In 1914, Alfred Joyce Kilmer wrote a poem titled Trees: I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth is prest/ Against the earth’s sweet-flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day,/ And lifts her leafy arms to pray; A tree that may in summer wear/ A nest of robins in her hair; Upon whose bosom snow has lain;/ Who intimately lives with rain. Poems are made by fools like me,/ But only God can make a tree.
But we in Pakistan think that is hogwash. The Express Tribune issue of May 9 carried a news item about the cutting down of seven trees in Jinnah Supermarket, Islamabad. It detailed that the builder of a new plaza did not agree with the ugly view (as reported) that these 40-year-old trees presented to the plaza. I ask you! We are told that the Capital Development Authority only acted after the trees were destroyed to suspend the official concerned and impose a fine of Rs50,000 per tree.
There are two things about trees and us. For one, we do not know our indigenous species. And that may be because all of us have come from Arabia, Turkey, Iran or Central Asia. We first blighted this land with eucalyptus to such an extent that so-called educated people do not know that it is an alien from Australia. Now we are disfiguring it with cornucorpus, rubber tree, asoka and whatever else we can import from any old place.
The other thing is that we simply lack the acumen to see the connection between trees and ecology. So where we should be planting indigenous banyan, pipal and neem trees — to name only a few — we have diseased the land with useless species that give neither shade nor fruit nor sanctuary to our fast dwindling avian friends. Mind you, once the song of the birds is gone; we will die from a loneliness of the soul.
But the lout in Islamabad is no exception. About 18 years ago, a house was built in K Block, Model Town, Lahore. It being a corner plot, there were eight magnificent biri patti trees along the boundary. All were chopped down. As the process was afoot, I paused to take up the issue with the perpetrators. They — simple workers — said the owner wanted his house to be seen from outside. Of course, who wouldn’t when they have a façade of bathroom tiles! Even today, a couple of stumps still remind me of once beautiful spreading trees.
In 2003 or thereabouts, a new road connected Thokar Niaz Beg with WAPDA Town. It swung past a clump of three handsome pipal trees about opposite the electric grid station in Johar Town. Then it was a single two-way road. In 2004, its second track was planned. I hurried to photograph the pipal trees because I knew they figured nowhere in the grand scheme of the morons who rule our miserable lives. Sure enough, the trees, those magnificent heroes who purified the air we breathed and who sequestered the carbon that we madly generated so that this world could still be liveable for us, were brutally cut down. There was no question of anyone even considering giving the road a little swing to one side in order to let the trees live. They disappeared from sight and memory. Today, they exist only in a set of 35mm transparencies in my collection.
Come with me to my ancestral village Uggi. On the highroad to it from Jalandhar city, amid carefully tended fields of whatever may be in season, the road suddenly divides in two. There in the middle of it stands a lovely pipal tree. I joked with my kinsman Bakhshish Singh who was driving me home to Uggi: “Cut it down, you fool. It has no business in the middle of a road”.
An aghast Bakhshish stopped the car. He turned around to look me straight in the eye. “Never ever must you talk of destroying a tree,” he said. “Here we value trees more than we value human life. They are our truest friends who only do us good; and they ask for no recompense.”
So what really went wrong with us?
Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2012.
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