S02E06: On Befriending Trees

In conversation with Sadhana Ramchander and Kobita Dass Kolli

Or listen to it here:


Nidhi: So both Sadhana and Kobita knew the park well so we did some big spots in the park. Like there was a cannonball, what they called the Cannonball Valley, which is basically a row of Cannonball trees and that was the time when Cannonball was in bloom so we walked there and we sat. Then there is a space where there are lots of Temple trees. So we walked around… (fading)

Arpita: This is Srinidhi, one third of TCC who prefers working behind the scenes and is the technical and practical head in our mix of three!

Deepika: And I see that she’s been telling you about her forays into the parks and gardens of Hyderabad..

Arpita: Yeah, like all of us, Nidhi too was indoors a lot through the pandemic period, and the moments of respite were the walks and outings to nearby parks. But this was a special walk that she’s describing here.

Deepika: The one with the Hyderabad Tree Enthusiasts Group, right. I remember she was really excited to have found them and every once in a while she would share a photo of these beautiful flowering trees with us.

Arpita: I think from all that we heard of them it just made absolute sense to try and organise a chat with them.

Deepika: So who are the ‘them’ – who are the people behind the Hyderabad Tree Group?

Arpita: Well they’re two amazing women – the first is Sadhana.

Sadhana: I’m Sadhana Ramchander. So I am basically an editor. I have my own consultancy called blue pencil info design and I work on books. Okay, so what we do is to edit design and handle coordination of printing. So that’s basically what we do for dal roti, whatever. But I’m very interested in nature, have always been interested. And this interest, you know, became a passion. And I started more and more wandering in nature. When I could like, after one stage in life, when my children grew up, that’s when I could do it. Otherwise, I was busy with all the usual stuff in life.

Arpita: And curating these walks alongside Sadhana, is Kobita.

Kobita: So I’m Kobita Dass Kolli, basically a student of botany and plant sciences. But an amateur naturalist by passion. I also did a stint in between designing watches so I think you know attention to detail and looking close for patterns and you know getting inspired by nature, all of this I think perhaps you know played a role in making me that much more interested in what is around me.

Deepika: Sadhana and Kobita – got it!

Arpita: You know because of the pandemic we ended up doing most of our chats with our guests on zoom, but with this conversation we kinda got lucky.

Deepika: You mean Nidhi had a chance to actually meet them and chat with them? It’s odd na how that seems like such a novel idea now?

Arpita: I know what you mean – learning to re-socialise post the lockdowns and social distancing has been a task in itself! So she got a chance to actually do a real meet and greet kind of chat and the best part was that it was at Indira Park – which is a beautiful public park which the tree group also frequents and clearly both, Kobita and Sadhana, know it pretty well.

Nidhi shared this bit where Kobita was telling her about the value of old or even dead trees that they spotted around.

Kobita: Like the old trees which you can see even around you here in Indira Park. Many of them have lost their tops and you know they’re kind of gnarled and misshapen and fewer branches, but they still house a lot wildlife, it’s amazing.

So that’s one of the most surprising things for us, especially who have not considered, we’re not arborous or you know, things like that. So, you know, we have not thought of these things that the life of the tree doesn’t end with when it loses most of its branches and is looking too old and perhaps ready to die, but actually there’s so much life going on around it and we ought to consider that before we think about, you know, trimming it or removing it.

Arpita: I also loved this bit from the chat with Sadhana where she’s showing Nidhi the Calabash tree or the Beggar’s bowl tree in Indira Park and sharing the excitement of discovering it for the first time.

Sadhana: One of our walks we came here suddenly saw these flowers: Oh my god, you know, that was such a lovely discovery! And now every day I walk past it and I see whether there are flowers or not. So this kind of a thing where the flowers grow on the trunk is called cauliflory, like jackfruit how the fruit comes on the trunk. So this is one of the amazing things in nature.

Deepika: How lovely to have been able to do this in person – both these nuggets of information! I bet Nidhi is not going to forget the concept of ‘cauliflory’ in a hurry now after that beautiful introduction! There’s something to learning while actually seeing, touching and feeling that’s very different from sitting in a classroom.

