Quail on a plate

Quail was commonly available in markets when I was a child. In the late decades of the 20th century, there were many attempts to stop the depletion of wild quail from the rapidly diminishing forest cover in India. The result was a long ban on the sale of quail. This has been cautiously revoked since 2014, and currently one can buy farmed quail. It is not as simple as ordering from your delivery service, because it can only be sold under license, and the buyer needs to submit identity documents. But once you go through it, you can buy dressed Japanese quail (Coturix japonica).

I had never made this before. I’d more or less forgotten the taste of the meat. So the first decision was what marinade to use. I went with a regular harissa marination. I like the complex taste of harissa paste by itself: red chili tempered with lime, and the notes of garlic, jeera, coriander seeds, and kaala jeera. Since it goes well both on chicken and fish, it couldn’t go wrong with quail. I guess a fifteen minute marination should be fine, although I forgot about them for a while, and it became an hour. Then I found that I was not sure about cooking times, and I did not want to pop it into an oven.

Instead I improvised an oven with a thick walled pressure cooker. If you leave the top open and keep it on a low gas flame, then it stays at a reasonably constant temperature without building up pressure. I put in a tiny spoonful of oil just so that the bird does not stick to the metal. When it was hot I put the two small birds into it carefully with tongs. The thighs tend to stick, so it was necessary to turn them quickly. I could see it browning before my eyes. It is hard to control the temperature with an improvisation like this. Towards the end of the cooking I found that the pressure cooker had got too hot. I had a bottle of IPA cooling in the fridge, so I splashed some into the cooker to cool it down. The yeasty taste turned out to be a good addition.

Fifteen minutes of cook time. That was good. And at the end I had most of a bottle of IPA left over. It was time for a decadent late afternoon snack. An IPA and quail. Nice. Both. The Family raised an eyebrow, but she joined me at the table.

Later, reading about Japanese Quail I had a moment of shock. These birds had been bred in Japan for 9 centuries (since about the time that Lady Murasaki wrote the Tales of Genji), and the different breeding lines were famous for their songs. All those centuries of culture were wiped out in the aftermath of the second world war. Now they are just farm and lab animals. What a devastating cultural loss!

Viper bowstring hemp

When I paused to take photos of this common garden ornamental, I was struck by how appropriate its common name snake plant is. Unfortunately, too many different plants are called by that name, so I could call it by its binomial, Dracaena trifasciata, or call it the viper bowstring hemp. This name comes from the fact that the fibers of this plant were used to make bowstrings by the Yoruba people who live in the native range of the plant: from the Congo westwards to Nigeria. There are so many varieties of this plant (another one in the photo below) that it is sometimes hard to believe that they are all in the same species. At least one study has tried to make sure that several plants that we lump into this species are indeed one.

Although the center of diversity of the 120 species of the genus Dracaena lies in west Africa, there is increasing evidence that the genus evolved in sub-tropical Asia. The main clue to this strange event is that the closest cousins of these species are found in tropical and sub-tropical regions of eastern Asia. They have gone extinct in that part of the world, but the oldest species of Dracaena seem to lie in Hawaii and parts of South America. This apparently also happened to the family of plants called the Begoniaceae (the Begonias). So there is the beginning of a mystery here: how did that first dispersal happen, and then a second dispersal to Africa. I’m on tenterhooks now, waiting for the solution.

The plant is easy to grow indoors, and we once had one which grew very well even away from direct sunlight. I find that different varieties as well as closely related species are being sold as “natural air purifiers”. This is not entirely wrong, since many papers have been written about its ability to slowly soak up volatile organic molecules like benzene and formaldehyde. Good ventilation is perhaps a more effective way of getting rid of those indoor air contaminants. There is no evidence that the plant gets rid of suspended particulate matter, which is a major component of air pollution in India.

Walking through a small village

We walked a short distance through the seemingly inhospitable terrain near the border between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. This was in the spring of 2006, on our first visit to Pench National Park. In medieval times this was the kingdom of the Gonds. The five century long history of the Gond rajas came to an end in the 18th century CE, when the Maratha armies captured their kingdom. The Gond state was completely demolished, and in present times we know these people only as a rural population of subsistence farmers. The only memory of that large kingdom is the name Gondwana by which the region is still known, and which was back-propagated by geologists to give a name to the southern part of the continent of Pangaea which formed 300 million years ago, of which the local rocks are a remnant.

