Month: December 2010

The tall tree

The tall tree

The tree stands tall—head and shoulders above the rest. Its long round bole reaches straight to the sky. Its branches hold out firmly, even as the leaves toss around and whisper with the wind. With its first branch at over a hundred feet and the uppermost leaves nearly half as much higher, the tree is one to reckon with—even a monkey would need to work hard to climb it.

High above, the tall tree’s branches hold clusters of red-brown, two-winged fruit. A gust of wind tosses the high branches and a couple of winged fruits with their package of seed take to the air and go whirring in the wind. In evening light, they are like fiery butterflies pirouetting in an aerial ballet.

The tree is a landmark, for those who choose to see it as one. In the distance, the weaving tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra courses through a winding dip in the land. The forest around is dwarfed by the tall tree. Across farms and scrubby undergrowth tangled with vines, only a smattering of trees meets the eye, and there are none so large. The tall tree is special. What does it stand for, even if it stands alone?


From fallen seed to stately landmark, the tree has been here long. One imagines the year it is born, when its first leaves emerge in a little sunfleck below a lofty forest. Years pass in dense shade, before a thunderstorm, or perhaps the lashing of a monsoon rain, brings down a nearby tree and gives the seedling a new lease of life. With sunlight streaming into the forest, the seedling surges upward, along with nearby clumps of bamboo and pioneers. Herds of elephants pass by, noisily feeding on the bamboo; more softly pass the deer, that feed on herbs and fruits.

As years turn to decades and then centuries, the seedling grows into a tree, bold and straight, up into the canopy. The trunk is magically cylindrical as the lower branches give way to the higher, leaving scarcely a trace. High above, within the dome-like canopy where a branch has broken off, the fungi are carving a hollow. A hollow that will perhaps be a calling-hole for the tokay gecko, or a home for a hornbill pair, a flying squirrel or civet, or an eagle-owl. The elephants still pass by the tree and the trunk is smoother and moss-free on the side of their path, where they enjoy a good scratch.

Who is the first human to see this tree? Perhaps it is one of the subjects of the king who ruled the land when the elephants first established their scratching post. A barefoot forest-dweller, who also scratched the bark, but with a machete, and waited for the resin to collect. He would burn it as incense and use it in medicine.

Or, the first man to see the tree is a native of the colony, as the land came to be called later with the rulers from the west. He needs wood for his hut—fuel, poles, rafters—but there are many other trees around, easier to cut and haul. The man stops, briefly, scratches a little resin, and goes his way.

Or, maybe, it is a forester, the span of whose career is a small fraction of the tree’s lifetime. He stops, admires the straight bole and frowns at the flanging buttresses, and decides that the cut can wait a bit longer. The path of the elephants is widened now and is called a road. Along the road, his bungalow is not far, and neither are the creeping farms and plantations, nor the saw mill.

Finally, the man is transformed from subject and native and colonist to citizen, and the landscape around slowly changes in the new nation. The air is different, too, as the new people vent their wastes into it. Molecule by molecule, growth-season by season, the tree faithfully assimilates the collective breath of humanity into the silent history in its wood. The tree and the land around is a history book, but there is no one to read it.

Now, the botanists and ecologists are here. With rapt attention, they try to place the tree, which they call a dipterocarp, within the bounded scope of their understanding. They try to unravel its mysteries, its overwhelming significance in the shrinking forests. Yet, they are just scratching the surface, like the resin tapper, only he has been doing it for centuries.

* * *

In a distant court, the strike of a gavel marks a defining moment. It decrees that the forests with the tall trees, what is left of them, shall be felled no more. A wave of protest rises over this seemingly unjust ruling. What will happen to the saw mills that cut the trees? To the elephants who haul the logs, who may now miss their loads, their chains, and their flogging, only to beg on the streets for an ounce of humanity? To the people, who are said to depend on forests for their livelihoods? To the state, which prefers to measure its progress with metal, mortar, and money?

The forest all around is gone, slashed for agriculture, clawed-out for minerals, smothered by plantations, submerged by dams, logged by industry, burnt by fire and human ire. No hornbills venture here, nor deer—they keep to the distant hills. The occasional, befuddled herd of elephants tries to make use of their historical passage, on the path that has become a road and through the forest that has become plantation and farm. Their great journeys have now become mere trespass. They are chased this way and that, by one group of people or another.


Alongside the river now, a spread of paddy fields, their boundaries neatly edged with little bunds, and a small, uniform cluster of minor trees—a plantation rather than a forest—these are visible. Scattered houses with sloping roofs, with a thatched barn or shed, are ringed with familiar greens—a few palms, a couple of jacks, some bananas, hibiscus, and the inevitable tuft of bamboo. With snaking narrow, muddy tracks linking to each other, these are the scratch-marks of people in the landscape.

Are these the final years of the tree? Or will it span another minor human lifetime? The wood from the other tall dipterocarp trees has gone around the world. People live in homes of dipterocarp wood, with dipterocarp floors and cots and chairs and tables. Families mark their human years, decades, and generations, with the wood of trees that had watched centuries pass. The wood is of lasting quality—even when dead, it will outlast the pitifully short human lives.

The tall tree, somehow, has escaped the axe. Gusts of wind still carry its seeds, like twirling beads of hope, over the dwarfed landscape. Where the tall tree still stands, it stands alone to mark the forest that once was.

