The mistletoe bird

It is one of those little plants that you hardly notice in the rainforest. It perches on tree branches, like a sea fan on a coral boulder, like a Christmas decoration. At a glance, it seems like another tassel of twigs and leaves emerging from the tree. But look closer and you see that its leaves are smaller and a paler green, tinged with coppery yellow, unlike the tree’s longer, parrot-green leaves. On the tree’s brown branch powdered with white lichen, the little plant arises out of a swollen bulb-like base, holding out dark brown twigs dusted with white spots, like chocolate sprinkled with sugar. Clusters of pinkish-red berries and buds line the smaller plant’s twigs, on the tree bereft of fruit or bud.

The clutch of leaves, berries, and flowers are on the tree, but are not of the tree itself. The little plant is an epiphyte: a plant that grows on other plants. It is a mistletoe.

In the company of mistletoes lives an unassuming little bird that you hardly notice in the rainforest. A tiny bird, small enough to hide behind a leaf or to hold in a closed fist, and drab enough to escape the attention of anyone but an ardent birdwatcher. An undistinguished little bird, dull olive brown above, rather dingy white below, with sharp eyes, glinting dark and attentive, and a sharp beak, gently curved to a point to poke among the flowers. A metallic, fidgety tick-tick-tick call announces her presence as she darts through the boughs. You have to be quick to spot her before she disappears. In keeping with her modest appearance, birdwatchers call this species the plain flowerpecker.

Plain flowerpecker Dampa DSCN3938

Small enough to hide behind a leaf, a Plain Flowerpecker, in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram

I’ve traveled far from my home in the mountains of the Western Ghats in southern India to see this flowerpecker. And not just any plain flowerpecker, but a particular one: a bird flitting among the mistletoes on the same trees where I had seen the species two decades earlier. I am seated on the steps of the Dampatlang watchtower in Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram, northeast India. Twenty years ago, I had spent many quiet, contented hours watching birds around me from the same steps while camping here for fieldwork. To the south, steep cliffs plunge to Tuichar valley. An evergreen forest with many trees adorned with mistletoes surrounds me on three sides.

Alongside the watchtower grow two small orange trees and a straggling Holmskioldia holding bunches of scarlet cup-and-saucer blooms. Against the wild forest backdrop, the planted orange and cup-and-saucer plant marked what seemed a very human temperament to cultivate and ornament the lands we live in.

PbFlowerpecker DSC 3272 crop

Pale-billed Flowerpecker with a fruit of the Singapore cherry Muntingia calabura in southern India.

Seated two stories high, I am almost eye-to-eye with the flowerpecker. The bird flits from branch to branch, dives into each mistletoe cluster, peeking, probing, seeking with eye and beak. Flowerpeckers remain closely tied to the mistletoes on the trees within their territories spanning a few hectares at most. The birds consume mistletoe flower nectar and fruits, but this is a two-way relationship. The plant, too, gains when the birds pollinate its flowers and disperse its seeds.

Many mistletoes have tube-like flowers that, when probed by a flowerpecker beak, part like a curtain or pop open furling the petals down and thrusting the stamens out to dust the bird’s head and face with pollen. After the bird sips the sugary nectar with a special tube-like tongue (who needs a straw when your tongue itself is rolled into one?) and flies over to probe other flowers of the same mistletoe species, some of the carried pollen may rub off on receptive female parts, triggering the latter plant’s reproduction.

Despite this penchant for flowers and the bird’s name itself, the flowerpecker remains, at heart, a fruit-lover. Mistletoes often have long and overlapping flowering and fruiting seasons so there is always food for a hungry flowerpecker to find. Ripe mistletoe fruit never fails to attract flowerpeckers.

Mistletoes represent a group of over 1300 plant species worldwide belonging to five families, chiefly the Families Loranthaceae and Viscaceae. As the latter name suggests, the fruits are viscid, the usually single seed surrounded by a sticky pulp, often enclosed in a rind-like peel.

