Amrita leaned back against her favorite tree and rested. After the glare of the desert sun, it was cool and green in the forest grove. Sometimes, Amrita climbed her tree. Sometimes the wind swayed her and she was a forest queen. Sometimes she talked to her tree, sharing her daydreams and her secrets, but today was so peaceful that she sat in silence.
Amrita closed her eyes and sighed with pleasure.
CAAWK! She heard un unearthly shriek, the shrill alarm call of the peacock, echoing through the forest. A shiver shot down Amrita's spine and she scrambled to her feet.
With a flick of their tails, the gazelles were gone. The rabbits scattered. Now Amrita heard the tramp of many heavy boots, the crack of branches snapping. Through the trees she saw men marching, each one carrying something. Amrita strained to see. Bright edges! Sharp flashes! They were carrying axes.
"Cut down every tree you can," she heard the chief woodcutter say. "The Maharajahs need plenty of wood." Amrita drew in her breath. They couldn't cut down the forest! Without these trees there'd be no fruit to eat, no leaves to feed the cows, no shelter from the sun.
Above her, watching over her, Amrita's own tree stirred in the breeze. "I won't let them hurt you," she said out loud. "I promise I'll protect you. I don't know how, but I will!"
Quick as a blackbuck, she ran to the village. Amrita found her mother. "Amma, Amma," she panted, pushing wind-swept hair out of her eyes, "I saw men in the forest, men with axes, and they are going to cut down the trees!"
Amrita's mother rushed around the village, calling the women away from their work. "We must save the trees!" she urged. "Come on!"
They arrived to find the woodcutters sharpening their axes. Amrita's mother greeted the men politely, pressing her hands together and bowing her head: "Namaste. We do not want trouble, but we cannot let you cut down these trees."
The chief woodcutter cast his eyes over the straggle of women before him and snorted. "You do not own these trees. We have orders from the Maharajah."
"Sir, these trees are our life," Amrita's mother implored. "Their roots hold the soil together; they keep the land from sliding away during the monsoon rains. Without them our fields and homes will be washed away."
"Never mind your mud huts," the chief replied with a sweep of his hand. "With this timber the Maharajah will have the finest palace in all of India!"
"Please!" begged Amrita's mother. "These roots soak up rain, so the earth can give us spring water. Can't you see? We need these trees to survive."
"Enough!" barked the chief. "Now, out of my way and let me work. Now!" He turned to the woodcutters and ordered, "Cut down the trees!" A burly woodcutter shouldered his axe and strolled over to an ancient khejari. With a swift swoop his iron blade bit deep into the bark.
With a terrible groan the mighty tree came crashing to the ground. Amrita's mother covered her mouth with her hands. Amrita stared in disbelief.
The woodcutters began to chop at another tree, and another. Soon the grove was a graveyard of trees. Broken limbs scattered the floor. Leaves dropped like tears.
A woodcutter brushed past Amrita, toward her own special tree. "No! No! Please don't!" she cried, tears springing to her eyes. "Please don't cut down my tree." The woodcutter advanced.
Amrita stepped in front of him, blocking his path. Her voice shook as she spoke: "I will not let anyone harm my tree."
The woodcutter laughed out loud. "Little girl, there's nothing you can do to stop us." Amrita thought of her beloved tree lying dead on the forest floor and she ran from the woodcutter toward her tree.
Amrita flung her arms around her tree, pressing herself against it. "If you want to cut the tree, you will have to cut me first!" The man and his axe were behind her. She could hear the sound of her own breathing, hard and loud and fast. The man raised his sharp blade.
"Swing your axe!" commanded the chief. Amrita clenched her teeth and clung onto her old friend, so that the bumpy bark was pressing into her cheek and arms. She felt the strength of the tree coursing through her. And she knew with a fierce bright certainty that she was doing the right thing.
"Swing your axe!" the chief shouted again.
"I... " the woodcutter faltered. He looked down at the girl—this mere sapling of a girl—her eyes squeezed shut, her thin arms hugging so tight, her tearstained cheeks pale with fright. "I... I cannot."
Amrita opened one eye, then another, to see the woodcutter's head bowed, his axe at his feet. All around her, people were hugging trees. Women and children, wives and daughters, grandmothers and toddlers all hugged the trees. Some ancient trees had trunks so broad that generations of women were joining hands to embrace them.
The axes lay on the forest floor. The men huddled together and talked in low voices. Then, without a word, the laborers picked up their axes and walked out of the wood.
Amrita's mother called to her. "What were you thinking of? I was so afraid."
"So was I," said Amrita. Her mother sat down beside her on the forest floor and stroked her hair. "You know the woodcutters will tell the Maharajah what happened," she said gently. "They will come back, or the Maharajah himself will come... "
The next morning, the women were distracted at their work. Their hands were busy, but their eyes strayed to the horizon. Would the woodcutters return? Or the Maharajah? Would he punish those who had defied his orders?
That afternoon, in a thunder of hooves and a cloud of dust, the Maharajah arrived.
The women joined hands and pulled their children close. But Amrita rose to greet the Maharajah with all the dignity of a forest queen.
She was surprised to see that he carried not an axe but a bright bundle. He climbed down from his horse. Amrita watched in wonder as he unwrapped the silken cloth. "I present this royal decree to you, Amrita," said the Maharajah, "and to the women of your village, in honor of your courage and your wisdom. I promise that, from this day on, no tree in this forest will ever be cut down."
Hundreds of years later, folk songs of the people who hugged the trees still echo through the villages of India. Amrita's courage has inspired people across the land to stand together to protect forests. Thousands of trees have been saved, and a million more planted.
And in one sacred grove, Amrita's tree still grows.
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