Living in 402

Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.

It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.

Himalayan Cutia (Cutia nipalensis)

Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.

The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.

Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).

The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.

Silver cockscomb

Silver cockscomb (Celosia argentea) is a common weed. I must have seen it since I was a child, but my first clear memory of it is rather recent. It dates from about two decades ago, when I began to haunt scrublands around Mumbai and in the Sahyadris in search of butterflies. The spiky inflorescences attracted several large and colourful nymphalids, and eventually I began to photograph the flower. In recent months, after the end of the monsoon, I’ve noticed it wherever I go: Mumbai and the Sahyadris of course, but also the edge of the Thar desert, in Bera, and in the central Indian plains, in and around the Tadoba national park. I’ll have to look for it further east in coming years. I’m certain I’ll find it there, because it is considered to be as much of a weed in China as well. It is invasive, having originated in the tropical regions of Africa.

Open patches in the jungle were completely overrun with this flower. I find it quite strange that the widely grown garden plant, the cockscomb, is the same species, usually called Celosia argentea var. cristata. How many generations of selective breeding must have gone into creating those showy flowers! I always found the velvety curls of the garden flower faintly repulsive. I like the clean lines of the original wild stock much more attractive.

I stared at a patch of these flowers while everyone around me wasted their time scanning the jungle for a glimpse of the tiger. I love these tiger safaris; the herd of tourists act as lookouts, and their alarm calls are easy to recognize. I can leave the spotting to them and concentrate on these other aspects of the surroundings. The flower bearing stalks rose perhaps a little above knee high, certainly less than a meter tall, but high enough to make the flowers the first thing that a pollinator would spot from far. The bodies of the plant are visible in the photo above.

Historically in India the plant has been eaten when times are hard, and in parts of India it finds regular use as food. It is used traditionally to treat various ailments, including as an anti-parasitic agent. The literature on isolating medically active molecules from the plant is too large to quote here. Interestingly, there have been recent studies in using the plant to suck up heavy metal pollutants (manganese, cadmium, copper) from contaminated soil. This ability to quickly accumulate poisons should make it less attractive as a vegetable. Perhaps this is the reason its use as food persists only in remote places which may not have seen much industrial pollution of the soil. Not being prone to eating random plants, I’m happy to explore waste ground where I see these flowers.

A kite is not a kite is never another kite

There are times when the hyper-connected world really bothers me. I know the bird that you see here as the black-shouldered kite. But I must learn to call it a black-winged kite (Elanus caeruleus). There is a different bird called a black-shouldered kite in Australia, and I rant about the jetset bird-watchers across the world for whom we must change the common name for this bird. Would this coincidence mess up their lists all that much?

This is a misplaced rant, though, because the real reason for this distinction is different. The black-shouldered kite was long thought to range down to Australia and across the Atlantic to the Americas. It was only realized recently that the label hid three distinct species: E. caeruleus, which ranges from the Iberian plateau across Africa and India to Sundaland), the Australian E. axillaris, and the new-world species E. leucurus. The change of names is necessary because of a new discovery. Still, I rant because common names need not change by the fiat of a committee. Tracking species is the domain of the Latin binomials, not of the common tongue.

That morning in Bera when we halted the jeep near this docked tree and watched the bird, we were content just to look at what was in front of us. I had a close look at one after months, and I studied its scaly claws. These scales are distinctive to the genus, and not found in the Milvus kites. In fact, Elanus are thought to be the link between owls and kites. Looking at the recessed eyes, and somewhat flat face, I could imagine it. I waited for it to fly, but when it did it pushed itself back, away from us, and turned instantly away. This manoeuvre was so owlish that I hadn’t expected it, and missed the shot of its take off. Another time. They are common, after all.

Familiars

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

Once upon a time, the story goes, every part of India was teeming with birds. I’ve heard this story from my grandmother. So it is nice to spend a weekend in a place where this could almost be true. The moment we get out of the village and into the fields around Bera, we began to see birds. There were the passage migrants which we had also seen in the Rann of Kutch, and the utterly familiar endemics.

This was a varied habitat; the edge of the Thar desert, but the dammed river nearby held water. Ibises and herons, wagtails and sandpipers could be seen there. In the thorn bushes we saw francolins, bushchats, and larks, as well as doves, fork-tailed drongos, and bulbuls. The small birds of prey, black-winged kites and shikra, told us of the numerous rodents in the area. Nightjars and owls could be seen at night, flying from the headlights of the jeep. We were told this was early for the winter migrants; they arrive in November.

Bera is known only for its leopards. But it turns out to be a good place for birds too. We did not see anything we hadn’t seen before, but we did spot some passage migrants without really looking for them. I’m sure there is much to discover here.

