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July 08, 2019

The Significance Of Trees In Society And Civilisations

Illustration by Debangshu Moulik

Trees have played a significant role in all civilisations, states Madhu Jain, who nurtured a rather large one of her own in her New Delhi garden

The tree stood at the end of our driveway. It was just a tiny little thing when we planted it some years ago. But then, like the giant beanstalk that grew from the three magical beans Jack threw on the ground in the old English fairy tale, the tree shot up, towering over our house. Its lush branches prevented the rays of the sun from reaching our increasingly brown and bare garden. The flower beds became barren, as did the mandarin tree bearing the tiny Chinese oranges, which began to wither and fall off.

The tree began to reach for the sky. The roots spread deeper and pushed upwards through the driveway, rendering it difficult for us to walk. But we did not have the heart, and to be honest the right, to cut it down — even though we had planted it on our own land. The municipality had numbered and was responsible for maintaining all the trees along the sidewalks.

Home for saplings
Bringing down a tree is complicated — and not without consequences. If you do so without permission, you are required to plant 10 saplings elsewhere — and show proof of having done so. Fortunately, we have friends who offered the far edge of their huge gardens as a home for the saplings. Strangely enough, there are few complaints against the municipal corporations for felling myriad trees to build bypasses and flyover bridges in Delhi and the Greater Delhi area.

These sentinels of trees are perhaps just doing their job, carrying out orders from above. ‘Environment’ is a big word and getting bigger in government discourse and memos, animatedly discussed in conferences and on social media. This buzzword of our times, or at least decade, is nothing new.

Concern about the environment or whatever word was used for it historically has long been evident. Trees and forests have always played a significant role in most civilisations. Even a cursory glance through myths, folk and fairy tales from across the world confirms the dependence of human beings on nature. The forest which plays a dominant role in folklore and epics is a place where all kinds of things can happen. It can also be a liminal space where transformations occur. Little Red Riding Hood is gobbled up by the wolf pretending to be her grandmother when she goes to visit her in her cottage in a forest. King Dushyant goes hunting and ends up in a forest hermitage where he meets and falls in love with Shakuntala, the adopted daughter of a sage.

The necessity for the preservation of life and the environment in the forests is made abundantly clear in the Ramayana. Valmiki chastises the hunter who shoots a heron bird while it is mating. Hunters are not supposed to kill any animals or birds near penance groves or in forests unless it is absolutely essential. It’s much the same message you glean from the Mahabharata: the Pandavas spend over 13 years of their exile in forests and amidst nature.

Sacred groves
Tree worship may be vanishing; however, veneration continues in local traditions. When I visited the Mawphlang Sacred Grove near Shillong a few years ago I realised that a similar spirit of reverence for nature and the environment was palpable. Many people from Meghalaya respect nature and believe that the sacred groves, which are forest fragments, are the abode of deities. Most of these groves are owned by individuals and communities and protected by religious groups. The government is not involved in looking after them. Apparently, local residents believe that cutting trees and plucking the flowers and fruits make the gods angry. When we entered the grove, we were warned by our guide not to touch anything; nor take anything out of the area. It would harm us, he said. And we believed him, tempted by, but turning away from, the beautiful Rudraksha seeds (that are used as beads) scattered on the ground, even though these now cost an arm and a leg.

When I ask my one-year-old granddaughter Sukanya if she worries about the deteriorating environment, she expresses concern about trees being cut because “animals who live in them are losing their homes”.

Ancient worries, modern concerns.

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