Harini and Seema, on the value of being optimistic ecologists

Harini and Seema talk to us about their experiences while writing their latest book.
By | Published on Jun 3, 2019

Seema Mundoli (left) and Harini Nagendra (right), faculty at Azim Premji University and authors of the latest book, Cities and Canopies.

Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli have been talking about trees for years. As researchers based in the Bengaluru-based Azim Premji University, they have published a number of research papers together on a range of issues involving tree cover in cities. Their research focuses on urban sustainability and forest conservation, and covers quite a range of issues, ecological and social. Cities and Canopies, however, is their first co-authored book. Released earlier this month, the book has so far been very favourably received, and the authors are elated that not only adults, but kids are reading it too. In this interview, Harini and Seema reveal some behind-the-scene incidents, talk about the politics of writing about ‘ancient science’, discuss the value of being an optimistic ecologist, and reminisce the trees of their childhood.

I feel research for this book involved not just hours of scouring through literature, but also travel, cooking, concocting, and conversations. Can you give me a glimpse of what went on behind the making of Cities and Canopies?  

Harini Nagendra: A lot of the literature scouring was done for the book, during the year that we worked on it. However a lot of the other parts of the research – cooking, conversations with various people, visits to trees and groves in different cities – took place over a much longer period. Both of us have always been fascinated with trees, so these kinds of interactions have been very much a part of our experiences, joint and individual. It’s been great fun, of course, but also full of poignant memories. For me, the most memorable visit was one that Seema and I, with another colleague, made to the bamboo weavers on KR Road. We were referring to an archival document that described the road being lined with banyan trees on both sides – but at the road, we could not find anyone who remembered a time when there were banyan trees. Disheartened, we had almost given up when we found one elderly weaver, a leader of the community, who knew exactly what we were talking about. He told us about how his father extracted the sap from the tree, and mixed it with the ragi mudde [millet balls] of the previous night’s dinner for his mother, when she had a sore throat – and it cured her. He spoke with affection about those trees and those times – and with such sorrow of the hardships they face now, with the trees gone from the road, and their homes at risk of eviction. It was heartbreaking.

Seema Mundoli: We grew up around trees, and are always looking at trees on any walk or our field trips. Our conversations would often have mention of trees as well.  Another incident is where Harini and I along with two colleagues came across a katte [platform around sacred trees], which had a huge peepal tree and a stone tank known as the sisandra that was traditionally filled with water and kept for travelers to rest and quench their thirst. A local resident was reviving the tradition. It was indeed heartening to see this. Unfortunately in a recent visit we saw that the tank had been removed. But we know of other kattes with water tanks around Bengaluru that could perhaps still be restored.

I’m used to reading environment-themed material that leaves me feeling quite morose. This book, on the other hand, kept me cheerful, even though it does discuss the damages humans are inflicting. Was this intended? 

HN: We’re glad you spotted that! This is something we both struggle with while teaching. Environment and conservation issues are part of the so-called set of dismal disciplines – it’s very hard to research, teach or write about these without succumbing to despair and gloom. While being realistic about the scale of the challenges we face, we wanted people to walk away from this book with rekindled memories and a strengthened affection for trees – to stimulate positive action, via hope for a positive future.

SM: We may have our personal moments of despair. But we both feel that cynicism is not a very helpful emotion to have especially in these times when the challenges are so formidable. And as much as there is hopelessness, we also hear about positive steps, small as they may be, that people have taken to protect the environment, and that is always energising.

Are you both generally optimistic when it comes to the environment? As teachers today, how do you keep yourselves from getting disheartened by the relatively nature-aloof lifestyles of youngsters in cities?

HN: I’m generally an optimist, but the relentless human destruction of the environment often doesn’t leave too much room for optimism. But pragmatically, though, I don’t think we can completely despair. If we give up hope, what do we have left? And the situation is not yet so bad that it can’t be turned around. Making the change requires collective will, though, and can’t be done by individuals alone. It is our hope that Cities and Canopies can connect to the growing numbers of nature groups across Indian cities, for birdwatching, nature trails, tree plantation drives, lake restoration, and so much more. About the youth, I actually have a different opinion. Many of our students are so engaged with nature, and have so many creative ideas of what to do – much of our hope for the future comes from them.

SM: I think I did go through my period of pessimism! And at times I do despair. But as Harini said, engaging with students recently has changed a lot of that. There are many students who care about the environment and it is always heartening to engage in discussions with them. And the least we can do for them, in the context of the very challenging future they all face, is to be hopeful.

There’s a lot in the book about ancient knowledge about trees and their uses. Sadly, ‘ancient science’ has developed a negative connotation with scientists in the current political climate and nationalism debates. Did you at all feel conscious of treading this thorny path?

HN: We believe that there is a specific reason why the human connection to trees is so resilient in India – because the ancient connection we have to trees, clearly manifests even today via deep spiritual and sacred affinities to nature. It is however very clear that these sacred and spiritual affinities are not the prerogative of any single religion. Across the spectrum, in dargahs, temples, churches, mosques and Buddhist and Jain shrines, we have found embedded traditions of nature worship. Traditional communities of all kinds, from priests to fishers and cattle grazers, have their own knowledge systems. Some of these are quite subaltern. There are beautiful stories of lake conservation by communities, that go alongside songs that commemorate horrific caste inequities and describe human sacrifices for lake protection. So reality, as always, is complex, and impossible to fit neatly into hyper-nationalist or monotheistic frameworks of supposed glorious pasts where humans lived in harmony with nature. We have tried our best to present the real-life range of traditional to contemporary human-nature relationships in all their complexity.

