The forest department is meant to conserve ecology. Unfortunately, they interpret their job to mean they are supposed to grow forests. As a result, they are changing the desert scrub ecology of the Rann of Kutch by planting white bark acacia (Vachellia leucophloea). These plants have nitrogen fixing nodules in their roots, which are useful when you want to green a desert. That may be part of the reason why the forest department likes it. This acacia also grows naturally in other parts of the Thar desert. So, maybe, this experiment is not as bad as the one carried out in the 1970s, when the desert was seeded by the exotic mesquite Prosopsis juliflora. But the Rann of Kutch is a special habitat, and reduing the space for its distinctive flora and fauna creates a sudden change in ecology which will have effects that we cannot predict. But then, maybe none of this matters. Maybe the rising seas will reclaim the Rann very soon.
On our last evening’s attempt to spot birds in the Rann, I found myself quite distracted by the greenery. We walked gingerly between the trees, but there was little to see. You see a typical stand of white bark acacias here: spindly trunks with white bark spreading out a little above your head. The older bark turns rough and dark as the tree ages. The canopy is full of the typical feathery mimosa leaves. The flowers are very interesting, as you can see in the slideshow above. The dense round collection of white flowers are called glomerules, and they grow in a multiply branched stem called a panicle. That picture does a good job of explaining the words.
But there were too many trees, and the birds were avoiding this place. We moved away into the open land and were immediately rewarded by multiple sightings: silverbills, larks, warblers, robins, flycatchers. A single bird came and sat on a branch of a tree right at the edge of the open scrub. It was the grey-necked bunting (Emberiza buchanani) that you see in the photo above. In the setting sun and against the bright green background its drab brown plumage looks red.
Bera is known for its leopard sightings. I wondered why. The reason turned out to be simple. There are large numbers of leopards (Panthera pardus, tendua in Hindi) around this small village in the Marwar region of Rajasthan. It doesn’t matter how secretive and stealthy these animals are. They are still visible just because of their numbers. But I was curious about why there are so many of them here. After all, the land is not highly forested. This may be only the edge of the Thar desert, but it is largely scrubland, and well populated by humans.
Our jeep reversed up a steep slope of a granite monolith for a view of the landscape. From a height of about 40 meters, I took the panorama that you see above. At this time, soon after the monsoon, water still pools in hollows in the rocky terrain. In a couple of months they will begin to dry. Storage and irrigation have distributed water through this dry land in the last thirty years, enabling farming. The herders of earlier years also remain. The land was surprisingly green. The largest trees were stunted acacia (babul in Hindi), but thickets of succulents, thor and aak thor, could be seen. Aak (milkweed) was also common. About fifty years ago Prosopsis juliflora, an exotic mesquite, was seeded through large tracts of land. They proliferate. The caves in the ancient rock, and these dryland forests provide enough cover for leopards.
You can see another reason for the surprisingly easy visibility of these animals in the photo above. Much of the flat land between the rocky domes of granite have been plowed into farmland. As a result, the cave dwellings of the leopards are isolated places, and a dedicated watcher can park herself near one and wait for a sighting. A leopard is nocturnal, and most sightings are in the early morning or late night. The increasing popularity of Bera as a weekend tourist destination has resulted in some of the hotels employing “trackers”. During the day these men on motorbikes keep a constant vigil for leopards. They are connected to jeeps by mobile phones and walkie-talkies, and a sighting immediately attracts a few jeeps..
Another thing that puzzled me first was the availability of food. From the loud alarm calls of monkeys and peacocks when they saw a leopard moving, it was clear that leopards hunt them. But a peacock is a small bite for a leopard, and a monkey is not much larger. There are wild boars here (although we didn’t see any) and other small animals, but the terrain does not hold a leopard’s preferred food: deer. The answer is again simple. These leopards feed on livestock.
Elsewhere I’ve heard of cattle being attacked by leopards, even seen such a kill in Kumaon. Here the complaints were of leopards taking goats and sheep. Smaller animals are easier to kill. A leopard is incredibly strong; I’ve seen one take a full grown sambar up a tree after killing it. Making a killing of a cow or buffalo would not be too hard for a leopard, but then it would have to cache the remains after a feed. A goat or sheep would be a complete meal, and easier to catch. A leopard would have to kill one such every two or three days. I suspect it is less often, otherwise the conflict with humans would be uncontrollable.
