To read part one first, click here.
C.P. showed her the trees of the shola forests. Shola trees are the natural vegetation of the Nilgiris. Shola is a covering of native trees and grassland, found in the higher hill regions of south India. They were ideally suited to the cooler climate of that region, and to the native animals like the elephants, tigers, leopards and gaur who lived there; at least 25 species of trees were part of this eco-system.
When the British came, lacking any understanding of the native vegetation, they destroyed much of the shola forests, planting foreign trees there instead. “The British cut down a lot of shola forest, and put up tea estates; they planted silver oak, wattle, eucalyptus, pine, cedar, and beech, and a whole lot of temperate plants from England and Australia – because the climate in Ooty was temperate.” From some of these trees, they produced viscose, a semi-synthetic fabric called viscose rayon or rayon.
Cutting down the original forests “was very harmful to the birds and the animals. Shola forests are soft, but the pines had sharp needles which were harmful to the birds and the native mammals. Now the government is pulling down the invasive species – but the native trees take a very long time to grow back.”
Eucalyptus trees, which were commonly planted to replace the original trees, also produce an oil that has antiseptic properties and can be used as an insecticide. Because of these properties, it was toxic to many of the birds, animals, and native insects which had lived there.
This lesson learned in childhood of how native plants and animals are essential to sustaining a thriving eco-system served a valuable purpose later on. One of the key projects of CPREEC, one of the foundations headed by Dr. Krishna, is reclaiming eco-systems, especially the complete restoration of 53 sacred groves. These are acres of forest land, held by and cared for by local village people, but over the centuries, many have fallen into neglect.
The officers of CPREEC, especially the botanists and other scientists, have brought these 53 sacred groves back to life, ensuring that every tree they plant is originally native to that specific area, and that it will help to bring back the wildlife and animals that used to live in these sacred lands. In restoring eco-systems, just “planting trees” will not do, they must be the specific trees native to that area.
Away from the forest and back in Bombay for the school year, there was not so much of nature. Nanditha’s school, which she attended from kindergarten through the eleventh standard (eleventh grade) before going on to university, was Cathedral and John Connan High School.
When she was in the ninth standard, she and a few of the other girls came upon a fledgling crow – a pied crow, the kind of Indian crow that is pale gray and black. The young crow had a bit of a crooked beak, was being tormented by the other birds, and was clearly in need of help. They rescued the crow, calling him “Charlie,” and hid him out of sight in the bathroom on the top floor, since they weren’t allowed to have any pets or other animals at school.
Without any knowledge of exactly what to do, they nevertheless managed to take good care of Charlie. “We knew nothing about how to care for a crow. We just fed him our lunch.” Fortunately, crows are omnivores, who will eat a wide variety of food, and Charlie had no permanently disabling injuries. He had a good appetite and grew stronger.
When they were sure he could fly well, they released him from the top floor. On the ground floor they had a tiny garden – there wasn’t room for a big garden in Bombay. That was where they had lunch, and they all shared part of their lunch with Charlie who would fly down every day to join them. Usually lunch was sandwiches. “He had a lot of sandwiches. I used to come on Sundays. I’d walk over to the school to give him something to eat.” She also gave food to two rabbits who were there as well. Very sadly, to the horror of the students, the rabbits were sacrificed by the biology teacher to be dissected – the only lessons the students learned from that horrible incident were that human beings can be very cruel and that science is not infallible.
Charlie continued to return daily for lunch while Nanditha was in the ninth, tenth and then the eleventh standard – and perhaps afterwards too. She left to attend college.
The many enchanted, magical hours that Dr. Krishna spent with her father, her great grandfather, and sometimes her grandparents, roaming through the forests and the wild places of India, experiencing a mystical connection with the wild animals, left an enduring legacy of kindness and of being at one with nature, that she has passed on since to thousands of young people. Through the schools and universities run by the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and all the many school programs that CPREEC carries out throughout south India, children come to experience an enduring love and reverence for the natural world.
Top photo: L. Shyamal / cc-by-2.5 / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.” / Exacum bicolor, Shola flower from Talakaveri, Coorg, India.
Second photo: Sharon St Joan /A sacred grove near Arunachala, the first sacred grove restored by the C.P. Ramaswami Foundation; Dr. Nanditha Krishna, and Mr. Selvapandian, who is the CPREEC officer in charge of managing the restoration of the sacred groves.
Third photo: J.M.Garg / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / A pair of Indian pied crows in West Bengal.
Fourth photo: Sharon St Joan / Dr. Nanditha Krishna with one of the children at the Kumbakonam school run by the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, following an event at the school.
To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, click here.
To find Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s book Sacred Plants of India on Amazon, click here.
© Sharon St Joan, 2015