Urgent trunk call

Sumana Roy | Updated on December 13, 2019

Ground clearance: A Mumbai resident mourns a tree felled in the city’s Aarey Colony in October this year   -  VIJAY BATE

The assault on trees continues even as we seek solace in the words of a poet. But that won’t be enough to save our forests

At moments when one seems close to the end of what one has known as life, two diverse kinds of unwritten lists emerge from the consciousness — of regrets and of gratitude. The two become related through one word: Attention. Regrets come from lack of attention, either to that we think we should have given more energy, or a sad coming to terms with not having had enough of someone’s attention; gratitude for having been the beneficiary of attention. Calendar time is not coeval with plant time, and yet there are resemblances that bring them together — the end of the Gregorian calendar year is quasi-simultaneous with the annual life cycle of many trees and plants. They come together in my mind — these lists, and the plants and the year and the sense of an ending — as I lie in bed, with fever, fatigue and world-weariness. As I write this last word, I pause. I want to check where it comes from, and then, a moment later, because of the character of such weariness, I postpone the self-investigation for later.

I am aware of missing something — paying attention, and being given attention. We think the second higher in the hierarchy, but it’s beyond our control, and so it’s the first I miss more at the moment. I’ve been staying in a small rented room in Sonipat, sharing a flat with two other people, both of whom live their lives behind closed doors (I’m not sure whether they eat, because I’ve never seen leftovers in the fridge or the trash bin). It’s a cage, chained as we are to the perimeter of our air purifiers, an ad hoc arrangement that I want to end. But, until then, there is nothing that has my attention except the AQI reading on the air purifier. All of this is to state the obvious: There is not a single plant in my room, or even the flat.

When I complain that I am homesick, it is not just the physical house and its inmates that I miss. I miss family. Plants are my family, and to not have them with me makes me feel bereft. An acquaintance thinks them to be a metaphor, consoling me for missing the ‘green’. I am annoyed, as most exhausted people are, but I let it go. I lie awake at night, wondering what exactly about my plants I miss. It is a futile exercise, almost akin to a mathematical back-calculation of breaking the sum into parts: Touching their bodies, watching them grow, and so on. The verbs don’t really add up, not until I’m about to fall asleep — what I really miss is giving them attention.

Is it true that we need someone or something to whom we can devote our attention? With a body that needs medical attention, it is perhaps natural that my thoughts should gravitate in that direction. Beside my pillow is WS Merwin, his poems. There are some poems in this book I know by heart: ‘On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree’; ‘I want to tell what the forests/were like/I will have to speak/in a forgotten language’. But today it is a longer poem that I want to live in: Chord.

While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests

while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes echoing through the forests

while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they thought

of their gardens dying far away on the mountain

while the sound of the words clawed at him they thought of their wives

while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was hateful to them

while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers

while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees

while he felt his heart they were hungry and their faith was sick

while the song broke over him they were in a secret place and they were cutting it forever

while he coughed they carried the trunks to the hole in the forest the size of a foreign ship

while he groaned on the voyage to Italy they fell on the trails and were broken

while he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons

when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down

and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language

Even though I am aware of the central morality of the poem, of the role of art, of how it cannot be indifferent to the world that produces it, I find myself reading it differently this time. I notice the opposition of two kinds of actions created by pairs of verbs in every line — the self-indulgence of the artist contrasted with the need for action. But I can now see the poem only as a petition for rightful and remedial attention — whether the poet should write about the forest even as the forest is destroyed.

The government and its poachers are cutting down forests as I read this poem. In this last month of the year, I hope for the redistribution of attention as I write these words — that readers will save the last trees that remain, as Merwin tried to do.


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree;

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

Published on December 12, 2019

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