One morning we’d heard alarm calls tracking a leopard as it walked across a patch of scrub land. It was walking away from rocks on the far side. We waited, because it would probably cross the road. The alarm calls stopped. Clearly the animal had hunkered down to survey the road for danger before crossing. Then, as we waited, a bunch of sheep came along the road. Then a couple from a village on a motor bike, talking loudly on a phone. Then a bunch of goats and another herder came along. A train passed the tracks whistling loudly (here they are required to whistle in order to alert wildlife about its coming). The sun was climbing higher. It was getting hotter. The leopard would not cross the road for a while, and it was time for our breakfast. We left. We asked trackers later about the leopard. It had not been spotted, nor had it made a kill.
Another time, this man came along with a bunch of goats. One had just birthed while grazing. He was carrying the kid in a sling around his neck. It was not completely free of blood. But the blood did not attract a leopard. Perhaps food is so plentiful here that the predators abhor the risk involved in confronting humans.
Evening. Once it was too dark for the camera to capture any wildlife, we drove up a rock. This granite is ancient, perhaps 750 million years old. It was laid down as the ancient super-continent of Rodinia broke up. As the colour faded from the sky we watched the stars appear. It was new moon, the beginning of Navaratri. Venus appeared close to the moon. Overhead Jupiter and Saturn appeared. I looked out at the land as lights appeared across the vast plain. This region of full of villages and hamlets. In the caves and crannies of this ancient granite, older than the first animals, one of the most recently evolved predators have found a home. I took a panorama of this strange land at the edge of the desert as the last light faded from the sky.
Kutch is a flat land, a sea bottom raised in geologically recent times by the motion of the Indian continental plate. When Alexander’s army came to India, the Rann of Kutch was a vast inland lake. Now it is the southern end of the Thar desert. A plane so flat that large parts are covered in a millimeters thin sheet of water every monsoon, then baked dry the rest of the year, it is perfect for generating renewable power. For years, isolated families in this region have installed solar panels for their own use. Now they install wind turbines and pumping the output into the national grid.
The people I was traveling with laughed when I started taking photos of the pylons which criss cross this land. But I find that these impossibly tall towers have a poetry of their own. They are a first glimpse of our future. They are impressive when you stand near them. Low down on them falcons alight and scan the desert for prey. Buzzards build nests on the second rung of the towers. Ipomoea grows dense around the bases, taller than a man, but can’t climb beyond the first rung. The power lines which they support do not seem to pose a hazard to flying birds. Most fly well below them. Others fly far above.
But when you see lines of these columns disappearing over the horizon, you see what a light footprint they cast on this land. That tiptoeing through the landscape, like giraffes on the veldt, seems to be the only sustainable future for us. You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan famously sang.
You can tell that I’m not a natural born ornithologist by the fact that my first question after taking the featured photo was “What’s that bush with the white flowers?” Everyone else in the jeep was babbling about greater, lesser, and common whitethroats. The Family gave me a look which would have melted the lens in her binoculars if she’d not had to take it off her eyes in order to look at me. As a peace offering I said “Definitely a common whitethroat. See.” She looked at the photo I’d taken and said “Okay. At least you go it.” It was at extreme range, and any attempt to zoom made it a little fuzzy. October took a look and said excitedly “Clear eye ring. Obviously Curruca communis.” Wisdom looked, but reserved her judgement. I waited until I could search for a good explanation of the difference between the common whitethroat (Curruca communis, also greater whitethroat) and the lesser whitethroat (Curruca curruca). There is one, and it is worth reading.
Why the excitement? Because this is another bird of passage in India. It spends its summers breeding in Europe (every single country, including Iceland), south across Gibralatar to Morocco, and eastward in an arc over central Asia right up to Mongolia. In winter it migrated to Africa. The western population crosses the Mediterranean and the Sahara to winter in a narrow band across sub-Saharan Africa. The eastern population crosses either the Mediterranean or the central desert land (the complex of the Gobi, Thar and Arab deserts) to winter in the great rift valley and the surrounding parts of eastern Africa. For a short while the greatest density of these birds in the east is in the Rann of Kutch. We had timed our trip to catch this unique sight.
