Pine tree in Kodaikanal
A pine tree grows in Kodaikanal (Photo: The Kodai Chronicle Staff)

The Power of ‘Placefulness’: The Pines of Kodaikanal

If you clamber up the sloping banks of Wiffy Pools, away from the large rock surfaces sheltering its clear spring waters, you’ll find yourself in the hush of a dense pine forest. Here, the stream flows at a muffled distance, soft branches brush the top of your head and fallen needles form an inviting bed.

It has been decades since I visited Wiffy, on the old trail to Berijam Lake, its easy hiking route and calm waters once a favourite picnic spot for school trips. (Now, word on the hiking trails is that it’s overrun with leeches). And yet, in my mind’s eye, I return again and again. Its waters have blurred in my memory, but what I’m after is the pine forest: its softness and ​closeness and hidden cones. 

Road leading to Luthercrest, above Tonawanda
Road leading to Luthercrest, above Tonawanda (Photo courtesy Richa Kaul Padte)

If nostalgia had a shape, mine would likely be a pine. 

Commonly used to connote wistful longing for a time gone by, the word nostalgia originally derives from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (grief, pain or distress), and was first used in the 18th century to describe a condition experienced by Swiss mercenaries serving abroad. ‘Separated from their climate’, voyagers developed symptoms ranging from capillary constriction to depression; some were said to have died from the affliction. Far from the sweetness of sepia-tinted photo-albums, nostalgia is rooted in climactic separation—an embodied pain arising from displacement, from the environment you call home.

But what happens when the climate you long for, the site of your nostalgia, is a terrain of displacement itself? 

My embodied desire for pines runs much deeper than Wiffy’s shallow pools. I grew up on the Kodaikanal International School (KIS) forested property Ganga Compound—first in the house called Tonawanda, its grassy lawn overlooking a small valley formed by the Laws Ghat Road, and then in Luthercrest, situated farther up a hill but with more space for a family of four plus two dogs. 

Built by the Lutheran Church of America’s Andhra mission, the houses on Ganga Compound (still called LCA by some) are nestled among several species of pine trees. As children, pines were what we played under, their drooping branches serving as hidey-holes, secret clubhouses, make-believe homes. Pine needles, in their strands of three or four, were what I mindlessly braided on long summer days, their sweet, refreshing smell surrounding us as we huddled close below their canopies. 

Those same needles made warm beds for new-born puppies, my neighbour and her tiny twins gathering armfuls in the forests around our homes. Roam those forests long enough and you’ll learn to recognise tell-tale bumps in the needle-covered floors: under these grow edible mushrooms, and my brother collected more than anyone could conceivably consume. And, of course, what is Christmas without pine? The small tree we cut each year, cheerful decorations made from cones, messy handmade wreaths. 

Whichever way I slice it, my history is wrapped up in pines. And the trees have their own histories, too.

Richa Kaul Padte at Luthercrest
The author at Luthercrest in the early 2000s (Photo courtesy Richa Kaul Padte)

Pine trees were first introduced to the Palani Hills by British colonisers in the form of timber plantations. Over the subsequent century and a half, these monocultures were planted, nurtured and swiftly cut down. They went on to become a variety of objects: cypress pines for poles and local building work, whistling pines for fuel, Mexican weeping pines that were turned into paper. 

I found these histories in a book by teacher, author and environmentalist Pippa Mukherjee: Flora of the Southern Western Ghats and Palnis: A Field Guide. Mrs Mukherjee first introduced me to the role of exotic species in Kodaikanal. A high school teacher at the time, she took our tiny elementary school class for a walk around Ganga Compound, explaining in the careful, distilled way of good teachers where our playgrounds of eucalyptus and pine came from—and what they were doing there (‘sucking up water’ and ‘releasing acid’ respectively). If that’s all I retained at the age of nine, it was enough to create an occasional whispered chant of ‘Poison, poison, poison’ as I built yet another pine nest. 

Pine trees usually grow in small, isolated patches (Photo: TKC Staff)

Across their 19 or more varieties in the Palani Hills, large-scale plantations of pine trees effectively created dead zones where few other plants survived, and endemic (or native) species stood little fighting chance. The practice of cutting down trees as soon as they matured also created a cycle in which water and nutrients were drained from the soil before they had a chance to replenish, contributing to water shortages for human and non-human inhabitants alike. 

Apart from timber plantations, a more eclectic variety of pines, including North American species, were brought in by settlers, or missionaries. Over the years, in and around Kodaikanal town, pines were planted in small, isolated patches, where, thanks to barriers created by roads and houses, they largely did not interrupt the growth of neighbouring species. Or at least no more than the establishing of a missionary town with the permission of imperial rule did. 

It’s well-known that the colonisation of people is accompanied by the colonisation of land. In the larger Palani Hills area, the widespread presence of pine, eucalyptus and wattle monocultures tells this story of invasion clearly. But Kodaikanal itself, established in 1845 by American missionaries (with a go-ahead from the British) seeking to escape the heat and diseases of the plains, bringing with them ‘colonial-style’ houses and an array of exotic plants, feels like murkier territory to unpack. Especially for a Kodai kid. 

