Right now I’m at a house called Kollakal Thapovanam in Pullukulangara near Kayamkulam. The uniqueness of the family that resides here is that three generations are interested in plants and trees. What you see around are trees that have been planted over several years.

Not three, four generations.

Yes, four generations. This is my third visit to this place. It will take more than ten visits to see and identify all the trees in this compound because each time I come here, more trees are in bloom. One of the commonest fears people have is that trees planted close to a house will attract snakes, and they may attack us. But here we see trees planted all around the house, and they seem to have been brought from all corners of the world. It is a dense growth, and there are plenty of birds. When we arrived here in the morning, the chorus of the birds was very loud. To a lover of Nature or a student of Botany, this is like a laboratory. Even a month’s stay is inadequate if you wish to study the trees you see here. The children of this family have chosen to study Botany formally, haven’t they?

Amma, how did you come into this field?
I’m 87 years old now. Very early in childhood, I was drawn to it. During those days, the practice was to prepare sesame oil, coconut oil and medicinal oils in houses. Whenever some medicine had to be made, my father would bring a sapling of that plant to grow in this compound. So whenever we needed it next, we could pick it up from here itself. He would also bring saplings of jasmine or rose, and tell me to look after them, so that I could wear those flowers on my hair. This inspired a love for plants and trees in my childhood. My elder brothers also brought home plants, and I nurtured them. So whenever a flowering or vegetable plant put out flowers and fruits, I felt happy. That joy is indescribable.

Forty-two years back, I was involved in a car accident. Those were the days when we used to do farming. All this was open space, meant for drying hay. Plants and trees were planted only around it. Our farming had come to an end even before my accident, and this space lay unused. Following the accident, I could not move about for nearly two years. One day I was inspired by the gods we worship here, and felt that instead of sitting idle I should do something creative. I planted a sapling in a small bucket and kept it in the middle of this space. It grew and I was happy.

The soil of this area is different.
Yes. In fact, I got the award because I made a forest in this sandy soil. When the trees I planted began to grow, I felt really enthusiastic. Soon I began to walk. Thus even though I did not intend it, as I kept on planting trees, I was making a forest for the district of Alappuzha.

Alappuzha is a district in Kerala that did not have forests. It had one only at Mannarssala.
Yes. Intentionally or not, I had created a forest. And for whatever I have done to serve Mother Earth, she has given back too.

How many plants can be found here? Do you have any idea?

In these ten minutes, I have spotted nearly 100 species here itself.
Remember that everything that the earth gives us – even grass – is medicine. But until we discover their medicinal worth, we call them weeds. Take Siam weed, for instance. Until we found out that it was a good antidote for chikungunya, we used to uproot it from our plots, considering it useless. Or, take the case of the bulb of nut grass. It was boiled in milk and given to infants. Likewise, the bulb of nut grass and the veins of tamarind were boiled in oil to make a herbal medicine that was as effective as Rasnadi thailam.

By veins, you mean those on the skin of the tamarind fruit?
No, those on its leaves. In this manner, you’ll find that everything in Nature has its uses. People come here looking for certain species. I ask them to check and find out whether it grows here. And I come to know of it when they inform me. I don’t plant trees after identifying them. I plant whatever I get, indiscriminately! But I lost a few rare species in the recent floods, like the Krishna fig, with its cone-shaped leaves.

Next time, I come here, I shall bring it for you.
Okay. We had a canal here. But now with landfilling everywhere, water has nowhere to drain into. So it remains stagnant here, and even the roots get damaged. The other day, even to fetch mountain knotgrass or chundanga [wild species of Solanum melongena], we had to go all the way to Mavelikkara.

Yes, I saw chundanga here. It’s used to make Dashamoolarishtam. Its roots are used, isn’t it so?
Yes. It’s also used in pujas, to make holy water, and also in obsequies.

You have received numerous awards, haven’t you? What do you feel about it?
Very happy, considering that I’ve always been a homemaker, looking after my husband and five children. To be invited to Delhi by the Prime Minister and the President, it’s indeed a great honour. This soil made it all possible.
And the accident too!
The accident changed you life completely, quite literally.
And the people of the neighbourhood also reaped its benefits.

When people come enquiring about some medicinal plant or another, I ask them to check for themselves. I have no idea which plant sprouts among the grass. But I don’t permit entry to government-recruited labourers. I won’t blame them. Perhaps they are instructed to clear the place completely.

