Tag: setbacks

Out of sight, but Not out of mind

Out of sight, but Not out of mind

February 2013 wasn’t pleasant. It was filled with departure and demise of dear ones. It started with the death of an elephant. She was found in a stream after many days of her death. Fishes in that stream and maggots on her body were having a feast. We couldn’t really tell which herd she belonged to. Several speculations were made—she could have been unwell, or that she probably slipped while crossing the stream, and so on. In the government records her passing on was registered as a “natural death”. May be it was.

'Natural death'
‘Natural death’:Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan

This was followed by the death of a leopard. A very young leopard was found dead amidst tea bushes. Again, the reason for her death was not clear. It was presumed that she was killed in a territorial fight with another adult leopard. Traces of blood and drag-marks were all over the place. She was half eaten. She was taken away for a postmortem.

Yet another 'natural death'
Yet another ‘natural death’

Individuals like these will continue to live in the government records, in a researcher’s field notebook, technical reports, and as photographs or newspaper articles. But there are certain deaths that will go unnoticed, even by us, and no one may even be aware that it happened—like the roadkill of a mouse deer that I saw in mid February. The driver of the vehicle might be aware of that or he/she may simply have heard some noise, a thud, or a squelch and moved on. Or the driver may not have even known that he/she had killed a living being. Few passers-by like me, in the middle of that night, probably noticed that dead mouse deer, or probably did not.

Incidents like these make us feel sad for a few minutes, hours or sometimes may even last for a few days. We may or may not remember these again. Even if we do remember, we may not feel the same way as we did when we first saw it. But if we know the individuals, if we are attached to someone or something or some place, if we feel the connection even if it is only one-way, then, when we lose any of them, the sense of loss will haunt us forever. Because, we are not just losing them, we are also losing the connections we once had with them. This will be painful, like how we feel at the demise of a friendship or a relationship; much more painful than the physical death of a friend.

Few years ago, while passing through Kavarkal, Divya said,”I am missing that guy ya”. Across the valley on a hill, in a degraded grassland patch, near the electric pylon, we used to often see a tusker grazing peacefully. She was referring to him. Some months after that, somewhere near that place a tusker was found dead. Anand went and looked at the decaying body but was unable to recognize that individual. He doesn’t want to conclude that it was that guy we used to see there. Before that death, even if “our guy” wasn’t seen there, we knew that he would be have been roaming elsewhere. But after that death, that hope slowly faded away. Even now, whenever I happen to pass through that place my eyes involuntarily look in that direction, scanning, searching for him, and remember Divya’s sentiment.

Our guy - The tusker
Our guy – The tusker: Photo Divya Mudappa

Similarly, usually while heading back to Valparai from Coimbatore, we stop at Nalumukku Sungam for a cup of tea. Nearly a year ago, on one such occasion I noticed that something was missing there. Sridhar said in a shocked tone, ”Damn, they cut that tree”. There used to be a large tamarind tree in one of the corners of Nalumuku Sungam. On the ground, no trace of that tree can be seen now. I never paid much attention to that tree until it was cut and removed from that place. There is a large void now. That tree would have been planted at least several decades if not a century ago. I miss that tree now. Sridhar has been commuting through this route for over a decade and he would certainly miss seeing this tree more than me. I wonder if (and hope) there is someone who lives in that town, who went and stood under the tree for its shade, or grew up along with that tree, or harvested the fruits from that tree, feels the same way or fondly remembers that tree. Those people probably miss that tamarind tree more than any of us do.

Pollachi-Valparai SH78 road near Vedasandur from 2003-2012: Imagery courtesy Google Earth

Then, there used to be a huge log near the Selaliparai club. Two years ago, just before the NCF annual meeting in Valparai, I remember Divya mentioning in a sad tone that a huge Calophyllum tree has fallen. This was a large tree, one of those identified as a heritage tree by us in this landscape. I only vaguely remember seeing that tree when it was alive and standing majestically. But I am more familiar with that only as a Calophyllum log, with its deeply fissured bark and heavily laden with epiphytes—just as majestic and alive horizontal as it was when vertical. In late February, while driving past that place we saw a crane about to lift that log and take it away. Now without that log, that place wears a desolate look. In coming days or months or years, when we go that way, we are sure to tell this story to others with us or sigh with sadness amongst ourselves.

