Happy Tree Friends

I had written this story in 2014 for The Alternative, which has since packed up and no longer exists (or maybe lives in some strange parallel universe of the internet).

I have been spending a lot of my time sitting on trees the last month. They are, in my opinion, the best lazy-boys (those decadently comfortable recliner chairs) you will ever find. You can sprawl along one of its boughs and gaze at the canopy above, perch in convenient crevices, lay down tummy-first on a branch like a leopard, sit with your legs dangling, recline on your side with your head propped up like some Greek God,…your imagination is the limit, really.

The Forest Spirit: Happy tree friends

Happiness is sitting on a tree

It is amazing how trees are home to so much life. Sitting on a sprawling banyan tree one evening, our conversation was punctuated by the rustles of a squirrel scurrying along a branch and the merry calls of mynas, the ‘thup!’ of a half-eaten fig fruit falling to the ground and the sleepy buzz of a fly investigating squirrel dropping. Sometimes there would be a row of ants marching about, trying to find a way around our legs. I always thought they would give me a disgruntled nip for invading their space, but they seemed quite content about having a giant amidst them after the initial jitter of being upset from their regimented path.

The Forest Spirit: banyan tree

My favourite, sprawling banyan tree

One such being does not draw any attention to it and frequently goes unnoticed. It is the lichen. The lichen is a splotch on a tree, often dull white or dark green. What is fascinating about it is that it is not a single organism. It forms from the association of a fungus and algae, a fungus and a kind of bacteria called cyanobacteria or all three. The fungus depends on the algae for food- which it obtains through photosynthesis- and in turn gives the algae a comfortable home. Interestingly, the algae without its fungal buddy can only grow in moist places and the fungus without the help of the algae can live only in places without too much sunlight. Together, however, they can grow in both dry and sunny conditions, apart from a wide range of other environments, including the harsh climes of deserts and the arctic.

The Forest Spirit: lichen

The unassuming lichen

What consequence could this seemingly unobtrusive gang of bosom buddies that make up lichens possibly have to the world? I was surprised to find out. The lichen is used by birds as nesting material and even eaten by some arctic animals. In nature, even the smallest beings are interesting to study and lichens are no exception- they reveal information about the nature of the surfaces they are found on and even reflect the ecology of their surroundings.

Not all plants that are found on trees have the tree’s best interests in mind. Some of these are parasitic plants which derive nutrients from their generous hosts. Another example is the strangler fig- they first lovingly embrace the tree they began their life on and then strangle it to death. Intriguing as they are, they have no place in this article, which is about the friends of the tree.

Birds, butterflies, moths and bats have a soft spot for certain kinds of trees and plants. Sometimes they develop such a close relationship with trees that they start to depend on one another for their survival.

The majestic banyan tree I frequent depends, like other fig trees do, on a diminutive insect called the fig wasp for its pollination. The fig wasp in turn, relies on the tree for its fruit, for that is where it lays its eggs. Two other good friends of the banyan tree are mynas and starlings. A large, cackling crowd of them descend on the banyan tree to roost and eat. In return, the birds help to disperse the seeds of the tree. In addition, seeds that have passed through the gut of the myna, it has been found, have a better chance of germinating.

The Forest Spirit: ficus tree fruit

A fruit of the ficus tree

Some plants are visited by certain kinds of butterflies and moths which instinctively choose them to lay eggs on. These plants often have poisonous substances which the hatched caterpillars use to deter their predators from eating them.

One happy tree friend I have wanted to meet a long time is the bat. Short-nosed fruit bats and flying foxes (also a bat) pollinate trees like mango and banana. I see them in the evening in our neighbourhood, flying hither and thither almost as if playing a game of hide and seek and roosting in the mango trees outside my house.

I am left with a feeling of wonder when I think about the life that a tree fosters. A newly planted Singapore Cherry Tree outside my house has borne fruit and I sit and wait for the sunbirds to arrive and feast on the fruit. And on that wonderful evening atop the banyan tree, the sun set after a while and we climbed down as the mynas returned to roost.

(This post was published on The Alternative)