Fern leaf buds

Mistakes I should stop making: number one. Do not take a whole class of plants to be a single species. When people say fern, I don’t instantly think of them as being as diverse as the group of flowering plants. But that’s what they are. Ferns make up the class called Polypodiosida. They have more than 390 million years of evolution behind them, and enough time to find many different ecological niches to occupy. The result is that their forms vary a lot.

The spores are borne on leaves, and their beautiful shapes have evolved to give the spores a good chance of wafting away in breezes. The beautiful shapes of leaves and leaf buds are perfect for black and white photography. These are just a few species that I found growing in meadows in the Sahyadris this monsoon. The hill slopes are great places for them. Unfortunately, they do not yet gather much attention, so there is a very large hole which the first field guide can fill.

A ruin

Abandoned houses are strangely fascinating. They are places which people once called home. You can stand in front of it an imagine it full of light and life. And now the people are gone, and it is just home to entropy. What happened to those people? Why was this house not occupied? It was at a good location, right at the edge of the lake. How could anyone just walk out and leave? Or did they not leave?

The Family had strained her back and walking was an effort. We’d sat on a deck with a coffee and watched the lake through the afternoon’s rain. As the sun began to set I walked past the road up to the abandoned house to take a few photos. The grass in front of it clutched on to a very thin layer of soil over hard volcanic rock. Little hollows in the rock held rain water. It was slippery. One slip, and I would certainly damage the soil, and perhaps myself if I fell on the sharp edges of the rock. Sunset, the rain clouds, and the structure built a wonderful ambience. I tried hard to catch the sense of loss, the beauty of the landscape and the sky, the dilapidated building with a mat of grass on its roof.

I walked around the building. A slight breeze had set in and it was blowing waves over the water. The lake is large, and even this little breeze could excite fairly large waves. This is a hard place, with extremes of weather. It is not close to a town; on the other hand, it is close a major highway. In a few more monsoons the roof will cave in. Then the walls will become stumps, providing a windbreak for larger plants. Soon, the last signs of people who could have lived there will be gone.

Past the wrack line

Whenever I pass the wrack-line at a beach I know I’m out of my depth. At least metaphorically. The line is strewn with a kind of life that I know almost nothing about. A whole hidden world has been reaped of it’s dead and dying creatures and deposited by the cleansing tide along this meandering line on the beach. What are these long stems that I see? Is it kelp? The stem would be called the stipe then, and the round green things could be gas bladders. They are green, full of chlorophyll. They must be among the places where photosynthesis happens. Everything is turning black quickly in the air; it is like making sense of a garden from a compost pit. The black ribbons wrapped around the stipe were probably the photosynthetic blades. I have a camera that can enter the water without damage, but I didn’t prepare for a beach when I got into the car.

I step across the wrack line to watch the incoming tide. It’s a miracle that it hasn’t deposited more plastic on the beach. But as always I’m enchanted by the deep boom of the surf. The Bay of Bengal is one of the most restless seas that I know, a nursery for deadly hurricanes. Even on this rainy day, many of us are cramped into a small part of the beach, although it extends for thirty-odd kilometers around here. The tides have been eating the land here, and large parts of it are not safe. A warming earth has extended the season of the monsoon, even as the waters rise. A hotter earth will be a wetter earth. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas, even more than CO2. Are we at the beginning of a runaway hot house?

Do you really want to know?

What lies over the hill? That’s a question that keeps us going, isn’t it? But sometimes what’s on this side of the hill is so beautiful that you don’t want to budge. Perpetual youth is the curse of never being curious about what lies over the hill. The rest of us, we love the view here, but we want to plow on and check out the view from the top as well.

Outside the small town of Ghoti on the Mumbai-Nashik road

Sometimes you get a glimpse of it from down at the bottom. Looks like someone’s made a good place for a selfie or two, a share on social media. This climb will be worthwhile, you think as you set off.

Naneghat, the view across the pass

At other times you reach the top, exhausted. To your dismay you find that it’s not the end of the road. There’s the steep downhill bit. It looks quite scary, and the path is wet. Do you really want to do it? Are the distant plains quite as nice as they look from up here?