Arpita: Yeah, experiential learning or learning by doing allows one to engage fully – intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially and physically – it’s a full bodied participation in the process of learning. Something one definitely appreciates much more after being confined and isolated for so long thanks to the pandemic, especially kids I’m sure.

And you know what’s really interesting is that when Nidhi asked Sadhana about tracing how and where the idea of the Hyderabad Tree group came from, it turned out that it was from a school learning space – Vidyaranya – the school where her daughter studied.

Sadhana: My children were studying in Vidyaranya. And one day, I went to the principal, Shanta Rameswar Rao, and I said, “You know, why don’t you introduce a gardening class, start a gardening class in the school, because children in cities really don’t know how a seed sprouts into a plant. They would have never seen it”. And so Shanta Rameswar Rao is a very unique person, so she said, “Why don’t you start the class yourself?” Then I said – “okay”, you know, I said, “let me take it as a challenge”. And I took that, and I said, fine, I’ll start it. And really, without knowing how I was going to do it, I started for class four, because my daughter was in class four at that time, that simple reason. And so what happened was, it slowly took off. The first year, we just did seven classes once a week. And we made them grow some small, you know, coriander, and methi and some flowering plants, hollyhocks we had grown at that time.

Deepika: Was Kobita also a part of this? How did the two of them meet?

Arpita: As it turned out Kobita’s daughter was also studying in the same school and the two got a chance to meet there.

Sadhana: And then I was telling her that, you know, we started on a gardening class last year with a group of parents. Now those parents are not interested in doing it with me. I’m looking for someone to do it with. And she said, “Oh, I love nature. And I would love to do this with you”. So this was way back in 2002. So then we became a team. And we discovered that you know, she’s very interested, I’m very interested. And we started doing the classes. And it was a lot of fun and it was an evolving thing, we kind of made the whole syllabus ourselves. And many children loved it. And, oh, they used to love the gardening class, it was always outdoors. And we slowly added so many components to it – it was a lot of fun. So then, many people started telling us that it’s something that makes a big difference, even parents started telling us. And so that was the, really the first step.

Deepika: I can’t help but notice that while these might have been the first step in terms of their larger classroom and community engagement – both of them sound like they’ve carried a love for the natural world all their lives and Kobita seems to have even pursued it in her education.

Arpita: That does seem to be the case doesn’t it? Kobita shared how being an only child, she spent a lot of time outdoors by herself ‘pottering about’ as she put it and pulled out these lovely warm images of a childhood spent with trees.

Kobita: My first memory I think was of a Semal, it was a giant Silk Cotton in school, in our car parking area and every spring when it burst into bloom, I think more than admiring the blooms at the top of the tree because it was such a huge tree, I would look down and find those sepal cups and I used to love those and I used to collect ever so many of them, you know, the satiny hairs, the shine of it. I think that was an enduring memory for me and I think I used to do that every year, year on year. And I also remember the Maulsari the Bakula – there was one grand old tree in my uncle’s garden and I remember spending mornings collecting the flowers off the ground and stringing them up; and even the Parijat, Nyctanthes, I used to love the perfume and play with those flowers as well.

Deepika: How very lovely! Was it the same with Sadhana?

Arpita: Yes, I think she also shares a rich heritage of a childhood full of trees.

Sadhana: When we were children, there were trees everywhere. There were definitely many more trees then than there are now. So I grew up in Warangal and we had an old house and I guess you know, it’s the memory of my grandmother feeding me under a Jasmine creeper, it’s called Jajji in Telugu, under that. And in our backyard we had a huge tamarind tree on which a lot of monkeys used to come.

Deepika: There were just more trees around even in our childhoods!

As a child, I remember outside my window were these two Amaltas trees. And drawing the curtains in the morning, the world awash in these bright yellow flowers, dripping, tripping over themselves, so giddy and gleeful. That transformation from no flowers to a blooming tree would occur so quietly, almost as if it wanted to make a statement.

Arpita: Amaltas really is a gorgeous tree! But you know in quite a contrast to your bright sort of yellow moment, the memory that flits across my mind is rather I think solemn, from my stay as a child in Karwar, a coastal town near Goa.

I remember watching the silhouette of Silver Oaks and Casuarina trees in the night from my window, listening to the wind swoosh through them and just feeling really grateful for their presence because they were a barrier between my house and the endless enormous ocean that lay beyond – I think i felt protected by them.

