SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Know your trees better



SUPRABHA SESHAN

Trees of Delhi is both personal and precise. Pradip Krishen deftly combines scientific detail and affectionate observation.

Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide, Pradip Krishen, DK, 2006, Rs. 799 CERTAINLY I am smitten. Be prepared: it may happen to you too. I've actually found what I've been longing for: an extraordinarily well-done and easy to use field guide that will help one identify trees. In my vocation as naturalist-educator, I continually face the hurdle of revealing nature's intricacies to lay persons in a form that is precise, digestible and appealing. For learning difficult plant and animal groups, a good guide is like a lifeline. It is integral to making a budding naturalist independent: to getting out on one's own and making sense of what one sees. Going beyond where other books leave off, The Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide combines text, leaf schemes and more than 1,100 photographs to unravel the mysteries of Delhi's trees. Pradip Krishen, filmmaker-turned-naturalist, has poured himself into this book, writing the text, taking the photographs and preparing the beautifully crafted spreads for 252 species. It is a monumental effort and an invaluable reference for anyone who enjoys tree-spotting and a bit of detective work: finding things.

Crossing boundaries

Trees of Delhi took 10 years to prepare. I find it unusual in that it crosses boundaries that field guides generally never do: it is both personal and precise. Krishen's love and admiration for trees is evident without detracting from the things you need to know and perhaps would like to know. He deftly combines scientific detail and affectionate observation. The Field Guide is elegant and compendious, friendly and factual, in turns light, informative and insightful. It has the appeal of a coffee-table book, but one that you can carry into the field with you. A book you might find yourself frequently dipping in to, as it is highly visual and delightfully readable. Furthermore, it is intriguing, thought provoking: there are values being communicated here. This 360-page encyclopaedic guide to all things tree-like in Delhi offers excellent natural history; absolutely no prior knowledge of botany needed.Not only does it enable you to identify every single tree in Delhi, it also tells you where you can find them in the city. Imagine, a book that can tell you something interesting about every tree in your neighbourhood! Krishen clearly has a personal acquaintance with the trees of Delhi and invites you to make your own journey to meet them. More than a field guide, it fills a lovely niche for a person eager to explore their urban surroundings on their own. And the wonder is, it holds appeal for both the amateur and the professional.

Relevant to other areas

Delhi probably has the worst climate for trees. That there are 252 different species in this semi-arid environment is astounding. Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore are far better suited for growing a greater variety of trees. Krishen has covered many, many species known from only one or two specimens. Most likely these trees do better in other cities, and in Delhi are at the edge of their tolerance limit. For this reason, the book will be of great value to tree-spotters in other urban areas of India. Trees of Delhi is comprehensive, detailed and superbly organised. There are three main sections. The Introduction starts with a personal account of Krishen's own journey with trees, remarkable because he taught himself a difficult subject from scratch. The main structure of the book is then laid out, telling you how best to use it. You move on to learn about the city in terms of its tree citizens, surely an unusual perspective. The Ridge is given prominence: this is where remnant stands of Delhi's native trees can still be found. Then there are accounts of 19th century Delhi (with lovely paintings) and how New Delhi was planned and planted up. Included here are maps covering Delhi's ecological zones, historical points of interest and the distribution of trees in Lutyens' Delhi. The middle section or the Tree Guide deals with the full complement of 252 species, arranged according to their leaf type. Unlike other tree floras, you do not need to know the botanical family of the tree you wish to identify, to narrow the search down. You need only to find a leaf and decide, with the help of page 13, which of the 10 leaf categories it belongs to. You then proceed to that category's Leaf Key (Imli-like, Jamun like etc.) and match your leaf to the ones shown in the spread. In many of the Keys, further categories are given that take you through a series of simple choices to help you eventually to identify your tree.

Outstanding design

Each of the 252 species has a spread to itself and this is where the design excels. I have found new respect for how many distinguishing details can be contained in one spread. The key features include: local, common and scientific names, the family; an "Identikit" with important field identification details such as size, bark, leaves, flowers and fruit; where to see it in Delhi, and seasons. "Can be confused with" clarifies identity problems for close-resembling species. For prominent species, there is a bar on the right edge covering habitat, range and uses of the tree. Occasionally there is a link to a related section in the Back of the Book, a treat in itself. For those features that are simpler described using standard terms, there is the section "Parts of a Tree" in the Introduction, where leaf arrangements, bark texture, flower parts, flower arrangements and types of fruit are illustrated to help the reader understand the few terms used in the book.The Back of the Book contains a fascinating array of delicious tidbits that you can lose yourself in. It is definitely my favourite part of the book. It raises questions and puzzles, throws light on a great many aspects of tree biology and taxonomy, and offers several bonuses. Between this and the Introduction, you have a reference book that you can hold in one hand but still learn about, for example: how figs are pollinated, how big a mango can grow, how Eucalypts are differentiated, the evolution of trees, the naming of species, the natural and planted ecology of Delhi, and other such information ranging from the critical to the unusual. Tree buffs will find much here to enjoy. What I particularly like about this book is that it goes beyond the tree's identification, and tells you more about the tree itself. For example, looking up the jamun, it says "a beautiful, large canopied tree native to both monsoon and moist forests in S and SE Asia. A favourite avenue tree in India largely because it retains its dense, shady crown throughout the dry season. Delhi's civic authorities auction the rights each year to collect the dark-purple fruit off the avenue trees." This field guide is representative of a rare genre of field guides that treat cities as biogeographical entities. Trees of Delhi opens your eyes to the consequences of human intervention in a landscape. Because the ecology of a city is largely an artificial one, its residents grow up ignorant of the distinction between native and exotic, wilderness and garden. Is this a sign of things to come, of landscapes of the future? Nature will be soon be inseparable from culture, and the definition of wilderness will irrevocably alter. Trees of Delhi draws attention to this in myriad subtle ways: to what was, how things have been changed and the often-perilous consequences of these actions.

User-friendly format

As I write this, I look at some of the other tree guides we have here in India, ranging from Dietrich Brandis's impressive Indian Trees (1907), to K.C. Sahni's Book of Indian Trees (BNHS, 1998) and S.G. Neginhal's Forest Trees of South India (2004): each a step in the evolution of field guides, each a stoic attempt to enlighten lay persons on the tree flora of a region, but none sadly, truly usable in a simple fuss-free way. Of course, these botanists did not have the advantage of computer graphics and superb photography. Unlike Krishen. The Trees of Delhi makes it possible to conceive of new user-friendly designs and also how the stodgy science of botany can be refreshingly communicated in jargon-free ways.I shared this book at an informal gathering of naturalist friends. All were very enthusiastic about its design, the precision and style of language, the eminently sound science and the crisp and glossy photographs. A few minor quibbles were voiced. A bibliography would be useful; the Back of the Book could be cross-referenced to the Tree Guide; some leaves within categories are not immediately distinguishable. But these, we agreed, were minor points. I find this book very different for other reasons too. It shows you as much about the art of learning as about the natural world. It leaves you feeling like an archaeologist, an explorer, a field guide writer yourself. You can't wait to get out there and identify your trees, to take photographs, do some research. It's truly a model guidebook, because it is so inspiring. It gives you the possibility to connect to your city afresh. Indeed, with Trees of Delhi in your pocket, you may find yourself hopelessly hooked and haunting avenues and by-lanes searching for those graceful beings that add so much beauty to humdrum city lives: trees.





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