Changes

Flowering of the Rhododendron arboreum, the tree Rhododendron, is said to be extremely temperature sensitive. My own experience also verifies this. Four years ago I found that the second week of March was too early for flowers at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary (altitude 2500 m) in Sikkim. But when I was in Yuksom (altitude 1780 m) the previous day, the red Rhododendron had been in full bloom. I verified it this year again. At Kolakham (altitude 1980 m) in the Kalimpong district of West Bengal I could see Rhododendron buds in early March, but in Latpanchar (altitude 1500 m) they were already in full bloom when I went there the next day. When we reached our hotel outside Almora (altitude 1604 m) in early April, there was only one blossom left among all the trees on the grounds. But twenty kilometers away, just inside Binsar National Park, at an altitude of about 2200 m, hillsides were dotted with the red of flowering Rhododendron. These mountain roads are extremely slow, and you may take an hour to travel thirty kilometers. So when we plan trips to view Rhododendron flowers, we focus carefully on details like this.

Altitude causes another strange change. Over most of its range R. arboreum has deep red flowers, sometimes deeper than the red of blood and wine. But as you climb to over 2500 meters in altitude, the same species will produce flowers which can be any shade of pink, and even white. The red flower in the slide show here comes from Binsar National Park, from an altitude of perhaps about 2200 meters. The rest come from the highest point of the road above Munsiyari, perhaps at an altitude of just under 3000 meters. I don’t have words for the variety of pinks that you can see.

It pays off to look closely at the flowers with these lighter colours. Unlike their dark red siblings, they show characteristic spots and stippling. On my first trip to Sikkim I’d been entranced by these details on flowers I had seen in Yumthang valley (altitude 3500 m) late in the season, in early May. Are these a different subspecies? There is a recognized subspecies called the Rhododendron arboreum cinnamomeum, but this is easily identified by the bright cinnamon colour of the underside of the leaf. These variant plants were not of that subspecies. The colour changes were not due to soil conditions, either, since you could see differently coloured flowers on trees in the same slope, sometimes growing so close that their canopies touch. Each tree had flowers of a single colour. Someone would have to do more field work to check whether the colour remains the same from one year to the next, and whether it changes if the seed of a tree is planted at a lower altitude. It is quite possible that this has been studied in the last three hundred years, and a better scholar than me will able to dig out the details.

Shoot, edit, repeat

You never see the same photo twice. I started to carry a camera with me because I wanted to remember the world as I had seen it. But then once the images are on film, or hard disk, your way of looking at it changes. First you crop, then you begin to adjust them in other ways. Eventually you learn that the raw image is an universe that you can explore in its own right. Every time you look at it, the image reveals new aspects.

I went back to photos that I took in the first decade of the century. Today my eye sees patterns hiding inside them. They were not taken then for the shapes and textures that I now found. But those qualities were always there, for you to find, explore, and enjoy. Dead coral, antique car grille, tourists in a fort, a butterfly’s wing, mirror cladding on a building, ancient tiles in a museum, flowers, a fruiting tree, a gargoyle, I saw them differently earlier. When I meet them again ten years later, I might new things in them. Each photo is an individual. You have to get to know it. Again and again.

Winter birding

Winter is naturally the best time for birding, with all fliers deserting the colder regions and flocking closer to the equator. You not only get the wintering birds, as they put on holiday weight, but you also get the nesting local birds. I missed this season this year, because I was not quick enough in the dip between waves of the pandemic to make the January and February forays. So I’ll spend a day of nostalgia about one of the best winter birding destinations in India: Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. Whether you just want to try out birding or are a serious birder, or like me, are somewhere in between, don’t miss this. The wetland (photo above) has something for everyone.

Dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) took off through the air, shedding drops of water as they flew, while I stood by the marsh with my camera. The afternoon’s air was hazy with moisture, and a shower later would freshen it up. These are the world’s largest pelicans, with an average body mass only slightly less than that of condors from the Andes, and their wingspans are twice a man’s height. As the world’s climate warms, their habitat is spreading. Hopefully this might compensate somewhat for the enormous loss in habitat during the 20th century.

That photo of painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) flying overhead recalls my first attempt at birding. The Family had always wanted to start birding, and in the last year of the previous century we took a trip to Bharatpur. Just inside the gate, on a side path next to a marsh, we stopped and looked at a stork flying overhead. “Painted storks,” a voice told us. It belonged to one of the naturalist guides who gave us a gentle introduction to birding, although we hadn’t hired his services for the day. We tried to look him up on our second visit, but twenty years after he must have changed as much as the three musketeers.