A new longevity record has been registered for the Common Whitethroat Curruca communis, with a bird recaptured in Italy 18 years and 11 months from the date of ringing. This exceeds the previous longevity record by almost 10 years.
C. communis is very well-studied bird. Its population crashed during the great Sahel drought of the 1970s and 80s (those with long memories may remember the Live Aid concerts of 1985 in response). But the species is said to be well on the way to recovery now. I always wonder though what this means. The genetic diversity in the current population must be much reduced compared to what it was before. Would this have consequences in the coming years of a warm earth? There is evidence that the evolution and speciation of warblers was strongly influenced by climatic changes. Perhaps we are at the beginning of a burst of such speciation.
Unfortunately I got sidetracked by the interests of people around me and never got back to the question that interested me in the first place.
Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.
We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.
A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.
This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.
Seven years ago we’d driven up from Delhi to the lake district of Kumaon. It was an October sunset when we stopped by Bhim Tal to stretch our legs. The hills around the lake were still dense with vegetation, green after the rains. The quiet serenity of the lake seemed to be enhanced by the one sailboat out on it. That is the image of the lake which the words Bhim Tal now bring to my mind.
Spring was not a good time this year. The winter had been dry, and the hills around the lake had turned brown. The still sheet of water looked as clear as ever, but I’d been reading the alarm calls sent out by those who monitor the health of these waters. It was quite evident why. The number of houses around the lake has increased tremendously. The lake itself was obscured by makeshift shacks selling knick-knacks to the very few tourists who had come here.
This is the beginning of the end for many such beautiful spots around the country. First a few city people retire to a beautiful spot, then their friends visit. Word of mouth opens a trickle of tourists. Then, when it becomes a constant stream, these shops come up. The once beautiful spot becomes obscured by a jumble of construction. Trash collects. Boat rides, and horse rides become the order of the day. Eventually there are busloads of tourists who come to buy souvenirs, get back on the bus, and go away. There is nothing else for them to do. The process is sad, because with a little tweak and nudge, the entrepreneurship of the locals can be used to increase the value, not degrade it.
The pandemic has interrupted this sad growth. I didn’t see any sails; they have been replaced by the row boats pulled up to the newly made steps down to the water. Their numbers were a testimony to the long slope down which Bhimtal’s tourism slide had gone. At this time barely two boats were in use. One group got off as I watched. Another family was out in the middle of the lake, being pulled along by the boatman. I consoled myself with the thought that the place had remained in public consciousness for a hundred and fifty years before it had reached the stage it was in now.
We drive past slopes covered with pines, over and over again, whenever we are in the lower Himalayas or the Siwaliks below them. We hardly ever stop to walk into them. I now realize that I was brainwashed by old and false certainties. The false statements are the following: forests of Himalayan Chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) are ecologically barren. We bought into popular but false ecological lore which extends this into statements about pine forests encroaching into productive oak forests because of deadly human interventions involving fire. These assumptions are at best questionable, and at worst completely wrong.
The new understanding is that these are not forests but savannahs, grasslands which are protected by the longleaf pines. These chir pines secrete terpins which drip into the ground and by changing the chemistry of the soil make it inhospitable to some species. The grasslands are not barren. Recent biodiversity counts show that the Himalayan pine savannahs support more species of flora (mainly grasses and herbs) than oak forests. Worldwide, the biodiversity of animal life in forests is dominated by insects, and these counts are missing in Himalayan ecology. Apparently, the biodiversity of grasslands is always undercounted: for example, they are often full of ants, and someone really should count them in pine savannahs here. I have clambered up a pine covered slope once to look at griffons resting in this habitat, so I have first hand evidence that they are not barren.
Chir pines (Pinus roxburghii, also called longleaf pines) are easy to recognize. They have the distinction of having the longest needles among all pines. Although they are evergreens, they shed needles copiously in April and October-November. November is usually very wet in the hills, but April is dry. Locals and seasoned travelers told us that late April and May are known as the fire season in these parts. This year the winter was very dry, and apparently the fires started in October and have smouldered since then.
