Still life season

Sakura bloomed this year in Tokyo by the 15th of March, one of the earliest bloomings on record. Around that time Mumbai recorded a temperature of 39 Celsius, the highest ever temperature recorded for that date. The Atlantic had the largest Sargassum bloom recorded, almost 8000 kilometers across at some places. In the US, bird migrations are affected by the weather, with males beginning to move northwards earlier than the females. Here, where I’m spending some time away from home, the weather has been very unsettled. It was much warmer than I’d expected in the previous week, whereas this week has been full of rainstorms roiling the upper atmosphere and bringing that cold air down.

Holi is over, and in a couple of days we will hit the spring equinox. Instead of venturing out for photos celebrating that astronomical event, I thought it better to stay indoors and try my hand at photographing seasonal produce. Still life is not something I’ve seriously tried before.

So here it is, the pumpkins are the last of the season (we ate pumpkin flowers after a long time), and the potatoes have just been harvested. These small bananas, a wonderfully sweet and flavourful local variety called champa, will disappear as the heat builds up. Oranges are winter fruits, and we are clearly getting the last ones. They are still tangy and juicy, thankfully. I have no idea what the season for pomegranate is, but we seem to get them the year round. And the ber! I haven’t eaten such wonderful fruits from Ziziphus mauritiana trees in years. We’re lucky to be here in this season.

Year 403 in ten pictures

The first photo of 403 ME, the featured photo, is of a female and male black buck at the height of the breeding season. This was taken in February at the Tal Chhapar sanctuary in Rajasthan, not far from Bikaner. Both Bikaner and Tal Chhapar are worth a visit.

The second photo shows a Greater Flamingo at the lake created by the Ujani dam on the Bhima river near the town of Bhigwan in Maharashtra. This is a wonderful place for birds, and March, when we went there is perhaps almost at the end of the season.

We did not travel much in April. This photo was taken in the garden of a bungalow in Lonavala, where we spent a nice relaxed weekend with friends.

In May we visited Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. In the Dhikala range we had a tremendous number of tiger sightings: perhaps the maximum number of sightings that I’ve ever had in a three day period. Sometimes luck is with you.

In July we travelled through Ladakh. This photo is of the dance at the Hemis monastery which is always held at this time. You will have to go to one of my posts with a video to listen to the music which accompanies this ritual dance.

We had heavy monsoon rains in August. That is perfect for the farmers in the parched interior of Maharashtra who depend on the rains to grow rice. The beautiful Sahyadris are home to an immense blooming of wildflowers at such times.

The rains continued in September. Tired and wet after a morning’s walk in search of wildflowers, I sat on the balcony of our hotel room and took photos of a dragonfly sheltering from rain. I was happy to have caught the glitter of tiny water droplets on its wings.

We saw this Koklass pheasant in October. It was sunning itself in a little meadow about 25 kilometers from Almora in Uttarakhand. This was a couple of meters above our heads, and the pheasant was quite aware that although we could see it, we could not climb the cliff.

In November we listened to the Mingus Dynasty play several compositions by Charles Mingus, whose birth centenary year this happens to be. Mumbai has hosted jazz festivals for long periods of my life in the town, and I’m happy that we had one after a break for the pandemic.

We made the last planned trip of the year in December. The sight of the rising sun on the snows of Kanchenjunga is unforgettable. This is the light which gives its name to the mountain. Darjeeling, and Tiger Hill, are must-visits for this sight alone.

Sunset and sunrise

The sunset was pretty, even though the mountains were nearly all hidden in mist. You’ve certainly noticed this before: a little before sunset on a clear day the colour of the light changes towards yellows and reds. It’s the golden hour. And that gold transforms the mountain peaks, whether they are clear or hidden behind massed clouds. Fortunately, the only clouds in our sky that day were those clustered on the peaks.

