After the rain, me

Saturday night I fell asleep to the sound of thunder and very hard rain. We’d planned a simple trek, just the two of us, to a hill fort outside Mumbai on Sunday morning. The rattling of windows in a proper monsoon storm woke me before the alarm. I looked out of the window and decided to cancel our plans. Even if the rain stopped, as it briefly did soon after sunrise, the ground would have turned to mush, and the mountainside would be slick with water. Not the easiest conditions for a walk.

After a cup of tea, The Family decided to go for a walk around the complex. It has been an odd monsoon. Very high winds, many dry spells, but normal rainfall on the average. The result is that several trees have fallen, and lots of branches and twigs have been shaken off others. These have been piled up next to paths, waiting for final disposal at the end of the monsoon. Today the lawns and playgrounds between buildings were flooded.

On a tree quite a way above my head, I saw one of the exotic giant snails which usually hide below shrubs and fallen leaves. This climate refugee must have started its journey early, but it was far from the only one. The half hour walk yielded so many creatures that The Family threatened to leave me on my own if I stopped again to take a photo of nameless creatures. I must have really tried her patience, because she was impermeable to my argument that each climate refugee has a story worth listening to.

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

Paul Verlaine (Il pleure dan mon coeur)

Oh sweet sound of rain
Ground and on rooftops!
For a heart that is bored,
O the song of the rain!

He cries for no reason
In this sickening heart.
What! no treason ?
This grief is without reason.

Paul Verlaine (It rains in my heart)

Here is a small selection of creatures which were trying to get away from their flooded homes. The colourful millipede is extremely common along the west coast of India, and perhaps even further afield (It is Anoplodesmus saussurii. Thanks for the ID, NN; it is no longer nameless). Unfortunately there is no go-to field guide which would let me identify it. It is a creature that lurks in leaf litter, and quite innocuous. The small brown snail was new to me. It had crawled out of the pool below a tree on to a giant bracket fungus growing on the trunk. I don’t know how many kinds of slugs you find around Mumbai, but I’m sure I’ve seen this species before.

Back home after the walk, I checked my phone for messages. There was a forwarded message from the Municipal corporation saying that the main water purification plant for the city had been damaged. Flood waters had breached the pipes, and citizens were advised to boil water for drinking. Are these episodic extreme rain events due to climate change? If yes, then are we beginning to see the conditions that will eventually force us to join the ranks of climate displacees?

A walk

You don’t get to do the same walk twice. So, although this is a walk I’ve written about earlier, I’m doing it again now in monochrome, and the featured photo is one example of this reworking. I’d posted a colour photo earlier. Although I like that more, I’m not unhappy with this version. It kind of fits the slowly fading memories I have of the walk. And there is also a sort of shadow, a memory of a memory of a memory of an earlier walk along the same route in colder weather.

This part of Binsar National Park is a mixed oak-rhodo-pine forest, in a dynamic dance with pine grasslands on other slopes. My understanding of their interactions has certainly improved since I last wrote about this walk. I should really go back now and correct my earlier post. Although these pine grasslands are much maligned by local ecology activists, there is increasing scientific evidence that the politics is based on early twentieth century understanding that may need to be revised. The mixed forests are not more bio-diverse, they are only more full of larger animals. Slopes full of pines are very photogenic. Experimenting with monochrome, I found that long shots of these mixed forests are also turn out well. The white undersides of the leaves of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) reflect light very well when a breeze moves them.

I’d stopped many times to take photos of the butterflies sunning themselves on the path. Fallen oak leaves spotted with mould in the dappled light which filtered through the canopy presented an interesting challenge in monochrome conversion. I like the way the butterfly appears slowly as you look at the photo above. This is the mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), which is easier to recognize in a colour photo I’d posted before.

Oak trees support a lot of other plants and fungi which feed on them. These ferns, mistletoe, orchids, and lichens and fungi catch light in different ways. As a result, oaks are great subjects for close up photos. I love them in colour, but I’m not unhappy with the wide variety of shadows I see in the photo of above. I think I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future. I’m sure there are wonderful opportunities for more monochrome photos lurking in these forests.

I can’t leave this place without saying something about the mammals which live here. I never managed to photograph the quick yellow-throated martens which run through these jungles, but the band of Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) which I saw here waited long enough for me to take photos. I’ve posted a colour photo of the individual you see here earlier. I think she looks equally elegant in monochrome.

