Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, co-authors of ‘Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities’ are unabashed tree-lovers. Where most city-dwellers are too engrossed in their virtual world, this duo is in communion with nature and the creatures who live in their neighbourhood. They tell SheThePeople.TV what made them write a fun book on trees, share their favourite seasonal recipes and reveal fascinating details about the secret life of trees.

In the concrete urban jungles we live in, the presence of trees goes mostly unnoticed, so caught up as we are with our phones and the business of living. What effect do you think this disconnection has had on us as human beings, and as organisms that are a part of the larger ecosystem?

Harini: I think it’s not so much the city that has disconnected us from trees, but the advent of electronic media. We can walk by trees every day and be completely oblivious of their presence, buried in our phones. I am guilty of this frequently! And then I stop, look at the gorgeous canopy of a rain tree or a peepal, and am awestruck. And surprised that I could have ever wanted to miss this for an ephemeral phone message. Talking to trees, listening to them,
looking around at them – calms us down, rewires our brains, and makes us think very differently about the city – moving away from a self-absorbed focus on ourselves and the near future, and instead thinking about future generations, of community networks, of respect for all forms of life.

Seema: We are more and more immersing ourselves in a virtual world with its promise of continuous entertainment. Our minds are always in a whirl, never peaceful . . . always wanting something more. But stopping and looking at a tree really helps to quieten the mind…it does definitely for me. It gives a perspective on the many things other than one’s self that is important.

We can walk by trees every day and be completely oblivious of their presence, buried in our phones. – Harini Nagendra

What inspired you to write this fun book on the amazing world of trees? As women ecologists, is your outlook different? If so, in what way?

Harini: After my previous book, Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future, I heard back from many readers, who were very interested in trees and wanted a more popular account. Our first plan was therefore to write something focused on the trees of Bangalore – but as we discussed the details, we got even more interested in the idea of writing a book on trees that readers across all Indian cities could relate to. And so the book evolved! Because we are women, I think that the book we have written has come out very differently from many other popular contemporary books on trees, most of which are written by men. For instance, we have blended in recipes for curries and hair oil, folk tales and riddles, games and art for children.

Seema: Trees are fascinating and fun. I have made so many memories with trees. And I think that contributed to my love for nature going into my adult life. For me it was about sharing with others the many things about trees that continue to bring me joy—not just the fun bits but the interesting historical titbits, to scientific facts to myths. As we mention in the book, as women ecologists we combined science with the more intimate relationship we have had with trees–writing about recipes, games we played, artwork we did, and making jewellery.

What made you collaborate on this writing venture? What was your writing process as co-authors? What was your common goal?

Harini: We have been close friends and collaborators for a number of years now. And a lot of our common work has focused on trees. During these years, we have gone on several walks and city explorations, and had numerous conversations about trees. So it was most natural to think of collaborating on a book on trees!

Seema: Several people have asked me how does one co-write a book of this kind! For me the deciding factor was: was my co-author someone who held a similar world view as I did, not just about trees but also about ideas of the kind of world we wanted to live in? And very fortunately for me that matched, and writing about trees, something I love very much, is not an invitation I could pass up. We both worked on individual chapters and exchanged the
same. We did several rounds . . . swapping chapters, correcting, fact-checking. Our goal was to write a book that would be read by the avid to the reluctant reader: and in the process revive a love for nature through trees or sow the seeds of curiosity about trees.

For me it was about sharing with others the many things about trees that continue to bring me joy—not just the fun bits but the interesting historical titbits, to scientific facts to myths. – Seema Mundoli

How much time did it take for you to write this book, considering it has involved a lot of research? What was the most interesting thing that you discovered on your walks through the cities?

Harini: From the submission of the proposal to Penguin, to the final book, it took a year of active research and writing on the book. But the seeds of the book lie in ideas we discussed for close to a year before that. And we drew extensively on the research we have collectively done for close to 15 years on trees in cities, as well as our own personal experiences over decades.