The plain flowerpecker and its close cousin in southern India, the Nilgiri flowerpecker, manipulate mistletoe fruits in their beaks to gently squeeze the seed from the pulp. They swallow the sugary, nutritious pulp and wipe their bills on twigs to remove the sticky seed. If the flowerpecker swallows the fruit, the seed passes rapidly through the bird’s gut to be excreted out. To remove the still sticky seed, the birds wipe their rears on twigs or tree branches. In either case, these actions have the same result, which biologists call ‘directed dispersal’: the mistletoe seed gets planted where it is likely to germinate.

Nilgiri flowerpecker planting a mistletoe seed. Photos by Kalyan Varma (http://kalyanvarma.net).

Mistletoes are also partial parasites. They synthesize their own food through photosynthesis, but their special roots draw water and nutrients from the host tree on which they are perched. Extreme infestation of trees by mistletoes is rare in natural forests, occurring more often in degraded or managed forests and monoculture plantations. Still, foresters and others concerned with production of timber or fruits from trees sometimes call for mistletoes to be removed or eradicated.

Recent research suggests that this may be unwarranted. In forests, falling mistletoe leaves add vital nutrients to soil under the trees where they grow. Experimental removal of mistletoes causes a cascade of harmful impacts including declines in soil nutrients and populations of other species. Besides flowerpeckers, mistletoes sustain a large number of other species worldwide. The barbet-like tinkerbirds of Africa, the mistletoebird and honeyeaters of Australia, the sunbirds and white-eyes of Asia, mouse lemurs and sifakas of Madagascar, tyrant and silky flycatchers and colocolo opossums of the Americas, the eponymous mistle thrush of Europe, myriad insects and other creatures—all find food and spaces for hunting or nesting in mistletoes.

Plain flowerpecker with a mistletoe fruit in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram.

Back at the watchtower, I watch the feisty flowerpeckers defend their mistletoes, darting at intruders who entered their territories, chasing after them zipping between branches with rapid ticking calls. Fighting flowerpeckers have been known to fall to the ground while grappling fiercely with each other. One imagines their raging little hearts beating furiously, as they flay and peck at each other to defend what they perceive as their own.

Together, the flowerpecker and mistletoe epitomise an irreplaceable vitality of the forest.

An hour later, as I leave the watchtower, I sense that there is more to it than just a symbiotic evolutionary link between bird and mistletoe in a forest webbed with ecological connections. Perhaps, behind the gleam of that flowerpecker’s eye, there resides, too, a temperament to cultivate and protect what she consumes and an aesthetic to adorn the trees in her forest with the prettiest little plants she can find.

An edited version of this article appeared on 19 August 2017 on Scroll.in.

6 impossible things a coffee lover can do before breakfast

1. Wake up and smell the coffee. No, not the coffee brewing in your percolator or stove-top at home, this coffee has not been a bean yet. Far sweeter, heady, finer than jasmine, it suffuses the air all around, seeps into your lungs inside, bathes you in fragrance outside. It emerges, imperceptibly, from millions of soft, white-petaled flowers packed along the branches of waist-high bushes ranging all around you under the shade of rainforest trees. A week earlier and you would have barely seen the waiting green buds clustered at leaf axils, a week later and the spent blooms would have wilted away. You arrive on exactly the right morning, a week after the first rains of summer, at the tropical coffee plantation in glorious, copious, synchronous bloom.

Coffee Flowers

Arabica coffee in bloom. By Marcelo Corrêa (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Listen to the morning buzz. No, this is not the artificial twitter of virtual voices flickering out of your phone or computer screens. This is the real thing: the morning chorus of birds carrying the sibilant twitter of sunbirds and white-eyes, alongside the clarion clang of racket-tailed drongos, the rhythmic metronome of barbets, and the raucous cries of great hornbills. All around sounds the delicate, pervasive hum of pollinating bees—small stingless bees, striped honey bees, giant rock bees—all living up to their clade name, anthophila, the flower lovers. Dip into the flower, sip the nectar, shrink and become the bee.