As the afternoon progressed, The Family’s became more involved in the weather. All the moisture in the air seemed to be condensing on the line of the high peaks visible on the horizon. As the winds blew over them, the clouds would roll and shift, revealings parts of the massif for a few moments. The Family kept lamenting of the loss of the clear views we’d had of the Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Since the rest of the sky was absolutely clear, I didn’t think the clouds indicated a change in the weather. I thought this must be one phase of a daily cycle. The vapour drops to the valleys during at night, rising as a haze that blues distances during the day, settling on the cold mountain tops as clouds in the afternoon. At night, as the air cooled again, it would condense into valleys.

But as the clear afternoon light shifted to gold, I could not keep my trigger finger from the camera. The light was so good! Even through the misty haze I could spot those edges of cliffs and the folds of land which glowed in the light. A few more minutes, and the mountains turned to that pink gold which you see in the featured photos. I noticed then that the clouds were beginning to settle, falling lower and clear of the tips of the peaks.

The clouds continued to settle in the cold of the night. By morning they had condensed into dense banks of mist covering the lowest valleys. The views of the high Himalayas were perfectly clear. So clear, that I could sight for the first time the hump of a flank of the distant Nanda Devi (7816 m) behind the massifs connecting the Panchachauli (6904 m) to the range around Trisul (7120 m). The light was not the best, but the sight was unexpected from this far south.

Darkest before dawn

When the sun is a few degrees below the horizon, you can see the highest visible peaks of mountains just barely catch the light. The highest peak I could see clearly was Trisul, and only the peaks of 7100 m and 6690 m were visible from my viewpoint. I find this a magical time of the day. You can look up into the grey sky and find it blank, not a single star visible any longer. And you can look down into the valleys and see nothing, because a deep mist shrouds all the lights of villages in this transition between the seasons of sharad and hemant. Your hand is forced if you want to show what your eye sees: I used ISO 160, aperture f/5 and exposure of 1/250 s.

For the next shot I zoomed back, still keeping the focus on Trisul. A long shot shows you the surroundings better. I wanted to capture the valley in mist, and the ranges rising towards the high Himalayas. I was standing below 2000 m, above a slope of pine-dotted grassland. I panned west to the lower peaks around Nandakot (6861 m) caught the sun. This gave me a wider view of the valleys immediately below me. Both photos are taken with ISO 100, aperture of f/4 and exposure of 1/100 s.

This camera setting was just right for a shot of the valley. I could see the great river of clouds seething as the sun just began to touch its surroundings. You could argue that I should have used a wider aperture and a shorter exposure for this; perhaps the details in the clouds could be caught better. Perhaps. I will not argue much if that’s what you think. It is certainly worth trying. At this time of the year the clouds would boil away in an hour. A couple of weeks later the mist would take much longer to clear.

Two minutes later the horizon had tilted by about half a degree and the sun was visible just above the distant mountains. This was the hardest photo to take. I took it with ISO 100, aperture of f/2.8 and exposure of 1/250 s. Any less would have muddied the colour, any more and it would have blown out the mountains. Out of the box I didn’t have any colour in the vegetation. I had to do some tinkering to get some of the foreground. It is at times like this that I wish I was in the habit of exposure bracketing; that would have given me a couple of more images to play with. But then it would put a bigger strain on my external hard drives. You have to optimize.

Two minutes more, and the horizon drops to the east by another half a degree. The sun was now high enough to light the pines in front of me. I caught this photo of our driver and guide, Arjun, enjoying the sight of the sunrise. I upped the exposure to 1/80s for this photo, and you can see how the line of mountains has been blown out in order to bring out a little more detail in the foreground. The previous day had been a hard drive for him: from the plains to this village halfway up Kumaon. The plan for the day was lighter: just a foray into the grasslands to look for pheasants.