Deepika: It seems like a challenge to not have a fond memory of some sort related to trees really, especially from one’s childhood. I hope that remains true for the kids in the future too. You know but tell me how did the gardening experiment with the children inspire the tree walks?

Arpita: You know I remembered how from our last year’s chat with S Vishwanath, the Rainwater Harvesting expert who follows Zen philosophy, that he often shared how much of what he was doing arrived serendipitously at his door – and as Kobita explained how they came to do the walks – I couldn’t help think how often this is true in our lives!

Kobita: So while Sadhana and me were busy doing our school activities, one of the parents, way later, suggested one day. I think he was a Prof in IIIT. And the surroundings are beautiful because it was a part of Central University. And he suggested why don’t we come and do a tree walk for the students there and we agreed. We went on a Sunday morning. The professors and their children actually and their family showed.. families showed up and it was actually a wonderful walk. Sadhana and me also learned a lot at that point, you know. Because I think for ever so long we were focused on ornamental trees rather than you know wild and then, you know, suddenly we realized that oh my goodness, there is so much more, right and why not? And the beauty is that in Hyderabad you do come across a lot of these wild species even in parks. So that was the beginning of you know a tree walk.

Arpita: And from then on they were both invited by schools or colleges or other such spaces and they would do these tree walks for those select groups.

Deepika: So when did it take on the shape it has now?

Arpita: I think both of them traced it back to around 2016 when Sadhana was participating in the Hyderabad Literary Fest.

Kobita: Sadhana was part of the organizing committee for the Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF). She was walking around the Hyderabad Public School premises and found that you know, they had some fabulous old trees including two very special Baobabs. And when the committee was trying to find activities, outdoor activities for you know, the visitors to the HLF, she suggested why don’t we do a tree walk?

Arpita: Which they did! There were two-three walks that they curated through the two days. It was fittingly called ‘From Baobab to Baobab’ and these walks turned out to be quite a success.

Deepika: But wait – did you say Baobab? Isn’t that the tree from the book The Little Prince?

Arpita: You know when I heard them say that Baobab’s are found in Hyderabad – I immediately told Nidhi that we have to go visit them when I make my way to Hyderabad next – cause as you know both of us are absolutely in love with the boo The Little Prince.

Deepika: But didn’t you tell me once that you’ve found them somewhere in India already?

Arpita: Yeah in Indore. It’s called Badi Imli there and I carried back a fruit which still has a prized spot on my table even now. So the idea of visiting more of them is always exciting for me. Though i have since discovered that its also unpoetically called the Dead Rat Tree sometimes cause of how the fruit looks so I’m rethinking my table decorations. Anyhow, from those Baobab walks, the tree walks took on a life of their own as Sadhana explains.

Sadhana: So that was actually the starting point for people to know about us. Otherwise, nobody knew. And that was when Shyam Penubolu, one of the people who came for the walk, he started this group. So then he made us admins, and then slowly it started growing. Now we have some almost 200 people on the group. But that’s the beginnings of the group.

Deepika: I see what you mean by the serendipitous nature of the coming into being of this group. The deep passion and love for nature that Sadhana and Kobita have has meandered and formed itself into a path that’s slowly been finding its own meaning and direction and collecting fellow travellers as it moves along!

Arpita: You know Nidhi asked both of them what motivates them to curate and organise these walks and even though Nidhi chatted with them separately – their response was almost identical! This was Kobita.

Kobita: You know I don’t look at it as work at all. I’m so happy doing this. It’s just, I don’t know perhaps I’m being selfish because I enjoy this so much that, you know, having others around me and you know sharing what we know or you know chatting with them, that’s just a bonus. Just enjoying this so much, you know. So I can be out on my own or I can be with the group of people. But I must say that you know, it’s fabulous being out with people really and sharing, you know, all that we know and the way we see and notice things. But I love to be out on my own as well.

Arpita: And Sadhana said something very similar –

Sadhana: So it’s not really we don’t look at it as work. It’s just something that we have discovered and we continue to be excited and we continue to discover new things, which is what we feel that okay, we will tell a few others about it. Hopefully that they will also become, you know, the resource people and then they will tell a group of people and so the word will spread. That is what motivates us.