Rock bee in the Anamalai Hills

Rock bee (Apis dorsata) hive on a rainforest shade tree above a coffee estate in the Anamalai hills. By T R Shankar Raman [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Share and savour a bole of fruit. The jackfruit, like disfigured, spiky footballs, hang heavy from the knobbly bole of the shade tree. A macaque has eaten a monkey’s mouthful out of one, revealing oozy white latex and pulpy yellow innards. Now, the leaves shiver behind a leaping red-black blur. Cream-faced, tuft-eared, bushy-tailed, the giant squirrel soft-lands on branch, scurries to bole. Hanging by his hind feet, he pulls a marble-sized seed wrapped in pulpy flesh to his mouth. Later the fruit could fall or be yanked down by a hungry elephant. Take a bite yourself. Savour the fruit of giants.

Jack fruit tree AJT Johnsingh DSCN2331

Jackfruit tree in copious fruiting. By A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ratufa indica and jack fruit

A pair of giant squirrels tearing away at jackfruit. By Chinmayisk [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Eyeball the headlines. Look up the news: for instance, about yesterday’s gathering of eminent area residents at the annual jack feast. Parallel furrows on tree bark show Sambar had stripped off a snack, just before Elephant came by after her mud bath and rubbed herself on the trunk. By night, Civet came for the rainforest fruit platter, placed a seed-studded scat on a rock as his mark of approval. Porcupine left a quill behind, unexplained. You can only surmise what the writers on this landscape are up to, or mean, by the marks they leave behind.

Indian crested porcupine

Indian crested porcupine. By Harsha Jayaramaiah [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

5. Clean up after. A tiny bird, small enough to hold in your fist, shows you how. The flowerpecker flits above among the mistletoes adorning tree branches like Christmas decorations. With his beak, the bird pinches the mistletoe fruit, sticky to touch, to pop the seed and wipe it off on a twig. Or he swallows it and will later have to wipe the goopy seed off his butt on a twig where the seed will grow into a future mistletoe. Biologists call this directed dispersal, but there’s something even more admirable in what the little fella does that you could emulate: don’t just wipe stuff off, regenerate what you consume.

Nilgiri flowerpecker planting a mistletoe seed. Photos by Kalyan Varma (http://kalyanvarma.net).

6. Read the coffee grounds. Open all your senses, sip your brew now: imbibe a little of the land of elephant and hornbill and civet in India, or the land of tamandua and toucan and coati in Costa Rica, or whichever tropical place made your coffee. (You didn’t think you made it yourself, did you?) Look in the cup, imagine a future where you will cherish and feel connected to lives and lands so impossibly wonderful wherever they are.

Ltm panorama highres

A lion-tailed macaque looks out from a rainforest tree over coffee plantations and forests in the Anamalai hills. By T. R. Shankar Raman [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Twitschervogel01_derived_from_twitter-t.svg

Why quit Twitter

If you google it you will find all the right reasons and then some. It is distraction. It is a waste of time. It is the trumpet of demagogues, and there’s a pun in there somewhere. It is a space where you radiate cheap chatter and narcissistic signals of your own virtue, in 140 characters, emojis, smileys, GIFs. It makes you more social and more anti-social #online, more asocial #offline. It is a feed, only it feeds on you.

It shelters trolls and slaughters nuance. It eschews depth and embraces facade. It is where the new Nazis, the white supremacists, the racists, the misogynists, the fascists, the journalist-haters, the others-haters, all hang out and send their bluster and bile, their innuendo and threats, send it all your way, under the willful, watchful, closed eyes of the doubtless wonderful folks at Twitter, or with the blessings of political puppet masters twiddling their thumbs behind the blue screen. It is company you would rather not keep.

