This shuffling madness

What surrounds us? Where do we go when we break out of one thing? Thinking about it while looking at my old photos, I saw a few themes. We are constantly surrounded by machinery. If we stop to look at it, most of it is beautiful. It is painful to stop to look at the beauty of a jackhammer as it pulverizes a pavement near us, but that’s a part environment that me, you, and the toddler down the road are immersed in. Why would I not take pleasure in it? A few generations ago people did routinely, as you can tell by the decorative curlicues of cast iron that 19th century machines were made of. But today’s sleek minimal lines, or the organization of bundles of wires are equally deeply thought out.

But looking at a record of my life over a period of a year, almost twenty years ago, what surprised me most was that it was a hodge podge, not at all like my memories. In my mind I had divided it into work and pleasure, travel and home, domestic or foreign travel, nature or artificial. But in the photos they run together: a bit of this, and later in the day something else. Somewhere one day in the week, elsewhere far away for another few days. I’m constantly shuffling between contexts. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. So all this talk of themes is just one way to make the story easier to tell.

But let’s continue with that. Another constant in our life is the commute that we do. No matter where we live, there are hubs where people gather to wait for trains, buses or airplanes. There are clusters of taxis, autos, or rickshaws waiting to be hired. There is the rattle and roar of traffic passing over bridges or down roads somewhere near us. When I have the time I like to take photos of this kind of social environment that we create around us, no matter where we live: Mumbai, Paris, Kolkata, or the village where I spent a month.

But maybe that’s not what we first think of when we think of the world that we are immersed in. Perhaps we think first of all of the life around us: creatures that enter our homes and our neighbourhoods, or those that we have to travel far to see. They are always a pleasure to photograph. But I didn’t remember then that a gecko hiding behind a curtain is as wild as a doe with her calf in a jungle.

Or perhaps we think of something even bigger when we hear the word environment. The world is large enough to contain everything that we do. It will endure even if (when?) we change it so that we, and our familiar environment, can no longer exist. That is something that I hold in my mind as we enter the week that ends with the World Environment Day.

The bittern-ness of life

Yellow bitterns (Ixobrychus sinensis) are common waterbirds which I seldom see. Their habitat is reeds. They live and hunt among them. They also nest and raise their young among them. Reeds are not your typical coastal vegetation, so I always keep an eye out for these bitterns when I see a place like Mangalajodi. Sure enough, there were many of them, most skulking at the base of the reeds, waiting for an unlucky fish or insect to surface. Their downward gaze made it easy to see the small black cap on top their heads which is a characteristic for identification. But some also took flight between reed beds, showing the black wings which are another mark.

They are resident birds over most of south and south-east Asia, all the way from the Thar desert to the Philippines, and north into eastern Siberia. But they are also good flyers. In the coming centuries, as the weather continues to change, I’m sure they will find places to settle in. There are sightings reported in Muscat and Oman, and southwards in northern Papua-New Guinea. I found reports of a breeding population of about 200 in the Seychelles. There was also a report of a breeding population as far west as Egypt, verified by DNA bar-coding, although no count has been made there. They haven’t crossed the Pacific yet, nor jumped into Australia, but I found reports of sightings in Micronesia. They could potentially hopscotch across the Pacific before the seas rise much further.

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?

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.

Summer snow

July! A few hundred million people are passing around photos and videos of the Indian Ocean monsoon. Each of the big cities of India has a population of about twenty million, and maybe half of them are active on social media. Five big cities give about fifty million people sharing photos. The monsoon hits large part of Asia, including India and south China, and the northern part of Australia. I suppose a hundred million photo sharers is a bit of an underestimate, given how varied my social media feed of the monsoon is. Still, since I traveled to the rain-shadowed region of the trans-Himalayas, I can join the minuscule number of people across the world who share photos of summer in this month.

