Time Out talks to Pradip Krishen about his new book on the jungle trees of Central India
For all the people who live in and depend upon forests” is the dedication in Pradip Krishen’s latest book, Jungle Trees of Central India – A Field Guide for Tree Spotters. The coffee-table book is a lavish tribute to them and to the forests of Central India. Hailing from Delhi, Krishen was a filmmaker and then dedicated himself to studying trees. In 2006, he published Trees of Delhi, which sold a landmark 20,000 copies.
His new book takes him back to his roots in Central India. He writes fondly, reverentially and knowledgeably about his muse. “I like trees. Especially wild ones,” the author writes in the preface. “I feel a deep empathy in their company. I touch them and delight in their tints and perfumes. There’s nothing else I’d prefer to have in my field of vision, except, perhaps, other trees or plants. But getting to know them, to the extent I am capable, lies at the core of my relationship with trees… getting to know them is like a rich weave of stories with more than its share of mystery.”
Krishen combines beautiful prose with scientific and cultural knowledge to acquaint readers with the geography of Central India, the different types of forest it has, forestry in colonial and independent India and of course the trees – from the intoxicating mahua to the girchi tree with its yellow oblong fruits. Readers will learn about the handsome baranga tree with its white flowers, and the palash or flame of the forest and how it thrives on poorly drained soil where other trees would falter. There are lovely nuggets of information. For instance, the girchi fruit is “pounded and dropped into dammed streams as a means to stun and possibly poison fish”. In an email interview with Time Out, Krishen spoke about his fascination with trees and tree-spotting.
How did your fascination with the world of trees begin? Was it challenging not having a science background?
It began when I was building a small cottage at the edge of the jungle in Pachmarhi (in southern Madhya Pradesh), and my architect friend and I would go walking in the forest every day, sometimes for several hours. We had a forester neighbour who started pointing out trees and teaching us names and it just became something we became more and more fascinated with.
The science wasn’t challenging because we were not really interested or even trying to understand the science at the time. We were what you might call “tree-spotters”, like bird-watchers. It’s when we tried to go a little deeper into identifying and differentiating trees that the arcane language of botany started to pose a challenge. But then one learns to read a glossary of terms and puzzle it all out. That too became part of the fun, like an elaborate detective game!
After a book on Delhi trees, what made you decide to focus on the monsoon forest trees of Central India?
Central India is where the whole adventure started out for me. So it was joyful going back to where I had started, to have fun with wild trees. But it was also very liberating, in a sense, to get away from all the messy exotics in a city and to concentrate instead on natural forests, native trees, and to learn to puzzle out relationships between ecology and soils and where trees grow.
Tell us about this book, and the kind of research and time that went into it.
I call the book “a field guide for treespotters” and at one level it’s just that. It’s aimed at people who may have no acquaintance at all with trees or botany in any form. It aims at switching them on, getting them to enjoy this “game” of spotting trees in the wild, becoming tree detectives. It can be great fun and takes one’s enjoyment of wild places to another level. At the same time, I needed to be as sure as I could that I was writing a book that could stand up to scientific scrutiny. And because modern botanists in our country tend to write so poorly, I wanted my book to fill this gaping hole in the way plant books are written and photographed in India today.
I don’t know how to tell you what kind of research went into the book. There’s not a lot written about the area. Some 19th-century books of forestry, Capt Forsyth’s account of his journey, some really tawdry compilations of herbarium specimens from the BSI [Botanical Survey of India]. I probably learnt most from just footslogging in the wilderness and though that sounds really hard, the truth is it made for some of the most enjoyable times of my life. I spent about three and a half years travelling nearly every month for 10-15 days, clocking 3,500 to 4,000km in an area the size of France. Doesn’t that say it all?
Field guides can become quite academic, but you manage to bridge the gap between academics and enthusiasts. Please tell us about that.
I guess it helps that I’m not an academic forester or a trained botanist. That would have probably cramped my style and turned me into an automaton who wrote like all his peers. But the fact that I came from left field, that I started out by doing this for fun, wanting to share this with other people – that’s probably what sets the style and tone of my book.
There’s a strong vein of conservation that runs through your book. Do you feel that books like this play a vital role in making people think about trees and their larger environment?
I don’t know about “vital” and I’m really not at all sure what kind of an impact a book like this has. Obviously it seeks and probably makes some new recruits to tree-spotting and sensitises people to what’s beautiful and enjoyable in wild places. I am trying – subtly, I hope – to influence the way people think about and regard what’s left of our wilderness but I have no illusions at all about the extent to which we, as a nation or a culture, are becoming nature-conscious or conservationminded. It’s not a rosy picture at all.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I started working in Jodhpur nearly nine years ago when I was invited by the Trust [Mehrangarh Museum Trust], which runs Mehrangarh Fort to green a large rocky tract adjacent to the magnificent fort. It was a wonderful opportunity to “rewild” a fairly large area of 70 hectares in the middle of a bustling city and I said yes immediately, without quite weighing the difficulties of eradicating invasive trees that were already well established. Besides, it was a tract of hard, volcanic rock, so it wasn’t at all easy. But we’ve managed to create a park of plants native to rocky parts of the Thar desert and, though it’s taken us all this while, we’re beginning to see wonderful results. It’s slow out there in the desert. Our growing season is only about six or seven weeks long. So it’s a real slog that requires immense patience. But I’ve had terrific support from the Trust and it’s been a truly wonderful journey.
Once I finished the book, which had kept me preoccupied for the last five years or so, I began to look around for an opportunity to do some more rewilding. I’ve always loved the western Himalaya, and by a series of happy accidents I got in touch with an NGO called Chirag that operates in Kumaon around Mukteshwar. We talked about it, and it seemed just right that we should begin right away, so we’ve roped in a Van Panchayat in the area, because the aim ultimately is to hand over the project to a Van Panchayat in three or four years. The idea, basically, is to create a wildflower trail at about 6,000 ft up in the mountains. Why a trail? Because then we don’t take land away from pasture or anything else. And all we need to do is to plant up a fairly narrow strip on either side of an existing pagdandi [path]!
We’ve only just begun. I’ve gone in with Vijay Dhasmana, who’s as mad as I am about wild plants, and we’re still getting to know and collect an exciting flora that’s as different as can be from the Marwar desert. Let’s see how it goes!
Jungle Trees of Central India – A Field Guide for Tree-Spotters, Penguin,R1499.
By Bijal Vachharajani on June 20 2014