Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

After the rain, me

Saturday night I fell asleep to the sound of thunder and very hard rain. We’d planned a simple trek, just the two of us, to a hill fort outside Mumbai on Sunday morning. The rattling of windows in a proper monsoon storm woke me before the alarm. I looked out of the window and decided to cancel our plans. Even if the rain stopped, as it briefly did soon after sunrise, the ground would have turned to mush, and the mountainside would be slick with water. Not the easiest conditions for a walk.

After a cup of tea, The Family decided to go for a walk around the complex. It has been an odd monsoon. Very high winds, many dry spells, but normal rainfall on the average. The result is that several trees have fallen, and lots of branches and twigs have been shaken off others. These have been piled up next to paths, waiting for final disposal at the end of the monsoon. Today the lawns and playgrounds between buildings were flooded.

On a tree quite a way above my head, I saw one of the exotic giant snails which usually hide below shrubs and fallen leaves. This climate refugee must have started its journey early, but it was far from the only one. The half hour walk yielded so many creatures that The Family threatened to leave me on my own if I stopped again to take a photo of nameless creatures. I must have really tried her patience, because she was impermeable to my argument that each climate refugee has a story worth listening to.

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

Paul Verlaine (Il pleure dan mon coeur)

Oh sweet sound of rain
Ground and on rooftops!
For a heart that is bored,
O the song of the rain!

He cries for no reason
In this sickening heart.
What! no treason ?
This grief is without reason.

Paul Verlaine (It rains in my heart)

Here is a small selection of creatures which were trying to get away from their flooded homes. The colourful millipede is extremely common along the west coast of India, and perhaps even further afield (It is Anoplodesmus saussurii. Thanks for the ID, NN; it is no longer nameless). Unfortunately there is no go-to field guide which would let me identify it. It is a creature that lurks in leaf litter, and quite innocuous. The small brown snail was new to me. It had crawled out of the pool below a tree on to a giant bracket fungus growing on the trunk. I don’t know how many kinds of slugs you find around Mumbai, but I’m sure I’ve seen this species before.

Back home after the walk, I checked my phone for messages. There was a forwarded message from the Municipal corporation saying that the main water purification plant for the city had been damaged. Flood waters had breached the pipes, and citizens were advised to boil water for drinking. Are these episodic extreme rain events due to climate change? If yes, then are we beginning to see the conditions that will eventually force us to join the ranks of climate displacees?

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.

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?

Hidden world

Monsoon can bring out hidden life in the garden, as I discovered on a walk this weekend. A beginning like this year’s is not routine, but not uncommon either: a couple of days of hard rain followed by a few days of sunshine. On a tree-stump that I have inspected at such times for several years now, I found the familiar bracket mushrooms sprouting (featured photo). Through the next few weeks they will grow into amazing dinner-plate sized bodies. Are they edible? I’ve seen this variety in forests near villages and they are not harvested by locals. In the absence of evidence, I have been cautious and not tried to eat them.

Further on, I found a treasure of a tree which I hadn’t noticed before. Its branches have sprouted mushrooms in this week. The fruiting bodies of mushrooms that we see, and sometimes love to eat, are just the tip of an ecological iceberg. Beneath it all is 90% of the lifecycle, the wonderful web called the mycelium. When they intermingle with the roots of trees, they seem to be symbiotic, exchanging nutrients and signaling molecules with the host. And sometimes they seem to provide a means of communication between plants, even those of different species (A BBC article colourfully names this a wood wide web). It is also possible that the webs of these hidden mycelia determine whether or not a forest supports an invading species of tree.

But these mushrooms that I see on this branch are not the soil growing mushrooms associated with trees which are the staple of forests. Are they among the edible mushrooms native to India which are slowly being identified and marketed? I wish I knew. The wonderful umami taste of mushrooms is widely recognized, and I do not mind adding a couple of new flavours to my food. I was not very surprised to find that they are called ‘vegetarian mutton’ in parts of India as widely separated as Maharashtra and Jharkhand. On this one branch of this single tree, I found three varieties of mushrooms sprouting. Does that mean that the tree is dead, and its decay is being hastened by these saprophytic fungi? Or are these the so-called endophytes, which are symbiotic with the tree? I’m afraid it will take an expert to tell.

