.

Before going into those details, a short bio that captures the tree’s happier days.

A familiar sight on her evening walks, this freshwater mangrove’s fluctuating fortunes have interested Shobha and she has been tracking it. Planted and nurtured by an elderly gentleman, Nagarajan, the tree received care even after it seemed well past the age of caring. He would diligently gather its fallen flowers in, making sure its living space was kept unmessy.

Shobha reveals that an existential crisis forced this senior to move to Bengaluru, plunging the freshwater mangrove tree into its own.

Taking a step back, it is possible to graft the idea of trust into the handsome barringtonia acutangula . This freshwater mangrove species may be resilient and adaptable to quite a few soil conditions. However, to be an avenue tree, it has left its comfort zone far behind. This species is more easily associated with riverine, pond- and lake-based ecosystems.

One can probably even specify where this freshwater mangrove would want to be, if presented with a click of options. This species of barringtonia rules the freshwater tank at the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, cradling in its robust arms the emerging new families of big burly birds like the Eurasian spoonbill and the painted stork. It certainly would have been more exciting to be around its kind, and playing host to these elegant birds. But this freshwater mangrove has made itself at home on Second Main Road in Kotturpuram.

A barringtonia acutangula with cut branches on Second Main Road in Kotturpuram. Photo: Special Arrangement

A barringtonia acutangula with cut branches on Second Main Road in Kotturpuram. Photo: Special Arrangement

After the old gentleman had moved out of the locality, there was a raggle-taggle appearance about the tree, surrounded by a mess of fallen and shrivelled flowers. Its seeds were being wasted, crushed by passing wheels. It led Shobha to gather the seeds in — she even presented an evocative account of it in the pages of The Hindu Open Page .

Early this week, during a vesper stroll, Shobha found the tree not being its usual self.

“It is the time the tree starts seeding and the seeds fall on the road. When I went to check on the tree a few days ago, I found a good portion of it lopped off. There were some seeds on the ground. Recently, a lot of tree pruning happened, probably as part of monsoon-preparedness,” says Shobha.

Not for a fleeting second arguing with the tree-pruning exercise — indispensable as it keeps wires out of the reach of tree branches, particularly ahead of the monsoon — Shobha however emphasises that civic-body workers engaged in this work would do better with some knowledge about the trees they lay the secateurs on.

“The worker who did it, did it in good faith to prevent the tree branches from touching the wires. But it would have helped if they knew it was in its seeding season — so many seeds would have been in those branches. Those branches have probably been dumped in some place like the Perungudi landfill,” says Shobha. A freshwater mangrove is hardly a regular sight on avenues. That awareness would have got them to wield the secateurs differently, believes Shobha. “It would enable them to ask this question: When you see it seeding, should you just let it be? If they could manage the situation without touching the tree for the time being, they just would do it,” says Shobha, adding that on the other hand, ignorance will only cause someone to wield the pruning shears indiscriminately across the trees. The tree activist remarks that this incident is one of many illustrations of how defenceless trees in urban spaces are, and that applies to heritage trees as well.

Shobha remarks that since the time Living Landmarks of Chennai (2018) was published, a few of the 100 heritage trees listed in it have gone.

She believes a tree Act with a provision for educating all stakeholders would mitigate against this ignorance among tree handlers of all stripes.

She further explains: “When there is a proper Tree Authority, even on a private campus, when you cut a tree, you have to check with them. On private campuses, there is now no checks at all. Many old educational campuses have a lot of old and rare trees. These trees are at the mercy of these institutions. When a Tree Authority comes along, all these would be protected.”

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