A Self Perched on Trees
Six years ago, my parents decided to sell their two up-two down house located in the industrial outskirts of Jalandhar, my hometown. It was my childhood and teenage home where I threw the most tantrums and broke the most doors, and which I couldn’t wait to leave behind. When my father broke the news to me over phone, I blurted out ‘The Fuck,’ waiting at a crowded street stall selling chickpea-buns outside my college. As if selling the house wasn’t enough, he told me they’d already decided their next house – twice the size of the old one and situated in a market area away from the smoke, the noise, and the stench of leather factories. Out of all the excuses parents craft to sell their children’s first homes, theirs was this: The Sacred Fig tree near our gate, almost one-storey high, was eating away at the foundation of the house.
It was the tree under which our first car, a heavily rundown, second-hand Zen stood, which my parents bought after my brother’s birth. Under its shade, my sister and I played Stapoo – a game somewhat like Hopscotch – in the heat of many Mays and Junes. But the only visceral way in which the fig entered my field of awareness was as the damn tree that took our house.
Trees have populated – sparked, sheltered, soothed – human imagination and psyche for as long as we’ve existed. The tree of life in the Bible, or the Banyan tree as an elder – Baba Bohar – in Punjab, my community – we’ve personified and anthropomorphised trees for centuries as much as we’ve chopped and burnt them for less justifiable pleasures. But for me trees didn’t exist or at least, didn’t mean anything until my early to mid-twenties. My childhood home was next to a park that grew neem, banyan, and mulberry, but I can’t remember feeling anything towards them – nothing in praise of their bountifulness or mightiness or wisdom. When I moved to college, I was surrounded by the most beautiful eucalyptus and jasmines in the whole of north India, and yet I developed nothing more than an instrumental relationship with their presence. I lounged against the trunks of Banyans to read Engel’s and Marx’s German Ideology, and learnt under the shade of Siris and Arjans that calling out Engel’s sexism in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State was almost blasphemous, and I hid behind the trunks of figs while my boyfriend kissed me for the first time and the next many times. Yet, I was the perfect prototype for the city prude for whom nature only exists to serve her.
But two years ago, I moved to Oxford, England and found myself reminiscing the lost fig tree of my childhood. My flat in Oxford is located next to the city’s largest meadow through which flows a narrow but deep stream of Thames. The long bank of the tributary is ornamented with white birches, weeping willows, maples, and oaks, as is the path from my home to the rest of the city. Oxford is a historic city with beige-brown houses, Gothic spires, and Roman dome-shaped libraries, but the less commonly known fact is that Oxford is also a city of trees. There are two trees per person in the city, making trees the primary resident of the valley.
Here, I begin from my house along the railway lines, cross the bridge over the tracks, pass homes in Jericho that flaunt their “Neighbourhood Watch” sign on every lamppost, adore the stillness of Bevington road throughout the year, and reach University South Parks, and I find myself bumping into strangers all the time – my eyes gawk and gape at the maples, the dogwoods, the willows, and the cherry plums. Later, I cross a petite bridge, only a few meters long over a rivulet, and I greet two ancient oaks on both sides of the bridge; their branches bow down to one another as if providing a safe haven from Oxford’s unpredictable rains to the city’s forsaken – squirrels the size of kittens, golden cats, students who go for a run at 10pm – even as they bare themselves in the honour of winter. A branch of the left tree that ascends and falls like slopes of a hill curves itself at its farthest end into an open palm. Into this bowl of prayer curls a branch the width of my little finger from the oak on the right. For the first time, I understand the beautiful poem of the Chinese poet, Shu Ting, To the Oak, “Love – not only for your splendid trunk/ but also for the earth we stand on.” I walk under the shelter of Oaks and bag for myself slices of warm November sunlight that I empty at the table where I write this essay.
