Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Tree of Life

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I first saw the tree in May 1992 just after I had walked from Thandiani to Dagri en route to Nathiagali. Standing right by the trail, it was impossible to miss the green sign nailed to its massive trunk. ‘Monomental (sic) Tree’, it announced. Below the misspelled line were the scientific and local names Quercus semecarpifolia and Brungi. The sign also noted that the girth of the massive tree was 252 inches, or 21 feet, height 140 feet and age approximately 1,500 years.

The Dagri rest house looks pristine but its ceilings collapsed in the October 2005 earthquake
Three years later, my friend Kashif Noon and I retraced my earlier path and we stood in awed reverence below the towering monument. Shortly, when Kashif was ensconced in the nearby Dagri rest house reading, I returned to the tree to fill our water bag from a spring by it.

With the bag filled, I stood by the tree marvelling at its magnificence. And then I hugged it. It was hardly a hug, for the girth was too great for a single person. I stood with my arms on it and my sweaty face against its lichen-covered bark. In the cool of late afternoon, the mountainside was silent save for the distant whack of another tree being cut down by a greedy, mindless man.

Once I would have looked at the tree being cut as unfortunate. Now I know the death of the tree is not its misfortune; it is us humans who are the poorer for this loss. Every tree that dies leaves our world increasingly at the mercy of fickle Nature. Every tree that we kill leaves us puny humans at greater risk of devastation by climate change.

Trees have been around for way longer than humans. For millions of years trees have grown and always known what they were supposed to do. And they were supposed to soak up atmospheric carbon through their leaves, transform it into sugars for their own food and release pure oxygen back into the air so that other living beings could continue to breathe and live.

Trees are heroic and they did this favour to life on earth without remit. But they did other things too. When our primitive ancestors walked the African veldt, several million years ago, they shared the land with predators. At the sight of a charging big cat, it was the reassuring trunk of a nearby tree up which they scrambled to save their lives. Even they knew the worth of trees as preservers of life. They knew they needed trees.

Trees never needed us. Our ancestors needed them as much as we needed them through the long and creative passage of time and still do today. Trees knew what ignorant man did not know in the past and still does not: that they had evolved in consonance with the need of the land; that every tree that developed over the ages was suited to the climatic conditions and soil where it grew.

Date or coconut palms, with their shallow roots, did not evolve on mountains where elaborate root systems were needed to capture precious soil when rains or summer thaws sluiced down the slopes. Swamps had one kind of trees, dry savannah type country another and mountains yet a different sort.

The magnificent Quercus (which is oak if you didn’t know) I had last met in June 1995 remained in my thoughts. Given the amount of timber theft taking place in Pakistan, I had worried for its life. Over the past few months the tree had virtually ridden my mind. I simply had to see it.

The plan was to walk solo from Nathiagali to the Dagri rest house, check out the tree and retrace my steps back. But a friend said since this was a common trekking route and because the writ of the state had so eroded, locals had taken to robbing solitary walkers. I was advised to travel in company.

I sought help from Quratulain Fatima, a civil servant who sometimes writes (and writes well) on our built heritage. She put me in touch with young Rooman, the assistant commissioner at Abbottabad. I asked if it would be possible to get a forest guard to walk with me and the young man said he would himself come.

On the Saturday we met in Nathiagali, I was surprised to find with him an old friend I hadn’t seen in years: Mian Mushtaq, who currently serves as additional chief secretary Punjab, turned out to be young Rooman’s father.

We set out an hour later than schedule. Thinking we would be interested in climbing Miranjani peak before we went on, the guide led us uphill. He was soon disabused of his error however and we were then on the old bridle path snaking along the eastern contours of Miranjani.

The difficult-to-read sign on the oak tree gives out
its immense age and size
More than two decades ago, in my mid-40s, I was fit and I like to think I had walked from Dagri to Nathiagali in under four hours. But the distance is a full 20 kilometres and the memory of the time spent on the trail could only be foggy. Our group now made the distance in six hours.