Crossing Malshej ghat in Maharashtra

Sometimes you wish that someone had made a keyhole in that mountain, so that you can spy on the other side without needing to climb. It does happen, you know! These hills are full of tunnels.

Monsoon waterfall at the top of Malshej ghat

But sometimes,the other side just falls on you. There’s no way you want that. You roll up the windows quickly and get away from it fast, before all that falling stuff drowns you, or washes you down the hillside. Driving in the Sahyadris during the monsoon will give you all these new perspectives on aging and geology. What you make of these lessons is up to you.

A drive in the Monsoon

Monsoon is a time when I like to travel in the Sahyadris. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, given how damp and wet the weather is, how badly road surfaces are damaged, and how poor the visibility often in. But the compensation is there for you to see. It is exactly what Kalidasa described in the 5th century Sanskrit poem called Meghdoot. The flanks of the mountains are wet with rain (like the flanks of elephants streaked with water, he said), and the grass and rice fields are a rich green (the young green of growth, he wrote).

I drove through countryside which may not have changed so much since Kalidasa’s time. Nashik is an old city, associated with the Ramayana. The Panchavati ashram, from where Ravana abducted Sita, is said to be here on the banks of the Godavari. In this season you may expect a general lack of sunshine, a gloomy light, like in the photos here. But not everything is dark. The rain feeds streams which cascade down these hills which are more ancient than mammals. It pours over trees and plants which evolved with dinosaurs, and changed with the weather. Fragile humans, so tied to the weather, came later, building temples on these ancient mountainsides.

The fences that farmers put up seem flimsy and puny on the scale of this landscape; in any case, every gate stood open. This 700 meter high plateau was just at the level of the last clouds of the monsoon. Farmhouses and apartment buildings were scattered across the green. Every now and then we passed under a cloud which was busy dumping rain over a square kilometer. The windshield wipers were hard put to clear the water cascading around them. And then in a minute or so, we would be out of it, and watching the beautiful landscape again.

These photos were taken on a twenty kilometer drive as we drove from the Someshwar waterfall on the Godavari river to its source at Trimbakeshwar. We stopped every couple of kilometers to take photos of the green hills, the green paddy fields, and the hardy wildflowers that come up to the edge of the highway. I’ve called this an electric green in the past, but I would gladly take up Kalidasa’s description of this as new green. If only those power lines would not interrupt every view!

I was tired of the limitations of mobile phone photos, so I was trying to take photos in the rain with my camera without getting out of the car. Unfortunately a big splash of water landed on it when I took one of the photos. I managed to dry my camera with a combination of towel and micropore. When I looked up, a strange formation of mountains was visible off to the side. The Deccan shield has been eroding for about 60 million years, ever since the sundering of Gondwanaland. The slow process of erosion creates these temporary shapes of great beauty. If our lifetimes were long as geology, we would see the shapes flow like the water of the monsoon which is its agent. But we are short-lived. We see the cause and forget the effect.

Dialectic photography

Opposites? I decided I would try the dialectic instead. A thesis and its antithesis, brought together in a single photo: the synthesis. I started by focusing on the water which was dripping from the shade above the balcony. It was a couple of tries before I was completely satisfied with the focus. Inside the drops I saw a blur of light: the cloud-covered sky shining through the water! That was sharp focus and blur together in that droplet, just as it starts to break up.

A potted canna in the rain in one corner of the balcony gave me a synthesis between front and back, the two sides of leaves visible simultaneously. Also, sunlight through one leaf, the rain slicking the other. More than one pair of opposites in this photo. After days of limiting myself to using a cell phone, I was happy to sit on the balcony of the hotel with a proper camera, photographing nature in the rain. It is so hard to carry a normal camera outdoor in the monsoon.

A copperpod flower felled by rain on leaves below was a strange mixture of the barren and the fecund. The rain brings new growth, but it can destroy a flower before it fruits. Farmers in this region have had a little too much of this destruction in the last few years: crops destroyed by unseasonal rain, or by rain that refuses to come when it is expected. This year has been cruel. Half of the country flooded, the other half suffering from extreme dryness. Those in the know say they think the price of food could increase sharply during the coming months.