Looking at these photos and wondering about them led me to documentary films and other information on a wonderful world which I did not know much about. Apart from these ecological connections, there are new horizons of different kinds. An interesting article told me about the possible industrial uses of the mycelium; among others, that mats of mycelia are being marketed as a alternative to styrofoam in packaging! The next time I inhale the wonderful earthy aroma of cooking mushroom, it will not be just the omelette I’ll be thinking about.

Garden in the shade

Looking back at photos from our first trip to Binsar, I discovered that we had taken off-route walks on several days. One of the walks took us from a little temple in a meadow inside the national park up through a slope into a garden around an old and abandoned bungalow. You can see the back of the bungalow from the shady side of the slope in the featured photo.

I’d like to be, under the sea”

Lennon-McCartney (Abbey Road)

Gardens grow extremely well in the wilds up there. Over the years this rose bush had run wild, and had taken over a small slope. This delicate purple-rose colour is hard to photograph. In full light the colour bleaches away. I was very happy that this side of the slope faced north west, and was in the shade at that time of the day.

You might think that nargis, daffodils, are a dime a dozen up there. But they are actually quite hard to spot. A bed of nargis stood next to the path where it turned. It had been watered recently. It turned out that a family had established themselves in the yard of this deserted bungalow, and were taking care of part of the garden.

Bushes had been hacked away from the path to keep it clear, and posts had been planted in the ground to mark something, perhaps a boundary. The edge between open ground and the undergrowth is a good place to spot small warblers. I’m not good enough at warblers to be able to tell what this is.

This dark flower was growing in bright sunlight. In any other light I would not have been able to get that deep red on the nine petals. Nine! That’s not a Fibonacci flower. Whatever happened to all those theories of the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio which are supposed to make flowers beautiful? This is so clearly a compound flower; you can even see the tiny yellow florets in the core beginning to open up.

On one edge of the hedge a sulphur butterfly was sunning itself among the balsam. The butterfly with its irregular spots merges beautifully with the vegetation around it. Camouflage could mean that the insect is not poisonous. That, in turn, means that the caterpillar feeds on plants which are not poisonous.

They flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude

William Wordsworth (Daffodils)

My final photo from that walk is of this flower in full sunlight, throwing its shadow on a lush green leaf. The leaf has been fed on by a pest. Could it have been the caterpillar of the butterfly we just saw? The bungalow behind it was locked up completely. I wonder whether it has been turned into a hotel now, years later, or whether it has fallen into ruin. I don’t have a photo, but I recall spotting a raptor up here and hearing its high pitched call as it dove into the forest canopy below us. Some things you don’t need a photo to remember.

Yellow=Red+Green

Like many others, I went through the usual art classes at school. But even before I took my first such class, someone may have told me that you mix yellow and blue pigments to make green. These joyful discoveries were made systematic in the art classes where we learnt how the primary colours of pigments are red, yellow, and blue. This was so ingrained in my thinking that I completely ignored the writings of Seurat even after I discovered his pointillist techniques later in school.

Spring leaves, Naukuchia Tal

I could have paid attention when my science teacher tried to tell us that the primary colours of light are different: red, blue, and green. When I did not, it was a steep learning curve for me as I grew interested in the stage during my years in college. I laboured at producing colours of light for plays using a completely wrong model for colours. I remembered the great surprise I had in producing a cold grey light for use in a play by mixing floods and spotlights. It was around then that I discarded the theory which worked for pigments.

Drying leaves in spring, Naini Tal

Now, of course, as we learn to use software for editing photos, the use of RGB colours has become so widespread that Seurat’s discoveries about colour seem commonplace. Still, when I discovered this spring that leaves use the same method I felt the pleasant tingling of discovery. The underlying colour of many leaves is red. The green colour is due to chloroplasts that the leaves produce to perform photosynthesis. When leaves die and the chloroplasts begin to decay, leaves turn yellow. If they don’t rot quickly you see them turning red as more and more chloroplasts die. In spring you see this in reverse. New leaves start out red, and grow chloroplasts, first turning yellow, and then green in a reversal of the changes that autumn brings. The first two photos in this post are of this transformation in new leaves. The photo above shows the changes in dying leaves.