Gradually, the trees of Oxford map onto the branches of my brain, as I imagine the twigs of red-osier dogwood as kalams of Bhagat Singh and the Ghadarites, swords aimed at two hundred years of British colonialism. I glimpse in the wind whooshing past the drooping branches of white willow my mother’s dupattas drying on the clothesline at the terrace of our old house. I catch in the winter-struck branches of a dwarf willow the sight of my brothers’ baby fingers – his tiny body wrapped in a fleece blanket in the coldest month of the year leaps at me. Among moonlit chestnut trees and silver birches and magnificent Sycamores in the cobbled streets of the city, I imagine alphabets of Punjabi – kakka, dadda, nanna – as branches arch and bend to my nostalgia and guilt. This is how I learn to identify trees: fantasising about a lost home and a wounded language in a nation that flourished in my wake.
Urban trees – planned trees on the streets, parks, and neighbourhoods of a city – are an essential part of contemporary architecture and planning in the west. Oxford’s trees are not accessories to the city landscape – the historic buildings and ancient colleges – but bedrock of life in the city: literally reservoirs of Oxygen for a small town that found itself stifled in the face of colonialism and immigration, and more recently, Oxford University’s expansion and tourism. But beside the gracious giving that trees do for our world and physical survival, there is something else too: trees may alter our relationship with cities.
In a city as white as Oxford, it isn’t easy to loiter around the streets and marvel at the Gothic spires of All Souls College. Give it a few minutes and a white man in his 40s will approach you and ask in the most stand-offish, formal voice, Hi, can I help you with something? But the chances of anyone commanding you to stop staring at the yellow maple tree near Broad Street are few. You can click as many photos as you like, sit in the cemetery in the middle of the Mary Magdalen road, and even touch the tree – unlike Oxford’s gardens and buildings that warn DO NOT TOUCH. This is how you may exist in a city that has an ‘Indian Institute’ – training centre for Indian Civil Services of the empire.
You may swap stories of looting and burning with the willows, you may hide behind their osiers. In the words of the urban American poet, Philip B Williams, ‘Often I am permitted to return to the city,’ you will be invited too – as diversity hire or globalisation’s success or retribution or Project ApologyTM. But you may refuse and yet find yourself a place to belong in the city – one among its oldest inhabitants. You may not remain a hopeful future, you may already dwell in a utopian past. You may disrupt the timeline of colonialism and the temporality of your skin – you may already be a tree, you may be as well be the oldest city.
You may remember this too: as a teenager, writes the poet and essayist Aimee Nezhukamatathil, she wore the darkest shade of red lipstick at her school in the States. When her white classmate commented that it doesn’t quite suit her skin tone, she remembered to smile and smile like an axolotl, the ‘Mexican Walking Fish.’ Axolotls are knowns for their regenerative properties, writes Aimee. No matter how often or how severely the bones of an axolotl break, it can rebuild its body again; nothing can break an axolotl. This may be the gift of trees too to a Punjabi immigrant woman-non-woman in Oxford: resilience and hope that ripples across the horizontal and vertical time of the empire. Oaks and Sycamores may be more than an escape – they may be sustenance for the lost soul.
As a freshly inaugurated teen, I remember playing Run and Chase with my neighbourhood friends – the unidentical twin girls – in the colony park. My pink V-neck top reads Bougainville over my barely noticeable breasts; a pair of blue jeans hugs my shape-shifting legs. I run and dodge across the length of the park until I am caught – a blade of a bush rips my top. My back is a lightning-shaped loss – it wills whistles from boys and punishment from parents. This is how it ends: a red slash across my back is the last time a tree touches me. Divorced from nature and married to domesticity – I am re-recruited in the regiment of respectable girls. I am a severed sapling.
Twelve years later in Lake District, hiking for the first time ever, a male friend urges me to be sure-footed. We are climbing muddied, slippery steps along the waterfall. When my legs begin to tremble, I climb using all fours. When we hit a steep step, I crawl. When my arms can’t reach the next step for support, I find cracks and crannies carved only for my hands. I am sure-willed. I am trying to re-seed myself and shoot into a tree.
I can’t know how and how much an uninhibited relationship with nature could’ve transformed my childhood and teenage, but I know this: I might have hated my body less.