We were in the company of one of India’s most well known popularizers of the art of bird watching, luckily. As we watched these unfledged chicks of the painted stork, he pointed out the dead bird stuck to the bottom of the nest; an egret. Painted storks eat frogs and snakes. Could this smaller bird have been a meal for the chicks? Some of the locals have taken on the combination job of a rickshaw driver and bird guide. The ones we talked to hadn’t noticed. The park is large, and hard to walk through. You can hire bicycles at the gate, or the services of one of these local guides. They are good at their work, and, unless you are already a competent birder, worth taking along.

Later Adesh spotted an Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo). I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between that and the Indian Eagle-Owl (B. bengalensis) in the field; I need to look at photos and compare them closely with field guides. But the call and the generally larger size and lighter colour of B. bubo are sufficient for an expert to tell the difference. Nearby there was a nest, and after a wait we saw two chicks looking out from it. It was really hard to get a shot through the intervening branches and twigs. I guess the owls did not want to nest in a clearly visible spot.

Bharatpur is wonderfully located. You can easily drive to Fatehpur Sikri, and, if you are interested, to the National Chambal Sanctuary. Apart from the gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) which are the main species under protection here, you can also see Indian skimmers (Rynchops albicollis), also known as scissor-bills for their remarkable crossed beaks. Since I’ve written about them before, I’ll end this post with a shot of rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) braking to a halt in their flights near a nest inside the supporting pillar of the bridge on the river Chambal.

Himalayan wildflowers

Our senses are poor servants. Even colour sense, which is the most acute as it is the most important for our purpose, is weak. We have, it is true, definite names for many colours, but how many of us recognize them when we see them? But our colour names are few in comparison with the number of shades we wish to distinguish, and that is the measure of our vagueness. … Thus, we do not match flower colour, we merely indicate its quality; only haberdashers match colours.

Smells are even more indefinite. Some are indistinguishable from tastes, or the two are so involved that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. But there are only five primary tastes- sweet, bitter, saline, acid and pungent- not one of which can be confused with any smell; it is only when we come to deal with flavours that, again resorting to analogy, we get into difficulties. … In fact, we can do little with smells except classify them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘aromatic’ and ‘foetid’.

It is this capital difficulty which prevents people from attempting to say much about scent in flowers and leaves.

I quote from Frank Kingdon Ward’s book, The Riddle of Tsangspo Gorges

Walking an ancient route

Spiritually and physically, the high point of my visits to Neora Valley national park has been the walk to Zero Point. The road is an ancient trade route which connected the plains of Bengal to Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. The region is one of the most biodiverse areas in the Himalayas, and historically a dangerous border between warring states. The European orchid hunters of the 19th century had to step delicately through the hostilities between Tibet and Sikkim, Nepal and Sikkim, and between everyone and British India. Today some parts of the region see an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between India and China. Fortunately, Neora Valley has been well outside a zone of conflict since 1835. The old conflicts have left a mix of ethnicity in the region, the old Lepcha inhabitants share space with Nepali speaking Gurkha, Tibetans, and Bengali.

The day started overcast and cold. At an altitude of 2.4 Kms, the early spring weather was as cold as the depth of winter in the plains. I was glad to be walking. Our group of 10 (all tested COVID negative before coming together) was joined by a young Lepcha guide, Santosh. I stop for photos so often that I was soon at the back, with Santosh and Jatin. This was nice, because of the conversation that I could then have about local conditions. Santosh told me about his grandfather being in mule trains which carried trade through this route. Was he talking about a time in the 1940s or the 50s? He mentioned trade with Tibet, so this must have been before 1949.

The weather was going to be extremely variable here, I realized. The sky cleared briefly, and the morning sun shone on the tall trees around the path. The forest here is a mixture of deciduous and evergreens, bamboo, oak and chestnut, along with Deodar and spruce. But a list like this misses the sheer profusion of vegetation here: mosses, ferns, orchids, lichen growing over everything, the silent wars of the vegetable kingdom.

Walking through these forests you realize what brought the plant hunters here. The sheer profusion of flowering shrubs brings me back to this region again and again, and I am no botanist. Kenneth Cox writes of the early 19th century, “It soon became apparent that many of the plants from the mountainous regions from above approximately 3000 meters were ideally suited for cultivation outdoors in Britain , much of norther Europe and favourable parts of North America.” He goes on to say that one person, Jean-Marie Delavay, alone collected more than 20,000 species of plants for herbaria in Europe. This period of history completely transformed gardens across Europe. Many of the garden plants of that continent are natives you find peeking out from the dappled undergrowth in these parts.

