Personal Essay

All photos taken by Pooja Choksi while in the field.

Missing the Trees for the Forest

By Pooja Choksi

“Don’t miss the forest for the trees,” a Ph.D. committee member told me as I nervously restarted fieldwork after the first covid-19 related lockdown was finally lifted in 2020. My doctoral research entailed understanding vegetation regeneration in unprotected forests in Madhya Pradesh, once they were restored through the removal of an invasive shrub, Lantana camara. Lantana is a shrub that can grow densely, often inhibiting the growth of other trees and shrubs as well as becoming a physical hindrance to movement.

I had an ambitious plan to sample the forest sites as finely as possible. Even when forced to scale down due to the constant fear of another lockdown, I attempted to cram as many vegetation plots as I could in the possibly limited time I had. Little did I realise that despite my enthusiasm, I was, in fact, missing the trees for the forest. 

Having been connected to the central Indian landscape in some way or another for years, I was familiar with the ‘big five’, as I like to think of them. Saaja (Terminalia elliptica), Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon), Lendhia (Lagerstroemia parviflora), Mahua (Madhuca longifolia), and Palash (Butea monosperma): all trees of importance to a large proportion of local people, and easy to identify even at a quick glance.  

Of course, there was always Teak (Tectona grandis) and Sal (Shorea robusta), but I took them for granted. Over the years, I would learn to identify other, less common species in these tropical dry forests only to forget them when I was away in the city, or at Columbia University in New York for a few months at a time. Every time I returned to the field, I would try to cure my tree blindness by starting from ground zero, which for me was the five or seven species that I already knew. However, with the demands of a Ph.D., it was easier to be hyper-focused and observe nature as one thing alone: data.   

Now, back in the field for the long-term, I geared up for long days of vegetation plots in field sites with Devendra Korche—my local collaborator, and a graduate student of social work at a local university in Mandla district. Devendra’s knowledge of plants, his social network to confirm identifications, and a copy of Pradip Krishen’s The Jungle Trees of Central India (hereafter, my field guide) were the resources we had to complete our vegetation plots. As much as I wanted to cure my tree blindness for good, I had to focus on getting my data first. 

During the first days, we encountered some dry forest giants that I often forgot about despite how common they are: Ghadi (Lannea coromandelica), Haldu (Haldina cordifloria), Baheda (Terminalia bellerica), Chaar (Buchanania cochinchinensis), Kosum (Schleichera oleosa), Kulu (Sterculia urens), and Dhavda (Anogeissus latifolia). Getting reacquainted with them gave me a comforting sense of familiarity. Several times during the early days of fieldwork, I wanted to stop and take a few photos of the towering Haldus, Ghadis, the expansive Bargats (Ficus indica), and Peepals (Ficus religiosa) with their early winter flush of leaves. But I would look at the time, and decide that it was best to move on to the next plot after a quick lunch break.

Large Arjuns line this stream where Devendra and I often sat to take a midday break. It is here that my curiosity piqued.

Given the numerous streams in my sites, it was no surprise that during warm early winter afternoons we often found ourselves under the dense canopy of the three river sisters, as I refer to them: Jamun (Syzygium cumini), Arjun (Terminalia arjuna), and Doomar (Ficus racemosa). The gnarled, winding roots of the massive Jamun and Arjun buttresses can reach for water in the most difficult spots during the dry season, and support their extensive canopy. 

The saplings of the three sisters that sprouted around the river beds added different shades of green nestled between the browns and creams of the rocky sand, and the clear but dark water. We often took our breaks near these water sources. And while snacking on chikki and refilling our bottles, I found a few moments to explore. ‘Just a couple of minutes,’ I told myself, ‘I will get right back to work after taking a closer look at what is around the Arjun buttress.’

An Arjun tree completely scratched by a bear climbing it to reach the honeycombs at the top.

The field guide, Pradip Krishen’s ‘The Jungle Trees of Central India’, soon became a leisure read.

A few more weeks into fieldwork, a couple of minutes started to give way to several minutes of exploring. As I entered the data in my book, I would rely on the field guide to pull out the Latin names of trees, and note down specific characteristics. 

The field guide soon became a leisure read, which often replaced my daily dose of fiction or nonfiction in the evenings, especially on the days when I would encounter a species new to me. In hindsight, I was easily sucked in. I found excitement and even validation in spotting trees in the field guide that I had heard about from locals. Knowing the characteristics and biophysical preferences of trees, especially their resistance to fire and trampling, was the key to understanding their distribution at my sites.