Truth and the camera

What is truth? I can’t pretend to answer this in its complex philosophical entirety, but I could try to talk about my memories of a walk at sunset. I did this walk alone. I did not meet anyone at all. I carried a camera. If I hadn’t used it, the only truth would be my memory of the walk. The core of that truth is that my mind was roiling when I started, and at peace when I finished. The truth of the images from my camera should then capture the events that changed my mind. It was the sunset and my attempt to capture that fading light. The deliberate concentration on a problem I could solve was what settled my mind.

The mind is very fickle, turbulent, strong, and obstinate. It is like the wind, impossible to control. … When all desires vanish in a state of thoughtfulness, when the inner self is satisfied within itself, then one is a master of a stable mind.

Dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Bhagwat Gita

If you had little time, you could be satisfied with the simplest part of the truth, that a walk during a nice sunset put my mind at rest. The featured image would be enough. Nice lake, wooded path, colourful sunset. Restful. But that story hides a further truth. The image did not appear by itself. I worked at it. First, by selecting a viewpoint: have I got enough of the water? No, move a few steps. Now? Yes. But the colours in the camera are not what I see. So I’ll have to recreate them in post-processing. The featured photo is both memory and process. That is a larger truth.

Uncovering the image inside the shadows is hard. The inset in the image on the right shows what I could do quickly. Doing better than this might require a lot more time than I’m willing to spend.

But there is more to it, of course. The idea of capturing the reflection of the sunset in the lake came out of an idea which would not work. I took a photo of the fiery sky, the one which you see above. I meant to bring out the details from the darkness in software. That works often enough, but I realized that might not work here. So I would need the back up that you saw. I was right, and my earlier experiences taught me the necessity of the backup. I was completely immersed in the sunset I was participating in. So much so that I had dragged a part of my past into this sunset, forced the larger me to take part in that.

The truth that capturing what my eye saw required more than the software in the camera came a little earlier. As the sun set, the last lights fell on leaves high above me. My camera could not capture what I saw. If I zoomed into the leaves, the background became black. If I took a wider shot, then the dazzle of backlit leaves disappeared. So I decided to take the wider shot (the one on the right), then crop and edit it to get what I really saw (the shot on the left). The truth is the entirety of these photos: that it was concentration on what I saw, being in the moment, while being anchored in the continuity of myself that settled my mind.

But why was my mind unsettled to begin with? Because I had spent the golden hour of the day looking out on a brilliant landscape through the windows of a moving car. Separated from the world around me in this way, being able to connect only through random shots taken with my phone, I had been reduced to the role of an automaton. Was I merely a CCTV camera, programmed to record what came into view? A photograph is not just a record of what is in front of you, but a result of constant evaluation of many possibilities, discarding most, and capturing what is the truth in the mind’s eye. A photo requires a still mind in knowledge of itself, and a seeking towards an expression of that knowledge. That’s a zen truth, isn’t it?

Hustle without bustle

After another lunch out, we walked through the area around the stock market. The state has designated five categories of lock down, and districts move between them depending on the availability of hospital beds. This is one of the most rational ways that public health agencies can act, but it is still an awful time for business. Mumbai is now in the middle category. I chatted with the owner of the restaurant: he is resigned to the enormous losses, the impossibility of doing his full menu, and the lack of a stimulus.

Since last June we have discovered a large number of people who, having lost their previous business, turned to food as the one thing which always generates an income, no matter how meager. Associated with this is the rise of delivery services, taking their workers from among people who have lost other semi-skilled jobs. The Family worked out a way of no-contact tipping of these delivery boys. We still say boys, although a slowly increasing number are older men, perhaps compensating for the loss or incapacitation of the major bread-earner in the family.

Our walk showed us the same business model on the street. Many of the old street-food stalls are open, now to a much reduced number of customers. Businesses are working on restricted in-office personnel, and the central business district of Mumbai looked empty in the middle of the week. The man roasting peanuts outside the stock exchange, whom you see in the photo above, was joined in the lunch business by newcomers. We saw two such new businesses working out of parked SUVs. One was selling plates of cut fruits, the other was serving out plates of idlis and vadas from large vessels. I liked the views through the open doors of the boots. SUV owners turning to street catering is an indication of a fall in incomes. Mumbai has changed deeply without changing. If the streets are anything to go by, the hustle remains, although the virus may have set us back by one generation in terms of prosperity.

