- Cities and Canopies is an account of trees in Indian cities written by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli in which the authors explore the intersection of history, culture and ecology in urban India, through trees.
- With an urban-oriented future looming, the authors bring attention to the natural elements of the urban environment that the next generation is going to grow up alongside and emphasise the need to protect it.
- In their interview to Mongabay-India, the authors talk about their inspirations and their attempt to change the narrative of urban ecology by looking at economic growth and development through environment protection.
Reading Cities and Canopies is like sitting through an Indian family gathering. There’s the know-it-all uncle, the remedy-ready grandmother and the botany graduate cousin, who all have something to share on the topic at hand, which, in this imagined scenario, is the shaggy-headed banyan tree outside the window.
“This tree grew from the toothbrush of the fifteenth-century mystic poet Kabir, which he tossed aside after use,” says the uncle.
“Add banyan roots to hair oil for better hair growth. If you do, your hair will never stop growing, just like the roots of the banyan tree,” adds the grandmother.
“Despite being one of the largest trees in the world, the banyan can also begin life as an epiphyte, in tiny spaces of refuge on other trees,” informs the cousin, about the national tree of India, Ficus benghalensis.
Their ensuing conversation, inspired by the 200-odd pages of the book, is what my mind conjured up on a recent summer afternoon. Scientific tidbits, historical trivia and practical uses of trees, blended together in an enjoyable discussion, as I sat back and listened to the voices in my head.
The joy of reading Cities and Canopies, an account of trees in Indian cities, is seeing where your mind takes you, from childhood playtime in the park to the days of working in a corporate commercial complex — and even to an afternoon with the extended family.
The opening chapter A Khichri of Trees sets the tone for the rest of the book which is in fact a khichri — a mix of trivia, experiences and history, jumbled up in an enjoyable and easy to consume creation by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli. They weave together scientific properties of trees, their daily uses around the house and their historical and cultural significance, leaving no loose ends.
The book sheds light on common city trees like the banyan, palm, tamarind, neem and more and dives into their associated biodiversity and cultural links, before envisioning a path ahead for conserving these monuments of nature that lie interspersed within our concrete jungle.
The urban environment
“The entire world is experiencing a massive shift towards cities, and India is very much a part of this trend. One in every three Indians already lives in cities. In twenty to twenty-five years, one out of every two Indians will live in cities, with the total population in cities more than doubling in this short span,” write the authors.
With this urban-oriented future looming, the authors bring attention to the natural elements of the urban environment that the next generation is going to grow up alongside and emphasise the need to protect it.
However, the book avoids the path of a field guide or a manual – many of which already exist – and instead shifts the narrative to the cultural and natural heritage of trees.
This approach is not rare in the world of conservation where the linkages between communities and nature are often the key in effective ecosystem management. Research has also shown that culture is one of the contributing factors to the way individuals relate to the environment. The IUCN even has a thematic group that focuses on culture to support biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management. And UNESCO regularly emphasises the need for policy making to derive from culture in its pursuit of sustainable cities.
UNESCO in fact recognises natural sites as part of the cultural heritage of people. Some of India’s national parks, gardens and other natural sites are part of the 37 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India, which also include a tree – the Bodhi Tree, an ancient fig tree or a peepal tree (Ficus religiosa) in Bodh Gaya, Bihar.
“In addition to the sacred, mundane daily activities also take place under the peepul tree. It is considered dangerous to lie or cheat while sitting under the peepul tree. Thus, many people prefer to plant the peepul in market spaces, both for the shade it provides and to keep traders from cheating.”
In this context, Cities and Canopies, is successful in making the cultural links to our natural world and moreover, within the limits of our urban surroundings. This narrative is perhaps influenced by Nagendra and Mundoli’s own background. Nagendra is an ecologist who has been researching the interaction between people and environment for over 25 years while Mundoli, who began her career in human resources in the corporate sector, has worked with NGOs and indigenous communities on issues of development. Both are currently educators at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, Karnataka.
With every chapter, the authors tap into the collective memory of a generation that grew up with trees. Nostalgia heavily supports the stories that take you back to memories you never knew you had. The imagined childhood that the authors construct, derives a lot from their own growing up days. And if you happen to have shared a similar childhood, you know exactly what they mean when they talk about using gulmohar flowers to create painted, long nails.