Deepika: Yeah, their strong sense of discovery and enjoyment is already coming through in not just their words but from their voices really!

Arpita: One feels how at the heart of the whole endeavour is this almost ecstatic joy and so much curiosity to know and engage with the world around.

Deepika: So how do these walks actually work? Is it like the birding walks that Deepa organises?

Arpita: Well not quite. There is more fluidity here I think, especially as the group is still evolving – I’ll let Kobita explain.

Kobita: At first we wanted to explore all the parks we had so, the larger parks, so we would you know, I think we started with the Kasu Brahmanandha Reddy Park and we didn’t even step into the park. We actually did the outer walkway and it was absolutely fascinating. It was. It was great. And then slowly, of course, we did Sanjeeviah and then we did Indra Park. And then Sadhana and me found – we were still teaching in school and we were, we would take the children for their February walks to a park and then we suddenly realized yeah this you know, this was the season that we would like people to see and we did that as well.

Arpita: And from those spring walks, emerged the idea that trees and landscapes were doing different things during different seasons so why not do more seasonal walks? Both pointed out how it was simultaneously a process of learning for the two guides too as they figured which venue was the best for which season.

Kobita: And after that we’ve done drives, you know seasonal or scenic or we’ve even been to reserve forests and you know generally ramble, rambled about you know. So there’s no set itinerary.

Deepika: So what happens once a place and time to meet is selected and shared with the group?

Arpita: Well it’s simple enough from there, one arrives, the group pulls together and the walk begins.

Kobita: We just walk in, we start with whichever tree catches our eye and then after that we just proceed with you know, whatever catches anyone’s eye for that matter. And it could be anything, you know, whether it’s tree bark or the flowers or a little shrub or an insect or bird. So that’s how it goes. We try normally to proceed at a fair pace so that we can finish a certain perambulation around the park, but there have been instances, especially when it’s just me and that we’ve done I think about maybe 30 to 40 feet in an hour and a half. So I guess it’s you know, how interesting we find it and how enthusiastic everyone else is.

Deepika: Tree walk seems like an meta idea, from what Kobita is describing it seems like the walk is just as much an appreciation club for all that happens in and around trees as well!

Arpita: Oh for sure – Kobita said this too.

Kobita: I mean you’re looking at a blade of grass, there’s an insect and then there is a dry leaf. There is, you know, a termite hill, there’s n number of things happening. It can be very exciting and then the children add to it as well. You see they’d go off at a tangent, teacher why don’t you look at this and you know, something like that and it just.. it just goes off.

Arpita: Also she expanded on how there is so much more to the experience than just learning something new. So much of this is about also about leaving the everyday ‘busy-ness’ and just be for a bit.

Kobita: From my point of view it’s just, its sheer enjoyment. It can be absolutely meditative if you can, if you want to say. But it’s just a break from the regular humdrum you know. Take a couple of hours away from that and your mind is just completely elsewhere. You’re looking at something else. You’re discussing something else and you’re outdoors. It just makes for a very refreshing experience and it’s kind of rejuvenating and I think it kind of, it enhances your senses and like, you know DH Lawrence says there’s a sixth sense.

Arpita: Kobita is referring here to DH Lawrence calling the sense of wonder our sixth sense.

Kobita: I think that makes makes a huge difference, you know, so and I think it helps in creativity, paying attention. After that you have this feeling of well-being of just kind of satisfaction at the end of the walk and then you’re all geared to go back and tackle whatever situation you want to. And that you know – the laughter, the sharing – I think that also is something else altogether. It’s hard to experience those kinds of things, you know. Exclaiming over, you know, a leaf pattern or you know, a bird hidden in a tree hole. That’s something else altogether, you know, you don’t come by that sort of experience normally. So I think that’s what draws people to the walk.

Deepika: You know these are often quoted as advantages of the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, or Forest Bathing – how it’s good for both physical and mental wellbeing. This form of park and tree bathing is now our urban equivalent!

Arpita: Yeah, it makes sense to make the most of what we’ve got instead of waiting for five day trips to run out of the city once in six months! And as word has spread the group has developed, there are regulars of course but also a fair smattering of new people show up and add their hues to the experience.