Shikanji by the lake, Bhim Tal

An old friend, once an artist in his spare time, took a job which involved printers and the design of colours. As he worked with software and printers, trying to reproduce the colours produced in one domain in another, his interest in colour vision and reproduction grew. I listened to him talk about how subtractive schemes like CMY correspond to the print experience better, and what happens if you add on black ink. Now he spends much more of his time on his art, but spared some time to talk about what he found.

Fruits in a market stall, Bhowali

Colour vision is a property of human physiology and perception. So the fact that our eyes have receptors, the rods and cones, is part of the story. But behind this is a layer of computational nerves, a neural network, which combines the signals from these, and feeds it to yet other nerve cells which then transmit the information, through our optic nerves, to specialized areas in our brains. It is hard to believe how we see! Birds and insects see the world very differently. Photos of flowers or butterflies’ wings taken at wavelengths invisible to us show incredible patterns. This is an indication that in the ecology in which they exist, markers visible to non-humans are important. It is amazing how much detail the world shows once you zoom in to any part of it.

Himalayan grasslands

We drive past slopes covered with pines, over and over again, whenever we are in the lower Himalayas or the Siwaliks below them. We hardly ever stop to walk into them. I now realize that I was brainwashed by old and false certainties. The false statements are the following: forests of Himalayan Chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) are ecologically barren. We bought into popular but false ecological lore which extends this into statements about pine forests encroaching into productive oak forests because of deadly human interventions involving fire. These assumptions are at best questionable, and at worst completely wrong.

The new understanding is that these are not forests but savannahs, grasslands which are protected by the longleaf pines. These chir pines secrete terpins which drip into the ground and by changing the chemistry of the soil make it inhospitable to some species. The grasslands are not barren. Recent biodiversity counts show that the Himalayan pine savannahs support more species of flora (mainly grasses and herbs) than oak forests. Worldwide, the biodiversity of animal life in forests is dominated by insects, and these counts are missing in Himalayan ecology. Apparently, the biodiversity of grasslands is always undercounted: for example, they are often full of ants, and someone really should count them in pine savannahs here. I have clambered up a pine covered slope once to look at griffons resting in this habitat, so I have first hand evidence that they are not barren.

Chir pines (Pinus roxburghii, also called longleaf pines) are easy to recognize. They have the distinction of having the longest needles among all pines. Although they are evergreens, they shed needles copiously in April and October-November. November is usually very wet in the hills, but April is dry. Locals and seasoned travelers told us that late April and May are known as the fire season in these parts. This year the winter was very dry, and apparently the fires started in October and have smouldered since then.

Ratnam and her co-authors, in their impressive paper on tropical grasslands, present a closely argued case that the role of fire in the management of Himalayan grasslands has been misunderstood since the 19th century. As a result, fire prevention was written into the law in the 1940s. However, worldwide, fires are an intrinsic part of savannah ecologies, and terminology like “prescribed burns” is a common part of forestry practices elsewhere. The argument is expanded on in a separate paperwhich makes the case in more detail, where they relate this understanding to the degradation of all types of grasslands in India. One consequence of this that most bird-watchers are aware of is the tragic collapse of the population of the Great Indian Bustards (Ardeotis nigriceps) in the grasslands of the Indian plains.

Chir pines are adapted to alternation of fire and shade. The seeds germinate faster in red light, which is abundant on the forest floor, after sunlight filters through the trees. The growth habits of seedlings are also fire adapted, as are the grown trees themselves. Studies of the effect of fire on the ecology of chir pine savannah have also been published. It seems that biodiversity is highest on patches which have been burnt more than once. This could be why the traditional fire management methods evolved.

I have spent a lot of time walking in oak forests, and mixed forests on these lower slopes of the Himalayas. They are full of birds and animals (including exotica like the Himalayan red giant flying squirrel, which has the distinction of having the most adjectives preceding its generic name). But I have spent almost no time in pine savannahs. It is time to restore the balance, and see for myself what animal life I can find in them.

