Wild About Plants

By Golak KhandualonMay. 04, 2015in Environment and Ecology

I like the thought of green spreading all over our little planet. In fact I am wild about it. I dream and fantasize about it. If it was in my power I would grow green on every available patch of soil. If there was not enough surface left I would grow them in pots and pans that one could hang from any available structure– window frames, television antennae, lamp posts, metro tracks, traffic lights. If worse comes to worst, one could even invest some energy in aquatic green. Forgive me for this overdose of loopy enthusiasm. But I know it’s possible if we are all truly interested. You can see examples of nature taking over right here; in this big city. She quietly paints things green when we look away. It could be an abandoned building, an unattended communication tower, or even a municipal garbage dump, it could happen anywhere. Because that is how strong nature’s desire is. I entirely and wholeheartedly side with her obsession.

As a child I grew up on the banks of a river in coastal Orissa. The strongest memory from that part of my life is tinted green. When I try remembering my grand parents I see them only as tiny specs as small as red ants in big spreads of bamboo and banana groves, in the sprawling greens of rice fields. If I have to think of vernacular architecture, I see green roofs. Big dominating thatch roofs dominated by green pumpkin creepers spreading over them. If I think of ‘pukoors’ (ponds) and streams and whenever I feel nostalgic about my little river, I see more green than blue. In the pukoors there were green things growing and in the river it was reflected greens. Green reflections and green refractions. Even the ripples in the water were green. All that blinding green tinted my visions forever. It also had a powerful role in defining my needs and desires. A meal is not a meal for me if there is no green on my plate. If the occasional hamburger I have does not have a little green, it feels like munching a squashed tennis ball. This strange obsession, as you can see, goes quite far back in time.

I moved to Rourkela, the new steel township, with my parents when I was five. It was uncomfortably odd to see black metal roads and rows of grey concrete blocks instead of bamboo and bananas. Think of the culture shock! Bare red earth everywhere. The Township was in the making. The factory was under construction. In the meantime, the giant chimneys had already started rendering the blue sky ferrous red. And at times, phosphorous yellow. Bulldozers resembling monster crabs grazed around scrunching up earth to expose red wounds.

The stray Mohua trees in the landscape and the distant green hills kept us from losing our sanity. We started growing greens around our house, simply out of old habit. When I was that tiny, the greed for green had already invaded my mind. A greed that was absolutely irresistible. I remember picking up a few cut rose stems from a roadside refuge dump. I stuck them into the soil in our miniature garden. I watered them and fondly watched over them like a mother hen. The day I saw the first sign of the red baby leaves sprouting I was delirious with excitement. I watched the red leaves turn green and in due course the sticks turning into little rose plants. With stars in my eyes I watched more leaves, buds and flowers appearing. That was pure magic for me. In the big city, the lack of greenery, which I was so used to in my village, made my senses acute to nature in action. I started relishing all the tiny transformations, step by step, that nature went through with the seasons. And most of all, the process of big trees and beautiful creepers happening out of tiny little seeds filled me with a sense of wonder. I was enchanted to observe that this kind of magic was also possible within a tiny cup of earth; in a few square inches of soil!

Early in school we had to read a little story called “Who shall we plant trees for?” The story goes like this— Frail old man busy digging a hole by the roadside in the blazing heat of a midsummer sun. Young passer-by stops and asks him what on earth he is up to.

“I am digging a pit to plant a mango tree,” answers the old man.

“You have mighty strong desires, grandpa, for your age. Do you really hope to eat mangoes from the tree you are planting?”

“Son, do you not know you never plant trees for yourself, you only do it for others.”

I loved that story and I carry it in my heart all the time everywhere I go in the process, it has managed shaping my thinking. That sunken-cheeked old man from that story became my grand hero. He made me look at the planet with a gardener’s eye, with a farmer’s passion.

Living life in the new township with piped water and other rationed out resources taught us to recycle and reuse. We made use of every square inch of ground that was available to us. By growing plants around we managed adding a little dignity to our little dwelling. Besides seasonal flowers that always made my heart sing, our little garden produced some greens to eat. Living in Rourkela moulded my mind in such a way that I tend to look at empty patches of land with lustful eyes. I developed a compulsive desire to plant seeds whenever and wherever I could.

