Himalayan Leaves and Branches

LIVING for many years in a cottage at 7,000 feet in the Garhwal Himalayas, I was fortunate in having a big window that opened out on the forest, so that the trees were almost within my reach. Had I jumped, I could have landed quite neatly in the arms of an oak or chestnut.The incline of the hill was such that my first-floor window opened on what must, I suppose, have been the second floor of the oak tree. I never made the jump, but the big langurs - silver-gray monkeys with long swishing tails - often leapt from the trees onto the corrugated tin roof, making enough noise to frighten all the birds away. Standing on its own was a walnut tree, and truly this was a tree for all seasons. In winter, the branches were bare, but they were beautifully smooth and rounded. In the spring, each branch produced a hard, bright spear of new leaf. By midsummer, the entire tree was in leaf, and toward the end of the monsoon season, the walnuts - encased in their green jackets - had reached maturity. Then the jackets began to split, revealing the hard, brown shell of the walnuts. Inside the shell was the nut itself. Look closely at the nut, and you will notice that it is shaped rather like the human brain. Every year the tree gave me a basket of walnuts. But last year, the nuts were disappearing one by one, and I was at a loss to know who had been taking them. Could it have been the milkman's small son? He was an inveterate tree-climber. But he was usually to be found on oak trees, gathering fodder for his cows. He told me that his cows liked oak leaves, but they did not care for walnuts. He admitted that they had enjoyed my dahlias, which they had eaten the previous week, but he stoutly denied having fed them walnuts. It wasn't the woodpecker. He was out there every day, knocking furiously against the bark of the tree, trying to prize an insect out of a narrow crack. He was strictly nonvegetarian and none the worse for it. As for the langurs, they ate my geraniums but did not seem to care for walnuts, which disappeared early in the morning while I was still in bed. So one morning I surprised everyone, including myself, by getting up before sunrise. I was just in time to catch the culprit climbing out of the walnut tree. She was an old woman who sometimes came to cut grass on the hillside. Her face was as wrinkled as the walnuts she so fancied. In spite of her years, her arms and legs were sturdy. "And how many walnuts did you gather today, Grandmother?" I asked. "Just two," she said with a giggle, offering them to me on her open palm. I accepted one; and, thus encouraged, she climbed higher onto the tree and helped herself to the remaining nuts. It was impossible for me to object. I was taken up in admiration of her agility in the tree. She must have been twice my age, but I knew I could never get up that tree. To the victor the spoils! The horse chestnuts were inedible; even the rhesus monkeys threw them away in disgust. Once, on passing beneath the horse-chestnut tree, a couple of chestnuts bounced off my head. Looking up, I saw that they had been dropped on me by a pair of mischievous rhesus monkeys. The tree itself is a friendly one, especially in summer when it is in full leaf. The least breath of wind makes the leaves break into conversation, and their rustle is a cheerful sound, unlike the sad notes of pine trees humming in the wind. The spring flowers of the horse chestnut look like candelabra, and when the blossoms fall, they carpet the hillside with their pale pink petals. We pass now to another favorite, the deodar, which is not unlike the cedar of Lebanon. Its name, deodar, comes from the Sanskrit Dev-daru, meaning divine tree, and few would deny that it is the most godlike of Himalayan trees. It stands erect, dignified; and though in a strong wind it may hum and sigh and moan, it does not bend to the wind. The snow slips softly from its resilient branches. In the spring, the new leaves (or needles) are a tender green, while during the monsoon the tiny young cones spread like blossoms in the dark green folds of the branches. The deodar thrives in the rain and enjoys the company of its own kind. Where one deodar grows, there will be others. A walk in a deodar forest is an awe-inspiring experience. Surrounded on all sides by these great sentinels of the mountains, it appears to me as though the trees themselves are on the march. TO return to the trees outside my window, I go among them often, acknowledging their presence with a touch of the hand against their trunks - the walnut's smooth and polished, the pine's patterned and whorled. The oak has been there the longest, and the wind has bent its upper branches and twisted a few, so that it looks shaggy and undistinguished. But it is a good tree for the privacy of birds, and sometimes the tree seems uninhabited until there is a whirring sound, as of a helicopter approaching, and a party of long-tailed blue magpies flies across the forest glade. After the monsoon, when the dark red berries have ripened on the hawthorn, this pretty tree is visited by green pigeons, who clamber upside down along the fruit-laden twigs. And when winter comes, a white-capped redstart perches on the bare branches and whistles cheerfully. He has come down from higher altitudes to winter in my garden. Most of the pines grow on the next hill - the Himalayan Blue Pine and the long-leaved pine - but there is a small blue pine a little way below the cottage, and sometimes I sit beneath it to listen to the wind playing softly in its branches. When I open the window at night, there is usually something to listen to: the mellow whistle of the pigmy owlet or the cry of a barking deer. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I will see the moon coming up over the next mountain and two distant deodars in perfect silhouette. Some sounds cannot be recognized. They are strange night sounds, the sounds of the trees themselves, stretching their limbs in the dark, shifting a little, flexing their fingers. Great trees of the mountains, they seem to know me well: They see me watching them, watching them grow, listening to their secrets, as I bow my head before their outstretched arms and seek their benediction.

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