There is a wide road leading to my garden plot, and it is full of plants. But whenever the labourers are made to clean the panchayat roads, they uproot all the plants that grow on the sides. Did you have so many birds in this plot earlier?
But there are so many now!
True. That’s because the number of trees has increased. Earlier, we had them only on the sides of this plot. They would build nests. During harvest, a lot of birds – parrots, mynah and others – used to come. To eat sesame seeds, corn and all that. Now we see peacocks and monkeys too.

How long back did you walk among the trees?
I don’t stir out much these days. Maybe until a year back, I would walk there.
I have two questions to ask. One, whether the presence of so many trees attracts snakes.

How can that happen? If you go to the western side of this plot, although we have a forest there, you will see that the ground is cleared. That is done regularly, twice a year. I have a worker who does it. If we neglect it, birds and small creatures will bring seeds and before you know it, there will be thick growth there. This is a house. Shouldn’t we be secure? So the undergrowth is removed.
So, there is nothing to fear, isn’t it?
Since we have cows, we give the grass to them.
The other fear is whether these trees will fall down and harm us.
That happens sometimes, especially when strong winds blow. But the house has not come to any harm, so far.

The mother has been introduced to you. Now, it’s time to get introduced to her daughter Thankamani teacher. She used to teach at the Government College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram. Her subject is Environmental Engineering. Can you tell us something about your background, teacher?
As Amma said, ours was an agricultural family. It was the same at my father’s house too. So I was familiar with and participated in all this. Amma and her mother used to supervise our paddy and sesame cultivation in the immediate vicinity. My uncles looked after the farming activities on our fields some distance from here. I used to run around these paddy fields and see the farming methods. I studied Civil Engineering at the College of Engineering at Thiruvananthapuram. Then I went on to specialize in Environmental Engineering. We learn a little about Environmental Engineering in B. Tech. itself. So when I learnt about water conservation, although it had not become very popular then, I realized this was what we had practised here during my childhood. But things had changed. As soon as I passed my B. Tech., I got a job at the NSS Engineering College at Palakkad. Even while I was doing my final year B. Tech., water used to be supplied from the Peppara dam in Thiruvananthapuram, and we had experienced severe water shortage then. We used to carry buckets from our college hostel looking for a house nearby in order to collect water from their well. Later water pipes were laid. The government itself filled all the public wells on the grounds that they were breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Water shortage became a severe problem at Palakkad. First, I studied water conservation. Six years later, in 1986, I came to the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram.

To do your M. Tech.?
Yes, I took my M. Tech. degree from the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram. I was already interested in Environmental Engineering. I got interested in water conservation, and began to take part in various activities in college, cleaning tanks, diverting water from the roof tops to them, and for all this we received the “Pala Thulli” Award from Malayala Manorama. Amma had that accident when I was at Palakkad.  For three years, she did not walk. Slowly when she did, she began to plant trees. And all of us, including my father, supplied her with saplings. My college was on top of a bare hill. In my second year there, Greening the Campus programme was introduced. When I went back, I was allotted the quadrangular space between four buildings. First we made a thulasithara [raised platform to plant the holy basil]. Then we planted Florida fiddlewood, night-flowering jasmine, cape jasmine and other plants that Amma used to send in packets. Slowly that space began to fill up. Many people asked me, as they would ask Amma, “Why take all this trouble in a government college campus? Are you mad?” I could not but do this because it was in my blood. When we started water conservation, all the trees began to grow well, birds began to visit, and we even brought out a book identifying all the trees in the college campus – Trees of the Campus. An organization named Friends of Trees in Thiruvananthapuram . . .
That works all over Kerala, I think. Kottayam is its headquarters.

No. This was started by Karunakaran sir and a couple of others much earlier. When I went to the university to attend a valuation camp, I met a lot of teachers. There was a function that afternoon for the release of their book on the trees in their campus. When I attended it, I asked them whether they would visit our college campus and identify the trees there. Krishnan Nair sir, IFS, Velayudhan sir and others came, and that was how Trees of the Engineering College got published. The team goes to different institutions to identify trees in the campuses. So when the trees grew, birds began to arrive. Then, members of an organization named Thanal came over and offered to identify the birds. As a result, Feathered Friends of the Campus was published. That was when I was in charge of the Environment Club there. Next came Flying Jewels of the Campus which identified all the butterflies there. Even before all this began, our college received the Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra Award in 2002. Amma got her award in 2003. But both these awards were handed over in 2005 at Delhi. The organizers were highly amused to see a mother and her daughter collect national awards at the same function.