Years later when I started practicing architecture this green fever continued its spell on me. I consciously and carefully chose small projects that were located either in small villages or on the outskirts of little towns. I liked the luxury of working on a building, which had a little bit of land around it.

After all, I would be living there for a couple of years. I would love that luxury of growing my own vegetables. And besides not to mention that irresistible desire to plant trees! I was lucky to come across friends who were equally mad about trees and plants. As a result of these collaborations I was responsible for planting more trees than I make buildings. At all my building sites I start planting way before we start digging the foundation trench. I work slowly, almost deliberately, while nature quietly carries on painting things green around the structures I design and build. All the things that have influenced me in my early life reflect in my thinking and planning architecture. The joke about covering up my buildings with greens of course has a scientific basis. For instance when I was designing a botanic lab for the Centre for Sciences for Villages in Wardha I decided to tuck in the building under a simple pyramid like structure covered with Elephant Creepers (Argyrea speciosa). The idea was to keep the temperature in the incubation and inoculation chambers really low. And we did not want to depend on electricity. Somewhere down the line the green pumpkin roofs from my childhood had a role to play in this.

When prospective clients ask me about the kind of buildings I design, I do not have a straight answer. I tell them that I build houses that are fairly ugly; but I get away by covering them with greens as quickly as possible. The truth is that I don’t really aim to build ugly buildings. It’s just that I want to make the point that I cannot dissociate trees and plants from architecture. In fact I prefer trees and plants to buildings. I surely want to emphasize the role of flora in our life.

Take for example the first house I built for a friend near Pachmarhi. The site was part of an abandoned stone quarry. There was not a blade of grass there. It looked so bleak that nobody even threw a second glance at it. When we acquired this land, the first thing we did was to plant trees. We dug an old fashioned open well at the lowest part of the slope among a clump of young Jamun trees (indicators!). People laughed at us. Because we were looking for water high up on a hill in an abandoned stone quarry! We knew if we do not get water, we would harvest rainwater in it. And by the time we finish we would also have enough earth and stones to build our house with. But as luck would have it we found water at twelve feet below the surface. We dug deeper because it was easy work! It felt like a bit of miracle not to find a single piece of rock as we kept digging. There was all the water we needed. We planted a few more trees all around the house. The plot itself was barely two fifths of an acre. So we went ahead and planted quite a few in the common village land. At the beginning one had to be quite diligent about watering. In just a couple of year’s time the trees did not need it. They had created their own microclimate. The soil became rich with humus and the land started retaining water. In the meantime all the creepers that we had planted Wisteria, Nepali lata (Beaumontia grandiflora) and Honeysuckle started spreading all over the roof. Creeping Ficus (Ficus Pumilla) and Ivy grew thick and managed hiding most of the exposed stone and brick wall that we had built so lovingly. The plot became so green you could not see the house from a distance. When I think about buildings with expensive “Front Elevation Treatments” I wonder if there would be any need for all this exercise if you were truly green conscious.

When we were busy building the house we observed how much damage the cattle and goats were doing to the natural habitat around us. There were these few Jamun trees in front of the house. They struggled to survive the browsing. We introduced the idea of rotational grazing. The next monsoon we were thrilled to see thousands of baby Jamuns around the mother trees. Even if just a couple of dozen survive out of this, I started doing my cost benefit analysis, the jungle in front will turn thick in no time. As we had hoped, within a few years time the hillside got so green that you could neither see the form of the hill and the beautiful rocks on it.

I carried on living at the building site, first in a tent and then in the semi finished building. I watched the building grow brick by brick and the plants leaf by leaf. Though we had lots of water, we decided to use it sparingly. I worked on the design and execution with a frugal approach to consuming resources. I tried to figure out if there was a way to shorten plumbing lines. If there was an ideal way of disposing of sewage and grey water, did we need to take grey water far from the site? Elsewhere I had observed, when short of funds, people simply released their waste water right outside the plinth of the buildings. Plants like banana, arbi, and bamboo thrived well in it. This made a lot of sense. We just had to refine this principle a bit more. I did some research and tried working on systems that were autonomous.

