Month: September 2009

Forests of mist and rain

Forests of mist and rain

Photos: P. Jeganathan

Forests of mist and rain, of hornbills, of big cane, of shield tails, ferns and fungus…..

One fine morning, we began our journey into a rainforest at the break of dawn. Soon we picked up an enthusiastic and boisterous bunch of naturalists (who were travelling in the Western Ghats) and we were on the road again as we passed a barking deer busy with first meal of the day. The bus drove winding and curving through the forest, plantations, and reservoirs and reached Vazhachal Reserve Forest check-post at Malakiparai. All eyes were getting wider and brighter as we passed a Kadar settlement and entered the forest. Very soon we saw forest’s own nursery of Vateria indica saplings on both sides of the road. It is a miracle how some seeds survived and were now germinating quite oblivious of their future on these road-sides.

Forest nursery (Vateria indica saplings) on a road side
Forest nursery (Vateria indica saplings) on a road side

Now we heard Malabar Grey Hornbill, and we saw two of them hopping branches. Soon our ears heard more calls then our brains could filter, and we were lost in fast action of spotting birds, missing out on some, and yet catching up with others later. Alarm calls of Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, flight of an Asian Fairy Bluebird, song of a Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Grey-headed Bulbul….they were all there and we were at the centre of all the activity but only as dumbstruck audience. After some time the flock moved away but magic of the forest was only beginning to unfold.

As we rested our eyes from the canopy, we found ourselves amazed by the display of colors on both sides of the road. Different species of impatiens carpeted the forest earth on road-sides; several colors, shapes, and sizes.

Pretty Impatiens
Pretty Impatiens

Also present were ferns of a diversity of forms. We walked slowly trying to absorb the feel of rainforest, listening to soft ‘ho-ho’ of Lion-tailed Macaques, watching a  butterfly flutter and as she rested on a plant for a while,

Tamil Catseye
Tamil Catseye

observing different species of Zingiberaceae that were flowering and produced spectacular shapes.

Ground orchid
Ground orchid

There was life breathing in every space, a snail finding its way through an inflorescence, a mantis perched praying on a flower close by,

Praying mantis on Zingiberaceae
Praying mantis on Zingiberaceae

and a Malabar Tree Nymph gently floating higher up (which Deepu, one of the naturalists was photographing as we approached).

Deepu brought some sad news. He said he found a dead Striped Coral Snake. Hurriedly we followed him to where he had found the rare species endemic to Western Ghats (later the snake was identified by Hari as Striped Kukri, another rare endemic species but a non-venomous one mimicking warning colorations of a venomous Coral snake). But the snake was not there. With some search Deepu and David (another naturalist) found the snake. The snake had moved, was not dead but badly injured. Leaving him on the slopes beside road, behind a fern, we hoped the snake survives. As we continued, more sad news followed.

Striped kukri:a mimic of coral snake
Striped kukri:a mimic of coral snake

There was roadkill of a Green Vine Snake and what looked like an earthworm, blue in color. We all sighed at the loss of two beautiful lives; one that must have moved gracefully from branches to bushes, well camouflaged in his surroundings; another who spent most of his time under soil. A tragedy conceived by human error!

Earthworm roadkill
Earthworm roadkill

Soon after we met two friendly looking old men who were carrying cane saplings. When asked they told us that they had collected these saplings from the forest and will be planting these close to their settlement. This will be a source of income for them once the mature cane gets harvested.

One of the old men carrying cane saplings
One of the old men carrying cane saplings

We got back into the bus and drove further as Nilgiri Langurs called from somewhere inside the forest. We stopped again to get a better look of the Lower Sholayar Dam where we heard a child-like complaining call of a Grey-headed Fish Eagle. Soon someone spotted something which took us an effort to see – a dragonfly in excellent camouflage in its environment, a Granite Ghost!

Granite Ghost in camouflage
Granite Ghost in camouflage

Even the female Rock Agama would have been a miss on that dark rock surface if not given away by her movement to catch an ant. Bright colors inviting attention, dull colors and camouflages that are more often  missed, its all here in the forests of mist and rain.

As we moved further towards Athirapally Waterfalls, the forest turned from wet evergreen to moist deciduous type. An approaching truck warned us of elephants ahead. As we got closer to the place all eyes searched for elephants as all noses smelt them. There were signs, lots of signs but elephants had moved away from the road and into the bamboo clumps. As we passed another forest check-post at Athirapally, we heard the roar of waterfalls. We were soon there. The falls were gushing with water after monsoons. We watched the falls as we ate a satisfying meal – fish curry with Kerala rice.

Athirapally waterfalls
Athirapally waterfalls

We were now on our way back and sleepy just as a Lunar Moth perched among leaves and resting for the day.

Lunar moth
Lunar moth

Our sleep was broken for good when one of the naturalists screamed, ‘Otters! Otters!’ We all jumped on our feet and saw two otters swimming in the reservoir. We saw them disappearing and reappearing over water surface as it rained. We followed them along the bank watching them as they moved until they were lost to our eyes.