There used to be a Calophyllum log...
This is that Calophyllum log…

I feel personally connected to that tusker, the tamarind tree and the Calophyllum log because I liked them. I knew that the connection was one-way, but I still feel bad when I don’t see them in their spots. But what if someone reciprocated the affection which we gave but suddenly vanished from our lives? Obviously, the magnitude of loss will be immeasurable, and drive us to despair. I realized this when Baby disappeared.

Baby
Baby

Baby was Anand’s cat. When he moved to a different house, although close by, Baby moved to Divya & Sridhar’s place. She also made our office her home. I am not a cat person. To be honest I was not fond of pets at all, until I met Baby. She was an exceptionally friendly cat. I often felt that she was a talking cat. I loved the way she greeted me when she saw me for the first time everyday. It was not just me. She was friendly with everyone over here. She captivated us with her sheer friendliness. It was a great feeling when she came to me and mewed in the middle of the night or gently tapped me with her soft forepaw to signal that she was hungry or wanted to play. She always liked to be with people, among people. I had not taken care of her all her life. Only on a few occasions or few days when the others were away. But she had had a deep impact on me. I can imagine how the true cat lovers and caretakers—Anand and Divya—would have felt when she suddenly disappeared one night. Soon after she was missing, for many days they would call-out for her, with hope and prayers. It was unbearable to hear their voices. She never turned up. It was unlike her not to respond or stay away from home. Although Divya kind of knew the minute she had disappeared since she had heard some scuffling noise outside. Divya had the feeling after hearing the noise outside that our neighbourhood leopard had paid a visit to our doorstep. It is nice to know that he is still around, but wish the evidence had been something else. Or maybe not. We do not know exactly what happened to Baby, but I hate to think that she has passed on.

Baby’s disappearance made me think of certain other things which went out of my sight and my life. But they will be etched in my memory for a long time to come.

Of tamarind and tolerance

Of tamarind and tolerance

An edited and shorter version of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 June 2012.

For centuries, long rows of grand tamarind trees have marked our roadsides, particularly in southern India. The wide, old roads radiating from Coimbatore city, in particular, had long rows of grand tamarind trees on either side. One could see them on the road to Mettupalayam and the hazy blue mountains beyond, on the road to the sacred hill of Marudhamalai, towards the Sathyamangalam hills and Mysore to the north, through the expansive plateau and plains to Salem, and southwards past Pollachi to the ancient hills of the elephants, the Anamalai.

A highway flanked by tamarind trees, with people collecting fruits in bags, near Anamalai in Coimbatore District (Photo: P Jeganathan)
A highway flanked by tamarind trees, with people collecting fruits in bags, near Anamalai in Coimbatore District (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

The trees have stood like old sentinels, serene and solid through the rush of years. Their sturdy trunks and strong branches have towered over and across the roads, quite unmindful of buffeting rain and searing sun. Their twigs, festooned with dark green leaves, each with its paired row of little leaflets, have provided an impartial and unstinting shade and shelter for all. In return, the trees seemed only to need a little space by the side of road, to set their roots in, and a space to stretch their arms.

They stood like this until the men came with the axes and saws for the slaughter of the trees. The men brought heavy bulldozers and earth movers—construction equipment powered for destruction—to gouge the ancient roots of the tamarind trees out of the earth. Trees that had stood for centuries were brusquely despatched in a matter of hours.

