A Tropical Romance Extraordinary: Sam Popham and his Trees

Ranjit Mulleriyawa, in the Island, 9 August 2013, here the title is “Popham Arboretum in Dambulla :A Sanctuary of Tropical Trees A ” Summer Romance with trees– with a Dowry of an Ecosystem Restored”

POPHAM 33 Beside the Dambulla-Kandalama road, is a unique Arboretum representing the flora of the semi-evergreen, monsoon dry forest of Sri Lanka. Its creator is an Englishman – Francis Home Popham, known only as Sam . Sam Popham was born on the 29th of February, 1923.He was educated at Eaton and Magdalene College Cambridge, where he graduated in History. He first came to Sri Lanka (then ‘Ceylon’) as a young British Naval Officer during the second world war. Based in Trincomalee, he would often travel through Dambulla admiring the forest vegetation on either side of the Dambulla-Kandy road. Back home in England after the war, Sam became a schoolmaster for a while, before returning to Sri Lanka a few years later as a Tea Planter. His love for trees, made him give up planting tea and assume responsibility as the Smithsonian Institute’s Principal Field Officer in the ‘Flora of Ceylon ‘ project. In 1963, he bought seven and a half acres of scrub jungle (abandoned ‘Chena’ land) in Kandalama, Dambulla and commenced his life’s most important work- Returning wasteland to nature- conserving the unique biological diversity of the ‘dry zone’ of Sri Lanka.

With assistance from local villagers, Sam built himself a mud hut thatched with rice straw for him to live in. Water for drinking, bathing and household use was obtained from an open well 18-20 feet deep. A kerosene oil lamp was the only source of illumination at night. A mere hole in the ground served as toilet. With these most basic of facilities, Sam Popham toiled untiringly for ten long years in the hot, steamy climate of the ‘dry zone’, obsessed by his passion for trees.

Sam Popham was an astute naturalist who took great pains to meticulously record his observations on climate – number of rainy days each month, intensity of rainfall as well as total rainfall; measuring atmospheric temperature, wind patterns -velocity and direction of wind, understanding the changing seasons , measuring the rise and fall of the ground water table, studying various soil types. He would observe the onset of forest fires and extent of burning. He observed the suffocating influence of thorny scrub on young saplings . He studied the flowering pattern of various trees. He also observed the germination and growth of tree seedlings dispersed by wind, birds, fruit eating bats, pole cats etc. Armed with this wealth of knowledge gained empirically, he developed his own dendrological philosophy – “which is one of human intervention only in order to allow the normal process of regeneration their fullest scope”. “I do not PLANT anything”’, he says, ” but release valuable timber seedlings and saplings from their competitors and oppressors, thus enabling them to gain stature and exert their dominance. By selective working, a scrubland can be turned into a woodland with grassy glades in just three to four years. In the case of the arboretum, the transformation has taken longer because an arboretum is a much more formal dendrological display.

SATINWOOD TREEIt is a parkland bestrode by well spaced shapely trees, the development of which calls for silvicultural arts and skills, tree surgery, strategic thinning of overpopulated areas, and other arboreal requirements”. “Stop hammering Nature”, Sam would say, “instead, be kind and give her a helping hand, and you’ll be astonished how enthusiastically she reciprocates your good will”. This, in a nutshell, is what Professor David Bellamy dubbed: The ‘Popham Principle’. Others call it the ‘Popham way’ of returning wasteland to nature. For this outstanding contribution, Sam Popham received the inaugural Lanka Conservation Award on 26h September 1993.

According to Dr. L.H. Cramer (a systematic Botanist), “the peculiar appeal and significance of the Arboretum lies in its standing assemblage of forest types adapted to the harsh environment of the dry zone. Within its small area are approximately 200 species of trees, shrubs and herbs. Among these are many endemics. The genetic diversity of the vegetation offers the biologist, in particular, scope for research into the biology and silviculture of indigenous plant species(still needing much investigation).”

Sam Popham accomplished all this work at his own expense – “with my British pension”, as he would say.

In 1989,Sam Popham decided to gift his labour of love- the Popham Arboretum – to the Institute of Fundamental Studies ( IFS) in Kandy to be used for Conservation, Research and Education. I was responsible for the ecology and conservation programme of IFS at the time, and as such, I was entrusted with the task of liaising with Mr.Popham and ensure the smooth transfer of ownership of the arboretum by assisting in the legal work pertaining to the transaction. Thereafter, I was entrusted the responsibility of accompanying visiting scientists, ‘special guests’ (such as the Irish poet, Richard Murphy) and groups of A – level students to the Arboretum. On reaching the Arboretum, Mr. Popham would take over, and explain to them the ‘Popham way’ of restoring a degraded patch of scrub jungle.