There are so many interesting things we discovered in our walks. The ways in which every city deals with its trees stand out in my memory. In Colombo airport, some rooms are built around trees, leaving spaces in the roof for tree trunks. The airport has grown around trees, but left them as undisturbed as possible. In Kolkata, many parks have built little extensions to their compound walls to accommodate growing tree trunks. It is common in many older parts of Bangalore to find homes, and even apartments, built around coconut trees in the same way – it is considered ill luck to cut down a coconut tree, and so people find innovative ways to build around them. A tiny roadside temple in Bombay was wrapped around the trunk of a tree in the most beautiful way – creating a little shelter for devotees, without in any way interfering with their communion with the tree. The temple has no priest – it is entirely
managed by devotees. The ways in which cities have made space for their trees is inspiring – and at the same time, so natural. Why should cities and trees be viewed as polar opposites, after all?

Seema: It took us about a year to write the book…researching, reading and referencing. But while we may have written it in a year, we can say that our memories and experiences since childhood have all gone into the book. Each city and each walk is fascinating: but spotting birds—a red vented bulbul on a Singapore cherry tree in peak traffic—ant and wasp nests was always the most fun.

Do you talk to trees? What kind of conversations do you have with them? Would you call yourselves tree whisperers?

Harini: For me, trees are sacred. There is a reason we have trees outside our temples. And these are my favourites. Once I circle the tree, and pay my respects to it, that means everything –a wish for peace, harmony, interconnectedness and thanksgiving.

Seema: Not talk to trees, but I love to feel their trunks, collect leaves, pods and seeds.

Crows, kites, parakeets, hornbills, praying mantis, butterflies, skinks, squirrels, lorises … you’ve been on the trails of these various inhabitants of trees, who are our unnoticed non-human neighbours. Any interesting anecdote that you’d like share from these urban adventures?

Harini: For me, it‘s the pigeons that keep trying to nest on our kitchen roof, but despite our best efforts, the eggs are most often eaten by feral cats – twice, though, they have successfully hatched and the fledglings have flown away – that is a thrill. Another unforgettable experience was at a nearby lake some years ago. Early morning, when a group
of us were doing a bird walk, we saw a kite swoop down into the water, pick up a snake, and carry it, wriggling, to the island at the centre, where it presumably made a meal of it. To have such unique experiences with nature in the heart of a bustling city – is magical.

The ways in which cities have made space for their trees is inspiring – and at the same time, so natural. Why should cities and trees be viewed as polar opposites, after all? – Nagendra

Seema: You are right when you say unnoticed, but they are all around us. There was a nest of black kites in the canopy of a copperpod tree. The nest was visible from the platform of a metro station. I have often got off at the station, though it was not my stop, to see the young chicks, and it was fun to watch them in the nest, while one of the parents stood guard nearby on the tree‘s branches. The guards at the metro station platform however were very
suspicious of my movements . . . my getting off . . . hanging around staring at a tree . . . and then boarding a train after a while.

 

The Wood Wide Web is an astonishing reality. What aspect of this fascinates you? How similar or different is it from the kind of social interaction humans engage in? What can we learn from it?

Harini: What fascinates me is that there is so much going on below and above the surface – trees are constantly communicating, exchanging warnings about danger through chemicals in the air, feeding each other through fungal networks underground – and we walk past, completely oblivious to their chatter. When we cut down a tree, we disrupt a family network and devastate an entire community – we need to understand this, and then think very
differently about how to protect and nurture trees in our cities.

Seema: The very fact that trees do communicate—sharing food and warning each other of dangers—is fascinating. And that we know so little about this communication still, especially in the context of cities. We can‘t compare tree communication with human social interactions but it is definitely important to know how different species communicate with each other. And what possibilities are there for interspecies interactions…

Making bubbles with soap nuts, using the gum from gulmohar sepals to grow long nails, making jewellery out of seeds, playing games with tamarind seeds, playing Holi using the pichkari tree – this is how beautiful memories are made. Share your favourite ‘fun with nature’ childhood memory.

