When was the last time you climbed a tree? Or have you ever climbed any tree in your life? Meet Verhaen Khanna, a young Delhi resident who connects people with the environment by teaching them how to climb trees, hug them, plant them and a lot.
“Many people in big cities suffer from tree blindness. They notice each other’s cars, clothes and houses, but they don’t notice the trees around them – a new tree that has been planted, an old one that was cut down – everything goes unnoticed. I see trees being cut down in Delhi everyday because of silly reasons that people have – some say the trees prevent sunlight from coming into their houses, others complain about falling leaves and flowers, and yet others about the gathering birds. They cut them to make space for parking, for street lights, and so many other reasons, forgetting that these trees are alive and they are growing,” laments Verhaen Khanna, the founder of New Delhi Nature Society (NDNS).
27-year-old Verhaen, a resident of Delhi, is on a mission to cure tree blindness with some unique activities meant to bring people closer to nature.
He started NDNS in 2014, just as a Facebook group where he posted information and pictures of environment-related activities like tree planting, camp-outs, etc., which he was doing with his friends. Slowly, more people started getting interested in his nature outings and the community grew.
“I decided to call it the New Delhi Nature Society because, as the name suggests, it is for all the people in New Delhi who are inclined towards nature. Here, no one needs to sign forms or give any passport-size photographs. You just have to be proactive about the environment, love nature, enjoy it, take pictures, and have fun,” he says.”
The core of NDNS lies in the awareness activities and workshops Verhaen conducts to get people more involved and connected with nature.
One of the most interesting workshops he has been conducting around the city over the past two years is where you learn everything about climbing trees – an activity that was considered fun and commonplace not many years ago but is dead and forgotten in most parts of urban India now.
“People are quite disconnected from trees in big cities. They think climbing trees is not for them. In Delhi, you will hear people saying ‘let’s go sit in a mall,’ but sitting on a tree? It is something that they are scared of,” says Verhaen.
Tree Climbing Workshops
His tree climbing workshops are open to children between the ages of ‘5 and 150’.
“We make adults feel like children. Many senior citizens come for the workshops and they are always very happy. Some say that they had not climbed a tree in 50 years. I have met some teenagers in schools who have never touched a tree in their lives, and it is disappointing. They are scared that the tree will bite them or something if they touch it. But once they start climbing and get accustomed to it, they are almost like monkeys, having a lot of fun,” he laughs.”
Verhaen usually conducts the workshops in places like Lodhi Garden, Nehru Park, New Friends Colony, farmhouses with big trees that belong to people he knows, etc. “Sometimes we go to explore secret places in Delhi that not many people know of, so they are not crowded. We find large banyan trees with vines that are fun to swing on…It is spring in Delhi right now and there are so many trees with beautiful fruits and flowers. We have found that trees with fruits are such that it is easy for people to climb them and reach the fruits,” he says.
Other activities include camping, planting trees, artwork using recyclable materials, workshops for tree hugging, camp-out sessions with yoga classes amidst nature, workshops to sensitise students about the environment, astronomy workshops, etc. Verhaen is currently concentrating on designing more programmes for school and college students as well.
He organizes a couple of workshops every month in collaboration with different organizations working in the field of environment conservation, which help him in getting more people on board.
Currently, he is conducting a tree census in New Friends Colony, where people just get together to count trees in the locality and document information about them, like tree type, height, girth, any special observations about the tree, etc. Most workshops have groups of 20 participants. While some workshops are free and people can donate whatever amount they want for NDNS, others have an admission fee of Rs. 100-200.
Verhaen studied aviation and is a commercial pilot by training. “I am not flying right now and am focussing my time and energy on these valuable activities, which are adding value to my world too,” he says. He is working on NDNS alone, with some volunteers and interns who keep joining from time to time. Additionally, he is also working as a light painting artist in a friend’s organization, and uses the income from there to sustain himself and organize the workshops.
Making Nature Cool again
Verhaen has also launched a YouTube channel of NDNS, where he uploads two series of videos – Project Swachh, covering interviews with people doing environment-related work, and WTF Quicky, short videos about nature that are uploaded every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (thus WTF).
From being tree blind to identifying trees and knowing their names, Verhaen has witnessed people being transformed in terms of how they see nature with the help of these workshops and videos.
Children have started loving the trees in their surroundings and people have become more compassionate towards nature
“The idea is to make nature a cool thing again. We live in such times where children know the names of different brands by heart, but not the names of plants. I am trying to create an army of ninja environmentalists who will take care of the environment as a larger team in the future. So if you are suffering from tree blindness, find friends who know about trees and spend time with them – they will be the best people to teach you about trees.”
“Go out and have some fun in nature,” he concludes.