We would climb about 400 meters in the morning at a very gentle slope. I could tell by ruts that the path was used by vehicles. Bamboo groves clumped along the roadside, their stalks drooping over us. I’d turned around a ridge and the sun had disappeared. Mist condensed on all the surfaces around me. This region gets a fierce monsoon rainfall, and also this constant mist. No wonder there is a rain forest at this height.

One of the reasons I like these long easy walks is that it gives me time to think aimlessly. The day’s chautauqua was on geometry. I love the changes that the 19th century brought to the subject, branching and burrowing, finding the tools and the language to expand it in a way that allows it to really describe the world. The first astounding application was by Einstein, who realized that gravity was not so much a force, as Newton had thought, but more, the geometry of the world, the way time warps around space. Riemann, Weierstrass, and Bolzano had actually set up much more than Einstein used, and reorganized geometry into a language with which to describe the broken shapes, the hidden delicacies, of the natural world. A rude popularization of this is the notion of fractals, but there is so much more to it. No more sterile Greek shapes: the circle, the square, and straight lines, the tyranny of triangles. I walked through a delightful geometry: my walk, like the subject, is unchanging in its objective, but renewed by every new traveler.

A vista opened up to the northwest as we reached Chaudapheri camp. The ethereal peak of Kanchenjunga was visible in the distance. What an imposing mountain, even at this distance it looks massive. The Tibetan name means the five great treasures of snow and I think it should be clear that it refers to the five peaks that make up this mountain. My trips to this region have skirted the mountain, looking at it from the east and west, from far below to on its table land, far, and once from so near that I could no longer see the peak. The 8586 meter high mountain is the center of gravity around which my orbit seems to revolve.

After breakfast we started walking again. We were looking at birds, and I was a novice in the company of a few masters. It was more fruitful for me concentrate on finding vegetation. I noticed orchids and magnolias. I recalled a description by Frank Kingdon Ward “looking down on them from above, one saw as it were thousands of white water-lilies, floating on a rough green sea.” They are equally delightful seen overhead against the sun. In Kingdon Ward’s days they talked of discovering new species, a problematic statement since the species were often known and in use locally. Today one says collected or described. More was collected than has ever been described.

This is the home range of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). I have yet to see one in the wild. I had to tease information out of Santosh. The tall branching tree that you see here is called bhup in Lepcha, a name that has been borrowed now into Nepali. It is the preferred home of red pandas. They will climb down from it to feed on the bamboo around them. Red pandas have not come to the state of laziness of their more endangered cousins, and will also bother to hunt and chew meat. What is the bhup tree? Understanding is naming, a method that we ascribe to Linnaeus, but is actually much older. From the fallen seed pods around the tree, it seemed like it could be a chestnut. The leaves were long and broad like the Himalayan chestnut (Aesculus indica), but serrated, unlike it. I think it is closely related, but I am no botanist.

Spring was evident. Leaf buds were opening up on bare branches. In one of the rare moments of light, I managed to take a photo of these leaves are bursting out at the same time. Chloroplasts will start their work when the leaves have grown for another day or two. It will then take a week or more for all the chloroplasts to start pumping out chlorophyll. It is an interesting bootstrapping problem. It takes energy to create these chemicals, but they are the source of energy. Each leaf is a chemical factory starting up!

You may have heard the story of Hanuman and Gandhamadan mountain. Asked by Ram to go fetch the Sanjivani herb to treat his injured brother, Lakshman, Hanuman brings the whole mountain because he could not recognize the particular herb which was needed. The story can be read in many ways. But when I see the abundance of plants on these mountainside, I cannot help a completely straightforward interpretation. These mountains are alive. They are a source of unknown chemical riches. They harbour a biodiversity which must be preserved for our future, and for constant study.

I bend down to look at the little blue flowers. Some kind of Gentian? I’ve been seeing them for two decades and I still don’t know what they are. It is not only hard to describe the peculiar shade of blue, but it always bothers me how hard it is to capture the colour. I try it with my camera and phone separately. I ask The Family to use her phone. Jatin tries his camera. All give different results. Not a single on actually succeeds in capuring the delicacy of this tiny flower. I wonder why I come on these trips without a ring flash and macro lenses. They wouldn’t make the sensor better, but they would give better definition to these tiny flowers.