Harini: For me, it’s gluing demon claws to my nails with Gulmohar sepals, and jumping on dried curled up pods of Bauhinea to make that deeply satisfying crrrrunch sound (my daughter and I love to do this even today).

Seema: Blowing bubbles using soap nut and gulmohar sepals as nails was always fun. But as kids we used to have these ‘feasts’ where each of us would bring either mango, chilli powder, salt and oil, meet at a secret place and eat the mangoes with much relish.

Nature Deficit Disorder is a much-discussed idea – that being away from nature brings its own set of problems. Could you elaborate? How then, in these time-strapped days, can people come closer to nature? What are the benefits of doing so?

Harini: As American writer Robert Louv highlighted in 2005, our increasing disconnect with nature in cities leads to psychological distress and the rewiring of our brains – a phenomenon he termed Nature Deficit Disorder. If we don’t understand and appreciate trees, and feel their presence all around us – we will not act to preserve them or to plant new trees. It is this disconnect, that many people in cities are now alarmed about, which has led to the resurgence of tree walks, bird and butterfly trails, and lake restoration groups across many cities in India, and across the world. And it is to this growing community that Cities and Canopies is addressed.

Seema: Completely agree with what Harini says. The more ways we connect, care and care about the trees around us, the better will be our own well-being.

The very fact that trees do communicate—sharing food and warning each other of dangers—is fascinating. And that we know so little about this communication still, especially in the context of cities. – Mundoli

Your book talks of how delivery boys are often seen taking a break sitting under a tree or cab drivers parking their vehicles in the shade of a tree. Knowingly or unknowingly, we are drawn towards trees. Yet, we are not conscious of their contribution in our day-to-day lives. How can we raise awareness about our vital relationship with them?

Harini: That’s the challenge, isn’t it? How can we change direction and increase awareness? I don’t know. One thing we do know is that community activities seem to make a difference – when families and groups, small and large, go out for regular tree walks, birding, foraging for plant products, or tree whispering. We hope very much that Cities and Canopies can make people look around at their local trees a bit more, and get to develop deeper relationships with them as co-dependent communities, of trees and people.

Seema: As we mention in our book, biophilia or the love for living things, exists in all of us. It is however dormant because as city dwellers especially we spend less and less time with nature. There are a lot of things we can do to engage with nature to raise not only our awareness but also revive our dormant biophilia. For example, adopt a tree and observe it over the year . . . even contributing the information to citizen science platforms that can then be used by researchers. Try and get to know the trees in one‘s neighbourhood . . . not only identifying them but also observing birds, insects on the tree. Essentially be more aware of the trees we see every day.

Which are your favourite trees? Which ones do you have in your backyard?

Harini: I have two neems, a mango, gooseberry and bottle brush tree in my garden – and some smaller ones, an avocado, pomegranate, curry leaf. They‘re all favourites. My mother‘s garden has three massive mango trees and four coconuts, which shower us with fruits every year. We‘re blessed to have them.

Seema: For me there are two trees. The exotic frangipani (Plumeriasp) linked to so many memories as a child—sitting on the tree reading books, and lazing and chatting with friends and even being made to pick up the dried leaves by my father –a job I didn‘t particularly like back then as it seemed a chore. The other tree is the atti or goolar. I think it is a beautiful tree. There is one tree growing at the entrance of the apartment where I live. Early morning when I am leaving for work I see morning walkers pause to pray leaning their head against the trunk or going around the tree. During the day people sit in its shade. In the night the bats flit about feasting on its figs. I just love the many meanings and uses the tree seems to hold.

Which is the oldest tree you’ve met? How did it meeting it change you?

Harini: A gorgeous banyan tree which is at least 300 years old, in the Sarjapura region of Bangalore. It’s a short drive from home, and we have gone there several times since we discovered it a couple of years ago. Meeting the tree has been awe inspiring. It has witnessed such changes – from the times of Hyder and Tipu Sultan to the British colonial governance, the Indian independence movement, liberalisation, urbanisation – it now stands next to a busy
highway with trucks and traffic, but when you enter its roots make space for you, and you are suddenly transported to a different era. A time and space of magic.