Past the wrack line

Whenever I pass the wrack-line at a beach I know I’m out of my depth. At least metaphorically. The line is strewn with a kind of life that I know almost nothing about. A whole hidden world has been reaped of it’s dead and dying creatures and deposited by the cleansing tide along this meandering line on the beach. What are these long stems that I see? Is it kelp? The stem would be called the stipe then, and the round green things could be gas bladders. They are green, full of chlorophyll. They must be among the places where photosynthesis happens. Everything is turning black quickly in the air; it is like making sense of a garden from a compost pit. The black ribbons wrapped around the stipe were probably the photosynthetic blades. I have a camera that can enter the water without damage, but I didn’t prepare for a beach when I got into the car.

I step across the wrack line to watch the incoming tide. It’s a miracle that it hasn’t deposited more plastic on the beach. But as always I’m enchanted by the deep boom of the surf. The Bay of Bengal is one of the most restless seas that I know, a nursery for deadly hurricanes. Even on this rainy day, many of us are cramped into a small part of the beach, although it extends for thirty-odd kilometers around here. The tides have been eating the land here, and large parts of it are not safe. A warming earth has extended the season of the monsoon, even as the waters rise. A hotter earth will be a wetter earth. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas, even more than CO2. Are we at the beginning of a runaway hot house?

A drive in the Monsoon

Monsoon is a time when I like to travel in the Sahyadris. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, given how damp and wet the weather is, how badly road surfaces are damaged, and how poor the visibility often in. But the compensation is there for you to see. It is exactly what Kalidasa described in the 5th century Sanskrit poem called Meghdoot. The flanks of the mountains are wet with rain (like the flanks of elephants streaked with water, he said), and the grass and rice fields are a rich green (the young green of growth, he wrote).

I drove through countryside which may not have changed so much since Kalidasa’s time. Nashik is an old city, associated with the Ramayana. The Panchavati ashram, from where Ravana abducted Sita, is said to be here on the banks of the Godavari. In this season you may expect a general lack of sunshine, a gloomy light, like in the photos here. But not everything is dark. The rain feeds streams which cascade down these hills which are more ancient than mammals. It pours over trees and plants which evolved with dinosaurs, and changed with the weather. Fragile humans, so tied to the weather, came later, building temples on these ancient mountainsides.

The fences that farmers put up seem flimsy and puny on the scale of this landscape; in any case, every gate stood open. This 700 meter high plateau was just at the level of the last clouds of the monsoon. Farmhouses and apartment buildings were scattered across the green. Every now and then we passed under a cloud which was busy dumping rain over a square kilometer. The windshield wipers were hard put to clear the water cascading around them. And then in a minute or so, we would be out of it, and watching the beautiful landscape again.

These photos were taken on a twenty kilometer drive as we drove from the Someshwar waterfall on the Godavari river to its source at Trimbakeshwar. We stopped every couple of kilometers to take photos of the green hills, the green paddy fields, and the hardy wildflowers that come up to the edge of the highway. I’ve called this an electric green in the past, but I would gladly take up Kalidasa’s description of this as new green. If only those power lines would not interrupt every view!

I was tired of the limitations of mobile phone photos, so I was trying to take photos in the rain with my camera without getting out of the car. Unfortunately a big splash of water landed on it when I took one of the photos. I managed to dry my camera with a combination of towel and micropore. When I looked up, a strange formation of mountains was visible off to the side. The Deccan shield has been eroding for about 60 million years, ever since the sundering of Gondwanaland. The slow process of erosion creates these temporary shapes of great beauty. If our lifetimes were long as geology, we would see the shapes flow like the water of the monsoon which is its agent. But we are short-lived. We see the cause and forget the effect.

Dialectic photography

Opposites? I decided I would try the dialectic instead. A thesis and its antithesis, brought together in a single photo: the synthesis. I started by focusing on the water which was dripping from the shade above the balcony. It was a couple of tries before I was completely satisfied with the focus. Inside the drops I saw a blur of light: the cloud-covered sky shining through the water! That was sharp focus and blur together in that droplet, just as it starts to break up.

