One tree, sky

For about ten years I carried a camera in my backpack wherever I went. Then, as smartphones took over, I began to leave the camera at home. My old photos show that the two instruments are not yet interchangeable. You do different things with them. There is a tree which I pass daily on my way to work. I took photos of it every now and then. I stopped doing it when I began to leave my camera at home.

The featured photo is from one March at midday. The winter’s smog is gone, the sky is a lovely blue. This photo was taken in the late years, after I started carrying a smart phone, but before I began to leave my camera at home. But it is the earliest time of the day that I took a photo of this tree.

The images from the month of April span eight years and cover the time from late afternoon to sunset. This is the time of the day that the western shore of the city gets its best light. The tree is more or less a flat silhouette though.

There is a gaping hole in the record during the monsoon months. The sky is drab, the light is flat, and it is almost impossible to keep the camera dry next to the sea. I think I took this photo in a particularly dry monsoon year.

September is still a monsoon month. The sky is often overcast, but there is less rain. I have a couple of photos from this time of the year. This one was taken in the afternoon, at about the time when, in other months, the shadows would be lengthening.

This is a photo from one October. The sky is clear. The light remains good after sunset. Good enough to see the colour of the sea, and the green of the grass. What a difference the month makes!

Then, as the sea begins to cool in December, smogs begin to envelop the city. The colours of sunset remain spectacular, but the sky fades quicker. Lights come on in the garden early.

I thought I was photographing the tree. It turned out that I was recording the six seasons, and the way the light changes with the weather.

Spring harvest

Holi could be a festival left over from colder climates, where winter is a time without growth, but the regional new years in India are entirely local, and keep pace with the local seasons. In most of the northern plains, from the far east to the west, the beginning of the month of Baisakh begins with a harvest festival. Some calendars count this as the beginning of grishma (the hot season), others take it as the middle of vasanta (spring, if you wish). The wheat was sown in November, and was growing through what the upper northern latitudes think of as winter. So one should neglect the “universal rhythm of life” that the silly Eurocentric cultural web tends to impose on the globe.

As our trip through Kumaon came to an end, I walked on to the shoulder next to a deep drop on the narrow road leading out from Bhimtal. The lake is at an altitude of 1500 meters, and the road had climbed quite rapidly. We were high above the valley, perhaps at an altitude of over 2000 meters. I took a last look at the terraced field of wheat that cascaded down the steep slopes on the other side of the lake. From this distance one could see how the road switching back and forth along the further slope gave access to the biggest farms. To get to the others you had to walk down a steeper slope. This also meant that the farms further from the road had to transport the crop by hand (or mule) up to the road.

One farm was busy harvesting. The golden wheat was already gone from some terraces, the hay lying in neat little bundles in the fields. The high stalks in the other terraces were also ready to be harvested, and probably would be in the coming days. In other farms the ripening was not yet complete. Perhaps they had sowed at different times; perhaps the angle of the sun on the field also makes a difference. Looking down on this landscape, with its varied colours of Baisakh, I had no trouble agreeing with David Attenborough’s ironical statement that humans are the animals that grasses have used to propagate across the planet. They also get these animals to shape the landscape to their maximum benefit.

Seasonal challenge

“There are few more restful places, if one wishes to think, than the upper balconies of Lord’s pavilion,” Wodehouse wrote in a book full of the English notions of spring and cricket. I found an equally restful place under a tree some days ago. It is hard to believe that a year has gone by at the pace of war, long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. But within those periods of boredom I found times like this, when I could just sit and soak in the season. In spring the bad air of winter clears out, and you get the luminous days which are perfect for lying under a tree looking up at the sky.

I woke before dawn and listened to the first birds. Almost a year ago I had posted about the bird calls I was beginning to recognize. I realized today that in spring I should begin to hear the song of the koel. I haven’t heard one yet. So let me make this my crowd sourced effort to spot the first call of the Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) in 2021. It would be great if you leave a comment with the place and date when you hear a koel for the first time this year. If you manage to get a good photo this spring, post it, and leave a link. If you are elsewhere in the world, it would be wonderful to hear about the bird that means spring to you., or other interpretations that you have for this season. Let me take the season, vasant ritu, to last until the full moon of April 26, although this is just an arbitrary convention.

One hundred days of parakeets

Between a post-travel quarantine and the lockdown, I’ve not left the gates of our housing complex for a hundred days today. Sitting at home, I think I’ve got more tuned to the natural world. I’ve noticed the seasons passing: vasant and grishma are over, and now we are in varsha (think of it as spring, hot season, and monsoon). On the 99th day I leaned out the window in the evening to catch the watery golden light of sunset filtering through monsoon clouds.

The air was full of the chattering and scolding of rose ringed parakeets. I looked at the canopy of trees just below me: such a variety of greens there. The parakeets seem to avoid the gul mohar tree for some reason. They would have been spectacular otherwise; imagine their green against the red of those flowers.

Why was this parakeet rubbing its beak along the bare branch it was sitting on? Was it cleaning its beak? I looked for other parakeets sitting down. There were many. Yes, and many of them seemed to be rubbing their beaks along bare branches, quite vigorously.

Could this be a search for food? Unlikely, I thought. There was enough other food available for them to be wasting the last minutes of daylight looking for insects under the bark of trees. It turns out that their beaks grow all through life, and have to be rubbed down constantly to prevent them from becoming too large. I hadn’t noticed this behaviour before,

I had to go and pare down my ever-growing stomach. But before that I tried to take a few photos of the birds launching off from their perches. It turned out not to be so easy. They seem to have planned out a route through branches and leaves before letting go of the perch: they twist and turn very fast, before coming to horizontal flight. The light was fading, and I’ll leave this exercise for the next hundred days.

The six seasons: 1

Living my days out in an air conditioned office in Mumbai, I’d concluded that Mumbai has only two seasons: uncomfortable and wet. Now that I’m forced to live at home, and I spend more time in the balcony, and open up the living room to the outside, I realize that was wrong. Even in this coastal city, there are seasons, although strongly moderated by the warm tropical sea. The many different Indian calendars roughly agree about the seasons. So across the northern end of the peninsula, closer to the mountains, and away from the sea, there is are climatic changes which can be recognized from east to west. It is different along the coast, of course, and down in the southern part of the peninsula there are very different climates and seasons. Mumbai lies roughly in between, so one can feel most of these variations if one is sensitive to it.

Looking out of the window, listening to the birds, I saw signs of vasant slowly passing. The bees which hummed between trees and bushes, are slowly less visible now that spring has passed. The last flowers of the season can still be seen (the featured photo). The sky was as mild as the morning’s cool breeze. The beautiful light blue, which I used to paint as a child, flecked with fluffy clouds are typical of this season which just passed.

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