SM: It is especially in these times that we need to refer to traditional knowledge along with modern science. Especially to emphasise that traditional knowledge is a product of the close engagement that communities have had with nature, and goes much beyond the very parochial view today that it is linked to a particular religion. We need to challenge the appropriation of traditional knowledge by any specific group. And presenting the ancient with the modern in this book is our way of doing this.

Harini, you’ve written a book on city trees once before? How is this one different and why is this a subject that is close to you?

HN: My previous book “Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future” was an academic book aimed at describing the ecological history of Bengaluru. The book looks at the ecology of the Bengaluru region, and people-nature relationships, have changed over thousands of years, and what this change implies for the future of the city. In that sense it was an academic book, based largely on my own primary research. It was aimed at a mixed audience though, of academics and students, as well as the interested reader who is used to reading science-heavy books. Cities and Canopies, though, was aimed at the more popular reader – and at people across Indian cities, large and small. In the conversations I had with readers after Nature in the City, I realised there were many interested readers who were looking for books relevant to cities across India, and who wanted a book, which was more accessible. I’ve been discussing these ideas with Seema for years, and so the plans for Cities and Canopies co-evolved between us, drawing from these experiences.

My favourite sciencey part of this book was the description of ‘buzz pollination’! In my mind I imagined David Attenborough’s voice narrating this as the drama unfolded. Books like this one and nature documentaries, for me, do such a great job bringing to life biological terms and phenomena that textbooks made so bland and clinical. What are your views about science and environment education in India and what are you trying to do differently as teacher-researchers today?

HN: Thanks. Researching and writing about buzz pollination was one of my favourite parts of the book. My 11-year old daughter was my test reader, helping me to modify this section until she could understand what it was getting at. Several of my friends’ children are now reading Cities and Canopies, and that is such a pleasure to see!

I wish we had more science books that make science fun in India. There are some great books for very young readers now, including a number of fabulous multilingual books, and that has been a pleasure to see. But there is a gap for the older reader – 10 to 16 or thereabouts. This is a gap we would love to fill, and we’ve been tossing around some ideas. We hope some of these move from idea to book in the coming years. Meanwhile, taking off from Cities and Canopies we’re experimenting with workshops on arts, crafts and games around trees for kids, which we would like to see taking off across the country.

I’m currently writing a book with my friend and colleague and this is not so easy, but I can tell the book is benefitting from this partnership. Why did you decide to write this book together? How did your partnership evolve? Was it important that both of you needed to reach a point of agreement on all the issues discussed in the book ?

Both: We’ve been working together for several years now, on a range of issues that involve trees in cities – this is our first co-authored book, but we’ve written a number of research papers together. We share a similar passion (or obsession!) for trees, and have had so many conversations about them over the years – the idea for the book naturally evolved from some of these. We were fortunate that we did not have any major points of disagreement – in large part this is because we come from the same perspective, and know each other pretty well by now.

It’s clear from the book that each of you had some profound experiences with trees, growing up. Can you tell me more about your relationship with trees?

HN: There are so many experiences to share! Let me just describe one of my earliest childhood memories. It is of long walks in Deer Park in Delhi when I was about six years old, with my father, feeding the deer with grass we plucked from the park, and removing burrs and thorns from our clothes which we unknowingly picked up along the way as we walked. And the thrill of occasionally finding a discarded snake skin, peacock feather or porcupine quill! I went back to revisit Deer Park with my sister a few years ago – much had changed from my hazy childhood memories, but the thrill of the park still remained. I am now fortunate to have a mango tree that my daughter loves to climb. And I hope she gets to forge the same special memories with this tree that we all did with various trees of our childhoods.

SM: I was very lucky to grow up in the Andhra University campus in Visakhapatnam and was always surrounded by trees. We spent most of the time on them, below them or running between them. We feasted on the fruits of  jamun, mango, star gooseberry, cashew, guava… Trees were always landmarks for us to meet and at one point even leave messages for each other.

One of the incidents I remember from my childhood is how the engineering college students would come to steal coconuts from two trees in front of our house. The one who could climb the tree would shin up, while the others stayed below holding a lungi to catch the coconuts thrown by the one on top. We would wake up to the thud of a coconut that missed falling into the lungi. And by the time my father reached the front door the students had made off with whatever they could get. Of course, they would come back another night! Every time we visit the city, we pay a visit to our old home. Many sadly have gone, but others are still there, even having survived Cyclone Hudhud in 2014.

If I was to take a tree tour across India, would you suggest an itinerary for me?

Both: In Bangalore, we would highly recommend a visit to the Nallur Amaroy tope, a grove of tamarind trees that is hundreds of years old, with a small abandoned stone temple within. In Mumbai, a walk along the roads, stopping at any of the small roadside temples built around sacred trees. In Delhi, Humayun’s tomb, with its gorgeously atmospheric historical, well laid out gardens, and Deer Park as a different, more unkempt but also more accessible park. In Kolkata, the gorgeous trees in the South Park Street cemetery, which shade and protect a number of famous graves. In Jodhpur, the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, to see how trees have been integrated into this restored desert landscape, keeping the ecological integrity intact.


A version of this interview was first published on thewire.in. Picture credits: Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli

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