That was when I first became acquainted with Sam Popham- the ‘hermit of Dambulla’. He had been working on his Arboretum for 26 years, returning to England only once for a brief holiday during this entire period. The local people called him ‘gas pissa’ (man mad over trees),and his abode was called ‘Sudda ge watta’ (White man’s property). At the entrance to the land was a weather beaten wooden gate. There was no board indicating an Arboretum anywhere to be seen. In fact, the entrance was hardly discernible from the surrounding landscape consisting of scrub jungle. This, I learned later, was a deliberate ruse on the part of Sam Popham as he did not want hordes of inquisitive visitors disturbing him at his work. “By its very nature, an arboretum requires tranquility and quietness, an atmosphere conducive to reflection and un-harassed plant development. Fanfare, proclamation, sightseeing crowds produce the very opposite conditions to those which nurtured this work of forest retrieval”, Sam would say..

The mud hut, which had been Sam Popham’s residence for ten years was still intact, but it was used as a store room. Sam now lived in a beautiful stone (granite) cottage designed by the legendry architect, Geoffrey Bawa. A.G.Setunga and his family (wife and two little girls), whom Sam affectionately referred to as his ‘ adopted family’, attended to all Sam’s creature comforts – house keeping, cooking, health care – driving his car as well as providing physical labour in the development of the Arboretum. Sam Popham’s attachment to his ‘adopted family’ was such that he requested the two little girls be named as Hasini Samtunga and Iresha Samtunga ! Sam would often refer to the girls as “big girl” and “little girl”. He had built a house for the Setungas to live in close proximity to his own dwelling.

POPHAM 22The Popham Arboretum was unique in many ways – it contained a unique collection of trees representative of the semi-Evergreen Monsoon Dry Forest – Ebony, Palu ,Satinwood, Ceylon Iron Wood(Na),Tamarind, Milla, Weera, Velan, Margosa, Helamba, and Rathu Wa were most conspicuous. It was developed in a very special way- the ‘Popham way’; and, perhaps most unique of all, was Sam the man! Sam Popham had an incomparable love for trees – almost a reverence for trees. During my visits to the Arboretum, I would frequently find him seated outside on a comfortable chair, looking up lovingly at his beloved trees, seemingly in deep contemplation. Was he recalling the following memorable lines of the American poet Joyce Kilmer:?

“I think I shall never see
A Poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain
Poems are made by fools like me

But only God can make a tree.”

KORAKAHA FLOWERS  Sam Popham’s love for trees was infectious – infecting everyone who came to know him. I soon became a victim myself and would frequently spend many week-ends at the Arboretum with my family – walking along its meandering foot paths and leafy glens soaking in the sanctity of the place; marveling at the beauty of the Cobalt blue ‘Kora Kaha’ (Memecylon umbellatum) flowers- listening to the mellifluous melody of the ‘Shama’ ( Jungle Magpie Robin ) at dusk, and the challenging call of the jungle fowl. There was an abundance of bird life within the Arboretum – Black headed Orioles, Crimson backed wood peckers, Brown headed Barbets, Red Vented Bulbuls, Black capped Bulbuls, Paradise Flycatchers, a myriad little birds varying from flower peckers, sun birds, tailor birds and Ioras ; many varieties of Parakeets, Spur Fowl, the Ceylon Jungle Fowl, three or more kinds of King Fishers; half a dozen species of raptors varying from Hawk Eagles to Brahminy Kites, Fishing Eagles and crested Hawk Eagles – it was indeed a bird watcher’s paradise. With the restoration of the forest and protection from hunters, larger animals like spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Porcupine, Mouse Deer, Black Naped Hare, Rock Squirrels, and the rare (endemic) Slender Loris also sought refuge within Sam Popham’s sanctuary of trees. To a nature lover, this was indeed an elysium on earth!

We spent many hours listening to Sam recount his experiences. He would also tell us about his worries – what would become of his ‘labour of love’- his beloved Arboretum when he was gone..? “I am almost 70 years now….. my days are numbered”, he would say with a tinge of sadness, echoing the words of wisdom of the Buddha : “All is impermanent”.

Twenty one years later: In May, 1992 I left the IFS in order to accept a more challenging assignment elsewhere. My association with Popham’s Arboretum ended thereafter. For the next 21 years I continued to be unaware of events at the Arboretum. Then, a chance meeting with an old friend in July, 2013 provided me an opportunity of revisiting Popham’s Arboretum. “I am engaged in a research project with honey bees at the Arboretum, would you like to accompany me on my next visit to Dambulla”? asked my friend, ‘Punchi’. I jumped at the idea.

As ‘Punchi’s’ car sped on its way from Kandy to Dambulla along the A-9 highway on Sunday, 14th July 2013, he briefed me on the current status of the Arboretum. Popham had taken ill and been compelled to return to England in 2002. IFS had entrusted an NGO – ‘Ruk Reka Ganno’ with the maintenance and management of the Arboretum. Setunga and his family were no longer at the Arboretum. He was not aware as to what had really happened to them. Ruk Reka Ganno had employed a Mr. Jayantha Amarasinghe( Jayantha) as manager of the Arboretum. He was not resident at the Arboretum, and commuted to work from his home in Kurunegala(approximately 40 miles from Dambulla). Some research work was being carried out at the Arboretum by groups of University students from Colombo University and the University of Ruhuna .

