Discovering Marianne North

While looking for books on the wildflowers of Kumaon, I came across a mention of Marianne North (b 1830, d 1890). I knew little about her although she is famous enough to have a whole gallery devoted to her paintings at the Kew Gardens. I looked at a few examples, and realized that I’d missed something very special. The Victorian age was a time when the biodiversity of the world was under great scrutiny. Charles Darwin, and Alexander von Humboldt before him, were merely the most famous of explorers. Marianne North became one of them when she journeyed twice across the world, keeping painted records of what she saw.

I don’t have the time now to get a copy of the folio of her paintings of the flowers of Kumaon before I leave on my next holiday, but it is one that I intend to get (this post is a reminder). She lived at a time when botanical illustrations were in high demand, as Europe woke to the riches of flowers from across the world. Many of today’s common garden flowers in the temperate zones of the world are wildflowers of other continents. I will see and taste whole groups of them, rhododendrons, primula, magnolia, gentian, on my travels soon. Taste too, because wildflowers are used for flavouring food in Kumaon. I’m looking forward to it.

Himalayan wildflowers

Our senses are poor servants. Even colour sense, which is the most acute as it is the most important for our purpose, is weak. We have, it is true, definite names for many colours, but how many of us recognize them when we see them? But our colour names are few in comparison with the number of shades we wish to distinguish, and that is the measure of our vagueness. … Thus, we do not match flower colour, we merely indicate its quality; only haberdashers match colours.

Smells are even more indefinite. Some are indistinguishable from tastes, or the two are so involved that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. But there are only five primary tastes- sweet, bitter, saline, acid and pungent- not one of which can be confused with any smell; it is only when we come to deal with flavours that, again resorting to analogy, we get into difficulties. … In fact, we can do little with smells except classify them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘aromatic’ and ‘foetid’.

It is this capital difficulty which prevents people from attempting to say much about scent in flowers and leaves.

I quote from Frank Kingdon Ward’s book, The Riddle of Tsangspo Gorges

Walking against the wind

The sky had been completely overcast since we left Latpanchar, but we couldn’t sit in a car the whole afternoon. We stopped and decided to cross the ridge on foot. A tea stall was rumoured to have been sighted on the far side, and we could meet up with the car there. A bitter wind began to push at us as soon as we stepped out. It felt as cold as if it was the middle of winter. We kept our heads down, hunched our shoulders and walked ahead. The road passed behind a little hill and the wind died down. As we crossed the pass, I took a photo of the rolling slopes, all covered with tea bushes. This is the home ground of Darjeeling tea.

Then the road turned around the hill and we were back in the grip of the cold wind. But the brief walk had warmed me, and I could actually look around. Ahead, where the road turned again, there was an oddity. All the branches and leaves of a spruce had been sheared off leaving only a little plug of a cone at the top. When I reached it I realized why. The wind blew parallel to the slope, and the top of this tree was just behind the base of the tree below it. But the wind would not have removed the branches of the tree after it had grown; the trunk was straight and was proof that the wind, strong for me, did not bother the tree. I found later that Cyclone Amphan had swept across this ridge; perhaps it had stripped the branches of this tree.

A little further on I saw a sight I’d never seen before. The fog we’d driven through was trying to roll down the ridge and into the valley. But the wind was driving it back. Their battle front see-sawed across the garden just in front of that big house on top of that small hill. There are strange artifacts of the terrain here. We walked into the windward side of a slope and suddenly the wind died down. I realized that the slope above us had turned into a four meter high cliff. The wind had changed direction to leap over that cliff. If I raised my hand high above my head I could feel it blowing between my fingers. It was like a giant natural hand drier!

It had been hard to tell how close we were to sunset. But the sky had just begun to darken when we got to the tea stall. The place was rather dark, but it was still wonderful to see the open door of the shop. We ordered our tea, and I took photos of the surroundings in the blue hour. There had been no golden hour that day, and the blue hour was about 10 minutes long. Bad weather is bad for photography.

The romance of the railways

Railways of my childhood were more raw: raucous, unruly, and colourful. Under the influence of Kim, I would try to memorize things happening on platforms outside my window in one glance. It never worked. If only we had camera phones then. But the Himalayan Darjeeling Railway retains its more genteel romance: tea gardens, holidays, and the mountains. I got to see it again this month.