The featured photo is a view of July in Ladakh. The panorama shows the green Indus valley at an altitude of about 2800 meters in the foreground. Far at the back are the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, which, in this photo, somewhat exceed 6000 meters. Between them are the barren heights, where the air pressure is less than two thirds of what it is at sea level. It is not just the lack of oxygen which has made a desert of Ladakh. After all, in other parts of the Himalayas trees straggle up to an altitude of 4500 meters, where the amount of oxygen in the air is about 60% of sea level. Here, north of the Himalayan range, it is the lack of moisture which kills vegetation. The photo above shows this desert a scant 400 meters above the Indus.

The next day we drove across the high pass called Khardung La. At an altitude of 5359 m, this used to be the highest motorable pass in the world. But in these days of international tension in this region, it is entirely possible that China is building a higher road, and escalating the engineering face-off in the Himalayas. Perhaps in a decade Khardung La would have lost its crown. Still, every Himalayan pass has a charm of its own, and this is special. In July the snow line straggles down to eye level as you drive here.

The road was jammed with tourist cars parked haphazardly as excited plains-people abandoned their cars to go stand in the snow in the middle of July. I could see melt-water cascading down the hill sides at places. Above us the snow was still melting. The water flows below the sheets of snow next to the road, carrying pebbles on to the road and across it as it tumbles into lower valleys. Perhaps by September the snow would have receded further. The continuous flow of melt-water means that maintaining a road here is a full-time job.

But this melting snow creates a strange ecological anomaly. As we climbed to the pass, we passed above the dead zone into an oasis in the desert. At an altitude of about 4500 meters, we began to see small bushes, tufts of grass, and wildflowers. We stopped once to take photos, and I saw near my feet a plant that I first mistook for ajwain. But it was actually upright hedge-parsley, Torilis japonica, a hardy plant that can be seen in a belt from western Europe to northern Japan, with a spillover into the Mediterranean coast of Africa. As we ascended there was a zone of tremendous flowering before it died away again a little above 5000 m. The number of insects on the flowers was amazing. They explained why I was seeing so many small birds at this height.

Although it was amazing to see this altitudinal island of life in the middle of Ladakh’s high desert I’m afraid we could be the last people to see it. This island of life has found a sweet spot between the lack of oxygen and moisture. As global temperatures rise and the snow vanishes, this oasis will disappear as certainly as island nations sink into the rising seas. The ten thousand years between the retreat of the ice age and the coming summer of the earth has been a springtime for these flowers.

Then abruptly, we were across the pass and descending again. The snow line receded above us, but the high peaks that were visible on this far side of the pass were not the Himalayas. They are the Karakoram. Our morning’s drive had taken us across one of the world’s most active geological regions: where the continental plate of India is prising the Asian plate upwards to create these highlands. The roads are impassable in winter. As we descended into occasional greenery, I was happy with the pleasantly cool and dry weather of July.

The tiger of summer

Burning days bring tigers out of hiding. This has been a record breaking summer. We traveled to the protected jungle of Jim Corbett National Park at this time because we knew that extreme heat simplifies the behaviour of tigers. In such adverse conditions a tiger would be concerned only with food, water, and rest. Humans like us had one more need: a connect with ancient times, with nature. Sure enough, as the morning became warmer, there was a movement in the grass, a striped orange, black, and white shape.

All the tigress wanted to do was to walk down-slope to the water. We spotted her as she came down a ridge through tall grass. The slim muscled body was powerful, rendering the steep downhill motion into a graceful slinky walk. I can imagine the fascination of our ancestors, the immense attractiveness of this predator, balancing the danger that it poses. The descriptors attached to tigers in the various Indian languages bring this ancestral memory to us.

A long slow walk, and an occasional look at distant chital. You could feel the calculation in its mind. Do I need food more than water right now? Instincts, you may call it, but not to the sense of self that every animal has. The pauses gave me photos. The featured photo is from such a moment of calculation, its face round like a pot, powerful jaws open, the yellow eyes looking at prey, until it gave in to a greater desire: water. It crossed the road in front of us and walked down another slope.