The journey from Kandy to Dambulla took a full two hours. As our car turned into the Kandalama road leading to Popham’s Arboretum, I was amazed at the transformation of this road from a narrow rustic road into a modern highway. The road was flanked by many new buildings. How could the local people afford such affluence, I began to wonder. My friend informed me that these signs of affluence really belonged to ‘outsiders’ who had purchased the land from relatively poor peasant farmers. Barely a hundred meters away from the Arboretum was a board reading : ‘Tokyo Cement’- a business venture engaged in re-packaging cement. Large posters and boards displaying the toothy grins of leading politicians of the ruling party, were strategically located on both sides of the road. ‘Tuk tuks’ and motor cycles and private buses were in abundance- tooting their horns and speeding along at break-neck speed. Three kilometers along the Kandalama road brought us to our destination – Popham’s Arboretum.
As we turned into the Arboretum, I noticed that the old wooden gate of the Popham era had been replaced with a new one with a ‘mod look’. The old wattle and daub (mud hat) which had been Sam Popham’s house for almost ten years, was gone. Further down the road was an “auditorium” nearing completion. It stuck out like a sore thumb – totally out of tune with the other stone buildings designed by Geoffrey Bawa. Thankfully, the precious trees were intact despite the power lines conveying electricity to the two main buildings (Sam’s former house and Setunga’s quarters). Setunga’s former house had been refurbished with two visitors’ rooms having attached bath rooms, pipe borne water and flush toilets.
The old 7.5 acre Arboretum was somewhat unkempt. However, the ebony tree beside the stone cottage was still a beauty to behold .The stately ‘palu’ trees thrust their leafy crowns into the blazing noon day sun as of old. The ‘Kora kaha’ shrubs were pregnant with buds ready to burst into a blue mist. Not much had changed it seemed at first, but I did sense an eerie stillness pervading the air. The laughter and chatter of two little girls (Setunga’s children) was missing. Their former house remained closed- despite its ‘face lift’ – sans visitors. Above all, the spirit of Sam Popham was missing! It was evident in the appearance of his living room sans its usual tasteful décor – the walls bereft of David Paynter’s beautiful paintings. Sam’s writing table- a longitudinal slab of solid timber was still intact but it no longer contained the familiar manuscripts , the venerable old man’s reading glasses and correspondence from afar, and the pencil holder carrying a replica of the Union Jack – proudly proclaiming Sam’s British Nationality.

Jayantha, the manager encouraged us to visit the 27 acre ‘woodlands’.( IFS had purchased an additional 27 acres of scrub jungle adjacent to the original 7.5 acre Arboretum to be developed as an extenson to the old Arboretum.) Twenty one years ago, this plot was a mass of thorny scrub, but now, under Jayantha’s care, it had been transformed into a beautiful Arboretum resembling the original 7.5 acre Arboretum created by Sam. Ruk Reka Ganno had done well providing Jayantha the means to craft a fitting tribute to Sam Popham’s work and vision. The woodlands was now well laid out with meandering foot paths, wooden bridges spanning the little streams and well defined perimeter fencing and ‘fire gaps’. Sam would be immensely pleased at this achievement.
Concerns and Challenges: Despite impressive achievements, there seem to be many worrying concerns and challenges : How could the Arboretum access adequate funding to ensure its medium to long term survival? The Arboretum’s management was heavily dependent on one man – Jayantha Amarasinghe. What if he were to fall ill, or be incapacitated? Attracting more visitors to the Arboretum could help increase income, but this could not be achieved without several competent guides. There is a serious dearth of literature – brochures/publications /posters etc. describing and illustrating the Arboretum’s wealth of trees, birds and other fauna. Very few people seemed to be aware of the many opportunities for research offered by the Arboretum. Still less appear willing to engage in research despite such awareness. Some politically powerful persons were contemplating establishing a quarry and stone crusher in close proximity to the Arboretum. Such activity could pose a serious threat to the well being of the fauna and flora within the Arboretum. The local people – villagers living in close proximity to the Arboretum, had not been involved in any substantial way in the development of the Arboretum. To them the Arboretum was an anachronism, meant only for the entertainment of rich city folk and tourists (‘Suddas’- white people). Over looking /ignoring the local people, appears to have been a serious oversight. If the fragile eco-system of the dry zone is to be effectively conserved, the call for conservation must be primarily addressed to these villagers – ‘Chena’ cultivators engaged in slash and burn shifting cultivation. Exposing them –particularly their children- to activities at the Arboretum, and convincing them of its value to their community and the country, could also help in enlisting their support to check external threats – illicit logging, poachers, petty businessmen etc. and thereby ensure the long-term survival of the Arboretum. Resolving these many issues would need considerable tact, perseverance, imagination, vision and managerial skill.

POPHAM 44The Writer may be contacted at the following e-mail address : rangoviya2013@gmail.com




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2 responses to “A Tropical Romance Extraordinary: Sam Popham and his Trees

  1. Pingback: The Archbishop of Canterbury reaches across the World: A Pride of Heaven planted at the Anglican Cathedral in Colombo | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Harlene

    A story both beautiful and sad.

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