By Akendra Sana
Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth, it sheltered me,
And I’ll protect it now;
“Woodman Spare That Tree!”(1837) is considered the first American Environmental Protest Song ever written.
The opening lines of this ballad also so aptly seem to say what we all in Manipur should be doing at present, with treeless avenues and shaven hillocks confronting the eyes as they scan the landscape. What is expressed here is purely from the perspective of a lay person and do not profess of any expertise on the science of environment or any such complicated modern day understanding of nature and its myriad manifestations. Come February-March, the air is thick with dust and water scarcity becomes routine in Imphal when trees are briefly remembered whenever some discussions on climate and nature take place. Everyone but then goes scurrying for water tanker bookings, the immediate evidently taking precedence over other mundane considerations like planting and nurturing of trees. With the first rains, dust settles down and soon water ceases to be a priority.
Green cover of Manipur that one could be proud of in the past is something nature has gifted. Now do we even remember that at least some thirty-forty years ago flocks of lively parrots used to frequent Imphal in Spring when say trees like Silver Oaks (kabulia) then flowered and no one now knows when they stopped coming. Forget parrots, birds of any kind have long disappeared.
The road stretch in front of DM College, the portion of the NH from North AOC point right up to Koirengei, for instance like so many avenues then, was majestically tree lined, many of the trees were of the flowering varieties with such magnificent hues when they flowered. Some of them of course must have become very old and had natural deaths, but trees even old ones do not easily die. Only uprooting them live must have made the majority of them disappear. Tree lined streets and roads, some may concede are things of the past and expansion and development of roads have to give way to trees. Apart from beautification and aesthetics in urban planning what role trees play as is common knowledge in the eco-system is that they provide balance in nature with environmentalists calling them lungs.
And what about all the cropped and clean shaven hillocks and hill ranges in and around Imphal? Nature is kind and always attempts to replenish any loss in its green cover. But whenever there is rampant and insensitive destruction, nature appears to respond in almost hostile terms – dust storms, water scarcity as water table gets lower for ground water; all appear to be some of such known responses. And once the top soil of the hills and hillocks goes off, any form of renewed green cover becomes impossible. Hence if explanations and solace are sought in expectation of nature’s own replenishment, what needs to be remembered is that what has been denuded has to be proportionate to what can be renewed. That extent of proportion must therefore be understood and appreciated.
“Think Global, Act Local” is most appropriate when the question of nature and reclaiming of trees is concerned. July is observed as tree planting month/season. Once trees are planted do we ever care to know a few years later if they have at all grown and if grown, how healthy are they. Land is of course scarce now and trees may have become luxuries many tend to abandon as human habitations expand and develop. Good, wide roads and other infrastructure needs are absolutely necessary. Along with such developments taking care of Mother Nature, read trees, is certainly more necessary since the latter is about all humankind and posterity. Opportunities are always there to develop fresh plantation of trees that are sturdy and robust and suitable to the climate and spaces along roads and avenues can all be fruitfully utilized for different types of trees to grow in full glory in the decades in the future.
Does the manner humans treat trees speak of civilizations and cultural health and inclinations of communities? Take for instance how we revere trees at Umang Lai (Sylvan Deities) complexes, considering them to be part and parcel of Divinity. Why than those outside the precincts of the Deities are treated differently? Should our hearts not bleed when we see a barren Cheirao Ching, for instance and so many such hillocks and hill ranges? There are so many places all over Manipur where trees deserve more respect and affection. Felling of matured trees for economic and development purposes are only understandable if only planned and timely replanting and nurturing of them has been part of a continual process. Why do we not learn from our past, our ancestors who knew how to protect woods, forest cover through the venerated Umang Lais? If trees can only be protected and preserved by invoking Divinity, so be it. The message that can go out therefore to the community at large is expand the areas for trees at Umang Lai complexes. But this can be anachronism in the times we live in only because there is no enough space and hence our understanding of the issue must be in the context of today’s needs and aspirations. Present-day Manipur must leave behind a greener world because for millennia we have revered forests and trees. Trees in their turn know their responsibilities of providing shelters and economic succour.
Wanton felling of trees is undoubtedly an affront on our culture and civilization as is evident in all the lore of Umang Lais and elsewhere. It is now important to remember that whatever little is left of the understanding of our ancestry and culture is entwined in the practices and beliefs at Umang Lai complexes where trees play no insignificant part. It is of paramount importance to recognize that the areas that occupy all the Revered “Sylvan Deities” must necessarily be a part of the matrix essential for Urban Planning in Imphal and other urban centres of Manipur because this is a unique feature of the overall landscape.
If there is a search for what represents our very being from the past and ancestry “Umang Lais” seems to constitute one half with the other half in individual households in the form of “Sanamahi Kachin” , the corner of the Divine at the south-western part of the house.