Trees, writes Peter Wohlleben in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, are social beings. They can defend themselves, share resources, and communicate with each other using “olfactory, visual, and electrical signals”.
In Ranjit Lal’s new book, The Trees of Medley Gardens (Red Turtle), they can talk your ear off. They will gossip, tease, dole out wisdom, and even play pranks on you. When Tadpole and her brother Vishwajit move with their family, they discover that the sacred grove of trees from the neighbouring Medley Gardens can talk to them. Soon they befriend the wise old Banyan Ustadji, the Peepul Princesses, and find out exactly what the Mango trees think of kids scampering up and down their branches, stealing mangoes. But the trees are hiding a secret and it all maybe unearthed if the owners of Medley Gardens decide to sell the place. It all comes down to Tadpole, Vish, and his friend Zafia to figure out what to do.
“The idea came about because I felt that trees were just taken for granted (and cut down at will) and ignored – way out of proportion to their worth, and considering what they do for us – and all of life,” said Lal, over email. Lal’s love for both flora and fauna is well-documented in many of his books, whether it’s The Tigers of Taboo Valley (Red Turtle), The Caterpillar Who Went on a Diet and Other Stories (Puffin), or Every Dog has its Tale (Scholastic).
Lal insists that he doesn’t talk to trees in real life and which is why he turned to fiction for that conversation. “Am nuts enough without actually having to go and have conversations with trees (nor do I hug them as some nasty ‘Rottweiler’ of an ant is sure to bite me in the armpits) so I made the kids do that in the story,” he said. “I think the most ‘memorable’ conversation [in the book] has to be the one where it is pointed out to Ustadji, that while he may be the grand old ‘tree of knowledge’ and a ‘keystone’ species blah blah blah, he and his ilk are still dependent for their survival on a minuscule wasp. Something we need to remember otherwise too.”
That is one of the key takeaways from the book – how everyone’s survival on this planet is inextricably linked with each other. “All you have to do is to is to take time out and think a little – and it’ll all become very clear how dependent all life forms are on trees and plants,” Lal explained. The children in the book realise that they can talk to pretty much any tree, flower, or animal. Sometimes it’s annoying because really some of the plants can be a bit of a sap like the hypochondriac Neems that are always whining. It can also be scary when they meet the dreadful Julifloraa that are armed to the teeth with spiked thorns. While at other times, they have some fabulous chats about life on planet Earth, whether it’s seed dispersal or events in history.
Lal manages to do all this without preaching, and at the same time he ensures that the reader is chuckling and guffawing through the book. “If I start yawning or nod off or start fidgeting while writing I know I’m being preachy and also of course totally boring,” said Lal, about his own writing. For instance, at one point, the mischievous (and pompous) grasses burst out in song, praising themselves, “Without us grasses, you won’t have bread! Without us grasses you’ll all be dead!” they then go on to talk about how they, the grasses, have taken over most of the land in the world – “You came, you planted, we conquered!” Food Security lesson 101.
Lal is concerned that children are more and more disconnected with nature today. “Yes, they’re less connected to nature thanks to the Internet, TV, video games, social (or rather anti-social) media etc,” he said. “They need to go out more – and not to malls! What gives one hope is watching kids play on and around trees, whenever they’re presented with the opportunity and their parents/teachers are not hovering around armed with hand sanitizers and having hysterics! I still believe if you leave a kid near a tree – give him/her some time and space and take away the smartphone etc – he/she will be halfway up the tree within the hour!” Honestly, after reading The Trees of Medley Gardens,that just be one side effect your children may end up with – climbing and talking to trees.
In fact, Lal points out that even grown-ups need to do the same. “We stop ‘talking to’ trees as we become adults because we think only kids should do so,” he said. “Actually you don’t have to talk to trees, you just need to sit beneath one, or on one and listen. We do too much talking and too little listening anyway!”