We’ve spent six hours walking. In this weather it is not a great stress. As the day progresses, the sun is hidden, a cold wind sets in. Fog banks blow up the mountainsides. The weather has been like this for three days. By two the sunlight is nearly gone because of the fog, and sunset is at five this far east. The day is almost over, and we have a wonderful lunch planned ahead of us.

A cold rain-forest

The Neora Valley national park covers an incredible range of altitudes: from 180 meters to 3.2 kilometers. It can take several months to skim the entire ecosystem. Even our limited objective of staying between 2 and 2.5 kilometers of altitude was perhaps too much for the three days we had. It took me about a day to get out of the mental state that a year of confinement in and around home had put me in. Walking through a forest and breathing cold moist air unfiltered through a mask, being able to smell the leaves, mud, rot, and flowers was a wonderful return to normalcy. This was a rain-forest that we were trudging through, one which drips with moisture even in the coldest winter. But the vegetation was a strange mixture of oak and bamboo, pine and fern.

As we walked out of our homestay, I was reminded of both spring and the temperate climate I should expect. One of the temperate fruit trees was in bloom outside the house: cherry, apple, or peach. I would have to time to decide later. But for now, quick, refocus on the russet sparrow (Passer cinnamomeus) sitting on a branch behind the flowers. This was a male, calling out a sweeter springtime song than the house sparrow of the plains. The home range of the russet sparrow is the Yunnan basin, but it has radiated a long finger along the middle heights of the Himalayas, and can we seen anywhere from Kashmir to Assam at this height all year round. I remembered my first sighting in Bhutan, in the company of a friend who died this year. He was one of the several middle aged friends and colleagues, completely healthy until they died of a sudden massive cardiac arrest in 2020. A hypothesis of two unrelated epidemics in the same year cannot survive Occam’s Razor. But enough of that; back to the forest.

The pipeline trail has been famous in the birding community for over a decade. Named after the numerous water pipes that run along the trail, it is supposed to be the richest bird trail in the Himalayas. It was first described by the well-known birdwatcher Bikram Grewal. I take heart when he writes that he had to make several trips to see a Satyr Tragopan in these forests. I didn’t see one, and that is a wonderful excuse to go back to this incredible forest. I was quite enchanted by the extremely dense forest rising along the two sides of the trail, the mist slowly burning off as the sun rose higher. I’ ve been here now once in December and once in March. Maybe I should also visit in other seasons.

The forest is an enchanting mix of tropical and temperate. Oaks, ivy, and mistletoe hang over the trail. Just outside the path we had left behind a slope full of Deodar trees (Cedrus deodara). Here the undergrowth was dense ferns, with rhododendron trees peeking out from the taller ferns. At this height the weather was still too cold for them to flower. In the distance I could see the giant white flowers of magnolias blooming on bare trees on the slopes. Like a typical rain-forest, there was mad growth: one plant growing over another. Here is a branch of an oak tree with moss, ivy, fern, and orchid.

I had an ear out for the birds, but I was concentrating on looking at the early spring flowers, already about to wither and turn to berries. It is only when you walk through a forest like this that you realize that the natural world is not there for your eating. Most berries are far from nutritious for humans, and some may be harmful. Vegetarianism is predicated on a long history of choosing which plants are safe to eat. I did not have the time to sit and wait for insects to return to the trail disturbed by my passing; I must do that on another, and more leisurely, trip. Still, life was so abundant here, that I could see a few insects and spiders on the flowers around me.

The Family had trained all her senses on birds. When she called out to me, I turned to look at a tree full of stripe-throated Yuhinas (Yuhina gularis) feeding. This was a lifer for me. When there are so many birds moving about a single spot I find it very hard to concentrate on one. I got a few shots, but none that I am really happy with. This is a bird of the middle heights, and given their density, I wonder why I had not seen any in my last visit to this trail seven years ago. They probably migrate down in winter. I’ll have to check this later. For now, watching these birds feeding reminded me that I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet.

And in the end …

Holidays are times when you make your memories. They are meant to produce those special moments that you string together into the story of your life. If I were to answer a casual question about what I enjoyed in our trip to the mountains, I would mention the fog, the cold wind blowing up mountainsides, the dense Himalayan rainforest resounding with bird calls. But after a month, my memories of those wonderfully rejuvenating feelings will become memories of memories. What will remain is the sight of The Family doing what she most loves to do.