A potted canna in the rain in one corner of the balcony gave me a synthesis between front and back, the two sides of leaves visible simultaneously. Also, sunlight through one leaf, the rain slicking the other. More than one pair of opposites in this photo. After days of limiting myself to using a cell phone, I was happy to sit on the balcony of the hotel with a proper camera, photographing nature in the rain. It is so hard to carry a normal camera outdoor in the monsoon.

A copperpod flower felled by rain on leaves below was a strange mixture of the barren and the fecund. The rain brings new growth, but it can destroy a flower before it fruits. Farmers in this region have had a little too much of this destruction in the last few years: crops destroyed by unseasonal rain, or by rain that refuses to come when it is expected. This year has been cruel. Half of the country flooded, the other half suffering from extreme dryness. Those in the know say they think the price of food could increase sharply during the coming months.

The reflections on these leaves was fascinating. I saw them moving as the trees above them shed large drops of water. The usual trick of photography stops time and motion. Here it has done just that, as it caught the parabolas of the splash arcing away from the point of impact, while the bulk of the water drop flows down the innermost part of the leaf. A modern mobile phone camera fails miserably in catching the fleeting, something that my actual camera does as a matter of course. But then isn’t this what you set out to do when you take up photography? Isn’t the act of taking up a camera a declaration that you will be contrary and try to freeze the flow of time?

The valley of death

Weather can change very quickly in the mountains. We had driven down the valley of the river Shyok in a happy sunlit mood. As we started back after lunch in Turtuk, clouds had blown in from the west and the light had turned sombre. The name of the river means death in languages that derive from old Tibetan, and in this dim light it was not hard to make that connection.

The road was smooth most of the way, and The Family nodded off after the heavy meal. Yasin, our guide and driver, was intent on the drive. We’d rolled the windows down and he’d switched off the music so that we could listen to the water and the weather. I was in my groove right now, having put away my favourite camera to utilize the wider angle shots of the landscape that my phone gives. I realize that I could tell the story of the drive back in many ways: as a road trip, as a journey using the metaphor of the Bardo Thodrol (the Antarbhava Nivarna, known in the west as the Book of the Dead), or even as a photo gallery interspersed with technical comments by the photographer.

But the telling that appeals to me are the questions that rose in my mind as I looked out, and the answers that I found later. This land raised profound questions about our place on earth, and figured in a controversy that preceded the writing of the IPCC’s fifth report in 2014. But before I tell you about it, let me give you an impression of the landform that piqued my curiosity. Even though the muddy river was at its widest in summer, when we drove along it, the valley it flowed through was very much broader. The two-lane road seemed to be on a plain, and there was enough flat land around it that the road could have had four lanes through much of the valley. I’d never seen this in a mountain stream before.

Another remarkable feature was the profusion of loose rock and pebbles, some jagged, as if a scree had spilled down slope, others completely rounded as if by the action of water and glacier over millennia. A further enigma was visible in the sand dunes and mud flows that were could be seen at places along the river. This is a special mystery because the land has very little rain: no more than a 100 mm in a year. The patterns of erosion are not due to rain.

What a curious tourist like me sees is a very small part of the questions that arise in the mind of a geologist who walks through this landscape. So all my questions, and more, are answered in the extensive geological literature that is easily available these days. The answer lies in a dynamic and fluctuating history of glaciers and ice dams in the last 150 thousand years in this region. An early study counted over 2000 glaciers active in the upper Shyok valley, which were highly dynamic, receding and expanding rapidly, but whose extent had not changed significantly between 1973 and 2011.

When this paper was published as the 5th IPCC report was being drafted, it gave rise to an immediate controversy about global warming. If glaciers had not melted in the Himalayas, as they had in the Alps, then how could the latter be due to anthropogenic warming? An old friend was involved in the group that found the answer: Himalayan glaciers are mostly rock covered, unlike the open glaciers of the Alps, and it is the thinning of the ice layer under the scree that reveals the extent of melting. Their ground surveys revealed that glaciers here were melting as quickly as Alpine ice flows. Further studies confirmed this, and the IPCC’s AR5 report had a chapter on this topic which reported this as the consensus of scientific opinion.

