How difficult is it, in the depths of the human spirit, to find an ounce of compassion, an iota of sensitivity, to Nature? This is a question we are forced to ask, after a few journeys along the roads from Mysore.
The roads from Mysore, leading west into Kodagu, and south towards the Biligirirangan Hills, are old roads. We know they are old, not from the road itself, or the people, certainly not from the speeding vehicles. We know it from the great trees growing by the side of the road for mile upon mile. These are grand Ficus trees, the fig trees we know as banyans, metres in girth and sprawling in canopy, planted and nurtured to life by some blessed soul centuries past. Today, they add the only uplifting aesthetics and rejuvenating shade to the otherwise bare and dour tar road. And yet, all along the roads, these huge, ancient, centuries-old banyan trees are now being hacked.
The road winds through a disfigured landscape of tea plantations. It skims the contours over the open reservoir with its sloping banks of naked red earth. It passes the checkpost with the inevitable tea stall, and only then does it plunge down. Down towards the rainforest, our destination for the evening. The Nilgiri langurs, on the tree near the tea stall, watch us go.
There is a hint of rain in the air. And the clouds hang dark over the landscape.
We come upon the fallen trees a short while later. …
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.
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.
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.
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.