Drought, Deluge and the Death of a Tree

The summer of 2019 marked two full seasonal cycles on the farm. Navilu Kaadu has been revealing itself to us in many ways with every passing season.

We learnt some tough lessons when we lost a few of our 2-year-old coconut saplings to rodent attacks during the dry summer months. The rodents had little or no food source in any of the neighbouring rain-fed farms that were left vacant till the onset of the monsoons, and our farm was their only source of food.

We eventually replaced the coconut with jackfruit saplings. A mature jackfruit tree does not need watering or manuring and is maintenance-free.

This year also marked the first summer that we actively prepared Navilu Kaadu for the onset of the monsoons.

Our high-density mango plots had saplings planted every 9 feet. We converted them to spacious plots with a 30-foot gap between saplings. While high-density plantations are meant to reap larger harvests, they also leave the plants vulnerable to diseases and infestations, and the intense competition for nutrients may eventually impact the yield, unless regularly pruned and maintained.

We dug trenches in alternate 6-feet belts to ensure better percolation of rainwater to the underground aquifers during the monsoons and to help aerate plant roots. We have been filling the trenches with all kinds of waste organic matter that will serve as mulch and make our soil fertile.

Mulch turns the soil to a spongy, porous texture, minimizes evaporation, and helps the soil retain moisture. During the dry season, capillary action draws ground water through the porous soil making it available to the plant roots. The plants then thrive even with little irrigation, and this conserves water.

We also planted cuttings of Gliricidia sepum, a leguminous tree. Gliricida is known to improve soil fertility with its ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen.

Preparing the coconut plot for cowpea sowing, the Shami Tree or Banni Mara towers in the background.

We ploughed the land and dispersed seeds of cowpea (alasande in Kannada) for the second year in a row. Cowpea too is a leguminous plant that helps fix nitrogen, serves as live mulch, and as a trap crop drawing away pests from our mango and coconut saplings towards itself.

All of this was during summer this year in anticipation of what we hoped would be a regular monsoon.

The day before we were to head back to Bengaluru, our pump threw in the towel. Muniswamy, our notorious local electrician whose exploits are now familiar to the readers of this blog, proclaimed that the coil had burnt out and the motor of the pump needed rewinding.

It would take a minimum of two days to get it working. We got the motor unit up from the depths of our bore-well after yanking out 27 lengths of 20 feet metal pipes through which, ground water reached the surface.

The searing summer heat and delayed rains meant we had a narrow window to get our pump back in working condition.

The precious jackfruit saplings procured all the way from Tumkur and the gliricidia cuttings ferried from my cousin’s farm in Channarayapatna, and planted painstakingly over a course of a week, would wither away if they weren’t watered in the next day or two.

We had to return to Bengaluru as the children’s summer vacations were coming to an end, and school reopened in two days.

Handing over charge to our caretaker Chinnaswamy with strict instructions to guard the precious metal pipes overnight till the motor could be reinstalled, we left Navilu Kaadu with heavy hearts and a fervent prayer that our pump would soon be back in prime condition to water our plants.

We were relieved when Chinnaswamy called us in two days after successfully supervising the re-installation of the motor. Misfortune struck again in just a day as the transformer broke down. We now had a working pump but no power supply on the farm to operate our irrigation pump.

A miserable dry spell ensued for the next month and a half while we followed-up with the lineman and his bosses along the lines of hierarchy right up till the Executive Engineer from the local electricity department. Neither our entreaties with the powers that be, nor an additional ‘payment’ to ensure speedy repair could revive the defunct transformer in time.

San meanwhile made a solitary day trip from Bengaluru mid-week, just to hire a tanker load of water from the nearby village and irrigate all our saplings.

The banana plants suffered the wrath of the drought, the upside being that the dry banana stems served as cosy nesting sites for bulbuls and grey francolins. The gliricidia cuttings dried-up without watering and we reaped a meagre cowpea harvest.

