Rara avis

When Juvenal wrote “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno”, I don’t know whether he had seen a black swan or not. But when a master birder pointed out a bunch of brown bullfinch (Pyrrhula nipalensis) I knew that I was seeing something rare and delightful. There were several on the tree right next to the Lava-Kolakham road, and the air filled with its characteristic twitter. The light was bad; sunset is very early here. I looked at the two-tone birds, a lifer and a very special one because of its rarity. As soon as I raised the camera to focus, they scattered. The light was bad and the best rescue that I could do just barely shows that halfway down the back the colour changes. The spot was half an hour out of Lava bazar, and I kept an ear out for it. Futile.

Human landscapes

Neora valley is supposed to be one of the richest ecologies in the eastern Himalayas. On the walks through the mixed forests, seeing the layers of vegetation growing one over another, the insects, birds, squirrels, clamber through the undergrowth and canopy, knowing that most animals have heard me before I came and moved away, I had no doubt about it. But even in the middle of this, I found the landscape strangely humanized.

When I walked the Pipeline trail, the vegetation around me seemed entirely wild: a mixture of oak and deodar, bamboo and rhododendron. But then the trail itself encouraged a different kind of growth. A wall of rock rose very steeply on one side. I guess a narrow ledge was once shaped into a walking path by people at some time. The natural slope of the terrain has been changed quite dramatically on the cliff side of the road. The steepness prevents large trees from taking hold on the wall, and the humidity and light allows giant ferns to take root, and droop over the whole hillside. Along the sides of the road flowering shrubs and herbs take root, and fill the trail with the nuts and berries that they produce. The result is a concentration of birds, exactly what we were there for. One kind of human activity had created an ecological niche for another!

On the downhill side, the slope was gentler, and larger trees could grow. Their canopy started a little above our heads. Through breaks in the canopy, due to channels cut over hundreds of years by trickles of water from springs, I could see larger vistas. These ranges of hills are carved through by the small tributaries that merge into the Neora river far below. But before your eyes reach that level, your view snags on the clearings half visible through the early morning fog. Each contains a village. Humans are as important to the shape of this landscape as weather and geology.

Through such a gap I took one of the photos above. In the mist I saw something different from what the camera records. My brain is trained to see human activity, so the red roof of the building was very prominent in my vision. The camera is not a neural computer trained in the way as me, and it sees a different view, paying more attention to the nearer forest, a little less to the village in the lower slope, and even less to the villages on the further slopes. My eye seemed to flit from village to village, making sense of the houses and fields. Further along the trail I could look down at a village with terraced fields. Rice is an important crop here, and every house also has a vegetable patch. We had been eating really fresh food in the homestay.

The notion of keystone species in an ecology is an useful one. It could be an apex predator (like tigers), or a species that works the landscape diligently (like termites in Indian forests), or one that creates mutualism between species (like elephants). Such a species shapes the landscape around it by maintaining a balance of species. Humans are a keystone species, as I clearly saw on these walks. We probably started as mutualists, by domesticating a few species, then became landscape artists through the invention of agriculture, and through social organization dominated other predators to become the apex predator in any landscape. I wonder how the Himalayas would look like if we just left.

The featured photo of a sunny village perched at the edge of a cliff is a typical example of how we shaped landscapes even before industrial capitalism. A clearing surrounded by trees, houses within walking distance in the clearing, but separated from each other, that is a human layout that we all understand. This may be the configuration of landscape and society within which genus Homo evolved. I think it could be the landscape written into our genes: open land within a forest for safety, a band of people looking out for each other, but also subtly in competition for the fruits, berries, and small animals that such open spaces inside forests foster. In the featured photo you can probably just see that dark bird perched on a tree to the left of the village. The photo above is a zoom for a closer look at the maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii).

Village Kolakham

Kolakham village had the charming look of the villages up in this corner of the Himalayas, in the part of Bengal which nudges up on Sikkim and Bhutan. It is not just the Nepali language that distinguishes people of this region from the rest of Bengal. I walked into the kitchen in the morning to hear a song on the radio playing softly. It wasn’t in Nepali. The Tibetan song was a religious tune which the cook, a Buddhist, was listening to. None of these are the essential distinction between people in these villages, 2 kilometers above sea level, and those down at the foothills. Our driver put it neatly, “The people down there speak the same Nepali as us, but they don’t smile and help.”

Every house is built on two levels. This log cabin has an upper level which faces directly on to the road, and serves as a combination shop and roadside restaurant. The lower level, partly log covered over with metal sheets (perhaps as protection against wind) is where the family lives. This opens out into a garden with a gate which leads up from the road below. You can always build multiple views when you make a house on a slope.

Not all houses are made of logs. More common are these timber-frame houses. Woven cane mats are nailed to the frame, and daubed over with a thin layer of plaster. It is a mixed technique: wattle-and-daub meets timber-frame. In these forests of oak, pine, and bamboo, these are easily available material. Also, when there is an earthquake, as there is once or twice in a person’s lifetime, you will not be buried under heavy building material.

The simplicity of construction means that most people try their hand at building their own houses. This beautifully constructed door was clearly built by an amateur. It is slightly out of true, the frame not quite a rectangle. The elements of the door have been joined together by an amateur carpenter. I loved this. When you travel through the country you see a lot of naive folk art. It is wonderful to see the same naive aesthetics in architecture.

I am over-simplifying, of course. There were at least three concrete houses in the village. These are built by specialists. But these are mountain villages, after all. Even the workers and their employers have a pleasant relationship. In a different village, at a house under construction, I saw three workers take a break as the lady of the house brought them cups of tea and some snacks. Life is hard up here, but, by and large, people pitch in together. The most visible part of life up here are the flowers that you find in the garden and porches of each brightly coloured house. You could not miss the fact that it was early in spring.

The village has a little movie theater. Not as old-fashioned as the hand-cranked movie projectors that you could see in villages in the last century; this movie theater probably shows videos. 4G connectivity was easy, but I guess there is a market for things you cannot stream. I also liked the physical distancing marks on the road, in a village which hasn’t had a single recorded case of COVID-19.

27° 06′ 05″ N 88° 40′ 40″ E

The village is called Kolakham. A few houses nestle in the middle of one of the arms of a huge U of cliffs around the deep Neora valley, about 2000 meters above sea level. We woke just before dawn, had our tea, and were ready for a morning of bird-watching. The area has been free of COVID-19 for some time, and we had tested negative. In any case, between 6 and 8 in the morning we did not meet anyone on the black-topped road which makes a tight w through the slopes along the houses. It was nice to be able to walk through the hills without masks, breathing in the cold foresty air.

Right in the garden of the homestay we saw the colourful Mrs. Gould’s sunbird, too active for good photography so early in the morning. The light improved through our two hours-long walk. It was done at the halting pace of birdwatchers, going back and forth, trotting now and then to catch up with a tree-hopper, immense frustration with the camera, and absolute elation at the number of lifers. I also got to try out my new eyes. I have been happy living without spectacles in the city for the couple of months since my eye surgery. But artificial lenses are tuned to the life most people lead, and it is clear that birdwatchers are not a major category for people who design prosthetics. I will have to get spectacles to look at warbler-sized birds beyond 20 or 30 meters.

All the birds in the photos in this post are lifers, I’d never seen them before. The Rufous Sibia was a surprise; I’ve been at this height very often, and it is a common bird at this elevation. I should have seen it before. That’s why you need to come back to nearly the same place again and again.