The Family feels like providing business to these street food vendors, but there is only so much you can eat. Paying for others is perhaps the right alternative, but how do you provide a connection between these businesses and the people who are going hungry? I ask the question here because the last such question I asked generated responses, including direct reach outs, which helped us and others in our tiny efforts to help.

Slow Fade

We’d wasted the best hours of the late afternoon puttering down a nondescript mountain road. I was silently raging at this waste of a wonderfully clear golden hour. Now that we were close to home, I decided to get off and walk around Naukuchiatal to the hotel. There would be no spectacular sights here, but I would get to exercise my camera. The last light lit up the sky to the west. It would soon fade.

At one spot on the path I stopped to take this photo. I thought the day was now not totally wasted, but I wished I’d had a walk on one of the high meadows bordering an oak and deodar forest. I’d sat down on a rock, taken a photo of a beetle, and watched a laughing thrush. An hour there would have been wonderful, perhaps giving me more birds and insects. This was tame, but better to carpe the remains of the diem, than to carp about the most recent afternoon of my mis-spent life.

Now there was a wall between me and the lake. Not so bad, I thought, this gives me a different set of subjects. Quick, before the light fades, take the gold shining through dry leaves and grass. Not spectacular, but an image that I enjoy.

Red-orange bougainvilleas are not the most common, and backlit with the golden light they are made for the camera. I was happy enough with this shot. But the sun had dipped behind the curve of the turning earth. The light would fade from now on.

I was standing behind a retired colonel’s house, looking into his garden. Two dogs voiced their displeasure. I heard the voice of the master quieten them. In the last of the fading gold light I caught the other bougainvillea in his garden.

The fading light is actually ideal for this delicate purple-pink rose. I photographed a bunch which was on the other side of the bush and saw that the slightly better light bleached the colours off them. This is better. I’ve met this variety earlier, but I don’t know what it is called. I wished the colonel would come around and tell me. No luck. He’d probably settled down with his whisky and soda, dogs at this feet, watching the sun set over the lake.

I came to a part of the road next to a deep woods. This is supposed to be a good place for birds. We never managed to come here during our vacation. But right next to the road I saw this white-cheeked bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys, aka Himayalan bulbul). The light was still good enough to see its white cheek, but in any case its stylish quiff is almost enough to identify it by. I did manage to record its call too.

The hills are alive with the sound of barbets. And I’m sure they have been for a thousand years. I got a glimpse of a Great barbet (Psilopogon virens) in silhouette. By now the light was so bad that the final identification could only be done by its call. Strangely, although I heard its call all the time for the whole week, I never got a good view of one. At least not good enough for a better photo.

But the day had one more present waiting for me. I was inside the grounds of the hotel now and stopped to try to figure out a strange bird call I’d heard. Could it be a nightjar? When it didn’t call again, I looked at the rapidly darkening lake on my right. Just above me an unlit light-bulb caught the last pink gold light of the day, lensing the forest around it. One last shot before I went in to order a sundowner.

Garden in the shade

Looking back at photos from our first trip to Binsar, I discovered that we had taken off-route walks on several days. One of the walks took us from a little temple in a meadow inside the national park up through a slope into a garden around an old and abandoned bungalow. You can see the back of the bungalow from the shady side of the slope in the featured photo.

I’d like to be, under the sea”

Lennon-McCartney (Abbey Road)

Gardens grow extremely well in the wilds up there. Over the years this rose bush had run wild, and had taken over a small slope. This delicate purple-rose colour is hard to photograph. In full light the colour bleaches away. I was very happy that this side of the slope faced north west, and was in the shade at that time of the day.

You might think that nargis, daffodils, are a dime a dozen up there. But they are actually quite hard to spot. A bed of nargis stood next to the path where it turned. It had been watered recently. It turned out that a family had established themselves in the yard of this deserted bungalow, and were taking care of part of the garden.

Bushes had been hacked away from the path to keep it clear, and posts had been planted in the ground to mark something, perhaps a boundary. The edge between open ground and the undergrowth is a good place to spot small warblers. I’m not good enough at warblers to be able to tell what this is.

This dark flower was growing in bright sunlight. In any other light I would not have been able to get that deep red on the nine petals. Nine! That’s not a Fibonacci flower. Whatever happened to all those theories of the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio which are supposed to make flowers beautiful? This is so clearly a compound flower; you can even see the tiny yellow florets in the core beginning to open up.

