We don’t cut trees. Except when we do. We fell for Old George’s plot in Akathethara mainly because of its dense green canopy. Every other plot the broker showed us was razed flat and especially unappealing in that arid summer of 2002. But in this acre, 70 rubber trees cooled the air, along with coconut palms, jackfruit, rosewood, cashew and guava—about 300 trees all told. If he had had time, the farmer might have sold every stick of wood on the place, but we closed the deal promptly.
At first, our policy was never to cut anything, and in fact we merrily planted jamun, mahogany, and pomegranate. We diagrammed a crooked shape for the architect, where the land was rocky and bare, and told him to design the house within it. But, as we laid the foundation and built the walls, we realized a young cashew would bump into the sunshade, and a large moringa leaned so far over that it was likely to come down over our heads. So, the tree saws came out.
Once we moved in, we found that a single monsoon set the trees growing madly. Planted too close together, they shot up in search of light and came crashing down in high winds. One 30-footer cracked on a stormy night and tried to fall down but got stuck on the branches of the surrounding trees. We waited a year and a half for it to fall on its own, and then we hired Veerasamy to clear it. Veerasamy was small and wiry and made entirely of muscle. He had to be watched every minute. Armed with a machete, he was not so much a woodcutter as a force majeure. If you asked him to prune a branch and came back in 10 minutes, you would find a near-invisible tree stump left in the ground.
(Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint)
Many freely advised us to cut down even more. One visitor told me I could get Rs10,000 if I sold off a teak. A neighbour who wanted gliricidia cuttings for his fence felt we should clear everything and plant teak.
Another looked at a cashew thick with blushing red fruit and said, why don’t you chop that down and plant something nice? Some neighbours complained about trees leaning to their side of the fence and then, when we started pruning, asked offhand whether we had (free) firewood to spare.
Eventually, we got the hang of seasonal pruning and culling and sold some marketable trees to pay for the cost of cutting the nuisance trees. The mild-mannered Aziz came by to buy a matti for Rs1,000 and somehow talked me into parting with five of them for Rs3,500. Only if he got five, he said, could he load up a lorry. But there was welcome sunlight when they were gone, and some unexpected views. The crest of a hill. Or, on one memorable morning, a misty sunrise. Soon, the tamarind and mango filled in the sky again, and those views disappeared.
Our 30-odd silk cotton-trees work like metre-wide drinking straws, sucking the water out of the ground and leaving every other tree gasping. Mustafa, who used to harvest and buy the pods, has lost interest and now, when the pods burst, the neighbours grumble. We asked Manikkam and his team to cut down five last year.
We watched, hearts in our mouths, as he climbed 40ft up the slippery green bark and started chopping.
Sections of the massive trunk fell from that height at exactly the spot he had decided on. A man stood below holding a rope, but we weren’t clear on how that would prevent Manikkam from plummeting to the ground if he lost his grip.
A while ago (on Earth Day, as it happens), Manikkam came round to look over this year’s cull of silk-cotton trees. We have budgeted to cull five trees a year till they’re gone. It takes three men a day to cut down a full-grown tree, at Rs275 per man.
No one will buy them. They used to be taken by pencil factories, but the factories closed. Contractors used to buy them for shuttering, but since the soft wood can be used only once, they don’t find it worthwhile to mill it into planks.
The wood doesn’t burn efficiently and no one wants to pay for it as fuel, though some will take it free. So, we leave the massive trunks where they fall. Within days, the termites coat them with an earthen fur. They become porous, then flaky, and after a year, we break off bits and put them wherever we want mulch. Or we leave them there a few more months, till they look just like the earth around them.
(This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala)
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