Green Card

How we turned a barren plot outside Chennai into a jungle that is now home to leopards and civets

Over 20 years, fuelled by ideas and hard work, my husband and I have managed to achieve what we set out to.

At mid-morning, the furnace-grade heat bounced off the hard clay. I couldn’t see myself living here. My husband, Rom Whitaker, though, was excited. His eyes were not set on the barren and brown rice field but on the scrubby hillocks that bordered it. I couldn’t see what he saw. But I was a dunce from the city. What did I know!

I had to grant one thing – the convenient location. As filmmakers, we flew to work and the airport was less than an hour’s drive away. Rom was the director of the Madras Crocodile Bank that was also within commuting distance. And I was only an hour south of my parents who lived in Chennai city.

We bought five acres of land in 1996 and began building our house. That winter, when the rains came, Rom coordinated a massive tree-planting operation. He had full-grown neem trees uprooted from the Crocodile Bank and planted them around the construction site. The staff were experienced at this, but as I was to discover later, previous efforts had been made along the sandy coast, where they had worked well. After we moved in early 1997, I examined the trees daily for fresh buds. But they seemed to have no such plans. When early summer heat sent its tentacles, I grew anxious. Would we have any shade?

“You cannot tolerate the heat here,” said our neighbours, sensing my discomfort and rubbing it in. “You’ll become black and run away.”

What the farm looked like 20 years ago.
What the farm looked like 20 years ago.

Many small creatures – centipedes, scorpions, treefrogs, toads, scutigers, pipistrelle bats – sought refuge in the house, blurring the line between indoors and outdoors. Their predators – birds and snakes – followed.

Soon it became apparent that the neem trees had given up the ghost rather than take root in this hostile soil. I almost did the same in the fury of that first summer.

“What are we going to do?” I whined.

“Give me seven years,” Rom replied.

Our neighbours predicted that the heat would drive us away.
Our neighbours predicted that the heat would drive us away.

An idea takes root

That was a lifetime away. Besides, trees take decades to grow. Who was he kidding? But what choice did I have?

As a member of the Palni Hills Conservation Council and a leading spirit at the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society, Rom had been a part of forestation efforts over hundreds of acres of land. He’s a tree-planting nut and ought to know what to do, I consoled myself. We made seed beds and planted seeds. We picked up saplings from nurseries in Auroville and the women’s society. The young things didn’t stand a chance. The hot summer breeze sucked the life out of them.

“We need to plant pioneers,” declared Rom. Pioneers are hardy species that can even grow in hell. He bought saplings of an Australian species – the earleaf acacia. Unlike the eucalytus’ water slurping ways, it is a force of good – putting nitrogen into the soil and creating shade and a windbreak that could shield native saplings.

We transplanted full-grown (surplus) trees from the Croc Bank.
We transplanted full-grown (surplus) trees from the Croc Bank.

We planted hundreds of acacias. Summer tried hard to break their will to live, but their green heads rustled like laughter in the hot breeze. Watering them once a week sent them sprinting skyward, and in the second year, they stood taller than Rom. Time for the real planting to begin. This is when I started to believe we might have a forest after all.

We planted youngsters of many fast-growing deciduous species – katva (Albizzia lebbeck), pungai (Milletia (Pongamia) pinnata), kadukka (Terminalia chebula), thani (Terminalia bellerica), naaval (Syzygium cumini) and several others – between the rows of acacias. Young bamboo culms lined the fence, in ditches we created to hold water. We focused all these efforts on one half of the land, and I thought wild seeds would root by themselves in the other half.

Even before we could rest from this effort, we bought four more acres adjacent to our home. As we did with the first chunk of land, we planted half the area and left the rest for birds to do their thing. And then we bought three more acres. We were gluttons for punishment.

This is what the land looks like now.
This is what the land looks like now.

