To the Waorani people living Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, trees are described not by species but by the other beings that surround them. So, any one ceibo tree isn’t a “ceibo tree” but is “the ivy-wrapped ceibo,” and another is “the mossy ceibo with black mushrooms.” Throughout the Waorani literary and musical history, there are references to the songs of trees and the way they speak: whispering pines, falling branches, crackling leaves, the steady hum buzzing through the forest. Which is why they aren’t alarmed by the notion that a tree might scream when cut, or surprised that harming a tree should cause trouble for humans.
I wonder what will the tree say to the contractor when it is up to be felled for expansion of a highway?
Will it say that you are not just killing me, it is a whole village here. And if the village is wiped out, where does it leave you? Will it instead plead for mercy, asking him to recall the years dedicated in service of mankind? You reach me in this heat for shade and I will surprise you with a drop of golden sun at your feet. How about that? You will have blood in your hands, it will come to haunt you, the tree may curse in anger. Maybe it will just bow its head. I cannot fight you. You are the one with the axe to cut, the match to burn.
When it comes to such a talk, I imagine the tree to be economical in speech. Bodhisatvas may have been granted wisdom under the tree, but the tree will shun philosophy or sophistry. It will just state its case without playing to emotions or histrionics. Before it sees the writing on the axe, the match, and relent.
Will the tree have to die because it is on the highway with no community that considers it their own, benefits from it directly or to grieve for it when it is dead? Those who depend on this poor tree on the highway are itinerant travelers like me who may never return to that spot. Even if these travelers were to come together, which Court will accept their claims of injury by the death of a tree? Injury to what cognizable interest?, the Court would ask.
But what if the tree could petition a Court and say, I am a person, I deserve to live. I too have the right to live a life of dignity. Not a translocated one, with my limbs severed to fit the carriage. I need to be whole and complete. Let me be my mangled self, let my battered trunk see many more seasons. And you see, it is not just me - I deserve to live in my Hindu Undivided Family - the ants crawling on my trunk, the madhumalati, the bulbul.
The uninspired may have several questions: how can the trees speak except through a guardian? Whose claim of guardianship, other that of the government, can we accept?
The government has been my guardian, the tree would say but…. You can look around, the government has been sparing in its use of powers granted under the Environment Protection Laws. In fact, it has become the aggressor. Who after all is building the highways? And therein lies the problem. The government balances many functions, development, the holy grail, have you forgotten? It is development that gives the government its heft, who will remind the Government that it is also my trustee?
I need to stand for myself. I am my independent trustee.
The tree, like the Hindu Undivided Family, the National Highway Authority of India, an infant or more recently the rivers, must also rise to its personhood and defend its claim to uninterrupted life of dignity.
It will need imagination to hear the tree speak. Silence, please. Our tree has never spoken. It is shy. The tongue is heavy, it will take time to roll. It has been wooden for too long, but no longer. Its arm pushes away the yellow curls from its forehead to signal readiness. And it speaks.