However, this childhood of the past, with life among trees, is also portrayed as somewhat ideal and perhaps even superior to the childhood of today. The authors are critical about screen time and the lack of outdoor activities for children these days, which they elaborate in their chapter called “Tree-Deficit Disorder”. And if you go back to the setting of the extended Indian family gathering, this chapter would be that one relative who can’t resist bringing up the good old days and how life was better “when we were children”.
“Each scarlet flower (of the gulmohar) is surrounded by a ring of oval green sepals, just outside the petals. A favourite pastime for children is to peel the thin reddish layer away from the green underside of the sepal. If you do this carefully, the red top layer peels off at the base, exposing the gummy side. You can stick the gummy underside on to your fingernails. They make your nails look like fierce claws.”
The authors go back and forth from a trip down memory lane to everyday life as an adult, finding an association with trees in mundane settings as well. Have you ever thought of why new apartment complexes and IT companies are lined with palm trees?
“In the first decade of the millennium, a number of Indians returned from various parts of the United States of America (USA), where they worked in the IT sector. They brought with them a preference for palms, which they associated with ideas of progress and upmarket living,” write the authors. “Many IT companies also landscaped their campuses with palms, aiming to give their employees and foreign visitors a great visual experience. Palms quickly became widespread in luxury hotels, beach resorts, airports and gated layouts across large Indian cities. California imported palms from the tropics to get the exotic tropical climate look—India prefers to import palms from exotic foreign tropical locales to get the chic California look. And there we go around in circles, each location copying foreign trends to look cool rather than looking towards its own flora and what suits its native climate.”
Triggering a thought
With an easy style of writing and by breaking down scientific facts into relatable bits of information, the authors make the book accessible to a wide audience. With every few sentences, there’s a bit of trivia punched in which covers everything from Indian favourites like why a particular area of a city is named so or folklore associated with kings of the past. Little surprises are scattered across the book which again reflects the author’s own personalities.
“It is very much a book written by two women, as you will see, with our favourite games, recipes, recommendations for home-made hair oil, poems and stories thrown in too,” write Nagendra and Mundoli. The personality of the trees are also captured in fun illustrations by Alisha Dutt Islam, adding another element that shifts the style away from a scientific guide.
Through 22 chapters, the authors make a strong case for why protecting our urban trees is important. But as the book closes with suggestions for a path ahead for protecting our trees, there is some oversimplification of solutions. With recommendations like urban planners and developers should “consider traipsing around on two feet, asking people how they would like to live,” the authors create an idealistic and romantic notion about planning our cities that pedants will dismiss as good writing, but impractical solutions. It also doesn’t do justice to tremendous work that the authors have done and continue to do on bringing attention to our urban ecology.
In any case, as the authors point out in the following interview with Mongabay-India, the book is not meant to be a field guide or manual. It is to trigger a thought, get the reader thinking about their immediate environment, reaffirm what we perhaps already know and build a collective consciousness towards our urban environment. And sometimes, it’s the lofty ideas that give the first kick for a step in the right direction.
“Whatever your needs and preferences, a city should have space for everyone to find a spot with the trees that they like, which provides them with what they need and where they can feel at home. At least, that is the dream.”
Cities and Canopies is not a book that will be forgotten in dusty libraries. And even though it is tucked away under the “Gardening” section on Amazon India and, as Mundoli narrates, bookshops are unsure whether to categorise it as fiction or non-fiction, this is clearly a mainstream book for all readers.
It’s a book that will make you smile, it’s what you will gift to other city dwellers, it has riddles you’ll tell with your children and it’s what will trigger conversations with your family about shared memories around a certain tree.
An interview with the authors
Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli spoke with Mongabay-India on what went into the making of this book, where they drew their inspiration from and their ideas on communicating science to a mass audience. The interview has been edited for length and readability.
Where did you grow up and where did you build your association with nature?
Harini: I grew up very much in cities. I grew up in Delhi till I was 10 and since then I have been in Bengaluru, with a short stint abroad but very much always in cities. My main association with nature is through the city. All the cities I’ve been in have been connected to nature in some way whether it is the groups like Save Aravallis in Delhi and in Bengaluru there are really strong associations that people have to trees and there are resident groups that are passionately devoted to protecting nature. People may relate to nature in different ways but there is always a connect.