Sadhana: So interestingly, different walks, different people come. It’s not the same people. So there’ll be at least a minimum of 10 people who come. Sometimes there are 25 people. So there are some constants, they always come. And there are some every time new people come. So it’s nice because we also meet different people. And, you know, we get to interact with them. Then somebody will say, hey, I know this farm, it’s a great place, why don’t we go there? Then we go and explore that farm.

Deepika: Speaking of observation, I’m reminded of something Sherlock Holmes says in one of his books, ‘you see but you do not observe’. As Kobita mentioned, it’s not just about the trees. What you’re also learning at a subconscious level is also how to bring our attention to the spaces and places we dwell in and pass through on a daily basis.

Arpita: For sure, we all live in the same kind of urban surroundings that Sadhana and Kobita do but how many of us can really name even five trees from our neighbourhood? You know the way Nidhi described her experience of the walk – they sound really immersive. For an hour or so you are totally present and giving attention to the world you live within daily but don’t really know.

Sadhana put it particularly poignantly in this bit I thought, where Nidhi spoke to her about being able to recognise and name trees.

Sadhana : I believe that more than learning the name, it’s important to open that thing in people’s minds that look up as I call my book, no, just look up.

Arpita: Just Look Up…To See The Magic In The Trees Around You – is a book Sadhana wrote in 2014.

Sadhana: People drive on the road, there are these rows and rows of beautiful flowering trees. Now you have the Tree of Gold flowering on the Khairatabad Road, they will not see because they’re so immersed in their own everyday problems that they will not see them. So my simple thing is ‘just look up’. Later on you get curious, you learn, you want to know the name. So I call it like be-friending a tree, the tree becomes your friend. And once the tree becomes your friend, you start observing that tree and for me, the friendship is complete when you observe every stage of the tree. First you see, you will notice it when it flowers. After that you will see the pods then you start seeing the leaves, what it does in different seasons. So once you observe all these things, then really that tree is your friend. You will never miss it.

Deepika: I fully resonate with that. And you know this conversation keeps reminding me of The Little Prince! The bit where the fox talks to the Prince about ‘taming’ each other – how the whole process is bereft of words but full of small daily meaningful gestures of attention till one day they become unique to each other.

Arpita: Yeah, befriending a tree must feel very similar. And later in the book the Prince actually says: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

And you know it’s so strange but this has already played out with this group in some ways – the repeated protests against the axing of the Chevella banyans – which are a long row of almost 10,000 old trees many of which are banyans rich with life – and its being done for the widening of National Highway 163.

Sadhana: So our mission is to teach people to appreciate nature, children and adults, that is our mission. So we really didn’t want to get into activism. But when we saw the, the banyans are going to be chopped down to make a road, we thought we have to do something about it. And we were lucky because we had a group of people who were like, all out to, you know, go on protest in a big way, for this. So that is how we got into that. And we were successful. I mean, a lot of good things happened. And, you know, we really worked very, very hard the entire summer of I think, 2018 we worked for this. And our work got noticed. And we actually saw proof that it was because of these protests, that they stopped that.

See it’s only when you care for something we want to protect it right? So if you don’t care about trees you will not notice when somebody is axing it down.

Arpita: Here Sadhana is speaking of the protest a couple of years back but the whole thing came up all over again in late 2021 and protests are going on even as we record.

Deepika: It’s interesting isn’t it – we’ve been speaking to people involved in urban ecology across different Indian cities and this keeps coming up. How a project that seems detrimental to the natural world keeps finding its way back again and again – requiring multiple protests. So I must ask this – just based on what they’ve been observing, what are their thoughts on how our cities are and are not embracing the wild and in particular their relationship with trees?

Arpita: Yeah this was a question Nidhi did put to both of them.

Sadhana: See I love the city, because there are a lot of things happening and you know city is very comfortable to live in. But what I feel is that the government should not interfere with whatever nature that already exists. See Haritha Haram is all very fine in Telangana. They are planting more trees, but the existing trees should not be chopped down. Existing wilderness should not be disturbed. This is a very, very important aspect.

Kobita: Its hard to say. I feel that you know most people really don’t understand the basic importance of the tree or any of the other plants around us. They are only looking at it from the perspective of what humans get out of it, right? So therein lies, there’s one problem, there is a short-coming actually there. That viewpoint that you know, it has to give us something and only then.