Yet, trolled or not, threatened or not, isn’t Twitter still worth it? If you google this, you will find the best reasons, the best, really, and then some. It is free. It is your voice, the voice of democracy, the microblog as the great leveler. It is outreach, it is #scicomm, it is one-on-one and one-to-all. It builds your readership, pushes up your #altmetric, it fosters connections you never would have imagined.

There’s all of that. And, as I said, then some.

Still, I have seen, read, and had enough. I am pulling out of Twitter—with a h/t and a thank you and farewell to all those folks who chose to or suffered to read me on their timeline (‘followed’ seems too grand a word for a relationship channeled via Twitter). Two and half years and 6610 tweets is a reasonable time to realise that this social media whatsit ain’t for me. Yes, I’ve been on Facebook, too, and left after a spell, with great relief, no sense of having lost anything of value whatsoever, and never a regret or a look back. Now, too, I leave with a feeling that I can do better. Maybe, just maybe, I will.

What will I fill the absence of Twitter with—an absence that I already scarcely feel now that I know I am calling it quits? At this point, almost anything else I care to do seems more interesting, meaningful, restful, fun. After all, what have I spent most time on Twitter doing but reading? And there remains plenty to read out there, and better ways to read it. I have taken a subscription to a good newspaper, in hard copy; I will read others online, perhaps taking new subscriptions to those that have not faltered into the post-truth world of unworthy demagogues. I will shore up my list of blogs to read, pull in their feeds regularly, comfortably, on a reader, and read authors in the original in the places they publish. I will continue to seek out books and magazines, particularly ad-free magazines and websites carrying the finest writing on the natural world like Orion and Terrain.org, to name a couple. Maybe I will spend more time with family and friends, or listen to sparrow chirp and whistlingthrush song in my backyard. Maybe I will treat myself to some good music and programs that my short-wave radio pulls from the skies, or hook up my speakers and computer to the best music and podcasts on the internet. Maybe I will write, or go for more long walks. Or perhaps, maybe best of all, in the time gained off Twitter, I will do nothing. Nothing.

And there’s no harm in that, is there? If you Google that… but wait…

Conversation biology: eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

In a recent email exchange with a journalist I greatly respect, I wrote:

I am personally ashamed at how little we (as scientists) have done to either study carefully or explain the issues or even share our experiences in the public domain. The op-ed was just my small attempt to get some of those thoughts out for public discussion and criticism.

The op-ed I referred to was titled The Culling Fields. In it, I wrote about the recent notifications issued by the Central government and some states in India to list certain wildlife species—nilgai antelope, wild pig, and rhesus macaque—as ‘Vermin’ under the Wildlife Protection Act. The notifications were spurred by a belief that populations of these animals had boomed and were responsible for serious damage to crops in rural areas, coupled with a perceived lack of better management options for what has been labeled ‘human – wildlife conflict’ involving these species.

Moving species that earlier received protection in the Wildlife Act into its Schedule V (V as in five, for V as in Vermin!) allows anyone to kill those species in the respective states. Already, hundreds of animals have been killed by shooters, often from other states, in a manner that has no scientific basis, design, or monitoring. Videos also suggest a distressing lack of attention to basic humane norms to prevent animal suffering (see this IndiaTV video episode around 0:55 – 0:60 and 1:30). This is no scientific ‘culling’ or research-based wildlife population management. This desperate measure unleashed on unsuspecting animals is simply slaughter.

As a debate on culling emerged, I wrote about why the ongoing killing may not just be the wrong answer to the conservation issue, but a consequence of framing the wrong question. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, or what Sindhu Radhakrishna and I wrote in another piece, here. Nor do I intend to respond here to other articles or the few thoughtful demurring responses I received from people who had written in support of culling. Nor is this the place to discuss why widespread killing of wildlife in other countries, such as coyotes in the US, for example, makes little sense and is evidently less effective than non-lethal methods.