Seema: I grew up in a smaller town, Vishakhapatnam, for the first 20 years of my life. And then I moved cities to Mumbai, Chennai and finally settled in Bengaluru since over a decade. But it’s always in cities where I’ve had my association with nature. For me, there is a very strong influence of connecting to nature from Vishakhapatnam. And then Bengaluru, I saw much more of the interaction of people with nature in cities in Bengaluru than in Mumbai or Chennai. So my childhood personal memory and then seeing citizens interested in urban trees in Bengaluru that have strengthened my association with nature.
You’ve used an unusual style of writing, mixing science, history, pop culture, food recipes and more. Was this a conscious decision to reach out to a mass audience?
Harini: The way we engage with trees ourselves is in this very multi-sensory, multidimensional way and that’s the way most people engage with trees. So in science, when you are doing research, you only focus on the academic aspect. But as individuals, you always look at the same things in a multidimensional way. That was our plan from the very beginning to cover all these different aspects, whatever interested us. I strongly feel that we as scientists, the burden is on us to go out and engage with people in a manner that gets people interested in science and gets it accessible to them. It is definitely an art that we all need to discover and engage with. So very much goal of this book was to communicate science using different hooks – for different people, the hook would be different.
Seema: Harini is a trained ecologist while I left science in my 10th standard and since then I have been doing commerce and economics. So for me, my interaction with nature has not been through the academic field of science. Like me, there will be many who haven’t studied science academically and then there will some who are from the field. We felt we should have some kind of balance in the book.
Harini: In fact one of our most fun experiences after the book is to see all the kids who seem to be reading it now. A friend of mine her son is in the 9th, he actually taken out a section of the book that he marked and sent it to me and the sentence:
The day that we fail to respect our trees and look at them solely in terms of utility will mark the end of nature in the cities—and perhaps the end of our survival too.
I wouldn’t have thought that this would be something that would appeal to a kid. But he wrote to me that the part where you say that this could be “the end of our survival too”, it just hits you in the face.
In your interactions with young students today, what is their relationship or memory of nature?
Seema: I teach a course on urban ecology. One of the things we ask them at the beginning is to submit a picture of what nature in the city means to them. And many of them submit a picture of trees. During the course of writing this book, I had also asked the students in the class, to narrate some stories around trees from their hometowns. One girl from Mangalore told us about the bark of a particular species, the devil’s tree, which is used to make a drink during a particular time in the year. We didn’t know about it and included it in the book. Others had also submitted interesting anecdotes. So, students today are engaged with nature but nobody has asked them the right questions.
Harini: In a course on ecology and development that I teach, I usually ask them right in the beginning: “What is your favourite memory of your favourite spot as a child?” And at the end, we find out that no one listed a memory in a built space. No one listed a mall or a building where they hang out. It’s usually a tree, a stream – whether it’s our students from rural areas or cities – they typically list a spot of nature. And that makes them think about development – if development is going to be built structures, then where is the space for your sense of belonging or nostalgia. So with students, it’s about triggering their thought process.
In the typical debate about environment versus development, how do you envision protecting urban ecology while balancing it with urban development?
Harini: One thing we have been working on right now with colleagues from the Centre for Sustainable Employment and Centre for Law and Policy Research at the Azim Premji University is instead of opting for either environment or development, can we come up with a structure for economic growth and development through protection of the environment.
We have jointly proposed the creation of a National Urban Employment Guarantee Programme, for small and medium-size towns and cities, which provides urban residents a legal right to employment at specified wage rates and number of days. Among the jobs we are proposing, we are recommending linking livelihoods to urban ecology where jobs can be linked to restoring our lakes, restoring our parks, planting trees as well as skilled positions which would look after the maintenance of trees, recording their biodiversity, looking at the cultural and livelihood association of trees and people and more.
We want to change the narrative. The narrative usually is development vs the environment. Here we are saying development through the environment. That’s one thing we feel has the potential to be a game changer. It’s the early days and our colleagues at the university are talking to state governments to see if there is interest in taking this forward.
Banner image: School children under a tree in a Mumbai school. Photo by Ashley Orton/Wikimedia Commons.