The pine trees of Ganga Compound (Video: The Kodai Chronicle)

Growing up here, both inside and outside of what was originally a missionary school, I was also brought up on a narrative of empathetic nostalgia. Why did we have pines to play under? Because the missionaries missed home. Why did we have beautiful window seats?  Because the missionaries missed home. And, of course, these narratives were true. Nostalgia in the sense of a profound climactic separation is what carves a pine-shaped ache inside me today—and it presumably did the same for early Western settlers in Kodaikanal, too. 

But this is where it gets complicated: my nostalgia doesn’t come with the authority and power to change and shape a bioregion, to replace endemic species with the trees I long for. I dream of pines, I plan to visit Kodai (it’s been nearly three years since I last returned), I write this essay. And my nostalgia stops there.  This nostalgia is, however, nestled inside another nostalgia—one with power—whose parent Russian dolls are Christian missions and colonialism. 

How do we contend with this power?

Christmas tree inside Luthercrest South
The author’s family Christmas tree inside Luthercrest South (Photo courtesy Richa Kaul Padte)

When I reached out to several long-term residents for photographs of Wiffy’s pine-laden picnics and hikes, they often responded to say that they ‘didn’t like pines’—and that was that. I began to wonder why these residents, who have worked tirelessly to preserve the architectural heritage and human histories of the early missions to Kodaikanal, felt this way about pines—trees that often share those very same histories. (What’s more, can any of us say we decorated leafy, knotted sholas when Christmas came around?)

Not ‘liking’ pines doesn’t change that they are there, forming the landscape that we live or grew up in. And looking away from the history of power structures that put them there doesn’t erase those either (though over time, a sustained forgetting might). The pines are no more or less a part of Kodaikanal than the KMU Library, the Old Cemetery, BL Shed. And sometimes, from the inhospitable soil, something else begins to grow. 

Under pines at the Poombarai resthouse, 1973 (Photo: Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar)

Beyond the turn off to Poombarai, near the Forest Department Rest House, is a pine forest that dates to the 1970s, according to the 2014 book, Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky, co-authored by several residents. It was here, in 2011, that students from Delhi’s TERI School of Advanced Studies found, amidst the pine’s acidic forest floor, several shola species growing, it says. According to the book, this was one of five pine plantations where over 136 endemic species had taken root. Young shola trees cannot survive in open environments, but contrary to earlier ecological understandings, they can grow under the canopy of exotic species too. 

In the same book, stalwarts of Kodai’s conservation movement Tanya Balcar and Bob Stewart write, ‘That this was happening under pine was especially significant as, of all the plantation species, pine has always been regarded as being the most inhospitable environment for regeneration.’ (In contrast, Mrs Mukherjee tells me the growth of native species under eucalyptus has been more commonly observed. See ‘Blackburn Shola, 1986–2014’ and ‘How Nature Can Occasionally Beat Human Interference’ in Issue 3 of The Kodai Chronicle.)

Pine cones (Photo: Robert Zunikoff/ Unsplash)

One of the significant problems presented by plantations is that trees are not allowed to reach an age when they no longer require large amounts of groundwater. Old forests, in contrast, are self-sufficient, containing within their leaves and humus-rich soil most of what they need to live. Today’s pine forests, increasingly left alone thanks to the work of progressive conservationists, are growing old too: taking less and giving more.   

Bob and Tanya write: ‘They are not to everyone’s taste. But every year as the sholas expand and the plantations grow older and naturalised, they become more anchored in the landscape.’ What counts as a natural forest? Surely these old, anchored pines can’t be discounted. Who belongs to a place? Kodaikanal would not exist in its current form without the people who brought the first invasive species in the 19th century—or without their descendants, who have spent much of the recent past fighting to protect native forests and grasslands. 

All landscapes are marked by histories of displacement—products of colonisation, caste supremacy, wars, plagues, migrations, both intentional and unintentional change. And Kodaikanal, with its shola and pine forests, with its wintergreen berries, poisonous white angel’s trumpets and purple cowpea flowers, is no different. 

Pine tree in Goa
The author’s pine tree, at her home in Goa (Photo: Richa Kaul Padte)

In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell coins the word ‘placefulness’—a ‘sensitivity and responsibility to the historical (what happened here) and the ecological (who and what lives, or lived, here)’. Placefulness neither erases the past nor indifferently accepts its consequences (also known as the present). Instead, it invites us to consider how the landscapes we inhabit, both in actuality and nostalgic longing, invariably carry within them entangled histories of indigeneity, invaders, restoration and their criss-crossing legacies. 

As for me? 

When I moved to Goa, my mum bought me a tiny pine tree for my first Christmas here. Six years later, it’s shot up to my first-floor window. Old habits die hard—except my pine lives in a large, self-contained pot. I’ll save the dense forest for my ​dreams.​ ​​

Richa Kaul Padte

Richa Kaul Padte is a writer, editor and amateur cat-groomer. She is the author of Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography, and her work has appeared in publications including National Geographic Traveller, Vogue India, BuzzFeed and Hazlitt. She grew up on Ganga Compound, Kodaikanal.

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