This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine June 2018
When you first visit India you either fall in love with, or reel at its shocking contrasts. Madmen driving everything from the latest Lotus to a cart propelled by a converted water pump vie for position. A single-track road has four lanes of traffic as a Rolls Royce overtakes a hay cart pulled by a camel going one way, and a rickshaw passes an elephant going the other you hide your head in your hands and even atheists pray for salvation. If your car horn doesn’t work you can’t drive. Somehow the mayhem works. An Indian friend tells me he is frightened to drive in the UK as there are so many rules.
I recall being at a farm in the middle of Delhi where stunning birds abounded and the filthy river was haven for waders and herons. In the shimmering heat a stunningly beautiful Indian woman, clad in a sunlit silk sari walked towards us with incredible elegance, stooping periodically to pick something from the grass and toss it into her basket. As she passed I saw that her gleaning was of cow dung… such poetry and poise to gather the prosaic.
As we travelled around Northern India two things fascinated me. Firstly, every village had a unique pattern created by how they stacked their dried cow dung fuel, and every village tree had a number painted on it. I asked our guide why and was informed that the villages would be fined heavily if a tree disappeared, even dead trees had to have approval before they could be used for fuel or to coral stock. It was part of the government’s attempt to halt deforestation. One man severing a branch to replace a fence pole would be no tragedy, but one billion such people would be disaster.
The other day I came across an old news item that had passed me by. In the middle of last year an Indian state broke all records by planting 66 million trees in twelve hours! 1.5 million volunteers took part in restoring a river valley where degraded land, denuded of trees and shrubs was terribly eroded and good agricultural soil was slipping wholesale into the flood.
It turns out that this beat a previous record held by a neighbouring state who a couple of years back planted 50 million trees in a day! When it comes to ‘re-greening India’ the scale of the problem and the response is immense.
This revelation took me back to the UKs recent madness of destroying urban trees to avoid potential litigation and the ripping out of hedges and agricultural ‘reclamation’ of marginal land to grow crops to plough back in, in times of glut.
66 Million trees is about one for every man, woman and child in the UK. With just 13% of the UK forested we are very nearly bottom of the European league with just the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands less tree clad. Just think what 66 million more trees would do for our wellness and carbon emissions.
Surely every local authority and large corporate or private landowner in the land could designate some planting space? If every schoolchild and youth club member planted a tree every year wouldn’t they feel more protective towards them? Our towns and cities should be getting greener not less so.
With a little political initiative and a lot of voluntary effort we could massively grow our lung capacity. Ask anyone and they will nearly all agree that one of life’s most simple and profound pleasures is a walk in the woods!