I also started to draw mental (and sometimes actual) charts to remember the families the species belonged to. In the course of doing so, I had several moments of revelation. For instance, when a friend reminded me that Mahua is part of the Sapotaceae family, and that is why its fruit appeared so chikoo or sapodilla-like. Zapote (sapodilla fruit in Spanish, the language in which I first heard of this derivative name) is in the Sapotacea family like Mahua, which (to me) explained why their flowers appeared so similar. 

The rights to flower collection can be retained by the owners of these trees, or they can choose to give it away, or share it with others in their community.

The feeling of connecting the dots was extremely satisfying, and while this connection may have been apparent to expert botanists and ecologists, it meant a lot to me. More so when it was about a tree that fascinates me. 

Mahua trees have a unique tenure system. If they are grown on a village’s common non-forest and forest land, one can stake a claim on a Mahua tree if their ancestors had always collected flowers from that particular tree. The rights to flower collection can be retained by the owners of these trees, or they can choose to give it away, or share it with others in their community. 

In March, as the flowers begin to fall like soft raindrops, typically at dawn, one can see scraps of t-shirts and dupattas hanging off trees in the forest. Presumably meant to function like scarecrows, they’re used to scare off sloth bears that love to eat these flowers. It’s also common for owners to spend the night under their Mahua trees, guarding them.

It’s common for owners of Mahua trees to spend the night under them, to grab the Mahua right as they drop.

You would think that such a tenure system is ridden with possibilities of conflict between people living around the trees. But I learnt that it has worked for as long as people can remember. As I delved into the literature on these tree species, I found that in other parts of central India, the now rare but beautiful and often colossal Salai (Boswellia serrata) also has such a tenure system. (The resin for dhoop is a valuable commodity, which probably warrants such a tenure system.)

While the tenure system intrigued me, I was just as in awe of people’s ability to recognise their trees in a forest with such ease. Once, when walking through a forest site, where subsistence use was allowed, the villagers with whom I was, casually pointed out every few minutes: “Woh Mahua mera hai,” translating to “that Mahua is mine.”

Slowing down for the trees

While I had been acquainted with Tinsa for a few months, it was an old, large one by the road one warm day in February that brought me to a screeching halt (quite literally, I was on a motorbike). Tinsa (Desmodium oojeinense) has recently become a rarity in this landscape due to an increased demand for its timber. However, in a few of my sites with perfectly drained hill slopes, they dominated. 

That morning in late February, I came across an incredible volume of white-ish pink flowers that clung to the branches of that tall Tinsa. Flowers swirled in the breeze till they gently landed on the road, where bees were quick to get to them. 

I gave myself the time to take in the view; to not miss this tree for the vegetation plots that I was on my way to visit. I noticed how drunk the bees seemed from the nectar of the flowers. “Kah dikha?” (What did you see?), an old man on his bicycle asked as he stopped to look in the direction of the Tinsa. 

“Tinse ke phool” (Flowers from Tinsa), I said, beaming with joy. 

“Accha” (Okay), he shrugged and started pedalling again. Just the turn of season for him.

Flowers from Tinsa.

Sometimes, slowing down for the trees happened organically. Working at unrestored sites often involved shoving my way through massive thickets of Lantana in the understory. On these days, having spent frustrating hours navigating the Lantana to get to sampling points, I would often begin work irritably, and not expect to find anything exciting in the plots. That was until a cluster of my unrestored sites surprised me with their diversity in early spring. 

Devendra and I struggled to get to our sampling point, only to find that it was right under an enormous flowering Datranga (Ehretia laevis). Weightless flowers were strewn on the Lantana and the ground, creating a stunning white carpet. We ran our fingers through it, remarking how this floral show was put on just for us, and then  got to work. 

That day, around the same spot, I also met my first bushy Kakai (Flacourtia indica), which I later found out from a local community member has several medicinal uses. We also stumbled upon almost metre-long pods, which had split open in the previous fruiting season. When we looked around, we found a rather short Jaimangal (Radermachera xylocarpa) with massive unsplit pods still hanging from its canopy. 

We ran our fingers through it, remarking how this floral show was put on just for us, and then got to work.