Tamarind trees hacked away on the Mettupalayam Road (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)
Tamarind trees hacked away on the Mettupalayam Road (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

The tamarind tree is an old and dignified citizen of our city avenues and gardens, our countryside and farms. Its name, derived from the Arabic tamar-ul-Hind or the ‘the date of India’, finds mention in written historical accounts of India going back centuries. There is irony in this, for the tamarind is native to Africa and not a species that grows naturally in India’s forests. Despite being alien to India, the tamarind has not run wild and become an invasive pest, becoming instead what biologists call a naturalised species. Embraced by a deep tolerance and cultural acceptance into Indian cuisine and culture, the tamarind is today a familiar and inseparable part of Indian life and landscape.

A wild tamarind tree near Laka Manyara in Tanzania, East Africa (Photo: Divya Mudappa)
A wild tamarind tree near Laka Manyara in Tanzania, East Africa (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Abiding benefits

Before the men and the machines came, the tamarind trees seemed to have an abiding presence, like torch-bearers marking a productive countryside, like the enduring blue mountains in the distance. Their wide trunks rose above stout roots that pushed into the soil, like muscled and flexed thighs gripping the earth. Their fissured bark was thick and brown, aged and toughened and weathered, like the wrinkled face of the old woman selling mangoes in the patch of shade below.

Under the dense canopy, thousands of pedestrians and riders of two-wheelers found quick shelter from rain. Or, in scorching summers, a refreshing coolness cast by the tiny leaflets—how many leaflets does a tamarind tree have, a million, ten million? Even the air-conditioners seemed to waft easier and cooler in the metal cocoons of parked cars that escaped roasting in the sun. The trees seemed to abide, they granted benefits, and their beneficence was taken for granted.

Every year, the twigs were weighed down with hundreds of lumpy brown pods, with skins like coarse felt covering pulp, tart and tasty, and disc-like, shining seeds. The fruits were there for the taking. The adept and nimble climbed the branches to knock down the fruit. Their friends darted around to grab the fallen pods, dodging traffic.

Tamarind fruits collected from the roadside trees (Photo: P. Jeganathan)
Tamarind fruits collected from the roadside trees (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

On the roads, many tamarind trees had managed to rise above anonymity: each tree, even if not named, was numbered; each individual claimed by negotiation or auction by someone from the village or panchayat for its fruit. Collected, dried, and packed, the fruit of the tamarind trees would eventually find its way into a thousand dishes, enrich the palate of millions, and become inseparably incorporated in people’s cuisine, in their lives, in their very bodies. And no one could stop the children, who needed only a handful of stones to claim their share. The trees brought utility, food, cash, plain fun.

Tamarind fruits, seeds, and leaves are used for food and flavour, juice and snacks. Tamarind is now an inseparable part of Indian cuisine (Photo: Kalyan Varma)
Tamarind fruits, seeds, and leaves are used for food and flavour, juice and snacks. Tamarind is now an inseparable part of Indian cuisine (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

And yet, there is more to the tamarind. Beyond the utility and the benefits of the trees, there is something intangible, amiss, overlooked. It seems to emerge as a touch of beauty—an enlivening green in an increasingly dour landscape. A beauty fragile forever from the prospect of loss just a chain-saw away. It seems to emanate from the trees, too, from the sounds where a few still remain. The soughing of wind through ten million leaflets, in mournful restlessness, carrying the delicate aroma of the tamarind’s modest, finely-marked flowers. The creak of branches and the click of twigs holding the tamarind’s pendant fruit. Or, when the wind abates, a calming susurrus pierced only by the occasional screech of parakeets. And when dusk descends, the tamarind trees darken to the chuckle of mynas, the chatter of shy owlets, and the hoots of somnolent owls, rising with the stars. The trees are silent but full of sounds, and one who hears them may find things worth listening to.