The vegetation changed as we came nearer the village. I did not recognize it then, but the mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) surrounding the village were planted by them. In some places these mahua groves have a sacred status. It is interesting that mahua is a keystone species in such areas, encouraging the growth of several other kinds of plants, and perhaps attracting insects and birds. I guess the ecological engineering of Gonds is something that we are yet to completely understand. Contemporary records tell us that the late medieval period in this part of India was much drier than it is today, and there were many efforts to conserve water. It would be interesting to take a wider view of this kind of ecological engineering to see its effect on conservation of this kind. This history surely has something to teach us for the future.

The village was extremely small, just a few houses clustered together. I was fascinated by the painted walls of the houses. The dado was common. In offices and hospitals, the dado usually has a darker stripe on the bottom and a lighter colour on top, to hide accidental stains. Here it was reversed as you can see. I wonder why. I liked the patterns painted around the door. The long shaft of the yoke was fascinating. I suppose the length of the shaft means that the force applied at the yoke will be more nearly horizontal, resulting in easier rolling. The trade-off is that starting and stopping will be harder. Clearly this is a cart made for long-distance hauling on a flat terrain!

The village was not very empty. Most men were out, perhaps at work. Around a courtyard we found three generations of a family. The matriarch was almost bent double. Each family owned cattle. So I suppose milk and sunlight must be plentiful. Why would osteoporosis be a problem here? I found later that Gonds usually don’t drink milk as adults, perhaps due to widespread lactose intolerance. I suppose all the households in the village had three or four generations living together, and the families would probably be related to each other. I realize that I knew very little about the culture and history of the Gonds. That’s something I should repair; I share a country with them.

Moldy midweek

I woke up to the cascading sound of heavy rain and the whistling of wind through ventilators. The tide was beginning to recede, but it was still high enough that the rain water was not able to drain out of the lawns. There has been a flood alert down the coast. In the city it will be worst at high tide. Pent up at home this week, I began to look through my photos of past Augusts, and selected a few from the first year of the decade.

The jungle babblers are the quintessential angry birds, scolding each other in the low branches of trees and hopping about in the undergrowth. I haven’t heard them in my neck of the woods. They used to be common earlier. Have they moved away? It is quite likely that they are ecological refugees driven away by the recent heavy use of pesticides which has killed their source of food. Maybe I need to explore other parts of my neighbourhood next week. Perhaps a group or two still survives.

Butterflies are other sacrifices to the altar of the new insectivorous gods. A few years ago the gardens around me were full of butterflies, like the glossy specimen of the common crow (Euploea core) you see in this photo. This season I’ve seen a few flitting about, but they are not at the densities I was used to once. A twenty minute walk in the garden would give me twenty good photos of butterflies a decade ago, and good sightings of rarer ones like the blue in the featured photo which I haven’t identified yet. It is unfortunate that a knee-jerk response to viruses is to spray against insects. This is what man-animal conflict looks like.

PPE pollution

We’ve all been very happy with the decreased soot and dust in the air and the lower level of noise pollution. The anxiety of having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic makes these positive changes great things to hold on to. Unfortunately, as life starts again, this will go back to normal. The immense economic disruption that the whole world has gone through will mean that little money will be left to improve soot emissions in the short term. And then there is one invisible bit of pollution which will spread even more. That is the disposable PPE. Already, for several years now, pollution from single use plastics was a major concern. Now we will begin to add more to it. Airports are producing a lot of this every day as air travel has opened up again; market places are full of it too. The Family took a photo of her hairdresser in a disposable kit. This is an indicator that there will be wider use of such things as the economy opens up again.

Fortunately, some people have taken notice. There is a very timely paper from a team of chemists in Dehra Dun who test a solution to this problem. They reduce this to a fuel which is similar to industrial diesel. The simple process was proven in other contexts, and is not new. Another nice thing about this process is that the plastics don’t have to be separated. One can take entire garbage bags full of the kits and use them as starters. So there is a problem, there is a solution. What is needed next is to take this out of the lab and into the world. That needs economic and political will.

