Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

We who hate shade trees

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Pakistanis hate shade. And by extension they hate shade trees. The sight of a banyan or shisham or mulberry sickens them and their first instinct is to chop it down, destroy it. They will happily do it even when they do not stand to gain anything and doubly happily if there are only a few paltry rupees in it. In my fifty odd years have seen countless trees fall victim to unthinking greed, so-called development and just plain foolishness. Sadly all these trees were indigenous species planted by the farsighted and prudent white man when he ruled over us.

These indigenous trees grew wide crowns that provided much needed shade against our burning summer heat that lasts no less than seven months a year. In their stead, we imported that accursed water-guzzling eucalyptus from Australia to sully our land, a tree that is good neither for shade nor for birds to nest in. Look into the millions of eucalyptus around you and you’ll have to do a good deal of looking to spot a bird’s nest in this damned tree. The rare nest that you do spot will be that of a crow’s.

This blight hit us back in the 1960s when the military government of the day decided to increase the country’s forest cover. Sold on the notion but lacking any sense at all, it ordered the forest department to ‘do the needful.’ The boot-lickers of the department knew that the alien eucalyptus was not touched by livestock and grew straight and tall within a couple of years, by far quicker than any indigenous species. For them it was the ideal tree to demonstrate performance and please the ignorant dictator. Eucalyptus seeds were broadcast across the length and breadth of this sorry land and within no time at all there were great stands of green blight everywhere.

None in the forest department knew that the eucalyptus endlessly sucks up vast quantities of sub-soil water. Water that is fast drying up, as our so-called experts never tire of telling us. But no expert worth his salt has ever condemned this accursed eucalyptus for the part it is playing in drying up our water resource. Eucalyptus caught on, and every time a spreading pipal or neem was destroyed, brainless Pakistanis planted not one, but several eucalyptus in the stead of each. Several, because whereas our indigenous trees develop huge spreading crowns and need space, eucalyptus grows tall and thin. The fast growth of the tree and because it needs no caring since no animal will eat it, made it the favourite of this illiterate nation.

Consequently, we who need shade trees in our blistering hot summers have progressively been deprived of indigenous species and foisted with this bane. Not many years down the road, we were gifted palm trees. The spreading mango and shisham of Main Boulevard in Gulberg were foolishly cut down to give us the Middle East look. No shade again. Eucalyptus is fast losing its top notch to palm trees as we see them coming up all over Lahore. But not because unthinking people have discovered the adverse hydrological properties of eucalyptus. Only because they can get a fully-grown palm and just stick it along their boundary wall. No waiting for it to grow.

In all these new-fangled societies (I too live in one) they slashed away ancient forests to make way for housing. The ignorant rich who build their houses here grow either bottle palm trees or what everyone calls Asoka. I call it kulfi tree because it looks like a kulfi. No shade again. Brainless people will put up vast awnings of the green synthetic material to shade their drawing rooms from the sun, but they will not plant a shade tree. From talking to people I have learned that shade trees being indigenous have some sort of a curse: the pipal is home to djinns, the shisham to owls which, wonderful birds, we morons associate with desolation.

If it weren’t for places like Model Town, Aitchison College, some older parts of Gulberg and Lawrence Gardens (Mayo Gardens will soon be lost, God willing) we would have forgotten the repetitive kook-kook-kook of the hard-to-spot coppersmith or the fluty whistle of the golden oriole. These are our last remaining islands of indigenous trees. All other upstart societies and government premises that came up since the 1970s were planted only and only with eucalyptus. And now with palm trees.

Among the last remaining banyan trees of Lahore is the magnificent individual that blesses Umar Hall hostel of the University of Engineering and Technology in east Lahore with its cooling shade. The tree is old. Its girth a couple of metres up from the ground can be no less than twelve or so metres. And its spreading crown has a radius of some thirty metres. It is home to scores of squirrels, bulbuls, mynas, crows, doves, sparrows, spotted owlets and, if I am not wrong, at least one coppersmith. This because I heard its sad little call coming from somewhere in that huge crown. When they were erecting the hostel building before independence the tree would have sheltered the labourers in its coolness. And thank heavens the building was raised before partition or the Pakistani contractor would have first of all chopped down this beauty.

I do not know who would have planted this tree, perhaps Nature herself, but I thank them for having given us this blessed tree to cleanse the air that we the people of Lahore breathed for all these centuries. Surely this banyan tree cannot be any younger than five or six hundred years. Imagine: two hundred years before Shah Jehan conceived the idea of his Shalimar Garden, this tree was already here. That would have been before Baghbanpura was peopled by the Shalimar gardeners. It could have been the heyday of the Lodhi kingdom or perhaps of the short-lived Syed rule.

