Who gives a fig?

July 26, 2009 12:00 am | Updated September 15, 2010 02:57 pm IST


Trees are being slaughtered in large numbers in the face of urbanisation. A reflective piece on what is happening to our landscapes from a conservation perspective.

The ground shook as the lorry thundered past. I felt the blast of diesel fumes and smelled the hot rubber from the tyres. The lorry’s colourfully-painted carriage was shrouded by a drab tarpaulin thrown over an apparently heavy load. The beat of music from the driver’s cabin was drowned by the sound of the vehicle’s shrill air-horn. A swirl of dust arose in its wake and wafted here and there; some of it settled on me.

Connecting places

The road was not a large one, but was considered an important connection through the hills linking two cities. The cities considered themselves important enough to have this road, too. Here and there, the blue asphalt was broken by potholes — not big ones — and the edges of the road were ragged. Yet, it was a good road and wide enough to let two buses pass by each other at top speed and with space enough between them to avoid terrifying the passengers by the windows. There were little dips and rises in the road as it took the contours of the countryside. It wound its way through field and fallow, farm and forest — as the wheels churned the miles in the incessant rush to the city.

All around was a landscape of gently undulating plateau. By the side of the road grazed cattle and goats, herded by village boys and girls with sticks. In the tree across the road — a stately banyan — were a troop of monkeys, a hornbill, and a couple of active, ardent squirrels. The monkeys and the hornbill were looking for some choice fruits to eat, for the fig fruits were ripe, red, and luscious. The squirrels, for the moment, were only interested in each other.

The tree was large and thrown into folds — it was 10 times as thick as a grown man and perhaps 10 times as old, too. Its canopy formed an archway across the road. A multitude of roots came down from the branches. Those by the side of the road almost reached the ground and were thick enough for village children to swing on and play. Those over the road, with the constant pruning from vehicular collisions, never made it that far, but never stopped trying either — the roots hanging high over the road were still growing. Framed by this arch-like ceiling of root and branch, the road could be seen in a unique perspective.

Fresh and natural

The canopy cast a deep, cool shade over the otherwise blistering hot tarmac. Under the tree, the breeze seemed to matter, and to refresh. Out on the road, in the sun, it had seemed only a desiccating gust of hot air. A bit further on, another fig tree had enticed a man to escape the hot afternoon by catching a few winks in its cool shade. I looked around and saw some mango and jamun and tamarind trees too, planted by some blessed soul decades and centuries past. They did not have any fruits now; if they did, there would be people and children searching for and collecting the fruits fallen below. A farmer had scaled another fig tree to lop the branches as fodder for his livestock; his child stacked them on a bicycle below. On the road, unmindful of all this, the vehicles roared on back and forth.

I savoured the scene. It would not last long. A few kilometres away, the road was being developed. It had been given an even more important status. The road was being widened, they said. What no one said was that they were felling all the centuries-old ficus trees, even those that would not lie in the path of the wider road. Hundreds had been cut already — their huge dismembered corpses cut into pieces and lying by the hot, dusty roadside. A few sorry Australian acacias and eucalypts were to become their replacements here and there. The road was being made better, they said. What no one said was that they were divesting it of all character and all connection with the surrounding landscape. The rises were flattened, the dips filled, the curves straightened. More vehicles could ply, they said, and they could go faster and spend even less time in this countryside in that incessant march to the city. And the trees? Oh, the trees were a traffic hazard — what if a speeding, swerving vehicle didn’t miss the trees? That’s a bad situation to be in. Well, soon, there will be none of these trees by the road. Will anyone now, I wonder, still miss them? Is that a bad situation to be in, too?

My thoughts went to another road, another fig tree. That tree’s branches had reached across the road, too. On the opposite side, a tree that had earlier locked branches overhead with it had already been cut. Only a row of low shrubs and weeds now ran parallel to the road. Yet, I’d watched a squirrel cross the road through that canopy. It moved through the branches over the road, until it was above the row of shrubs, but there was still a gap of a couple of feet. Tentatively, it moved a bit more, and then, its own weight bent the twig downwards, letting the squirrel virtually step onto the shrubs. At that moment, I had something like a vision, as if the fig tree had assumed a larger persona — a munificent one that, with its long arm, had held and gently placed a little creature safely on the other side. I blinked, but the vision did not go away.


On this banyan, the lead squirrel was not yet ready to give in to its partner’s attention. Down the trunk of the old banyan it came, hesitated a moment, and then darted across the road. Intent on its mate, the other squirrel followed. An instant later the follower seemed to realise the import of its move, for it saw a car coming at good speed. In mid-run, a sudden reconsideration brought the squirrel to a halt, a quick turn, and a bolt back. The vehicle, alas, had no such doubts on its direction and speed. The squirrel had no chance. The sight of that crushed body, with the eyeballs bursting out of the skull, bore almost no resemblance to the delightful bundle of life of just a few moments ago.

The first squirrel called shrilly. Perhaps it was calling in alarm at the plight of the other, or in relief at its own safe crossing. Maybe it was just announcing its new location to the surroundings that were now one squirrel poorer.

From the banyan, the hornbill took wing. It now seemed a long haul to the next tree and in dipping flight it went its way. After a little while, it was the turn of the troop of monkeys to cross the road and they started descending from the branches. Suddenly, it seemed it was time for me to leave as well — there was some important work to do elsewhere. And besides, who would have believed me if I’d said that I could not bear to see some monkeys cross the road?

T. R. Shankar Raman is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. E-mail: >trsr@ncf-india.org

Maya Ramaswamy is a wildlife artist focussing on conservation.

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.