Blue and green

Take the expressway, turn off to Khandala, drive through the village, and stop at a hotel just off the old highway. It looks over the valley at the hills across. The expressway comes over the ridge and dips into the valley at one edge of the view. The hills are deeply carved by ancient weather. Waterfalls cascade over the cliffs in this season, part of the same weathering of the Sahyadris.

It is a pleasant sight late in the evening or during the foggy days of the monsoon. In a few months the electric green of the grass will change to gold, giving yet another look to the same hills.

The unknown

New frontiers are not hard to find. Three hours from Mumbai, I stopped the car and stepped out. Twenty paces from the road, in a moist hollow in the ancient basalt was the unknown. This slimy green organism was once considered a variety of fungus and given the name slime mold. This is wrong. Now it is believed to be an entirely different branch in the tree of life. They are called protists, and what I saw was a twig on this branch called myxomycetes. I have no species level ID. There are no field guides to the slime molds of the Sahyadris. These creatures lie on the frontiers of human knowledge.

The slimy bubbly mass is a single cell. During this stage of its life this single cell feeds on things that grow in the soil, mainly bacteria and fungi. It is almost certainly digesting the plants its has encircled. What sets this mass apart from other single celled creatures is not just that the cell is huge, it also has many, many, nuclei. As it eats, these nuclei multiply by dividing. In this stage of life they can resemble the famous blob of the ancient horror series on TV.

Biologists have a different view: they seem to think that this is one of the paths that evolution explored in seeking complexity beyond bacteria. By some measures they are highly successful; after all they have lasted a few billion years and have complex behaviour. Some are shepherds, keeping herds of bacteria to feed on. It turns out that they are able to solve engineering problems like designing the highly efficient Tokyo-area railway network.

When the time comes to reproduce, they send out fruiting bodies. This is the stage of their life which yields beautiful micrographs like the one above. I wish I had the equipment to take photos like that. These fruiting bodies then release sex cells. These are mobile cells in the form of amoeba. As a clickbait says, myxomycetes have 720 sexes. Any two different sexes of gametes can fuse when they meet. I suppose at some point, when I have seen more than one of these creatures, I’ll have a go at writing a mini-guide for myself.

Surfing on deep time

Vaitarna is a little river which arises in the Sahyadris and drains into the sea just north of Mumbai. It has been called India’s most polluted river, at least in the lower stretches. The upper parts have been called the most dammed river in India. This stretch is clean enough to supply drinking water to tens of millions. The 154 kilometer long river has three dams, which, between them, hold nearly a billion cubic meters of water. Why so many dams, I wondered as we walked along the uppermost of these dams.

The answer lies in the weather and the land. The Indian Ocean monsoon dumps incredible amounts of water on this land for three months every year. It has done that for tens of million years. The land itself was formed in the volcanic eruptions sixty to seventy million years ago, during the time that the dinosaurs died. The ancient lava flow cooled into the basalt of the Deccan Traps. Later it was weathered in the hot house that the earth became thirty million years ago. The weathering formed the thin red laterite soil that covers the Sahyadris. The deep channels eroded into the volcanic basalt channels the seasonal waters as they flow into the sea. The dams catch and store the rains.

This beautiful landscape is the shadow of incredible volcanic eruptions. The soil is thin, because the rain washes it away. Where it collects in deep trenches, agriculture is possible. Around the dams rich agriculture has developed in the last hundred years. You look at this land and see few trees. The highest growths are usually tall shrubs. The thin soil of the highlands is covered by low herbs, creepers, and grasses. Weird new species have evolved in the thin metallic soil. It is an amazing place for wildflowers and strange animals. The harsh land has given refuge to some hardy exotics.

Among them you may count the water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica). Although the locals do not seem to know it, it is edible. In this it is like many other morning glories in the genus Ipomoea. I’ve eaten its leaves both steamed and stir fried in my travels across Asia. It is hardy, grows in poor soil, and is a sure indicator of the presence of water. It needs little effort to cultivate. You just have to harvest it and eat it. I see it being used as a hardy decorative around the country. Why doesn’t anyone here eat it? Perhaps just the lack of knowledge about how edible it is.

