By Arati Rao
Deep in the rain forest, in the company of verdant giants, love happened.
Carry on,” I said to the group. We’d come to a stream. It was not deep. Or wide. We needed to step over about seven rocks to get to the other bank. The group wanted to climb the hill on the other side. Carry on. I picked my way on mossy rocks, careful not to plunge into the water with my new camera. And on a long green rock, I lay down. Flat. I was in heaven.
We were on foot deep in a rainforest in South Central Sri Lanka. And I was lying in the middle of a stream, supine and calm. Right above me tree boughs wove themselves into a tangle, much like earphone wires. And behind me, in the breathtakingly beautiful upside down world I had entered, lianas snaked up and across and embraced tall evergreen trees so thoroughly that all I could see was a green carpet. Just by my right ear, water plunged a few feet to meet more water, drowning out any sounds – even those in my head. Did I say I was in heaven? Oh yes, I did. But I’ll say it once more, with feeling. I was in heaven. In a stupor, brought on by the tranquil symphony of sounds. It cocooned me, and I drifted.
There is a place I know. Where trees reach impossible heights of 80 m above the mist that shrouds the forests, where fungi wear pink tutus, where monkeys are red, where delicate vines hugging barks look like pretty lace, where you cannot see your palm in front of your face at nights – where you can lose yourself. There, lying vulnerable on that rock, I let those memories claim me.
|Borneo: A dreamscape of majestic trees rising above swirling mists|
|The unutterably beautiful koompassia|
I’m an unabashed romantic. Maybe I romanticise everything. Scratch that “maybe.” I do. I celebrate and cry and hurt and scream and shout and love and laugh and then write. But all this freedom has been only lately. I used to not be that way. I used to be all grown up, when I was younger. Super-serious and hung-up. I was an adult when I was younger. Heck, I would say, even as recently as a couple of years ago, until I was introduced to the two trees.
It is no idle comment to affirm that trees are essential to human soul. For they are. Rest against a buttress and feel a tree breathe. Go closer and hug it. Feel its dry-moist bark against your skin. Lean on it with all your weight. Feel it support you. And then know. Still, no tree I had seen before, hugged before, leaned on before – nothing – prepared me for that place – Borneo. Even as the plane dipped below the clouds I knew I would not be the same again. Those giants were among the most majestic beauties I had beheld in my life. And those ancient trees awed me into a reverent silence and saw me break out into song, alternately.
On May 15, 2010, I met the koompassia excelsa, a lofty white-boled beauty of a tree, standing head and shoulders above the rest. And make no mistake – “the rest” are all of 60 m high. The koompassia soars past them to reach about 80 m. A smooth white bark, rich in silica, is hard and brittle, defying loggers’ saws. The bark is so smooth that many species cannot get a grip on it to climb it. Its lofty feathery-leaved branches start high above and are a haven for giant honeybees. Sacred in some places, you see it standing tall, defying the gods. I went close and put my arms around an impossibly large buttress. I barely covered a twentieth of it, if that! The koompassia stands so tall that you can hardly get the whole tree in one frame – no matter how wide your camera lens! I was in awe or was it pure love? Each time we walked past a koompassia, I felt something stir in me. It was love. Far away from Borneo, I still feel that stirring. That year, 2010, had been special. It was December when I lay on that rock, and all through the year I had treated myself to trees and forests. Rainforests – I had spent time in India in the Western Ghats, in Borneo, in the Amazon, and now, in Sri Lanka. And it had been re-verdure for my soul.
|A lacy climber|
|Lean against a buttress and feel its essence|
There is another. Yes, another tree that grabs me from the inside each time I see it. It yanks me and lifts me high, will-nilly, twisting and turning like its roots. I speak of the simply lovely ficus. The fig tree, in all its avatars, is beautiful. And there is one that brings me to my knees in reverence, one that stirs inside me feelings like the koompassia does. The strangler fig.
I stirred, shifted on the rock to find a niche to bury my spine deeper into, and looked up at my upside down green world. Reflecting on the life lessons that had come from two trees. One is the koompassia.
My first trip into a rainforest was in the first month of 2010. I stood beside a chit of a girl whose knowledge of these forests dwarfed even the mighty trees themselves, and I gawked. She had opened a door to a world for me – the world of the rainforests and I was deeply indebted to her. As I went closer to the strangler fig, I noticed something. There were tiny long-legged opilionids gyrating, spiders and other little insects in the million crevices between the roots that had criss-crossed and stepped over themselves. A cacophony of birdcalls from the top announced still more residents and visitors to this address. The strangler flourished to nourish these creatures and bear fruit that a myriad others loved. Do you know how the strangler grows? She asked me. This lovely begins from the top, puts down its roots that envelop the host and slowly establishes itself to a point where the host is no more. Nature, doing its thing. Lovely and red; it is what it is, I thought. Once more, no wide-angle lens could quite capture all of the fig tree, try as I might. And each time I saw one, it was as if a new story unfolded. Without judgment, I fell in love again.
|The strangler fig tree of Sri Lanka that brought the author to her knees|
“What will you do after quitting?” I was asked when I chucked up a perfectly happy corporate life. “I’ll do what I’ve always wanted to do,” I replied. I had lofty plans then – to make documentaries, to write, to take photographs, to travel. And maybe I did some of that too. But it had taken me two years to realise that those were simply manifestations of what I really wanted for myself. I wanted this – this re-verdure, this rejuvenation of soul. And I am finding it (yes, present continuous tense, not past tense) in the company of immobile, mute giants that teach volumes without saying a word.
“You have to see this ficus!” she called out. The group was back. That same chit of a girl was with me in Sri Lanka and had walked on to climb that hill. I abandoned my mossy bed and joined them by the stream. “It is simply amazing, go, see it,” she implored. I’ve grown to trust this girl. She seemed to understand my arboreal urges. I’d have to climb up the hill, go past some lianas and it would be on my left. OK. I could never pass up an opportunity like that.
|The strangler fig in frozen motion|
|The koompasia emerging enchantingly from the mist|
The path was slippery, caked with leaf litter. I went past the lianas – but not before I drew in a sharp breath at them – I had not seen anything like it, either. And then, suddenly, there it was. It was so huge, it took me a while to figure out that it was just ONE tree. A strangler fig with some five humungous root systems – all joining at the top – if you could call it that. I suddenly felt my eyes well up and instinctively I sank to my knees. In an odd, unusually self-conscious manner, I stole a look around before I leaned into the tree and just stood there heart-to-root.
“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky … “
I had promised the editor I’d write about trees – the story was inside me, I knew. And yet, when I opened up a blank canvas, I sketched and I doodled, but words did not come out. Until yesterday. I read those words above – those words of Kahlil Gibran and I knew the time had come. Trees that give me so much, teach me so much and replenish me so, warranted a tribute. I don’t know if anything can be more fitting.
The ficus and the koompassia both stand tall and free. They speak to me everyday. When I am happy and when I am not so thrilled, maybe. And they seem to say, “Don’t let anyone — anyone at all — define you, confine you, restrict you, control you, brand you, or tame you. And, above all — refuse to allow anyone to ever own you. Allow no one to dictate who you are but your own inner sap. And never let anyone’s opinions mould your view of yourself.” For you are always so much more than just any one frame.
A confirmed wide-eyed wanderer, Arati Rao moonlights as a market research analyst, graphic designer and co-editor of an online news magazine for children, Youngzine. Arati lives in Bangalore with her husband, Sanat, and precocious ten-year-old daughter, Sanjana.
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