This is the center of India: a flat dry land with some trees. The grasslands of central India lie on soil that was joined to today’s Antarctica 200 million years ago in a continent called Gondwanaland. That beautiful spreading canopy is of the mahua tree (Madhuca longifolia). It was sprouting new leaves in April, and will give plenty of shade by May.
Trees are fun. Before I started looking at birds, insects, and wildflowers, I was looking at trees. They are enormously interesting, both as individuals, and collectively. As individuals, I love their symmetric growth in the wild, as opposed to the stunted shapes many adopt in cities. These are aspects of their adaptability. When I saw this one in the buffer area outside Pench national park, I first noticed the spread and near-symmetry of its canopy. Then I noticed how the two lowest branches had grown almost parallel to the ground before shooting up vertically, to give the canopy space to grow. The next two start out at right angles to the first pair, again branching out horizontally before growing up. Everything seemed planned for the eventual growth of the canopy.
The old photo gave me an opportunity to play with monochrome images; first the simple black and white, and next the one with inverted shades. This second one shows the branching structure very nicely. Unfortunately, the shape does not really help too much with tree identification. When I see plants with complex flowers, I know they are related; all of them are in the Aster family, Asteraceae. But the three tall spreading trees, mango, jamun, and neem are in three different families. Strangely, a close relative of the mango is the poison ivy. So trees have evolved many times over in different families of plants. So woodiness, longevity, the lack of distinction between seed and soma (trees can be grafted on to each other) are characteristics that can evolve easily in plants, and have evolved in concert many times over.
I played a little with other effects and liked the “pencil sketch” in muted colours on the left, and the “charcoal sketch” on the right. I only use an open source editor, but these are effects which are easy to obtain. A nice thing about this mahua (Madhuca longifolia) tree was that it stood alone, well away from any other tall thing. It was lucky. Trees grow tall because of competition for sunlight, and here this was, with genes which allowed it to grow tall without any competition. It takes time for trees to grow, to produce the mass of wood in the trunk and branches which would support dependent branches and leaves. Mango is productive for more than a century and mahua tree for 60 years or so. So the amount of seed produced more than compensates for the energy spend in non-reproductive maintenance. That’s a strong reason for plants to become trees. I wonder why more of them don’t.
I’d tasted mahua (Madhuca longifolia) in two forms: fermented into a mildly alcoholic drink, and made into a dry gurh (molasses). Both have a distinctive flavour, a little floral, but otherwise unique. So, when I saw that a Mumbai restaurant was delivering Mahua toffee cake, I ordered it. The description said that the dish contains a stone fruit compote, brown butter semifreddo, fresh peach slices, a whiskey toffee sauce, and fried mahua flowers. I’d not expected fresh peach slices in the home delivered version, and I was correct about that. Unfortunately, the semifreddo was missing, and the fried mahua flowers were mixed into the compote, changing the texture and feel completely. It tasted fine, but without that crisp mouthful of mahua flavour in the garnish, it wasn’t exactly what I’d been looking forward to. Pedro, you can do better.
We walked a short distance through the seemingly inhospitable terrain near the border between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. This was in the spring of 2006, on our first visit to Pench National Park. In medieval times this was the kingdom of the Gonds. The five century long history of the Gond rajas came to an end in the 18th century CE, when the Maratha armies captured their kingdom. The Gond state was completely demolished, and in present times we know these people only as a rural population of subsistence farmers. The only memory of that large kingdom is the name Gondwana by which the region is still known, and which was back-propagated by geologists to give a name to the southern part of the continent of Pangaea which formed 300 million years ago, of which the local rocks are a remnant.
The vegetation changed as we came nearer the village. I did not recognize it then, but the mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) surrounding the village were planted by them. In some places these mahua groves have a sacred status. It is interesting that mahua is a keystone species in such areas, encouraging the growth of several other kinds of plants, and perhaps attracting insects and birds. I guess the ecological engineering of Gonds is something that we are yet to completely understand. Contemporary records tell us that the late medieval period in this part of India was much drier than it is today, and there were many efforts to conserve water. It would be interesting to take a wider view of this kind of ecological engineering to see its effect on conservation of this kind. This history surely has something to teach us for the future.
The village was extremely small, just a few houses clustered together. I was fascinated by the painted walls of the houses. The dado was common. In offices and hospitals, the dado usually has a darker stripe on the bottom and a lighter colour on top, to hide accidental stains. Here it was reversed as you can see. I wonder why. I liked the patterns painted around the door. The long shaft of the yoke was fascinating. I suppose the length of the shaft means that the force applied at the yoke will be more nearly horizontal, resulting in easier rolling. The trade-off is that starting and stopping will be harder. Clearly this is a cart made for long-distance hauling on a flat terrain!
The village was not very empty. Most men were out, perhaps at work. Around a courtyard we found three generations of a family. The matriarch was almost bent double. Each family owned cattle. So I suppose milk and sunlight must be plentiful. Why would osteoporosis be a problem here? I found later that Gonds usually don’t drink milk as adults, perhaps due to widespread lactose intolerance. I suppose all the households in the village had three or four generations living together, and the families would probably be related to each other. I realize that I knew very little about the culture and history of the Gonds. That’s something I should repair; I share a country with them.