What I would like to do here is talk about another concern: the silence of scientists. Why have scientists in India—particularly conservation biologists and social scientists—for whom human – wildlife conflict is today a major area of research, hardly joined in the discussion to support or rebut or provide nuanced perspectives on culling as a solution? Leave alone participating in the debate, scientists are hardly even part of the backdrop.

As expected, the space is then taken up by well-meaning animal welfare groups and activists, who adopt a more immediate task of resistance, alongside the task of questioning. When activists in India queried the states where culling was allowed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) on whether the culls were based on scientific research studies, they learned that the orders were not based on any scientific studies. When the central government was asked, under RTI, how culling could be permitted without scientific studies, the activists were informed that no new research was required on the issue of conflict. Even with culling underway, questions asked on whether there was any monitoring of number of animals being culled, elicited only this response from the central Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change:

No such information available in the Ministry.

All this should have a sobering effect on the dozens of scientists and students I know across the country (and possibly many more that I don’t) who have spent months and years in the field studying human – wildlife interactions including conflicts. Some of them have spent years engaged in scientific research and efforts to reduce conflicts, often successfully, by working with local people and forest departments. My own work in this field has been relatively minuscule, but I have tried to keep up with the research and approaches to conflict mitigation because they have a direct bearing on wildlife conservation and human welfare. And yet, many of us have hardly spoken up in public to share our learnings to inform or influence policy, practice, and public opinion. One environmental journalist went a step further in analyzing this and wrote that perhaps wildlife conservation scientists don’t really care:

…while the animal welfare lobby has been quick to cry foul, there has been an ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community. This is where the wildlife scientists must step up to the challenge. The truth is that most wildlife biologists would rather spend their time doing pure science, that is studying species deep in the forest and learning new aspects of their behaviour. There is no charm in ‘managing’ human-animal problems. It’s also true that since most of the animals listed are not endangered, most conservation biologists have little or no concern in saving them.

I disagree with much of what that says and the way it is said: the pigeonholing of people who may have real concerns on animal welfare into a “lobby”, the oversight that many wildlife scientists now work outside reserves and in human-use landscapes, and the failure to note a growing scientific concern over common species as much as the rare and endangered. But what I do agree with is what the writer calls the “ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community” (leaving aside my personal opinion that those concerned with animal welfare are part of the same community).

Why are the scientists silent? And why is it important to ask this question? Not because science and scientists are infallible or represent the sole arbiters of truth—or other absurd claims on those lines. Not because I believe that science should form the bedrock of policy and governance—there are other aspects of society, politics, and asymmetries of power at play that are probably equally or more relevant. It is because one can envision a supportive role for reasoning—public reasoning—within the framework of any democracy. For citizens of a democracy facing various complex and shared problems that have no single or simple cause or solution, an atmosphere of open reasoning presents various possibilities, ideas, and information, and has the potential to cultivate collective—yet diverse and evolving—consciousness, attitudes, and actions.

I believe this is a discussion worth having because this is not the only issue in which the silence of scientists, including myself, rings louder than the gunshots.

So here are my “eight reasons I am a silent scientist”. These are reasons I have said out loud, just given myself, or heard expressed by colleagues. Instead of expanding on each, I am just going to toss this list out there with a brief line each, hoping that it will provoke you to go right down to the comments box and

  • add your voice and thoughts in the comments to say yay or nay or go take a f.f.a.a.r.d. (Vonnegut 1969) OR
  • add other reasons in your comments that I’m sure I’ve missed in this post.

Eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

1. My research does not address the relevant issues and places

This could be read as a polite way of saying I don’t really care or This doesn’t concern me as it ain’t in my backyard. Still, I wonder, if we study or teach population theory or political ecology or ungulate habitat use somewhere else, say, is it really irrelevant to the issue?

2. I don’t have enough data—my study is not good enough—to say anything yet

Don’t we love this one? Read it as you will, as humblebrag or a noble call to arms issued to one’s peers. But how many of us have not slipped this in at the end of our papers: we need more research?