Around the time I finished building the house in a Bariam village near Pachmarhi I came across writings by Bill Mollison who started the great Permaculture movement.. He had built his farm simply by following old wisdom and using common sense. He and his colleague together coined the term “Permaculture” which loosely stands for “permanent agriculture”. This new school of thought deals with design and planning of built up environments that are sustainable. By the time I got to hear about it all, they had already been running degree courses in Permaculture for 10 years in countries like Australia and the US. It was exciting to know there were at least 5 centres for Permaculture in India! And one of these five centres was at Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh. It’s run by a group of environmentalists who call themselves Timbaktu Collectives. As luck would have it one of the members of the community there invited me to build her house in Timbaktu. I realized that I was not an odd ball after all. I had company!

Using a hand pump they collected water in pitchers and went around watering the sixty thousand trees. They traversed the length and breadth of their estate on bicycles. The trees they had chosen so carefully to plant on this lime rich hard soil took roots. The French novelist Jean Giono’s beautiful little book “The man who planted trees.” reinforced their utopian enthusiasm. Soon Timbaktu started looking different. These little patches of green started spreading like ink on blotting paper. Whoever thought one could create an oasis in a god-forsaken desert like that? Gradually a number of interesting people joined the community. Irrespective of their vocation all of them put in their share of love and toil towards greening Timbaktu. I arrived there after they had already toiled for a decade. It was hard to believe what had been achieved. There was actually enough water to swim in their little reservoirs. Green started spreading with great abandon, soon to infect the surrounding hills. It’s truly incredible. You have to see it to believe this. And what’s more people had not seen wild life around this area for over a hundred years. And now there is plenty.

The day I arrived at Timbaktu, I went exploring the surroundings. Drifting around I came across find a sweet little temple complex on top of a nearby hill a little further up on the dirt track. It was like a real oasis with coconut palms and gigantic tamarind and mango trees. Right on top of a bald hill! This confirmed a notion which I had first experienced while I was working on my friend’s house in Pachmarhi. Habitation does not necessarily destroy the surface of earth. On the contrary, it could actually enrich it. Only if we care to give a little back to mother earth instead of constantly taking from her. Habitation can turn a grey patch of land into a little paradise. Friends in Timbaktu set a solid example, which illustrates this point. As I began travelling around in Anantpur district, I suddenly started noticing more of these mini paradises in the middle of a desolate landscape. Sometimes it was only just a tiny hut, which turned the immediate surrounding into incredible green. I thought about it and realized that the smaller the house the more gentle its approach in dealing with its immediate environment. It’s touching to see how forgiving nature could be if you have the slightest desire to empathise with her.

I am sure some of you might question the feasibility of my desire to plant just about everywhere. I agree it does sound a little insane. But let me emphasize that this is exactly what the Permaculturist believes in doing. How would you like to have a little kitchen garden happening right within your kitchen? To begin with, you could grow a few herbs on the windowsill of your kitchen. It would certainly be handy to have fresh herbs right next to the pot! If you do not happen to have a large window, then go ahead and improvise. You could create space by converting one of the openings into a bay window. You could hang your plants from the ceiling. If your kitchen does not have enough light, then use some optical technique to draw natural light. (Mirrors, periscopes?) Let me give you another exciting example. How would you grow a big rich vine to cover your arbour on the top floor terrace garden? The only way is to plant it right at the ground level, and hope that it grows long enough to reach the terrace. What happens if your multi-storeyed housing complex is so crowded that not a ray of sunlight reaches the ground? How would the baby plant survive without sunshine? Permaculture has an answer for that too! Plant the baby creeper in a pot and hang it from the side of your parapet wall. As it grows longer and longer keep lowering it until it touches the ground. The day it reaches the ground anchors it in the earth. And see the magic happening right up on the top floor!