Ratnam and her co-authors, in their impressive paper on tropical grasslands, present a closely argued case that the role of fire in the management of Himalayan grasslands has been misunderstood since the 19th century. As a result, fire prevention was written into the law in the 1940s. However, worldwide, fires are an intrinsic part of savannah ecologies, and terminology like “prescribed burns” is a common part of forestry practices elsewhere. The argument is expanded on in a separate paperwhich makes the case in more detail, where they relate this understanding to the degradation of all types of grasslands in India. One consequence of this that most bird-watchers are aware of is the tragic collapse of the population of the Great Indian Bustards (Ardeotis nigriceps) in the grasslands of the Indian plains.
Chir pines are adapted to alternation of fire and shade. The seeds germinate faster in red light, which is abundant on the forest floor, after sunlight filters through the trees. The growth habits of seedlings are also fire adapted, as are the grown trees themselves. Studies of the effect of fire on the ecology of chir pine savannah have also been published. It seems that biodiversity is highest on patches which have been burnt more than once. This could be why the traditional fire management methods evolved.
I have spent a lot of time walking in oak forests, and mixed forests on these lower slopes of the Himalayas. They are full of birds and animals (including exotica like the Himalayan red giant flying squirrel, which has the distinction of having the most adjectives preceding its generic name). But I have spent almost no time in pine savannahs. It is time to restore the balance, and see for myself what animal life I can find in them.
April 2: We reached Dehra Dun’s airport (altitude 558 m) in the morning, two hours before our flight. It was crowded, no social distancing, and we were glad for our double masks. Two hours stretched to four and then a brief announcement of the cancellation of our flight. The gate agent said “Bad visibility”. Huh! The sky was absolutely clear. Tickets were refunded quickly, and the baggage handed back. Our one hour flight by an ATR-72 was to be followed by a four hour drive to Almora (altitude 1604 m). This now became a ten hour drive. What causes less pollution: fifty people on a single flight, or them individually, or in groups, driving the same distance? Late at night, climbing past Naini Tal (altitude 2084 m), I spotted fires on the forested slopes. The smell of smoke penetrated my mask. Bad visibility began to make sense.
April 3: Forest fires do not always give you spectacular photos, sometimes all you see is haze. The next morning as we walked through the forest trails in Binsar National Park (altitude 2410 m), the haze in the air cut off all views of Nanda Devi (altitude 7816 m), Trishul (altitude 7120 m), Panchachauli (altitude 6904 m). That was part of the reason for coming here. Most of the haze seemed to be lower down, and I couldn’t smell any smoke. We took the short walk up to zero point, the highest place in the park. I looked up the SPM levels in Almora, which is the nearest place where measurements are taken. That seemed to be at a level where exercise could be unhealthy. Much of the next seven days we would find ourselves surrounded by haze, the smell of smoke permeating our masks. The air quality was dangerous very often, preventing us from taking the walks we had planned on.
April 4: We’d planned a long drive from Binsar to Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). It was not only tiring, after the unplanned drive two days before, but also took us through hellish terrain. At times the fire had spread to areas right next to the road. May and June are often a season of forest fires through Kumaon, but this winter had been warm and dry. Forest fires had apparently started in October 2020. People we talked to expected that it would continue till the monsoon. In cities, since the air is always bad, most people have become conscious of the effect of haze and pollution on health. In this place, where the air is normally clear, that understanding has not taken hold.
Why do fires start? We got multiple answers to this question from people we talked to, and perhaps all of them are right. One said that some fires are set by villagers, and they go out of control. Usually winters are wet, with rains every couple of days, and the fires are easily doused. But this was a particularly dry winter. It hadn’t rained for a week in Binsar, we were told. Perhaps. Rains were predicted when we packed, so I’d brought along a light poncho which was never unpacked. A dry winter leads to conditions where fires can go out of control, and then large scale fires change conditions so that it does not rain. This out of control feedback seemed to have set in over Kumaon.
Others told us about the forest department setting fires to clear deadwood. In Almora someone showed us the thick carpet of dry leaves which had fallen off white oak trees (Quercus leucotrichophora, banj in Hindi). This was the reason why fires run out of control, he said. Someone else showed us thick mats of needles dropped by Roxburgh pines (Pinus roxburghii, chir or cheel in Hindi) as we walked through Binsar. This was the reason why fires were raging he argued. Both were right, of course, a dry winter produces kindling. One person told us that green branches of oaks burn readily, which is why villagers use them in the kitchen when nothing else is available. But the fires around us carried a smell of pine resin. When I stopped to take the photo above I could hear the popping and crackling of pines as they caught fire. Oaks could burn, but many of the slopes have extensive pine forests.
