“Ya don’t know watchya got till its gone.”
goes the song.
Not so for Amrita. Amrita, a young woman who lived in the village of Khejarli, a drought burdened area of India. Khejari was also the name of the great shade tree which grew along with others near Amrita’s village and beyond. There were also food plants, grasses, flowers making this and similar places, oases. Oases, abounding in water, gazelles, songbirds and rose breasted quail. For Amrita like her family and others, the trees were like ladders leading up to and down from heaven. Trees like water and animals were a gift of God (Vishnu). They were to be treated with gentleness and respect. Never to be shown violence. Amrita, like her sister believers of the Hindu Bishnoi way, knew by faith nourishing experience that water’s gifts to life were inseparable from the water drinking, water holding, water shading trees. These green ladders were both a sign and the stuff of of a graceful earth and heaven. But not only were these trees a constant green shout of the Holy presence, they were a demand for their care and protection.
For Amrita, like the other children learned that the growing trees were family members.And each child would find a tree they would be especially close to. A tree they would talk with of heartfelt things. “Such intimacy with a tree?” Many westerners might smirk or snicker.
Toronto psychologist Lois Kunkel, who works occasionally with women in her childhood home of Liberia speaks to this in yet another context. Many Liberian women had suffered repeated sexual violence during the civil war. Following the war, many were beside themselves with the terrors that filled their minds and hearts. To begin their healing , many were encouraged by elders to seek a tree to sit with. In the intimate company of their tree, to speak the sorrows and the sweet sighs of their hearts. And so many began their mending.
Was Amrita fifteen or sixteen years old when the local ruler, Maharaja, decided to expand his great brick fort to better secure his domain? Hardwood trees would be needed to fire the brick kilns for this grand project. The year was 1754 ce.( What we call Canada was in diapers, the US wasn’t ready for short pants and Britain wasn’t yet calling herself Great.) The god-like Maharaja ordered his soldiers to go to the forests near Khejari village and cut down the trees needed to burn in the brick kilns. On the morning the soldiers entered the forest near Amrita’s village, Amrita and another young women were gathering herbs in the forest. Soon soldiers appeared and began to chop at the trees with their axes, everywhere Amrita and her companion could see. And from out of sight, also came the thud, thud sounds of iron on wood and the sounds of trees crashing to the ground. God’s tall green blessings were being savaged and destroyed everywhere around. As Amrita ran from one soldier to another begging them to stop, her companion ran toward their nearby village.They in turn alerted other nearby and distant villages. Soon the villagers came running to were Amrita had fruitlessly try to explain the dearness of trees to the soldiers. They arrived to see Amrita standing between another soldier and the the tree, he had chosen to topple. She was hugging the tree as if her life depended on it. No, she hugged that tree to herself as if her village and all she loved depended on it, was gathered up in that one tree. Before that loyal soldier chopped down that tree, he chopped Amrita down.
Everybody holds on to something, or somethings, as if their life depended on it. That is how Amrita and many around her held on to the trees which embodied the Holy’s gift to them and their children’s children. What is it that we hold on to? Not only Amrita, many other adults and children held on, hugged the trees and were murdered that day. The killing only ended when the Maharajah arrived in shame, offering apology and a royal decree of new law prohibiting the cutting of any live trees in that region of the country. That law protecting the trees and forests remain there to this day.
In India in the 1980s and 90s , when their was a push to lumber the diminishing forested areas, or to cut them for massive dam projects, the tree hugging ways of Amrita and the folk of Khejari came to life again. The new resistance movement was called the Chipko Movement . Chipko means “to hug” or embrace. The story of the Chipko movement can be found on this site.
Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)