The dipterocarp tree

Looking up from the road, I see the blue arc of the sky slicing through the forest canopy. Into the arc, the dome-like crown of a tall dipterocarp tree emerges from the dark rainforest. The tree is over a hundred feet tall, its straight bole emerging from a spread of stout roots that snake along the ground to meet and form supporting buttresses. Two-thirds of the way up, the bole is encircled by a ring of bird’s-nest ferns. Further up, the branches are held out, firmly, confidently, and hold clusters of two-winged fruit. The fruit await a gust of air to disperse across the forest with their valuable package of seed.

The scratch-mark of man and seeds in the leaf litter

I am at a place where the foothills of the Western Ghats hills begin to merge with the plains. The great Periyar river is not far. The rainforest around me is testimony to the amount of rain this place must receive every year. This is a small fragment of the humid tropical wet evergreen forest that once covered vast stretches in the foothills and plains of Kerala. I am sweating in the humidity, and the shade of the tree is welcome. The road and the village nearby mark the presence of people in the landscape. The tree itself carries the mark of people, too. A row of bamboo stakes are driven in an ascending line into the tree—driven many months or years ago by a honey collector who needed to ascend to reach a hive of bees on a high branch. At the base of the tree someone has scratched for the ooze of resin, too.

I hear the call of the Malabar Grey Hornbill and the Fairy Bluebird, and hidden amidst the leaf litter are two-winged dipterocarp seed.


The spathodeas by the road

Its a few days later and I am in a little town in the hills—a wannabe tourist town of little distinction and much crowds, garbage, and noise. Loudspeakers blare songs extolling the virtues of various political parties—perhaps they feel that the election is all song-and-dance. The street is full with the press of people, cars and buses, carts with fruit and vegetables, pavement hawkers, and the passers-by. Some goats eating vegetable waste and a woman who is sitting and spitting, chewing betel leaf, appear to be the only calm creatures amidst the bustle.

The seed-strewn street

Its a blistering hot, sweaty day. The sun is scorching. I look up at the wide expanse of blue sky flanked by the untidy cluster of buildings on each side. There is little shade. There would have been, perhaps a little over a hundred years ago: a dense canopy of cool, dark rainforest. Now, I see few trees close by: two spathodeas or African tulips, backed by a dour line of Australian eucalypts behind the buildings. On the spathodea, the bright red flowers of the year gone by have turned into brown spike-like pods that are dehiscing open with the dry weather. With a gust of wind, little seeds with their disc-like wings take to the air and drift all around, over the street, onto the buildings, and into the ditches.

I hear the sound of the car-horn and the election-song, and the ground is littered with African tulip seed.


Another famous song comes to mind:

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

From Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the wind“, 1962

This post first appeared in the NCF blog, EcoLogic, on 18 April 2009.