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.

Winter light

What passed for winter, the season called shishir, is nearly over. The sea remains cool, but the days are longer. The sun gets enough time to warm up the sea breeze. Still, the light is mild, and oranges are in season. In the afternoons, when the sun streams into the room I work in, I can sit and enjoy an orange with my tea (in shades of Leonard Cohen!) and then take a photo of the emptiness and harmony.

Again I was distracted and opened up my copy of Achaya’s book on Indian food. Oranges were first mentioned by Charaka, who lived in the 2nd century BCE. He called it nagaranga. The traveller Xuan Zang, in his memoirs of his travel through India in mid-7th century CE, mentions them as growing everywhere, but does not use the Chinese word for the fruit. In Shah Jahan’s time (17th century CE) grafting was applied to oranges and mangos in Bengal. Presumably it was already widely available when the Portuguese came to India. ArcGIS adds that the origin of this fruit is in the southeastern foothills of the Himalayas, but misses the reference in Charaka.

The guy whose feet are too big

When you have a tiny little flower waiting to be photographed, why do you want to ignore it and concentrate on the tinier droplets of water on stalks in front of it? As George Mallory is famous for saying, “Because it is there.” One of my last trips with a Panasonic of many years, was to Kaas Plateau, that unique and very difficult habitat which contains some species of wildflowers not found anywhere else. I’d scratched the lens when I fell off a slippery boulder, and spent a year thinking I would replace it. Also, sensors had become better, and data buses faster, so it made sense to replace the camera.

I dug up this image because in the last few days I’ve been obsessed with figuring out how to do at least a half-way decent job with black and white photos. It is something to worry about, but I’m getting there. The plateau bursts into flower for a couple of weeks towards the end of the monsoon. I’ve never been there when the sun is out. You see marvelous (but tiny) flowers, but you are always wet. It is a job keeping your equipment dry. Doing it in a mask is one thing that I do not want to try.

The pagosphere melts

Sunday morning came with news of a major disaster in a part of the Himalayas we have been planning to travel to. A part of a glacier fell into the Dhauli Ganga river right up near the part of the mountains that we wanted to visit. It sped downriver, destroying a dam, several bridges, and burying people. The count of people missing keeps rising. The work of rescue started soon, and it has been partly successful. Some of the people who were dug out will live. Finding others is proving to be difficult, and it has been very cold.

It is too early for the press to turn to the question of the reasons for this disaster, I’m afraid an old narrative will take over. Journalists are finely tuned to seek out policy errors behind the news; that is their job as part of the mechanism of checks and balances which builds a democracy. But this is not a story only of immediate policy errors. I’m afraid it feeds into a theme which had haunted my posts through last week, and which I wanted to stop writing about: the theme of climate change and a warming earth.

When you look at the featured news photo, you see people being dug out of rocks covered with glacial mud. That is part of the evidence. The other part is that the landslide accelerated down river, according to reports, traveling faster than a hydraulic hammer. The speed and the acceleration is consistent with a mass of solid accelerating under gravity. So, the underlying cause of the damage seems to be the century-long melting of these glaciers due to the warming of the earth. We have seen the glaciers of the Antarctica sliding into the ocean, the Arctic ice melting away totally. We should have seen this coming. The world’s reserves of ice, its pagosphere, is melting fast. The most immediate harm will come to people who live in high mountains.

The acceleration of the mass downstream may have been aided by the dams. The water and mud held in them could have lubricated the passage of the glacial mass, and allowed it to speed up to the extent seen. Certainly they contributed to downstream flooding. So perhaps long time human neglect has interacted with short term policy errors. Unfortunately, it is a story which could repeat. It will take very wise decision making to prevent such things from repeating. I’m also afraid we are at the beginning of climate migrations. People from the subpluvial regions of the earth have already started to migrate, creating a refugee crisis whose causes have been ascribed to economics rather than climate change (not entirely wrong, but perhaps inadequate for framing policies). Before the migration of island nations, there could be a migration of people who live in the world’s pagosphere. Since this could be mainly an internal migration, not a crossing of international borders, it may go unrecognized. But recognizing it could be a key to understanding the stresses that climate change will put on human society. But for now I’m happy to leave you with the conclusion of the tense story that began in the featured photo and ends with the one above.

