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I have been asked a few times in the past – “Who is your role model?”  and as someone who did not have one, I would say “I have not found one yet”, keeping room for future discoveries. Absence of a person who I could look up to did not mean that there were not enough interesting, accomplished, inspiring people around me. But my uncertain, questioning, self often found such people intimidating. Their brilliance like the glaring sun, was blinding and uncomfortable. While people continued to inspire, surprise, entertain, love and keep me company, for the longest time, I could not find that one role model. But then I took a walk in the forest and found myself surrounded by them – Trees.

I think it’s a reasonable ambition in life to want to be like a tree. They stand tall and strong, firm in their place, yet gentle and ever adapting. They grow, but never alone. Their growth propagates and sustains life. Each one of them is a lesson in generosity, patience and grace. Even if my life is as small as one leaf in a forest, I would consider it a full life. l understand, this may feel like a bit of stretch if you have ever fallen off a tree or have already  chosen a human role model or the only trees you can think about are carnivorous. But, I still believe that simply spending time with trees can alter us in ways we don’t always foresee and often at a mental or emotional level.

We may not always notice these quiet giants in the frenzy of our lives. But when we do pause and take a look, there is just so much to take in – the scaly bark, the trunk diverging into numerous intertwined branches laden with leaves and as a whole creating a unique form. Then we dig deeper, look closely and we notice the little things. Things like each fissure in the bark is a world in its own. Moss, lichens and insects live in them. And other times, we may notice that the tree is hosting another tree or may be a creeper has wound itself around the trunk dressing it up in a pretty green dress or there is frilly fern growing in the branches. There is so much we can see just by standing under a tree and that led me to think what kind of world we could explore if we climbed into a tree. There is just something about exploring the deep insides and dizzying heights of trees that makes it so intriguing.

Trees of my childhood

I remember the mango tree that stood in the backyard of the first home that I ever remember. I grew big enough in that house to attempt a tree climbing expedition of my own with the help of a ladder, which was enough to give me a taste of the world that inhabits a tree. I grew older and my world extended beyond the backyard of my house and then I discovered the banyan tree. No other tree calls out to you like a banyan tree. It appears to have intentionally lowered its branches or unfurled those aerial roots as an invitation to enter and explore.  Once you accept that invitation one branch after the other just keeps presenting itself and you can lose yourself for hours exploring this majestic tree.

If not deterred by skeptical adults, climbing trees is natural for children. Known as “risky play”, tree climbing can be beneficial for children’s development. Unfortunately, even if one has indulged in this delightful activity as a child, it does not persist through adulthood for most people. Many adults would pay to climb a plastic wall painted all sorts of bright colours in a closed room, but, not a tree. Tree climbing is one of the fundamental ways to connect with trees and nature at large. But does that connection die if we don’t fuel it? Is human race now as far as it could be from arboreal life? Well, the answer is no and I also believe that we cannot quite lose this connection entirely. Even today, there are people who have kept this connection alive in different ways and then there are many more who are beginning to explore it.

Treehouses – should not be limited to children’s fiction

Providing a perfect setting for children’s adventures, treehouses have inspired children in both fiction and life.

I have a certain fascination with treehouses.  As a child, I remember reading stories of children who planned adventures, plotted against a villain, created imaginary worlds and indulged in play in their treehouses – those mystical little spaces nestled in a tree. There is a reason for treehouses to be a recurring theme in children’s literature. Even though as a child, I remained devoid of discovering the joy of one, it makes perfect sense for children to spend time in a treehouse. Not only is there something fantastical about being in a tree, a treehouse provides space for growth, creativity and autonomy for children. Most treehouses that children spend their time in, are in their own backyard, yet they are away from all things that are familiar and structures that stand on the firm ground. There is an inherent sense of unknown in being in a tree and treehouses provides a safe yet exciting way to interact with a tree in an environment that is not completely dictated by adult supervision, making it perfect for children to imagine, create, take risks, conjure stories and most importantly, have fun.

Why only for children? I advocate for treehouses for adults as well. We would all be better adults if spent even a little time with or in trees.

Women that climb

A common site for us here in the mountains is that of women perched high into the trees. These women are an extraordinary lot. Apart from their countless other duties, they take care of the cattle and cooking. Naturally the task of foraging fodder and firewood falls on their shoulders. I like to believe that because they spend so much time with the trees they have imbibed the physical and emotional qualities of trees. They are strong, stand tall and take care of their own ecosystem of family, farms, children and the village. I often see them carrying massive bundles of grass or wood on their heads, sometimes big enough to cover their faces and in those moments, I think to myself “The walking trees exist after all.”

If you are walking around these parts and hear a rustle from the trees, there are many possibilities of what it could be. Other than tree dwelling creatures, it could also be a woman, barefooted, saree tucked around her waist, perched on one of the high branches of an oak, collecting firewood and fodder. Then there is the glorious mountain spring, when the forests come alive and the activity is nothing short of a grand theater performance. It is also the time for the rhododendron/buransh (the state flower of Uttarakhand) to bloom, which is used to make a wide range of products like squash, jams, preserves, chutneys etc. My favourite part is to see a congregation of women around the rhododendron tree during this time and a bright coloured saree laid out on the ground. One of the women in the tree balancing herself while also plucking the flowers and dropping them for the others to collect. This scene is pure beauty – women with their musical chatter, the shower of flowers and the whole forest signing a melody, the women themselves look like an extension of these trees.

