Our intimate connection to trees isn't just about clean air, but a lot more

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The recent conversations set off by the Central government’s proposal to fell nearly 17,000 trees in the capital to make room for a housing project, have catapulted trees – usually peripheral to dominant public discussions – to the centre of national discourse. Interestingly, what has sparked debate is the unusual sight of protesting citizens hugging trees in the heart of the National Capital Region, a mesh of concrete buildings and elaborate infrastructure. Confronted with the spontaneous protests, the government has put the project on hold for the time being.

The ongoing conversations about the need to preserve trees have mostly centred around the environment and pollution. Commentators have expressed consternation over how such large-scale tree felling would aggravate pollution and further damage an already hurting environment.

At a different level, the recent civil society outrage, to my mind, has opened a window and given us an opportunity to view trees and nature through a different prism – more in the context of an organic kinship existing between humans and trees; between humans and the natural landscape. It has opened a door for us to enter a different imaginary space where trees are no longer viewed as inanimate forms, but are seen as part of a natural network weaving in and out through roots, branches, leaves – alive and active, communicating with and sustaining each other.

Sumana Roy writes eloquently about the network in her book, How I Became A Tree. Writing about her communion with trees, Roy leads the reader to a world that hums with the “vocabulary of silence of the active life of trees”, a world she discovered after immersing herself in it while spending long hours inside forests, watching and listening to trees.

She writes: “Among all other desires to become a tree, the most urgent was the need to escape noise. There were two things about this – one was the noise of humans, the other was the vocabulary of silence of the active life of trees. The opposition was terribly stark – the complaining tone that accompanied human work life contrasted with the near silence of the industriousness of trees. I wanted to move to the other side.”

In a far darker vein, I am reminded of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, whose protagonist Yeong-hye, towards the end of the story, says she needs only air, water, and sun to survive and live. She sees herself as a tree or as one becoming a tree. Refusing to eat or speak, she spends most of her time in a hospital trying to imitate a tree and basking in the sun. Writing about the novel in The New Yorker, Jiayang Fan quotes its author as saying that the character of Yeong-hye drew inspiration from a line from Yi Sang, an early 20th century poet who was heavily censored under Japanese rule. His poetry reflected the violence of imperialism. “Yi described catatonic withdrawal as a symptom of oppression,” writes Fan. The poet believed that “humans should be plants”.

In this literary and creative imagination, the life of a tree is not just an imperative for humans to breathe clean air and live in a pollution-free environment. The question is: do we have the imagination any longer, especially in times as noisy as these, to listen to trees? Many would scoff at the idea and wave it away dismissively. But there is enough material at hand to lead us to reflect on what trees mean to us beyond the talk of environmental damage and polluted air. There is a deeper connection with humans that often tends to get lost in the here-and-now conversations.

Ecologists, foresters, and biologists have long been arguing that interconnected through a complicated network, trees have their own language that human can learn to hear. Biologist George David Haskell argued in his book The Song of Trees that it is the interconnection among trees that spawns communication networks in their kingdom. Glossing this research, Ephrat Livni writes about being “in a redwood forest in Santa Cruz, California, taking dictation for the trees outside my cabin. They speak constantly, even if quietly, communicating above – and underground using sound, scents, signals, and vibes. They’re naturally networking, connected with everything that exists, including you.”

I remember the extraordinary experience of walking through a redwood forest surrounding the Chabot Space and Science Centre in Oakland. As we left the sunlit path winding through the forest and entered its deeper recesses, the light dimmed and the trees, reaching up to the skies, seemed to move closer around us. The stillness had a sound of its own. There was a constant, low buzz in the depths of the forest.

Haskell draws our attention to the many references to trees and their songs in literary and musical history: pines whispering, leaves crackling, branches falling. Artist Nandalal Bose, writes Bhaswati Ghose, “… while articulating his thoughts on drawing trees, remarkably compared their features and even personalities to those of humans.” There are rich literary genres and folklore developed around trees, portraying them sometimes as wicked humans, at other times protectors against the wicked.

I end, then, by citing the strange phenomenon of the “Crooked Forest”, tucked away in a small corner of western Poland. Near the town of Gryfino, surrounded by a larger forest of straight pine trees, there exists a group of 400-odd pine trees that are bent at sharp crooked angles at the base of their trunk. Planted in the 1930s, no one quite knows why the trees are crooked, and reigning theories – from genetic mutation and snowfall to human manipulation by farmers – are an apt demonstration of how our worlds and those of the world around us are deeply, historically, intertwined.

Published in arrangement with The Wire.

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