Month: September 2011

Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy: a personal decade from 9/11

Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy: a personal decade from 9/11

Ten years. A decade to the day since Sridhar stood in front of a room full of people defending, if that is the word, his doctoral thesis. On the other side of the planet, in another hemisphere like a parallel world, four airplanes filled with deadly purpose would take to the air. They would bring down buildings—facade and edifice—marking a charged moment in history like a bee-stung blister on the warp of time.

The twin towers on 11 September 2001 (Courtesy: Wikipedia)
The twin towers on 11 September 2001 (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Shorn of a veneer of power and safety, the Western world would begin to look at places and people, with new eyes.

God created war so that Americans would learn geography.
~ Mark Twain

In The Sense of an Ending, a haunting, poignant little novel with brilliantly portrayed characters, Julian Barnes looks at history and consequence in an impeccable storyline where every word tells. The narration draws you inward and outward, time flowing like a river and like the Severn Bore, the tidal surge heading upstream. Barnes draws you into thinking about the nature of memory and the narrative of history. Reading the book is like taking a ferry down a magic river: you step in, you go with the flow watching the breaking bow wave and the destination ahead, only to arrive at the end and see the fading, shimmering wake, as if for the first time, in revelation.

Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make any sense if we apply it to our individual lives?
~ Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

What is a defining moment in our lives? Is it real, in a cartesian sense, that its location is fixed, like a tree standing in a savanna or a great peak rising above its range? Or is it like a leaf that falls on the unsullied surface of a stream, giving a temporary purchase to the eye to follow its course, from an arbitrary beginning when it touches the water, to an undefined end where the swash has tossed it among windrows of wrack?

Success in defending a doctoral thesis and the degree and prefix that it confers is sometimes taken to be such a moment. You have presented your research in a scientific, clear, logical, objective manner. You have masked your interest with disinterest, inspiration with interpretation. Your peers and sages have frowned or questioned, nodded in agreement or in boredom, have smiled, snickered, paused in thought, in wonder, even. In the end, you are marked as having crossed an invisible threshold and admitted as a hallowed legatee of academe. And thus the leaf drops on the stream to bob and wind with other leaves, drifting with the current and slewing of its own shape, finding its course.

It is an arbitrary course and can take an arbitrary name. To loosely thread a story of a decade, a title borrowed from a John le Carré novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, will do nicely, but set in reverse.


If a spy is taken to be an observer, a sourcer of information, meant to analyse and report factually on what is sourced and observed, doing this in a sort of self-effacing manner, remaining detached, possibly hidden, inconspicuous, then perhaps field biologists are spies, too. So, in 2001, several years of field research in deep rainforest had led the two of us to our doctoral degrees.

In the rainforests ...
In the rainforests of Kalakad - Mundanthurai ... (Photo by P. Jeganathan, 7 March 1999)

Even as thousands of men, armed to the teeth, went warring at the fall of buildings, we went, too, armed with little more than a prefix and binoculars to add a few bricks on a wall of learning. In the rainforests of the Western Ghats, we had studied birds (Sridhar) and civets and other small carnivorous mammals (Divya) and we knew that our theses were both of limited-enough scope to leave space for much more. Then, along with Anand and many student recruits, we studied plants and hornbills, civets and elephants, pattern and process, creatures large and small. We kept on, as events of vastly greater import unfolded in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Is it really worth while to spend our time, the time which escapes us so swiftly, this stuff of life, as Montaigne calls it, in gleaning facts of indifferent moment and highly contestable utility? Is it not childish to enquire so minutely into an insect’s actions? Too many interests of a graver kind hold us in their grasp to leave us any leisure for these amusements. That is how the harsh experience of age impels us to speak; that is how I should conclude, as I bring my investigations to a close, if I did not perceive, amid the chaos of my observations, a few gleams of light toughing the loftiest problems which we are privileged to discuss. … These questions are and always will be the despair of every cultivated mind, even though the inanity of our efforts to solve them urges us to cast them into the limbo of the unknowable.
~Jean-Henri Fabre, The Mason Wasps

Out in the Anamalai hills, we plodded on, exploring forest fragments and plantations of tea, eucalyptus, coffee, and cardamom. We began to see more clearly the wounds in the landscape, newer cuts and older scar-tissue, and tried to report these faithfully, while also beginning to understand and explore the possibilities of healing.

Rainforests of yore, tea estates of today
Rainforests of yore, tea estates of today


And as the wars raged in the world, we soldiered on, too. There were forest fragments to protect, lying in private lands outside designated protected areas. These lay in an ecological hinterland, a paradoxical one, which one sees with fresh eyes leaving remote rainforests behind and entering an apparently human domain.

Elements of the landscape: tea, shola, eucalyptus, colonies...
Elements of the landscape: tea, shola, eucalyptus, colonies...

Amidst a landscape of a hundred thousand people were troops of lion-tailed macaques, great flocks of hornbills and pigeons, butterflies and babblers, elephants, deer, fungi, mosses, incredible insects… there was life, everywhere.

Indian Scimitar-Babbler, a bird that uses plantations and forest (Photo: Kalyan Varma)
Indian Scimitar-Babbler, a bird that uses plantations and forest (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

Forgotten amidst the bustle of humanity, these fragments and the wildlife seemed at the time to need soldiers, not so much as protectors, but more as champions who could direct more appreciative eyes towards their conservation.

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
~ J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

There were great trees to save from girdling and felling—one feels compelled to rise to the defense of what is loved or valued.

