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Pining for Placefulness

It’s difficult to know what’s true or false in the hush of the dense pine forest. The forest floor, carpeted with golden-brown needles, slopes sharply upwards, giving the impression that the trees are much shorter than they are. Clear spring waters flow at a muffled, removed distance; though in actuality, the crystalline pools formed by large rocks lie only a few feet away.

The only way into the forest is to crawl and clamber upwards, until you find a small, soft clearing in which to perch, branches of emerald needles brushing the top of your head. It’s dark and quiet here, the perfect place for a secret pause. Or at least it was. It’s been decades since I visited Wiffy Pools, located in Southern India’s Palani Hills. Growing up, its easy hiking route and shallow waters served as a favourite picnic spot for primary school trips and family outings. But in my mind’s eye, I return again and again. Its waters have blurred in my memory, as have the specifics of those childhood excursions. But what I’m after is the mountain’s pine forest: its softness, closeness and the unexpected patches of sunlight piercing through the dark.

I grew up in a house built by the Lutheran Church of America, in Kodaikanal, a mountaintop town established by American missionaries in the mid-19th century. The pine trees surrounding our old stone homes were what we played under, their drooping branches serving as hidey-holes, secret clubhouses and make-believe homes.

Roam those forests long enough and you’ll soon learn to recognise tell-tale bumps in their needle-covered floors: under these grow edible mushrooms, and my brother gathered more than anyone could conceivably consume. Those same needles formed soft, warm beds for newborn puppies, cared for by longtime neighbours. And, of course, what is Christmas without pine? We cut a small tree each year, making cheerful decorations from its cones, and messy handmade wreaths from spare branches.

If nostalgia had a shape, mine would likely take the form of a pine. Commonly used to connote wistful longing for a time gone by, the word nostalgia originally derives from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (grief, pain or distress), and was first used in the 17th century to describe a condition experienced by Swiss mercenaries serving abroad. Living away from the environment they were accustomed to, these soldiers developed symptoms ranging from capillary constriction to severe depression. Some were said to have died from the affliction. Far from photo-albumed wistfulness, nostalgia is rooted in climactic separation – an embodied pain arising from displacement from the environment you call home.

But what happens when the climate you long for, the home of your nostalgia, is a terrain of displacement itself?

PINE TREES WERE INTRODUCED, in the form of timber plantations, by British colonisers to India’s lush, biodiverse Palani Hills. Over the subsequent century and a half, pines were planted, nurtured and swiftly cut down. They became a variety of objects: cypress pines for construction, whistling pines for fuel, Mexican weeping pines for paper.

Across their nineteen or more varieties in large monocultural plantations, pine trees effectively created dead zones where few other plants survived, and endemic species – in particular, Kodaikanal’s native water-retaining shola forests – stood little fighting chance. The practice of cutting down plantations as soon as they matured also created a cycle in which water and nutrients were drained from the soil before they had a chance to replenish, contributing to water shortages for human and non-human inhabitants alike.

Wood pile at Matigatan, Indi

Wood pile at Matigatan, India. Photo: Ian Lockwood.

Apart from timber plantations, a more eclectic variety of pines, including North American species, were brought in by colonists and missionaries. Over the years, in and around Kodaikanal town, pines were planted in small, isolated patches, where they largely did not interrupt the growth of other species. Or, at least no more than the establishment of a missionary town with the permission of imperial rule did.

This is where it gets complicated. It’s well known that the colonisation of people is accompanied by the colonisation of land. In South India’s Palani Hills, the widespread presence of Australian eucalyptus and wattle monocultures, and a wide variety of pine plantations, tells this story of invasion clearly. But Kodaikanal itself, established by American missionaries to escape the heat and diseases of the tropical plains, bringing with them ‘colonial-style’ houses and an array of exotic plants, feels like murkier territory to unpack. Especially if you were raised by their descendants.

Growing up in Kodaikanal, in a residential missionary school in an American missionary town, I was raised on a narrative of empathetic nostalgia. Why did we have pines to play under? Because the missionaries missed home. Why did we have beautiful window seats? Because the missionaries missed home. And, of course, these narratives were true. Nostalgia in the sense of a profound climactic separation is what carves a pine-shaped ache inside me today – and it presumably did the same for early Western settlers in Kodaikanal, too.

But here’s the thing: my nostalgia doesn’t come with the authority and power to change and shape a bioregion, to replace endemic species with the trees I long for. My nostalgia is nestled inside another nostalgia, that of Christian missions and colonialism.

How do we contend with this power? Do we contend with it at all? When I reached out to several long-term Kodaikanal residents to ask if they had any old photographs of my beloved Wiffy Pools (whose name, of course, is not Indian in the slightest, but was coined by students of the missionary school), and in particular of its surrounding pine forests, the first, assertive response I received was that they ‘didn’t like pines’ – and that was that. It’s strange, because these same residents have worked tirelessly to preserve the architectural heritage and human histories of the early missions to Kodaikanal. Some are directly connected to the very same missions. The buildings are, without doubt, beautiful and laden with historical significance. But what of the trees?

‘Not liking’ pines doesn’t change that they are there, forming the landscape that we live or grew up in. Looking away from the history of the power structures that put them there doesn’t erase those either (though over time, a sustained forgetting might). The pines are no more or less a part of our heritage than the still-active Kodaikanal Mission Union Library, the old American Missionary Cemetery, and what many still refer to as ‘The English Club’, hosting a piano room, tennis courts, and a membership system that did not extend to Indians for nearly forty years.