The air did not clear up as the road climbed to Munsiyari. The place is known for its views of Panchachauli, but through this thick haze we would have to be very lucky to see anything. The road climbs to about 2500 meters before dipping in to Munsiyari. At the very top of the climb we were lucky enough to spot a female Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) as it ran across the road. We stopped the car and tiptoed to the edge, and I saw the male in the split second before it noticed me and disappeared into the undergrowth. Both were lifers for me. Between the bad light and the fast movements a photo was impossible. When we reached our hotel and looked at the TV news, it was grim. The fires had spread from Kumaon into Garhwal. A significant fraction of Uttarkhand state’s 53,000 square Kms was on fire.
April 5: We’d selected the hotel for the view of the mountains we would have. But the thick smoke covered everything. When something like this gets into the news, you can bid goodbye to reason. There was a lot of finger-pointing and buck-passing in and off prime time. Why would the forest department not be more careful? Someone said that they hire contractors and they do not follow guidelines. What was the state government doing? They borrowed two helicopters from the air force to dump water on the fire: one for Garhwal, another for Kumaon. Such a large part of the state was on fire that this inadequate move had to be nothing but optics for TV. Meanwhile, on the ground there was no major change. By evening we’d got a few drops of rain. Perhaps the next morning would be good. We were to leave for Kausani (altitude 1890 m) late in the morning, and we might get a view of the Panchachauli before we left.
April 6: It rained for an hour at night, and we woke up to a faint view of the mountains. There was also time for an hour’s walk up before we left for Kausani. The hills around Kausani were ablaze, and the smoke was terrible. We decided to cut short our stay here and retreat to the lower lakes. They had had crystal clear air when we came up. We had a long chat with the owner of our hotel over dinner. He thought that the connection between ordinary people and the forest had been cut because the forest department stood between them. It is an interesting point of view, and I’ve heard variants of it before: conservation can only come when the state becomes a helper to the people who live in a landscape. If you give people no stake in the land or forest, they will not take care of it. True enough, I suppose, but was this the whole story of this disaster? Such a large scale disaster must have multiple causes.
April 7: It was a short drive to Naukuchia Tal (altitude 1220 m), so we had time to chat with people on the way. One theory we heard was that trees are money, and fires are a good cover for illegal trade in trees. Stories of corruption have a way of circulating, and you don’t know whether they are correct unless someone takes the trouble to investigate. With all these varied viewpoints about human motivation, one thread was constant: that this was a dry year, little rain, and the fire was spreading because of that. This part of the story was something we had experienced. The drive took us through several patches of burning forests. Were there more fires where there were more people? I could not tell.
April 8: The air in Naukuchia Tal was relatively clear on our first day there. We even saw worker clearing away dry leaves from the slopes around Naini Tal, perhaps a precautionary measure. In the evening we saw a big plume of smoke on a slope across the lake. It died out within an hour. It seemed to me that someone in a farm had set fire to the stubble left over in the fields after a harvest. Luckily this didn’t spread. How widespread was this risky behaviour? I recalled reading that when farmers had two crops a year they would leave the stubble in the fields to rot back into the earth. As they move to three crops a year, they want to clear the stubble faster, and use fire to do it. I’d seen government advertisements on the long drive from Dehra Dun requesting farmers to stop this practice. Was there an alternative? I haven’t followed this issue enough to know the answer.
April 9: The morning was not as clear as it had been the previous day. Clearly the fire had come closer during the night. We decided to drive to Mukteshwar (altitude 2170 m) for lunch. There are supposed to be good views of the high Himalayas from this little town, but we neither expected, nor got, any view of the mountains. The smoke obscured everything. We dropped in to the Devasthal astronomical observatory (altitude 2450 m). The 4 meter liquid telescope was under maintenance. Viewing was said to have been wonderful from here in the 1960s and 70s, but in recent years the moisture content in the atmosphere has increased, obscuring the telescope’s view somewhat. Another victim of climate change! Astronomers have moved to Leh in Ladakh, and the world’s largest telescope could come up there soon.
