A Tree Lost, A Tree Gained

Nearly two years after we set foot on Navilu Kaadu, we realized with much heartache that two full-grown banyan trees once adorned our land. Visiting farmhands described the trees they seemed to have known well and showed us one of the stumps in an overgrown corner.

When the land exchanged hands, the two banyan trees were sold to the tree cutters, extracting every possible monetary benefit. The trees were felled by the original landowners just before the hand-over to the next buyer, who then sold the land to us. These trees were planted by the ancestors of the original landowners along the borders.

Many such trees once stood around the region. Every farmer’s field had a couple of large banyan trees planted by an ancestor with foresight, to prevent soil erosion, preserve the groundwater table, and for the well-being of generations of humans, birds, animals and insects to come.

I came across a fallen tree
I felt the branches of it looking at me
Is this the place we used to love?
Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?

– Lines from ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ by Keane

That wisdom is lost on their short-sighted descendants, and most banyan trees in the region have now fallen victim to the chainsaw. The few still standing, are either on public land, or will face the inevitable sooner than later.

It is now standard operating procedure during every land sale by a farmer in the region, to chop down the trees on the land and make a few extra bucks over the sale consideration, just before hand-over.

We are losing banyan trees around us at alarming frequency. The gut-wrenching emptiness where once a banyan stood, stabs at our hearts during monthly visits, and we helplessly bemoan each loss.

The fig fruit with tiny dead pollinating wasps among the inside-out inflorescences or flower clusters. Every banyan species has coevolved with a specific type of wasp species, which is the only insect that can help it pollinate. They would probably go extinct without each other.

It is ironical that the banyan, as India’s national tree, a keystone species* critical for biodiversity, and a tree considered sacred in Hindu philosophy, has no legal protection from being felled at will.

In this post, I write about two such banyan trees in Navilu Kaadu’s vicinity, one that we loved deeply and lost, and another that we rescued from falling prey to the chainsaw. I have written about the events in reverse chronological order, as I wanted to end the post on a hopeful note with a banyan tree that escaped the axe late last year, rather than the one that recently fell victim to it.

The loss

As I gazed at squirrels scampering about her limbs
and parakeets nourished by her abundance
she sent a gentle waft of breeze.
‘Will you remember me?’ she whispered.

The most painful loss of all came in February this year when a giant banyan tree, probably the oldest in the entire region, was sawed down. We knew her as Mother and for good reason.

Mother stood majestically beyond our neighbour Siddha Shetty’s land in a grove with smaller banyans. On most days, we walked up to her and spent peaceful evenings under her luxuriant canopy, as turquoise, ruby, purple and tangerine streaked the sky in a blazing farewell to the Sun dipping behind the large tree.

Siblings in Mother’s Banyan Grove

I liked looking up into her dark, dense canopy, trying to find little bursts of light where the Sun rays managed to slip in. Her cool bark caressed my cheek as I rested my head against her and stretched my arms around her gnarled, grey trunk throbbing with life in its cracks and crevices.

The boys marveled at how large Mother was, literally and metaphorically. She was probably the biggest tree they had ever laid eyes on, a grand old lady who appeared to cradle the universe among her strong boughs. She reminded me of the giant 450-year-old teak tree we had marveled at within Parambikulam Tiger Reserve many years ago.

Come see me and we’ll smell the fragrant red earth
kiss the green grass and embrace
as we watch the golden Sun melt away
our breaths mingling and arms entwined.

Jayaraju, one of our farmhands mentioned that Mother had been around before his grandfather’s time and none in the region could remember a time before her.

The landowner who happened to be Jayaraju’s Uncle, had decided to bring her down as nothing grew under her shade. She was sold for all of Rs. 45,000.

That we were visiting Navilu Kaadu at the time of this tragedy and could have possibly intervened, though I am unsure how, makes it all the more devastating.

We had traveled to Mysuru from Nanjangud over the weekend for a wild tuber fair happening in the city and stayed the night at my brother’s. The day before we left for Mysuru, the boys had wanted to carry a ladder up to the Mother and climb into her canopy. I had suggested that they plan for it another day when their Papa would have been free to go along and help with the ladder.

It was all over when we returned though. She was gone forever.