But sometimes, from a palimpsest of interwoven colonisations, something else begins to grow.

BEYOND THE TURN OFF to Poombarai, nineteen kilometres from Kodaikanal town, just near the Forest Department Rest House, lies a sprawling pine forest. It was here, in 2011, that students from Delhi’s TERI University found several young shola trees growing from the acidic forest floor. In fact, this was one of five pine plantations where over 136 endemic species had taken root. It felt like nothing short of a miracle.

The precise origins of the name ‘Kodaikanal’ are disputed, but its various pronunciations in the local Tamil language all lend themselves to some variation of ‘forest’ – ‘forest of creepers’, ‘summer forest’, ‘forest like an umbrella’. These words did not refer to the pine forests of my childhood; instead, to what existed before – a practically untouched ‘sky island’. An island’s biodiversity is unique because the surrounding seawater renders the spread of new species extremely challenging. Similarly, every sky island consists of a specific mix of plant life that cannot survive at a lower altitude; in turn, this same elevation prevents other plant species from climbing any higher.

Kodaikanal’s distinctive evergreen shola trees, with stumpy knotted trunks and tightly knit crowns, are the beating heart of the sky island to which they belong. What constitutes a ‘true’ shola is debated, but scientists typically define them as ‘upper montane rain forests’, and specifically, as ‘tropical cloud forests’. As Pippa Mukherjee documents in Flora of the Southern Western Ghats and Palnis: A Field Guide, shola species in the Palani Hills include Neolitsea zeylanica, growing up to twenty metres tall, and Meliosma simplicifolia, with a misshapen trunk of fifteen metres. Across species, the dense canopy of shola fosters a damp, cool interior where a vast understorey can flourish. What’s more, the trees act as sponges, absorbing and releasing water to create practically perennial streams. It was this self-sustaining ecosystem that the plantations displaced, and it’s no surprise that a vast percentage of conservation efforts in the area – and the long process of healing from imperialism – have focused on the protection and regeneration of shola forests. The surprise, however, was the discovery that young shola trees, which cannot survive in open environments, were growing under pine plantations too.

Shola trees in black and white

Secret shola. Photo: Ian Lockwood.

‘OF ALL THE PLANTATION SPECIES, pine has always been regarded as being the most inhospitable environment for regeneration’, write the late Bob Stewart and late Tanya Balcar in Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky. And yet, there they were. Over a hundred endemic species, with zero human intervention, growing among pines. Or perhaps they were there precisely because no intervention was made.

One of the significant problems presented by plantations is that trees are not allowed to reach an age when they no longer require large amounts of groundwater. Old forests, in contrast, are largely self-sufficient, containing within their leaves and humus-rich soil most of what they need to live. Today’s pine forests in and around Kodaikanal, increasingly unharvested thanks to the work of progressive conservationists, are growing old too: taking less and giving more.

The pines are ‘not to everyone’s taste’, write Stewart and Balcar. ‘But every year as the sholas expand and the plantations grow older and naturalised, they become more anchored in the landscape.’

Who, and what, belongs to a place? And what might it mean, as Rebecca Solnit writes, to belong to a place ‘not as a birthright but as an act of conscious engagement’? Kodaikanal would not exist in its current form without the people who brought the first invasive species in the 19th century – or without their descendants, including Stewart and Balcar, who spent much of the recent past fighting to protect native forests and grasslands.

IN HOW TO DO NOTHING: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell introduces the word ‘placefulness’ – a ‘sensitivity and responsibility to the historical (what happened here) and the ecological (who and what lives, or lived, here)’. Placefulness neither erases the past nor indifferently accepts its consequences (also known as the present). Instead, it invites us to consider how the places we inhabit invariably carry within them criss-crossing legacies.

The truth is that all landscapes are marked by histories of displacement – the entangled products of colonisation, caste supremacy, wars, plagues, migrations, both intentional and unintentional change. The natural world, in turn, does not exist independently of these upheavals – and neither is it simply ‘lost’ to them. (To pine for a pristine ‘before’, as many environmentalists have pointed out, is often a means of turning our backs on the present.)

Instead, healing and thriving, for both humans and non-humans alike – and most critically, for all beings together – is a process born from embracing new ecosystems and habitats produced by difficult histories and often equally challenging presents. Donna Haraway terms this way of being as ‘thick copresence’, in which, she writes, ‘[w]e become-with each other or not at all.’ Kodaikanal, with its shola and pine forests, with its wintergreen berries, poisonous white angel’s trumpets and purple cowpea flowers, with its white missionaries, well-established Indian residents, and marginalised Indigenous populations, is constantly becoming-with; an invitation towards placefulness whose call I seek to answer in my own small ways.

Seven years ago, I moved to Goa, an Indian state whose bioregion couldn’t be more different from Kodaikanal. Sea breeze, hornbills, sprawling rice fields and a variety of palms make up my new terrain. And yet, the trees I long for followed me. For my first Christmas, my mother brought me a tiny Cook’s pine. Today, its bristly, sharp-green needles and curving trunk are level with my first-floor window. But unlike the pines of the Palani Hills, whose deeply anchored legacies still spread through soil, my pine lives in a large, self-contained pot. I’ll leave the dense forest – its muffled hush, its soft floor, its startling rays of sunlight – where it’s already taken root: in the mountains and in my dreams.