The tall tree

The tall tree

The tree stands tall—head and shoulders above the rest. Its long round bole reaches straight to the sky. Its branches hold out firmly, even as the leaves toss around and whisper with the wind. With its first branch at over a hundred feet and the uppermost leaves nearly half as much higher, the tree is one to reckon with—even a monkey would need to work hard to climb it.

High above, the tall tree’s branches hold clusters of red-brown, two-winged fruit. A gust of wind tosses the high branches and a couple of winged fruits with their package of seed take to the air and go whirring in the wind. In evening light, they are like fiery butterflies pirouetting in an aerial ballet.

The tree is a landmark, for those who choose to see it as one. In the distance, the weaving tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra courses through a winding dip in the land. The forest around is dwarfed by the tall tree. Across farms and scrubby undergrowth tangled with vines, only a smattering of trees meets the eye, and there are none so large. The tall tree is special. What does it stand for, even if it stands alone?

Diptero1

From fallen seed to stately landmark, the tree has been here long. One imagines the year it is born, when its first leaves emerge in a little sunfleck below a lofty forest. Years pass in dense shade, before a thunderstorm, or perhaps the lashing of a monsoon rain, brings down a nearby tree and gives the seedling a new lease of life. With sunlight streaming into the forest, the seedling surges upward, along with nearby clumps of bamboo and pioneers. Herds of elephants pass by, noisily feeding on the bamboo; more softly pass the deer, that feed on herbs and fruits.

As years turn to decades and then centuries, the seedling grows into a tree, bold and straight, up into the canopy. The trunk is magically cylindrical as the lower branches give way to the higher, leaving scarcely a trace. High above, within the dome-like canopy where a branch has broken off, the fungi are carving a hollow. A hollow that will perhaps be a calling-hole for the tokay gecko, or a home for a hornbill pair, a flying squirrel or civet, or an eagle-owl. The elephants still pass by the tree and the trunk is smoother and moss-free on the side of their path, where they enjoy a good scratch.

Who is the first human to see this tree? Perhaps it is one of the subjects of the king who ruled the land when the elephants first established their scratching post. A barefoot forest-dweller, who also scratched the bark, but with a machete, and waited for the resin to collect. He would burn it as incense and use it in medicine.

Or, the first man to see the tree is a native of the colony, as the land came to be called later with the rulers from the west. He needs wood for his hut—fuel, poles, rafters—but there are many other trees around, easier to cut and haul. The man stops, briefly, scratches a little resin, and goes his way.

Or, maybe, it is a forester, the span of whose career is a small fraction of the tree’s lifetime. He stops, admires the straight bole and frowns at the flanging buttresses, and decides that the cut can wait a bit longer. The path of the elephants is widened now and is called a road. Along the road, his bungalow is not far, and neither are the creeping farms and plantations, nor the saw mill.

Finally, the man is transformed from subject and native and colonist to citizen, and the landscape around slowly changes in the new nation. The air is different, too, as the new people vent their wastes into it. Molecule by molecule, growth-season by season, the tree faithfully assimilates the collective breath of humanity into the silent history in its wood. The tree and the land around is a history book, but there is no one to read it.

Now, the botanists and ecologists are here. With rapt attention, they try to place the tree, which they call a dipterocarp, within the bounded scope of their understanding. They try to unravel its mysteries, its overwhelming significance in the shrinking forests. Yet, they are just scratching the surface, like the resin tapper, only he has been doing it for centuries.

* * *

In a distant court, the strike of a gavel marks a defining moment. It decrees that the forests with the tall trees, what is left of them, shall be felled no more. A wave of protest rises over this seemingly unjust ruling. What will happen to the saw mills that cut the trees? To the elephants who haul the logs, who may now miss their loads, their chains, and their flogging, only to beg on the streets for an ounce of humanity? To the people, who are said to depend on forests for their livelihoods? To the state, which prefers to measure its progress with metal, mortar, and money?

The forest all around is gone, slashed for agriculture, clawed-out for minerals, smothered by plantations, submerged by dams, logged by industry, burnt by fire and human ire. No hornbills venture here, nor deer—they keep to the distant hills. The occasional, befuddled herd of elephants tries to make use of their historical passage, on the path that has become a road and through the forest that has become plantation and farm. Their great journeys have now become mere trespass. They are chased this way and that, by one group of people or another.

