A walk

You don’t get to do the same walk twice. So, although this is a walk I’ve written about earlier, I’m doing it again now in monochrome, and the featured photo is one example of this reworking. I’d posted a colour photo earlier. Although I like that more, I’m not unhappy with this version. It kind of fits the slowly fading memories I have of the walk. And there is also a sort of shadow, a memory of a memory of a memory of an earlier walk along the same route in colder weather.

This part of Binsar National Park is a mixed oak-rhodo-pine forest, in a dynamic dance with pine grasslands on other slopes. My understanding of their interactions has certainly improved since I last wrote about this walk. I should really go back now and correct my earlier post. Although these pine grasslands are much maligned by local ecology activists, there is increasing scientific evidence that the politics is based on early twentieth century understanding that may need to be revised. The mixed forests are not more bio-diverse, they are only more full of larger animals. Slopes full of pines are very photogenic. Experimenting with monochrome, I found that long shots of these mixed forests are also turn out well. The white undersides of the leaves of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) reflect light very well when a breeze moves them.

I’d stopped many times to take photos of the butterflies sunning themselves on the path. Fallen oak leaves spotted with mould in the dappled light which filtered through the canopy presented an interesting challenge in monochrome conversion. I like the way the butterfly appears slowly as you look at the photo above. This is the mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), which is easier to recognize in a colour photo I’d posted before.

Oak trees support a lot of other plants and fungi which feed on them. These ferns, mistletoe, orchids, and lichens and fungi catch light in different ways. As a result, oaks are great subjects for close up photos. I love them in colour, but I’m not unhappy with the wide variety of shadows I see in the photo of above. I think I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future. I’m sure there are wonderful opportunities for more monochrome photos lurking in these forests.

I can’t leave this place without saying something about the mammals which live here. I never managed to photograph the quick yellow-throated martens which run through these jungles, but the band of Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) which I saw here waited long enough for me to take photos. I’ve posted a colour photo of the individual you see here earlier. I think she looks equally elegant in monochrome.

A last look back

The end was abrupt. We walked back from the edge of the last lake, and then there was nothing else to do. We piled into the car, nosed on to the road, and realized we had started on our journey back home. It would be a day and more before we reached Mumbai, but our holiday was over.

Perhaps I had come to appreciate the mosaic of pine grasslands and oak forests that dot the lower Himalayas, perhaps I had learnt a little more about the wildflowers that grow here. But as we left the lower edges of these sal forests, all I felt was that I hadn’t yet recovered from the first lockdown. I had not looked at the news at all, and was determined to go off to the upper heights of Sikkim before the Rhododendron season was over. The Family looked quizzically at me every time I said this. She had tried to tell me that Mumbai was already in a second lockdown, but I’d not paid attention.

It was early afternoon, the worst time of the day for birds. Still, on the way out from Sat Tal we kept our eyes out for some. I missed a wedge-tailed green pigeon lurking in the undergrowth next to the car as The Family brought us to a halt. They scoot when disturbed, so if you have missed one you don’t see it again. It would have been a lifer for me. I did manage to get shots of two of the more common birds. The featured photo is of a verditer flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus) I saw at a stop, whose distinctive colour is called copper-sulphate blue in the Wikipedia article and turquoise-blue in eBird. The spotted dove (Stigmatopelia chinensis, earlier Streptopilia chinensis) that you see preening in the photo above is even more common.

These stops didn’t delay us much longer. In no time we were speeding past Bhim Tal. We stopped at the last bend in the road before we lost sight of the area, and walked out on the narrow verge. We looked back at the lake district of Kumaon. I hadn’t even noticed the jacarandas before. Now I took a last shot of one against the fields of the valley. Then we were back in the car, turning the bend.