Roadside aesthetic: a misty morning with tamarind trees along a road in Tamil Nadu (Photo: P. Jeganathan)
Roadside aesthetic: a misty morning with tamarind trees along a road in Tamil Nadu (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

Reading the landscape

Naturalists and ecologists, who spend a fair bit of their time watching the earth and its creatures, sometimes say that you can read a landscape, you can see its wounds and sense a need for healing. On the Mettupalayam road and onto the hills beyond, sure, you cannot miss reading the landscape: somebody has spelt it out in big letters for you. “Vote for ——— Party”, says one sign, painted with a crudely-daubed logo, rather unwittingly symbolic in its background of whitewash. “Faith in God”, says another, pointing to a higher authority. “Enjoy the Serene Villas”, declares a sign for a resort promising a better place, not above, but ahead. A painted board of the Forest Department, placed in front of a patch of forest that has existed for millennia, asserts: “Preservation Plot: This Forest has been Protected as it was for Decades”. And a wit, who has perhaps had a bumpy ride, has painted on: “And so has this road.”

The wounds are there, too. There are the cuts and gouges in the land, festering moistly with garbage and hyacinth. One wishes the waters would not find their way into these old tanks and streams to turn dry dumps of civilisation’s discards into suppurating sores. There are the stumps of surgery: trunks and branches neatly sliced to make way for better things like wires and cables. The rot sets in, hollowing into the stumps, but only to make homes for families of owls or mynas. There are the thorns in the side of the stumps and trees that remain: nails hammered in the hundreds, carrying rusty boards and advertisements and nameplates, or garlands of wilted and dried flowers placed for adornment—of what? Then come the nooses and garrottes—wires and ropes—some hanging loose, some stretched taut, decorated with ribbons or hooks and loops to hang the street-trader’s merchandise, or merely forgotten and cutting into the bark. And there is the wounded heart, cut with deep, desperate strokes, on the blazed bark of one of the trees still standing; a heart pierced by an arrow saying, “Sundari, I love U”.

Fall from grace

Then the old roads were labelled tracks, the tracks became streets, the streets became roads, and the roads became highways. And yet, we are not satisfied, we need super-highways. This idea brooks no questioning, no obstruction. The trees must make way for tarmac. The people who stood in the shade must make way for the cars that proliferate. The vitality of a living countryside must make way for the deathly artificiality of the city, spreading like a virus down the arteries. The living countryside and its other users don’t really matter: they mostly don’t have cars, anyway.

The tamarind trees are now painted with broad waist-bands in white and black, so that they are more visible to the highway motorist who can then avoid them. How effectively we mark something to be more visible and to be more ignored at once!

So, the tamarind trees drift into wayside anonymity, from anonymity to disuse, disuse to neglect. The fruits fall and are crushed under the tyres of vehicles. The road surface is studded with hard, shining seeds driven into hot tar, staring like eyes without eyelids at the sun and sky. Shade and greenery are replaced by heat and grime. The screech of parakeets and chuckle of mynas is replaced by the endless screech of tyres and squeal of brakes. The hoot of owls is deafened by the toot of horns and the soughing of wind by the howling of sirens: the ambulances are now busy day and night. Places where a person could live a full, good life become sites, where one cannot even die a good death.

Now, the tamarind trees are but old fixtures in the landscape, like old people, grandparents and elders, suddenly out of place in a redefined world, suddenly unwanted. And when the old trees fall, the countryside is bereft, like families broken.

Better road sense

It does not have to end this way. Engineers and ecologists, citizens from the city and the countryside, can join hands to find better design and transportation solutions. Solutions that incorporate retaining the old trees, such as tamarinds and banyans, as essential components of roadsides for their varied and indisputable uses, and as representing a more refined aesthetic sorely needed for our cities, roads, and countryside. What call do we have to deprive those who come after us of the public utility and beauty of these grand trees?

We need to retain the trees that remain and design better roads and public transportation that includes keeping the trees. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)
We need to retain the trees that remain and design better roads and public transportation that includes keeping the trees. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

Even now, many stumps of felled trees lie metres away from widened roads: one wonders why they had to be felled at all. Natural landscaping, planning service lanes around trees, traffic regulation and public transportation solutions need to be found before the engineers and bureaucrats wield the axe, albeit indirectly from behind their desks, distanced and disconnected from land and landscape. Taken as a matter of wide public importance, decisions to retain or fell such trees should be based on democratic and public debate and consultation with and concurrence of citizens and citizen groups, and involvement of representative local administrative bodies, the judiciary, and the media.

Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress, that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.

Yet, it is not merely that one misses seeing the trees for the road.The tamarind trees—those still alive on the roads around Coimbatore amidst the stumps of those that are gone—seem to stand for something deeper. An awareness that beauty is forever pitted against the peril of loss and tolerance against the spectre of alienation. Only when we cannot bear alienation, will we usher in tolerance. Only when we cannot countenance loss, will we embrace beauty.

It does not have to end this way. Engineers and ecologists, citizens from the city and the countryside, can join hands to find better design and transportation solutions. Solutions that incorporate retaining the old trees, such as tamarinds and banyans, as essential components of roadsides for their varied and indisputable uses, and as representing a more refined aesthetic sorely needed for our cities, roads, and countrysides. What call do we have to deprive those who come after us of the public utility and beauty of these grand trees?

Even now, many stumps of felled trees lie metres away from widened roads: one wonders why they had to be felled at all. Natural landscaping, planning service lanes around trees, traffic regulation and public transportation solutions need to be found before the engineers and bureaucrats wield the axe, albeit indirectly from behind their desks, distanced and disconnected from land and landscape. Taken as a matter of wide public importance, decisions to retain or fell such trees should be based on democratic and public debate and consultation with and concurrence of citizens and citizen groups, and involvement of representative local administrative bodies, the judiciary, and the media.

Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress, that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.

Roads, revetments, and restoration

Roads, revetments, and restoration

by divya and sridhar

In the last year or so, there has been a frenzied expansion of the road between Attakatti and Valparai—most of it through the protected area (Anamalai Tiger Reserve) and adjoining buffer zone in the Valparai plateau. Earth from the shoulders holding up tea bushes and trees has been gouged out to fill the gap between the current extent of the road and the culvert and revetments being built off it to expand this steep hill road. This road starts at about 400 m (Aliyar) and climbs to an altitude of 1480 m (Kavarkal) boasting of 40 hair-pin bends over 40 km!

The hill road to Valparai (Photo: Manish Chandi)
The hill road to Valparai (Photo: Manish Chandi)

After such work has begun, we have witnessed landslips—occurrences unheard of in these hills—in the last four years ever since there has been a push for attracting tourists. The solution is cement and granite! Remove plants and build metre-high revetments and culverts to prevent landslides and soil erosion! Never mind the hills in the plains with their great-horned owls and hedgehogs and foxes blasted and mined out of existence for the stones and granite to reinforce the mountains here that are older than the Himalaya. The plants have done their job for long enough and it is time we take on the responsibility is it? Do not let plants (even a tuft of grass) grow on these as they will corrode the man-made structures. The infrastructure the various departments aim to provide are good, wide roads. Speed breakers are not good for the modern cars. Never mind if a few monkeys or mongooses or deer get run over. Actually may be we should remove them, too, so that they will not interfere with the speed of the bikes and cars. The traffic on these hills have increased many fold as have the number of accidents due to reckless driving. While local people continue to struggle in crowded buses to reach their homes, we also now see motor rallies with convoys of speeding cars and bikes go through. Is this development? Is this what roads through such vitally important hills and forests are meant for?

The animals too have suffered. The arboreal mammals have to make huge leaps across the roads where the canopy connectivity is lost, or come down to the roads. The wall-like culverts on one side and the steep mud banks on the other prevent escape for the animals caught on the road. They fall prey to the wheels—resulting in countless road-kills.