We passed one of the largest tributaries of the Shyok in this stretch. I had looked down the other valley on our way west in the morning and had a glimpse of the high peaks of the Karakoram range. Even in this light I could see an ice-covered peak as we sped by. In the upper reaches of the Shyok river, after it descends from the Rimo glacier and flows south, the river marks the geological suture between Ladakh and the Karakoram. In the stretch that we drove through, the river had turned north and west, and again come close to the Karakoram range. I can’t figure out from maps which river descended from the Karakoram to join the Shyok so far in the west.

We’d switched between the left and right banks a few times over bridges, most in good repair. The exception allowed a single vehicle to cross at a time. Waiting for our turn in the small queue, I’d told The Family how these crossing were once considered treacherous. The many caravans which were washed away in this stretch of the silk route gave the the river its name, Shyok, the river of death. But these summer floods were seldom caused by rain. They were more often due to the melting of ice dams which had formed over winters. Some ice dams can last quite long, and collect sedimentary deposits, some of which I’d seen exposed during the day. The failure of these ice dams cause enormous floods and quick erosion. This is also perhaps the reason for the wide river valley we saw.

As we approached the Hunder-Diskit area, the clouds opened up, and dappled sunlight streaked the mountain sides. In this place farming and irrigation is transforming the land. The forest department is busy planting cypress in a bid to green this land, forgetting, as it has since colonial times, that introducing an exotic species leads to catastrophe a few decades on. But you cannot fault the locals for turning to agriculture this wide fluvial-lacustrine valley fill, created by the ancient ice dams. Human sympathy is due when impoverished people try to better their own lot through historically tested means such as agriculture. However, it seems that corporations and bureaucracy which follow any such expansion of human activity create changes inimical to the human world. Is this Gaia at work?

Across the Himalayas

Home of clouds, the Himalayas have a very appropriate name. The mountains jut up into the sky above the weather, stopping even that huge global circulation which we ground-huggers see as the Indian Ocean monsoon. And what are the Himalayas but the immense, long drawn out collision of two continental plates. As the Indian plate sped northeast across the world, wheeling westwards, a ten million year collision raised these mountains and prised the Tibetan highland into the air from the mass of the Asian plate. About then, elsewhere, a plume of magma rose from the earth’s core and created the enormous African rift valley, setting into motion the changes that started a branch of apes to begin walking across the world. Now, a tube of aluminium filled with those same apes followed a high arc across the home of clouds.

Sitting in that crowded tube, I Iooked out over the shoulder of The Family at the monsoon cloudscape that passed below us. Abruptly I realized that some of the white was not the fluffiness of clouds. A closer look told me that we had left the lowlands behind and reached the high Himalayas. Below us was a rugged, folded landscape, where streams and earthquakes had carved valleys and raised peaks. This late in July the snow line lies above 5.5 Kms. So the peaks we saw were at least 6 Kms high. This is where weather stops.

In the next ten minutes we passed over heights that I would certainly never have reached on foot: a land of eternal snow. Few animals come this high. Among all the world’s migratory birds, only bar headed geese (Anser indicus) fly over these mountains. Coincidentally, we were flying parallel to one of their migration routes, the one they follow as they move between their wintering grounds north of Mumbai, and their summer breeding grounds in Ladakh’s Tso Moriri, west of Leh.

The landscape below us was amazing. Multiple glaciers flowed away from a huge snowfield. I wondered what it would be like to stand on one of those promontories below us and look down on the icefalls that I could see. The air inside the plane suddenly felt hot and stale as I imagined the bitter cold wind below, blowing loose snow over the ice fields. Sadly I was seeing these views as the last of the snow melts from these mountains. Even ten years ago, I would not have seen so much exposed brown below me.