Even though, it is always baffling how they climb these tall trees with such ease, there has always been a symbiotic relationship, a oneness with nature that the communities dwelling in or around forests have had and even though they may not be equipped with theoretical information, their understanding of the forests, climate, soil etc. is often deep and accurate. It is a part of their construct and existence and hence the ease with which they are able to perform such feats. I had the opportunity to speak to Bachuli Devi ji, and when I asked her how she learnt to climb trees, she told me that she did not have to learn it from anyone. It came to her naturally. She also told me that while collecting wood from the trees, one needs to be mindful of what kind of branches to cut. Branches that are still growing are to be avoided and the ones that have no scope for further growth or are dead or have fallen off the tree are the ones that can be cut or collected. To me it felt like for these women, climbing trees is just an extension of walking and they interact with these trees with a deep understanding that is a part of their DNA.

Bachuli Devi ji in a mulberry tree

The modern climbers

Then there is yet another category of tree climbers, bearing no resemblance to the free style, instinctive climbers we speak of above. These climbers come with a certain studied sincerity and are aided by training and equipment, taking a great deal of inspiration from rock climbing. Many of them indulge in climbing trees as a sport or adventure, but there are also many who climb trees for research or study. Then there are some who are tree sitters and this lot is particularly fascinating. They may not have a natural ability to climb the trees, but play an important role as they sit in trees in protest against logging and cutting of trees. Even if not as protest, tree sitting could also simply be a form of demonstration of how important trees are for our survival and to raise awareness about conservation.

Although slow and risky at the same time, not to mention incredibly challenging, tree sitting has been responsible for saving many forests and old growth trees across the world. This form of tree sitting for obvious reasons sounds familiar because of the Chipko movement that originated in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand (then a part of Uttar Pradesh) and led to mobilization at community level, more importantly that of the women who defiantly hugged trees to protect them from logging, eventually saving the forests from mass, commercial logging and mining. The Chipko movement was an unprecedented form of protest which involved a close, yet gentle interaction between the protestors and the trees that they were trying to protect. Looking at certain images from the movement, it almost feels like trees transfused their energy into the protestors to fuel their courage. A close contact with a tree also makes one realise of its aliveness and it then it becomes easier to think of it as a living, feeling being one can bond with, as opposed to just wood and leaves, and hence worth protecting.

Our evolution

Even though climbing trees may not be as common any more, it is obviously not altogether lost, for our association with trees is ancient, in fact evolutionary.

At some point in time during the course of our evolution, our ancestors that were sitting in trees, decided that it might be a good idea to descend and try walking on their twos instead of all fours and they did. But it took them a while before they became purely terrestrial and continued to climb trees in search of food, shelter etc. Because our ancestors chose to ditch the arboreal life and decided to walk, our feet lost those sturdy toes and flexible ankles required for tree climbing. Instead, we developed arched feet to make walking easier. Despite this evolutionary destiny, humans are far from being disassociated from trees. Some of us still continue to climb trees with extraordinary skill and without any equipment, in search of food, honey, fodder, firewood etc. Take for example the Twa community of Uganda who can bend their ankles at extraordinary angles, just like our tree climbing ancestors or the present-day apes and can climb the trees without the help of any equipment or external support. There is another community called the “Batek” a tribe in Malaysia, the members of which can climb a variety of trees proficiently, using various climbing methods, again without the use of any equipment. Closer home, it is a regular site in the coastal regions to see men climb up tall coconut trees with very basic support from ropes to procure the coconuts or the tree sap.

All these acts of us associating with trees in so many different ways are nothing but manifestation of an inherent bond that we share with trees at a fundamental level and we should not shy away from exploring that further.

The fun of suspension

My relationship with trees is that of an admirer. To me they are rooted poetry. But I lack any training or formal learning about them. It also remains true that fact gathering is not my forte, functioning on feelings is. Whenever I pass a tree, I not only admire it for all its uniqueness and beauty, but I also mentally assess or rather feel, whether it is climbable or not. For a long time, I did not attempt the actual feat out of embarrassment or fear. This did not last and one day under the pretext of taking a walk and inspecting the plants and trees, I eventually stopped at a tree, which for my limited capabilities, was climbable. I placed my foot in a crevice and with the help of a branch hauled myself up. It was a small step, but still, here I was, my head in the leaves, hands holding on to the branches and feet firmly set in the gaps that they could find. To actually climb a tree and spend time in it, is all kinds of sensory delight. There is the tactile experience of touching the bark – scaly, textured, every crack, every fissure a world in its own and then imagining what goes on underneath that – the systems, networks, exchange, communication and transportation of resources and so much more and that the tree itself is alive, responsive, feeling, talking to its neighbors, forming connections and friendships, assessing dangers, protecting itself and the young ones from predators and yet ever growing and following the cycles of degeneration and regeneration. How can we not be fascinated? The tree has been here for many years before us and it will continue to be here for many years after we are gone. To be in it is to feel the passing of time and that we are all here for one fleeting moment.

Then there is the sheer excitement of being in a tree. It is also a form a suspension between the sky and the ground and there is some elementary fun in suspension which explains why we hang from branches, or put-up swings, or attempt dangerous activities like bungee jumping. Being in a tree is similar. The firm ground that your feet are used to, is now below you, there are leaves in your eyeline and you are balancing yourself in this space that you have otherwise only seen from a distance. We also often think of trees as out of bounds for us. A place that belongs only to extraordinary creatures that can fly or swing from one tree to another, that we can only observe from afar as they soar and swing. So, when you do climb a tree, it has a sense of adventure and exploration to it, a change of perspective and an immediate connection with your inner child. It is just pure, unbridled joy.

While there is no dearth of study about how important trees are for not just our basic survival, but for our overall physical and mental health, I think that one only needs to spend some time with the trees to truly understand it. After this time spent, however short it might be, one is bound to feel at least one of these things – calm, light, curious or just joyful. I along with science say it is worth trying.

So next time you pass a tree, wait, observe and then give it a go. Climb trees without shame. Climb trees to connect with nature and yourself. Do it and you never know what wonders you might chance upon.

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