On one edge of the hedge a sulphur butterfly was sunning itself among the balsam. The butterfly with its irregular spots merges beautifully with the vegetation around it. Camouflage could mean that the insect is not poisonous. That, in turn, means that the caterpillar feeds on plants which are not poisonous.

They flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude

William Wordsworth (Daffodils)

My final photo from that walk is of this flower in full sunlight, throwing its shadow on a lush green leaf. The leaf has been fed on by a pest. Could it have been the caterpillar of the butterfly we just saw? The bungalow behind it was locked up completely. I wonder whether it has been turned into a hotel now, years later, or whether it has fallen into ruin. I don’t have a photo, but I recall spotting a raptor up here and hearing its high pitched call as it dove into the forest canopy below us. Some things you don’t need a photo to remember.

A morning’s walk

Cold and clear, the morning was perfect for a walk. We pushed aside a dry thorn bush which served as a gate in the wall next to the road and stepped on to the steep path which led up to Messar Kund. The gate was very close to our hotel in Munsiyari. We had figured that it would take us an hour for this walk, and we could be back in time for breakfast.

There was a gentle climb to start with, as the stony path rose through a mixed forest of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) and Rhododendron arboreum. At this height the rhododendron was still putting out new leaves. It always amazes me that the colours of spring are those of autumn in reverse. The new leaves start off bright red, and, as they get the sun, they slowly begin to produce chloroplasts, and change to green. In between, the red and green mix to give wonderful yellows. In autumn as the chloroplasts die, the reverse change occurs.

The path kept getting steeper. We stopped above the trees to get this lovely view of Munsiyari. On a clearer day we would have seen the Panchachauli massif from here. I admired the forest: a mix of oak and rhodo, on this slope, with the long needled chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) on the neighbouring slope. It wasn’t only the rhodo putting out new leaves, the oaks were doing that too. There was still some smoke down in the valley, but here the air was clear. We took off our jackets and put them in my backpack. A few sips of water, a handful of nuts and raisins, and we were ready to climb again.

The next part was steep, and looking at it, I stowed the camera in my backpack. There were white and yellow wildflowers growing between the stones, but I didn’t stop to photograph them. Suddenly, after a short steep walk, we were at a meadow with a beautiful clear lake beyond it. The ground up here was damp. The previous night’s rain had been heavy, but it had successfully doused fires and cleared the smoke from the air. The air was crisp, cool, as the sun peeked over the treeline above us. We sat on a stone above the fall and looked out at the valley below. The view was interrupted by branches.

I walked around the huge boulder at the edge. Two different kinds of lichens grew on it. The dark green one was flecked with colour. I suppose this is the variety of lichen which can leach minerals from stone and bind it to organic molecules. They are an essential part of the cycle of life out here. The amazing shape of the white lichen probably tells us that it has been growing on this rock for a long time. I looked at the rock carefully; it had round eye-like inclusions which made me think that I was looking at an example of Augen Gneiss. That would make it among the oldest rocks in this region, formed almost two billion years ago. The lichen is a mayfly in comparison.

It was much faster going down. We stopped to watch a white throated laughing thrush search for food. It was manic, we kept losing sight of it in the flurry of leaves it scattered as it looked below them for food. It is a species in search of genus; it was once the Garrulax albogularis, then became Pterorhinus albogularis, and recently has been renamed Ianthoconcia albogularis. The shifts in name reflect the ferment in classification of birds due to the ever expanding data on genetics. It seems to like the middle heights in this season; we’ve seen the bird quite frequently in the last two months at heights of 1500 meters and above. We were down very quickly, less than the hour we had estimated. Time for us to scatter leaves; time for our breakfast.

A walk in an oak forest

The breeze blew cool and clear. There was no one close by on the path up to Zero Point inside Binsar National Park, so I pulled my mask down to smell the trees around me. Oak forests don’t have the pleasant resinous smell of pines, but they are so much more alive. At this height, about 2400 meters, the Himalayan white oak (banj, or Quercus leucotrichophora) should be close to its upper limit, but they looked like they were thriving away from the hard competition with chir pines (Pinus Roxburghii) on lower slopes.