The reflections on these leaves was fascinating. I saw them moving as the trees above them shed large drops of water. The usual trick of photography stops time and motion. Here it has done just that, as it caught the parabolas of the splash arcing away from the point of impact, while the bulk of the water drop flows down the innermost part of the leaf. A modern mobile phone camera fails miserably in catching the fleeting, something that my actual camera does as a matter of course. But then isn’t this what you set out to do when you take up photography? Isn’t the act of taking up a camera a declaration that you will be contrary and try to freeze the flow of time?

Farmhouses by the road

Drive 50 kilometers out of Mumbai and turn off a highway, and the scene changes completely. The high-rises and crowded concrete ribbons of highways are a memory. Instead, you are probably driving down a two-lane road through countryside which is lush green in the monsoon, and dry grassland at other times of the year. The houses that you see have to deal with extreme rain, extreme heat, and, in places, fairly cold weather. I kept stopping to take photos of farm houses as we drove along. The house in the featured photo looked charming: cattle sheds faced the road, and the farm house was behind it. Trees shaded the structure, affording protection in all weathers.

Smaller houses were more common. Behind two small plots of paddy fields was a miniature version of the other house. Corrugated metal sheets covered a cattle shed, and the actual house stood behind it. In spite of its diminutive size, its placement looked charming: on a higher patch of ground surrounded by paddy fields. Of course, the fields are flooded at this time for several weeks, and mosquitoes can breed in that standing water. The lovely looking place may be very uncomfortable at night.

The land had been flat but rising away from the sea, but we were now reaching a line of hills. When I stopped to take this photo, I was actually interested in the many waterfalls you can see in those hills. But then I found an interesting composition with this tree and the three low houses behind. I still got a couple of the waterfalls in the frame though.

This was one of the few two-storeyed houses that I saw. Brick and mortar had been supplemented with steel and concrete, at least in the flat terraces. Was that a good idea in these parts? The roof would bake in heat. In the monsoon the water might pool in places instead of running off quickly. It is not at all clear that changing the local style of architecture in the Sahyadris to one derived from the inland planes is a good idea.

This was such a cheerful sight that my hands seemed to come up automatically for this shot. On a day which was mostly cloudy, the sun had broken through briefly to illuminated ripening grain. The cheerful yellow and the surrounding tender green centered on a little farmhouse. For the first time I saw a house in which the front doors faced the road. The doors themselves, if you pay attention, are sturdy jobs in wood. I love these tile roofs. A little cost-intensive to begin with, they afford easy care. This stretch of road charmed me thoroughly.

Summer snow

July! A few hundred million people are passing around photos and videos of the Indian Ocean monsoon. Each of the big cities of India has a population of about twenty million, and maybe half of them are active on social media. Five big cities give about fifty million people sharing photos. The monsoon hits large part of Asia, including India and south China, and the northern part of Australia. I suppose a hundred million photo sharers is a bit of an underestimate, given how varied my social media feed of the monsoon is. Still, since I traveled to the rain-shadowed region of the trans-Himalayas, I can join the minuscule number of people across the world who share photos of summer in this month.

The featured photo is a view of July in Ladakh. The panorama shows the green Indus valley at an altitude of about 2800 meters in the foreground. Far at the back are the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, which, in this photo, somewhat exceed 6000 meters. Between them are the barren heights, where the air pressure is less than two thirds of what it is at sea level. It is not just the lack of oxygen which has made a desert of Ladakh. After all, in other parts of the Himalayas trees straggle up to an altitude of 4500 meters, where the amount of oxygen in the air is about 60% of sea level. Here, north of the Himalayan range, it is the lack of moisture which kills vegetation. The photo above shows this desert a scant 400 meters above the Indus.

The next day we drove across the high pass called Khardung La. At an altitude of 5359 m, this used to be the highest motorable pass in the world. But in these days of international tension in this region, it is entirely possible that China is building a higher road, and escalating the engineering face-off in the Himalayas. Perhaps in a decade Khardung La would have lost its crown. Still, every Himalayan pass has a charm of its own, and this is special. In July the snow line straggles down to eye level as you drive here.