A few minutes

Doesn’t everyone need exactly what they don’t have? During normal times I would be so wrapped up in busy-work all day that I had no time to think outside the box. In a life crammed with not-so-necessary meetings, unending traffic, pointless face-to-faces, a holiday was a time to unwind. You wanted the most picturesque. Now, in a time of travel restrictions, any get away is good enough. We are lucky to have spectacular destinations a short drive away. These are destinations that we neglected in the past. Now the idea of wading through seasonal streams in beds of volcanic basalt is wonderful. Everything outside your eyeballs is a source of inspiration. As your body exerts itself, your mind becomes alert. You see new things.

We came to a point where the stream ran below a low bridge. We were forced to cross the road. We weren’t the only ones. A land crab scuttled across the blacktop. I’d never seen a land crab walk before, and I’d expected the same ten-footed sideways gait as sea crabs. This one walked sideways on two feet! Bipedal land crabs should be easy to identify. Unfortunately I have no field manual. So I’ll leave it as belonging to the family Gecarcinidae and move on. I have to move faster than The Family when I’m taking photos, because she gets a little testy sometimes about my frequent photo stops.

Clambering over stones at the edge of the road I saw a mass of pulsating red. A closer look showed me the original inhabitants of India. These were centipedes (class Chilopoda). They have one pair of legs in each segment of the body. This distinguishes them from millipedes, which have two pairs of legs per segment. It seems that their ancestors lived in the Indian landmass 80 to 100 million years ago. The oldest signs of humans here are no older than 1.5 million years ago. I gave these unfriendly ancient natives of India a wide berth, and moved on.

The flooding water had moved loose stones on to the road. These scattered stones now stood in the way of the water still flowing over the road. I looked at the criss-cross of braided flow that resulted. Quite an interesting pattern. Worth a shot, isn’t it?

As we climbed proceeded along the stream on the other side of the road, more inspiration waited to strike. My strides disturbed a leap of grasshoppers (infraorder Acrididae). They jumped from the low grass on to stones. Most of them jumped away immediately into grass again. A few stragglers gave me an opportunity to take photos. Stubby little bodies, light green in colour. Huge hind legs, which could unfold at the knee to allow them to jump many times their body lengths. I saw this species again a couple of times. I should spend some time trying to identify them.

Just ahead, a small caterpillar on a rock in the middle of the stream posed a mystery. What is a caterpillar doing on a bare rock in the middle of flowing water? A mystery worthy of Hercule Poirot, I believe. There were rice fields ahead. This stream led there. Perhaps a clue to the origin of the caterpillar? My little grey cells tickled. I walked on.

Wish you were here

Monsoon rains collect in little pools, overflow into streams rushing through gullies in the ancient basalt and gneiss, ferrying the mud that a hundred and fifty million years of life and weathering have produced in the ancient lava beds of the Deccan. This is one of my favourite places: the stormy waterworld of the Sahyadris in the monsoon. It is an ephemeral other world, which only appears for three months every year. It has done so for the last eight million years or so. And it may disappear forever before the end of this century

This year we spent a few days in the highlands, close to the dammed Vaitarna river. Storms lash this plateau about two kilometers above the sea. I’d just got a new toy: a little camera which is water resistant to a reasonable depth. Camera, shorts, tees, and flip-flops. Perfect for leisurely walks through this dark landscape brimming with life. Every bit of life here is thirsty for these few months which bring more than two meters of rain. Mumbai gets its waters from the lake formed over these dammed rivers. Rice is planted around village ponds. Snails, moths, butterflies, land crabs, centipedes, spiders, millipedes, bettles and bugs, skitter through the grasses and wild flowers which burst with flower and fruit.