The last lake

Drifting between lakes in Sat Tal, as we tried to extend our day in the area, we noticed some similarities between them. There seems to be little renewal of the waters, and the surrounding activity has made them eutrophic. The green waters of the lakes are a sure sign of increasing bacterial activity, and the lack of fish is apparent. At late as the 1943, I could trace a record of mahseer being fished from these lakes. It seems that the eutrophication of these waters started in the 1960s. These studies are in concordance with my memories of granduncles back from holidays discussing the changing quality of these lakes.

The area around the lakes seems to have been divided up between the state tourism department and something called the Sat Tal Christian Ashram. The latter seems to have been founded in the 1930s by a Methodist missionary from the USA called Eli Stanley Jones and two of his associates. Gandhi had spent some time in the ashram, and seems to have influenced Jones, who became a spokesperson for Indian independence at home. Since he was in regular touch with the US president Roosevelt in the lead up to Pearl Harbor and later, his opinion may have had some influence in Washington. I cannot see any study of the letters between him and Roosevelt, so it seems to me that here is an opportunity for a thesis.

This was Garur Tal, one of the smaller lakes in the area. I enjoy walking around these lakes, taking photos. Garur Tal was completely deserted in the early afternoon. The light had been gloomy all day, filtered as it was through smoke in the air. As a result the afternoon was not too bright for photography. I took a photo of a leaf floating a few meters away. The light on the water looked oddly like grains on wood. Closer to the edge I found a leaf which had begun to sink into the water, and would be consumed into mulch soon. The stones below it looked like quartz.

Closer to my feet I found stones which seemed to have folded layers. I think this is the stone called a phyllite. It is a slate which has metamorphed into this fine-grained form that you see in the large slab in the foreground of the photo above. I found bees hovering over the water around it, their shadows quite detached from them. In a stronger light the bees and their shadows would have made a nice photo, but then the photo would not have showed the striations in the rock. You gain some, you lose some. I was quite content at the edge of water, looking around, walking with The Family, delaying the start of the journey back home.

Skimmers

Sat Tal is a wonderful place for birds, if you are up early or stay till sunset. Since we reached in the late morning, the best we could see were tourists at tea stalls. The air full of smoke from forest fires were not the best for any climbing, and the smoke-filtered yellow light was not great for photos.

We walked out over the narrow causeway separating the Ram Tal from Sita Tal, hoping to get in a bit of a walk before trying to find lunch. A shaded path looped partway around the lakes. Under it I found a couple of butterflies and two of the dragonflies (Anisoptera) called skimmers (Libellulidae). The red one you see in the featured photo was so common that I’d seen it before, and could identify as a Ditch Jewel (Brachythemis contaminata). Sat Tal is almost on the plains, as this sighting confirmed. I would not have seen it at higher altitudes.

The systematic identification of dragonflies involves looking at the way its eyes are placed, the colours of the wings, and the colours and patterns on its thorax. For a casual watcher like me, the first priority is to get a good photo. If it so happens that these photos allow me to identify it later, I’m happy. This small black dragonfly was not so easy to identify. After some bit of going back and forth, I think this is a Black Ground Skimmer (Diplacodes lefebvrii, also called a Black Percher). I wish I’d seen it in better light.

A plain earl and a restricted demon

One of the fun things about butterflies is the names. It is so easy to conjure up a tale of the fantastic with just two sightings: one of a small butterfly called the Restricted Demon (Notocrypta curvifascia) and the other of a middle-sized one called a Plain Earl (Tanaecia jahnu).

As we checked out of the hotel in Naukuchiatal, I spotted the Restricted Demon sunning itself on the leaf of a potted plant. The larva feeds on a variety of useful plants: ginger, turmeric, plantains. So the demon part of the name is easy to understand. The restricted part may come from the fact that it needs a temperate climate, and cannot be found in every place in South and South-eastern Asia. As I took the featured photo, I wondered which plant this demon had destroyed earlier in its life.

