Nepali Times
Arbor ardor



I am a tree-hugger. I officially became one somewhere in a rainforest north of Townsville, Australia, sometime in the mid-nineties. As a participant in the annual Students and Sustainability conference, I'd signed up for the suitably hippyish 'Council of All Beings'. Out of town, on the highway and off it, pretty soon we were deep inside the pregnant silence of a Queensland rainforest, listening to a bearish professor explain that here, we humans were only one of many Beings sharing a space. Before we settled down for the night, he said simply, we ought to each wander off, find a tree, and ask its permission to be there. And that's what we did.

At best, this reconstruction might elicit an empathetic smile. There is little room for such sentimental tosh in a city, it seems. But if you can shed the inhibitions that dry you up rather like autumn leaves on a tree there is something immensely comforting about putting your arms around a living thing that your late grandfather might have climbed up as a child. The solidity of it. The uprightness of it. The life inside of it, and, once you find yourself at bark-level, the many lives outside of it.

Unfortunately, there are few trees to grant you such communion in the encroaching patchwork of cement and brick that is our modern-day capital. Which is why the ones that remain are all the more precious, linking us as they do to an-oft unspoken memory of a pastoral past, real or imagined.

The other day I came home to find a gang of men busy chopping down the old bottlebrush tree fronting the ramshackle mansion next door. A pony-tailed Tamang boy had climbed all the way up and was hacking his way down, branch by branch. They may have had good reason to destroy the tree (and the extensive network of epiphytes growing on it), but in some unreasoning way, I didn't want to hear it. The axe had laid open the waxy red core of the trunk; it hurt me to see it. While the men discussed the price of timber, all I could think about was how we used to strip bottlebrush trees of their seeds at school, and shoot them at each other through the shells of Mon Ami biros masquerading as blowpipes.

Finally they set about the trunk, and when it fell groaning, I figured that they were probably taking it down because it was blocking telephone lines. Or someone needed to make use of the plot. Whatever the reason, empty space took the place of the shaggy greenery that had once filled it. Maybe they would put up a brand new telephone pole here, lifeless, but conveying modern life to our units. In a parallel process, the century-old mansion itself was in the process of being torn down, wing by wing, and would soon be replaced by an assembly line residence of faux tiles, cornices and cantilevers. For now, discarded wooden shutters lay next to fallen bottlebrush branches, awaiting cremation.

There are of course plenty of trees out there in the countryside. But the casual manner in which we take down these long-term denizens of the Valley (decimate the huge eucalyptus trees in front of Shivapuri Boarding in Baluwatar, and why not the firs along Narayanhiti?) speaks of a certain vision for our city, one that excludes green spaces. Such a vision is no vision at all. If we continue this way, the worse-off among us will be little better off than the animals in cement cages up in Jawalakhel.

In truth, this is something that each homeowner with a garden can do something about. But it's not enough, and even that requires some prioritisation. In the brave new world of Nepal, nothing is sacred, save the pipal trees that still stand as islands in the flow of city traffic. Thank god for that, at least.

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1. never quite hugged a tree
very movingly said. bravo.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)