To one for an institution, to the other from her house . . .

Yes. That was a grand experience. The college got the Malayala Manorama Pala Thulli Award which was for one lakh, the Vanamitra Award also for the same amount, and many more – Gandhi Darshan Vishwamitra Award, Friends of Trees Award, and others. When all this happened, people began to realize that we were doing something important. I became the Head of the Department of Environmental Engineering. After that tenure, I became Member Secretary of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, and worked in that capacity for some time, implementing certain ideas of mine.
Whenever I came home and shared with Amma whatever I had studied, she would say, “But we used to practise that here” or when I brought home a sapling, she would say, “We have it here” and so on. So there was an interaction between us, and an exchange of ideas. After some time, came global warming and now the issue of climate change. Earlier, we used to worship Nature, plants and trees. Trees should be worshipped. Think of the services they offer.

Amma got the National Award, Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra Award, Narishakti Award in 2018, Harita Vyakti Award by the Kerala Biodiversity Board, Vanamitra Award, Prakritimitra Award by Alappuzha Forest department and so on. She created a forest in Alappuzha district which had none until then. I used to accompany Amma everywhere.

In January 2020, the President sent Amma a special invite. But Delhi was very cold then. Even flights were being diverted. We did not have even a week to prepare. We were informed on Saturday, and had to be in Delhi on Thursday. The protocol section of the government had already made all arrangements. But Amma fell ill because of extreme cold. She was put on IV fluids, and later taken to collect the award. If you look at the photo, the cannula on her arm is visible. We had not taken a sweater to the function. But there was a Malayali in the medical team. They took her in an ambulance. That’s a terrible story. But since the President had invited directly, we decided to go. The temperature was a bit better during those two days. When he came to learn that the daughter had accompanied Amma, I was appointed the translator. Those who visit us, ask Amma why she bothers to plant all these saplings. She says, it is to have oxygen for all of us to breathe. Everyone knows that. But if we search the internet we will learn how much oxygen each of us needs, and how much the trees supply.
And the President clapped his hands on hearing it.

Yes. Amma would say this to the visitors, “Create as much greenery, that is, leaves, as can give you the oxygen you need”. We should plant plants, even grass will do. The starch we need is made by leaves. We are familiar with terms like “carbon footprint”. The place we occupy in the food chain decides how much starch we require. So the higher we are, the greater our need. A non-vegetarian will require more than a vegetarian. So we should create as much greenery as can satisfy our starch needs. If each of us thinks in this manner . . . Isn’t the problem of global warming and climate change a result of the absence of greenery? We provoked all our visitors, especially children, to think on these lines. When I translated all this for the President’s benefit, he clapped his hands. This interaction took place on 3 January 2003. On 26 January, in his address to the nation, the President mentioned four names. One of them was Amma’s. On 12 February, there was a function to attend at the Vice President’s office. Out of all the activities that were documented on a national level, Pandit Deen Dayal Sharma Foundation invited only Amma from Kerala. We went there and met the Vice President. He has tweeted about it.

After returning to Kerala, we had a function to attend at Kozhikode on 2 March organized by differently-abled children. It had been long since Amma had travelled in a train, especially after the car accident. We didn’t know what to do. But Amma said, “Aren’t I differently-abled myself? We have to go, somehow or the other. We have to make those children plant trees near the Kuttiyadi river”. We spent the entire day with the children, and they, sitting in their wheelchairs, planted the saplings that Amma handed over to them. On 20 March, she was honoured at another function.

After that, came the lockdown. During these Corona times, there is greater need for oxygen. This was Amma’s message. With my engineering background, at seminars, I talk about reducing the carbon footprint. In whatever we do, we should always be aware of how dependent we are on trees. You may enjoy your luxury but not to the point where it gives you a guilty conscience. Give back to the earth too. Finally, we reach Gandhiji’s principle – Let us take only as much as we need. And whatever we take, give back to Mother Earth. My Environmental Engineering background has helped me a great deal in understanding this concept. And other concepts too, like water conservation, virtual water, carbon footprint, carbon credit and so on.

There is something that most people are unaware of. All of us believe that carbon dioxide alone increases atmospheric temperature. But greenhouse gases also do the same. Most people know only this: trees take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. What we don’t know is that 50 % of the dry weight of a log of wood is the carbon stored in it. As long as that carbon remains within the wood, there is no harm. If we take the four generations in our family, we are carbon neutral because of the plants and trees that we have planted here. Each one of us can do that. We should create as much wood as can store our personal carbon emissions.