This tigress must have been incredibly uncomfortable. Tigers evolved in colder climates, and now, in the late anthropocene, as our world comes closer to its end, this one had been pushed to the end of its zone of comfort. She didn’t even walk to the water. She just plopped down in the soft mud and panted. There was a small recent wound in her shoulder. Had she got it in a hunt or in a boundary dispute with another tiger? Our driver, a certified guide, told us that she was twelve years old. She probably had three to four years of life left. The disputes would become more common, and she could even be evicted before her death from her prime territory: shade, food, and water all close by.

After about fifteen minutes, when she’d cooled a bit, she got up and sought water. Further off a mugger (Crocodylus palustris) and a gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) basked in the sun. Those aquatic predators would have engaged my attention on another day. Today my camera did not stray from the tigress. The larger biosphere reserve that Jim Corbett NP is part of will give tigers a route to higher altitudes and more suitable temperatures in coming years, as India warms.

This was her payoff. The hour-long trudge from the deep shade of the jungle, across the long grassland, into the edge of the water was finally done. She settled in like any contented mammal. I had the distinct feeling that a rubber duckie would have been as welcome here as in any bath tub; any excuse to stay in the water would do. She outlasted us in patience. Our morning’s allocated slot in the jungle was nearly over, and we had to leave. When we came back in the afternoon she’d left. There was no shade over the water, and it would have got too warm for her soon after we left.

Earth Day 2022

Counterculture or moon shots? Rachel Carson or James Lovelock? What prompted U Thant, the Secretary General of the UN in 1969, to sign the declaration to bring about an annual Earth Day? The first one was celebrated in 1970, the Paris Climate Treaty was signed on another. Now in a year that has seen record breaking heat waves simultaneously at both poles (40 Celsius above normal in Antarctica, 30 Celsius above in the Arctic) in a week in early March, and a heat wave in April covering south east, south, and central Asia, Earth Day has come around again. All tipping points are long past, now it is a matter of survival.

The risk of Armageddon has risen dramatically. Stay bullish on stocks over a 12-month horizon.

Attributed to BCA Research in a tweet

We have known for quite a while that climate changes in the past couple of million years drove the evolution of the genus Homo. A brilliant new paper gathers archaeological and computational evidence that Homo sapiens arose in a climate change event 300-400 thousand years ago. If we are the product of a climate change, it stands to reason that large changes in the global climate can drive us into extinction, or at least into a population crash. If the weather is not the end of us, it could be the end of civilization. Quite a storm? Place a buy order with your broker. Better still, read some books or listen to an interesting lecture. Some suggestions follow.

Grasslands of India by Jayashree Ratnam (on Youtube)

Yesterday I listened to Ratnam’s talk about the unrecognized savannas of India. She gave a very clear definition: if the tree canopy is not continuous, then it is a savanna. The sunlight percolating to the ground allows lots of ground layer plants to grow. As a result, the competition to reach the sun does not drive the ecology, and it is totally different from a forest with a canopy. Whenever I’ve traveled in the last couple of years I’ve come across a savanna mis-classified as a degraded forest. As a result of this colonial-era mistake these habitats are being destroyed and species which need such a habitat are now endangered: the black buck, the Indian elephant, the great Indian bustard, the Bengal Florican. Ratnam gave a wonderful account of the under-counting of biodiversity in such biomes. She went on to talk about the cost of this mistake in climate mitigation efforts. Large scale tree planting in these biomes kill the undergrowth and release soil carbon into the atmosphere which is not compensated by the trees. The discussion at the end was specially interesting.

A take-away lesson: by merely re-focusing on highly modified ecologies like cities, roads, their verges and those of farmlands, the very large economy that has been built around carbon-neutrality can work without endangering grassland species.

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday (Penguin)

Traveling across the planet can give us a view of the enormous variety of life that shares this current climate with us. But they are mostly limited to what grows in this current range of temperatures, humidity, or oxygen and CO2 in the atmosphere. Halliday then takes us on a tour of what kinds of biomes the earth supported in vastly different eras. The billion year journey is illuminating: our current crisis is not a crisis for the earth, it is for our own survival. A changed climate will support different animals and different plants.

