I am reproducing something which i had written about a year & a half back. Today morning again somebody asked me again for stories weaved around trees & childhood memories, so luckily i was able to find it somewhere among my stored documents
Feb 2010…..A friend suddenly calls up after ages & says I want to talk to you about your earliest tree memories !!
Uhh, what ?
Yah, the earliest tree memories, yada, the things which grow from the earth you know & share with me the trees that you shared with your childhood with !
hmmm, are you sure……
a ciggie is lit & throats are cleared
1. The Coconut Tree (Palm)
My childhood was in Kerala & some of my joyous childhood memories was while staying in my maternal grandmothers house in Kannur. The tree which envelops our landscape & we all grew up with was coconuts. It was part of our everyday life, for cooking, for making roofs, firewood from the fronds, ropes from the husk, rafts were made from cut trees to cross rivers, even small bridges, for oil both for cooking & for body, for puja also the flowers, spoons were made from the shells, high caste namboodiris walked around with umbrellas made from coconut fronds (we low castes were shooed aside !) tender coconut the ultimate refresher, toddy for the one’s who need a high, toddy was also used in making appams & sannas…..& so much more. There are folklores & stories, the one remember the most is Why doesn’t a coconut fall on any person ? Practically nothing happens without a coconut, our lives were so much interwoven & interlinked around the coconut tree. Almost all of our favourite dishes had coconut in it.
But when I was really tiny, actually it was the sound of the majestic White Bellied Woodpecker which used to catch my attention. Thud, thud,thud, it will go on the bark of the tree & I will be running to the window to catch a glimpse of this bird, a truly awesome sight with a white underbelly, with stunning red & black colours on top !!
The coconut palm was nesting place for many Black kites & also to Brahminy kites, their screeching calls have been always with me, especially in the early mornings & late evenings.
Every 45 days the coconut trees were harvested, each tree were giving us than 250 coconuts a year. Harvesting coconuts was an event by itself, especially watching the plucker go up & down with such grace & seemingly effortless.. Sometimes if there are chicks of the kites, they would attack the plucker. Me & my cousins used to stand & watch in awe, seeing the plucker carrying on with his job with out much ado.
The the coconuts have to be carried & piled up at a specified place & then another person starts the de-husking. Watching the man dehusk the coconut was high on our agenda, with a single iron bar fixed onto the ground, he will be dehusking two coconuts a minute ! Every part of the tree will be used. The dry fronds will be used for cooking, the middle part of the leaves will be used for making brooms, the husk also for cooking & cleaning vessels, each part of the tree had to be sorted., then coconuts had to be packed & send for all the friends & immediate relatives who are out of Kerala. For watching all this action, we get a bonus of the tender coconut water & tender coconuts to feast on.
The trees which were not yielding were lend for Toddy Tapping, the toddy tapper would come every morning & evening & we used to watch him climb up & down & also the art of tapping. Once I even tried to climb the Coconut tree, I must’ve reached about 10 ft, then became jittery & i decided to come down & i lost my grip………… the end result was a completely bruised chest & thighs, it was so painful, plus a serious dose of firing from all the elders in the family !
With Toddy comes the nocturnal Civet cat, because it loves toddy. Once it has had a few pots of toddy from the trees, then our roof top goes berserk in the night, with them running & prancing around, all of us will be awake & basically have to wait for them to finish their dance, to go back to sleep. They were so beautiful with a bushy mane & equally bushy tail.
Other memory which is associated with the coconut trees is of the Lightening & Thunder, It used to be so close & this was the period of pre mobile phone towers. There were no lightning conductors near by. One could hear the electric sparks from the sky & also the thunder used to be deafening & had enough power to shake the furniture & vessels in the house. Almost every other year we used to lose at least one coconut tree hit by lightning. When the rains subsided & when we go to see the damage, i remember doing the graves for the Black kites & Brahminy kites which had also died in the lightening strikes. We used to make a pit, put the birds in, cover it with soil & keep flowers on top of it et al.
Along with coconuts the tree which comes to my mind is Gliricidia. They used to be planted all over our fence. The fence was a natural fence of intervined Gliricidia trees & many shrubs. It is the food for the coconut palms. Every year just before the rains, small circular pits are made about 5 ft away from the trunk & the gliricidia cuttings were put there, twigs, branches, sweepings & wood ash from the kitchen & slightly covered with soil, so that they are not washed away during the rains. The Gliricidia is cut down to almost 2ft, but after the rains I remember it is back to almost 10ft tall.
Even now some of the coconut trees are still there & they are more than 100 years old !!
2. Jack Fruit Tree.
We had a few Jack fruit trees. Apart from the hundreds of Jackfruit which hang from the tree during the season, it’s the lovely shiny leaves which is etched in my memory. Each Jack fruit will weigh about 10 kgs or more & how the tree supports it …….