April 10: Our bags were packed for the last time. We would spend the day at Sat Tal (altitude 1730 m) and drive on to the plains. The Sat Tal valley smelt of smoke. We’d only had one clear day till now, our first day in the lake district. The evening news spoke about these forest fires spreading into the Nanda Devi National Park. Ecological disasters seldom make it to the TV news channels or the large circulation newspapers. Even now, even with forest fires on this scale, this news was being squeezed out by the rising COVID-19 second wave and the state elections across the country. The next day, as we drove to Delhi (altitude 220 m) to catch our flight back home we read that the air force helicopter which was requisitioned for fire fighting in Kumaon had been sent back without being used at all.
What did we learn? The weather is definitely a major factor; in dry years like this the risks are immense. Most predictions agree that a warming climate is also a wet climate, but there will be local differences which are not yet worked out. Along with the climate, there are multiple human factors involved in safeguarding the environment within which we have to live and work. Why do farmers set fire to their fields every year? Farming is under stress, and farmers should have a stake in clearing fields safely. In Uttarakhand, where farms and forests mingle, mistakes are costly. Similarly, the methods of clearing forest debris may need to be re-examined. Do common people have a stake in the health of the forests? The government’s stewardship of the land has to involve the local population, otherwise there are just not enough hands to fight fires. These are all big questions, and many people are thinking about it. We just happened to be caught in the middle of an object lesson for a few days.
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.
Neora valley is supposed to be one of the richest ecologies in the eastern Himalayas. On the walks through the mixed forests, seeing the layers of vegetation growing one over another, the insects, birds, squirrels, clamber through the undergrowth and canopy, knowing that most animals have heard me before I came and moved away, I had no doubt about it. But even in the middle of this, I found the landscape strangely humanized.
When I walked the Pipeline trail, the vegetation around me seemed entirely wild: a mixture of oak and deodar, bamboo and rhododendron. But then the trail itself encouraged a different kind of growth. A wall of rock rose very steeply on one side. I guess a narrow ledge was once shaped into a walking path by people at some time. The natural slope of the terrain has been changed quite dramatically on the cliff side of the road. The steepness prevents large trees from taking hold on the wall, and the humidity and light allows giant ferns to take root, and droop over the whole hillside. Along the sides of the road flowering shrubs and herbs take root, and fill the trail with the nuts and berries that they produce. The result is a concentration of birds, exactly what we were there for. One kind of human activity had created an ecological niche for another!
On the downhill side, the slope was gentler, and larger trees could grow. Their canopy started a little above our heads. Through breaks in the canopy, due to channels cut over hundreds of years by trickles of water from springs, I could see larger vistas. These ranges of hills are carved through by the small tributaries that merge into the Neora river far below. But before your eyes reach that level, your view snags on the clearings half visible through the early morning fog. Each contains a village. Humans are as important to the shape of this landscape as weather and geology.
Through such a gap I took one of the photos above. In the mist I saw something different from what the camera records. My brain is trained to see human activity, so the red roof of the building was very prominent in my vision. The camera is not a neural computer trained in the way as me, and it sees a different view, paying more attention to the nearer forest, a little less to the village in the lower slope, and even less to the villages on the further slopes. My eye seemed to flit from village to village, making sense of the houses and fields. Further along the trail I could look down at a village with terraced fields. Rice is an important crop here, and every house also has a vegetable patch. We had been eating really fresh food in the homestay.
The notion of keystone species in an ecology is an useful one. It could be an apex predator (like tigers), or a species that works the landscape diligently (like termites in Indian forests), or one that creates mutualism between species (like elephants). Such a species shapes the landscape around it by maintaining a balance of species. Humans are a keystone species, as I clearly saw on these walks. We probably started as mutualists, by domesticating a few species, then became landscape artists through the invention of agriculture, and through social organization dominated other predators to become the apex predator in any landscape. I wonder how the Himalayas would look like if we just left.
The featured photo of a sunny village perched at the edge of a cliff is a typical example of how we shaped landscapes even before industrial capitalism. A clearing surrounded by trees, houses within walking distance in the clearing, but separated from each other, that is a human layout that we all understand. This may be the configuration of landscape and society within which genus Homo evolved. I think it could be the landscape written into our genes: open land within a forest for safety, a band of people looking out for each other, but also subtly in competition for the fruits, berries, and small animals that such open spaces inside forests foster. In the featured photo you can probably just see that dark bird perched on a tree to the left of the village. The photo above is a zoom for a closer look at the maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii).