A canopy under threat | Why ecology must be prioritised over technology

As temperatures rise and the leafy cover diminishes, books, tree museums and non-profits show us why we must prioritise ecology over technology

December 15, 2023 12:13 pm | Updated December 20, 2023 04:34 pm IST

A lush forest canopy

A lush forest canopy | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Our neighbour in Zürich waved me over one afternoon. At the garden fence separating our homes, he pointed to a certain plant in our backyard and explained that it was not getting enough sunlight due to a tall hedge around it. He urged me to replant it in a sunny spot. He spoke for the plant — voicing its fundamental right. I knew how respectful the Swiss were to nature, but this was the first time I experienced it.

I grew up in India surrounded by tropical plants and trees native to the subcontinent: coconut, mango, banyan, neem, jackfruit, the sacred basil, jasmine and many more that are an integral part of both the urban and rural landscape. One of my favourite things to do when I visit my hometown Chennai, is to walk in my mother’s garden. The sight and smell of nerium oleander, frangipanis and moonbeams evoke fond childhood memories.

A cannonball tree

A cannonball tree | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

India’s sacred trees

While we are taught about plants in botany, our education system does not teach us much about our ecological heritage. We learned snippets of the sacredness of flora from our parents and grandparents, through temple visits and word of mouth. So, I was elated when I found a copy of The Sacred Plants of India (2014) written by historian and environmentalist Nanditha Krishna and botanist M. Amirthalingam when I visited the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Chennai a few months ago.

Nanditha Krishna

Nanditha Krishna | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

I met Krishna over coffee, and she filled the next 20 minutes with tree wisdom. She illuminated the four main reasons trees are revered — economic, sociocultural, medicinal and ecological. For instance, she explained that the teak tree earned its high economic value from its use in shipbuilding, the banyan tree was a meeting point for the business community, and the trees in mangroves shield the coast, playing an important ecological role.

The book is a brilliant collection of ancient mythology, traditions and botanical facts. “Tree worship resulted from man’s natural reverence for a creation of nature that provided food, shelter, fodder, timber, and more,” Krishna shared. “The relationship between each tree, its patron deity, and the associated temple is an intricate web, unravelling which is a fascinating exercise going back millennia. But many of these relationships are lost as the uses of plants have changed or ceased over the centuries.”

A pipal tree with a shrine underneath it

A pipal tree with a shrine underneath it | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

It not only opened my eyes to India’s rich ecological heritage, but also kindled my curiosity about the trees and plants the Swiss considered sacred.

Swiss love of nature

I dived deep into library archives to learn more about high mountain ecosystems and reached out to local tree experts. I learned that the oak and the linden are believed to be representatives of gods. In ancient times, these also served as Trees of Judgement, where locals decided on disputes. The chestnut, also called the bread tree, once provided food for peasants and is now regaining its sociocultural significance thanks to various new gastronomic specialities produced from its different parts.

I also stumbled upon the Enea Tree Museum, located in a 75,000 sq.m. park close to Lake Zürich, which deftly combines botany, art, architecture and design. Founder Enzo Enea, a celebrated landscape architect, designed the museum to provoke thought on how we as a society consume nature rather than nurture it.

Enzo Enea

Enzo Enea | Photo Credit: Courtesy Enea Landscape Architecture

He began to save trees earmarked to be felled, to make space for buildings, about 20 years ago. A 150-year-old red leaf Japanese maple that was moved to the park was originally planted for the launch of the Zurich Opera House in 1895 — when German composer Johannes Brahms played at the opening. But when the opera house was restored in 2017, the builders wanted to cut it down. Enea transplanted the tree to give it a new life. He told me that each of his 3,300 trees is appreciated at the museum as art. Some are set against sandstone blocks, and the space is complemented by contemporary sculptures by renowned artists, such as German conceptual artist Olaf Nicolai.

Enea Tree Museum

Enea Tree Museum | Photo Credit: Courtesy Enea Landscape Architecture

“It’s crucial to preserve trees and stop felling them when they are healthy. For example, a 200-year-old beech removes 6 tonnes of Co2 annually and 1 tonne of particulate matter while producing 4.15 tonnes of oxygen. It evaporates 400 litres of water per day and cools the environment by 2 to 3 degrees. It would take 2,000 young trees with a canopy of 1.5 metres each to replace one 200 year-old-beech,” he told me, explaining that climate change is threatening some of the dominant tree species in Switzerland such as the beech, which does not tolerate extreme heat. Notably, a dying larch tree is also a part of this museum’s narrative.

Larch trees at the Enea Tree Museum

Larch trees at the Enea Tree Museum | Photo Credit: Martin Rütschi

I’m grateful for the wisdom of people such as Krishna and Enea, and writers such as Peter Wohlleben, who wrote the bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees, and Richard Powers, whose The Overstory is about nine Americans whose life experiences with trees bring them together to address the destruction of forests. They have evoked a strong interest in the natural world in me. Increasingly, I challenge myself with TreeIQ and pause more often to observe trees.

We get our children started on coding before they learn the significance of plants and trees. At a time when the climate crisis is looming large, perhaps we must start to prioritise ecology over technology.

The writer and photographer is based in Zürich. 

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