And then we had crossed from one tectonic plate to another. Below us was another climatic zone, one where the monsoon did not reach. Wisps of cumulus floated over the bare brown land. From this height I could see many lakes dotted over the land, large and small. With the extremely low precipitation that this high desert gets, the lakes must be all fed by snow melt. As the earth heats up and the last snow melts, I wonder what will be the fate of the ecologies that depend on these lakes: the bar headed geese, the black necked cranes, snow pigeons, snow leopards, snow foxes, blue sheep, the cold-adapted vegetation of these lakes, and the many insects which live only here. Distance from the ground lets you think these thoughts.

Before I expected it, we begin our descent. Voices come over the PA giving the usual safety instructions. As we approach the ground I see the play of light and shadow over the bare desert which will be our home for the next one and a half weeks. I’m excited. I look at The Family, and she says, “Finally. I’ve been waiting to come here for years.” Below us we see a green valley, probably a sign of humans: the water from a stream used to grow the crops and trees that we like to have around us. We carry with us memories of ancestral landscapes and we try to reproduce them wherever we settle.

Before I have to put away my phone, I see us approach the town of Leh. Like every overgrown human settlement, this spills out from the valley where it was born, into its surroundings. Humans metastasize. That magma plume below the Afar depression which shattered the African continental plate 40 million years ago set into motion large changes on the surface of the planet.

Trees are not enough

While recovering from a very minor surgery in hospital, I looked out over the top of a Jamun (Syzygium cumini) tree. Jamun is one of the fastest growing trees of India. In about 6-8 years it grows to a height of about 10 meters, and it lives for about a 100 years. It begins to fruit when it is about 8 years old, and continues to yield a good crop until it is well over 60. I love this fruit, and look forward to the hot time of the year for it. The tree is hardy and grows well enough to be considered invasive in some parts of the world. If you are interested in carbon mitigation through planting trees, this should be a great choice. But how much carbon does it bind?

A decade old tree is about a meter in perimeter, which means that with a height of 10 meters, its volume is 10/(4π) meter3, which is about 0.8 meter3. Jamun is one of the denser woods, with a specific gravity of 0.7. This means that a 10 meter tall tree weighs about half a metric ton. About half the weight of the wood would be carbon (the rest is essentially hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen). Planting about twelve billion new jamun trees would be sufficient to capture the carbon that India emits in a year, for every year in the next decade or so.

Typically a jamun orchard will have a spacing of about 10 meters between trees. This means that one tree is usually planted in about 100 meter2 of area, which is about 10,000 every km2. India has an area of 3.2 million km2. So planting enough Jamun trees to capture the carbon that we emit would take about 12% of India’s land area. This is a little larger than the area of France. However, this will have to be well drained loamy soil, with sufficient water. That would be about one fifth of the agricultural land in the country.

It already sounds pretty hard. But then I found that an increase in tree cover by 2261 kilometer2 in two years was considered celebratory news. This, as you can see from the numbers above, is the area needed for about 0.02% (1 out of every 5000) of the trees one needs to plant! Maybe that means that planting enough trees to mitigate carbon emission is in the realm of pipe dreams. I’ve talked about a fast growing tree, because it would absorb carbon fast. If we take slower growing trees like teak or pine, then we would need to plant more of them to absorb carbon at the same rate.

Trees are good. Trees are healthy. Trees allow other vegetation to grow beneath it. Trees are needed to slowly suck the carbon out of the air. But today’s meditation convinces me that planting trees is no miracle cure to the climate change problem, no more than covering a pot while cooking is a solution. Pollution is a structural problem, and one needs structural changes for that. Making more efficient use of electricity is better. If I had another day in the hospital, I might have been able to calculate how much energy we can save my going off all social media altogether.

And since I’m joining in (against all good sense) to a challenge which asks us to show three photos, I must add that one should extend the title of this post and say that threes are not enough either.