Natural kingdom

In seven years, the three-storey-tall acacias crowded around the house obscuring the hills that captivated Rom so much. We took the Aussies out. The other trees closed the gaps and the canopy, now almost native save for a gulmohar and raintree, shaded our yard that was a few degrees cooler than the open areas. Through all this tending, I put my own roots into this land and it became home. Others seemed to agree. Indian grey mongooses, ruddy mongooses, black-naped hares, palm civets, spotted civets, porcupines, bonnet macaques and peacocks wandered among the trees. Our initial list of 50 species of birds swelled to more than 100.

In 2006, Karadi, my German shepherd, disappeared. A leopard had moved in. We pruned the lower branches for visibility, so we could see the cat if he was in the garden. But Rom argued vehemently, when I wanted to thin trees to gain a view of the hillocks. We couldn’t even see the full moon. Wherever we went, if Rom appreciated the vista, I taunted him, “Let’s plant trees so we can’t see it anymore.” I was mean but the tactic worked. We hit a compromise – we took out as few trees as possible and I was content to catch a glimpse of a slope here and there.

A leopard moved into our forest.
A leopard moved into our forest.

To study more of the leopard’s behaviour, we set up a camera trap. Our morning entertainment was to review the memory card’s chronicle of the comings and goings of various creatures.

In the meantime, seedlings stubbornly refused to take root in the vacant lot. No one looked forward to watery bird excrement raining down as much as I did in those years. I wondered if perhaps birds couldn’t poop in flight and need perches. But that wasn’t the problem.

Although the hillocks around us were severely degraded, at one time they would have had tall, stately trees of the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest. The thick crowns of these species luxuriate in the full force of the sun, but their seeds are delicate, germinating only in the shade. Our open field was too exposed to the elements – the soil too hot and the light too bright. These species wanted the company of other trees. I learned all this from our tree-planting friends in Auroville. There were no shortcuts. We had no choice but to go through the whole planting exercise again.

A jungle cat and her kittens became our visitors.
A jungle cat and her kittens became our visitors.

As the canopy extended across the whole farm, we came upon evidence of the leopard’s nocturnal hunting exploits – the guts and quills of porcupines, heads of hares and monkeys. Our garden was now a jungle.

Part of the whole

In order to truly integrate it with the remains of the surrounding forest, we had to up our game. I said to Rom, we ought to create a nursery of evergreen species – satinwood, ebony, bulletwood. There was also another reason to phase out the deciduous trees – the seasonal leaf shed. Starting in March, katva, banyan, pungai, kadukka, bamboo, teak drop their crowns. Raking our yard became an everyday chore during the hottest months of the year. Rom was burned out from all the planting if not from the raking and didn’t want to do more.

“They are so slow growing, they’ll take a century to reach my height,” he scoffed.

Common toads make themselves at home on our bookshelf.
Common toads make themselves at home on our bookshelf.

He was right, of course. One evergreen tree (Lepisanthes tetraphylla) didn’t seem to grow even an inch over several years. If that was the average rate of growth, we wouldn’t have a full-fledged evergreen forest in our lifetimes. It was a nice idea and so it would remain.

A few years ago, we set up solar panels to run entirely on renewable energy. Some trees have to be cut if the cells were to convert the sun’s rays into electricity. But Rom wouldn’t hear of it. Despite the expense, the system operates at half its potential and we continue to rely on the grid. I could nag him until he relents, but I choose my battles.

Now, 20 years after we moved here, ebony saplings grow in thick clusters in the shade. To our surprise, they seem to be in hurry to join the canopy. One youngster grew a foot within the past two summer months. Finally, the birds are taking over our role as tree-planters. The ebony doesn’t need anything from us – no mulching or watering. Just the shade is enough. Maybe in another 20 years, we’d have an evergreen ebony canopy.

All images courtesy the author.

The writer has chronicled her adventures with wild animals and neighbours in her books My Husband and Other Animals and My Husband and Other Animals 2.

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