11 Palms – the public life of sacred trees in the fringe of Bangalore, India

Thanks to The Nature of City Festival, I could attend field visits all over the world in the last week of February. Virtually of course. One of my favourite visits was to the fringe of Bangalore, one of the fastest growing cities in the world. In these informal settlements, you find these ‘brave trees’ which will not bend down for new constructions. Stories of care and resistance against loss of historical ecosystems. When I read the title of the documentary (11 Palms), my mind initially captured ‘psalms’, probably because of the reference to the sacredness. But also, when I reflect later upon this, I have to admit that I didn’t read palms, because I really have not been drawn to palm trees and ‘oversaw’ before. When I was in India or Pakistan, I noticed the banyan trees. But not the palm trees. Too ordinary. Not being scared enough for me. I thought. Watching the short documentary and listening to the comments of two urban ecologists changed my view about palm trees. They have now another meaning for me. Happy Palm Sunday!

Serial rooters and urban resilience

Kim Karlsrud and Daniel Philips, the co-founders of Commonstudio, have this big interest for the emergence of novel ecosystems (in urban contexts) as a result of the different disturbances, without judging if these disturbances are bad or good, wrong or right. They lived in Palms, a district in LA with many stories about palm trees. So, the palm trees have already been there. It is a bit of coincidence, they said, that they have been rooting in warm places, and there you find indeed palm trees. In 2017, they decided to live for one year in Bangalore, to get out of their comfort zone and experience how it is to live and work in a megacity in Global South. There, the palm trees emerged back in their lives, through intimate moments, encounters in the street. They were fascinated that the houses were built ‘around’ existing trees.

Screenshot of the documentary

As serial rooters, you don’t only take back, but also give back, so they decided to document these stories and they made a short visual documentary that they show in small settings, like for example this festival. 

When I asked them if palms are a metaphor for their own mission, Daniel remarked that palm trees might represent urban resilience to him. In Bangalore (like in other fast evolving cities) you might see a lot of narratives of loss of historical ecosystems. Many historical ecosystems are eplaced by supermall-and-other-modernization-ecosystems. Noteworthy, I really did like how they talk about historical ecosystems to make some distinction. I interpret that they acknowledge that supermals, skyscrapers are also part of nature.

Ecological poetry about care

Watching this unnarrated 12 minute documentary made me happy. This documentary shows how trees, or for the landscape architects and urban planners – elements of the landscape-  “actively inflect and inform architectural expression and subjective experience”, because they are seen as sacred to the citizens. We witnessed residential and commercial architectures with floor plates and roofs literally pierced by tree trunks. And we saw the different ways people adorn sacred aspects of trees: with paint, building a shrine around it, ribbons… 

The urban ecologists were a bit shy about the documentary, they mentioned they were not professional film makers. But I think they choose a nice medium. Geographical information systems, as they said, can indeed not capture these small moments, these expressions of values of care. These stories of informality show how care can be expressed in the urban environment. 

Edges: harbors of diversity

These stories happen mostly in the fringe of the city. In the city center, where more formal settlements were, all these palm trees would have been cut. These more formal landscapes are less ‘green’, more tamed (or seem more ‘tamed’). They referred to the book ‘Nature in the city’ by Harini Nagendra and said that the most dominant species in the slum areas of Bangalore are palm trees. It reminds me to theories I heard when I lived in Thailand: how belief in sacredness of trees might actually be connected with the health of the existing ecosystem. One researcher there tried to even study how the loss in this belief might be an early warning signal of the decay of that ecosystem.

It is an individual decision to cohabit with a tree and seems more taken by people who live in this liminal space of formality and informality, this fringes, these edges. It reminds me of what a herbalist in Scotland told me last year: the edges of forests are always the most interesting, from a biodiversity point of view. Indeed, ‘edges’ are where the most stories can cohabit apparently.  Earlier today I joined -also thanks to the Nature of City Festival- a digital, informal, small-scale field trip, by Jolein Bergers, a PhD student from the Catholic University Leuven, to two sites in the Brussels Region (Belgium): the Vogelzangbeek stream in Anderlecht and the Josaphat Friche in Schaerbeek. They are also in the fringe and the ecosystems also seem very dynamic, fluid and very rich, with many species of trees, but there are also many disturbances and high inflow of new habitants (humans and non-humans) occupying this same space that result in a rapid series of deaths and births of new ideas, beings and especially relatioships. Like soils, an urban fringe is also a liminal space where life and death are kept close together.

You can watch the documentary here:

Source: http://www.thecommonstudio.com/11-palms 

To read more about (other) sacred trees in Bangalore, and how they are stories of urban resilience, I invite you to read the following work:

I invite you to share in the comments your thoughts and reflections upon this documentary. Did watching this also make you happy, optimistic about a future where more people will decide to cohabit with a tree?