Those who see timber in trees (and electricity in rivers) should read a book, just out, that can only be described as beautiful. Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli have given us a riveting work – Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities. Illustrated with sensitivity and matching fidelity by Alisha Dutt Islam, its pages take us through the world of the jamun, the banyan, the tamarind, the neem, the amaltas and other trees that they describe as “nature’s own museums”. I have not come across anything like it, connecting our past, present and future with trees.

The book could have easily become a dull primer in botany. It has become a fascinating biography of cities’ life in trees, or that of trees in cities. Reading it brought me what India’s greatest “tree man” Pradip Krishen describes as “superb tales and factoids about India’s city trees”. It also generated in me thoughts about trees that included the following:

The future Buddha was born, it is said, to Queen Mahamaya of Kapilavastu under a sal tree (Shorea robusta) in Lumbini. He received “the light”, under a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) at Gaya and proceeded from there to give his immortal teaching. As the Buddha sensed his time was near, he asked to be helped to lie down on a bed of leaves in a grove of sal in Kusinara, Uttar Pradesh.

So, trees witnessed – and canopied – the three most important points in the arc of the Buddha’s life.

For me, the most valuable of his words are those he spoke to the Kalama in what is now East Champaran, Bihar: “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture…(Only) when you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skilful; these qualities are blameless...’ then (alone) you should enter and remain in them.” The advice has been rightly called the Buddha’s “charter of free enquiry”.

His greatest disciple, the Emperor Asoka (304 BCE to 232 BCE), asked his daughter, the Princess Sanghamitra, to take a sapling of the pipal tree at Gaya across over a long land and sea journey to Sri Lanka and plant it in Anuradhapura where its genetic descendant stands to this day, venerated as the Bodhi. Asoka’s edicts speak of the importance of moral reflection and of empathy with those from different cultures and points of view, a teaching of vital and growing importance in our times.

Human concord was again at the heart of another Indian’s life beyond India’s shores. In October 1913, Indian South Africans famously protested against iniquitous laws and rules affecting their identity and dignity including the sanctity of their marriages and, under Mohandas K Gandhi’s leadership, more than 2000 of them went on a march in protest.

Among the conditions that Gandhi set out for the satyagrahis was the following: “No trees or plants on the way should be harmed in the least…”

The most influential Indian Buddhist of our times, BR Ambedkar, conducted what perhaps was the most important discussion of his life, with Mahatma Gandhi, in Poona, in September 1932, under a tree – the mango tree ( Mangifera indica). The agreement signed at the end of that meeting , known as the Poona Pact, has shaped the procedure followed to this day for the representation through reservation of India’s Dalits in houses of legislature.

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), regarded by many as a philosopher in the mould of the Buddha, is remembered in Madras for mind-rinsing talks given by him from a dais under a Hill Mango or Pachai kiluvai tree (Commiphora caudate) at Vasant Vihar, his place of residence in that city. “One or two things must be made very clear,” he said in his last talk there on January 4, 1986 “…So what is creation? So what is life? Life in the tree, life in the little grass – life, not what the scientists invent, but the beginning of life – life, the thing that lives…”

How “alive” are our trees as a collectivity?

They have sustained our civilisational roots, raised the plinth of our collective life. If the banyan (Ficus benghalensis) is our “national tree”, every state has a “state tree” – a little known fact. Jammu and Kashmir’s is the chinar (Platanus orientalis), Kerala’s the coconut (Cocos nucifera). Their vital role notwithstanding, the tree is our victim.

True, there are active afforestation schemes and tree plantings are done all the time but the truth of the tree in India is that it is sawed, felled, cleared relentlessly. The tree has become “developing” India’s mute and maimed slave. Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli tell us that the neem’s scientific name Azadirachta indica means, in its Farsi origin, “the free tree of India”. Sad and sobering, that is. But in its own way, redemptive.