Tuesday, July 27, 2021

My Sandalwood Teacher

As a farmer, when you choose a crop that’s not meant for the local terrain or climate, nature gives you very strong feedback. No matter how well you take care of the land preparation, or how you add the choicest manure, or how efficiently you control the weeds and pests, your sapling will still conspire to give up on you. Sadly, so much of modern agriculture is about going against the grain of nature and hence dealing with all pains that come with it. On the other end of the spectrum, where a plant species happens to be perfectly suited for the conditions, there is a beauty about the ease - no, inevitability - with which the plant grows. Like this particular Sandalwood tree that grows out of a crack in one of the large rocks on our farm. Probably dropped as a seed by a bird about 10 years ago, the plant has not only made itself at home in an unhelpful little place, but spawned a dozen other saplings of various sizes and ages, which judging by how they’ve thrived, all seem to have inherited the tenacity from their parent.

There are many things to like about the Sandalwood tree. It stays evergreen - and what a beautiful tint of green too - all year around. It seems unaffected by the insects that wreak havoc on our other plants in this season. It’s got a nice symmetrical conical foliage that makes it compete favourably in the aesthetics category against the proverbial poem. It’s not all form either because it supports a robust little ecosystem within and around it. At this time of the year it is covered with tiny flowers that seem to be quite a hit with the bees and other pollinating insects. These nectar-seekers attract the rest of the links in their food chain. There’s a species of spider, for instance, that builds massive webs to cash in on the bug bounty. The spiders in turn attract a whole bunch of sneaky sunbirds that pick off the insects stuck to the web, and I suspect, help themselves to the spiders too.

So the Sandalwood has many virtues, but most of all, the tree is known for its fragrance for which you need to wait for the wood to mature a bit. Sadly, in our own farm we’ll never experience that part of the life cycle because this tree will meet an untimely and tragic end. The fragrance of the wood, and its association with ritual purity in hindu tradition, have made the sandalwood a prized commodity. The economic incentives are so strong that even the nice people around these parts will be tipped over to the dark side. It’s already scripted; in the next couple of years, one of the villagers will trespass into the property, chop the tree off before it has even grown to the right level of hardness and girth, and will sell it off in the black market.

Initially I thought about installing electrified fences and other protection mechanisms for this budding sandalwood grove but that would be going against the grain. I went through grief and anger and those other stages but I now accept the eventuality of losing these trees. That’s the other thing that this tree’s given me, a grudgingly acquired ability to appreciate something and still be detached about it.