In his last years, an uncle who suffered from Alzheimers had forgotten almost everything that was once dear to him. Everything we loved about him was stripped away slowly, and only a core of his being remained: the memories of his siblings. No one knew what images occurred in his mind when he heard their names, but there would always be a flicker of interest when another person was introduced as the son, daughter, or grand daughter of one of his brothers or sisters. We are social animals. In the end, the stories of our lives are the wonderful memories of the people we love.

Was it for this?

Light breaks where no sun shines;
Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides;
And, broken ghosts with glow-worms in their heads,
The things of light
File through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.

The Camargue, summer

A candle in the thighs
Warms youth and seed and burns the seeds of age;
Where no seed stirs,
The fruit of man unwrinkles in the stars,
Bright as a fig;
Where no wax is, the candle shows its hairs.

Mumbai, early spring

Dawn breaks behind the eyes;
From poles of skull and toe the windy blood
Slides like a sea;
Nor fenced, nor staked, the gushers of the sky
Spout to the rod
Divining in a smile the oil of tears.

Mumbai, early spring

Night in the sockets rounds,
Like some pitch moon, the limit of the globes;
Day lights the bone;
Where no cold is, the skinning gales unpin
The winter’s robes;
The film of spring is hanging from the lids.

Zurich, high summer

Light breaks on secret lots,
On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics dies,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye,
And blood jumps in the sun;
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.

Paris, late summer

Light? What is gentle and beautiful about light? Light is a harsh thing, the kind of thing that sent Dylan Thomas off on long rants. When you have to deal with harsh tropical light all the time, you envy photographers in parts of the world where the sun slants down and filters through a thick layer of air to drip its soft light on things. They can keep their fatuous sunbeams. We know what sunlight is: a killer.

Kloster Eberbach, high summer

Midwinter’s light in Thailand (the featured photo) is so harsh that it has to be filtered through leaves to yield a photo with shadows. Compare that to the similar photo from the Camargue in the south of France. The contrast is less harsh as you go away from the equator. The mangoes and jasmine buds photographed yesterday in my balcony have to compensate for harsher light than the gentle summer light of Europe.

Second wave

Bad news came in over the weekend. Cases are up in Mumbai, and in several smaller towns. Kerala, which had beaten back the pandemic in its early days, has been going through enormous pains in recent weeks. This week, overall, cases are up in India by about a third. We seem to be at the beginning of a second wave. Friends around Mumbai have been discussing the inevitability of such a thing ever since the local trains were opened to the general public. I have been playing the devil’s advocate (what an appropriate phrase at this time) with the argument that if livelihoods are to be safeguarded, we have no choice but to let people move around. An increase of cases today inevitably leads to the conclusion that the policy changes made two or three weeks ago are at the root of the problem. Governments agree, and sometimes have gone the whole hog again, imposing full lockdowns in some towns.

My early training predisposes me to seek answers in an engineering discipline that is called Systems Design and Control Theory. One of the things that we learnt was that you could try to control a system by using its output to influence its input. This is called feedback. There is a theorem which says that feedback with delays leads to oscillations. Every teenager who has tried to form a rock band knows about the screech of feedback which badly placed mics and speakers can lead to. Others can more easily relate to the frustrating experience of making sure that the water in the shower is a comfortable temperature as an experience of oscillations due to delayed feedback.

Why should this lead to second and third waves of epidemics? The argument goes something like this. When it becomes clear that there is an epidemic, governments put various restrictions in place. But these are temporary, and when the number of cases decreases they are removed. Clearly there is a feedback. The delay comes from two sources: it takes time to realize that there is a consistent rise (or fall) in the number of cases, and it takes time for committees to make decisions.

Fortunately, the theorem assures us that we are not doomed to be tossed about forever by waves of the pandemic. If there is friction in the system then that damps out the successive waves. Where does this friction come from? One is the brutal calculus that the most susceptible are the earliest victims of the epidemic, so successive waves of disease, eventually, find better prepared immune systems. The second source is our personal learning and initiative. When we realize that there is danger, we personally take precautions. And we learn what are the most important, and best, measures. The third is the most enlightened reason of all: medical practice evolves, so that treatments and vaccines become available.

Human behaviour is unpredictable. There are no theorems which guarantee how I will act. Still, when studying a large enough body of people, there are general principles which seem to govern how such collections will respond to circumstances. There are limits to such predictions. Different countries, even different cities, have had a their second and third waves of COVID-19 at different times.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.