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Exploring Auroville's Botanical Gardens
“That's a wild orange. And this one, Buchanania axillaris, has an edible fruit. We're lucky. It's rare and difficult to germinate but this one came from rootstock. Now over there, the small tree with the beautiful white flowers, is one of my favourites, Cerbera odollam. It never needs watering.”
Paul is leading a small group of us on a tour of Auroville's Botanical Gardens. Work began on the Gardens in August, 2000, and today is an open day to let people see what's been achieved so far. It's quietly impressive. The basic infrastructure includes two wells and an extensive irrigation system, a seed room, two houses under construction, keet huts for volunteer workers, as well as a beautiful thatched education pavilion. Then there is the tree nursery, neat beds of ‘heritage' vegetables and, the core of the Gardens, a 30 acre arboretum and a Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF) reserve.
“Most of the basic planting is almost finished,” explains Paul. “We planted the TDEF reserve in the first year and we already have about 260 trees in the arboretum, one of each species. It's not ideal – we should have at least two of each in case one dies or is blown over, but we don't have enough space to do that.” In fact, the original plan was for 100 acres, but only 50 acres have been acquired so far. Paul points to a forbidding grey wall which runs along the northern perimeter. “Behind that are the other 50 acres. We hope Auroville will purchase them soon.”
The idea is that the flowering trees in the arboretum will form a circular walk. Inside them will come smaller specialist gardens of cactus, orchid etc. “Now that the basic infrastructure is there, the specialists are coming in. AuroNevi, who was one of the initiators of the project, moved the orchid nursery here 6 months ago. We'd also like to involve sculptors, painters, to make the gardens lively. Now here, for example....”
We're standing in front of concentric rings of TDEF hedges in which gaps interconnect pathways.“It's a maze. I've been fascinated by mazes since I was a child and I always wanted to make one in Auroville.”It's a clue to what Paul and the other ‘botanicals' are trying to do here: to make nature fun, accessible for the young. “The whole gardens are designed for education: they won't ever be public gardens for tourists. So every garden has to tell a story that will help kids understand nature better. The orchid garden, for example, will be all about how plants and insects evolve together.”
The educational programme has already started. Twice a week students come from New Creation, once a week from Udavi School . The resident teacher is Kundavi who used to teach environmental studies at the Crocodile Farm up the East Coast Road .“It's a perfect environment for learning,” says Paul. “The kids ask ‘What is this TDEF?' We explain. ‘But what does it look like?' We take them to the arboretum to show them specimen trees, then into the TDEF reserve so they can experience what it's like to be in that unique environment. Alternatively we take them to the maze. Inside are paintings of animals, so we can talk about the wildlife of the TDEF. We already have porcupines in the Botanical Gardens!”
The next step, says Paul, is to build an educational centre for exhibitions and showing nature videos. “We see ourselves serving a catchment area of 30 kilometres radius – about 40 schools – so we'll also need a bus. Within 5 years I expect that we'll have 2-3 different groups of schoolchildren visiting the Garden daily. For the really keen ones, we'll start up eco-clubs. We'll take them up the canyons on full moon nights.“Kids don't get taught much about the environment at present. And if they do, it's usually classic clichés about planting more trees because it's good for the planet. Without context, that's just a slogan. Yet you see some kids come here with an incredible interest in nature. So it's all about drawing them out, giving them a place to express that...”
But surely all these plans will cost a rupee or two? “I've written a five year education project for 2 crore rupees (approximately US$ 450,000) which includes an education building and a support staff of seven. At present it costs two and a half lakhs rupees (approx. US$ 5,600) a year to run this place. The nursery almost pays for itself and we get financial help from the Forest Group, but we still have to find one and a half lakhs (US$ 3,370) annually.”
Paul hopes they will get contracts to landscape hotel gardens with drought-resistant TDEF plants and trees. “Then the nursery would start making a profit and contribute to the upkeep of the Gardens. But so far I've found that whenever you really need the money for development and you're ready for it, it comes.”So what, ultimately, is his motivation? To change the world through making as many children as possible environmentally-conscious? “That's too big. All I'm trying, as an individual, is to make a valid contribution. That's a good enough target to head for. And, unlike changing the world or even Tamil Nadu, dealing with kids from forty schools is finite, that's doable.