Monday, April 14, 2014

Hideous and patent symmetry

Urban parks such as the ones in Bangalore are largely controlled by the BBMP, who in turn contract it to vicious, uninnovative, and exploitative contractors who then use underpaid "gardeners" (usually a family that has been displaced from rural areas due to the lack of jobs, indebtedness or other problems). The parks themselves begin as a little plot of land that lies under high-voltage electricity lines or has been set aside  because of other legal obstacles to sale. The work begins by using equipment to level the ground, followed by a fence, typically a rectangular path, a central lawn, a flower borders, a bunch of concrete seats, circular gazebos and so on. The whole thing is so clich├ęd, so "hideous" that it is hard to begin a criticism. The problem is that alternative visions are so rare, yet they exist in many places. There is (or at least was, maybe it is called Chittoor Reserve Forest) a wonderfully wild park not too far outside the town of Chittoor that I thought was quite interesting in the way it had been let to go wild. There are similar wilderness areas in many small towns, but larger cities seem to have a way to destroy them. The usual approach involve the removal of existing vegetation, addition of exotic annuals for their flowers. The removal of undergrowth, artificial surfacing of paths, the inclusion of a very stereotypical playground, excessive lighting (powered by an undue fear of snakes) and various other actions that if avoided would have left the place far more satisfying to the urban dweller who needs a little bit of wild nature. The cost involved in enriching a place is actually zero, but because there is money to be made, there are hordes of people on the line waiting to destroy the few accessible wilderness areas - and why would they event want to be creative! This idiocy is not limited to city governments alone, the beautiful scrub forest of about 1800 ha of the GKVK campus of the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore has been destroyed right under the eyes and noses of extremely knowledgeable and sensible people. Numerous species of insects have their type locality as GKVK. 
Saving even the campuses of educational institutions is a fight against the powerful

I was recently made aware of a beautiful essay by the great Indian naturalist M. Krishnan that, sadly enough, is not sufficiently well-known. It makes for such a lovely reading even fifty years on and it is clear that few people listen or learn. Thanks to Shanthi and Ashish Chandola for sharing the original which I post here. While modern writers talk about active processes like "rewilding", Krishnan uses a more passive term.


The Sunday Statesman 
March 7 1954
M. Krishnan's Country Notebook

If I had a five acre plot of outlying cultivation as so many ryots have, a stony field at the foot of a hill or the edge of the scrub that would gradually repay the effort of reclamation, I would not make the effort. I would abandon my field to weeds and shrubs, even help it actively to run wild, and count myself as much a patriot as the man who, by sustained toil, adds it on to the struggling agriculture of our grain-hungry country.

And if I lived in a mansion set in an immaculate garden, with lawns and smooth paths and every annual in place, or if I were in charge of a spotless city park laid out in a geometrical pattern and with ornamental trees in rows - why, then too I would let my garden or park run wild, in part at least, and encourage thick bushes festooned with greedy creepers and the rank undergrowth.

I would do these things from no sense of cussedness or ennui, but because in a small way I would be contributing towards a less sterile life. We can grow more food by less wastefully extensive agriculture-an incredible extent of countryside is cut up and wasted by our loose agriculture and communications. And in towns and cities one can no longer find a bit of wasteland, leave alone woodland. Even the bird life of these places has been banished by an ugly craze for ferro-concrete architecture and tidy, well-tamed gardens.

In the old days urban gentlemen lived in bungalows with large, tree-filled compounds, and it was part of their gentlemanliness not to bother overmuch about the further reaches of their domain. Today the urban rich, when they do have a bit of garden space, have flowering trees near the road and rectangular lawns in front of the house in herbaceous borders; cannas flank the drive and crotons in pots decorate the portico, and if there is a plot in the backyard they grow anaemic tomatoes in it.

Our public parks display a hideous and patent symmetry; wide, hard paths intersect one another at right angles, rows of flaming Cassias and Poincianas stand stiffly in attention, there are sandpits and short-mown lawns for the children and concrete benches for older visitors. There is not enough undershrub and bushes anywhere to tempt a mongoose to stay or a warbler to nest. There is no lebensraum for the lesser fauna even.

Off and on, during the past thirty years, I have watched the bird life and lesser beasts of a city area dwindle and vanish, and I know at first hand how our extensive agriculture can drive out wild life in rural areas.