On these Jackfruit trees we also had Pepper vines growing, again with its lovely shiny green leaves & then the beautiful bunches of Black Pepper which is initially green & as it gets ready for harvest, it turns black.
With these exotic vines growing on the tree, it’s really an art to harvest the jack fruits. There used to an amazing slender bamboo ladder, on which the a person would go up & the Jack fruit was tied on to a rope, then cut, the rope is held by a person below & the jackfruit is lowered down to the ground using a branch of the tree as a lever. During the season it is all Jack fruit, jack fruit & more jack fruit. The tender ones are used as a vegetable, then comes everyones favourite, which is the medium-sized one at semi sweet stage, but the seeds are till tender & my grand mother used to make an awesome north Kerala speciality called Puzhuku, Its made with sardines or mackerel & eaten with a spicy red chutney………….. amazing !!
Then finally comes the ripe ones. Cutting & cleaning them is a community affair. We all rub ourselves in coconut oil, so that things don’t stick to our hands, even the knives are rubbed with coconut oil, the cutting the cleaning & the de-seeding & then we eat it dipped in honey, The seeds are kept aside to dry & is also used to make a tasty vegetable dish. !!
After the ripe Jack fruit is cut & cleaned then we take each & every part remaining to the cow shed, where my uncle had about 20 cows. All the cows were named after us, so each of us had a favourite, so we used to take as much as we can for our favourites. My uncle used to say milk yields increase by a litre after we had fed them Jack fruit !!
Jack fruit season used to be the social season also, when it starts ripening, it can also start getting spoiled very soon, the distribution channel has to be kept intact, every relative is contacted, people are told to come & collect their share, for people who cannot come in person my grand mother used to make arrangements for it to be ferried so that no one misses a chance to have their favourite Puzhuku et al !!
I forgot to mention the Jack fruit seeds, which are dried & made into a tasty dry vegetable !
3. Mango Tree.
We had a few mango trees. Even my earliest memory is of the tree been about 20 ft tall & during the season it used to full with thousands of mangoes. Again similarly like Jack ruit they have to harvested at three different stages. One harvest is while the mangoes are slightly bigger than a lime, that is for making a very spicy whole mango pickle (kadumanga) which is made only in Kerala. Then the second harvest is for green mango to make the pickle with cut pieces & third & final harvest is to enjoy the ripe ones .
Of course a lot of plucking also takes place in between because during the mango season every curry will have a few pieces of mango in it & of course tha mango chutneys, which we call chamandi !! It is also a time when catapults come out & all of us used to walk around with catapults, mostly to chase away the crows & we used to devise our own games based on aim & hitting the target. Climbing the mango tree & sitting atop & chatting away with friends & cousins used to our favourite pastime, plus we always remembered to carry a bit of salt to dip our mangoes in, otherwise older cousins would send us to get it.
4. Gauva tree.
Again just a few Guava tree, but one of them I remember was our favourite. It was also the time of Tarzan & Phantom comics. So there was one tree where we indulged in all those tricks. Hanging down, hanging upside down, using rope swings, tying a spoiled tyre to be used as a swing. The branches were smooth, but also strong. Plus there were all ghost stories associated with this tree. I used to wonder if it was a ploy by our elders to keep us inside the house for a while, by scaring us & telling us that there is aYakshi in a white saree etc. We were one one hand scared but was more determined to see the Yakshi, by hiding in the bushes………. But unfortunately saw no yakshis’s or kuttichathans !!
There were another Guava tree which was a sleeping hangout for the huge Fruit Bats. They were big. I had an uncle who for his evening drink would catapult them & have it for a quick snack !!
5. Curry Leaf Tree.
We had hundreds of Curry Leaf colonies growing around the house, Because during the rains, new saplings keeps coming up from the roots. When ever we are out, there will be calls from our elders hey, please bring in a handful of curry leaves, hey do you hear me, hey quick , the oil is hot…….Because curry leaves is used in every dish in our house, probably not in Pork, but in all other dishes for tempering (tadka). The smell of the curry leaves in Kerala is something out of this world, can never ever replace that tangy flavour anywhere
Just one tree, everyday one or two freshly cut fruit goes into the fish curry, while the curry is boiling….. yum !!
7. Banana Plants
We had more than 20 varieties of bananas growing in the garden. Small, tiny ones (aanni poovu) only as big as our fingers, which we used to eat by a dozen, they were so sweet, then slightly bigger ones, again very sweet, a red variety, which we were not very fond of. Then the big one called Nenthram, it is used for everything, morning breakfast if we are in a hurry, we just have a ripe one it is very filling, other preparation is of steamed bananas, sweetened with sugar , a bit of ghee is added & we have it with puttu, or it is sliced thin & stir fried in ghee, sugar is caramalised & had as a evening snack or sometimes deep fried with batter……….
Again I remember every part of the banana plant been used. The banana flower is used to make a lovely dish & sometimes my grandmother used to make cutlets …… that was yum.