Wide canopy gaps-a hurdle for canopy dwellers like the Lion-tailed Macaques
Wide canopy gaps-a hurdle for canopy dwellers like the Lion-tailed Macaques

All along this highway, we have lost the benign and beautiful fern- and impatiens-covered slopes to obnoxious weeds like lantana and others, due to the regular ‘maintenance’ work and chronic disturbance, including the indiscriminate slashing of all vegetation native or weedy. The roots of many large trees are exposed and are waiting to fall during the next monsoon. And of course the tree-falls would be good enough excuse to be rid of trees along the road. And thus the forest recedes.

Native ferns and impatiens lining the road
Native ferns and impatiens lining the road
Roads now lined with thorny invasive alien lantana and exposed soil
Roads now lined with thorny invasive alien lantana and exposed soil

Just last month, on February 14th, the road work struck a blow to our 6-year old restoration plot adjoining the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, in a private forest fragment belonging to Parry Agro. The site had been dug up using a JCB for expansion of the road and the mud and rocks dumped over the treelets and regenerating saplings in the plot. A third of the plot had been destroyed. The boards declaring it a restoration plot and carrying a plea not to cut trees, and even the fence marking the boundary, had not mattered. We were devastated.

Digging and dumping into the restoration plot.
Dug and dumped into the rainforest restoration plot.

However, the same evening that we had discovered this, we informed the management of the company and the Forest Department, and they decided to do a field check the next morning and stop any further construction activity over there. The next day was a long but ultimately heartening one. We had unstinting support both from the Range Forest Officer, Mr Lakshmanaswamy, and the Managers of Parry Agro (who own that land and partner with us in the restoration work). The contractor and engineers could be convinced of our arguments. The contractor, Mr. Jayaraman, has been very polite and understanding and has heeded to our request of not widening the road, but to stabilise it with a rock wall with no further extension. However, they are quite at a loss as to what changes they can make in the granted contract without destroying forests or being pulled up for not completing the contract.

Why are we in such a situation? It is probably because of the failure to distinguish roads going through forests (even private forests) from roads that pass through cultivated or built-up areas. It also represents the failure to treat roads in the hills, that receive higher rainfall, differently from roads in the plains and drier tracts. Finally, while extra care is taken when the road goes through private plantation areas and private property, little heed is paid to forests and forest vegetation (in private forests and protected areas) during road construction, widening, or ‘maintenance’.

At the restoration site, there was no need for a road wider than what exists here already—three 4-wheel vehicles can pass by each other comfortably. Do we need something more than that in the hills? Could not a simple roadside crash-guard be installed for safety of travelers? This would have meant little disturbance to vegetation and minimal obstruction for animal movement.

Crash-guards can be used for roads through forests
Crash-guards can be used for roads through forests

Such roads works are often carried out ostensibly to prevent soil erosion, when actually this part of the hills is probably one of the most stable and with good natural forest cover. But now, after the digging, if left the way it was, the road could cave in. Therefore, we had to let them build some support. Moreover, since all the soil has been just thrown over, they would need to either scrape the soil from the plot along with all our plants or dig up somewhere else. Is all this really necessary? Couldn’t we plan better? Can’t we live comfortably without destroying forests? Already, unnoticed by us, a 200-metre stretch of such destruction has been done lower down some distance from our restoration plot.

Road widened by clearing forest and building revetments.
Road widened by clearing forest vegetation and building revetments.

In the middle of our discussion with the road contractors and highways engineers, our motivation was pepped-up by the Great Hornbill that landed on a tree nearby. Everyone present there were thrilled to see it. And their support became even stronger.

Great Hornbill
Great Hornbill

Over the next two days, about ten people from the Nedunkundru Kadar settlement, who work with us on the restoration project, patiently and carefully rescued as many plants as possible smothered by the soil dump. Each one of them were carefully resurrected, provided support, and watered. Hope all their efforts will not be in vain and these plants will revive. I thank them all for their effort.

We are still monitoring the site everyday as the work is being completed and hopefully wrapped up. We hope that with this the destruction of the forests here by road works will end. Another 200 m length that had been planned is now probably and hopefully stalled.