Oak forests are alive. Langurs prefer banj oaks as roosts. A yellow throated marten streaked across our path, it is another inhabitant of banj forests. I could hear a woodpecker looking for lunch, and, from a distance, the call of the Great Barbet. This forest was full of birds: seed eaters, acorn gatherers, and insectivores. The oaks themselves harbour life: fungi, lichens, ferns, orchids, and mistletoe. Butterflies flitted about on the sun dappled path. On gentler slopes the canopies merge together to provide complete shade under them, making it hard for younger trees to grow. But up here, the slope was steep enough that there was always a gap in the canopy, and rhododendron and other trees could spring up. Still, the forests of the western Himalayas do not seem to have the exuberance of the east. The monsoon winds create this difference.

The smaller number of large trees here gives me a chance to slowly begin to recognize most of them. A few years ago I made myself a small and incomplete field guide to trees of the middle heights. I’ve added to that by now, and I realize I can recognize most of the trees around me as I walk. But the herbs are another matter. I stop and look at the small plants poking out of the muddy cliff on one side of the path. I haven’t the faintest clue about them.

I could stick to the trees for now. The path is surrounded by oaks. I’ve aways been a little surprised by that. Oaks, mistletoe, holly all sounded exotic to me when I grew up surrounded by mango, guava, jamun, and silk cotton trees. But to my surprise the genus Quercus, oaks, seems to have its origins in a part of an ancient continent which is today East Asia, in the middle of the Eocene Epoch, perhaps about 45 million years ago. That was just after the earth had gone through one of its temperature maxima (there were no ice sheets anywhere on the planet) and the Indian plate had just banged into Asia. Over the geological ages after that, the oaks adapted to the cooling climate, and crossed the Himalayas into Europe. The five Himalayan species found themselves settled at various heights, Q. leucotrichophora at the lowest altitude. During the multiple ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch the white oaks seem to have covered a very large part of the lower slopes.

Most observers agree that the oaks are slowly being crowded out by pines on the lower slopes. I asked why, and got different replies. The literature is also a little confused, but I tried to make sense out of what I read and heard and got an interesting story. The two main threads in the plot are how fast the trees grow and how they respond to fire. Once the acorns germinate, the oak seedlings can halt growth until conditions are just right. This requires a moderate disturbance of the forest to let in some light. In the days of Jim Corbett, this was provided, at least partially, by human intervention, as villagers chopped off a few branches of older trees for kindling, and removed some of the leaves for fodder. But now this activity is forbidden, for reasons that were well-intentioned. As a result seedlings lie in arrested growth for long times in unattended forests. The trouble is that in recent decades a “fire season” has become part of the annual cycle in the ecology, probably due to direct human intervention. I have read no account of it in the older literature on Kumaon. Fire affects the slow-growing oak seedlings disproportionately.

Pines, on the other hand, are adapted to grow in degraded land, and can reach a height of 20 meters or so in a decade. Fire also causes pine cones to open up and release spores. As a result, chir pines out-compete and out-grow oaks. They are also more immediately useful for commerce, so the forest department manuals on planting and harvesting of pines are widely used. Oaks provide more ecosystem services, but they are not seen as commercially viable products. As a direct result, I could not find any manual on oak silviculture. When I reached the end of the walk I could look down at the surrounding slopes. The nearer ones, inside the park, still held many stretches of oak forests. Further off, there seemed to be more pines.

[Note added later: much of my understanding behind this paragraph may have to be revised in the light of new scientific findings about pines and their stabilizing role in the previously unrecognized biome called Himalayan grasslands. Through the 20th century they were thought to be degraded forests, but are now recognized as a separate biome with support for a different set of species. The dynamic balance between oak forests and these grasslands is still being studied.]

Altitude

We took an hour’s walk inside Binsar National Park, a short climb to its highest point. This Zero Point, as it is called is at an altitude of just over 2400 meters. The cool air at this height smelt clean, with a flavour of green trees. The view at the top showed smoky valleys, and the high Himalayas were almost invisible because of the haze. But just around this part of the park the winds and the cool heights had together managed to confine the smoke below. I’m sure that the air here is usually much cleaner, but at that time it still felt better than city air. The walk through an oak forest was wonderful, and a great change from sitting inside a car all day. At this height you get Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), easily identified by the fact that the oval leaves with serrated edges are white on the reverse. The dry tree fern that you see in the featured photo is just one of many things which grow on oaks.

Coming back to our hotel, we felt the change in the air. Warmer, of course, now that we were half a kilometer lower, and also more haze. Fortunately there was no smell of smoke in the immediate vicinity. We were told that a short shower the previous day had put out fires locally, and cleared the haze a little. I admired a red sunset as I walked up the steep forested path from the road to the hotel. Pollution gives you interesting sunsets.