After the banana is harvested then the tender stem is also made into a dish, my favourite was when it was made with dried fish or prawns.
After the banana is harvested, the before the plant is cut down all the leaves are cut, then we use it as plates & all our meals used to be on banana leaves……… somehow it added to the taste of our food !!
8. Hing (Asofoteida)
Old houses like the one were i was born & lived my child hood had so many doors opening out unlike the modern houses which have just a couple. So near every door, we used to have a few Hing trees. The logic behind it been that it acts as a repellant for snakes to come into the house. And we had a lot of resident snakes. Especially the 7 ft long Rat snakes & lots of the thin Green Vine snakes. I remember all stories associated with both these snakes, The Rat snake is supposed to hit with its tail & if one gets hit, the hit is so powerful, that one is surely paralysed for life. Then the Green Vine snake is supposed to aim for one’s eye when it attacks & one will be blinded for life. But in my last 45 years I have never seen or heard any one been attacked by these beautiful snakes. I remember been very wary of the Green snake, but I remember standing & watching in awe the grace & the speed in which the Rat snake moves…… awesome !!
9. Drum Stick Tree.
We had lots of them, almost every other day we had drumsticks, the tender leaves were added into the curries, i remember my mother telling me, it purifies the blood, even the flowers were made into a tasty vegetable.
10. Bread Fruit tree.
Again a very tasty vegetable. But unfortunately there were lots of myths surrounding it & where it should be planted in the garden, I remember an elderly uncle who had come visiting telling my grand mother that a few of them are not in the right place & it does mean bad omens or bad luck etc, so those were unfortunately cut down
11. Jamun: both white & red ones, during summer we used to really freak out on them
12. One Sapota tree, which is still there, so in my book it is more than 100 years old
13. Just before the rains, when the humidity is building up, the ground is covered with lots of root crops which sprout. Lovely green leaves of Haldi (Turmeric), thin leaves of Ginger, the decorative leaves of the Elephant foot, the beautiful red coloured vines of the Purple Yam seeking trellis support. Later I learned that these plants grew from small bits which were left in the ground after last year’s harvest……….. it was really nature’s bounty !!
14. Pineapple plants are always etched in memory, because of its lovely smell when it is ripening, then also those big , huge rodents which used to eat them !!
15. In the fence there were lots of Shatavari, Aloe vera & Vetiver growing. Whenever there was a child-birth in the village people would come & collect the Shatavari, ‘cos it improves breast milk, Aloe vera was used on us for all cuts, bruises & burns…………. Instant healing !! During the heat of summer my grand mother used to put a small bit of the root of Vetiver in our drinking water………. It used to taste good and she used to say it prevents us from getting dehydrated.
16. A few custard apple tree & learning to eat them without swallowing the seeds was a challenge !!
17. Other memory is of the amount of Pumpkins which used to grow. After harvest there was a room in which they were kept hanging from the roof & would last & last without been spoiled till about 8 months!!
Whenever one felt like it, just dig it out or when there are lots of people in the house, it time for Kappa Puzhuku a delicious dish made together with sardines or mackerel…………
19. None of the above trees, plants ever watered, the only watering was for the few decorative plants we had about 25 different varieties if Hibiscus, Elloras (red, white & blue) some roses & Jasmines etc & some rare flowers l do not even know the English names like Chembakam etc & some potted plants
20. During the rains, we were told not to walk anywhere, other than the pathways, The whole place was covered with various weeds (i.e mother plants), which had to be cleaned twice once in September & then again in late Oct & were just placed in heaps near the coconut trees.
21. Rubber plantation.
I had an uncle who was in charge of a rubber plantation, i used to love going & staying with them. It was my chance to play with their lovely dog Peter, it was my chance for many bike rides with my uncle, checking out the liquid which oozes out of the tree, which is collected in coconut shells, going to the factory etc. I remember it used to rain beetles in their house, some kind of red beetles, i could also sometimes sit in a helicopter, which did ariel spraying (sadly later in life i realised it was endosulfan)
22. All early memories have been only with trees in our garden & unfortunately I have absolutely no memories of wild one’s. Actually my first walk in a real forest was when I was twenty-one, in Muthanga, Wynad. Even after 25 years It is still so fresh in me. The person who showed us the forest, how he explained patiently to us all the trees & plants. So many times we tried to hug the trees, even 5 of us could not manage to hug one trunk, our necks used to ache trying to see the tree tops, the different trees growing together, the thick under growth, the streams, it was a walk of a lifetime……………It was also the walk for the first time i witnessed the destruction of pristine forests with mono culture Eucalyptus planting. Mohan took us to a place where he said all animals used to come to drink water & now it is dry, then he cut a branch of an eucalyptus tree, we could see where all the moisture in the ground is gone.
Thanks to salil for taking me down the memory lane !