|The Tree Hugger|
The Tree Hugger
What do the forests bear?
"Soil, water and pure air."
Those were the words the girls chanted as they wandered through the forest. It was a bright winter day long ago, and the girls belonged to the Bishnoi people of ancient India. Their gentle and magical leader, Guru Jambheshwar, had laid down the 29 principles by which the people lived, and among their most vital beliefs was this: Animals and trees were sacred.
And so in the world of the Bishnoi, deer and antelope, blue bulls and black bucks, grazed peacefully. Every tree was tended with love and care, none were ever destroyed. The people used only the parts of the tree they needed to build their humble homes, but they never chopped down a tree, so the forest was thick and fragrant.
(BEGIN ITALS)"Love our beloved animals, cherish our trees
"Embrace all, and everyone will live in harmony ..."(END ITALS)
Among the girls who loved the forest was Amrita Devi. Perhaps more than all the people of her village, Amrita loved the trees. For her, the forest was life. From the time she was only a youngster, she would wake each morning and walk into the forest. There she would visit one special tree, her secret friend, the Khjeri tree, a thorny evergreen with slender branches, conical thorns. In springtime it bloomed with tiny yellow flowers, and in summer it offered dense shade. Amrita's tree was proud and strong and could withstand the hottest winds, the driest days, the hardest frost. Amrita loved it for its vitality, its beauty and power.
Some days she would wrap her arm around its girth and whisper, "I shall always protect you" and inhale the delicious scent of its bark and its leaves.
Amrita was true to her word. As she grew older, she remained devoted to the trees, and when she married, still she visited her friend. When her daughters were born, she introduced each one to the lessons she had learned as a child. And so Asu, Ratni and Bhagu bai grew to love and admire the trees as much as their mother did.
Often they would walk into the forest and their mother sang, "What do the forests bear?" and the girls sang in response, "Soil, water and pure air."
Amrita asked the girls to think of what would happen if they should lose their trees. "Imagine the heat of the sun without shade," she said. "Imagine blinding storms with no trees to protect us." The girls shuddered thinking of such terrible things.
And then one day, Maharajah Abhay Singh, ruler of the kingdom of Jodphur, sent his men to fell the Khjeri trees to use for construction of his new palace, for the Khjeri bark was known to be the finest in all the land. And so the men marched into the forest and began to chop down trees.
Amrita heard the sound of crashing trees. At once she gathered her daughters and as many villagers as she could find, and together they ran to the forest. "Stop!" they cried. "Do not destroy our trees!"
Tears fell from Amrita's eyes, but the soldiers kept chopping, and so she led her people to surround the trees, to circle them, to hold their friends. If the soldiers wished to chop down trees, they would have to kill the people.
Perplexed, the soldiers returned to their leader to tell him what had happened, and when the Maharajah heard, he was inflamed. "What do you mean? Those are my trees. I own this kingdom, and I shall do with it what I wish!" He gathered more soldiers, and together they headed toward the village.
By now Amrita had spread the word throughout the village, and soon each tree was guarded by a man, woman or child of the village. Each person embraced a tree. "We'll never let them destroy our forest!" Amrita declared, and the people agreed.
When the Maharajah saw the scene, he grew still angrier, and so he cried out to his soldiers, "Never mind, if they must die, so they shall!" but as he raised his arm to send his troops forward, a storm streamed across the desert, whipping itself into a fury just as it reached the spot where Amrita and her people gathered. The wind was so fierce, the soldiers could not hold their axes; they could barely stand. But the people held onto their trees.
The storm raged for hours, and when it was gone, the Maharajah looked around and saw the damage. Houses were shattered; empty fields were devastated. And yet those trees stood still, proud and strong.
Suddenly he understood the importance of those trees to the people. He understood how wise they were, and how courageous, and he promised he would not chop down their trees.
The villagers were overjoyed, and the spot where Amrita's tree grew became a sacred place, a place no one ever forgot. The people say that when the wind blows a certain way, they can hear Amrita and her daughters singing to their beloved trees.
In the 1970s, in northern India, the Chipko Andolan (Hug the Tree) Movement was born to preserve local forests. Today councils within most villages meet to decide how many trees may be cut without endangering the land and those who live there, and each spring new trees are planted. Two women especially, Dhoom Singh Negi and Bachni Devi, along with their fellow villagers, were known as the first "tree huggers," and their slogan is: "What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air."
"Tell Me a Story" features a time-honored classic or original tale each week. Amy Friedman writes and edits the stories from Universal Press Syndicate.