Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Meeting an ancient tree

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Excerpt from "Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan"

On the walk from Thandiani to Nathiagali, as one approaches Dagri Forest Rest House, one cannot miss the sign: 'A Monomental (sic) Tree,' it says. And goes on to proclaim that the Quercus semicarpifolia (a kind of oak locally known as brunji) aged an estimated 1500 years stands 140 feet tall with a girth of a whopping 21 feet at ground level. It is indeed a magnificent tree that rises straight and tall to a spreading crown of branches that was not yet fully in leaf when I saw it in mid-June. Fifteen hundred years is a long time - a millennium and a half, enough for more than fifty-five human generations to have lived and died. The sap that runs through this grand veteran, its bark, its limbs, perhaps all carry the memory of our ancestors who passed through these hills in those centuries.

This is a hero, if anyone had ever paused to consider it. A hero that has braved fifteen hundred winters - winters that had, before foolish man had mucked up the air, much more snow. All this while, together with its brothers, it has remained anchored to the earth with its tangle of roots and prevented spring thaws and summer rains from washing away the veneer of precious soil. It has defied fifteen hundred thaws and fifteen hundred monsoons to soak up the runoff so that man's ephemeral hutments farther down the river valleys may not be washed away by the swelling torrents. Then the air that it breathed would have been the purer, for unthinking man had yet not the wherewithal to poison the earth and its atmosphere. Could it be that the tree notices the difference in the quality of the air that it breaths now as compared to the one that sustained it in its younger days?

When it took root, North America was the uncontested home of the Red People who roamed its pristine wilderness in search of the hunt that sustained them. The unwashed, sallow Europeans were still to wait another one thousand years before they could discover it. Europe, the uncivilised continent, itself was in turmoil as primitive savages tore across its length and breadth to threaten Rome, its only centre of culture and enlightenment. That was when the civilised world lay east of the 45th Parallel of Longitude: Persia, India and China.

When it took root, the once magnificent city of Taxila, 'the richest between the Indus and the Jhelum' was moribund. The barbaric Huns, whose brothers were sweeping west across Europe leaving a wake of death and destruction, had ravaged it together with others in what is now northwest Punjab and the Frontier Province. Surely the people of the Potohar Plateau who managed to escape the Huns' swords and flee into the safety of the hills were watched over by this veteran of fifteen hundred summers. Surely it has seen the growth of their tiny hamlets tucked away in the folds of the mountains. Then it would have been a mere sapling.

My head spun as I looked up into its crown of new leaves and I steadied myself by leaning against it. Then I grabbed its hefty girth in a hug and put my face against its lichen-covered trunk. I had not expected to hear the hum of sap coursing through its veins - and I didn't. But the moan of the wind through the trees became more pronounced and from somewhere in the forest came the ugly thwack-thwack of another tree being hacked to death. Could our tree hear that dreadful sound as well? Was the tree that they were destroying as ancient as the one whose rough bark felt nice against my sweaty face? More than that, did they know that for every tree they steal from the earth they must plant at least five more so that their children may continue to breath an air perfumed by the foliage?

I do not know how long an oak can live, and had it not been for the sign, I would have passed the tree without pausing. It must have been a Divisional Forest Officer of singular professional pride and commitment (not to mention knowledge) to have had the sense of putting up this sign. No ordinary man would have done it, because in our culture the natural world around us does not feature very highly. May the tribe of such men increase in Pakistan.

In the late 1980s Tim Severin, the writer, was told by a Mongol shaman that she instructed her children to respect the water and the air and to guard against polluting them. One hundred and forty years earlier (in 1854) Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Red People wrote in response to the American President's bid to buy the Red People's land. That letter, now often quoted by environmentalists, can touch any human heart whether or not that heart cares for the death of the Ravi or the cutting down of the last chilghoza tree from the forest of Takht e Suleman or the drying up of the Aral Sea or the savage persecution of the whales by the Japanese and the Russians or the dwindling of the great herds of elephants from India and Africa.

Chief Seattle's letter expounds on the relationship between man and the world that surrounds him: 'Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.' I fail to understand why such sentiments have never been found in our culture. For ages dolphins have been known to have helped ship-wrecked sailors, and so ancient Romans believed them to have been humans turned into fish as punishment by the gods for some misdemeanor or other. The coastal communities of Pakistan, where dolphins abound, have no such tradition. There is not even a sense of wonder and awe at the remarkably human behaviour of this wonderful sea mammal.

It seems as if we live divorced from the natural world, as if we consider it only as a source of food and wealth and no more. The words that Chief Seattle - the first ever environmentalist in human history, wrote for the White Man of North America are truer for us: 'He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.'

When the next man goes into the forest near Dagri to quench his greed with an axe, will it be too much to expect him, uneducated as he is, to be mindful of the great Chief's words? Will he pause to consider the heroism of our veteran of fifteen centuries? Or that it has watched mankind evolve from nomads on horseback to nomads on flying machines? It is a sobering thought - enough to make one spare this magnificent natural monument. If only one pauses to think.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:34,


At 26 May 2013 at 16:05, Anonymous Mahwish Shaukat on FB said...

I wonder how on earth people could be so thankless and heartless not to notice these natural monuments ...... sigh!!!

Hug to all such tree... standing tall, dignified protecting us for ages & for connecting us to our past!

At 27 May 2013 at 11:06, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Our world is full of these heartless, mindless, unthinking zombies. They see no trees, they do not appreciate the bright plumage of the birds that inhabit them and they are deaf to the song of the birds. If you do, Mahwish, you are living, alive.

At 19 September 2014 at 05:04, Blogger Moby said...

Thanks for a well written article & getting our attention to the environment.

One small note: A human generation is usually 25-30 years. Therefore 1500 years would be 50-60 generations not 4000.

At 20 September 2014 at 09:05, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Moby, grateful to you for pointing out this boo-boo. I have no idea how I made this huge gaffe. Will be corrected ASAP.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days