They have a magical hold over me. It happens every time. I see a fig tree — it doesn’t matter what type of fig tree – I stop, I stare, and then I smile. I veer right toward it as if on autopilot and stand up close to the ttrk. Under the canopy of the fig, I’m oblivious to everything around me. If I spot one when I’m in a car I try and look at it till it becomes a tiny dot. A completely involuntary reaction, as far as I can fathom.
My most recent rendezvous with a stunning fig tree was in the Centre for Learning, a school we visited on the outskirts of Bangalore. While walking along a trail in the school it suddenly loomed, almost beckoning us towards its magnificent trunk, endlessly spreading branches and snake-like dense aerial roots. One of the teachers there had built machans on a few trees for the children to climb onto and one of these machans was on the fig tree. As a part of their nature education classes, the children could use their “tree space” to do what they wanted – read, dream, sketch, sleep or write. There it was. This magnificent fig tree with an extremely inviting machan on it. It was incredibly difficult to resist the temptation to clamber on, especially when we spotted a lovely handmade wooden ladder propped against the tree and leading upto the machan. It was, of course, a wonderful feeling, sitting on this leaf strewn machan. How delightful to be within and almost a part of the tree! Recently someone told me that once in awhile you need to think of yourself as a different species and think about life from the perspective of this species. Here, on the machan, nestled close to the bark, amidst the pale green leaves, I was beginning to understand what that person meant.
What is it about fig trees? It can’t be the size – yes, they are grand, almost majestic and difficult to ignore, but so are many other trees. It can’t be the various bird and insect visitors attracted to a fruiting fig. The non-fruiting, bare ones also have this magical hold on me. I was fortunate to go to a school with numerous trees within its campus. Could this be the reason? But as far as I remember there were no fig trees in school. Neither were there any close to where I lived in the city. Was it because I learnt about the bizarre and almost unbelievable fig and fig wasp association sometime in college? The one thing I remember feeling after the wave of awe and fascination swept over me was deep irritation that this was not part of our staid textbooks or learning in school. Why was I made to remember the names of the different parts of a flower and made to draw and label them correctly but no school textbook explained to me about the fascinating phenomenon and association of the fig and the fig wasp?
Many years later, it struck me that being surrounded by trees when growing up may have been instrumental in me loving being outdoors and being fascinated by nature. Many of my colleagues recount that being taken as a child or teenager by an adult to a forest area or for birding as possibly a trigger for being in the field of nature conservation. Even being in the midst of trees makes me happy and contented, and I think that’s true for many of us. But, there was still something extra special about a fig tree, a deeply personal connect that I hold onto dearly. A few bird watchers I have spoken to have also told me about their one or two “special species of bird” that makes them go wobbly in the knees. They tell me that they don’t seem to know why they feel like this. “It’s unexplainable!” they say, and then shrug and smile.
Maybe this feeling of awe and pure happiness when I come across a fig tree is one of those feelings difficult to make sense of and understand. While typing this I’ve realised that maybe it’s okay that this feeling remains unexplained. In this world where we dissect, discuss, study and rationalise our relationship with nature maybe this irrational feeling of happiness – in my case the glorious fig tree – doesn’t need any explanations.
Do you have a “makes me behave irrationally” species? A special tree, bird, spider, beetle, frog? If yes, let the world know. It feels glorious.
Fruit bats on a banyan tree in Andhra Pradesh. Photo: P Jeganathan