Rushing out of the bushes, I hurriedly turned to the description of the tree in the field guide. Jaimangal, as it turns out, belongs to the Bignoniaceae (Jacaranda) family. Some locals said that it has very fragrant flowers, which according to my limited taxonomic understanding of the Jacaranda family, made sense. I also learnt from a local botanist how uncommon Jaimangals had become in the area. So, it felt wonderful to pass along the information to those in the neighbouring village about where one could find this species locally.

Over time, I began allowing myself to spend hours exploring. One morning in April, while hiking up a hill to my sites, I found a medium-sized oblong woody fruit on the forest floor. I immediately picked it up and began searching for the tree it belonged to. It did not take too long to find the source. A group of langurs were busy enjoying similar fruits from a Mohka (Schrebera sweitenioides) tree. No longer feeling the urgency to work, I enjoyed the simple pleasure of sitting on a nearby boulder and watching the langurs.

The trees in my backyard

While I was learning more about trees by observing them, my mind kept going back to the question of how to restore Lantana invaded forests in this landscape. Some understory (like shrubs) and mid-canopy (smaller trees) species such as Samoka (Holarrhena pubescens) gave me hope on days I was deterred by the omnipresent Lantana. 

Moreover, when restoring plots, rather than just removing Lantana, I thought it might be worth immediately planting some shade-tolerant understory and mid canopy species to avoid Lantana from returning once cleared by local people. Other mid-canopy species such as Aamti (Bauhinia malabarica), Bel (Aegle marmelos), Rori (Mallotus philippensis), Ghont (Ziziphus xylpyrus), Churna (Ziziphus rugosa), Amaltas (Cassia fistula), Girchi (Casearia graveolens), and Tondri (Casearia elliptica) seemed like great contenders for planting once Lantana was cleared.

In early summer, Samoka’s unique fruit of two follicles splits open. Its seed, which has thin hairs at the top, makes a parachute of sorts for the seed to be dispersed far and wide by the wind. To stand in between the Samoka seeds swirling in the hot early summer breeze is one of the most memorable experiences of my Ph.D.

The scientific queries were a constant at the back of my mind, but I always remained present in the moment. As I did so, I began to notice forest species that have made their way into people’s backyards and village roadside plantations. Every season had its stunners—common and rare—and I stopped to gaze at all of them. In a very small way, I suppose I was on the mend from tree blindness. 

The village always lit up in the winters and early spring because almost every household had a Moonga tree (Moringa concanensis) flush with big bunches of tiny white flowers. Ber (Zizphus mauritiana) was in practically everyone’s yard, and a trusted snack in villages through the season. Bright purple Keolar (Bauhinia purpurea) flowers would light up an otherwise rather unimpressive, stunted tree. 

But the most stunning of them all, the Mango (Mangifera indica) trees were a sight to behold, bearing more flowers than their branches could possibly hold. I would stand under the shade of the blooming trees, and listen to the gentle buzz of pollinating bees. This would make me excited about the tiny mangoes—an amazing field snack—that would appear in a matter of months. 

Moonga trees are a common home garden species in this region that are quite nondescript through the year, except when they flower and perfectly complement the blue, white, and brown kaccha houses.

I realise that I have but scratched the surface of understanding the trees and ecology of the central Indian landscape. I have not even begun my deep dive into the different native shrubs and grasses. I may not have cured myself of the illness of tree blindness, but I’m glad to have addressed the underlying cause of it. 

I now often consciously slow down when I find myself sucked into the fast lane at work. I observe. I ask people standing by a tree questions. I take notes, however brief. I keep digital and physical copies of field guides on me as often as I can. I click photos of plants that interest me. I ask friends with more botanical knowledge questions. 

Whenever I need to remind myself to make space and time for curiosity about the world around me, I think of this day in Raipur when I chanced upon a Bhirra stand (Chloroxylon swietenia) in full bloom. Bhirra is a common species in the forest I study, and had never warranted a second look. But, as one may have observed by now, I am extremely partial to trees in bloom. 

Here stood in front of me, a hillslope of not too tall, leafless trees with bunches of small white flowers. Under the clear April skies, these flowers stood out against the dusty brown slope. Taking in this unforgettable sight of trees in bloom, I decided that data would be collected in its own time. And, never again would I take the humble Bhirra for granted. 

About the author

Dr. Pooja Choksi is an ecologist and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Minnesota, where she carries out research on land restoration potential outside protected areas. She continues to study the restoration of tropical dry forests to understand the mutli-faceted ecological and social outcomes of doing so. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.