The Secret Life of (Tree-Loving) Travellers

Getting to the root of the matter.  
tree meadow
Wherever there is a tree, there is shade for a nap, a trunk to lean on, and birdsong for company. Photo: iStock.com/Nkarol

I was all of ten years old and utterly miserable. I had just moved to Mumbai, I missed my friends, and my bedroom window was caged off with box grilles. Too shy to talk to humans, I would spend my time staring at the mango tree outside our apartment, drawn to its gnarled branches, and its leaves extending like many green fingers towards the sun. It was home to a flock of rose-ringed parakeets, whose orchestra of squawks and screeches would wake me every day. Every morning, the parakeets waited impatiently for my mum to lay out their breakfast of jowar seeds and water. With time, I noticed the other inhabitants of its canopy, an intricate overhead lace that was home to armies of ants, red and black, spiders and butterflies, birds and bees. It was like a show, of which I never tired.

Trees are an undeniable part of our urban landscape, and yet, most of us barely notice them. I hear friends—and sometimes even myself—complain about the constant need to escape the city to get closer to nature, but I forget that nature is right here, outside our windows and balconies. And despite being often smack dab in the middle of traffic, trees are a mysterious world of their own.

My climate science professor in university used to call trees “his community”—and that’s what they really are. In The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, author Peter Wohlleben tells us how trees are actually complex beings, that are very social in nature. The umbrella thorn acacias from the African savannah for instance, pump their leaves with a distasteful poison when giraffes begin to munch on them. Simultaneously, they also emit ethylene gas in to the air, warning neighbouring trees of the presence of a predator. They too pump toxins into their own leaves and within minutes, the giraffes have to move to greener pastures. The book is filled with wondrous anecdotes that illustrate how trees communicate, nourish their ailing companions, and support their young. The human race could learn a thing or two from them.

When I travel too, it is trees to which I am drawn. They are part of my mental scrapbook of the places I visit, the way other people collect memories of food and monuments. In Shantiniketan last December, I sat by a champa tree, happily sketching and procrastinating, instead of writing my children’s book. In Costa Rica where I studied for a year, I stared agape at the rainbow eucalyptus tree, its many-coloured trunk—green, orange, and crimson in parts—like a living, breathing oil-painting masterpiece. I couldn’t stop myself from hugging a mighty baobab in Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, its branches stretched out, as if welcoming me in its embrace; while in Binsar in Uttarakhand, my attention was divided between a grand old oak tree, and a bare-branched walnut tree.

One autumn in the German city of Bonn, I stared reverently at an ancient ginkgo tree, tucking away a delicate, golden fan-shaped leaf in my notebook. A piece of history is now pressed between its pages, for the ginkgo is the only living species of the division Ginkgophyta, found in fossils some 270 million years ago. A testament to the fact that trees have stood by us for eons.

Rainbow eucalyptus tree

The rainbow eucalyptus tree is both large and layered. The grey outer bark peels away each season in vertical strips, revealing a vibrant green inner layer that matures into rusty red, purple, and indigo. Photo: iStock.com/GlowingEarth

Trees have fed our literary, artistic, and cinematic imagination since forever—whether it’s the talking and walking Ents in The Lord of The Rings or the vicious Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series, or Winnie the Pooh’s honey tree. Our folk tales and mythology are woven with stories about trees offering shade, food, advice, and enlightenment. What would Bollywood have done without trees to run romantically around? Glass buildings just don’t make the cut when it comes to serenading and wooing your beloved.

My own love affair with trees has deepened thanks to a book called Discover Avenue Trees: A Pocket Guide by Karthikeyan S. Now, I don’t just look up at a tree and its canopy. I look down at its roots, the flowers and seed pods strewn below it. I pick up the Cassia javanica tree’s seed pod, listening to the hollow sound it makes when rattled. I whirl the core of the mahogany seeds and watch as it spins down, its wings turning like the blades of a helicopter. And when I am in a more ponderous mood, I stand inside the bamboo grove in Cubbon Park. As the wind begins to lift, the leaves begin to rustle, gently at first and then louder, until it rises to a crescendo, eclipsing all thoughts and sorrows. It works every single time.

It’s a poorly kept secret, and allow me to let you in on it: Trees can be the best of companions. They’re patient, entertaining, and generous. You only have to seek them out.

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    Bijal Vachharajani , when not reading Harry Potter, can be found pottering about in the jungles of India. She is the author of two children's books, "So You Want to Know About the Environment" and "What's Neema Eating Today?"

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