Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
P N Avadhani
This Nature Society stalwart
is like an old huggable tree
Betty L Khoo profiles one of the Nature Society's best-loved figures.
Photos by Sunny Yeo.
"Nurturing" is perhaps the word that most comes to mind when the older society members speak of "Dani". Which is one reason why I have likened the affable professor of Botany to an old tree. An old tree generously and happily supports a myriad other living things, including humans.
Botany lessons village style
The small village that Avadhani was born in (Chirala in Andhrapradesh) and the surrounding villages where he grew up in were typical of villages in rural communities everywhere. "Living in a small village we were naturally in harmony with nature. Basically all of life revolved around the rain water tanks, the padi fields and the small mixed fruit orchards".
Brought up in a devout Hindu family, the young Avadhani learned first hand of "how much we have to be thankful to trees for." "Besides giving us its fruits, its leaves and flowers are used in prayers and in those days about 80 percent of medicine was derived from trees". But though Avadhani only got to go to school when he was about nine or 10, he was by no means deprived of an education in his younger years. "We had a tutor for the four to five of us children in the village," he recalls.
Then, when he finished school, he had the opportunity of going onto university in his home state. He was keen to study medicine; however, he had completed school two years ahead of his peers and was underage for medical school . Not wanting to wait, Avadhani decided to study botany. He is very happy he made this (fateful) choice because western medicine would have taken him far away from his Hindu roots whereas botany "gave me a much wider and deeper understanding of life," richly reinforcing what he had learned as a child. Avadhani explains it more fully: "Indians see 'medicine' as Ayurvedic, i.e. the Science of Life itself. Medicine is not focused on curing sickness (as western medicine is), but on keeping a person whole and healthy".
So, in studying botany (after getting his B.Sc. in his hometown, his doctoral degree in the UK and his post doctoral fellowship in Botany from McGill University in Quebec, Canada), Avadhani was able to see what he had learned firsthand as a boy in rural India, deepened and broadened. He puts it this way. "The diversity of structure, form and function is much wider in plants (than in animals). So, the whole concept of life is much wider seen from this (plant) perspective".
But long before he could truly appreciate how botany would shape his entire way of living consciously, the young and newly wed Avadhani, having earned his degrees and fellowship, had first, to make his 'living'which is what brought him here to Singapore, from half a world away. To a 'spot' he now calls "home", to a country where he and his wife brought up... four daughters and a son. Back then, his parents considered Canada too far away from India so when their son saw an advertisement in the International Science journal 'Nature' for a Plant Physiologist for the then University of Malaya (precursor of the University of Singapore in Bukit Timah), he applied. All he know about Singapore was that it was "a dot on the map" that some people had said was "not a bad place".
Avadhani got the job, his parents and wife, Parvathi were happy and so he started as Assistant Lecturer in Botany and obtained tenure soon after. The year was 1960 the same year Avadhani joined the MNS but he was no means a pioneer as the Society had been formed prior to the second world war and restarted in 1948 with the Singapore branch established in 1954, and his first official contribution to the already active Singapore branch was as its treasurer, taking over from Dr Kwiton Jong.
But it was the field trips that "really excited me". What enthralled him was the immense variety of plants he found in Singapore and Malaysia compared to temperate England and Canada. There is still wonderment in Avadhani's soft voice as he talks of discovering abundance of pitcher plants here in this region. "In college in Guntur, we had one specimen for 20 students".
But over the decades as Singapore (and Malaysia) grew and industrialised, encroaching on forest reserves, Avadhani became increasingly concerned about the shrinking biodiversity of species and what that could hold for mankind.
By this time Avadhani had retired as Associate Professor from the National University of Singapore (NUS) (he retired in 1992, having taught full time for 32 years). He is still teaching part-time in the NUS and being a most youthful 65 year-old feels that he has much to contribute in the area of nature education and research, continuing with the consultancy work he has been doing for many years. Certainly he has boundless energy and wealth of experience to offer to everyone.
Dr P N Avadbani's holistic view of nature
What has not been addressed anywhere and is very important is this thing called 'Plant Sociology', asserts Dr Avadhani. Dr Avadhani believes that Singapore's urban forestry practices are "not too bad". While we had in the early days followed a "cruder pattern (of cutting down trees and clearing) but now generally there has been a conscious effort to plant and not to keep the ground naked, exposed to the elements". However, the time has come for us to be aware of this thing called 'Plant Sociology' when we start replanting, he says.
Explaining 'Plant Sociology', he says that there are certain chemicals that plant roots produce that are inhibitory to some species while being beneficial for others. In other words there are "interactions between trees and smaller plants" and we should be mindful of these interactions when we destroy and then re-plant.
Avadhani goes on to explain how, by planting introduced exotics instead of natives, we change the balance between the micro-organisms and the different species and the succession that comes is not necessary the same. Upsetting the fine balance of nature is what has brought man a whole host of (insect and weed) problems; problems which he has then tried to solve by introducing a battery of toxic chemicals which have now proven to be as toxic to him as to the pest and weed he has tried to eradicate.
Armed with such knowledge and sensitivity Avadhani has thrown himself, with his usual position, into a number of projects, both for industry and the society. One project involves trips to Malaysia's Endau Rompin National Park to help them set up a nature centre. He is also helping an international company evaluate the compost recycled from industrial waste. Here again he draws on past experiencein this case the experience reaches back to childhood days where, "in our village every household had a compost. Kitchen scraps, cow dung, all this was composted and brought to the fields as rich manure." However, this is a small project and the indefatigable Avadhani feels there are still "lots of projects where environmental impact studies have to be made" and furthermore he worries that in our continuous push for economic growth development projects are unduly hurried. "We do not know all of the factors involved." he stressed. This is where he feels that with his vast experience, he could make a contribution. "I would like to be involved in evaluating the methodology and also in backroom research," of developmental projects.
Avadhani also sees the nature and magnitude of environmental problems that Singapore faces as being somewhat different to those facing Malaysia: he is familiar with both having played such an active and key role in the MNS and also in the NSS.
He sees what little nature that is left in Singapore as being "doubly precious" and, because we are so small, "the environmental impact is always far greater." It is why he says that it is impossible to separate the 'brown issues' (of waste management) with the 'green issues' (of nature conservation).
We see the 'holistic' Hindu view of things coming through when Avadhani thoughtfully says, "anything that degrades the natural environmentthe industrial and household waste we generate pollutes our water, land and airall these are brown issues that directly impact on the green issues."
He gives a familiar example from a different perspective. Take the Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE). When it was cut through the Bukit Timah and MacRitchie forests, it created border areas on both sides. This would have been just a green issue (wildlife and its habitats being affected) in a larger country but here it has also become a brown issue. Why? Because a road, not just a small winding road that snakes its way reasonably sensitively through the natural environment but a six lane expressway that cuts a broad path right through our central water catchment area.
Avadhani asks us to consider the volume of traffic that uses this expressway, each vehicle generating pollution that contributes to the overall increase of the pollution level in our environment.
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