The popular narrative around cities needs to be changed. It is with this in mind that we wrote Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities earlier this year. From 80-year-olds to 8-year-olds, our readership has been far more diverse than we imagined. We have heard delightful tales from grandmothers about how they climbed on to trees as young girls, and stole fruit while hiding from disapproving mothers and mothers-in-law. And poignant stories from 10-year-olds who spoke sadly of how the neighbourhoods they live in have lost trees in their lifetime. So young, and they have already faced experiences of loss!
The only way to counter this narrative is to replace it with one of hope. We need to reconnect with the trees around us. And there are many ways to do so. Here are a few ideas from workshops and discussions we have had with fellow tree fanatics in many cities. This winter, try some of them with your kids, parents, friends and neighbours. Perhaps you can convert a tree agnostic to a true believer?
Cooking with trees
We have all snacked on mango, jackfruit and jamun . But do you know how to roast jackfruit seeds, make tamarind leaf chutney, peepal leaf bhaaji , jamunkala khatta , gulmohar flower pakodas and neem flower gojju ? Mine your grandparents and visit neighbours from different parts of India to collect recipes. Cook and eat in a large group.
A fun activity (and an excellent alternative to smart phone entertainment) for dull winter evenings: when dinner is done, and everyone is too tired to play, but too charged up to go to sleep. Sit around in a circle, and write down your favourite memories of trees, or a story of a memorable encounter with a tree. Fold up your paper and toss it into the middle of the circle. Once everyone has finished writing down their memories, each person selects a paper at random, opens it out, and reads from it. Take turns to guess who wrote this particular memory. You will be surprised at the stories of mischief that come from strict-looking grandparents and parents!
Counting petals, tracing veins
Nature is obsessed with symmetry. Some trees have flower petals arranged in multiples of three (trimerous), others in sets of five (pentamerous). Collect different types of flowers and count the petals. Use a botany book, or your favourite internet browser to learn how scientists use the number of petals to classify trees and plants into different groups. Or sketch the veins in different types of leaves. Do they branch at the base, or from the middle? Do the veins end before they reach the leaf margin, or do they loop and interconnect with each other at the margin? Each of these characteristics or traits have evolved to help the leaf, flower and tree thrive in its environment. Use these explorations as starting points to learn more about evolution.
The physics of seed dispersal
Take a silk cotton pod and open it to collect the seeds. Pile them up in a heap, and blow — tiny seeds, attached to parachutes of silk threads, will drift away in different directions (it is great fun to chase after and recapture them). The wind disperses silk cotton seeds — the “silk” we use was created to help the seeds move easily through the air. Other seeds have thorns, which help them attach to animal fur, hitching a ride to a new location where they can germinate into a tree. Tamarind seeds are dispersed by animals, which eat the tasty pulp and then distribute the seeds through their poop. Play uffangali, where you blow hard on a mound of tamarind seeds to separate them — each person gets to capture and keep the seeds she manages to blow away from the pile. Blowing heavy tamarind seeds is much harder than silk cotton. There is physics involved — if you blow from the side, the seeds scatter much more easily than if you blow from the top. Why is that? A simple question such as this can lead to a real-life physics lesson into the relationship between force, distance and angle.
Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities, Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli map the ecological and cultural histories of trees in cities and in our lives