Diptero2

Alongside the river now, a spread of paddy fields, their boundaries neatly edged with little bunds, and a small, uniform cluster of minor trees—a plantation rather than a forest—these are visible. Scattered houses with sloping roofs, with a thatched barn or shed, are ringed with familiar greens—a few palms, a couple of jacks, some bananas, hibiscus, and the inevitable tuft of bamboo. With snaking narrow, muddy tracks linking to each other, these are the scratch-marks of people in the landscape.

Are these the final years of the tree? Or will it span another minor human lifetime? The wood from the other tall dipterocarp trees has gone around the world. People live in homes of dipterocarp wood, with dipterocarp floors and cots and chairs and tables. Families mark their human years, decades, and generations, with the wood of trees that had watched centuries pass. The wood is of lasting quality—even when dead, it will outlast the pitifully short human lives.

The tall tree, somehow, has escaped the axe. Gusts of wind still carry its seeds, like twirling beads of hope, over the dwarfed landscape. Where the tall tree still stands, it stands alone to mark the forest that once was.

29 Replies to “The tall tree”

  1. speechless…with awe at your writing..this is beautiful, fellow..looove it.

    and did not know that dipterocarps produce resin which is used..

    1. Thanks Aparajita. And about the resin, yes, they do produce it. Sometime ago, there was this interesting news of fossil arthropods from India trapped in Dipterocarp amber. Dipterocarps in Gujarat, 52 million years ago! A more sobering reference is our recent experience in Sinharaja, Sri Lanka. A nature trail leads to this spectacular dipterocarp (Shorea stipularis) grandly towering into closed canopy rainforest. This is a critically endangered Sri Lankan endemic. There is a platform below the tree where you can stand at its base and admire it. In case your admiration needs to be fed information, there is a board which names the tree, provides its height and girth and volume of timber. The last line says it all, pithily, about how we view these trees: “Uses: Best for plywood and resins.”

  2. Feel sad for the solitary tree Sridhar. You brought this sadness in my heart by your captivating writing. By the way can you tell us its scientific name Sridhar?

  3. your writing tugs at the heart strings….helplessly..collective guilt..at the plight of the lone tall tree…
    applaud you .for speaking up for the tall tree..n wonder how many of us will listen.?????not just read..

  4. Sometimes we get so intertwined in Journals, analysis and the next data collection frenzy. This lovely piece breaks that monotony, clears the cobwebs of the entangled mind and reconnects it with something I cannot find words to describe.
    One will have to read this article to feel it!

  5. Very emotive and eloquently written…may the tree live long…and may such ‘history books’ find a place in people’s hearts and minds.

    1. Thanks everyone for your comments. Trees such as this caught my imagination when I first travelled to north-east India in 1993 and then again in 1994-5 during my Masters research in Mizoram. In an article written in 1994 I find I have written a line about these trees in the landscape around Silchar and the Cachar hills and plains of Assam: “Here and there among houses and seas of paddy, tea, bamboo and teak, stood huge, ponderous evergreen trees—silent symbols of the kind of forests that must have clothed the land at one time.” This piece has since grown in my mind seeing other dipterocarps in the Western Ghats, in the Andamans, north-east India, Sri Lanka, and south-east Asia. Not to mention this fascinating study that aged and tracked past climate change from a single fallen dipterocarp in Borneo.
      (@Dr Johnsingh: Dipterocarpus macrocarpus/Hollong; the photos here are of a Dipterocarpus sp. in a similar landscape from the Andamans).

  6. Thanks Sridhar for that simple, but effective article..

    Loved every part of it, from the seed, to elephants & deers passing, to court room..

    Thanks once again..

  7. Recently I saw the documentry The Dream Of Trees & I can relate the Rainforest trees sustaining for long & now some are gone but again the Ecological Restoration project made great attempt recovery & trust me Sridhar sir I got the visuals while reading the piece. So beautiful it is.

  8. Such a beautiful story line.. The writer is an amazing story teller.! The synchrony of words are beautiful. Moreover it is written in a way that one can visualise the whole scenario.
    I completely felt the emotion while reading this piece.

  9. This is so beautifully written,i felt like i was right there with the tree and I could actually imagine a hole with a gecko or how the forester must have stopped and decided that he will give the tree a little more time.
    I am so glad i got to read this.

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