Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

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.

Reading in the rain

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

John Ashbery (Some Trees, 1956)

I first came across John Ashbery a decade ago, through his translations of Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry. Rain, Kalidasa, Tagore and Verlaine, and through them Rimbaud and Ashbery. Such a simple straight line!

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?

The monsoon arrives

The monsoon’s wind reached us on Tuesday, two days early. It had been raining on and off since the weekend. The trees outside my window had been thinned in the storms of the last two years. But through grishma, the summer, the remainder of the canopy had deepened in colour. Even the late-growing new leaves of the mango tree had begun to turn green. The weekend’s pre-monsoon showers had cleaned the dust of summer off the leaves and turned the picture to a vivid red and green. On Tuesday morning as I took this photo I saw the sea had turned grey and choppy. Varsha was imminent.

The monsoon rains started within an hour of my taking the featured photo. In one day we received 44% of the month’s rainfall. I might have thought of this as part of climate change, if I hadn’t lived here long enough to know that about 50% of the season’s rains always came in a few short episodes, may be a day or two long. That is why the monsoon is a boon for school children and hard for adults.

I tried to imagine the coastal ports bustling before the monsoon, as the trading ships from Malindi, Zanzibar, Alexandria, Berenice, arrived in Bharuch, Muziris, Karachi; cargo from the west being unloaded, other ships taking on cargo for the eastern ports of Vietnam, Malacca, and Java. The oceanic trade lent its name to the monsoon: trade winds, as we learnt in school, without understanding how it had once linked us with Rome and China, Venice and Japan. Reliance on fossil fuels has cut the cord between our lives and the weather. But as we transit to renewables, taking advantage again of the trade winds should be a logical consequence. Perhaps my nieces will live and grow old in a world of Meghdoot, cloud messengers crossing the globe on trade winds.

Monsoon is coming

The golden hour becomes decidedly more golden just before the monsoon. The science behind this is simple; in such humidity, light is scattered by microscopic droplets of water in the air. When the suspended droplets are roughly of the size of the wavelength of visible light, we get this incredibly golden hour at sunset. Far from the coast of India, these golden hours will last through the monsoon. Unfortunately, here, at the coast, the months of monsoon will be mostly overcast and gloomy. If you are not living around the Indian Ocean and its monsoon, you might still get such incredibly golden light on extremely humid days. Let me know if you do, and also if you have a very humid day when you don’t have this golden light.

Sideswiped by Cyclone Tauktae

Nothing for 25 years. Then one a year for the last two years. Ian Fleming has Goldfinger say “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence. The third time it is enemy action.” For now I cannot really say that the warming oceans are behind the larger number of cyclones we see in Mumbai. But another, and another, and the evidence might pile up.

Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm Tauktae passed more than a 100 Kms off the shore of Mumbai. Through most of yesterday the sustained wind speed was about 100 knots (which is about 185 Km per hour), with gusts with speeds up to about 210 Km/h (115 knots). Far off on its flanks, we felt the change in the weather. There was a moderate amount of rain, but the winds, with speeds of between 85 and 110 Km/h, felled a few trees around us. The coral tree behind my flat fell over on to the water mains, leaving us without water the whole night. We expect repairs to be finished by the afternoon. Parts of Mumbai lost electrical power for several hours. The airport was closed as a precaution, so were local train services. Vaccination centers were also closed for the day, and the sea link closed to traffic as precautions. Oil drilling barges were adrift, and a rescue mission for the 410 people involved was on in Bombay High.

I gauged the storm by the state of the sea-facing garden in front of us. A little after noon the weather seemed to clear up, but it was a false alarm. A few branches were damaged in this part of the garden, but the oldest had already been felled by a severe storm in the previous monsoon. A large coral tree behind our house fell over in the evening, after the storm had passed by us and weakened into a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm. The tree had been growing too close to the building, and probably its roots had been weak for a while. A cyclonic storm system changes the weather across half the subcontinent, and far away from the track of the cyclone people meet with fatal accidents. We were lucky in Mumbai that no deaths seem to have occurred. It will be different in coastal Gujarat, where the cyclone made a landfall in the morning. COVID patients, and a large number of other people, had to be evacuated from the track of the storm. The news will unfold over weeks from now.

A fire in my soul, smoke in my lungs, ashes in my mouth

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.

Spring harvest

Holi could be a festival left over from colder climates, where winter is a time without growth, but the regional new years in India are entirely local, and keep pace with the local seasons. In most of the northern plains, from the far east to the west, the beginning of the month of Baisakh begins with a harvest festival. Some calendars count this as the beginning of grishma (the hot season), others take it as the middle of vasanta (spring, if you wish). The wheat was sown in November, and was growing through what the upper northern latitudes think of as winter. So one should neglect the “universal rhythm of life” that the silly Eurocentric cultural web tends to impose on the globe.

As our trip through Kumaon came to an end, I walked on to the shoulder next to a deep drop on the narrow road leading out from Bhimtal. The lake is at an altitude of 1500 meters, and the road had climbed quite rapidly. We were high above the valley, perhaps at an altitude of over 2000 meters. I took a last look at the terraced field of wheat that cascaded down the steep slopes on the other side of the lake. From this distance one could see how the road switching back and forth along the further slope gave access to the biggest farms. To get to the others you had to walk down a steeper slope. This also meant that the farms further from the road had to transport the crop by hand (or mule) up to the road.

One farm was busy harvesting. The golden wheat was already gone from some terraces, the hay lying in neat little bundles in the fields. The high stalks in the other terraces were also ready to be harvested, and probably would be in the coming days. In other farms the ripening was not yet complete. Perhaps they had sowed at different times; perhaps the angle of the sun on the field also makes a difference. Looking down on this landscape, with its varied colours of Baisakh, I had no trouble agreeing with David Attenborough’s ironical statement that humans are the animals that grasses have used to propagate across the planet. They also get these animals to shape the landscape to their maximum benefit.

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.

Seasonal challenge

“There are few more restful places, if one wishes to think, than the upper balconies of Lord’s pavilion,” Wodehouse wrote in a book full of the English notions of spring and cricket. I found an equally restful place under a tree some days ago. It is hard to believe that a year has gone by at the pace of war, long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. But within those periods of boredom I found times like this, when I could just sit and soak in the season. In spring the bad air of winter clears out, and you get the luminous days which are perfect for lying under a tree looking up at the sky.

I woke before dawn and listened to the first birds. Almost a year ago I had posted about the bird calls I was beginning to recognize. I realized today that in spring I should begin to hear the song of the koel. I haven’t heard one yet. So let me make this my crowd sourced effort to spot the first call of the Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) in 2021. It would be great if you leave a comment with the place and date when you hear a koel for the first time this year. If you manage to get a good photo this spring, post it, and leave a link. If you are elsewhere in the world, it would be wonderful to hear about the bird that means spring to you., or other interpretations that you have for this season. Let me take the season, vasant ritu, to last until the full moon of April 26, although this is just an arbitrary convention.