Surendra loves climbing trees. On a recent trip to Dhading, he climbed a jackfruit tree. He took off his shoes, tucked his bare feet into imperceptible crimps and climbed on to a wide branch as we watched him in awe.
One by one, we hoisted ourselves up alongside this graceful tree climber, some with more grace than others, and stood staring at the setting sun. There isn’t much to do on top of a tree but to smile and hear the howling winds as the clouds change colors. For many of us, this was our first time climbing a tree, others shared past delights in similar experiences – about gardens and backyards in their homes and schools with trees full of fruits. Looking back, I realized that all the neophyte tree climbers had grown up in Kathmandu. Only a few kids born and raised in Kathmandu knew the delights of climbing a tree. Most city dwellers turn a blind eye to the nature around them because the urbanized world doesn’t teach us how to interact with the environment.
My first grade science teacher made an attempt to change this once. She wanted us to go exploring the neighborhood and collect as many flowers as possible. She wanted us to press them overnight, tape them to chart papers, and label the parts of the plants. We were to bring back a herbarium file full of plants and make a “class plant library”. As one would expect from a group of six-year-olds whose lives revolved around pretend play, we were all confused. A million questions ensued. An entire forty minutes passed before the poor teacher gave up and finally said it was okay, we could draw the flowers out as well. A few days later, our class plant library was full of poor caricatures of the illustrations from the science book.
Fast forward a couple of grades, I found myself borrowing a branch of a rose shrub so prettily perched on my next door neighbor’s parapet. With the help of my green thumbed mother, I carefully planted it. I followed instructions, put it in a warm spot, watered it and waited beside it for hours. I thought it was shy so I pretended to look away. When it didn’t immediately start to grow, I marveled at its intelligence and quick observation skill.
I went to bed and woke up the next morning with doltish confidence that the bare branch would be full of roses. Much to my disappointment, nothing had changed. In my head, the three panel drawings of plant propagation happened within a span of hours and when I complained to my mother, she laughed and told me to be patient. I tried patience for a day or two and then lost interest, until a few months later, when I found the bare branch with its own leaves. I squealed with joy.
I have grown spots of green on my thumb as well. Inside my messy home, I have a parapet dedicated to a teacup garden, and by teacups, I mean broken plastic water jugs, plastic juju dhau containers, a coffee mug and ice cream cups. I like to believe this project kills two birds with one stone – reusing plastic and loving nature, but the truth just might be that I don’t have the energy to fill up an entire clay pot with foraged soil. In my miniature garden, I am growing spring onions, accidentally planted barley, mint and now strawberries. I love them to bits, but only when I have time to spare.
But some things changed since I descended that jackfruit tree in Dhading. I notice the greenery inside the valley more. As I look out microbus windows, I find myself staring at Pipal trees wondering what the view would be like from above. Would it be as easier to breathe, up among those twisted branches? I wonder how different my relation to nature would have been had the windows inside my home or my classrooms overlooked trees, and if at the end of every period, I could devour delicious fruits.
I wonder how many students come out of schools and classrooms with a deeper accountability towards and relationship with their environment. On a recent visit to Kirtipur, I found myself looking at the stacks of herbarium files that grade 7 students had prepared. The science teacher, Khagendra Gautam, like my own teacher, has plans to start a school museum where students can learn from each other and the nature around them. The school even has a voluntary bird watching club where students go observe the different kinds of birds inside the valley during the weekends. The knowledge gained from such visits has been turned into a mural inside the school ground, with the title “Birds Around Our School” for the entire school to learn from. The mural reminded me of my own first grade science teacher who tried to do something similar but failed, and I wonder if she was making similar efforts in a different school with different set of students.
Ritu Rajbanshi is a Language and Arts instructor with the Book Bus. She is a researcher, a writer of fiction, and a practicing plant doctor.