Alien in wonderland

Alien in wonderland

“Oh! So you have come all the way from Pulachi to Pollachi”, Sridhar asked me when he heard that I am from a place in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra called Pulachi Shiroli. Mesmerized by his sense of humour, a little dumb struck, I nodded, “Ya!”. The mere attraction of the Rainforest Restoration Program had brought me to the wonderful rainforests of the Anamalai Hills in the Western Ghats from the Forest Research Institute at the foothills of the Himalaya.

Valparai town surrounded with coffee and tea plantations, and the wonderful rainforests

Those were beautiful days in the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun, where I was studying for my M.Sc. degree. On one such beautiful winter evening, my friend Hari and I were sitting and chatting on the roof of our hostel, sipping hot tea and enjoying the beautiful snow-clad landscape of Mussoorie. The topic of discussion was nature conservation. It was Pavithra Sankaran’s article in April 2004 issue of Sanctuary Asia that brought our attention to rainforest restoration in the Anamalais. I felt that the programme was a ray of hope in conservation where we often hear of losing battles. With excited mind, I wrote to Divya Mudappa and Shankar Raman (Sridhar) about my willingness to work in Anamalais for my Masters’ dissertation. Fortunately, they accepted my request. For me, the dissertation was just a means of reaching the rainforest restoration programme.

As I met Divya – Sridhar in Valparai town located in the Anamalais, I realized that for the next three months I was going to be in this wonderful land with wonderful people. Still, things were not so easy and simple for me. Except for a craze for the restoration program and love for plants, I had not a single quality required for the ecological study I was about to begin. No basics in theory, no idea of study design, or stats, no knowledge of taxa other than plants and a very poor knowledge of English. With this bright background, I had landed up in Valparai!

Rainforests on the Valparai plateau, often fragmented and surrounded by alien plant species plantations such as coffee and tea, still support high biological diversity

The topic I chose for my dissertation was coffee invasion in rainforest fragments. The alien coffee plant was introduced here by the British for commercial plantations around the late nineteenth century. Two main species of coffee plant― Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) and Robusta coffee (C. canephora)―have been cultivated in commercial plantations in this landscape. They are native to Africa. A recent study had observed that this alien plant had found its way into the rainforest fragments and was even regenerating by itself. And so I began my study to follow the trail of this alien to see how it had carved its way into the forest. It was also to be seen if this invasion was detrimental to the floral denizens of the forest.

TF and coffee edge

A rainforest fragment adjacent to the coffee plantation

As I was there, Sridhar advised me to go around and get an idea of the landscape as that would help me choose my study sites. So, I visited some of the rainforest fragments and restoration sites. One day with Divya and Anand, I was in Iyerpadi Top, a rainforest fragment, where planting was supposed to be undertaken in the coming monsoon. We were there with some field assistants, to clear invasive alien Lantana camara weeds on the site. As I had no specific work, Divya had asked me to go along and make a bird checklist of the site. My knowledge of birds was terrible but I couldn’t say No. I started to look for birds and made a list. After reaching back Divya asked me for the bird checklist. I uttered the first name, “Indian Drongo”, Divya turned back with a certain uneasiness on her face. She said, “Atul, there is no bird called an Indian Drongo”. [There are four other distinct species of drongos found in the rainforests around here (Ashy, Bronzed, Greater Racket-tailed, and Hair-crested Drongo) and two more in the drier tracts: Black Drongo and White-bellied Drongo.] My checklist stopped already. I was thinking, thank God I am working on plants… maybe Divya was thinking on the same lines, this guy deserves to work only on plants… nothing else.

After one month, I was heading back to my institute in Dehradun to attend the last semester. While I was on my way, someone had perfectly found out that I was indeed an alien to this land and I lost my bag with camera, clothes, and books.

elephants in tea

I got back to Valparai after finishing my semester and soon started gathering some data in the sites we had zeroed in on. Now, the problem was of communicating with field assistants! Somehow, I managed to mug up a few numbers unn, rend, moon…. along with some other Tamil words. But communicating with local people was also a unique experience. One day, I went to a shop and asked the shopkeeper for bread. He gave me a shaving blade. I realized, I should have asked for bredddu instead of bread.
The diversity in the rainforest fragments was exciting. I chanced to see several wild animals during data collection in these fragments. Watching the huge plants with astounding diversity was a thrilling experience. The time passed quickly and the data collection was over. I started writing up the work I had done but got stuck with making sense of the data I had just collected. Patiently, Sridhar sat me down and with his amazing teaching skills taught me the basics of the statistics.

Lion-tailed macaque in a rainforest fragment

My three months study was about to end. The analysis was showing that the alien coffee had become invasive in some of the rainforest fragments adjoining coffee plantations. This was partly due to the sheer proximity effect of the coffee plantation on spread of coffee seeds and also seed dispersal by wild animals into the rainforest fragments. Interestingly, between the two widely planted coffee varieties in this landscape, spread of Arabica coffee was related to disturbance with low level of invasion in the less disturbed forests. But Robusta coffee appeared more invasive and showed higher spread even in relatively undisturbed forest fragments, with negative impact on native flora. This was turned out to be a major point of concern from this study as many coffee estates have converted from Arabica to Robusta coffee in the Western Ghats (Research article).

Reflecting on my work, I was also struck by the thought that, in many ways, I was also alien to this landscape. However, those three months changed my way of life and thinking. Although coffee had made some negative impacts on the native plants there, I retreated from Valparai silently hoping that I had not made any negative impact on that fascinating landscape and people. But, after four years, I realize that, even if I had not intruded too much into Valparai, Valparai definitely had invaded my mind, and I love to retain this invasion forever.