The tracks run parallel to the road, and I walked along it. I remembered my aunt talking of people who would step off the train for a tea, and then run after it and catch up at the next station. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Watch the clip of the most famous song ever shot on this route (not so far from the photo you see above), and you can see two boys chasing Rajesh Khanna’s jeep as it paces Sharmila Tagore on the train.

Interestingly, Sharmila Tagore’s character is reading an Alistair Maclean called “When Eight Bells Toll”. I’d completely forgotten that book until I saw this clip again.

The man-eaters of Kumaon

It is never a bad idea to prepare for a trip to Kumaon by reading the most famous book of all written about the region. I began at the beginning, reading again Jim Corbett’s story The Champawat man-eater. Whenever I read it there is an underlying memory of myself as a child, prone on my stomach, reading through this breathlessly, half wanting to hide in terror. Now I notice the little descriptions, some of which I recognize from personal experience.

… a covey of kalege pheasants fluttered screaming out of [some bushes] …

[I] asked the villagers if they could direct me to where I could shoot a ghooral (mountain goat).

… but eye-witnesses are not always reliable, whereas jungle signs are a true record of all that has transpired.

In the soft earth round the spring were tiger pugmarks several days old, but these tracks were quite different from the pugmarks I had seen, and carefully examined, in the ravine in which the woman from Pali village had been killed.

… one of those exasperating individuals whose legs and tongue cannot function at the same time.

A bed of Strobilanthes, the bent stalks of which were slowly regaining their upright positions, showed where, and how recently, the tigress had passed …

The hill in front of me, rising to a height of some two thousand feet, was clothed in short grass with a pine tree dotted here and there …

In the 1940s, when the book was published as an almost instant international best-seller, the conventions for transcribing words from Indian languages to the Roman script were slightly different. Nowadays one would write about the khaleej pheasant and the ghoral, although local dialects still have the same fluidity as ever, and a case could be supported for the older transliterations.

The book was adapted into a Hollywood movie, about which Corbett had the most delightful comment, “The best actor was the tiger.” In his final years the most famous shikari in India joined his voice with those of other conservationists. Independence was then still a novelty, and his words had the opposite effect to what he would have liked to have achieved. It is good to see that his reputation has slowly risen again, like the bent stalks of a bed of karvi.

Walking an ancient route

Spiritually and physically, the high point of my visits to Neora Valley national park has been the walk to Zero Point. The road is an ancient trade route which connected the plains of Bengal to Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. The region is one of the most biodiverse areas in the Himalayas, and historically a dangerous border between warring states. The European orchid hunters of the 19th century had to step delicately through the hostilities between Tibet and Sikkim, Nepal and Sikkim, and between everyone and British India. Today some parts of the region see an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between India and China. Fortunately, Neora Valley has been well outside a zone of conflict since 1835. The old conflicts have left a mix of ethnicity in the region, the old Lepcha inhabitants share space with Nepali speaking Gurkha, Tibetans, and Bengali.

The day started overcast and cold. At an altitude of 2.4 Kms, the early spring weather was as cold as the depth of winter in the plains. I was glad to be walking. Our group of 10 (all tested COVID negative before coming together) was joined by a young Lepcha guide, Santosh. I stop for photos so often that I was soon at the back, with Santosh and Jatin. This was nice, because of the conversation that I could then have about local conditions. Santosh told me about his grandfather being in mule trains which carried trade through this route. Was he talking about a time in the 1940s or the 50s? He mentioned trade with Tibet, so this must have been before 1949.

The weather was going to be extremely variable here, I realized. The sky cleared briefly, and the morning sun shone on the tall trees around the path. The forest here is a mixture of deciduous and evergreens, bamboo, oak and chestnut, along with Deodar and spruce. But a list like this misses the sheer profusion of vegetation here: mosses, ferns, orchids, lichen growing over everything, the silent wars of the vegetable kingdom.