A take-away lesson: the earth endures, species don’t.

A Natural History of the Future by Rob Dunn (Hachette)

If you live in a city you might have noticed the life around you. Not just the gardens full of roses, other colourful flowers, and the weeds, the songbirds, pigeons, and crows, dogs and rats and their individual fleas, the mosquitos, flies, and the cockroaches, but also the lichens and mosses that grown on concrete, SARS-CoV-2, and other diseases, all live in an ecology we have created. Dunn writes about how the human-modified environment drives evolution. One of the interesting chapters in the book looks at the particular ecological niche that we humans occupy. Interestingly, most humans continue to occupy this niche even today. Across the globe today, and in recorded history, less ideal climates, or extreme climate variability, generally contribute to a fall in GDP and an increase in violent crime.

A take-away lesson: free movement is essential for the survival of species as the climate changes; so one needs to create green corridors joining different biospheres. It is an interesting political exercise to think that the same lesson also holds for humans.

Terning gullible

Evening fell on Bhigwan lake as we gave up our search for the Taiga Bean Goose and drifted gently to a spit of land where a mass of brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) were preparing to roost. The noisy squawks and squabbling of a typical gull colony had died down. A few had gone to sleep, tucking their heads down on their shoulders. When these birds sleep, their knees lock so that they don’t keel over. Most species of birds alternately put one hemisphere of their brains to sleep: the eye that faces out from the shoulder is connected to the hemisphere which is awake.

Brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus)

Most of these birds still had the winter’s white head with just a small dark “ear muff” colouring well behind their eyes. But in a very few the head had turned that rich dark brown which signifies that they are ready to breed. It was the middle of March, and the day had been very hot, so it was time for these birds to begin their flights back to Ladakh, Mongolia, and Tajikistan, where they breed. On days like that I wish I was ready to fly off to these cold high plateaus too.

River terns (Sterna aurantia)

As we drifted we saw, for the first time that day, a group of river terns (Sterna aurantia). All of them had developed the fully black caps and the bright bills which denote the coming of spring. Appropriate enough, since Holi was just three days away. We’d last seen them in masses from a boat on the Chambal river. It was good to see them here, closer to home. Since they are resident birds, there will be opportunities of seeing them over the breeding season, which continues till the beginning of the monsoon. In most species of terns individuals do not begin to breed at the end of their first year. The river terns seem to be an exception. You might expect that this would make them less vulnerable to habitat loss, but we seem to have taken care of this roadblock to extinction by polluting most water bodies around us.

Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini)

When you spend enough time staring at a flock you see the little things you may have missed at first. There was a Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini) hiding among them. Once considered a separate species, it is now treated as just another subspecies of lesser black-backed gulls. The rest of the species breeds in the west of Europe, but the population which includes the individual we saw comes from the far northern tundra of Russia, breeding along the coast of the Laptev Sea. This sea contributes most of the ice in the Arctic Ocean. Its harsh climate made for a very weird ecosystem. But now, as the world warms and the sea ice production falls off, this gull is seeing its breeding grounds become subject to the fastest changing climate in the world. It lives at the thin edge of climate change. On that peaceful, rapidly cooling, evening I wondered how the bird life of Bhigwan would change in the lifetime of the eight year old youngster who watched all this with me.

Wet pentameter

Mumbai changes water into money,
converting sea to sky-scrapers. The wealth
of India poured from its port once; cotton,
gold, opium, sailed the seas to buy tea and
flamingo mallets for a Mad Hatter’s
party on a distant shore. A warm rain now
pours on rock heaping into new caves built
for people who fly to more distant shores.

Now the waiting ocean rises again,
unheeded at the further ends of the
land. In mangrove forests, home to tringa
and turtles, plastic bottles rise unseen
from the mud where fiddler crabs burrow. Silent,
slow, but determined, the tide rises to
claim its right. The concrete tetrapods, the
sea walls, Marine Drive, will last, becoming
home to new generations of shrimps and
crabs, that some new fishermen will harvest.