But then again, I am no expert on banyan longevity and this tree could well have been around even earlier. Perhaps when Ibn Batuta was sucking up to the Tughlak tyrant in Delhi, the pleasure-seekers of Lahore escaped the narrow streets of the walled city to find delight under its young shade. People who are permitted inside the campus do even today. Its great tangle of supraterranean roots makes a perfect bench for the tired body – and even the soul. Turn up your tired eyes into the cool depths of its foliage and your very spirit will be refreshed. The birdsong, the chatter of the mynas, the sleepy cooing of doves, the warble of the bulbuls, that oozes out of it all the time gives you hope that all is not yet lost with the world.

But now misfortune has caught up with this magnificent haven for so many wild species. Word is out that it will soon get the axe. The order comes from no less a person than the vice-chancellor himself. One would expect better sense from a person heading a centre of higher learning. But as a retired general he may be untutored in matters of ecology and environment. He may not know that he can contribute positively to global climate change by permitting this beautiful banyan tree to remain. That he can ensure a cleaner supply of air for his children’s children by letting it live. On the other hand, he can be like the herd: destroy the tree and hock up mean global temperature by a fraction that will, over the next few decades, melt our glaciers and raise sea levels enough to drown Karachi. Destroy the tree and leave behind a charred cinder of an earth.

Again, he might have planned a whole row of kulfi trees, bottle or date palms and eucalyptus to spruce up the hostel. Is this so-called beautification balanced out by the loss of habitat that the felling of just this one tree will cause? We need shade in Pakistan. We need indigenous trees not water-guzzling imported monsters or palms that look as lifeless as if they have just arrived from hell. Can the VC please pause to think where all the birds will go when we have destroyed all our native tree species? They will all die out because of habitat loss. I watched hornbills flapping about in the gardens in Durand, Davies and Sunderdas Roads in the 1960s. Now there are none because the trees are gone.
And what will life be without birdsong to bring joy to the heart in the early morning stillness? What will life be without the mellifluous whistle of the golden oriole and the rolling warble of the bulbul? It will be a desolate life, not worth living. If it ever comes to that, the silence of the world will bring down a loneliness upon man that will destroy his soul.

The excuse for cutting down the banyan of Umar Hall may be that it touches the building. That it has been doing ever since the building was raised and neither the building nor the tree are the worse for it. That is the only plausible reason a heartless person can think for cutting down a five hundred-year old tree. There can be no lucre in mind for banyan timber is worth nothing. The worth of the banyan is only as long as it lives and harbours the myriad life forms that find sustenance in it.

I do not know who can prevail upon the vice chancellor to let the banyan tree live. To let the birds that nest in its branches procreate and fill the Lord’s earth with song. To let it continue to cleanse the air that we breathe. I appeal to all those who can, most of all to Governor Khalid Maqbool the Chancellor, to save this magnificent tree from destruction. This tree and others like it are our salvation from certain perdition. Let our trees live.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 23 July 2014 at 13:24, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Salman sb why don't you write a book about your escapades in the Army ?

At 23 July 2014 at 13:59, Anonymous Nasar Usmani said...

Very noble. I hastened to visit my banglow in Kharian... saplings planted by me had grown into thick shadowy trees, school children waiting under them, throwing stones to get berries... It was a wonderful feeling.

At 23 July 2014 at 15:39, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Governer of Punjab is not Khalid Maqbool anymore. He is Muhammad Sarwar...

At 23 July 2014 at 18:12, Blogger AJAZ HAQ said...

I grew up in lahore cantt in 50s and 60s, and I could not believe my eyes, total disappearance of those those magnificent old trees under the shade of which I used to walk to school, when I had a chance to visit it after a gap of 40 yrs, and I am talking about roadside trees, nobody knows why they were removed..... cause the empty space still glares at you.
But then I had a chance to visit the neighbouring country through wagah border, the moment I cleared customes, I thought I was in a glade, huge trees everywhere, and upto Amritsur, both sides of the road covered with very neatly planted rows of n ewly planted trees, as well as old ones, giving a clear impression that they are not only trying to preserve the old but also trying to improve it. And same is the case all over India, Delhi is full of picturesque old trees.

At 23 July 2014 at 22:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I plant native trees but they demand decades to grow. You are absolutely right. We are indeed a poor country!

At 24 July 2014 at 10:31, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Rubbish! Anonymous, except for Sukh Chen, our trees grow fast enough. Don't expect them to grow I metre overnight, but my 13 year-old tahli is 8 metres tall. Ditto the pipal and amaltas.

At 24 July 2014 at 10:40, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you for posting your observation here, Aijaz sahib!

At 24 July 2014 at 17:40, Blogger AJAZ HAQ said...

Thank you, Salman sahib, but one last comment.... I was so disgusted with denudated Lahore, that I felt more at home in Delhi than Lahore.

At 25 July 2014 at 09:44, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Aijaz Sahib, everyone in Pakistan hates trees. There is an all-round attempt to cut down every tree in sight. I agree with you on Delhi. Even Amritsar is such a beauty.

At 26 July 2014 at 01:40, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Good news.. Hafizabad has surprised me with its tahlis, tahlis n tahlis...May they multiply by thousands n enrich our souls.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

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