How can we change direction and increase awareness? I don’t know. One thing we do know is that community activities seem to make a difference – when families and groups, small and large, go out for regular tree walks, birding, foraging for plant products, or tree whispering. – Harini

Seema: I don’t remember which would be the oldest tree I have met, but some of the wooded groves in Bengaluru locally known as gundathopes did have mango trees that were quite old—maybe a 100 years or more according to locals. Walking into a thope, on a hot summer afternoon was a wonderful experience—the shade and the greenery after the noisy, dusty roads we had left behind was always a soothing experience.

How much time do you spend outdoors? How has it helped you?

Harini: I have several trees in my garden, and a line of lovely Bauhinea trees just outside. There is a koel with an unusually raspy throat that sits on the trees and sings loudly (especially just now, as the monsoon has begun in Bangalore) and two snakes that are regularly seen climbing a silver oak in the empty plot beyond, often joined by a cat which likes to hang out with the snakes for some weird reason. Nature is everywhere in a city, and we just need to keep our eyes and ears open. I’m most fortunate to have one of Bangalore’s best restored lakes, Kaikondrahalli lake, close by, and a walk in the lake (which I don‘t get to nearly as often as I would like!) completely recharges my batteries in times of stress.

Seema: Unfortunately not much nowadays. But I live in a tree-covered area in Bengaluru and every time I step out of my house I walk into a road shaded by some beautiful trees . . . a whole variety of species . . . and I enjoy looking at the trees. They offer a daily familiarity that makes me very happy.

Share a seasonal recipe with us that is not in your book.

Harini:

Lemon and curry leaf powder (to mix with rice)

Ingredients:

One cup curry leaves (washed and air dried, tightly packed)
Half-one cup of tender, fresh leaves of a lemon tree (washed and air dried, tightly packed)
(Note: if the lemon tree is aromatic, like kaffir lime, half a cup should suffice – if it is only
mildly aromatic, you can add more – but make sure to select only the young and very tender
leaves, and remove the mid-rib, else this powder can become bitter)
Two tablespoons urad dal
One tablespoon dhania seeds
One teaspoon cumin seeds
Half a teaspoon methi seeds
A small lump of asafoetida
1⁄2 teaspoon tamarind
10 red chillies (add more or less, to your taste)
Sesame oil
Salt

Instructions:

Dry roast the tamarind for a minute, to dry it out a bit more, and set aside. Heat a couple of tablespoons of sesame oil in a saucepan. Add the asafoetida, urad dal, dhania, cumin and methi seeds – roast till golden. Add the red chillies, each coarsely torn up into 2-3 pieces, and roast. Switch off the stove and remove the roasted ingredients – set them aside to cool. In the same pan, add a tablespoon of sesame oil, and carefully roast the curry and lemon leaves till crisp and fragrant, but take care not to burn or over-roast them. If a few leaves are not crisp, that‘s fine. Remove from the heat. Once all ingredients have cooled, coarsely grind them to a powder, adding salt as per taste. Eat this powder with hot rice and ghee, or sesame oil. You can try adding sesame seeds, chana dal and/or dry coconut to this recipe to alter the flavour. And you can also try replacing red chillies with whole pepper corns for an interesting
variation on the taste. The powder will keep for several days, in an air tight vessel or bottle. It’s high in iron, vitamin C and fibre, and very nutritious. And a life saver when you’re running out of time to cook, but want a quick and healthy meal.

Seema:

Recipe for dal with tender tamarind leaves known in Telugu as chinthachigurupappu. (This dish is prepared when the tamarind tree puts out tender leaves in March.)