Wild nutmeg (Myristica dactyloides) tree, food of hornbills, girdled and cut in a forest fragment
Wild nutmeg (Myristica dactyloides) tree, food of hornbills, girdled and cut in a forest fragment

There were fences to erect to keep away some kinds of animals and some kinds of people—one feels a need to fight abuse of land, unjust exploitation of nature.

Good fences make good neighbours, or is it the other way around?
Good fences make good neighbours, or is it the other way around? (Photo: S. U. Saravanakumar)

Fence or defence, felling or fight, the arena is one of conflict and the space is defined by dimensions of possession, protection, and punishment. It is a cold and brutal and lonely space.

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?
~ Mahatma Gandhi

The possession of land creates owners, not stewards, protection builds walls between people and nature, and punishment singes the psyche, provokes retaliation and resentment. Wars seldom work: they beget wars, they create refugees.


The question then arose: how do we relink the chasms that had opened, between fragmented forests, between forests and plantations, between people and nature? What bridges need to be built to stitch together an ecologically viable landscape?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down…
~ Robert Frost, Mending Wall

The plantations, our research revealed, were not barren lands for conservation. A graded intensity of production where agriculture becomes industry is matched by a gradation in the diversity of life. Plantations could act as refuges for many species, when they hold habitats such as forest and grassland remnants or use native trees of the region as shade for their crops.

A lion-tailed macaque scans from the canopy of a native tree in a coffee estate
A lion-tailed macaque scans from the canopy of a native tree in a coffee estate

Plantations can also act as corridors for the movement of larger species such as elephants and hornbills. With land-use insensitive to ecology, elephants and leopards come into conflict with people, causing loss of life or damage to property, and rivers and streams turn to swamps, water becoming a scarce resource even in areas of highest rainfall.

Downstream of a eucalyptus plantation, a river becomes a swamp through tea
Downstream of a eucalyptus plantation, a river becomes a swamp through tea

Perhaps, the planters could be influenced to take a larger landscape perspective, a larger span of time than an annual balance sheet. Perhaps the Forest Department could be brought to appreciate landscapes outside protected areas and collaborate with private owners. Perhaps local communities could begin to appreciate and marvel at what has always been around them, but subtly hidden. Perhaps companies would begin to not merely exercise their rights as owners of land, but act on responsibilities as stewards of landscapes. Perhaps they would respond not merely to demands of company shareholders, but to concerns of community stakeholders. Perhaps they would expand their bottom-line of profit to include people and planet. Perhaps we would, by working with all of them, come to understand them and our own place in the scheme of things.

The work to build such bridges, tailor relationships, and stitch broken connections, is cut out for all takers. For us, it is a work in progress.


How do we restore our lost connections, recover degraded habitats? Can an ecosystem as complex and beautiful as a rainforest, once degraded or destroyed, ever recover? Given a relationship between people and landscapes gone awry, will conflict from loss of life and damage to property brought on by species such as elephants and leopards ever transform to coexistence? Tantalising hints and observations during our studies indicated: possibly. The first step, was to keep all the pieces: people, wildlife, forests, plantations, rivers.

To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.
~ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Our efforts at restoring degraded rainforests, at promoting the use of native shade trees and better land-use in plantations, at understanding conflicts and fostering coexistence through targeted efforts, and restoring a more harmonious relationship between people and nature, thus began with these ideals. This, too, is a work in progress. Our strength has been in our students, our field assistants, and a few solid supporters; it is not an easy thing to take for granted and our gratitude goes to them. Still, running a decade-long program and a long-term field station has its tough moments, its difficult experiences. If our students and supporters have come to see at least partly through our eyes like we have learned within our ability to see with theirs, perhaps that is reward enough.

With slow, halting progress, sudden slip-slides of regress, we inch forward. Every year, in drenching monsoons, as we plant rainforest saplings in degraded sites, a feeling is palpable. This is a stick-in-the-mud form of conservation.

Anand practising 'stick-in-the-mud' conservation
Anand practising 'stick-in-the-mud' conservation

As the saplings grow into spindly stems, and some into robust treelets, as canopies spread and rainforest birds grace the shrubbery, as leopards sharpen their claws on the bark of trees planted by us within the eventful decade, we watch and wonder at nature resurgent, at rainforest revenant.

Fragment in Injipara, before and three years after restoration
Fragment in Injipara, before and three years after restoration

All of a decade ago, in the chapter of conclusions to Sridhar’s thesis, he began by quoting Tennyson.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
~Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

We now see that one can cherish these words looking not just ahead and outwards, but introspectively and into the past. We look back at our shimmering wake, already fading, trying to see and share with others the possibilities of newer courses.

Where do we go from here? We are not sure. TIme will carry us ahead, and yet, there is a longing to be back. Back in those rainforests where the journey began, in the heart of Kalakad-Mundanthurai. In a field station surrounded by rainforests and rivers, remote from people and the chattels of city life, without electricity or internet, to days before phones became mobiles, when letters were written by hand, when one could sit and gaze at mountains with meaning.

Where we lived for three years...
Where we lived for three years...

So, like The Scientist in the Coldplay album we yearn, with a pang, to ‘go back to the start’. To the start, yes, but surely not for another PhD! For renewing our vision perhaps, for but a drop of that elusive potion called inspiration. As in restoration here in the Anamalai hills, perhaps there is some hope for that, still.

Sometimes, hope, like trees, needs planting, too.