The saviour with green fingers

protecting flora

The saviour with green fingers

The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness!’ said John Muir, naturalist and environmental philosopher, who was an advocate of preservation of wilderness in America way back in 19th century.

Sexagenarian Kusum Dahivalkar lives up to Muir’s philosophy every day of her life. A retired plantation officer in the Social Forestry Department in Nashik, Maharashtra, she has made it her mission to inspire people to save and plant trees, and live as close to nature as possible. Her love for the green comes through as one sees her interacting with her two-year-old granddaughter, Yashshree, who is playing with shrubs in her home nursery.

As the toddler inadvertently tugs at the leaves of a creeper, Kusum says, “Tell her (the leaf), ‘Bala (child), don’t cry, I didn’t pull you. I just caressed you. I love you.’” Of course, the little one, who hasn’t even started speaking coherently yet, imitates her granny’s voice and kisses the leaf! As she indulgently looks on at the child moving around the green patch, Kusum ponders, “Yashshree is lucky she has plants to see, touch and feel. I wonder what will happen to her grandchildren. Will they get to see verdant flora and fauna only in pictures?’

Love of nature

For several years now, Kusum has been visiting inaccessible forest areas, meeting up with teachers from agricultural colleges and scientists, and interacting with tribals who live as one with nature. Sitting at her beautiful home in Nashik’s Pathardi neighbourhood, she laughingly admits that during her stint with the Social Forestry Department, she took full advantage of the indifference of her colleagues and attended every workshop, lecture series and conference she possibly could across the country to acquire knowledge about plants and their healing properties. “Everyone thought I was insane,” she remarks.

She developed an abiding interest in the plant world as a child; she hails from a family of Ayurveda pundits from Nizar village on the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra, and began learning about plants, roots and flowers from her grandfather and father at an age when girls are generally more interested in playing with dolls. Choosing a career in this line was only natural.

Committed to the cause

So committed is Kusum-tai, as she is fondly called, to building awareness around conservation of plants that following her superannuation she pooled in funds to invest in half-an-acre of land on the outskirts of Nashik. Today, she runs the Hirvepunya Institute on the property, which has her two-floor apartment and a cosy conference room where Kusum-tai conducts her workshops. In the open space around the house she has created an extensive nursery which has over 2,000 varieties medicinal plants and herbs collected from different parts of the country.

She raised her nephew Chirantan Parekh, who lost his parents when he was a toddler, and has him run the institute along with her now. In the beginning, Chirantan, an electronics and telecommunication engineer, was skeptical about Kusum-tai’s decision; however, when he saw the kind of love and respect she commanded in her professional group, he came on board. 

Kusum-tai’s workshops are quite popular with people signing up in advance. “Her passion is contagious. If you spend a day with her, you will automatically start looking at trees with a different perspective and instinctively start caring for them,’’ remarks Milind Babar, a Nashik-based lawyer.

Her workshops also include a do-it-yourself guide on identifying and growing plants. “We learn to grow plants in pots either through seeds or cuttings. Currently, I grow my own adulsa (Justicia adhatoda) to treat cold and cough; Costus igneus or the insulin plant, to treat diabetes; Peltophorum that helps keep blood pressure in control; Aloe vera and, of course, varieties of tulsi in my own verandah. This has reduced our dependency on allopathic medicines and increased our sensitivity to plant life,” elaborates Rekha Choksi, a homemaker.

Saving the planet

Talking about their work, Chirantan, says, “A full-time course is for three days. For those who can’t sit through the entire duration we conduct classes for an hour or two for 15 days. The cost per workshop is a modest Rs 3,500.”

Kusum-tai is concerned with the indiscriminate felling of trees in the name of development and replacing them with exotic species like the gulmohur, subabul or eucalyptus, which are “hardly beneficial to the ecosystem but grow fast”.

“The indigenous plants last for decades; at times, even centuries. Their seeds need a minimum of six to 18 months to germinate and then take years to stand tall and mature, in the process building an ecosystem suitable for birds, animals and insects,” she points out.

She fervently hopes that authorities and the aam janta “wake up to the danger our planet is facing from our deep neglect of our indigenous flora and fauna”.

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