I pine after the memories of a gilded age etched in your dead roots
and as the red earth washes away leaving everything wasted and barren

I dig till my fingers bleed, hoping to find your daughter, that great river, to lead me back to you.
Alas, I am told she left with you.

When Sandeep realized what had happened, we decided against telling the boys just yet. Abhi however caught sight of the massive tree trunk felled to the ground. The trunk was visible from our land. He was inconsolable and ran up to the site before we could stop him, and cried and screamed at the tree cutters, all the while pelting stones on the ground. Sandeep rushed after him and brought him back. Abhi continued to wail bitterly for a better part of the day.

We visited Mother one last time later that evening after the tree cutters wound up for the day. A few baby squirrels were still under the giant trunk stretched on the earth. This was the only home they ever knew, and they seemed confused and scared. They scampered away further into the gaps among the intertwined branches as we tried to reach them.

We brought back a few sturdy branches from Mother to plant them at Navilu Kaadu. We planted three of them in three directions.

The constant drone of the chainsaw continued for over a week as the massive tree was chopped down to smaller transportable log lengths.

As a family, we were steeped in misery for two months thereafter, and even as I write, we haven’t yet been able to bring ourselves to visit the spot where Mother once stood.

Under the consistent care of Siddharaju, our local caretaker who unfailingly watered the three banyan stems in our absence, one of Mother’s offspring took root and is springing forth tender green shoots. We replaced the other two dried-up stems with fresh banyan cuttings that Subbiah, one of our farm helpers procured and planted for us.

The progeny takes root at Navilu Kaadu

Abhi and Arnav are thrilled to have Mother’s progeny growing at Navilu Kaadu.

While this is a story of irredeemable loss, the next one is a story of heart-warming gain.

Tree of Hearts

A heart-shaped banyan tree flanks the western boundary that we share with Siddha Shetty, our neighbour, who once owned our land together with his sister Jayamma. It is a beautiful tree with a canopy shaped like a heart, spreading from two large boughs branching out in opposite directions.

Tree of Hearts
Image Credit: Siddharaju

In September last year, a time when Mother still graced the earth, young Mahesha, the affable, soft-spoken son of Siddha Shetty approached me one morning at a time when it was just the boys and me on the farm. Sandeep was held up with work commitments in Bengaluru. Mahesha asked for the solar fence to be turned off so they could cut down the banyan tree.

I was aghast. We had by then witnessed more than our fair share of banyan tree losses in the area and the thought of this beloved tree meeting the same fate was unbearable.

How would I justify myself to my boys if I didn’t intervene to prevent this slaughter?

Abhi loves banyan trees with a passion matched probably by my own affections for him and his brother, or even greater. If there ever was a human avathaar of Dogmatics, Obelix’s little tree-loving doggy from the Asterix comic series, it is my Abhi.

Let me shower a million wishes on you
as many as the leaves on my boughs
and the stars that gather above me.

Arnav on the other hand holds the firm belief that playing mute spectator when one has the means and the capacity to intervene and prevent untoward occurrences or alleviate someone’s suffering, is both callous and selfish.

Both watched quietly, possibly hatching back-up plans in their minds should their Amma fail.

Diplomacy was my only chance at saving this tree from the chainsaw. Calming my jittery nerves, I gently tried to persuade Mahesha to spare the tree. I enquired why he wanted to cut down the tree.

It turned out that Siddha Shetty, his father, had suffered a wound when one of his oxen gored his right thigh while ploughing his fields to sow cotton. He had kept the injury from his family till the wound started to fester.

The poor family had emptied their last rupee on his treatment. Mahesha had now struck a deal with the local tree-cutter and had accepted an advance. The tree was the family’s only hope of raising more funds for medical treatment.

I worry….will you still love
dance in the rain
sing to the moon
slumber beneath the earth
slither among grass
drink from flowers
feel the wind in your feathers
after I am gone?

I had gathered from a previous conversation with a senior forest officer in the Mysuru Division, that chopping down banyan trees or any tree in the Nanjangud region was not illegal, as long as the tree grew within the precincts of the farmer’s land. Only trees in designated forest areas or adjoining such regions, enjoyed legal protection from the axe.