Life changing events

We tried many things. We took mint leaves and whipped them into chutneys. That works to preserve the freshness, but there are times when you want leaves and not mush. We washed and dried them thoroughly before putting them into an airtight box lined with soft absorbent cloth. Even so, the mint leaves start getting black after a couple of days in the fridge. So The Family sent out an SOS to the family. There were lots of suggestions including the whole process of washing, drying and then stripping the leaves from the stem before putting it in a cloth lined airtight box. Too much work, The Family muttered. Indeed. When you buy mint for ten days, this can be too much. Eventually Pycnonotus called to say “Stick the stems in a jar of water.” That changed our lives. Now the sprigs of mint stay in a glass of water, and even sprout new leaves between forays to buy vegetables.

This gives us time to concentrate on the really important things, like weeding the pots in our balcony. Can you believe that pots need weeding. There was a fallow pot which I’d been stuffing leaves into. I saw that a whole lot of tiny plants had begun to sprout in them. I called The Family to check that they weren’t any of her microgreens. No, I have to clean it out. There was also an interesting mushroom growing in there. I guess I’ll have to turn the earth over to expose the main body of the fungus and dry it out.

Rare mustard

The ghosts of Junes past reminded me of a walk near the beach in the Asilomar state park of California. This is a nature reserve on a lovely beach near Pacific Grove in Monterey county. My attention was caught by a straggling little plant covered in wire mesh (featured photo). That led me to the discovery that this area was a protected micro-ecology, and that this tiny plant was a rare species on which protection effort is focused.

The four-petaled flowers belong to the Menzies wallflower (Erysimum menziesii). I saw it in its typical habitat: bare beach sand over which the salt sea spray would land now and then. I was lucky to see the flowers; they usually flower earlier. I could already see the fruits; the long flat bean-like things that surround the flowers. There are a lot of seeds there, so it is not clear why it is endangered. The answer comes in two parts. Most of the seeds are unable to grow into mature plants, and therefore they are out-competed by invasive plants. The conservation effort focuses on removing trampling hazard (for example by placing wire mesh over it) and by removing invasive plants by hand.

This is an enormous human effort, and brought home to me how skewed the global conservation effort is. A few hectares of California coastline probably get more economic and human help than parts of the Amazon basin which went up in flames last year. There are structural factors at play, and we should perhaps think about that as we decide which charity to donate to.

Water world

A few winters ago, I spent a week in one of the smaller islands of the Andaman archipelago. Some mornings I could walk most of the way around the island, at the edge where land and sea meet. The green wall of trees on one side would loom over the mysterious blue depths on the other. Our world is a water world; almost three quarters of its surface is ocean, over half the life on earth is oceanic. What do we know about it?

A recent read (partly hidden behind a paywall) overturned everything that I though I knew about the earth. It seems that plants make up less than 10% of the biomass of the oceans (they make up 95% of the biomass on land). The waters of our world are dominated by animals, bacteria, and complex single-celled creatures collectively called protists. These three groups make up 80% of the biomass of the oceans (on land, these groups make up 2% of the biomass). In the oceans fast growing primary producers make up about 15% of the biomass, whereas consumers, with a slow lifecycle, make up the rest. There are two different worlds sharing this planet of ours!

The flame of the forest

Summer is the time of the Gul mohar, the Flame of the Forest, Delonix regia. I love that strange construction: a five petalled flower, four of which are bright red, and the fifth is stippled with yellow or white. When one petal of a flower looks special, you can be sure that it had something to do with pollinators. This one, called the standard, is a nectar guide, and its base contains nectar. I remember our class teacher telling us, “Go ahead and take them apart to look at them carefully, each flower will fall off the tree in four days or so, even without your help.”

As a result of the class project in primary school, this was one of the first flowers that I looked at carefully. In my mind it goes with the blazing heat of grishma, summer before the monsoon, in the plains of northern India. But modern genetic techniques extend recorded history in placing its origin in the western part of Madagascar, after it had separated out from the continental landmass of Africa. It spread to Africa unaided by humans, probably rafted by ocean currents, perhaps 10-20 million years ago. Then, in the blink of an eye, in geological terms, in the last four or five hundred years, it has been carried across the world by humans.

More tales from the pumpkin patch

What I say thrice is true, the Bellman said. And I’m not one to question. So let me leave you with these images of invaders in my mother’s pumpkin patch from this week many years ago.

Now I softly and silently vanish away. The cyclone that is passing over me right at this moment is no boojum, but I have to take care of a few things.