12 Dec 2017 17:13 IST

The house of redwoods

People, food and the weather usually help strangers find a footing in an alien land

When I saw my first rain tree in California, I felt the same way I imagine early Indian immigrants felt when they spotted another brown face in a sea of white. That feeling of “mine”.

It didn’t matter that this was the most diminutive rain tree I’d ever seen, nothing like those majestic specimens lining Bengaluru avenues, their astounding umbrella-like canopies covering the entire breadth of the road. It was a tree I recognised, a tree I knew. It had been a month since I’d moved from Bengaluru to California, and I’d been thrown into a sea of unknown trees — beautiful yes, but alien — and I ached to see one I recognised. Finally, here it was — a familiar face. Ironically, the tree is a South American native. But it reminded me of home.

When people move to a foreign land, they look for things they can relate to. Something they can lean on, clutch at, something to make them feel at home until they find their footing in an alien land. People, food, and the weather usually perform this job — and I had no problem with those. I had family and friends here already. Besides, I had moved into that part of US that could very well be an extension of my hometown. Indian faces, Indian stores and restaurants at every corner, and weather that was only a little more extreme than the salubrious Bengaluru weather that I was accustomed to.

But trees centre me. They root me (pun unintended.) Trees are as much my friends as people are. My everyday life in Bengaluru was marked by trees I knew. The rubber tree outside my window. The strangler fig in the garden. A pongamia around the corner. An Indian almond tree and a stately mahogany on the way to my daughter’s school.

I knew these trees. And when I saw the same species elsewhere, I’d recognise them as friends and feel at home.

And here in California, I didn’t.

They were all strangers. And I ached to know them.

Serrated edges

The first tree I befriended was the one outside the window of my new house. This was easy. The shape of the maple leaf was unmistakable. Buoyed, I set out to try and identify more. The willows were obvious too, with their slim leaves and drooping branches. Then there were the palms. None that I recognised, but palms feel like home. Google helped with some distinctive trees. The one with the blackish-purple leaves, for instance, was unmistakably a flowering plum.

After that, I made no progress for a while. A friend gave me her copy of a book on identifying North American trees. At home, as I leafed through it, it looked easy. Oak, sycamore, cedar, pine, fir, cypress. Anybody brought up on a diet of Western literature knew these names, evocative of ethereal beauty and far-off lands. Now, these trees were supposedly all around me. But I didn’t know which was which. I started taking my book on walks but sometimes, I was so busy admiring the trees that I forgot to try and identify them.

I stood under trees, training my camera or my cameraphone, zooming in, attempting to see what colour the fruit is, or whether the leaves had serrated edges. I’ve had people come up to me and ask if anything was stuck in the tree. I’ve received looks of suspicion — because who stares at trees?

And then, on one hike, my daughter found an acorn. We were delighted. Innumerable squirrels in books and movies had been eating acorns for as long as we could remember, and now she held it in her hand. We looked up at the tree, and identified our first oak tree.

The oak. The name that came to me immediately when anybody said, “As sturdy as an -”. The tree that has played vital roles in film and literature. The tree in whose knot-hole two children found little hidden treasures. The tree under which an escaped prisoner buried money and a message for a fellow inmate.

Finding an oak tree was like meeting someone I’d known only by name.

Over the months, I learnt to recognise cherry and sycamore and fir and juniper and sweet gum and gingko… I learnt that there are multiple varieties of each tree, and just because I knew one kind of pine didn’t mean that I knew them all. Before I became overwhelmed by my ignorance, I convinced myself that it wasn’t necessary to know them all. After all, it’s not like I could recognise every tree back in India!

When fall came around, and the colours of trees started changing, I chose a maple tree with a convenient, photogenic branch, and took photographs of it every few days. This way, I documented its gradual change in colour, until the branches were bare. When winter passed, and spring was in the air, I went back to the tree and photographed it again, and documented the arrival of new life. This act bound me to the tree in an inexplicable way. It was happening. I was making friends.

And then I went to see the redwoods.

Enchanting view

In my childhood, I’d read about the giant redwood, or the sequoia trees, with trunks so large that you could drive a car through them. They’d caught my fancy, and so obsessed was I with wanting to see these giant trees, that I had totally missed the other variety — the coastal redwoods, which are generally taller and slimmer than the sequoia. Maybe I’d read about them, but they hadn’t registered in my head. But this little bit of ignorance worked to my advantage. Because when I saw them, I was swept off my feet.

Coastal redwoods are the most magnificent, awe-inspiring creatures I have had the honour to meet. Their reddish, fibrous, soft bark. The delicate little green leaves. Those solid trunks that just soar straight up into the sky. Enchanting.

The first time I stood in a coastal redwood grove, a feeling of utter peace and contentment descended on me. It is like being in a vast hall supported by columns. The branches of the redwoods grow well above the level of sight, and so the trees don’t feel like they are pressing in on you. These pillar-like trunks, combined with the canopy high overhead, make me feel like I’m standing in a sacred, hallowed place. It could be their extreme age. Imagine standing next to a living thing that sprouted at the same time Prophet Mohammed was born, or when Aryabhata was inventing the decimal system. It is exalting, and yet humbling, all at once. You can’t help the feeling of reverence.

And the quiet that envelops you. Not an oppressive quiet, but a caressing one. The low forest sounds of unseen creatures. A creaking somewhere above you, as one branch rubs against another.

Even your footfalls are quiet, muffled by the mulch on your trail. All you can do is put one foot in front of another in a mundane way, but inside you, your heart leaps and rises, and soars along with those redwoods. It is meditative.

The redwoods made me feel like I’d come home, to a home I never knew I had. It took me nearly a week to come out of that trance.

I go to the redwoods whenever I can. And meanwhile, I work at getting to know more of my neighbours. It is working well. It’s been two years, and now I know the ways of the trees around me. I know that if I walk past a balsam fir after a shower, I’ll be rewarded with a fresh, woody fragrance. I’m careful not to step on dry pine needles, or else I’ll go slipping and sliding and break my back. I am wary of the pretty white springtime blossoms of the Callery pear because they stink enough for me to want to cross the road.

I do pine for my old friends back in Bengaluru.

I miss the tender green shimmer of the pongamia leaves in spring, the hazy mauve of the jacaranda flowers, the fluttering leaves of the peepul, the scarlet shock of gulmohar blossoms. I miss the fragrance of the plumeria and the night queen.

But until I get to go home and meet those trees again, I just go “home” to the redwoods. And that makes everything alright.

(Shruthi Rao is an author and editor based in California. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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