Published:  12:57 AM, 13 January 2019 Last Update: 12:59 AM, 13 January 2019

'Around the World in 80 Trees' by Jonathan Drori

 'Around the World  in 80 Trees' by Jonathan Drori

Ornella D'Souza

Parents can go to the wildest lengths to involve their children in their interests, hoping it'll tickle them enough to take it up as adults. Like Jonathan Drori's dad taught him about tree species by making him taste them. That meant licking the latex off an opium poppy, or chewing the leaves of Dieffenbachia or the 'dumb cane' to experience the numb feeling caused in the tongue and throat by the needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals present in it. Drori was to learn this was how plantation slave labourers too 'vocal' about their rights were punished.

The venue for these tutorials was the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG), also called Kew Gardens, close to where the family lived. Watching his dad weep over the death of a cedar tree charred by lighting, and his mother philosophise about how there's a whole world within a tree are uncommon behaviour in parents. But these planted in Drori the seeds of a lifelong passion for roots, shoots, shrubs and trees, and environmental science on a whole.

Many decades later, Drori became trustee of Kew Gardens. He's now trustee of UK-based Eden Project and The Woodlands Trust, ambassador for World Wildlife Fund, and fellow of the Zoological Society and Linnean Society of London - all organisations that work to conserve trees and fauna.

Drori, who also consults on the creatives uses of technology, built BBC's first website and was conferred the CBE in 2006 for developing a new technology for engaging audiences with art and culture on a national scale. "But I'm spending a lot of time with environment and travel the world to work with the environment. Especially India, which for me, as they say in Britain, is like coming home to a delightful warm bath," says Drori.

This year, Drori debuted as an author with Around the World in 80 Trees - 80 short biographies of tree-species handpicked for their peculiarities and juxtaposed alongside French illustrator Lucille Clerc's stunning colour sketches of trees, their parts, traditions, livelihoods and industrial uses.

Each biography packs scientific, historical information with fascinating nuggets. Such as rot-resistant Alder wood made Venice a military superpower, becoming the sturdy underpinnings for its buildings and the bridges on its waterways, top-class gunpowder (even today) and charcoal to smelt iron for its armed vessels.

Or how Buddhist monks slowly mummified themselves by drinking urushi tea, made from the sap of the Chinese Lacquer tree - if, on opening the graves years later, their bodies were found intact, they'd be deemed as 'sokushinbutsu' or 'living Buddhas'.

Or how some trees ward off caterpillars by exuding a chemical that attracts their predators. "So you attract the thing that is going to kill the thing that is eating you rather than killing it directly," Drori told audiences at the recently concluded Tata Lit Live in Mumbai, where he was a speaker.

The 'eco champ' or 'tree connoisseur' as Drori calls himself, says anthropomorphising varieties of trees during his travels around the globe helped him understand how they function. "I'm not a tree expert, but maybe I know how we should communicate science so that people feel engaged with it," says Drori, who is, on a whole, a science hound and loves educating about the environment with 'googlies' he throws your way, as evident in his TED Talks videos.

A favourite befuddler: A little seed weighs nothing but a tree weighs a lot, so where does all the stuff (timber) come from? Almost no one gets it right - carbon dioxide from the air. Why is this not included in the curriculum world over?

"It's because teachers assume students are empty vessels. But everyone has their own theory of how the world works, and unless well-articulated, it's very difficult to change minds. So listen to kids and find out what their theories are," says the visiting professor at Bristol University's Graduate School of Education, specialising in children's (mis)understanding of science and technology.

Drori is not overtly expressive about his love for trees - you won't find him hugging one, unless to measure its girth. But when quizzed which one is his favourite, he replies, "It's like asking, who is your favourite kid? All trees are beautiful, fabulous and wonderful."

But isn't it somewhat ironical to write a book on trees in paper? "It's FSC approved paper, and only procured from a sustainable forest in Sweden," says Drori. "And paper is made from carbon dioxide that came out of air and now sits on your shelf. In a way, you've stopped a bit of global warming because the greenhouse gas is now a book, right?" reasons Drori, already chalking plans for a sequel.

The writer is a book critic

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