The Family and I stopped to look at the grass, suddenly lit by a break in the crowds. The meadow looked made. A group of large bushes stood in a solemn circle around a small one struggling upright in the middle of an empty space. I fiddled with my camera, trying to get the settings right for a landscape. It was my first outing with this new piece of equipment. Before I could take a photo, the weather changed, and a sheet of rain came down over us and the gathering of the entlets. That’s the photo you see here.

The farmers here are friendly, but they have odd ways. We sat on berms of fields watching them plow, plant and transplant paddy, create dams and ponds for the season. It looked at first like a really poor place. Then we began to notice satellite dishes on the roofs of small huts, some SUVs and fancy cars, reasonable schools, very clean vaccination and covid-care centers, and groceries with all the little things that you might want. In other parts of the country farmers plant vegetables in small patches around their homes. This is produce for the family. Strangely, there were no such vegetable patches here. All vegetables are trucked in from the nearby town of Nashik. This lack of local produce must have something to do with the geology and weather.

The electric green of the grass glows even in this subdued light. By October the colours will fade into browns and golds. By next spring there will only be patches of dry straw covering the ancient stone. But now, I pull my camera out of the soaked pockets of my shorts, splash through a little stream of rain water to clear the grit off my flip-flops, and take a stand. There is a photo to be taken, another postcard to be sent.

The magnetic tree

Nirgundi, Indrani, Sambhaloo, and a large number of other names in many Indian languages refer to Vitex negundo. So the English name chaste tree seems quite superfluous. It is also inappropriate, considering the number of different pollinators which visit it. Chest tree might be a better name, because of its clinically proven efficacy against colds, flu, asthma, and pharyngitis.

I must have seen this plant many times, because it is supposed to be very common across Asia and eastern Africa, and invasive as far away as the USA. But when I carry a good camera I’m much more attentive. So this was the first time I had paid much attention to this cross between a tree and a shrub. Most were about two meters tall, although I’m told it can grow as high as seven meters. The numerous flowers on the hairy branches were tiny: a few millimeters long. I thought they were appropriate subjects for my fancy new macro lens. Some of these macros showed spider silk threaded through the plant. I took this as a sign that it was visited by such a large number of insects that their arachnid predators found it a good place to hide out in.

The number of butterflies I saw on the first shrub I stopped at was astounding. Many individuals from a variety of species fluttered around. It seems to be even more of a butterfly magnet than the Lantana. My macro lens is not very good for photographing active butterflies. Still, I managed to capture a glassy tiger (Parantica aglea), a somewhat battered grey pansy (Junonia atlites), one of a spectacular flock of the yellow-orange peacock pansies (Junonia almana), a common gull (Cepora nerissa), and a skipper which I can’t identify. There were also several species of wasps and bees, and at least two different kinds of blow flies.

I tried to find the geographical and temporal origins of this plant. Instead found myself looking at the fascinating literature on its invasive qualities. I suppose that the large variety of its pollinators is an essential quality for invasive plants. It makes it easier to find new pollinators in any new geography. I saw it growing on verges around roads in a high plateau in the Sahyadris. The rocky ground, with meager topsoil where it grew meant that it was hardy. It is also fast growing, another essential quality for an invader. It certainly out-competed Lantana camara in this landscape. The few bushes of Lantana I saw were stunted dwarves barely surviving between thickets of Vitex. Since Lantana is viciously competitive, and has taken over landscapes elsewhere, that’s quite an achievement.

Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

Harrison’s folly

A little finger of a ridge juts out of the side of the road from Wai to Panchgani. A dusty flat top of a table land, surprising you with the fact that it has been left open. This is Harrison’s Folly; don’t ask who or why, there’s no answer. We saw cars pulling in, and drove in through the ramshackle gate that you see in the featured photo. We paid a small price for the entrance, it wasn’t clear whether it was municipal land or private. The light was good and it seemed like it would have a view of Dhom lake.