Ingredients:

Tur dal: 1 cup

Tender tamarind leaves: 2 cups (when plucking leaves, care should be taken to choose
only the really tender leaves)
Onion: 1 medium sized diced
Green chillies: 2 to 3 depending on spice level
Oil: 1 tablespoon
Mustard seeds
Dried red chilli
Salt to taste
Turmeric powder
Chilli powder
Curry leaves
Water
Ginger garlic paste (optional)
Jaggery: half a tablespoon (optional)

Method:

Boil the tur dal and keep aside. Clean the tender tamarind leaves in water well. Take oil in a pan and add onions. Fry on slow heat till onions turn brown. Add ginger garlic paste (optional). Add turmeric powder, chilli powder and green chillies. Stir for a minute. Add the washed tender tamarind leaves. Pour a little water, add jaggery and allow the leaves to cook. Once the leaves are cooked, add some more water and mix the cooked tur dal. Add salt and cook for about 5-7 minutes. Temper with mustard seeds, curry leaves, dried red chilli. Serve hot with piping hot rice.

There are a lot of things we can do to engage with nature to raise not only our awareness but also revive our dormant biophilia. For example, adopt a tree and observe it over the year . . . even contributing the information to citizen science platforms that can then be used by researchers. – Seema

Who are your favourite authors? Name one book on nature/trees that is your top favourite.

Harini: In fiction, my all time favourite author is Robin Hobb – her fantasy worlds are richly populated with trees and nature, and are make us confront important issues such as what happens when humans want to control nature, but realise they can‘t.

In non-fiction, I have loved reading Gerald Durell (My Family and Other Animals, which my daughter is now reading) and all of James Herriot‘s books, which are now dog eared from reading and re-reading.

Seema: M Krishnan‘s writing in the edited volume ―Nature‘s Spokesman‖ is definitely a favourite. I grew up reading Gerald Durrell, Kenneth Anderson and of course Ruskin Bond; all are on my list of nature writers.

With the kind of research coming up and awareness rising about conserving nature, do we dare dream of better communion with trees and nature? What does the future hold?

Harini: People – all of us, everyday people, living out our daily lives – are key to the survival of the everyday tree. We can‘t live without nature – for utilitarian reasons such as oxygen, clean air, and shade but also, equally importantly, to feed our memories and nourish our imagination. If a dozen tree groups in cities across India become a hundred, and then a thousand, then the future can be a very different one from the dystopic present of relentless
tree-felling. Such a better future is close to us – if only we stop and pay attention.

Seema: Research is important, and so is an everyday interaction with the nature we see around us—beginning with the awareness that nature is present all around us, in the cities we live in, and not just in a distant forest. And it is not about whether we can dare dream of a better communion with trees and nature, but more than ever a necessity. Today a million species are threatened with extinction, and their loss would greatly affect our very health and
well-being.

Your most memorable moment while working on this book was . . .

Harini: Tracing down the research to find that last missing piece of the story. It was such fun to be reading recipes, books by historical figures, stone inscriptions, diaries of naturalists, riddles, folk tales, and scientific research papers, and using all of this to piece together a connected story for each chapter. The slight panic at the start, when surrounded by bits of disparate material, followed by the thrill at the end, when the last bit of stray thread is safely
tucked in and woven into the completed story – is indescribable.

Seema: There were several. But if I think about it most of it was when something I was writing connected to a memory from my childhood. One example was writing about the Dhunias in the chapter on silk cotton. In an instant I was transported back in time, remembering not just the silk cotton trees but the several others—guava, amla, drumstick, coconut, soap nut, frangipani, cashew and a number of mango trees.

What are you working on next?

Seema and Harini: Still considering…but hopefully a popular book on the rivers in India.

What is the best piece of advice you have received from trees? Just by the way they live, breathe and behave.

Harini: They are witnesses to history. So much has come and gone – turbulent times, periods of intense happiness and deep sorrow, changes in culture and lifestyles, in the very shape of the landscape that surrounds them. Yet there they stand, waiting out the cycles of ups and downs, while generously giving of themselves. There is so much to learn from them about the way to approach today‘s turbulent times as well. With patience, a long term view, and above
all a generosity of giving.

Seema: For me it’s their steadfastness, and the fact that they give us so much and so quietly.

Picture Credit: Seema Mundoli/ Harini Nagendra

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