Arpita: Kobita also pointed out that while the tree planting drives are important, its equally important to take into consideration the natural vegetation of the region.

Kobita: Basically it’s a scrub landscape and there are certain areas where you know, trees will grow we will introduce trees and trees will grow well and there are certain areas that you know, they won’t. And then added to that is the climate which has changed so much over the past decades that we can see that difference. The trees don’t grow as well as they used to. In this scenario, tree planting has become a tokenism, near tokenism and a numbers game basically because we’re not managing the trees that we have already and then the tree planting again is – the species may not be appropriate and the place where they plant is also inappropriate and the way they do the planting is also inappropriate. So we’re not thinking about the tree per se.

Arpita: And both spoke to how the scrub regions themselves are valuable. We often have a tendency to be dismissive of them but they’re seasonal landscapes that are suited to that climatic geographic niche and hence provide a whole hoard of eco-system services that we often don’t even recognise!

Deepika: Yeah, it’s odd how in Indian urban planning we often see this strange pre-occupation with the exotic, you know trying to turn our cities into Beijing or London – even in terms of the kinds of vegetation they have. Wouldn’t it be so much more original and overall more sustainable if we incorporated what is native to the region?

Arpita: Yes and this was something Sadhana alluded to with regards to the approach of sanctioning, building and managing parks in the city and why they might need some rethinking too.

Sadhana: Slowly section by section, they’re starting to put outdoor gyms in one place, they build a yoga shed. So slowly, and then a whole lot of nurseries to cater to Haritha Haram. So when they want to put nursery they will remove all the wild plants and you know, shrubs and all that and then make a nursery there. These wild plants are very important, because you get these beautiful wild flowers and lots of insects thrive on that. So we need all these things for the entire, there’s a connection in the in the whole, the ecosystem is very important. They have to preserve that.

Arpita: You know, as it happens, I went to Lalbagh just after listening to this conversation with Sadhana and Kobita – and while I was there, we walked through a section of the park which is full of the aforementioned scrub and grass, nothing like the otherwise fairly manicured and tended parts of the park. And in this season it was almost like a field of tall Rattlepods lined up with their unfurling yellow flowers. There were flowering sedges and tall heads of grasses in millions and these little muddy ponds with algae and lush moss linings – so much life – at such moments noone has to tell you the ‘point’ of a scrub jungle really – it’s so self evident how vital it is to a rich eco-system.

Deepika: Yeah, the past two decades of research and science are telling us what I think most nature lovers instinctively know – that the world around us is really full of its own logic and meaningfulness. Seasonal and ephemeral landscapes play important roles within eco-systems. I think it’s odd how we can so easily dismiss or forget that.

Arpita: Yes and Kobita added this really poignant bit about the need for incorporating green in urban planning.

Kobita: A city has to grow. Yes. You know and urban spaces will change, all that is very well. But we ought to, very urgently, remember that those pockets of green that we have or brown, whatever – are fundamental to our well-being. So we have to design our urban areas with those in pockets, you know, like little button forests or things like that you know. And work around these spaces not raze them and move you know and say that ‘oh, we’ve moved, you know, forest to the other.. or moved the trees to the you know, convenient space outside there somewhere. That’s not going to help. It’s just going to increase the stresses on the city. So for the well-being of the city and its residents, you have to have those spaces within the city within your habitation.

Deepika: You know the other day, I came across this quote by Joanna Macy, an environmental activist and author, that has stayed with me and particularly comes back to me now as I think of the Hyderbad Tree Enthusiasts group. Macy says: “If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear.”

Arpita: Like Sadhana said – we protect what we love and really there is much that this group can teach us about reconnecting, reimagining and loving the world that we live in!

Outro: If you wish to know more about the Hyderabad Tree Enthusiasts group or want to join it – both Sadhana and Kobita can be found on instagram or you can write to us and we’ll put you in touch. We aren’t quite done with this duo yet though. In our extra with Sadhana, we take quick tips from her on how we can reintroduce urban children to the natural world. So we hope you’ll listen in!

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This podcast was created by Srinidhi Raghavan, Deepika Khatri and Arpita Joshi. The sound editing was by Vijay Chawla.