Walking through these forests you realize what brought the plant hunters here. The sheer profusion of flowering shrubs brings me back to this region again and again, and I am no botanist. Kenneth Cox writes of the early 19th century, “It soon became apparent that many of the plants from the mountainous regions from above approximately 3000 meters were ideally suited for cultivation outdoors in Britain , much of norther Europe and favourable parts of North America.” He goes on to say that one person, Jean-Marie Delavay, alone collected more than 20,000 species of plants for herbaria in Europe. This period of history completely transformed gardens across Europe. Many of the garden plants of that continent are natives you find peeking out from the dappled undergrowth in these parts.

We would climb about 400 meters in the morning at a very gentle slope. I could tell by ruts that the path was used by vehicles. Bamboo groves clumped along the roadside, their stalks drooping over us. I’d turned around a ridge and the sun had disappeared. Mist condensed on all the surfaces around me. This region gets a fierce monsoon rainfall, and also this constant mist. No wonder there is a rain forest at this height.

One of the reasons I like these long easy walks is that it gives me time to think aimlessly. The day’s chautauqua was on geometry. I love the changes that the 19th century brought to the subject, branching and burrowing, finding the tools and the language to expand it in a way that allows it to really describe the world. The first astounding application was by Einstein, who realized that gravity was not so much a force, as Newton had thought, but more, the geometry of the world, the way time warps around space. Riemann, Weierstrass, and Bolzano had actually set up much more than Einstein used, and reorganized geometry into a language with which to describe the broken shapes, the hidden delicacies, of the natural world. A rude popularization of this is the notion of fractals, but there is so much more to it. No more sterile Greek shapes: the circle, the square, and straight lines, the tyranny of triangles. I walked through a delightful geometry: my walk, like the subject, is unchanging in its objective, but renewed by every new traveler.

A vista opened up to the northwest as we reached Chaudapheri camp. The ethereal peak of Kanchenjunga was visible in the distance. What an imposing mountain, even at this distance it looks massive. The Tibetan name means the five great treasures of snow and I think it should be clear that it refers to the five peaks that make up this mountain. My trips to this region have skirted the mountain, looking at it from the east and west, from far below to on its table land, far, and once from so near that I could no longer see the peak. The 8586 meter high mountain is the center of gravity around which my orbit seems to revolve.

After breakfast we started walking again. We were looking at birds, and I was a novice in the company of a few masters. It was more fruitful for me concentrate on finding vegetation. I noticed orchids and magnolias. I recalled a description by Frank Kingdon Ward “looking down on them from above, one saw as it were thousands of white water-lilies, floating on a rough green sea.” They are equally delightful seen overhead against the sun. In Kingdon Ward’s days they talked of discovering new species, a problematic statement since the species were often known and in use locally. Today one says collected or described. More was collected than has ever been described.

This is the home range of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). I have yet to see one in the wild. I had to tease information out of Santosh. The tall branching tree that you see here is called bhup in Lepcha, a name that has been borrowed now into Nepali. It is the preferred home of red pandas. They will climb down from it to feed on the bamboo around them. Red pandas have not come to the state of laziness of their more endangered cousins, and will also bother to hunt and chew meat. What is the bhup tree? Understanding is naming, a method that we ascribe to Linnaeus, but is actually much older. From the fallen seed pods around the tree, it seemed like it could be a chestnut. The leaves were long and broad like the Himalayan chestnut (Aesculus indica), but serrated, unlike it. I think it is closely related, but I am no botanist.

Spring was evident. Leaf buds were opening up on bare branches. In one of the rare moments of light, I managed to take a photo of these leaves are bursting out at the same time. Chloroplasts will start their work when the leaves have grown for another day or two. It will then take a week or more for all the chloroplasts to start pumping out chlorophyll. It is an interesting bootstrapping problem. It takes energy to create these chemicals, but they are the source of energy. Each leaf is a chemical factory starting up!

You may have heard the story of Hanuman and Gandhamadan mountain. Asked by Ram to go fetch the Sanjivani herb to treat his injured brother, Lakshman, Hanuman brings the whole mountain because he could not recognize the particular herb which was needed. The story can be read in many ways. But when I see the abundance of plants on these mountainside, I cannot help a completely straightforward interpretation. These mountains are alive. They are a source of unknown chemical riches. They harbour a biodiversity which must be preserved for our future, and for constant study.