Note added: Two weeks after the events, 68 people were confirmed dead. 136 are still missing, and are now presumed dead. What a tragedy!

Hot earth

After reading about mudskippers yesterday, I eventually connected them with a bit of information I’d forgotten. In the time that mangrove forests and mudskippers were beginning to evolve on the western shores of the Tethys Ocean 50 million years ago, the earth went through a climate catastrophe. Geological eras have names that I find fascinating. This was the beginning of the Eocene epoch, the name means the dawn of modern times. If you want to be more specific, you might call it the Ypresian age, a 8 million year blink of time starting 56 million years ago. What I remembered was that in the Ypresian age the earth went through a heating event that we call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal maximum (PETM). Temperatures across the earth were between 5 and 8 degress Celsius higher than it is today.

At this time the continents had not yet reached where they are today, as you can see in the map above, but they are not completely unrecognizable. The deep oceans saw a tremendous extinction; between a third and a half of ocean species died out. The oceans became acidified and hot. Their levels rose, water saturated the air. The poles warmed more than the rest of the world. As a result, the Antartic was forested and ice free, and tropical rain forests covered southern Germany. Canada, as far north as what is today Baffin Bay, had swampy conifer forests regularly ravaged by forest fires. The part of India which is now the Thar desert seemed to have had extreme rains and weathering during that time, whereas northern Spain was a parched desert. It is hard to prevent a large body from heating up, so mammals became smaller. This may have had many consequences, but one that has been followed up is that it encouraged a rapid evolution in the ancestors of today’s horses.

Small boat in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

Although the map of this world looks almost the same as ours, this hot and rain-drenched world is not suited for agriculture. Estimates of our carbon future showed that in “business as usual” scenario we will be there by the end of the century: in the time of the grandchildren of the millennials. There is a reason that projections stop at the year 2100: no climate simulation remained believable beyond that. Very recently though, a climate model was able to reproduce the PETM using reliable estimates of the amount of CO2 then present in the atmosphere, by following the small-scale dynamics of clouds more accurately. This simulation seems to say that the future temperature rise could be more extreme than had been predicted. We live in unsettled times.

Living in nature

I had (or should that be have?) a great-grand-uncle … No. I woke up very relaxed today, but as I wrote this I got tenser and tensor. Tenses and grammar will be the death of me. So let’s start again. I have had (That’s certainly not right. Yes, but people get the idea by now) a great-grand-uncle who became notorious for building a little hut for himself around an Alstonia scholaris tree. He is quite forgotten, but his hut and tree are still associated with the history of a place more famous for his superstar of a friend and prophet. He and some others of his time were much influenced by that polymath who decided to move away from The City and live in nature. Their children were to be taught in the open, in nature. That experiment became a movement, and was an important cultural moment. Now the place is a crowded little town, and a slogan whose spirit is lost.

Nevertheless, the experiment has a lesson for us today. We may think we are living in an artificial and constructed world, but it is part of the nature we think we have separated ourselves from. Consequences? When we forget that, we are in trouble. The scooters that you see in the photo above pump CO2 into the atmosphere. That tree is part of nature’s balancing mechanism, and soaks up that carbon to build its trunk. If we cut it down, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and heats the planet. Growing and maintaining large tracts of forests is one way to mitigate the coming disaster. Whales are another great carbon fixer, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere into their massive bodies, excreting carbon into the upper ocean where it fertilizes the growth of phytoplankton and starts the oceanic food chain, and finally carrying the fixed carbon to the bottom of the ocean after their deaths, there to feed new life for decades.

Such large re-wilding measures are bound to be effective in their own ways, but perhaps we can help too. My great-grand-uncle’s folly, Vienna’s Hundertwasserhaus, and the hotel you see in the photo above, all express a desire to live in balance with nature. But perhaps that is no longer enough to save ourselves. Maybe organic farming with green manure, or neighbourhoods with Miyawaki forests are what we need. Electric cars and scooters create a different pollution, but they could be useful stopgap measures until better transport solutions can be made. Perhaps the pandemic has catalyzed a change. Work-from-home (WFH) allows us to move away from cities; and a distributed population does not need the hugely polluting chains of supply and transport that make up today’s world. Perhaps WFH is another way we can retool a greener world.