We’d decided to spend our last day in the hills walking about the Sat Tals, before leaving Kumaon in the evening. The Sat Tal area was full of smoke from forest fires. As we walked around a lake, the light was strange, filtered through a haze of smoke. I was glad that my mask could filter out most of the pollution as I bent and squatted repeatedly to take photos of butterflies and insects. The ground was strewn with oak leaves and pine needles. They formed an interesting background when I took the photo of the Plain Earl that you see above. I suppose the subtle shadings in the castes of Britain (colonial Britain had no life peers) loomed large in the minds of the colonial naturalists who named them.

Between lake and hill

Charming Naini Tal. We stopped to watch a game of cricket in progress in the large maidan on the west end of the lake. Was there a Manish Pandey developing in front of our eyes? That young man might have played on this field as a child. Kumaon has produced its share of cricketers recently; Ekta Bisht is probably the highest achiever among them. Some good playing but no pyrotechnics today on field. We moved away.

A touristy shop nearby was full of fancy candles, interesting fridge magnets, and herbal oils. The Family looked at the young girls managing the store and said “They should be studying.” At the check out counter she took a survey. Most of them were in college, working at this shop part time. The youngest had a hangdog look. “I’ve just finished class 12. I don’t want to go to college.”

Right in the middle of Mall Road was a large hotel in a meld of Kumaoni craftsmanship and colonial architecture, now completely empty. We scoped it out for a future visit. The manager was happy to show us several rooms. We loved the old-fashioned suites. It is old, and one can probably find more comfortable rooms elsewhere in town, but nothing half as charming. It even had parking. Perhaps an interesting place for a couple of nights in the autumn.

We walked along the narrow path between Mall Road and the Naini lake. Out of curiosity I checked Google ngrams, and found a surprising fact. The word “mall” was most popular in the mid-18th century, when it was used in the sense that the Mall Roads in colonial towns still evoke. The late-20th century revival of this word with its modern changed meaning is a lesser blip. We came to this interesting gate. What large eyes you have, Grandma! Naini Tal is idiosyncratic, and when the tourists are thin on the ground you can still enjoy the place.

Water ambush

You are not safe out in the middle of the lake; a determined ambusher like me will get you quite easily. Continuing my practice of shooting photographers in the act of photography, I caught these two groups. The couple were in the middle of one of the Sat Tals, the family in Bhim Tal. They say that hunters begin to enter the minds of their prey. I find that interesting statement is contaminated by a tinge of truth.

As I ambush more, I begin to see two kinds of selfie takers. One kind has arranged their lives so that they can easily say to others, “that happy me in the photo you see is the real me”. Others have not been so systematic. Their selfies take a small slice of the reality, edit out large portions of the world. These ambush photos appear to have the selfie-taker saying “the person in this photo is the me I wish I am”. Are either of them correct about themselves? We change every moment, after all.

Truth and the camera

What is truth? I can’t pretend to answer this in its complex philosophical entirety, but I could try to talk about my memories of a walk at sunset. I did this walk alone. I did not meet anyone at all. I carried a camera. If I hadn’t used it, the only truth would be my memory of the walk. The core of that truth is that my mind was roiling when I started, and at peace when I finished. The truth of the images from my camera should then capture the events that changed my mind. It was the sunset and my attempt to capture that fading light. The deliberate concentration on a problem I could solve was what settled my mind.

The mind is very fickle, turbulent, strong, and obstinate. It is like the wind, impossible to control. … When all desires vanish in a state of thoughtfulness, when the inner self is satisfied within itself, then one is a master of a stable mind.

Dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Bhagwat Gita

If you had little time, you could be satisfied with the simplest part of the truth, that a walk during a nice sunset put my mind at rest. The featured image would be enough. Nice lake, wooded path, colourful sunset. Restful. But that story hides a further truth. The image did not appear by itself. I worked at it. First, by selecting a viewpoint: have I got enough of the water? No, move a few steps. Now? Yes. But the colours in the camera are not what I see. So I’ll have to recreate them in post-processing. The featured photo is both memory and process. That is a larger truth.

