The Dawn: 21st December, 2012

Cities without trees

Mushtaq Soofi 

All the cities in Punjab are undergoing a rapid transformation. Most of the so-called cities are in fact expanded towns with little sign of required infrastructure. There are no sports grounds, public spaces and cultural life which are defining features of modern urban centers. If you happen to visit any district level city, the first thing that strikes you is the absence of colour. All you see is drab and dull low skyline, presenting an opaque picture of horizontal monotony. Unbearable jaded visual contrasts sharply with the green you have just seen while driving on bumpy and dusty roads of countryside before reaching the city. Trees are conspicuous by their absence.

Our bureaucrats are perhaps trained to think of development which is nothing more than shoddy buildings and sub-standard asphalt roads. They do not think of trees while planning. Trees are not for the city. They already have lot of foliage in the sprawling lawns of their official bungalows.

To say that Punjab’s cities have no landscaping would be an understatement. So-called big cities like Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Multan are no exception. Lahore, in a way is. It has traditionally been a city surrounded by gardens. The gardens which we read about in history have disappeared. Development, land grabbing and encroachment are name of the game. But still some areas of Lahore have gardens, parks, greenbelts and flowerbeds creating an impression of urban landscaping. We can have a glimpse of trees along certain main boulevards of the city assuring us everything is not lost in the ever-expanding monstrous jangle of concrete. But sadly, most of the trees planted in the recent times are either of foreign origins or not appropriate for the kind of weather we have to live with in Lahore. No grudge against the foreign trees. You can love them. It’s perhaps a sign of on-going process of globalisation effecting every nook and corner of the world. But it also reflects alienation of our urban planners and administrators from our indigenous flora and fauna which naturally suit our weather conditions. Latest trend is to have readymade trees like readymade garments. The lined palm (date) trees in posh areas are a funny sight. They offer neither shade to citizens nor a habitat to birds. Shade and leafy sprawls are essential features of our indigenous trees which should line our roads, parks and boulevards. Some of our trees no doubt take years to grow but once grown, they are a visual treat. They do not offer quick-fix solutions our planners crave for.

Our trees are inseparably linked with our history; cultural and agricultural, religious and secular. ‘Molsari’ (minusops elengi) still smells of sacred mantras. ‘Pipal’ (Bodhi tree/ Ficus religiosa) reminds us that once our ancestors were Buddhists who chanted under their lofty tops. ‘Pilu’ has a long story to tell. It has been our neighbor and companion, giving us shelter and fruit even before our Harrapan ancestors built towns and cities. Mahabharata refers to the Pilu forests of Punjab as a mark of its physical identity. ‘Kikar’ (acacia arabica) provided us with excellent fuel wood. And ‘Tahli’ (Sheesham) has been and still is a part of our house hold. Just have a look at your furniture. The list is endless. But let us not forget the stubborn ‘Jand’ (prosupis spicigera) a much referred to tree in our folk and classical poetry. It is the tree under which legendry lover Mirza, after having eloped with his bold and beautiful Sahiban, slept for a while, oblivious to the dangers posed by the tribesmen in their hot pursuit. From under the “Jand” Mirza shot his arrows at his foes who in the end overwhelmed and slaughtered him.

While planning our cities and towns we must ensure that our trees remain a part of our collective and individual life. They can co-exist happily with their distant cousins, imported from far off lands, fostering a new era of botanical harmony.

Bertolt Brecht in one of his poems “The smoke” says:

“The little house among trees by the lake From the roof smoke rises Without it how dreary would be house, trees and lake.”

One can imagine the opposite of what Brecht describes! How dreary would be smoke without tree. Nature without human presence is as dreary as is human presence without nature.

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