Otter in water
Otters in water

Our hearts exultant, our legs reluctant to move, we managed to get back into our seats. The bus drove through mist as cheerful chatter filled the air inside the bus.

It was not long before we saw a Stripe-necked Mongoose busily excavating its meal in a swamp only to stop once in a while and examine us until he decided to disappear inside tea bushes.

Stripe-necked Mongoose
Stripe-necked Mongoose

The bus moved again winding and curving ….

through the forests of mist and rain, of Mesuas, and climbing cane…..

The celebrated neighbours

The celebrated neighbours

Resumed the roadkill survey after quite a gap. I was on my usual trajectory in Old Valparai, when i was forced to deviate.

The Govt. school i have mentioned in my earlier post had all its pupil in the front yard . They were out (they are more often out than in) waiting for the teacher to come and open the school. The frantic waving from a distance soon turned into a wave of excited children. They told me (all at once) about their sighting of the Great hornbill near their school. Responding to their interest towards the bird in the last interactive session, i had told them all about its peculiar nesting habits. I was delighted to hear one bunch of kids mimic the call, the other describe what it was doing a third explaining the way it gobbled up the fruits. It looked like the hornbills had turned into a celebrity neighbour.

Now i am exhilarated to work on the picture cards for a hornbill story that i developed. Meanwhile, i asked the students to describe and observe at least 3 animals in their surroundings.

Pinning the tail of the Hornbill, blindfolded
Pinning the tail of the Hornbill, blindfolded
Laughter, as the tail goes helter skelter
Laughter, as the tail goes helter skelter
Learning to like fish in Valparai…

Learning to like fish in Valparai…

(I wrote this for Tehelka in May of this year, about my experiences in Valparai in March/April 2008 — Anjali Vaidya)

I live in a country where I don’t speak the language. By language I mean not just spoken language, but the language of culture, of pop culture, of mannerisms and manners and intertwining conflicting histories. I have always felt as though it should come naturally to me to understand some of the languages of India, since I’m half-Indian and have spent about a third of my life here, but I fail as often as I try. This is not always a bad thing, however. Every failure is a new piece to the puzzle. Though the puzzle in question is a hellishly complicated, multi-dimensional one that changes continuously, every failure is a new understanding.

Close to a year ago I spent a month and a half in a small village in Tamil Nadu, working with a group doing rainforest restoration. The work was wonderfully peaceful and the area beautiful, but what intrigued me the most was not the trees and rivers and wildlife but the multitudes of people going on with their lives all about me. The villagers had a guileless friendliness to them that frankly startled me, as I was so used to living in or near big cities. They were helpful and kind and extremely curious about me and the others I worked with. But I did not know their language, and none of my time spent poring over my little English to Tamil book seemed to help me much.

I discovered, instead, that I could find kinship with people despite the absence of a common spoken or cultural language. We fell back on the basics; on the wordless gestures that ultimately say the most. Smiles and eye contact and offers of food. “I like you, you like me, let me feed you.” The friendship that stands out most in my mind from my time spent on the edge of the rainforest was one I developed with the woman who cooked for my roommate and me. Through the combination of my English to Tamil book (used as a rudimentary dictionary) and her bubbly friendliness, we became friends. She was convinced that my roommate and I were going to waste away because there was no fish in our diets. Despite my protestations that I did not like fish and was perfectly healthy despite my meatless diet, the language barrier meant that her enthusiasm won out over my verbal arguments.

And so one evening I found myself making my way down to her little place by the river, where she could feed me what she considered proper food. It was fish, cooked in some magical way so that I found it delicious, when I’ve never had the taste for fish in my life. I was on display as I ate; the neighbours clustered round to see this peculiar half-white girl come to eat dinner, asking me questions in Tamil and scolding me for not knowing the language.

The second time I came down to the bottom of the hill was to say goodbye before leaving for Bangalore. Through a combination of sign language and English and bad Tamil, I told her I was leaving, and did not know when I’d ever come back. She was quite distraught, as was her little wisp of an old mother, and I had no words I could use to make them feel better. So on my way out I touched her mother’s feet. I had no idea if this was appropriate or not, but it seemed like a thing to do that might show how much I appreciated the kindness they’d both shown to me.

And as I stood up, her mother started weeping. She seemed impossibly, and to me incomprehensibly, moved by my gesture. This frail, white haired lady with whom I could only communicate through smiles took me by the hand and walked me halfway back up the hill to where I was staying, taking the steps slowly, solemn and sad. There was a narrative here that I could not grasp; a story I caught a glimpse of and then lost without having ever quite known what it had been about.

I call India home, but I am not fluent in any of its many languages. Consequently, I cannot ever be quite at home here: my role tends to be that of an intensely curious and often befuddled fly on the wall. Except that sometimes I find myself swept out into the thick of things. As I was led through the village by a sweet old woman who was sad and moved by my actions to an extent beyond my comprehension, I felt as though I had strayed unknowing into some Greek tragedy, the strange pathos of which teased at my understanding and haunts me still.