3. I cannot make statements given the scientific uncertainties

All research is beset with some level of uncertainty. But isn’t dealing with, and reducing, uncertainty integral to science? Climate scientists have led by example on how to acknowledge uncertainty while communicating scientific findings and advances. But are we as conservation scientists content, instead, to say we need even more research until the level of uncertainty becomes acceptably low before we speak up?

4. All I have to say, I say in my peer-reviewed papers and technical reports

In other words, I’d rather not write or speak in public. As something I am culpable of and sympathise with in others, this raises the issue of access to our scientific findings. What have we done to make our research findings, data, publications more openly and publicly accessible?

5. I have spoken up—in government committees that I am a member in

Why bother with the messy and contentious public domain, when I can pick up the phone and call an influential person, a politician or government officer perhaps, or sit on a powerful committee and tell them that this is what science says must be done? (Of course, I asked for the minutes of the meeting to be made public, its not my fault that they haven’t been transparent about it.)

6. It is time to hear other voices, other world views

This one has a lot going for it, if it means actually shutting up in order to listen to other voices, especially of people affected by wildlife. Yet, complete silence on our part could be a lost opportunity for a conversation, for a dialogue or discourse, to share what we have done, learned, and what science, warts-and-all, has to reveal. This could, however, simply degenerate into Let them vent their problems, although they really don’t know what they are talking about, better listen to me instead.

7. This is not about science, it is about politics

A dirty business plagued by environmental illiteracy, corruption, and cronyism, isn’t that what politics and politicians are all about? Heck, if it was about inter-departmental wrangling, squabbling for funds and tenure, or seeking credit over other scientists and institutions, I am an expert on politics. But this is  real world politics in India’s villages, towns, and cities. So let me not say anything to reveal any more of my ignorance.

8. I am a scientist, not an advocate or, heaven forbid, an activist

The tension between science and advocacy persists in conservation biology, with at least one case of an editor-in-chief of a leading conservation journal being ousted due to her position on “removing advocacy statements from research papers”. Yet, if one reads advocacy as giving voice to the voiceless aren’t conservation scientists committed to conservation by default? And if action and resistance can be achieved through non-violence, can inaction perpetrate violence or perpetuate oppression? I don’t want to be an activist, but what does that make me: an inactivist?

What Aldo Leopold wrote in the Round River is  probably as true of science as it is of the ‘harmony with the land’ he wrote about:

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.

 References Cited

Vonnegut, K. (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

A weekend in Lake Tahoe

Carved by glaciers, filled by snow melt and cool creeks of clear water, the crystal lake is bluer than the sky itself. Ensconced by a ring of rugged ridges, some softened by blankets of snow, the lake seems separated from the rest of the world. It gazes at the heavens like an unblinking but shimmering, sparkling eye. From a distance, the bristling conifers on the surrounding slopes—Jeffrey pine, lodgepole pine, western white pine, incense cedar, and white fir—seem as gentle as eyelashes, the crestline of the mountains becomes the ridge of the eyebrow, and the folded ranges rolling away into the grey-blue distance become a forehead, furrowed in thought. On the skyward face of the Sierra Nevada, alongside more than 25,000 hectares of forest, alpine meadows, and granitic rocks in the Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe shines in the sun.

Lake tahoe map

Lake Tahoe looking at space (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On Memorial Day weekend, the metaphor can only go so far. What do I make of the white wakes of boats, the stream of cars, the sibilant rush of tyres on steely tarmac, and the pressing throng of several thousand people, bikers, dogs, and ourselves? All spattered over Tahoe’s eye, like scratches and smoke and pieces of grit? At the edge of the wilderness and the lake, I now stand, perplexed for a moment, reflecting on my own metaphor.

Cyanocitta stelleri -Emerald Bay, El Dorado County, California, USA-8

Steller’s Jay; by Wolfgang Krause (Picasa Web Albums) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From the branches of a nearby pine, a Steller’s jay with its dark wedge of a head laughs—a staccato, rasping laugh—before his feathery blue shape plunges into the woods.