Uncovering the image inside the shadows is hard. The inset in the image on the right shows what I could do quickly. Doing better than this might require a lot more time than I’m willing to spend.

But there is more to it, of course. The idea of capturing the reflection of the sunset in the lake came out of an idea which would not work. I took a photo of the fiery sky, the one which you see above. I meant to bring out the details from the darkness in software. That works often enough, but I realized that might not work here. So I would need the back up that you saw. I was right, and my earlier experiences taught me the necessity of the backup. I was completely immersed in the sunset I was participating in. So much so that I had dragged a part of my past into this sunset, forced the larger me to take part in that.

The truth that capturing what my eye saw required more than the software in the camera came a little earlier. As the sun set, the last lights fell on leaves high above me. My camera could not capture what I saw. If I zoomed into the leaves, the background became black. If I took a wider shot, then the dazzle of backlit leaves disappeared. So I decided to take the wider shot (the one on the right), then crop and edit it to get what I really saw (the shot on the left). The truth is the entirety of these photos: that it was concentration on what I saw, being in the moment, while being anchored in the continuity of myself that settled my mind.

But why was my mind unsettled to begin with? Because I had spent the golden hour of the day looking out on a brilliant landscape through the windows of a moving car. Separated from the world around me in this way, being able to connect only through random shots taken with my phone, I had been reduced to the role of an automaton. Was I merely a CCTV camera, programmed to record what came into view? A photograph is not just a record of what is in front of you, but a result of constant evaluation of many possibilities, discarding most, and capturing what is the truth in the mind’s eye. A photo requires a still mind in knowledge of itself, and a seeking towards an expression of that knowledge. That’s a zen truth, isn’t it?

Sulphur cicada

Before I took this photo I used to think that all cicadas are brown and ugly looking. Cicada watching is popular in East Asia. In Japan it seems that almost no child grows up without some familiarity with them. Each month of spring or summer has a particular cicada’s sound associated with it. So much so that a manga only has to put that sound in a panel to tell you the time of year in which the story takes place. Growing up in India, my friends and I never had much to do with cicadas. When I heard them in our hotel in Naukuchiatal, I only registered their sound as a peaceful background noise. I saw a large yellowish and black insect flying above the canopy of trees around us a couple of times, and wondered whether it could be Golden Birdwing butterfly, before dismissing the thought because the insect was not large enough. On our last morning I saw several over a nearby tree, pointed my camera at them, and captured the photo above. What a surprise! It was a cicada, the brightest that I’ve ever seen. A Sulphogaeana sulphurea. It has been reported from much higher elevations in Uttarakhand. This may be the first report of it at these lower elevations!

Woodpecker

Our last morning in Naukuchiatal was the kind that made us want to stay on. For the first time on this trip I saw a woodpecker. It came and sat down on a tree in sunlight in front me while I was standing with a camera in hand. I’m sure I’ve seen the Greater Yellownape (Chrysophlegma flavinucha after 2008, earlier Picus flavinucha) before, perhaps even in Kumaon. This is one of the larger woodpeckers in these sub-Himalayan forests, and prefers to forage in the lower parts of trees, and so is more easily visible to the casual watcher. But I’ve never seen it so close and clearly.

We were on the deck overlooking the lake in our hotel in Naukuchiatal. Just as I turned from my previous subject to face the lake the bird flew to perch on the limb of a large tree in front of us. The mellow light of the morning fell on the broken bark of the tree, and on the deep moss covering parts of the limb. The green back of the woodpecker was the same colour as the moss, and the yellow nape was a bright flash against it.

The bird circled the limb quickly, pecking at the bark rapidly. It didn’t drill; it was more intent at poking into the holes in the wood. I was fortunate to catch a photo just as it found its prey. Unfortunately, I can’t make out what it has in the beak. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen a list of its prey species, so I don’t even have an educated guess. All I figured from this is that the next time I’m in such forests I’ll carry a macro lens and look more closely at broken bark for insects.