Change and travel

You cannot change into a leopard: your eyes and nose are not keen enough, and your circadian rhythm is tuned differently. The best you can do on a holiday dedicated to watching leopards in the wild is to change into a creature of dusk and dawn. The trips dedicated to watching wildlife are structured differently. You don’t get to do much people watching. You sleep in the afternoons, have a quick tea, and jump into a jeep to drive into the granite hills where the leopards live. You arrive back at your lair for drinks and a dinner, and have another short bout of sleep. In the mornings you wake before the kitchen staff has stirred from bed, sit in the jeep again and drive out.

You could stop for a chai in the village. One is full of packaged food, the other uses the LED in the phone for lighting the stall after dark. You largely miss contact with the people of Bera. In compensation you have the sunsets and sunrises. Away from city lights they are spectacular.

At dusk we found ourselves in a jeep on top of a granite hill, still watching the next mound intently. We knew that there was a female leopard in that hill, with two cubs to feed. We’d seen the female watching for prey. She didn’t walk around to this side before it became too dark for us. In the deep darkness broken only by the headlights of the jeep we drove down the 45 degree incline. We are lucky to have one of the most experienced drivers in the place. He told us that on the day we leave he will go to the town to get his second shot of the vaccine. The nurse at the local health center wants him to bring along a refrigerated box of vaccines, since she can’t travel that day.

Under other circumstances we would have spent more time exploring the houses that you see rattling by us in the video above. They are big houses for a village that seemed to have little apart from tourists and agriculture. Baljeet, our host, had the answer. People have moved away to the cities, and with the money they have earned there they build these houses. All are in the traditional style, with little verandas running outside, the inside guarded by doors and gates. The houses are large, but the village streets are still the same.

The way of life may be different from a city, but definitely modern. Many people oscillated between a normal city life and the village. Our host talked about traveling on work to Vietnam and Japan before returning to Bera. A train line cuts through the heart of the leopard country. Trains have to slow down and sound a horn continuously as they pass, to warn wildlife of its approach. Trucks and buses pass through the village, bringing industrial consumables. The tailor promises to courier a bespoke Bera jacket to Mumbai. Everyone has a phone, and the young are glued to theirs like anywhere else. I wish social media were subject to the kinds of rules which bind trains. The Family took me on a brief walk through the village, capturing photos of doors and windows, and the rangoli on the road.

Sunrise

At the beginning of Navaratri I watched the moon rise in the east through a thin haze of clouds. The atmosphere affects our view of the sky quite a bit. On the moon, the line of sunrise had just crossed the shores of the Sea of Crisis (Mare Crisium). The same sun that rises over the moon also rises on earth.

The next morning in Bera I watched the sun rise. The sky turned from black to red. And then, as the horizon fell away below the sun, the air turned blue and bright. On the airless moon will you only see the bright yellow sun pop over the horizon in an airless black sky? Interestingly, the sun creates its own drama as it rises over the moon. The solar wind kicks up dust in a narrow 150 km band around the terminator. Diffraction of sunlight through the dust will produce spectacular, albeit dimmer, colours. I can’t wait to see the first photos of the colours of sunrise from the moon.

Landscape with dinosaurs and a shoe

On our last morning in Bera, we woke before sunrise again, and scoured the hills for the sight of a leopard. Alarm calls of peacocks echoed between the rocks as we waited patiently for the animals to appear. But one by one, the clusters of calls fell silent. The leopards had hunkered down to sleep out the day. We were close to the Jawai dam, and I thought a drive down to the lake might be interesting.

The landscape here is interesting. To my untrained eye there is a similarity between the look of this area and parts of Karnataka, for example, around Hampi. But the resemblance is superficial, nothing but the appearance of granite boulders. The rocks here are a respectable 750 million years (or so) old, having been created during the rifting of the ancient supercontinent of Rodinia. The Hampi region contains some of the oldest rocks in the world, perhaps as much as 3.5 billion years old. In parts that Dharwar craton is overlaid by the sprightly young Deccan shield, a slight 65 million year stripling. There is no geological resemblance between these rocks.

The dinosaurs have not given up on this land that they claimed at birth. They may have evolved into what we call birds, but they still range over the lands from under which people dig out the fossil remains of their ancestral eggs. I saw wagtails and open bills after almost two years. Do they regret the end of the anthropause as much as I loved seeing them again?

A shoe? How could you lose one in this flat land? Did it fall out of a careless jeep? Or did it break during a long walk across these flats? A mystery.

