On World Earth Day, Indian artists reflect on their relationship with trees and use of art to bring attention to natural world

Aarushi Agrawal
·9-min read

We're taught in school how through photosynthesis, with the aid of sunlight, trees absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. Less embedded in public consciousness is the process taking place inside the trees. After a tree absorbs the CO2, it's broken down into carbon and oxygen, and while the oxygen is given out to us, the carbon becomes part of the tree's glucose (C6H12O6), which is its body. "The CO2 is turning into timber," says urban ecologist Aditi Veena. "This is mad because this means that light has the power to synthesise gas into solid, it's turning air into wood," she adds.

This makes trees the best technology to regulate emissions in the atmosphere. While the growing carbon capture industry offers temporary relief to the atmosphere by absorbing CO2, estimates suggest the industry as a whole could reduce only about 10 percent global emissions by 2030. A tree on the other hand not only absorbs and puts CO2 to good use, but is also an entire ecosystem in itself. It's supporting wildlife through food and shelter, offering support to microorganisms through enriching the soil, acting as a natural climate regulator through harvesting water and bringing rain, and combatting air pollution. "A tree is literally like a mini earth, a mini ecocosm in itself," says Veena.

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Illustration by Nirupa Rao. Vernonia arborea. Watercolour on paper. From Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats (pub. 2018 by Nature Conservation Foundation)

This connection to trees and the environment reflects strongly in the soulful music Veena creates as singer-songwriter Ditty. In 'Garden,' the lead single off her eight-track debut 2019 album Poetry Ceylon, she sings "All the greens €" they're chopping it down / So we go grow a forest". And that's precisely what she planned to do with her nationwide tour Make Forests Not War (cut short because of COVID-19). With an aim to be carbon neutral, she'd been travelling by trains, singing in gardens, and raising enough money to plant trees in a North Goa elementary school. "The aim of this tour is also to inspire and help other musicians if they want to be carbon neutral, if they want to tour responsibly," she says.

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A bond with the natural world is intrinsically stronger when nurtured from a young age, life's early experiences strongly impacting ones' later priorities and mindset toward trees and the natural world.

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Illustration by Nirupa Rao. Pallaquium ellipticum / Indian Gutta Percha. From Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats (pub. 2018 by Nature Conservation Foundation)

This has been the experience of botanical illustrator Alisha Dutt Islam. Two trees figure among her fondest childhood memories: a guava tree in her grandmother's backyard, which had the best guavas she's ever eaten, and a majestic peepal tree in her school that she would simply look up at. "I've always felt like when I look at plants or trees it's so comforting. There's something about nature," says Dutt Islam.

As an artist, she found a creative way of passing on this connection to young people. Her graduation project at Bengaluru's Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology was a card game about the city's trees, called War of the Gardens (not out in the market yet). It follows the narrative of the city's transformation from barren land to India's Garden City. Conceptually similar to Monopoly, players trade and steal trees, and fight land sharks and pests, to create healthy gardens. "I love trees and I wanted more people to be interested in trees around us," she says.

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War of the Gardens. Photos taken, with permission, from alishaduttislam.com

Trees are also a big part of her practice. She's illustrated, among others, Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli's Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities, and in general, prefers concentrating on Indian species. "We have to remember where we came from and what's indigenous, and work with it," she says. Her art receives largely mixed responses. While some are inspired and happy by her work, others just see a lot of green and wonder why she keeps doing the same thing. "For me, every plant is like a different person," she counters.

This is also the outlook of botanical illustrator Nirupa Rao, who considers each illustration she makes a portrait of that tree, and wants audiences to recognise them as individuals as well. This knowledge in turn offers a more intimate understanding of the idea that it is all this varied, interrelated life working together in a finely-balanced system that creates a forest, rich in biodiversity and inherently important to all life on earth. "The insects, the animals, the birds, the plants; it's not just about individual species or specimens, it's about an entire habitat," says Rao.