I bend down to look at the little blue flowers. Some kind of Gentian? I’ve been seeing them for two decades and I still don’t know what they are. It is not only hard to describe the peculiar shade of blue, but it always bothers me how hard it is to capture the colour. I try it with my camera and phone separately. I ask The Family to use her phone. Jatin tries his camera. All give different results. Not a single on actually succeeds in capuring the delicacy of this tiny flower. I wonder why I come on these trips without a ring flash and macro lenses. They wouldn’t make the sensor better, but they would give better definition to these tiny flowers.

We’ve spent six hours walking. In this weather it is not a great stress. As the day progresses, the sun is hidden, a cold wind sets in. Fog banks blow up the mountainsides. The weather has been like this for three days. By two the sunlight is nearly gone because of the fog, and sunset is at five this far east. The day is almost over, and we have a wonderful lunch planned ahead of us.

Cut and paste

The Family makes a wonderful chana masala. Every time she makes a bunch I lap it up. When I meet a long lost friend from her years in the US, the second thing they say is how much they miss her chana masala. She uses very little oil these days, but the taste has remained the same. I asked her what the secret was, and she said “Cut and paste, that’s all.” Cut the onions and tomatoes. Puree them separately. Fry the onion paste till it is done. Add the tomato paste and cook it. Add a ginger and garlic paste; she makes it in bunches and stores them in jars in the fridge. Give them the same treatment. Add in the masala. “Which?” I interrupted. “The usual. Turmeric, jeera and dhania powder. Cook. Add the chana. Cook. Sprinkle powdered garam masala towards the end of the cook. Add some tamarind paste for the sour tang, or sometimes a bit of amchur (the mango gives a very special taste). You are done.

“No tea?” I asked. No, she likes the colour as it is. “It always tastes better the second day,” I told her. She’s noticed. Maybe if she smashes the chana a little during the cook, she muses. I don’t mind eating it the second day. “You didn’t say anything about the microgreens,” I persist. She’s still trying them out, and hasn’t arrived at something satisfactory.

The real secret is the time. She gives each ingredient the time and temperature it needs. You have to treat your food with respect and attention. I won’t be able to reproduce the same effect, because I haven’t felt the odour or seen the colour which tells me when to turn the heat up or down. You cook with your whole being, fully in the moment. It is zen. It is such a wonderful way to relax, almost up there with washing dishes.

The locals are friendly

We stopped outside a small village on our way down from the heights. We could hear an Asian barred owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides). We spotted it on a bare tree and saw it being mobbed by a few racket-tailed drongos, a mix of Dicrurus paradiseus and D. remifer. The show was over soon and we decided to walk on through the village.

All of these villages straggle down a fairly steep slope, so the road switches back several times to pass through them. We passed a house which seemed to be very busy, with lots of men coming and going. A few waved to us. We waved back and walked on. We passed the back of the house down-slope, and looked up to find a bunch of people at a window, looking at us. They broke into smiles for the camera. People were friendly, not like those racket-tailed drongos.

A wild orchid

The orchid Pleione humilis was very common in and around the upper reaches of the Neora Valley national park. All along the eastern Himalayas at altitudes between about 2 and 3 Kms above sea level, it is in flower in late winter and early spring. I’ve been to the right height also in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Assam, which are all parts of the normal range of this orchid, but missed the flowering because I usually go later in spring. The orchid grows on wood or moss, and likes to spend about a quarter of the day in sunlight, so the drooping white flowers are easily visible along roads. Each flower grows out of a different bulb, and each bulb has only a single leaf.

I’d noticed earlier that orchid fanciers are like orchard managers. Interested in tiny differences between varieties, and paying great attention to their differentiation. The greatest achievement that enthusiasts can think of is to have a variety named after them. This exasperates botanists, which is very evident when you read a paper from 1971 in the Kew Bulletin called The Cytology and Taxonomy of the Genus Pleione. Hunt and Vosa, the authors, write “About forty specific epithets have been published in the genus Pleione and considerable confusion exists among the names given to plants in cultivation. Understandable and acceptable differences of taxonomic opinion were confounded with outright mis-identification.” You don’t get more sarcastic in a scholarly publication! They conclude that there is no evidence for more than nine species in the genus Pleione.

