Slow Fade

We’d wasted the best hours of the late afternoon puttering down a nondescript mountain road. I was silently raging at this waste of a wonderfully clear golden hour. Now that we were close to home, I decided to get off and walk around Naukuchiatal to the hotel. There would be no spectacular sights here, but I would get to exercise my camera. The last light lit up the sky to the west. It would soon fade.

At one spot on the path I stopped to take this photo. I thought the day was now not totally wasted, but I wished I’d had a walk on one of the high meadows bordering an oak and deodar forest. I’d sat down on a rock, taken a photo of a beetle, and watched a laughing thrush. An hour there would have been wonderful, perhaps giving me more birds and insects. This was tame, but better to carpe the remains of the diem, than to carp about the most recent afternoon of my mis-spent life.

Now there was a wall between me and the lake. Not so bad, I thought, this gives me a different set of subjects. Quick, before the light fades, take the gold shining through dry leaves and grass. Not spectacular, but an image that I enjoy.

Red-orange bougainvilleas are not the most common, and backlit with the golden light they are made for the camera. I was happy enough with this shot. But the sun had dipped behind the curve of the turning earth. The light would fade from now on.

I was standing behind a retired colonel’s house, looking into his garden. Two dogs voiced their displeasure. I heard the voice of the master quieten them. In the last of the fading gold light I caught the other bougainvillea in his garden.

The fading light is actually ideal for this delicate purple-pink rose. I photographed a bunch which was on the other side of the bush and saw that the slightly better light bleached the colours off them. This is better. I’ve met this variety earlier, but I don’t know what it is called. I wished the colonel would come around and tell me. No luck. He’d probably settled down with his whisky and soda, dogs at this feet, watching the sun set over the lake.

I came to a part of the road next to a deep woods. This is supposed to be a good place for birds. We never managed to come here during our vacation. But right next to the road I saw this white-cheeked bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys, aka Himayalan bulbul). The light was still good enough to see its white cheek, but in any case its stylish quiff is almost enough to identify it by. I did manage to record its call too.

The hills are alive with the sound of barbets. And I’m sure they have been for a thousand years. I got a glimpse of a Great barbet (Psilopogon virens) in silhouette. By now the light was so bad that the final identification could only be done by its call. Strangely, although I heard its call all the time for the whole week, I never got a good view of one. At least not good enough for a better photo.

But the day had one more present waiting for me. I was inside the grounds of the hotel now and stopped to try to figure out a strange bird call I’d heard. Could it be a nightjar? When it didn’t call again, I looked at the rapidly darkening lake on my right. Just above me an unlit light-bulb caught the last pink gold light of the day, lensing the forest around it. One last shot before I went in to order a sundowner.

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.

Another hill garden

We stopped for tea at a little restaurant outside Ranikhet. After a year of bad trade it was still neat, clean, and well-maintained, and looked out on a nice and ordinary garden. It is interesting that the gardens in these parts of the hills are so strongly influenced by cottage gardens in the colonial style. That’s so different from the gardens of the eastern Himalayas, where there is a totally different traditional style.

Perhaps that’s not surprising just outside Ranikhet, since it has been a major army enclave for a hundred and fifty two years, and served as the summer capital of colonial India for a few years. The garden held lilies, morning glories, and several gloriously proliferating rose bushes. An unremarkable collection, but they were growing well and well-tended. A nice place for tea, overall.

A mountain garden

Gardens in the Himalayas always amaze me. Even in years when the rainfall has been scanty, there’s enough moisture in the soil to keep most garden plants happy. And, of course, the air is cool enough to keep flowers fresh for longer. But that’s not the main surprise. It is which sense the garden engages. In the mountains the brilliant colours, like in the gardens of the temperate regions, are meant to be seen. Perhaps a rose is the most fragrant of flowers in these gardens. In the plains of India, gardens are places which harbour fragrance, and many of the flowers are simply white. Even among Himalayan gardens, those of the western Himalayas are quite different from those in the east. In Sikkim, Bengal, and further east you see a lot of orchids in garden. Here in Kumaon, and in the rest of the west, orchids seldom appear. Instead, gardens have lilies, pansies, roses, and daffodils. These are flowers my mother struggled with. It is a wonder to see them growing in such profusion up here.

Roses are among flowers which I don’t like to photograph. I don’t really know what to do with them. Do they look good in colour? One moment the delicate rose shade is what you think you want to keep. The very next moment you think you would rather concentrate on the texture and the shape. I can’t make up my mind, so I give you both.