Even now it is not too late, if we follow a sensible plan of non-reclamation in the countryside and encourage gentlemanly neglect in city gardens and parks, to bring back the charm of wild life to these places. What many people (including enthusiasts for our fauna) do not realize is the power of nature to recoup, left to itself. The following extract from an editorial in The Times (London) of Dec 18, 1953, is significant:-

"Many cities in Britain have their acres of bomb-devastated land, once covered with houses but now overgrown with vegetation. Thee are places of great interest to naturalists; they can see what plants most readily and most permanently colonize ground on which no plants have grown, perhaps, for centuries past. Not only plants but also insets and birds and even mammals have been demonstrating how nature pours into any vacuum that is offered, and then stages a battle there for survival... In all, 269 kinds of wild flowers have now been recorded in the City of London, their seeds brought there within these last few years by air, in the fodder of horses, and by other agencies including birds. For birds, too, have been quick to colonize the ruined cities."
No need, of course, for our cities to face a blitz for the welcome return of nature - though it is true that ruined buildings offer splendid scope for wild things. Plant a section of every park and garden with native jungle trees (not forgetting a few fig trees) and thick bushes, allow creepers and the undershrub to grow, and the birds and smaller beasts will come back.

In the countryside all that is needed is to tighten up agriculture so that intervening wasteland can run wild, and be available to wild life sufficiently in large blocks. Unfortunately our wild life preservation effort is directed mainly towards the denizens of forests; the fauna of the open scrub receives little attention from anyone-excepting professional trappers.

When I was a boy I had ample opportunities for watching minor wild life in a city and in the countryside. Those opportunities are now gone, or are going. It is such a pity, and so wrong that urban children today should grow up in ignorance of the common wild life of the soil. The idea that our fauna should be penned up in national parks and preserves, and that our children should visit these pens or some remote countryside for a glimpse of the great heritage of nature that is theirs, revolts me. There is room enough for man and birds and beast in this hospitable land, if only men would be less covetous of space and curb their urge to claim and tame every plot of land in the neighbourhood for the sake of grain too hard won, or may be the sight of a row of Poincianas.

I have found a source for this hideous idea of aesthetics in the writings of M.S. Randhawa. In a 1964 pamphlet published by the ICAR we see the typical thoughts of what "beauty" is all about. Over time this has become so common that few people are even able to re-examine these ideas. The emphasis in the writings of administrators like Randhawa is on colour, placement and linearity. Here are a few of his statements from this pamphlet.

Colourful trees and flowers play an important role in making our cities and towns beautiful. They refine the minds of the inhabitants and also provide shade and shelter.

Most of the social conditions and tensions which develop in slums of congested cities are due to the fact that man is isolated from his natural environment. Vegetation and sun are the ancient influences which have fashioned our body and spirit. Our towns have snatched men from essential conditions of living-sun, space, and verdure. Unless the conditions of nature are established in man's life, he cannot be healthy in body and spirit. Hence, it is necessary that people in towns are brought in touch with nature by development of parks and avenues.

... We are indebted to Professor Lancelot Hogben for the term "bio-aesthetic planning which may be defined as conscious planning of the flora and fauna with the object of beautifying the country."

... Lancelot Hogben writes : "What generally gains admiration for the beauties of the English countryside is not nature as such. Untouched nature is generally monotonous. English park lands and hedgerows, and many of our woodlands are the result of human interference, sometimes by the deliberate action of enthusiastic pioneers of bio-aesthetic planning like John Evelyn, and sometimes as relics of past cultivation".

It is only in the nineteenth century that educated people began to admire the beauty of the mountains and forests. Since then the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. There is in some of us an undiscriminating and irrational adoration of nature. People who have never grown a herbaceous border of annual flowers in their own house, burst out into panegyrics on seeing a clump of anemones or potentillas in the hills. It is far from my intention to decry the beauty of alpine flowers in the Himalayan meadows as compared with the annual flowering plants in our gardens in the plains. On the other hand, I hold that in the magnificent setting of the Himalayan snows a planned alpine garden will look much better than anything nature has ever produced.
One can only imagine the clashes between the Randhawas of Indian administration and the Krishnans speaking out as mere citizens. 


  1. Very relevant but I wonder how many city dwellers really care. In villages, I would like to believe that land is converted for agriculture probably out of necessity though the charm of selling it to builders for artificial farm houses is also enough to kill the native wild life. Lovely post. Sharing this on my FB page.