I was sitting on an aisle seat of an Air India flight, waiting to take off from Cochin Airport, that I heard this queer word for the first time. Arboretum. Sounded like Greek to me.
But I did not want to show my ignorance to the American couple who sat next to me. Since the pilot has not asked for switching off the mobile yet, a quick Googling got me to the meaning of the word. Arboretum is a plot of land on which many different trees or shrubs are grown for study or display. In seconds, I was ready to continue the talk which started with my casual enquiry about their swollen red face and arms.
Of course, they seemed bitten. Not just by the love bug. But something more concrete. In fact, Steve and Clara were on their last leg of Honeymoon. A week back they had started their love journey from Thiruvananthapuram. They had sunbaths at Kovalam, enjoyed the lake breeze of Kumarakom, stayed in a houseboat, took morning walks in Fort Kochi and took a dip in the mists of Munnar. And, just before they took their flight, on the way to the airport, they had dropped in to one place which made all the difference.
“Have you been to the Arboretum?” Steve asked.
“Which one?” I asked and paused.
By that time Google was magnanimous to show me the meaning.
“The one next to the airport,” Steve seemed irritated.
“Oh! that one.” But I did not know that this thing called Arboretum existed in Kochi. Leave aside near the airport. That was when Clara said that now we were flying above the Arboretum. In the next three hours, they helped themselves and one another to get over the ferocious attack. This was amidst my experienced advise: “The first rule is not to scratch. That’s best way to pace up the healing.”
Steve and Clara seemed to have an affinity for Arboretums. In fact, they had their wedding reception at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Centre. That is why they thought of having a look of the new Kochi Arboretum when they saw the news of its inauguration in an English daily kept in the airport hotel reception before they checked out. “It is beautiful. So many exotic trees. The star forest! Then the snake temple. It has many things we like of your culture. It was silent and serene. There were only a few people. May be people are only coming to know about it. See, in our place, Arboretums and public gardens now integrate people. You know, in Ontario, an Indian boy and an American girl got married in the Arboretum. In the morning, they had a Christian marriage and in the evening a Hindu one. It is wonderful to take the vow under a tree in the company of the bio-diversity of the whole world,” Steve explained.
All the flight, I was wondering why I did not know about it. Most probably, the news of the opening of the Arboretum near the Cochin Airport might have appeared just in the Nedumbassery edition of the dailies. The flip side of dynamic local reporting which confines many news to its vicinity. The organisers are happy. The locals are happy. But it all comes down to a just a few readers. For the readers. Of the readers!
Back in Kochi, I was at the Arboretum right on my way from the airport. It was late afternoon. The park lay as twin pieces divided by a local road. The golf course of Cochin Airport stretched out on one side and the marsh surrounded the rest. Labourers emerging from the rear gate of the golf club seemed to be in a hurry.
There were hardly three visitors in the park. “People are just coming to know about it,” says the lady at the gate handing over the ticket for just Rs 30. The serpentine lanes coiled round the park with trees and plants lining all the way round with their common, and species names, marked in boards. Bamboo groves and the tree branches formed natural canopies, giving a feel of being in a temperate glass house. There were ponds with water lilies and the largest one had a blue-white coloured boat.
The sound of the cicadas and the tweets of the birds are broken only by the loud grumbling of the flights taking off. In fact, the Kochi Arboretum, named Suvarnodyanam Biological Park, has a direct organic connection with aviation. Its history is inscribed in the welcome board itself: “Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL) handed over 4 hectares to the Kerala Forest Department in lieu of compensation of 1.98 hectare forest land transferred to CIAL at Thattekkad in 1999. In 2005, the Forest Department decided to plant different species of plants found in the Western Ghats and develop it as an Arboretum to familiarize different forest species to the public. In 2006, the Government of Kerala as per GO(P) No 22/2006 date 18.04.2006 declared this area as a proposed Reserve Forest and appointed a Forest settlement officer, on 21.12.2006 Hon’ble Forest Minister named this area Suvarnodyanam Biological Park.”
The forest land was handed over to CIAL for putting up their signaling station. The 4 hectares of land where the park stands used to be a marsh. In a period of 10 years, the land was transformed. “It has been a unique effort. Many themes could be seen in the park. There is a slice of rain forest. There is the traditional grove of Sarpakavu. I had the pleasure of setting up the Nakshatravanam, that is planting trees representing different stars in the Malayalam almanac,” recalls an old friend S Unni Krishnan IFS, Deputy Conservator of Forests.
Premchand, Assistant Conservator, Kalady Nature Study Centre, who is in charge of the Arboretum, is bursting with energy. “There is a great promise and prospect for the park. Suvarnodyanam is representative of our biodiversity and children would be the main beneficiary. The park would hopefully turn out to be an initiator of many environment awareness programmes,” he says.
Just like its name, the Arboretum in many ways represents a golden dream of a greener world. As we look at it, we stay amazed that this reserve forest was formed just through efforts spanning 10 years. That gives immense confidence and hope for tomorrow.
The very idea of Arboretum has its beginning in the Victorian age and finds its place in the infancy of environmentalism itself. That was a time when the colonial bureaucrats brought exotic and rare saplings from India, China, Australia and the Americas in wardian cases to England. Glass houses were started in privy royal gardens where they groomed all kinds of plants from all over the world.
It all started in the city of Derby, which was in the nerve centre of the industrial revolution. Scores of men and women from the countryside had settled in squatters of the city and worked in the factories of Derby. As an answer to the nostalgia of the workers who dreamt of the English county, a local philanthropist and a benefactor of the industrial revolution Joseph Strutt decided to shape a park with a collection of plants from all over the world. He entrusted the design of the first Arboretum to John Claudius Loudon, a Scottish botanist and editor of the Gardener’s Magazine. It is believed that the term Arboretum was first used by Loudon in 1833 in his magazine.
In 1840, the Derby Arboretum was opened to the public and it paved the way to the public park movement in England. We could also find the genesis of the Udagamandalam Botanical Garden, Bangalore’s Cubbon Park and Kochi’s Subash park in the Arboretum of the chocked city of Derby of mid-nineteenth century.
Monty Don, the most famous speaker and broadcaster of horticulture, describes the Derby Arboretum as a green piece of freedom. In his lovely BBC documentary, The Secret History of British Garden, he says: “It might seem that Arboretum is an odd choice. But actually it exactly fits its time.
For a start, they are beautiful. They are lovely places to visit. Secondly, it is an open space. Consider most of the industrial workers were coming from the country side and they were living in what we could regard as slum. A place like this was a green piece of freedom. And, the third consideration – probably the most important one – was the education involved.”
In many ways, Don’s words put the Kochi Arboretum also in context. They represent the aspirations of our times too.
As I said good bye to Steve and Clara at the Indira Gandhi International Airport terminal, they were still in their ‘scratchy’ phase. “Only a nice bath in cold water and a good sleep could heal the mosquito attack,” I said.
But Steve surprised me. “That’s okay. Mosquitos are also part of our ecosystem. We should understand that the Arboretum has been built on marshes and are surrounded by marshes. Nature is not just flowery experiences. It is wholistic. It is also about hurricanes, volcanos, earthquakes and mosquito bites.”