The ocean lends water to the monsoon.
The clouds pour their flood over mountain-sides,
bringing the ocean’s waters to the rice that
feeds the people who fill monsoon waters
with their filth and flush it back into the
mother water. The black water kills the
slow fruits of the sea, and the fish and the
sharks which eat them. The rising waters will chew
at this filth and clean it. The rice will still
grow, the clean rain will still fall on the hills
a million years later. But who will know?

The changing city spins its lights. On. Off.
A frozen Neptune guards the waters of
a porta-potty. A dockyard is closed off.
A port moves from one shore of a harbour
to another. New tunnels, electric buses,
sea taxis. The last gasp before sinking.
Blue cherenkov light threads a creek where new
bacteria breed. When? How long? How much longer?

Unplanned. Unexpected. Unforeseen.

Walking through certain parts of Mumbai you come face to face with once unforeseen histories. For example, in the early 20th century CE, when most of the buildings in south Bombay were planned, the British empire seemed rock solid. Even the first world war yielded benefits. The end of the Ottoman Empire meant more profit in West Asia. When Japan attacked Russia and invaded China, it occupied a rival which had designs on central Asia. The empire advanced in Africa too. Bombay and Calcutta were fast becoming rivals for the second city of the Empire (G. B. Shaw wrote a play in which the capital had moved to Calcutta). Those wonderful Edwardian structures lay neglected for decades after the Empire fell due to overreach. The sandstone carvings in the featured photo seem to have come alive in these years. Now I see a slow restoration of buildings in south Mumbai as India’s economy makes a fitful start after the pandemic.

The story of Vijayanagara is another such. When Colin McKenzie discovered the first ruins in the modern day village of Hampi in 1800, he didn’t know that he had chanced upon a city which rivalled Beijing in the heydays of the Mings. The kingdom had its beginning as usual: a general realizing that the empire he served had weakened enough that he could carve a portion of it out for himself. When Harihara took parts of Karnataka from the Hoysala empire in the 14th century, the startup could have flamed out in a couple of generations like many others. Instead, his descendants discovered diamond mines, built up military prowess and industries like iron smelting, took the surplus, both iron and steel, and carefully bred horses, into trade and expanded. You can see the growing prosperity in the ruins of palace architecture as it progressed from post-and-lintel to elaborately carved arches within three centuries. Then, in the mid-17th century, when a neighbouring kingdom obtained a new steel-making technology, it could build cannons which overpowered the final remnants of Vijayanagara. All of this was a series of accidents, on which some people gambled and won.

Some years ago as I passed through Meghalaya, I saw the pristine jungles being torn apart by illegal quarrying. The limestone goes into the construction industry as the rest of India builds its infrastructure. A then-unforeseen consequence was this haphazard mining. In the last decade there has been an attempt to regulate this, and preserve this natural heritage. But one unexpected effect has been the discovery of a cave in which stalactites have preserved the evidence of a climate shift about 4200 years ago which may have destroyed Civilization 1.0. This change would not only have been unexpected, but also unrecognizable, to the people of Akkad, Mohenjodaro, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and the Aegean, as they struggled with failing agriculture and supply chains.

Sometimes changes can be foreseen, but its direction still remains hard to predict. As the infant drooling over The Family in the photo above grows up, he stops drooling, becomes picky about food, and bounces between walls when kept in quarantine. All entirely predictable. But what will he become later in life? We can plan as much as we want, but watching a child grow can be both alarming and happy. But absolutely unpredictable.

And this? A clear lesson that we do not deal well with change. It is entirely predictable that some things will outlive their use. Why can’t we possibly design them to decay quickly? The rusting jeep will probably disappear relatively soon, its metals taken up and dispersed through the environment by bacteria which happily chelate heavy metals. The little plastic discards heaping up around this rusting hulk may well outlast Civilization 2.0.