Here’s Why You Should Attend Dr Usha Desai’s Tree Appreciation Walks If You Are In Mumbai Or Goa
Usha Desai’s Tree Appreciation Walks come packed with a wealth of information on the trees around us. Read this Second Innings Story to know how this extraordinary woman learnt more about trees and followed her passion for them after retirement.
It is 7.10 a.m. and I am already 10 minutes late for the Tree Appreciation Walk conducted by Mumbai based Dr. Usha Desai at the Goa University campus, near Panaji, Goa.
I do not like to miss these walks even for a minute as I know that within that time Dr. Desai will share some information about trees that I had no idea about. I’ve been part of these walks for more than two years and our motley group of tree walkers in Goa wait for Dr. Desai’s visit. In these two years, we have learned about trees found in our gardens and parks, a variety of native, exotic trees, palms and also about the mangrove forest.
Dr. Usha Desai is a trained tree expert and a doctor by profession. The love for trees is her passion and that’s how Tree Appreciation Walks was born in Mumbai in 2010 when she was 71. Along with her friend Renee Vyas, she has conducted 100 tree walks in the concrete jungle of Mumbai until now. These walks are held once a month in different green spaces of Mumbai and they do not charge any fee for it!
The walks are well-researched. The curators do a recce of the place, then identify around 20 trees for the walk. The walk is not just scientific information about trees; it is also woven with history and interesting stories from mythology, films and literature related to these trees. Dr. Desai, who recently turned 80, conducts these walks with the same enthusiasm and curiosity, with which she started the tree journey in her early 50s.
The beautifully bloomed Indian Coral tree (Erythrina variegate) at the MGM Hospital campus in Mumbai, where she used to practice, made her curious. “These trees blossom during Holi festival and have beautiful orangish-red flowers. So, I was curious to know them and joined the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in 1992 and attended late Dr. Almeida and Dr. Latoo’s field visits. I also bought some books and identified the trees and got them labeled. That was in 1995 when I was 56.”
She continued this hobby after retirement in 1997, by starting nature walks with BNHS. But the realization that she needed in-depth knowledge about trees, made her go back to learning in her 60s, starting a second innings in doing something she loved.
In 2000, Dr Desai did a six-week course in Botany with BNHS, followed by a one-year course in entomology, lead biodiversity. She followed that up with a six-week course in Voluntary Training at Conservation Education Centre. She started volunteering there and met Renee Vyas. Together, they did a one-year course in Botany with BNHS in 2008 under Dr. Swapna Prabhu.
Dr Desai and Vyas would cover green areas of Mumbai, studying and sharing information about trees. “During those tree walks, we were approached by various friends and even strangers to share the joy we felt and the knowledge we gained. We realized that there was a need for such walks and that’s how Tree Appreciation Walks was born in 2010,” Dr Desai adds.
When they started, the duo knew only 100 plants. Now they know of more than 600, which include climbers, wildflowers, herbs, medicinal plants, grass and bamboos, among others. Knowing trees can’t be done in isolation as it is necessary to learn about methods like seed dispersal and pollination, among others.
Dr. Desai loves to narrate the relationship between fig trees and wasps. For every type of fig tree in the world, there is a specific species of wasps, and they play an important role in pollination, which is a very complex process. Dr. Desai explains this by drawing simply on a piece of paper. Her walks are attended by botany students and teachers as they find it is an interesting way to learn. During her talks, Dr. Desai also refers to objects of daily use, like the broom, used every day in Indian homes. It is made from Broom Grass (Thysanolaena maxima) and comes all the way from Assam!
She explains how the Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea Sp.), a native of South America, was accidentally discovered during Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition to circumnavigate the globe in the 18th Century, possibly by a European lady, Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
The tree walks last for more than three hours at times and can be tiring. But not for Dr Desai. You wonder where she gets her energy from. “The source of this energy is passion, curiosity, and interest,” she states.
These walks are not a simple walk in the park. Dr. Desai gives out detailed information. She equips herself with a voice enhancer as she has a soft voice, images of trees and fruits, reference books and a little box of found materials- seeds, leaves, etc. She literally doesn’t leave any leaf unturned during her walks.
Her field trips with Vyas last for six hours and she still travels by the local train to conduct her walks in Mumbai. Renee Vyas, who has a finance background and is 62, shares, “Usha’s passion to learn and share about trees, plants, insects etc, gives her immense energy to go on for hours in rain, sunshine. I have learned many things from her but the most important is her persistent effort to go deep inside the detail of the subject till it is understood perfectly by her. She never leaves it to the chance or is satisfied with half knowledge.”
“One of the most unique aspects of Dr. Usha’s walks is the way she weaves stories about trees, animals and human life,” says architect Tallulah D’Silva from Goa, who initiated a tree walking group in Goa lead by Dr. Usha. “She [Dr. Usha] is so keen to learn like a student. I think that’s an asset. She is so honest too and when she does not know enough about something she finds out and shares it with the group. She exudes so much love and positivity, it’s impossible not to love her and all the trees you meet with her! And at 80 years, she is my oldest walk buddy!”
Looking back, Dr. Desai mentions that her love for trees started as a student. Her school campus had many trees and during the tree plantation program, they would sing songs of the trees. “Unfortunately, we could not identify all the trees except the common ones like Imli, Parijat, Mango, Asopalav, Bakool. Recently, I visited the same school and identified all the trees,” she confirms.
What is the most gratifying thing about these walks? Dr. Desai states, “It is when we see the joy of recognition [of trees] on the faces of the participants. Most first-timers say they are now in love with trees and know why they should be preserved. Many have started conducting tree walks.”
Neither Dr. Desai nor her walk participants want her to slow down. Her love for trees is unstoppable and surely an inspiration for all. As she rightly concludes, “As Maya Angelou says I too would like to say, ‘My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.”
You can know more here about Tree Appreciation Walk, Mumbai and their schedule.