Following the thread on cytology, I looked at a very interesting observation in a thirty years-old paper. There seem to be two different growth “habits” among Pleione species. Some are epiphytic, meaning they grow on trees or moss. The Pleione humilis in the featured photo is one of these. The others, which I haven’t seen, are terrestrial, meaning they grow on the ground. The habit depends on the shape of the chromosomes. Paired chromosomes are linked by a structure called a centromere. When this is at the middle of a pair, they are called metacentric chromosomes. Human chromosomes are metacentric, as a result of which the chromosome appears to be in the shape of an X when you see it in a microscope. When the centromere is at the end of a pair, then their visual appearance in a microscope is like an I. These are called telocentric chromosomes, and are rather uncommon in plants. The paper found that epiphytic Pleione have metacentric chromosomes, whereas the chromosomes of the terrestrial species in the genus are telocentric. I haven’t found papers which followed this up in the modern age of genomic analysis. Perhaps there are new taxa hiding in this genus.

Lava bazar

My memory of Lava Bazar was quite different from what I saw this time. When I was there last, during Christmas almost a decade ago, we had walked through the town on Christmas eve after a bad day of bird watching. The little hamlet was full of lights and cheer, with wandering bands of carol singers roaming through its few roads. That sight could not fail to lift our spirit. Now it looked bigger, and more decidedly a town.

Up here it is easy to decide what is a village and what is not. Houses in a village each have their vegetable patch, and a few of them cluster together between fields terraced for agriculture, cleared from a forest which not only grows beyond the fields but straggles through the village. Houses in a town stand cheek-by-jowl, doors closed, no space for vegetable patches, no groves of trees. On these steep hillsides space seems to be at a premium even in such small towns.

The expansion was clear from this one space: a combination taxi stand and stop for regional buses. Three roads led out from this junction full of shops, restaurants, and a wall which contained an outpouring of local art (above and the featured photo). My camera batteries had run out in the morning, so I had to sit in a restaurant which allowed me to recharge it. The Family was unencumbered, and spent the wait walking around town taking photos. All photos in this post are hers.

I had the time to contemplate on how the great game in Asia had caused this change. After the disaster of the Himalayan war in the early 1960s, India fell into a policy of letting roads in the mountains deteriorate to slow future advance by China. Twenty years ago I noticed that the policy was changing, and the BRO was busy constructing roads again. The changes were imperceptible at first: more leisure activities up here, trekking, bird watching, weekenders. Local prosperity followed; the Eastern Himalayas have a variety of homestays, which we liked more than the regular hotels and resorts of the Western Himalayas. The result of this different model of development was a direct infusion of money into the local economy.

One result has been the rise of democratic politics. Now, just when a state election had been announced, certain well-used walls seemed to have received new attention. If we had come to Lava Bazar a month later, at the beginning of April, say, then many more walls would probably have had a new coat of paint. The multiple ethnicities in the hills will only be tamed with prosperity and self-determination, provided some generosity and good will is thrown into the mix.

The generational romance of the 19th and 20th century politics still shows on the walls here (Bob Dylan’s songs are anthems that local boys learn when they first start strumming a guitar). But a churn is quite clearly in the making. The locals who had the time to chat with us were quite aware of their place in the larger events of the era. Most of them were aware of the importance of conservation in the ever-expanding tourism industry. I had an illuminating discussion of the performance of electric cars on hill roads. How had he come by this information? Someone he knew, part of an extended family, had driven electric cars in Uttarakhand.

That day we were being driven by an older man. He seemed to know everyone on the road. He stopped briefly to ask a middle-aged couple whether their new house was to their liking, asked a young couple where they were off to, said hello to a couple of kids when he slowed at a turn, received replies from all, acknowledged waves from others. After a while I asked him to stop when he met someone he didn’t know so that I could take a photo of that person. He stopped at this wall, where two people were waiting for a bus. But no, he chatted with them. So I took a photo of the wall.