It is the same with any flower slightly past its prime. As a flower begins to dry up, the streaks of colour mature into something immensely complex and eye-catching. The texture is also so beautiful and complex that you can get a lot of pleasure looking at it even when the picture is drained of colour. Again, I leave you to play with these aspects of a photo.

On our long drive from Almora to Munsiyari we stopped for lunch at a deserted hotel outside a busy town. The tourism industry had collapsed the previous year, as it is bound to again. The restaurant next to the parking lot was open, but we were the only customers. The cook had not prepped anything because days go by before anyone pulls in. Since it would take a while for food to be ready, we climbed the stairs to the next level to marvel at the garden. We looked in through picture windows into the rooms: well furnished and large, everything in good shape in spite of a bad year. The garden was also very well kept, and kept us occupied until the food was ready. The cook did a marvelous job.

When it comes to pansies I have no doubt that I want to retain the colours. The wild combinations that nature and enthusiasts have collaborated to create are just too good to lose. The deep reds, the showy splashes of mauve and yellow, the exuberance of whites against a brilliant background, not something I can subtract from my photos very easily.

The day was getting warmer, and we still had almost four hours of drive left. So, let me get on with it. But before I go, I give you another rose, drain the picture of its delicate pink, leave the texture of the petals, and the shape of the spiral it is folded into.

My world in mid-July

2006: Kashmiri chili

A response to a challenge by a Lens Artist needed some thought. A response needed me to show you my world. I decided to select a picture from each year, as close to mid-July as I can get. Usually the monsoon is at its heaviest in mid-July, which lets me show a season I love. I stayed home some years. In others I traveled. I see that this is a fair picture of what I spend my time on. The series spans the period from 2006, which is represented by the featured photo, to the hard lockdown of 2020.

As always, click on any photo to get to the gallery.

Delightfully sweet

The unexpected rain had cooled the air down as we walked downhill along the ancient middle road of Constantinople, now called Alemdar Cadessi. It was that time of the afternoon when you need to sit down with a small Çay (pronounced chai). We passed a place with large windows looking into a cozy space where people were sitting with chai. I looked at The Family, and she nodded. Efezade was our choice this afternoon.

It was nice to sit down after a day walking around the area of the old imperial palace of Constantinople. We could let our umbrellas drip into a little stand, and take off our damp jackets. The place was comfortably warm, the server was friendly. We got our large cups of tea, and inspected the special lokum (Turkish delight) that they make here. Claudia Roden writes with feeling about sharbat vendors of Cairo “The flasks glowed with brilliantly seductive colours: soft, pale, sugary pink for rosewater, pale green for violet juice, warm, rich, dark tamarind and the purple-black of mulberry juice.” Here the colours and flavours of flowers had been captured in these special sweets on display: rose, orange, saffron, chocolate, violet. Two tiny cubes of lokum studded with pistachio: a rose and a chocolate, and I was hooked. Later we would buy large amounts to bring back to India, but that afternoon we pushed on an open door to go beyond the packets of pale cubes on sale at airports and tourist shops. The world of lokum is deep, and I think I have just started exploring.

After monsoon

After the monsoon ends the weather turns unbearably hot again; that’s what an Indian summer is. In the sweltering heat of October it is a minor disaster if you forget to water plants. The rose bush has been putting out flowers through the monsoon, because the rains keep it from drying up. Today I saw that two days of not watering it has begun to affect it.

Methi, fenugreek

Many plants are beginning to bud. I look at the methi (fenugreek) shrub. Every stalk is budding new leaves. The hairy surfaces of the leaves catch every piece of lint which floats by. You have to carefully wash the leaves before you use them in the kitchen.

Hibiscus bud

But really this is the time of the year for insects. The hibiscus bush is beginning to push out flower buds. As soon as one opens, ants swarm over it. Soon they will bring their aphid cows up the stalks. The vegetation below the spectacular flower will be thick with aphids, as ants run up and down their farm milking them.

Dotted moth

Moths have pupated too. I saw this lovely October visitor on the wall today, sitting out in full sight. The lore about bright and visible butterflies and moths is that they are poisonous. Many birds would see this yellow on the wings of the moth more brightly than we do, so it is definitely signaling that it is inedible.

Green lacewing

Well back on the wall I found a few green lacewings. They are nocturnal and have probably come here to eat the aphids from the ant farms. Lacewings are not poisonous: birds and bats will happily eat them. That’s the reason this one was sitting far back on the wall, under an overhang. In another month all these showy insects will be gone. That’s when migratory birds begin to arrive.