The road was jammed with tourist cars parked haphazardly as excited plains-people abandoned their cars to go stand in the snow in the middle of July. I could see melt-water cascading down the hill sides at places. Above us the snow was still melting. The water flows below the sheets of snow next to the road, carrying pebbles on to the road and across it as it tumbles into lower valleys. Perhaps by September the snow would have receded further. The continuous flow of melt-water means that maintaining a road here is a full-time job.

But this melting snow creates a strange ecological anomaly. As we climbed to the pass, we passed above the dead zone into an oasis in the desert. At an altitude of about 4500 meters, we began to see small bushes, tufts of grass, and wildflowers. We stopped once to take photos, and I saw near my feet a plant that I first mistook for ajwain. But it was actually upright hedge-parsley, Torilis japonica, a hardy plant that can be seen in a belt from western Europe to northern Japan, with a spillover into the Mediterranean coast of Africa. As we ascended there was a zone of tremendous flowering before it died away again a little above 5000 m. The number of insects on the flowers was amazing. They explained why I was seeing so many small birds at this height.

Although it was amazing to see this altitudinal island of life in the middle of Ladakh’s high desert I’m afraid we could be the last people to see it. This island of life has found a sweet spot between the lack of oxygen and moisture. As global temperatures rise and the snow vanishes, this oasis will disappear as certainly as island nations sink into the rising seas. The ten thousand years between the retreat of the ice age and the coming summer of the earth has been a springtime for these flowers.

Then abruptly, we were across the pass and descending again. The snow line receded above us, but the high peaks that were visible on this far side of the pass were not the Himalayas. They are the Karakoram. Our morning’s drive had taken us across one of the world’s most active geological regions: where the continental plate of India is prising the Asian plate upwards to create these highlands. The roads are impassable in winter. As we descended into occasional greenery, I was happy with the pleasantly cool and dry weather of July.

The monsoon settles in

Sometime in the late morning of yesterday I realized that we were going through the first spell of a proper monsoon rain. It had been raining continuously since the previous evening. The earlier part of June had passed in little fits and bursts of rain. That was typical early monsoon; it gives you time to turn the house upside down looking for the umbrella that you put away last September, and the raincoat that you bundled into a drawer. In our part of town July and early August see the maximum rain on average. So the monsoon this year looks like it is textbook weather.

Part of the textbook is this first long and bothersome spell of rain at the very end of June. I had a day full of meetings, which, fortunately, in our new normal, means that you can stay at home glued to the laptop screen. I was glad about that. Otherwise I would have had to make a waterproof bundle with a towel and a change of clothes and shoes to take to work. I kept looking out of the window to see how much the rain pools in the garden. In continuous low-intensity rain like this, water can become ankle high in the garden at high tide, and drain out almost completely when the tide is low. It’s a good proxy for how the trains function. Fortunately for commuters, high tide was not at rush hour.

In the evening, as I took macros of the bougainvillea still in flower on our wet balcony, The Family scrolled through the news and read out the day’s statistics to me. It had rained a steady couple of centimeters every hour. In five hours we’d got a 100 mm of rain, in eight, 165 mm. The day had been dreary, and I’d switched on all the lights at home to make the place look cheerful. A few notes of cheer had been added by the sparrows sheltering on my windowsill, and the pair of purple sunbirds which come to sit on the bougainvillea vines. Now I look out at the first morning of July, and find another dreary day, with the clouds looking all set for another tedious day of rain. I have a meeting today which I can’t do on zoom. Bother!

First shower

Petrichor is the smell of rain hitting parched ground. Equally wonderful is the sight of raindrops on petals and leaves in that first monsoon rain. That’s the photo. The monsoon is on schedule. More than a week on, I woke on the day some places in the high latitudes will celebrate La Fete de la Musique, or, later in the week, Midsommar, and looked out at a welcome dreary drizzle and completely overcast skies. Just the day to walk out in a tee and shorts, in flipflops, to walk through the rain on Marine Drive, munching a cone of fresh roasted peanuts. Too bad it is a working day.