In 2009, Dianne Chisholm, a feminist phenomenologist and scholar, reviewed an unusual book by one of the very few women free climbers in the world, Lynn Hill. Free Climbing (climbing without artificial aid) is an activity dominated by men; the vertical, hyper-masculine world of mountains wasn’t and still isn’t considered suitable for women. Women’s hands are too tiny and body frame too fragile to overpower cruel mountains. But Hill shares how she didn’t need to control the mountains at all – there was room for her and openings for her body in nature. Chisholm calls this a phenomenology of free movement and existence, which is to say nature isn’t built to gratify a particular body shape, unlike our civilisation. Women climbers find that their malleable bodies and tiny hands are precisely what they need to thrive in nature.
I am neither a free climber nor a proper hiker. I am closer to Cheryl Strayed in Wild when she begins her Pacific Crest Trail – Hunching in a Remotely Upright Position. But I am a body in nature and of nature. I wish I knew this in 2009 – the year I ripped my top – that my town’s and community’s patriarchy may have uprooted me from nature, but they could never uproot nature out of me.
In a recent episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, biological anthropologist Agustin Fuentes remarks, “even if you were to suck out of the body everything that is human, that is clearly just us, you’d still have a very strong outline and much of the body filled in.” There would be enough microbes and proteins – and the world in us that isn’t distinctly human, such that we don’t exist in an ecosystem, we are an ecosystem. In scientific terms, we are Holobionts.
Separation from the natural world isn’t so much a loss as a rupture. A laceration on the human ecosystem that is also our body, not just metaphorically, but quite literally. It’s deprivation from that which constitutes us. In urban life, proximity with trees may be a ritual of healing. It’s a meditation like the one American novelist and essayist Scott Sanders undertakes in an experimental forest in Oregon. During his weeklong residency at the forest, he touches the same ancient Douglas fir every day and finds himself tapping and drifting into unselfconsciousness. But – and this is the important part – the state of a self-less consciousness is always already a state of the self, albeit one that suffers from historical and anthropogenic amnesia. That is, among trees, there may not be an evasion of the self, but an expansion of it. A way for the self to house itself in the hive mind that may be our world and our bodies.
“Some trees,” writes the beloved Punjabi poet, Shiv Kumar Batalvi,
“are like sons to me
others like mothers
some are like daughters and daughters-in-laws
yet others like brothers…
The green language of all these trees
I so want to write
Oh, I want this for me too
to be born again as a tree.”
The twelve-year-old me who memorised this poem thought it was a cliché, a poem in praise of that which wasn’t mine to touch. Today, it’s a call for intimacy. It’s an invitation to climb the elms of Oxford with my short and fat body on display. It’s a practice of faith for my feet and hands that are already the colour of the earth on which both of us stand. It’s a reawakening – as a self that longs and be-longs to the natural world, a self that may belong to the city as well.
It’s also a journey homewards to the fig of my childhood. Figs are considered sacred in South Asian religions for their relationship with meditation and humility. Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, meditated under a fig tree in Odisha to attain Moksha – salvation: a state of consciousness that transcends the human self and is at one with the universe. A selfhood that exists in a sacred relationship with the human and the nonhuman.
Carolyn Kizer. Carrying over: Poems from the Chinese, Urdu, Macedonian, Yiddish, and French African. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon, 1988. Print.
Phillip B Williams. Thief in the Interior. Alice James Books, 2017.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil. World of Wonders: World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. Milkweed Editions, 2020
Dianne Chisholm. “Climbing like a Girl: An Exemplary Adventure in Feminist Phenomenology.” Hypatia 23.1 (2008): 9-40. Web.
Lynn Hill, and Greg Child. Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World. London: Harper Collins Entertainment, 2003. Print.
Cheryl Strayed. Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found. London: Atlantic, 2013. Print.
Scott Russell Sanders. “Mind in the Forest”. Orion Magazine. First published in 2007.
Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Rukh, Punjabi-Kavita.com