To do or not to do?
There are few things in life that leave me utterly fascinated. When you step into the world of forestry, you realize that the world of ecology – leaving behind the technicalities of science and panic-inducing calculus – is one that is filled with wisdom ready to be imparted to anyone who is ready to see, hear and understand. What we do with this wisdom makes us who we are. Like many who have been put off by the consumerist lifestyles, I decided to leave the city; seeking knowledge that would help me become self-sustained and reinforce my feelings of wanting to live a minimalistic life. My studies, another doctrine to adhere to capitalism, only grazed the surface of what I really wanted to do. It’s hard to know what you want to do, easier to know what you don’t. To do or not to do, that was never the question but rather ‘What do I do now?’ was more like it.
The question that repeated itself on a loop, leaving me with little peace, disappeared into nothingness when I came across an organic farm that prioritized preserving one of many life forms that we need to exist: trees
Trees are my love. They’re my source of wonder and fascination; they are my source of inspiration. A majestic old tree is not just a tree, but, a source of infinite wisdom. It is a parent to fungi, bacteria, lichen, moss, orchids, reptiles, bees, mammals, birds; their branches were climbed upon, their hollows inspected and fruits consumed even before we evolved to use opposable thumbs. The quiet strength of a tree, standing tall and wide for hundreds of years can only be discovered when it ceases to be as common as it used to be. I will not talk about the need for timber or poker tables; these are digressions that break my heart. Instead let me talk about why each tree is special, as I learn from it. Let me talk about my current favorite species, and why.
The organic spice plantation I used to work at is barely a plantation. The Rainforest Retreat is more of a forest where coffee, cardamom and other spices is grown where they want to and are supposed to as per their natural selection with minimum interference from humans. The spices grown in Coorg have been shade-grown with planters now moving towards sun grown coffee.
Most coffee and cardamom was grown under the shade of the gigantic Elaeocarpus tuberculatus roxb., commonly known as the Rudraksh or ‘Kunge mara’, amongst others native names. These names involve languages spread across 3-4 states. If that’s not cultural diversity, I don’t know what is. The seed produced is holy or has religious value if it contains the right prerequisites. But the seed and associated holiness is the least interesting part of this tree. 
How is a river born?
Growing up to 40 m, this slow growing tree has beautiful plank buttresses and have a foliage that create a canopy overhead, helping arboreal biodiversity thrive. They (used to) form a major part of evergreen and semi-evergreen forests from the Western Ghats of Karnataka to Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu, predominant along stream banks up to an elevation of 1400 m. These trees drink in a lot of the monsoon showers and have evolved to protect soil from being eroded by the forces of monsoons. Their roots form networks sweeping across forest floors, along with gaping holes created by the buttresses, which help in channelizing monsoon water underground, reviving a groundwater source. These holes also provide refuge to hares, mongooses, civets, snakes, mice and the occasional porcupines. Insects and amphibians are found in head-spinning diversities around these trees creating a beautiful prey-predator cycle. Survival is easier on creatures that depend on what this tree can provide them.
Survival of us Homo sapiens also can be credited to trees such as these. Apart from directing rainwater underground during monsoons, these trees are also known to release it slowly during drier seasons maintaining springs which drain into rivers and reservoirs, providing us with water. The springs in our plantation are perennial thanks to the abundant diversity of the mighty tuberculatus.
But why then is the Cauvery not overflowing, considering that she originates in the same Western Ghats region? Why are people fighting and dying over water scarcity when there should have been a surplus? Let’s forget about the fresh water wasted in government owned holdings and private homes of people working in such holdings. The monsoon that hits the region is orographic. The moisture released from old native trees is what combines with the moisture in the air to give us rainfall. The Cauvery should be able to give copious amounts of water considering all these factors, right? No. The reason is simple: logging.
Trees such as the rudraksh were taken off the no-cutting list for a little while sometime in 2015, enabling certain profiteers to loot our land of its richness, biodiversity and culture. Like the tuberculatus, many native trees have been felled and sold for profit, and replaced with exotic trees such as acacia, silver oak and casuarinas: fast growing timber trees with sparse vegetation that helps coffee grow and helps reduce labour costs of shade cutting (coffee requires about 60% sunlight, 40% shade is provided by trimming trees and branches post monsoons). And that’s all. That’s the only use of these exotic species, benefiting one or few Homo sapiens for whom no other life matters but their own. Those who fight over water need to fight for trees.
The Cauvery has been flowing in her course for possibly millions of years. Governments did not design her course; people depended on her even before borders were drawn on paper maps. And yet, we look at how much water we have now and bicker over “our” water, a concept that fails logic: how does water from an ancient river belong to one race or another? Instead of building dams and interlinking rivers, we need to grow and preserve native species, species that understand our monsoons. We need to protect our ancient trees as we protect our Gods. After all, if what the Tuberculatus does is not a miracle, then what is?
Shivani is a ecology enthusiast and conservationist with an obsession to unravel the secrets a forest hold. Working with soil, pencils, ink, watercolors and acrylic are her passions, with her subjects revolving around forests and landscapes. She is interested in agroforestry projects and wants to learn more about mycorrhizal networks. You can find updates from her at www.instagram.com/dendrophilette.