Softly drawing out memories

Have you ever been in an art gallery and heard someone “explain” a piece of art to a companion? If you have, then you might remember a touch of annoyance at what was clearly a wrong explanation. Later, when I think about such incidents, I’m amazed by the way exactly the same image can draw different reactions from people. That is a lesson for me, when I create images. What I show can be totally different for different people. The grass flowers in the featured photo evoke in me a sense of their softness. I have memories of walking through fields of kans grass (Saccharum spontaneum) and feeling the soft bunches of flowers brushing against me. To enhance that feeling, I made it into a high key photo, so that your eye cannot easily focus on the edges. The soft morning’s backlight cooperated with me in this. I also remember the touch of coolness in the air. But what does this image convey to you?

Images contain much more than the single purpose you might have in mind. This is why images are obscure ways in which to convey meaning. When I took the photo of this spotted owlet (Athene brama) nesting in a hole in a concrete block I though it showed the adaptibility of all living things. Today I think of it as a study in contrasting textures, the hard shadows on the man-made structures contrast with the soft fuzziness of the shadows on the owl’s feathery coat. In order to emphasize texture, I desaturated the colour of the bricks. Who knows what I might see in the image a week from now?

I look on people’s memories as an ally in the making of images. When I spotted this cliff covered in moss on a bird-watching trip, I took a few photos so that I could study the identification of mosses later. But someone else said “Ooh. It looks like a rainforest in miniature.” Sure it does. He leveraged his memory to make a photo. But then a bunch of other bird-watchers came along and started taking the same photo and saying the same thing. That’s how association works in our minds: creating recognition, triggering mimicry. That’s something that politicians and advertising work on very much better than poor sods with cameras. But today I can turn those same images into a question: do you really have to see the contrast between hard rock (!) and moss to recall the softness of running your hand over a moss covered wall? Or does the lower image, with no rock showing, do as well?

Spiders are among my least watched photos: too many people have an aversion which triggers instantly. I love the colours, although I’m shaky at their identification. But spider webs? They are among my most liked photos. Sharp focus is needed to capture a spider web. To me this is a fairly good spider photo: the light was just right to glint off the strands of silk in the web, I caught the colourful spider in sharp focus, and there is still enough of its environment to tell you how this wood spider strings its large web between trees to catch insects which fly about two meters above ground. Do you see the softness of spider silk when you see this photo?

Fields of kaans

The white flowers of fields of kaans waving in a breeze gives me a stab of false nostalgia. I grew up in a parched landscape where the common wild flowers were straggling grasses, kateli, and datura. I saw this tall grass first in Satyajit Ray’s linocut illustration of a young girl and her younger brother running through a field of kaans to see a distant train. Although the scene from his film, Pather Panchali, is now much more famous, I always see it in my mind as a linocut illustration in the book.

Of course, kaans (Saccharum spontaneum, wild sugarcane) is found across India. I saw it again this month in Tadoba. Kaans grasslands in the Terai are the natural habitat of the Indian rhinoceros. The plant has traveled east and west. Traveling east, it met the westward expansion of sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), and hybridized to give the dwarf sugarcane (Saccarum x sinense) which is still found in Guangdong. After the famous eruption of Krakatau in 1883, it was observed that kaans was one of the early colonizers of the island. It is considered to be an invasive weed in Panama today. On the other hand, as its range is expanding across the mediterranean, its use as a source of fibre has made it a new economic resource in this region.

Interestingly, one of the factors that makes plants, especially grasses, extremely adaptable seems to be a genetic condition called polyploidy. Polyployd cells are those which, through an error in cell division, land up with multiple copies of chromosomes. Normally this harms the organism. However in many plants this helps it to spread and adapt. Familiar examples abound: wheat, potato, banana, coffee, strawberry, to name a few. A study found that kaans can have anywhere between 40 and 128 chromosomes across old-world populations. These point to multiple adaptive events as it spread across the continents.

The grass is tall, often growing to as much as two to three meters high. At a rest block I walked up to a clump of the grass to take a closeup of the feathery flowers. The many branched inflorescences (panicles to botanists) started above my head, and the feathery white flowers blazed in the sunlight. A wind was whipping them about, and I couldn’t take the macros I’d wanted to. I settled for a close up instead.

Dancing in the breeze

After three weeks of traveling on work and sitting in day-long meetings, it was nice to take a long weekend off to sit in the sun and watch grass flowers fluttering and dancing in the breeze. These are no daffodils, but in the cool breeze of interior Karnataka’s winter, they managed to fill my heart with pleasure.

When The Family decided to plan a break in Hampi, combining history, art, and architecture with nature and bird watching, I thought it might get a little overwhelming. But the weather turned out to be wonderful, if you were in the shade. Hampi is a small town near a nature sanctuary. A five minute drive takes you into a countryside full of scrub forests. The bird life you see here is not as rich as that in the coastal rainforests, but there are scrubland species which are hard to see elsewhere. I will post about that later.

For the moment, I just show you a simple video of house sparrows (Passer domesticus), Indian silverbills (Euodice malabarica, white throated munia), and scaly breasted munia (Lonchura punctulata) feeding together. I liked the commotion as they peck at grains. The sound is mainly due to the silverbills, which like to flock together and chirp to make sure that they are in contact. All three species are seed eaters, and therefore able to survive across a range of ecologies, including the dry scrublands of the interior of India.