There is another thing I propagate, although extreme environment conservation organizations tell me not to. Earlier this was an ettukettu [a double quadrangular house] and all the walls were made of wood. No one objected to the cutting of trees. When my brother constructed a house, he took timber from a teak in this compound. It had been planted when he was young. When the children grow up and need timber, they can source it from here. So keep on planting trees. These trees are not cut and set on fire or left to decay. Only then will the carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere. If instead of a plastic chair, we use a wooden one, that also stores carbon. Here there is no space left for planting any more saplings. If we cut one or two trees and convert them into furniture, we will be storing that much carbon. And then we can plant more trees. That becomes a system. So we won’t have to depend on government forests. Earlier, we had a system of private agricultural afforestation. Why can’t the government encourage it?
People should be led towards it.
Yes. One of my colleagues told me that if the rule, banning cutting of trees, comes into force, she will stop planting trees. I said that was not right.

What you say is perfectly right, teacher. Take sandal tree, for instance. We do not have the right to cut or sell sandal logs. But we can auction it to the government. As a result, the only tree that is not grown in Kerala is the sandal tree. And the greatest shortage is of sandal wood.
And sandal tree survives in this soil.
In Australia, they do sandal tree cultivation.
Yes, on a massive scale.
The business can run into lakhs and crores of rupees, and can give livelihood to many.
Even earlier, I used to speak for popularizing sandal tree cultivation because if that happens everyone will enter this field.
It is just a matter of ten years. When enough sandalwood becomes available, the looting will stop.

You are the third-generation Nature conservationist, aren’t you? You’ve taken up Botany for under-graduate study. What were your reasons for choosing it?
I hadn’t thought of studying Botany beyond my tenth standard. But when I reached the Plus One and Plus Two levels, I began to feel interested in and enthusiastic about it, and wanted to know more about the subject. But when I spoke to my Botany sir about it, he suggested that I take up some other subject, English for instance. But I was not interested in it. I’ve often been asked whether there was any pressure from the family. The fact is that my mother herself asked me if I was genuinely interested in Botany. If I liked any other subject, I had the freedom to choose it. My grandmother and my aunt also encouraged me to follow my taste. But when I studied Botany, I began to love it. Maybe because I was born and raised here. When I study about some plant in class, I come here, take a picture of that tree and post it in my class group. That gives me special pleasure.

How many species are there in this plot? Have you an estimate?
I have no idea . . .
You haven’t counted perhaps. But a rough figure . . .
I don’t know. When people come to know that I’m studying Botany, they ask me about the scientific names of plants. But I’ve only taken baby steps into this subject.
Anyone will feel so on coming here. The collection of trees here is simply awesome. Even the Western Ghats may not have the variety you have in this five-acre plot.
Are you also interested in Botany? Have you taken a decision?
Yes, I have.
You have joined Plus One?

It is a great thing that there are two of you to take care of the plants and trees. As you are interested in this subject, this forest contains a lot of potential for you. You will get all the knowledge and training you like, and can put them to good use too. Someone else might possibly clear this forest and use it for some other purpose. But since you know its value, and the hard work it takes to maintain it, we are hopeful that this forest will be maintained properly.

This is a tree canopy, and it is our polyhouse. What we mean by the term “carbon footprint” is carbon dioxide that forms as personal emission caused by us, by each of our activities, our food choices and life style as well as the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Is it possible for us to reduce it? We leave a carbon footprint even when we do agriculture. Can we reduce it? Polyhouses increase the carbon footprint or emissions drastically. As climate change and global warming have happened, we have to change our farming techniques. That is called “climate-smart agriculture” or “climate-resilient agriculture”. But some of its practices too increase the carbon footprint. In the farming that we do, this is our polyhouse. This is the shade. And this, the manure we get. As you said, the production is limited. But we get what we need for domestic use. With organic farming, we get tasty food. You can see that every bit of available space has been utilized. My siblings are also involved in it. Their children too. This forest has become really dense. That is heartening. Farming is not done here but it is done there. Here we have coconut trees. Those who buy coconuts from here say that the kernel is thick. That may be the result of organic farming.

Teacher has told us many things. This is a great combination of folk wisdom and hi-tech engineering knowledge. What we see in this plot is a mixture of both. People should pay heed to what teacher has said. It was richer than a two-hour lecture. All of us should try to implement them on our own.