“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.