Human landscapes

Neora valley is supposed to be one of the richest ecologies in the eastern Himalayas. On the walks through the mixed forests, seeing the layers of vegetation growing one over another, the insects, birds, squirrels, clamber through the undergrowth and canopy, knowing that most animals have heard me before I came and moved away, I had no doubt about it. But even in the middle of this, I found the landscape strangely humanized.

When I walked the Pipeline trail, the vegetation around me seemed entirely wild: a mixture of oak and deodar, bamboo and rhododendron. But then the trail itself encouraged a different kind of growth. A wall of rock rose very steeply on one side. I guess a narrow ledge was once shaped into a walking path by people at some time. The natural slope of the terrain has been changed quite dramatically on the cliff side of the road. The steepness prevents large trees from taking hold on the wall, and the humidity and light allows giant ferns to take root, and droop over the whole hillside. Along the sides of the road flowering shrubs and herbs take root, and fill the trail with the nuts and berries that they produce. The result is a concentration of birds, exactly what we were there for. One kind of human activity had created an ecological niche for another!

On the downhill side, the slope was gentler, and larger trees could grow. Their canopy started a little above our heads. Through breaks in the canopy, due to channels cut over hundreds of years by trickles of water from springs, I could see larger vistas. These ranges of hills are carved through by the small tributaries that merge into the Neora river far below. But before your eyes reach that level, your view snags on the clearings half visible through the early morning fog. Each contains a village. Humans are as important to the shape of this landscape as weather and geology.

Through such a gap I took one of the photos above. In the mist I saw something different from what the camera records. My brain is trained to see human activity, so the red roof of the building was very prominent in my vision. The camera is not a neural computer trained in the way as me, and it sees a different view, paying more attention to the nearer forest, a little less to the village in the lower slope, and even less to the villages on the further slopes. My eye seemed to flit from village to village, making sense of the houses and fields. Further along the trail I could look down at a village with terraced fields. Rice is an important crop here, and every house also has a vegetable patch. We had been eating really fresh food in the homestay.

The notion of keystone species in an ecology is an useful one. It could be an apex predator (like tigers), or a species that works the landscape diligently (like termites in Indian forests), or one that creates mutualism between species (like elephants). Such a species shapes the landscape around it by maintaining a balance of species. Humans are a keystone species, as I clearly saw on these walks. We probably started as mutualists, by domesticating a few species, then became landscape artists through the invention of agriculture, and through social organization dominated other predators to become the apex predator in any landscape. I wonder how the Himalayas would look like if we just left.

The featured photo of a sunny village perched at the edge of a cliff is a typical example of how we shaped landscapes even before industrial capitalism. A clearing surrounded by trees, houses within walking distance in the clearing, but separated from each other, that is a human layout that we all understand. This may be the configuration of landscape and society within which genus Homo evolved. I think it could be the landscape written into our genes: open land within a forest for safety, a band of people looking out for each other, but also subtly in competition for the fruits, berries, and small animals that such open spaces inside forests foster. In the featured photo you can probably just see that dark bird perched on a tree to the left of the village. The photo above is a zoom for a closer look at the maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii).

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.