A lovely spot

We stayed the night in a homestay in Lachung village. The village is named after the river it is on. In the morning we followed the river to Yumthang valley. We were on a trip to Sikkim, eleven years and eleven days ago. The road took us through a rhododendron sanctuary. I remember colours of rhododendron that I have not seen elsewhere. Purples, light reds, greenish yellow, and funereal white. It is an amazing sight, and one that I was planning to take my niece to see at the beginning of this month. Unfortunate that the country was locked down, and she was infected (she recovered very quickly). It will be another year before we can try to take that trip again.

The road continues to the open valley bordered by high mountains. It was cloudy, and extremely windy. Through the clouds we could see glaciers coming down the slopes of the surrounding mountains. Some people had camped there. I dipped a hand into the river. Cold. I was happy with a night in Lachung. There were trout in a holding pond. You are allowed to fish in the river. Was the trout supposed to be released back into the water?

It was a great place for photos. I wandered around taking in the primula, the irises, the glaciers. There were even butterflies; I got a photo of the Indian Tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis). It was a lovely place, but by late morning I had a feeling that a spot of tea would come in handy. That’s one thing this place did not have. I wished I had thought of carrying a thermos full of tea up here.

They let the Zebra and the Giraffe get up; and Zebra moved away to some little thorn-bushes where the sunlight fell all stripy, and Giraffe moved off to some tallish trees where the shadows fell all blotchy.

‘Now watch,’ said the Zebra and the Giraffe. ‘This is the way it’s done. One—two—three! And where’s your breakfast?’

Leopard stared, and Ethiopian stared, but all they could see were stripy shadows and blotched shadows in the forest, but never a sign of Zebra and Giraffe. They had just walked off and hidden themselves in the shadowy forest.

Rudyard Kipling, in “How the Leopard got His Spots”, Just So Stories

Dotted and striped patterns arise repeatedly in nature: butterflies, flowers, fish, big cats. Kipling’s story seems to be verified by biologists. But what is the genesis of such patterns? In 1952 Alan M. Turing made an observation that people have built on since then. He wrote: “It is suggested that a system of chemical substances, called morphogens, reacting together and diffusing through a tissue, is adequate to account for the main phenomena of morphogenesis. Such a system, although it may originally be quite homogeneous, may later develop a pattern or structure due to an instability of the homogeneous equilibrium, which is triggered off by random disturbances.” The featured photo of the river in Yumthang explains what Turing meant. Imagine a tub of perfectly still water. Sunlight falling on it would illuminate the bottom of the uniformly. Now take the random winds that disturb water in a river, and the random placing of obstructions below. The net effect is a series of interlocking ripples which refract the water and give that dotted pattern of shadows on river bottom. Turing realized that patterns in nature could arise in the same way, due to the flow of pigments being disturbed during the early development of the organism. Subsequent authors have studied and begun to understand how these patterns are formed by the actions of genes, and how they are inherited.

A tiny garden

Outside Kausani I found a shop selling rhododendron juice and a variety of beans. On my travels I like to collect beans to use in salads. I’d finished my shopping and sat in the sun outside the shop, waiting for The Family to tear herself away from her shopping across the road. I was enjoying sitting on this hillside full of deodars and pines when I realized that a patch of ground I’d been looking at was a garden.

It was all local wildflowers, which is why I had taken it to be untended, but soon a design was visible. The different flowers were segregated. The dandelions (Taraxacum officinale, featured photo) were placed at the edge of a rise, the best place to catch a breeze and launch the seeds into the air. The carpet of pink knotweed (Persicaria capitata) was restricted to its own patch. I love these flowers which grow at altitudes of about 500 to 3500 meters, unlike the dandelions, which seem to thrive in any weather. The mat of knotweed creates its own small ecology which allows other flowers and grasses to grow. I haven’t progressed to the point where I can identify the tiny anemones peeping out from under the knotweed.

A sunny patch held ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) common European flowers which have naturalized to these middle heights. The flower-hunting botanists of the 19th century are well known for trafficking flowers out of the Himalayas, but there were imports as well. I could not identify the stand of racemes that lay under the daisies. A clump of gazanias (Gazania rigens) grew right next to the door of the shop, another import which has naturalized. The urge to tame nature into gardens seems to spring as easily in the human heart as the flowers which we call weeds.