A Tree Grows in Malpur

I was lying on the grass earlier this evening, reading a novel about life in Iran and staring up at the sky. The long branches of the mature birch were hanging over me, the leaves in full bloom, each one spreading out into the air as if overdosed on chlorophyll.

My mind suddenly drifted to the trees I bought and helped plant in a small town on the edge of Chitwan National Park in Nepal. It was the summer of 2008, edging towards monsoon season, when I suggested to some teachers at Malpur School, where I had been teaching English and holding art classes, that we could try to improve and beautify the grounds of the school by planting a garden – in Nepalese: bagaicha.

With the students’ enthusiasm, and with the support of assistant head-master Shiva and his staff, tiny seedlings, ashoka trees and flowers were hauled, over the course of a few days, into the large front dirt-yard. The nearby community forest donated a few trees that we carried back by bicycle and a good bit of compost was sold to us, with a discount, at the community depot.

One particularly humid day, we set out on an adventure: I rode with Shiva on his motorbike, while a group of male students followed behind; straddling a large tractor and trailer-bed, they carted from a nearby school numerous large metal tubular structures that we would place around each tree for protection from trespassing cows.

Despite stifling heat, the grounds were cleared of refuse and weeds and the earth was tilled by ‘green club’ students who carried tools from home (they all have tools from working in the fields). Some students, fueled by pride in their school’s garden, would spend their tiffin-time (recess) watering the trees and flowers.

The curiosity of onlookers was palpable, especially tourists passing and honking from jeeps and locals riding by on bicycles. The old woman who lived on the other side of the fence never missed a chance to rail loudly at students who stood watching from the sidelines. Even the elephant handlers working across the street slowed down to watch the action.

Mix a little bit of earth with eagerness and – tada! – there’s no telling what kind of magic can happen.

Bhim plants an ashoka

Since then, I have received the occasional email with reports about the school; the construction of new classrooms and toilets; a passing traveler who stopped to volunteer-teach for awhile; and news about the students’ achievements.

Voila! Malpur trees today

Then, a few days ago, Bhim (the ebullient environmentally-minded teacher) sent me an email, proud to show off the trees as they look today – a mere two years after they were planted. I was thrilled for them, to say the least.

My mind did a sudden U-turn, reverting to the present. I carefully studied the peeling layers of the birch above, curious if this is what the pages of a book might look like if left open but untouched for centuries. The textured details of the tree were so spectacular that memories of the tree’s birth came to mind: so this is what a 35-year old tree looks like.

… all of which had me wondering how the trees in a small garden in the Terai region of Nepal would grow to look in a few decades from now. If I can’t go back then and see it for myself, would someone please let me know?

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