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Illustration in Cities and Canopies by Alisha Dutt Islam. Photo taken, with permission, from alishaduttislam.com

Through documenting the natural world, this is the idea she seeks to drive home. "It's only when we realise how irreplaceable those networks are and their complexity is, that's when we [understand that] these are not things that we can reengineer," she says, about the ecosystems that have developed in our forests over centuries. By highlighting the variety and complexity of the plant world, she also wants to change the perception of trees as boring and monotonous. "We need to be doing more [for the environment]. And the first step toward doing more is actually to fall in love with our natural surroundings again," she says.

A National Geographic Young Explorer, the first book she illustrated was Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman's Pillars of Life €" Magnificent Trees of Western Ghats. In the second, Hidden Kingdom €" Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats, her hand paintings are accompanied by Suniti Rao's writing, with research by Siddarth Machado and Prasenjeet Yadav.

With her books, she's reopening people's eyes to the beauty around them. Her books often surprise audiences, acting as portals through which one can discover trees and plants native to the area. There's also a sense of wonderment, as they offer the realisation that there's much going on in the natural world around us that we're unaware of. "People you wouldn't expect to be interested in plants feel very connected to where they're from, there's a sense of belonging that comes with it," she says. "And I hope that pride can engender an urge to protect [the trees and plants]."

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Illustration by Nirupa Rao. Elaeocarpus tuberculatus / Rudraksham. Watercolour on paper. From Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats (pub. 2018 by Nature Conservation Foundation)

Such support to the natural world in the form of blatantly pointing out and putting trees in front of people's faces sometimes becomes important. Given their intrinsic nature of stillness and an internal life, trees don't draw attention to themselves. They don't have faces with cute eyes like animals, don't move, and aren't seen as threats. This makes it easy for the mind and the eye to simply filter trees out. "It's a vicious cycle. The less you know about plants, the less you notice them. And when you don't notice them, you don't know anything about them as well," says Rao.

This widespread indifference toward trees and plants was explained by botanists Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee in 1998 as "plant blindness," the inability to notice the plants in one's own environment. "The cities get so dense and uninhabitable in some ways, where we're just so separate from the natural world," says Veena.

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Illustration in Cities and Canopies by Alisha Dutt Islam. Photo taken, with permission, from alishaduttislam.com

The work of such environmental artists aims to combat this blindness. It draws attention to trees, bringing them out of their obscurity in the background. Instead of seeing trees and plants as a smudge of green, such art individualises trees, making audiences aware of different species India houses. And it is through seeing each tree as a living, growing individual that one can then foster a deeper connection with it, care about it, and perhaps not want to see it cut down.

In the midst of a climate crisis, art also offers a deep sense of catharsis when faced with mounting eco-anxiety from considering the damage that has already occurred and the inevitable damage yet to come.

Working as an urban ecologist means Veena often spends her time uncovering harsh realities and making uncomfortable connections about environmental degradation. As a deeply sensitive person, music is how she processes these heart-breaking lessons, transforming them into something she can share. "Because for me music has literally been a way to make life more bearable," she says.

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Illustration in Cities and Canopies by Alisha Dutt Islam. Photo taken, with permission, from alishaduttislam.com

For instance, the Poison Cartel is a group of companies who during the two World Wars created toxic gases which aided the Holocaust. Today, they make toxic fertilisers and pesticides, which are destroying the soil's organic matter (all the living things that go back to the soil when they die and offer nutrition to plants, like leaves, insects, fruits, and bones). These harmful chemicals and the resulting almost-negligent organic matter drive insects, earthworms, and bees quickly toward extinction. All of this results in a lack of food for sparrows, causing their numbers also to decline.

"In Delhi where I grew up, we used to have earthworms that used to come out in the monsoon and they hadn't come out in almost a decade. And of course, the sparrows have gone," says Veena. It was to process this dwindling sparrow population that she composed the track 'Eulogy for a Sparrow.'

"I think art is supposed to make people think and reflect and feel emotions," she says. The emotion of her music resonates deeply with her listeners and on several occasions, she's found people crying when hearing 'Eulogy.' "We don't really make these connections. But all this is happening because of the state of how we produce food and how we run our society," she says. Through her music she wants to get people thinking about these things. "As artists, I think we have a responsibility and we just have to use this opportunity, like any other opportunity in life, to do something, say something, about what's happening around us," she adds.

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