Robert Macfarlane is a well-regarded environmental writer in the UK. His books are deeply erudite and warm and full of wonder for the natural world. Dr Macfarlane walks all over England, swimming in lakes and rivers, climbing trees to listen to the wind, hiking up hills to see the clouds. Each of his books has to do with a different aspect of his observation, reading and study—woods, rivers, walking; even underground. His work seeks to record and help preserve a fast-vanishing landscape as well as a language-scape—his recent book, The Lost Words, are full of poems about words that are disappearing from vocabularies because the creatures they describe are being pushed out of urban spaces: lark, badger, starling, and so forth.

Where is this exposition going, you may wonder. It is going where the three sumbal trees that grew outside my children’s school went. They were tall, mature trees, ostensibly cut down to make space for roadworks. Strangely—or not—those roadworks didn’t make an ounce of a difference to the bed where the trees once stood, and have now been replaced by ugly, prickly palm trees that look as uncomfortable and miserable as any alien standing on a roadside should. As the surviving sumbal across the street buds into bloom, I think of its three fallen comrades, and remember how my children would eagerly scan the sidewalk for any fallen blooms, picking up the best and least-bruised as a gift for their teacher. They now just cross the road, without looking up or down, because there is nothing to see. The palm trees still have their leaves bound by a plastic circle; whoever planted them didn’t even think it fit to release the poor branches before abandoning the palms to their dusty, arid fate. I am no Macfarlane, but I feel the loss of those sumbal trees keenly.

It might sound like an indulgence to miss a tree. It’s just a tree, you can grow another. But like John Proctor’s anguished cry in The Crucible—it is my name! I cannot have another!—a tree cannot ‘just’ be grown back. A mature, old tree is more than just a big plant. It is an ecosystem unto itself, with squirrels and birds living in its branches. Other birds roost amongst the leaves, cats and dogs and people sit under their shade. A tree may grow fruit that animals eat, bees pollinate, seeds that are spread farther in hopes of new trees taking root. You cannot have it back so easily, because no living thing can be killed without an irreparable cost. When we speak of reforestation, we have to consider carefully what we mean. It’s never as simple as a tree for a tree. A fifty year old pipal cannot be replaced by a date palm. A fruit tree is not the same as an ornamental one. A bush of chambeli is not the same as an orchid. One must consider environment, consider survival, consider indigeneity. One must consider bicyclists and motorcyclists: streets with shady trees are significantly cooler than bare stretches of burning asphalt. One must consider parking in a scorching June afternoon—everyone wants to park in the shade but nobody wants to water a tree that provides it, because ‘leaves make a mess’.

It seems to me that we haven’t got anyone like Robert Macfarlane writing about our pathways and rivers and trees because we are utterly divorced from the natural world. We see modernity as a divorce from the mud and mess of the outdoors, an escape from the “paindoo”. We hate a mess, so we will relentlessly keep chopping off branches of trees that grow over our boundary walls because heaven forbid a few leaves drop into our paved backyards. We could be beating our servants and stealing electricity but we won’t stand for mess. We will scrupulously wash our driveways every day and we would rather kiss a toad than jump into a stream. It’s such a shame to be so self-conscious all the time. It isn’t our direct fault; it’s decades of ‘training’ that has crushed our natural spontaneity and generations of nose-turning that has deadened us to our natural human responses to nature. In classrooms, students don’t know what a wheelbarrow looks like, or what flower a petunia is. One could say it stems from a lack of access to greenery, but whose choice is it to never be curious about the riot of flowers in a public flower-bed at a traffic signal? Has one never wondered what the name of a tree is? And if so, then how on earth can we truly connect to the world around us without knowing the names of things? In Ursula K. LeGuin’s magnificent “A Wizard of Earthsea”, mages are able to unlock a deep and primal earth-magic when they use the true name of a thing, be it animal, plant or person. It is not fanciful to suggest that, in real life, reaching out to connect with nature will make us all better, happier, and quite literally, more grounded people.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.



It might sound like an indulgence to miss a tree. It’s just a tree, you can grow another. But like John Proctor’s anguished cry in The Crucible—it is my name! I cannot have another!—a tree cannot ‘just’ be grown back.