Free Press Journal

Meet the people who clean the lungs of choked-up Mumbai


Reene Vyas engages the participants in some tree talk

Mallika Iyer gets in touch with people who have made it their mission to clean the lungs of choked-up city

The Love of Trees gave three senior citizens a life purpose. Usha Desai, a retired doctor and Renee Vyas, a retired businesswoman, gather an informal group of people for no charge once a month, and visit the many green havens of the city. In their 87th Tree Appreciation Walk in the Aarey Dairy Butterfly Garden, they chose to pay tribute to Vinay Athley, another senior citizen, who planted over 4,000 trees in his lifetime and whose family continues his green legacy.

“When I turned 50, I decided to do something different with my life,” says Vyas, who spent a large part of her life working on a photography business. Dr Desai who had spent three decades as the HoD of Medicine in GM Hospital too was ignited by a keen interest in exploring the unknown. The natural world beckoned and their paths crossed and so were born the Tree Appreciation Walks, an effort at spreading knowledge about trees and multiplying the joy.

A species of butterfly

Know your trees
Knowing trees helps establish a bond with them. It is like making friends and getting to know them better – you start with their names and go on to discover more. In earlier times, sacred groves and sacred associations of trees ensured that bond was fostered. But with time and urbanisation, that bond seems to be fast fading. Few people today can name more than a handful of trees. And it is indeed ironical that while one is made to feel obliged and thankful to people who do us a kind deed gratitude to trees that provide us with oxygen – the most essential resource needed for survival, is seldom forthcoming.

“Often you hear about birders and bird-watching walks. But you seldom hear about tree-walks. In fact, many birders who identify birds by sound and flight, do not know about trees, which form the basis of the ecosystem. Trees are taken for granted. I felt I could do something to fill this gap. And we decided to conduct tree walks to spread the joy about trees and help people get to know about trees around them,” explains Dr Desai, now in her late 70s.

From Sanjay Gandhi National Park to Colaba Woods, from IIT Powai to the Mahim Nature Park, the two women have covered every patch of green in the city, over the course of their 87 Tree Appreciation Walks conducted over seven years. Children and senior citizens, doctors and lawyers, professionals and housewives – people from all walks of life attend these walks, which have become known only by word of mouth. The walks have become so popular that sometimes they have to refuse people as they are unable to handle such a large group.

“We did courses at BNHS and educated and empowered ourselves first,” explains Dr Desai Usha. Before every walk, the duo conducts a recce and detailed research on the trees, circulate plant lists amongst participants and prepare thoroughly. And their walks reflect their enthusiasm. Armed with resourceful guidebooks and colourful charts, filled with mythological stories and funny anecdotes, they bring alive the drab subjects of Botany and Entomology to common people in a delightful and endearing way.

A host of dazzling butterflies at the garden

The Tree Man of Aarey
After Athley, resident of Goregaon, passed away in 2015, his family decided that the most befitting tribute to him would be to keep alive his contribution towards greenery. “He would come on his bike with saplings and buckets of water. A group of friends began joining him. We planted plenty of saplings near Panchavati and the Guest House. Today it is very satisfying to see that they have grown into large trees,” reminisces Aarti Athley, his wife.

“When baba passed away, I felt I must continue the good work that he had done, in his memory. This patch, which was a rose garden many years ago, had turned into a wasteland and we thought of turning it into a butterfly garden. I knew nothing about butterflies and started from scratch,” recounts Sandeep, Athley’s son.

Learning about trees and butterflies, overcoming administrative procedures and gaining momentum, over the course of one-and-a-half years, the wasteland was slowly transformed into a green haven bursting with flowers and butterflies. Lantanas, Ixoras, Jamaican Blue Spikes and more thrive here as Mormons, Sailors and Oakleaf butterflies delight visitors with their dazzling colours and bouncy flight. The Athleys care for the garden at their own expense, with some help from like-minded supporters. Two Adivasi residents have been employed to help in looking after the plants. Provision has been made for water and great care is taken of the trees and plants. The previous CEO of Aarey, Shri Gajanan Raut and the current CEO Shri Rathodhave provided their support and encouragement in this effort.

The Athalye family at the Aarey Butterfly Garden

“We have no record of our expenses towards this effort,” smiles Vardayeeni, Athley’s daughter-in-law. “And there have been several other challenges. A fire threatened to destroy the entire effort. Snakes and other pests are also a problem. Just recently a leopard was found in the area. People take away saplings, pluck flowers, take away kadipatta and tulsi leaves. The Adivasi community living in Aarey help a lot. Despite these problems, we have never felt like giving up,” she says.

The 100 trees cut for the Metro 4 project of the city have also been successfully transplanted on this land. “Transplantation is a delicate issue. The cut trees need to be handled with care and cannot be transplanted anywhere. If anybody wants to successfully transplant trees that are being cut, I would be happy to help,” offers Sandeep.

(Those who wish to get in touch with these two groups can do so at the following address –  Usha and Renee – Sandeep Athley –