“To the south, as far as the eye can see, lie range upon range of forest-covered hills, tumbled in wild confusion…” Thus Captain James Forsyth – a forester in colonial India’s so-called Central Provinces – rhapsodised over a Pachmarhi plateau vista. Elsewhere in his 1871 book The Highlands of Central India, Forsyth romantically observes (in ways reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s subsequent Jungle Book) how the local “aboriginal tribes” worship certain trees, Nature deities and “woodland sprites”. Yet he also reports the devastation of vast swathes of forests lost to both widespread indigenous practices (e.g. slash-burn agriculture and the use of wood for fuel) and badly managed colonial ‘progress’ (especially indiscriminate clear-cutting to secure millions of crossbeam ties for supporting railroad tracks).

To this day, controversies surrounding the use or abuse of forest lands – including their underlying mineral deposits and submerging through mega-dam projects – continue to pit conservationists and rural communities against advocates of ‘development’. Although select areas like Pachmarhi are now fairly well protected, elsewhere the hotly contested destinies of immense tracts of Indian forests have polarised political parties, intellectuals and citizens-at-large – and have become a key factor underlying central India’s ongoing if under-reported civil war between the government and neo-Marxists.

This is part of the larger, blaring context in which Pradip Krishen’s beautiful and comprehensive book now quietly appears, a context that gives it a greater significance than is usual for field guides.

Krishen’s passion for trees began in 1993 in Pachmarhi, which he chose as the setting for the last of several films he directed (now considered cult classics by Indian film buffs). The director of Satpura National Park helped with the shoot, befriended Krishen, inadvertently ‘hooked’ him on the local jungle and its wildlife, and became his ‘tree guru’. Soon Krishen began studying botany on his own, and by 2006 he had produced his first field guide, Trees of Delhi. Suddenly, some of that city’s hurried citizens began to slow down and savour the abundant Nature quietly surviving amidst their urban mayhem. The book’s beautiful design and illustrations were unprecedented for Indian tree field guides; and perhaps because Krishen is an autodidact ‘amateur’ naturalist (and not a professional or academic botanist), his text was unusually clear and reader-friendly. In a television interview, he explained that writing a book about trees “is not a dry business – you’re also telling stories, you’re also capturing people’s imagination”.

Jungle Trees of Central India takes tree spotting to a yet higher level. Over 2,000 photographs – and what photographs! – combined with maps, diagrams and user-friendly keys are elegantly presented in a larger and bolder format than Trees of Delhi. The book’s pellucid introduction presents the natural history of a region larger than France and geologically one of the planet’s oldest, with various distinctive ecological zones wherein certain trees thrive only in particular kinds of soil/drainage/topography.

Krishen’s account of how spring occurs in a hot, dry jungle is especially clear and vivid, and includes theories about the colour of new foliage. Catalogue entries of 163 species include two double-page spreads devoted to mahua (Madhuca longifolia, var. latifolia). The first spread includes careful botanical descriptions and notes how a fermented and much-cherished liquor is produced from mahua’s flowers, its seeds provide an oil that is used for cooking and in oil-lamp illumination (and reputedly cures rheumatism and skin ailments), with the leftover oil-cake employed as “a detergent, manure, vermicide and to poison fish”. The second spread celebrates “the subtle shades of mahua’s new foliage” in a glorious collage of 10 photographs.

Jungle Trees of Central India may gently inspire the minds and hearts of a large and influential middle-class readership that perhaps too often regards trees, forests and India’s natural environments as merely abstract ‘resources’. Krishen’s dedication page quotes Gandhi’s sage warning, “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.”

John H. Bowles curates exhibitions and authors publications on India’s Indigenous arts.