In between long stretches of building activities in the countryside when I take a break I am drawn back to Delhi. The place for my sabbaticals! I usually take up a Barsati for times like this. This allows me to have a part of the open sky over my head. However small my sojourn, out of old habits I start planting in pots. Grasses, herbs, wild things, sometimes a few vegetable like spinach, chilli, and tomatoes. In a fanatic way, I compost all my kitchen waste, and I devise systems to use all the grey water from my kitchen and bath. I feel gooey with love for the gullar tree that shadows my terrace and brings me earth from the ground level by way of presenting me with her old leaves and ripe fruits (which I compost). I blow kisses at the pigeons circling over my terrace who are actually collaborators in my greening the planet project. When they decide to settle down on the sunshades they make it a point to leave me a fair amount of rich manure.

I am fascinated by the way plants start proliferating on my terrace with reckless abandon. When I see this I feel one with nature. I feel intoxicated with the idea that I am partaking in some kind of fertility rite. And that too on a little concrete terrace in the middle of my beloved metropolis, with aeroplanes flying over and traffic rumbling away All amidst that chaos of the urban circus. When I have manufactured enough composted earth I make my gift packages for my friends. Earthen pots with some of sweet new earth and baby plants that need new parents. With love from one green heart to another.

My own obsession with trees and plants was further reinforced with my chance encounters with some wonderful people with green hearts. With books I stumbled onto and films I walked into. Take for example David Attenborough’s television serials called Secret life of Plants. I would never forget how simply he illustrates the way trees make rain. This he does in the most dramatic fashion sitting on top of this giant Sequoia tree. Every tree lover needs to see these films. For the first time in my life I understood how every plant, every blade of grass adds moisture to the rain clouds and how every drop of rain, in turn, adds life unto life. Using time-lapse techniques David Attenborough explains in the most poetic way, what each drop of rain does as it travels vertically down from the uppermost part of a tree’s canopy to the forest floor. When you see this you realize nothing actually happens by way of accident in nature. Every detail has been designed in an elaborate way for sustainability. We need to understand and respect that. Every time we pluck a blade of grass we are interfering with eco balance.(We need not go so far as chopping a tree or dynamiting a hill to understand the implications of these kind of thoughtless interaction.) David Quammen, the novelist who has deep passion for natural history describes with amazing lucidity, how we have been responsible for the destruction of species in the process explaining Island Biogeography. And this, he further explains, we achieve through seemingly innocent activities like building roads and creating borders and boundaries.

I cannot but help thinking how violent Architecture can be, especially in an urban context. Small towns blindly adopt the urban vocabulary. Tiny little villages in turn ape little towns. The cacophony, the frills, the absurdity of it all to say- Look what I have got!! Scary to see how this kind of environmental violence spreads like the plague. Maybe it’s not possible to embrace non-violence all the way we build. This would mean questioning the very basis of all the various forms of human habitations. But if we are aware of this dilemma, we could at least try. For as much peaceful coexistence as possible. At this point I am reminded of something I read in Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins’s Secret Life of Plants. Turn of the last century a group of French scientists got together and conducted an interesting experiment. A seed is planted in a pot with soil burnt to cinder. No manures given, no fussing over it except for occasional watering. A little plant appears. Leaves and flowers and in due course it even fruits. When the scientists took a portion of the plant and analysed in the lab they were shocked see all the little plant had managed achieving. It not only lived on thin air and sunshine and a bit of moisture, it actually produced its own nutrients. They found traces of various kinds of minerals. That tiny seed had so much life force in it! Possibly after staying dormant for months or even years. Then it springs into life with a tiny sympathetic nudge. In no time, it jumps into action processing solar energy, air, and moisture. This of course is pure magic. Come to think of it, the human race actually need not do anything to make earth a greener place! All it should do is to leave her alone.

Golak Khandual
2007.New Delhi


First published in 2007 by ITC Hotels in their house magazine called ‘Namaste’ and then republished in their Best of 30 Years’ issues in 2012. Illustrations were done by the author and the photographs by Pradip Krishen.

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