‘The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness!’ – John Muir, naturalist and environmental philosopher, who was an advocate of preservation of wilderness in America way back in 19th century.
The 60-plus Kusum Dahivalkar lives up to Muir’s philosophy each and every day. In fact, her life has been all about the forest, the flora and fauna.
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 2-year-old granddaughter, Yashshree, who is playing with shrubs in her home nursery. As the toddler inadvertently tugs at the leaves of a creeper, Dahivalkar says, “Tell her [leaf], ‘Bala [child] don’t cry, I didn’t pull you. I just caressed you. I love you a lot.’”
Of course, the little one, who hasn’t even started speaking coherently yet, emulates her granny’s voice and kisses the leaf! As she indulgently looks on at the child moving around the green patch trying to get a feel of the plants and the soil, Dahivalkar 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?’’
For several years now, Dahivalkar has been visiting inaccessible forest areas, meeting up with teachers from agricultural colleges and plant 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 to dedicate all my time to researching about plants,” she remarks. But that was her true passion and she had no qualms is pursuing it single-mindedly.
She developed an abiding interest in the plant world during her childhood; 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 children are generally more interested in playing with dolls. Taking up a career closely connected with this line was only natural.
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 from gratuity, Provident Fund and other savings 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 cozy conference room with a seating capacity of about 50 plus people 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 of saplings of medicinal plants and herbs collected from different parts of the country.
“My colleagues, friends and relatives tried to dissuade me from buying land to set up a nursery. However, this had been my dream and I had always wanted to impart my knowledge to as many people as I could so that somehow we all could all do our bit to save the planet,” shares Kusum-tai. Incidentally, she has been a single parent to her nephew, Chirantan Parekh, who lost his parents when he was a toddler. She runs the institute along with him nowadays.
In the beginning, Chirantan, an electronics and telecommunication engineer, too, was skeptical about Kusum-tai’s decision; however, when he saw the kind of love and respect she commanded in her professional group and the kind of response she received from those who attended her workshops, he came on board.
In fact, he has since become a full-time advocate of cultivating plants and foods the organic way.
Indeed, Kusum-tai’s workshops are quite popular with people signing up well in advance to secure their place. “It’s her passion which is very 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, who has been a beneficiary of a workshop.
Dr Ujwala Kapse, an ayurveda doctor practicing in the city, adds, “During the course of my education, I have learnt about the medicinal plants. But what makes Kusum-tai’s three-day workshops unique is the fact that she painstakingly explains the inimitable healing qualities of over 100-plus plants available in her own nursery.”
Her workshops also include a do-it-yourself guide on identifying and propagating 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 BP in control; Aloe vera and, of course, varieties of tulsi, and so on, in my own verandah. This has reduced our dependency on over-the-counter allopathic medicines and increased our sensitivity to plant life. A win-win really!” elaborates Rekha Choksi, a homemaker, who like Dr Kapse and Babar has her own farm where they all put into practice the knowledge they have gained from Kusum-tai’s workshops.
Talking about their work, Chirantan, who has gained enough knowledge about the plants to ably assist his ‘Aayee’ (mother) 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.”
Like most environmentalists, 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 although they 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.
Kusum-tai bemoans the quick-fix culture prevalent among the forest department officials these days. “Unfortunately, every forest officer knows about this, but they have to bow down to the pressure of the authorities who demand the fast-growing plants, which end up doing more damage than good,” she says, visibly agitated.
When she takes up landscaping gigs or starts working on creating a garden for corporate office or for any locality she makes sure that she has a mix of sustainable plants and decorative flowering plants or she makes different sections like a herbal garden, kitchen garden, rose garden, orchid garden, spice garden, etc., so that visitors get to see all kinds of plants in a single allotment. And she fervently hopes that authorities and the ‘aam janta’ (ordinary people) “wake up to the danger our planet is facing from our deep neglect of our indigenous flora and fauna.”
She signs off rather poignantly, with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another!”