It seemed like a lost cause.

One way was to claim my right over the tree, since it stood right on the border between the two plots. But I would have to first prove that the tree stood partially on Navilu Kaadu with a government survey of the shared boundary.

Goodwill is our currency as we try to run Navilu Kaadu from afar and a feud with the neighbour would be an unwise move.

I asked Mahesha about the sum the tree would fetch him. The sale price of the tree and the desperation of this unfortunate family left me flummoxed.

The splendid tree where squirrels, parakeets, woodpeckers, barbets, mynas, crows, spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, ants and so many more beings found shelter and sustenance was being sold for a princely sum of Rs. 7500!

I struck a deal on the spot and offered to buy the tree.

Under the banyan where dissimilitude births beauty

Mahesha agreed to put the tree-cutting on hold temporarily and left after promising to discuss my offer with Siddha Shetty. Around midday, Mahesha called with the good news that the tree was mine if I paid Rs. 10,000.

I did not negotiate the sale price given the grim circumstances of the family and the humbling awareness that the worth of this tree far exceeded any material yardstick.

I insisted on a written agreement with a condition that neither of the landowners would cut down the tree now or anytime in the foreseeable future, as the tree now belonged to Navilu Kaadu.

Mahesha procured a fifty-rupee e-stamp paper the very next day from Nanjangud on my request. The written agreement was my way of holding both landowners accountable for protecting this banyan tree for generations to come.

Later that evening, after the farmhands left for the day, I visited Siddha Shetty’s house in Hunasanaalu village to conclude the signing formalities. It was a large joint family with meagre resources, other than their small patch of land. A pall of gloom had descended on the small house.

Siddha Shetty sat on a metal chair. His entire right leg down from the hip joint appeared to be infected and was heavily bandaged. Each week Mahesha balanced his sick father on a borrowed motorbike and made the 12-kilometer ride to Nanjangud for a dressing change at a private clinic, but the wound seemed to be worsening owing to delayed treatment.

Mahesha had procured an inkpad like I had instructed him to. Out of the blue, Siddha Shetty started to argue that he would be left with no tree to sell in the future if I bought this tree from him!

I tried explaining that I was paying him more than the tree-cutters just to allow the tree to continue standing on his land and that he wouldn’t have the tree on his land if he were to sell it to the tree-cutters. Mahesha realized the absurdity of his father’s argument and intervened.

I tried to placate Siddha Shetty and promised to help with support and information on prevailing government medical subsidies and access to competent doctors.

Siddha Shetty eventually put his thumb impression alongside my signature and accepted the sale amount.

Fortunately, the family had an Ayush Health Card, that would help them avail subsidized or free medical treatment. It however had to be accompanied by a letter from a government doctor certifying that the patient indeed was eligible for free treatment.

Siddha Shetty’s family had no knowledge of this facility and had spent a substantial amount for his treatment.

I called dear friend Dr. Shobha Kavith, a senior doctor in government service, who pulled out all stops to ensure Siddha Shetty’s condition was reviewed on priority by a senior government doctor in Nanjangud, and got a letter issued, making him eligible for free treatment in any hospital.

Dr. Shobha’s prompt support and guidance to Mahesha every step of the way, possibly eased the financial burden of the treatment to a certain extent.

What can I say? I shudder to think that we could have lost our beloved heart-shaped tree if Mahesha had decided to chop down the tree at any time other than that one week when the boys and I were stationed at Navilu Kaadu.

I only have gratitude for the unseen force for the coincidence of our visit with Siddha Shetty’s family’s chosen time to axe down the tree.

I’ll see you in the morrow when I am a tree no more, nor you a human.

Sadly, despite Dr. Shobha’s best efforts to assist the family, it was too late for Siddha Shetty and he succumbed to his infected wound in a few months.

Mahesha later mentioned that his father had felt content they could retain the banyan tree for shade and shelter on his land.

I am grateful that our ‘Tree of Hearts’ will continue to watch over Siddha Shetty’s land and Navilu Kaadu for many years in the foreseeable future.

*Keystone species play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community, affecting many other organisms in an ecosystem and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species in the community. Without keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether. Wikipedia