Our meticulous efforts at mulching however paid-off. The newly planted jackfruit saplings, and our mango and coconut saplings packed with straw mulch at the base, survived the dry spell.

Rains eventually arrived, and in torrents! The soil at Navilu Kaadu soaks up every drop of water. We’ve never seen flowing water on any part of our land even during heavy rains. The trenches were now in place to channel the rainwater to the aquifers.

Nanjangud is situated on the banks of the Kapila river. The Mysore-Ooty highway was blocked owing to a swollen Kapila river and we could not visit Navilu Kaadu for a month or more. Several parts of Karnataka were flooded, and many lost their homes and harvests.

Once the highway reopened for traffic, we left Bengaluru at 5:00 AM one weekend with a carload of saplings of native tree species. As our car rumbled along the last stretch of gravel path and approached the mud track leading to the entrance of our farm, something made the four of us uneasy.

Zoey continued to relish the breeze caressing her fluffy chrysanthemum face and her lolling, pink petal tongue from her perch on San’s lap. She usually gets to sit behind the wheel once we veer off the highway into the secluded country road leading to Navilu Kaadu.

It hit us like a ton of bricks just as we turned into the mud track littered with chopped boughs of trees and shrubs.

The large banyan tree in our neighbour’s farm that majestically heralded us towards Navilu Kaadu during each visit, no longer stood at the corner of the turn. The smaller trees bordering the farm were gone too.

The entire area looked desolate and barren. An agonizing emptiness prevailed. It had probably taken under an hour or lesser for a chainsaw to bring down this grand old tree that had nurtured the land for decades or more.

It was nearly 9:00 AM, the usual time we reach Navilu Kaadu from Bengaluru. The farmhands awaited our arrival at the locked gate, and their faces broke into broad grins on seeing us. They had come equipped with sickles, crowbars, packed lunches and other paraphernalia for the day’s work on the farm.

“Jayaraju, what happened here? Why did Gurusidda shetty cut down the trees on his land?”, San enquired.

“Saar, you know we didn’t have timely rains this year. He lost his crops and sold the trees on his farm for Rs. 25,000 to cover the loss.”

It was devastating. How does one measure the worth of a Banyan tree? Can it ever be valued in monetary terms? 

Later that evening, we went on our evening stroll after the farmhands left. None of us could bear to look at the site of the carnage.

San and I walked in silence holding hands, Zoey trotted along with the boys ahead of us. I missed the dappled shade and gentle warmth of the rays from the setting sun that played peek-a-boo among the leaves of the dear old banyan tree.

This incident further strengthened our resolve to foster native tree species at Navilu Kaadu along with the usual plantation trees.

Saplings of Arjuna (Holematthi), Seetha Ashoka, Red Silk Cotton (Booruga), Spanish Cherry (Bakula or Ranjal), Pongamia (Honge), Champaka (Sampige), Cannonball tree (Naagalingapushpa), Sultan Champa (Sura Honne), Wood Apple (Belada mara), Indian Elm, Honey tree (Ippe), Kadamba and many more have found a home at our farm.

We hope to raise them all into lofty trees. Our drip irrigation lines now water these saplings along with our coconut, mango and jackfruit saplings.

With the grim reality of climate change and its deadly effects, we now fear for the enormous, age-old banyan and peepal trees that stand proudly around other farms near Navilu Kaadu.

We plan to knock on the doors of the local forest department to seek help and understand our options to safeguard other trees in the neighbourhood from falling prey to the chainsaw.

How does one persuade debt-ridden farmers reeling from the impact of nature’s vagaries and market forces beyond their control, to spare trees?

How do we convince them that the long-term consequences of their actions could be far worse for their children, grandchildren and all generations to come?

Who compensates the squirrels, the hornbills, the barbets and bee-eaters, parakeets, mynas, the wasps and the bees, and so many beings for the colossal loss they suffer when their tree is cut down, a loss that may eventually drive them to extinction??