Sometimes, a thought or an event needs to be made strange for real understanding to come. Sometimes, a ‘What If’ gives us a perspective from some far off future, into the present. Sometimes, things need to be taken away from us for us to appreciate its value.
In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the planet Arrakis has no water. What water there is, is carefully preserved so that the wealth of the tribe is counted in moisture. When Paul Atreides and his mother find themselves among the Fremen, they have to wear what are called stillsuits: clothing that preserve and recycle the body’s own water content.
Reading this book many years ago, I was fascinated and horrified. You mean one has to pee and crap in the stillsuit? Sweat into it? Wait a few hours and take a sip from a small pipe to the side of one’s head, knowing that it is mostly what’s left after the rest of it has been filtered out? How bad are things that one would need a stillsuit to survive?
Later, when someone dies and Paul spontaneously cries, the Fremen are shocked and moved at the tribute. He’s giving water to the dead, they whisper. On a bone-dry planet, to be profligate with tears which could have been recycled, must be as foolhardy a gesture as it is grand.
I was thinking of Dune this morning, as I read the newspapers report the words of wisdom falling from the lips of socialites. ‘I never have a tub bath’, someone said. ‘I don’t understand how people turn the AC and the fan on and then cover themselves with blankets’, someone else is quoted as saying.
True. And valid. But I was also struck by how fragmented our responses are. One a designated day we make noises. On other days, we watch as trees are cut to accommodate more roads, and mutter furiously under our breath as we struggle past concrete heaps and carbon monoxide perfumed traffic snarls.
In Hyderabad, the Municipal Corporation waters the trees on road medians at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Even in summer. If they ever learnt about trees, they left that knowledge behind as useless and irrelevant long ago. So if the water, as hot as any to be found in the bathrooms of those using solar heaters, is poured over young saplings and two-year-old trees, and the roots get scalded, we can’t see it and we don't care.
In any case, all these trees on medians and on the sides of the road have electric and other cables overhead. Once the trees reach a certain height, they have to be cut, so that there are no disasters with the cables. So, does someone send a person who neatly lops off branches and knows how to prune trees? No. they send a bunch of people with steel rods hooked at the end. No one climbs ladders or uses axes. There are too many trees to be taken care of before the rains come. So they send up the hooked rod, snag a young branch and yank. These trees are green, so they don’t break; they tear. All along the roads, trees have brown lines ripped into their sides, where the branches were torn off of left hanging drunkenly until someone wanting firewood comes and finished the hacking. Over time, the trees have grown to look diseased. They reach a height of about four feet and then the trunks are knotted with years of having branches hacked off. Branches learn to grow sideways to catch the light. Our trees are ugly and stunted.
A couple of decades ago, the residential school I was studying in, was having acute water shortages. The school had persuaded the government to lease the surrounding areas for the school to reforest. Saplings were planted on the little hillocks surrounding the main areas of our school. But it wasn’t enough to merely plant the trees; one had to see them through to adulthood, as it were.
Every evening for a year, at the time we would normally be playing football or basketball, the whole school would turn out – still wearing sports gear though no one was playing any games – and make a winding line from the back of the Dining Hall up into the hills. Aluminium buckets filled with water would be carefully handed over up the line and somewhere at the end of it, someone would water the saplings. For one hour every evening, for an entire school year, sports meant hauling buckets of water and watering plants. I hear those saplings are now good, strong trees and what used to be a barren, brown landscape is now fairly transformed.
But that was easy in a place where we were surrounded by greenery, where the connections between trees, rainfall, and water resources were crystal clear. In our cities, ‘nature’ consists of flyovers and roads, blue plastic sheets whipping in the breeze and earth movers turning the earth inside out. Here, it’s easier for a child to tell a Skŏda Octavia from a BMW than it is for her to tell a croton from a coleus. This is our environment. What would we celebrate or vow to preserve on World Environment Day?
I have a gigantic rain tree outside my house. It is not a part of my house; it belongs to the road. If the PWD decided tomorrow that the road needed widening, they could cut that tree down, because it is on a portion of the road that I have no rights over as an individual. I often wonder how I would protest. Would I do a chipko? Would I heroically hug the tree while others sniggered and watched the MCH persuade me to leave? Would the MCH promise to plant more trees and look after them, in the way they would comfort a small child with the promise of an icecream to compensate the loss of a beloved toy? Or would I dash off letters to people concerned, and send it by registered post (acknowledgement due) and wait anxiously for a response I know won’t come in time to save the tree?
And this is one tree. How many trees would I be willing to do this for? Would I hug a tree I didn’t know as well as I know this one? In other words, we know we have to take personal responsibility for our actions, so that it accumulates potential. But how much is it worth when it is done out of sync with other goings on?
I don’t feel very hopeful at all. I can imagine a day, not too distant, when we will need books or videos, or virtual reality, to show our children what trees used to look like. Already most children don’t know what sparrows look like; some have never seen a butterfly in their lives; bees scare the bejabbers out of them. One day we will be poised on the edge of a moment when the last tree is gone but the consequences of that final act are still a few years off. And for those who come after, giving water to the dead might indeed be an awesome tribute, prodigal and wasteful and grand – a gesture they can never allow themselves in their lifetimes.
I can only hope I won’t live to see it. it’s much easier reading about it in a sci-fi novel.