Jadav Payeng was just a boy when he mourned for the snakes and other animals that were swept onto small dry island in the middle of the river during the monsoon season. The sandbars were bare, so when the waters receded, the snakes dried in the hot northeastern Indian sun. Though he didn’t know it, his next decisions led to him making a lasting ecological impact for his part of the world. The Forest Keeper by Rina Singh, illustrated by Ishita Jain (North South Books, April 2023), tells the story of his actions and the long-lasting change one person had.
Telling his community about the snakes issue did not make much of a difference. No one else seemed to care. When he suggested they plant trees on the island, his elders only laughed. They handed him a bag of bamboo seeds and told him to go ahead. At age 16, he began planting. Over the coming years, he found more effective ways to water the plants, but it still required a lot of work to travel to the island to plant and tend the seedlings.
After a time, he began to plant other kinds of trees and plants, and soon the seeds began to disperse themselves in the wind. The monsoon rains came again and again, and now animals came to the thickets Jadav had planted. It grew and grew into a forest. To his delight, even elephants came. When they trampled parts of the village and villagers threatened to destroy the forest, Jadav decided to plan ahead for the future. He planted fruit and grass that the elephants would access next time so they wouldn’t need to go as far as the village.
Jadav Molai Payeng is a real person who labored for himself and his community. He began planting in 1979 and did not stop. Now his wife and three children care for the forest too. It has grown little by little since 1979 and is now larger than Central Park is in New York City. His story is a testament to the change one person’s consistent work can do for their environment!
Jadav Payeng’s story was completely unknown to anyone except his community. Then, a wildlife photographer found the forest in 2009 and told others about the amazing man who had built a forest from nothing. The picture book The Forest Keeper captures the inspiration of Jadav’s story with lovely green and blue watercolor illustrations that nicely capture the verdant forest that Jadav has grown.
I read a digital review copy of this book.