The weird beauty of the tiny

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Max Planck

When I decided to get a new toy, a small camera which is perfectly suitable for taking good macros in all weather, I did not realize that it would change what I saw. Quite by accident I saw that it takes sharp photos of things which are so small that I cannot see them clearly without a magnifying glass. As a result, I’ve taken to pointing it at things which I can barely see. The results are weird and wonderful. Here are some flowers which I would not have seen without this new tool. The four tiny pink petals of the flowers bursting out of their pod that you see in the featured photo is one such.

Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.

Werner Heisenberg

The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine—it is queerer than we can imagine.

J. B. S. Haldane

When I pointed the camera at these tiny white flowers on a bush, I hadn’t planned on getting anything but a clear photo. All I could see with the naked eye was a pentagon. The photo shows a compound flower, and each of the florets is so tiny that even my little tool is unable to see the petals. Is the universe nudging me to get a better camera? I will resist for a year at least.

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.

Neils Bohr

A mat of vegetation covered the edge of the land around the lake behind the dam on Jawai. Bera is not quite a desert because of this river, but it is still dry enough that the mat did not clear my shoes. I bent to get a photo of these buds. Hairy, aren’t they? But these aren’t hair. At this scale our normal language fails. You can resort to the technical term, trichome, or give up on using language with precision. I will go with the metaphoric hairy. Merriam-Webster reminds me that hairy can also mean difficult to comprehend. This tiny world is certainly that.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars- mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them too. But do I see less or more?

Richard Feynman

With my naked eye I could not really see these beautiful white flowers: the five petals surrounding a yellow center. A variation of colour in a flower is often a signpost to the nectar meant for pollinators. In this bare land what could possibly pollinate such a tiny flower? A bee would break the stem. An ant could crawl up, but would it find such a tiny bead of nectar worth its effort? My camera found a pollinator, just barely, stuck to the web a spider had woven. In this miniature landscape the savage logic of the savannah was repeated: plant, herbivore, predator. How beautiful!

Man has a fundamental urge to comprehend the world about him.

Hans Bethe

Several small plants were entangled in a patch of the ground hugging mat I was looking at. I should have done the tedious thing I’ve learnt: tease aside the strands and follow them by separating the leaves of different shapes. But being lazy, I took a simpler route. I pointed my camera at the different flowers that I saw and took photos. I can see three different plants. There may have been more, because some of the plants may not have had flowers that day. Still, I wanted some idea of the variety that there was, not an exact count. Another day, with another tool, I will spend more time on the task.

Bohr was inconsistent, unclear, willfully obscure and right. Einstein was consistent, clear, down-to-earth and wrong.

John Bell

Cornflower blue is not really a common colour in nature. So these flowers caught my eye while I was photographing the bush with white pentagonal flowers that you saw in one of the photos before. When I bent down further to look at them, I found another set of pentagons. Again, the flowers are a little too small for my camera to capture a sharper photo. Do I need a better lens or a larger sensor. Or should I invest in a good gorilla pod before jumping to conclusions? When you are looking at something so small, the tiniest movement of your hands can cause a blur.

Never underestimate the joy people derive from hearing something they already know.

Enrico Fermi

Enough of the tiny. Let me end with something easier to see: the false daisy (Eclipta prostrata). At almost a centimeter across, these white flowers are a giant compared to the ones I’ve shown you before. What you see here are a flower in bloom, and another which has gone to seed. Like its enormous cousin, the sunflower, this is a compound flower, many flowers joined together to seem like one. The wiry white petals of the ray flower look quite different from the darker polleny-yellow tubes of the disk flowers. So nice to be able to name at least one of the flowers that I photographed in our last morning in Bera.

Sleepy

There’s a thing about leopards. They are the stealthiest creatures I know. While stalking one in a jeep, on one of my early wildlife experiences, I’d lost track of it after passing through a defile in a ridge. Backtracking to the defile, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I realized from its pug marks that it had slipped into hiding as we passed, and it was now tracking us. Wild looks around yielded no results. Much later we saw it sitting on a rock under a tree high up on the ridge, still keeping an eye on us. So, if you are interested in wildlife, you’ll cherish even the smallest sighting of a leopard.

One evening in Bera, we sat in a jeep below a rock, watching a sleepy female sit on top of it. Not a spectacular view, you say? Maybe not, but majestic. It yawned and put its head down. Then it sat up and looked around, its gaze snagging briefly on our jeep. It put its head down again. Then, like an old man waiting for a morning cuppa tea, it sat on its haunches and dozed. I wish I knew more about the way these animals spend their days. They don’t need to eat as often as us, nor do they need water as frequently. They disappear into their caves during the day, probably to sleep. Human and leopard periods of activity intersect at dusk and dawn, when both are slightly tired, slightly sleepy. I was happy to sit and watch.