Trees never needed us. Our ancestors needed them as much as we needed them through the long and creative passage of time and still do today. Trees knew what ignorant man did not know in the past and still does not: that they had evolved in consonance with the need of the land; that every tree that developed over the ages was suited to the climatic conditions and soil where it grew.

Built in the second decade of the last century, the rest house was damaged by the earthquake of October 2005. It looks deceptively prim from the outside but the interior is filled with debris of the collapsed roof. The outhouse was alive with men and the fragrance of wood-fire wafted through the pines. One pleasure of travelling with district officers is that the administration is at its best and a veritable feast awaited us. The downside was that the mutton biryani and mutton curry were a vegetarian’s nightmare!

Mushtaq and I lounged in the sun as lunch was being laid out. He had driven overnight from Lahore and was walking about without having slept a wink. And after the walk, he would drive back to Lahore, change drivers and head for Islam Headworks near Bahawalnagar for a duckshoot at dawn on Sunday. I, who cannot function without a good night’s sleep, thought he was joking. But Mian Mushtaq is obviously made of sterner material.

We also talked of the foolishness of blighting our landscape with useless alien species of flora. As Commissioner Bahawalpur a few years earlier, Mushtaq had banned the conocarpus. This was my chance to put in a bad word for this pernicious breed of tree so much the darling of mindless foresters. Mushtaq said he would set up a meeting with the forest department and I had better be there.

The original plan of heading back to Nathiagali where our transport waited was scrapped. Biran Gali, only 13 kilometres away, connected to Abbottabad and, at an altitude lower than Dagri, was the way we were going. Rooman phoned his driver and said he should get to Biran Gali to meet us in three hours.

After lunch, as Mushtaq lounged in the sun, I suggested we ought to be underway or we’d be benighted.
“Don’t worry. The leopards won’t get you,” he mocked.
“With so many of us, it’s not the leopards I fear. It is the walk in the dark and the danger of stubbing our toes again and again that worries me,” said I.

A couple of hundred metres from the resthouse we came upon the tree. Iqbal the forester walking with me was surprised that I knew the tree even after 22 years even though the green tin sign facing the other side was not visible as we approached from Dagri. The original with its misspelled word was replaced however. It was now in Urdu and, keeping with the trend, it had a religious overtone saying the tree had been around since the age of the prophets. Other than that, the statistics were still there.

A frenzy of photoshoots ensued. After the forest guards and Rooman’s police escort were done, I had the civil servant father and son pose with the tree. Mushtaq wanted to put his picture in his living room, but the promise to present a framed photo to him is yet to be fulfilled.

It was just before 4pm that we resumed walking. The sun set at 17 minutes past five. The gloaming lasted for another 30 minutes. And then, on a stony mountain path, we were in pitch dark. And I was tired too. Four decades of mountain walking from the Kirthar Mountains of Sindh through the Suleman, Hindu Kush, Western Himalaya into the Karakoram, and here I was benighted for the first time in my life.

I hated it. There was nothing for it but to keep at it. And we did. At one point seeing me stumbling, Rooman ordered one of the policemen to keep by me. And that was just as well for, disoriented in the dark, I would likely have tumbled down the mountainside.

Biran Gali was finally made at 7pm. Rooman seemed fine; Mushtaq made no fuss of how he was feeling, while I simply collapsed in the back seat of the nearest vehicle and went to sleep.

The heroic oak tree is still there. A quarter century is but an hour in its life spread over a millennium and a half and it can live on for perhaps a few more millennia. Only if it does not fall to man’s greed. I hope it will still be there in 25 years when another person’s imagination tickled by word of its spreading magnificence takes them looking for it.

I hope they, too, will know how this tree and its brothers are preserving these mountains for us. And know, too, how they keep this air pure so that we may live. I hope they will understand that without this green cover of native species, the soil will be washed away, leaving behind rocky walls where no seed will take root.

Also in Dawn

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:25,


At 14 December 2017 at 14:48, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1500 years!! 517 CE...If only the tree could talk.

At 11 December 2019 at 13:53, Anonymous North Shore Tree Services said...

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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