We walked to the north-eastern edge of the plateau. The road had curved around a hill, hiding Panchgani. The valley had a haze, probably a mist. Much of the valley would be protected from direct sunlight by the plateaus. But beyond a parallel ridge, I could see Dhom lake through the haze. This is the due to the second dam across the Krishna river. The source of the river is just beyond the ridge, and there is a first dam there. A trickle is let out, which flows into this lake, and beyond. I can never have enough of the horizontal bands of successive lava flows which erosion reveals as the building material for the Deccan shield.

We walked to the northern tip of the finger, down a tiny slope which would be the take-off point for the para-gliding enthusiasts who used to flock here once. The little town in the middle distance was Wai. The haze was light, but it blocked the view eventually. On a clear day, when the horizon is visible it would be nice to stand here and identify all the distant villages and towns that one can see.

So what if I can’t do para-gliding, I can still take ambush photos. A couple was having their photo taken while leaping. I missed the moment of the leap, but they were quite the cynosure of all eyes in the neighbourhood. As we left I saw my cousin drive in. Apparently a swarm of bees appeared on this tableland while they were there, causing everyone to dive to the ground. This, he was told, was a daily affair, and crouching low for a couple of minutes prevents accidents. I’ve never heard of such a phenomenon, and I’m sad to have missed it. The Family and I agreed to disagree on this point.

Three wildflowers

When the known walks are crowded you just have to find new places to walk in. In the slight drowsiness of a post-lunch discussion, we did not really think this through. So we set off along deserted roads, looking for small paths into the forests of the Mahabaleshwar plateau. We found one, parked on the side of the road, and set off along what looked like a tunnel between trees trodden out by many feet. It was in use. We saw discarded bottles of alcohol and cans of beer in little clearings off the main path, and not too much plastic. One of the first things I saw were the purple heads of Indigofera cassioides (चिमनाती, pronounced chimnati) in flower. I have seen this flower before, but it took a little consultation with Ingalhalkar’s book and a cross check with IndiaBiodiversity to reach an ID. Some other day I’ll talk more about the indigo plants.

I misidentified the yellow flowers of Mysore thorn (Cesalpinia decapetala, also Biancaea decapetala) when the oldest niece asked for an ID. I have been set right by Ingalhalkar and CABI. This is a firm ID I think, it takes into account the flowers, the leaves, and the fact that the widespread plant was a climber. I have no ID for the white flowers. Can anyone help?

This is only a small sample of the flowers and plants we saw on the walk before we met a villager coming down the path. He warned us that leopards are seen here often. As we walked on, the chatter of the nieces decreased in volume. Then there was a crashing noise in the trees and everyone wanted to turn back. On the way back we heard more crashing noises and then saw a monkey leaping between branches. It was clearly not a leopard hunting. I argued that leopards are known to be very secretive stalkers, and monkeys are known to give alarm calls when they see predators, so we were quite likely to be safe. But the group had given up, and we were out near our car soon. Later I thought that if everyone who had come for a holiday up here had decided to take a walk in the woods for the next few months there would not be much of a forest left in a few years. In a way it was good that the villagers put us to flight.

Behind the Chinese knotweed

I saw a flowering bush growing wild by the edge of the road, so I walked out to it. I thought I recognized Chinese knotweed (Polygonum chinense or Persicaria chinensis). It was. The flowers are distinctive, and I think I may be able to tell it even by the shape of the bushes. I’ve written a bit about it after the first trip to the Sahyadris when I learnt to identify it. The amazing group of plants, these knotweeds, diversified in just the last 10 million years and spread out from the Tibetan plateau along the arc of the Himalayas. But this species probably established itself in these hills long after humans came here. I wonder whether old documents or field techniques can date their arrival in this general location. But whenever they came here, they rapidly became the go-to plant for a large number of pollinators. The famous Mahabaleshwar honey seems to have quite a bit of Chinese knotweed pollen in it.

The photo shoot was over pretty soon, but I was intrigued by a path which led beyond these bushes. I followed it, and it soon arrived at the edge of a cliff, with a nice view down to the valley below. The variety of plants was staggering, especially when you consider that this is degraded area, close to a high-traffic road. I looked down at the valley, and for fun took a trio of photos at different zooms of the village I could see.