In these days of social isolation, our verges are particularly vulnerable to anyone’s whims
“You say tomaaato, I say tomaeto – let’s call the whole thing off” croons Ella Fitzgerald from Gershwin’s 1937 songbook. With two men negotiating the fate of bits of green street verges outside our house, that’s the conclusion I’m afraid I have to draw up.
In these days of social isolation, our verges are particularly vulnerable to anyone’s whims. All the more reason we should walk outside with an eagle eye.
It all happened one Sunday morning. There were crashing sounds of something being chopped down. Normally, I’d run out like a banshee brandishing something to stop the chopping of branches and shaving of bark by a passerby. Needing twigs to burn, or tree bark to fuel hookahs or water pipes, anyone will have a go at our trees, planted lovingly two decades ago when we first moved here.
You see our broad verges, a remnant of the colonial era, promised for us the making of an urban sanctuary for birds, butterflies and insects. We planted the area around our house with native trees that form habitations for the wildlife that still lives in and around Lahore. The famous bird specialist in Pakistan, Dr Tom Roberts, visited us soon after our house move. He foresaw a bird haven in a span of some seven years provided there was no disturbance to these plantations. It all came true, and so much of what I write here is the fruit of this sanctuary.
That sunny Sunday, my husband was outside on our verge, cleaning up the solid waste that accumulates every so often. He explained that the chopping was likely the result of his conversation with our neighbour, one Dr Masood.
“A young Borr tree (old Sanskrit name for Ficus Bengalensis, or the Banyan tree) has sprung up on the verge and Dr Masood feels it should be cut down.” As my eyebrows shot up in protest, he conceded, “perhaps he’s right you know…let him take an active part in our verge management”.
Well, I thought, if that is the deal you’ve made with him, then not much scope for me to interfere. To sacrifice a self-seeded borr tree that one day will grow into a grand old Banyan, home to all sorts of wild creatures, is a heavy price to pay, just for the participation of one overenthusiastic neighbour - but it’s all a matter of opinion, I supposed.
Next day on our early morning walk, we stood near a denuded verge, shaved clean of a wild mulberry barr or hedge, five years in the making, a favourite of birds and insects. Not far away stood the young borr tree, hale and hearty.
Outraged, I turned to my husband who looked as nonplussed as I. Just then, a gardener nonchalantly strolled by. “What happened here yesterday?” I blurted out. “Ohhh, Dr Masood Sahib said that your Sahib said that it was fine to cut down this messy barr – just to tidy up the place”.
“But the borr – the barr,” pointing this way, then that, “they’re not the same thing” my husband exclaimed. Truly confused, making no sense of our bumbling, the gardener dallied down the street, swinging his arms.
Now rage was boiling up inside me. Something must be done, neighbourly deals or no deals. Thankfully, botany was some solace. Inspection showed that the wild mulberry hedge, being a good, woody thing of some dozen plants with six inch wide stems, had been hacked down to stubs. But knowing the barr, it is a question of waiting for regrowth from its hardy roots. That hedge will be back before long.
What of Dr Masood though, how to curb his hacking inclinations? Pen and paper seemed the appropriate weapon to me.
“Dear Dr. Masood,
We appreciate your efforts to plant guava and other saplings on your verge, but we would prefer you to leave the care of our verges to our stewardship.
That barr was home to insects and birds we value including jugnus (fireflies), bees, hornbills, green pigeons, sunbirds, hoopoes and many butterflies.
As an ecologist, I’d prefer you to come and admire this urban sanctuary over a cup of tea with us – not cut it down!”
Without my husband’s consent, this acerbic letter was hand-delivered to the said gentlemen at my behest.
I next waited anxiously for a response from the other side. After all, letters, in our social context, are rather an extreme measure: edgy business; risky decision.
Sure enough, overnight a letter arrived by hand. Lancing it open, I slit the white envelope. What acid would be thrown back to me I wondered.
Inside was a computer-generated two-pager. It explained the drawbacks of polluted air on the human lungs and was signed: Dr Masood, medical advisor to a well known educational institution.
Now, I watch carefully as healthy shoots reappear on the wild mulberry barr not far from the young borr. A string cordons the hedge, indicating a line to stop fingers that itch to hack plants, those that may not look neat and tame, but are a haven for urban wildlife.