§

It is a bright, clear day over Lake Tahoe, as we head out from the rented house where we stayed the night, and the tops of the trees are touched gold by rays of morning sun. High above everyone, a lone osprey wings his way with purpose—across the open sky towards the lake.

Osprey In Flight By Carole Robertson

Osprey in flight; by Mandcrobertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At a trailhead near South Lake Tahoe, my brother and I enter Desolation Wilderness. I am astonished at the crowd of weekend visitors on foot, although there seems to be fewer people here than by the lake itself. Unlike around the lake, there are no roads in the wilderness reserve, and none are permitted to be established, so one can only enter on foot for hiking or camping. Yet, as a board placed at the trailhead declares, Desolation Wilderness receives more visitors on a per acre basis than any other American wilderness. A sheaf of entry permits hangs on the same board—voluntary permit forms that we fill out with our details, drop into an attached box, before going on.

Wilson's Warbler - Wilsonia pusilla

Wilson’s Warbler; by Linda Tanner (Flickr: Wilson’s Warbler) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We take a short, slow walk on the trail winding through scattered shrubbery, punctuated by taller conifers, and threaded by dense vegetation along the streams. From a shrub, a western wood pewee, a brown flycatcher-like bird, flits out after an insect and loops back to his perch. A Wilson’s warbler, smaller than my fist, his face a heart-stopping flash of gold, energetically gleans insects off the leaves. On the trail, sprightly and shrill squirrels dart aside for us while, overhead, sleek and handsome violet-green swallows scythe through the air. Further ahead, at a little creek, in shimmering sun-flecks under the quivering leaves of an aspen, I bend to the stream, cup cold, clear water in my hands, drink deep, and stand up, refreshed.

§

In its high glacier-scoured valley, Lake Tahoe sits at the edge of myriad lines. Fault lines form a great ‘V’, whose arms open to the north encompassing the lake, and are flanked by mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevada to the west and the Carson range to the east. Other invisible lines, too, slice the landscape: climatic lines-in-the-air, edaphic lines-in-the-earth, the lines defined only on maps and in human perception, where bristly conifers yield to sparse sagebrush, where California becomes Nevada, and valleys of silicon give way to basins of sand. Beneath all runs a deeper line, impressed in the human mind, which many visitors imagine they cross, when they leave the city and suburbs behind, for a spell outdoors in nature, for a trip into the wilderness.

Lake Tahoe, with a surface area of 50,000 hectares, is the largest of the Sierra lakes, 35 kilometres long, about 16 kilometres wide, and upto half a kilometre deep. More than a hundred years ago in The Mountains of California, John Muir—writer, naturalist, and an early proponent of wilderness preservation whom Bill McKibben has called an “American mystic”—evocatively described the landscape and waters of Lake Tahoe.

Its forested shores go curving in and out and around many an emerald bay and pine-crowned promontory, and its waters are everywhere as keenly pure as any to be found among the highest mountains. ~John Muir

Golden Hour at Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe Image: © Frank Schulenburg via Wikimedia Commons

On the map, Lake Tahoe nestles alongside the great tract, lying to the southwest, of over 25,000 hectares of sub-alpine and alpine forest, lakes, and meadows, and high peaks in the Desolation Wilderness. The wilderness areas in the United States were created following the enactment of the landmark legislation in 1964, the Wilderness Act. The Act defined a wilderness as an

…area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…

Under the Act, a wilderness was also envisaged as an area

…which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of  man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…

Desolation itself was designated by the US Congress in 1969, from an area that was part of Lake Tahoe Forest Reserve established seventy years earlier. Not long after John Muir’s book was published, tourists were already visiting the area, which became part of the Eldorado National Forest in 1910, and later notified as Desolation Valley Primitive Area in 1931 before it was inducted into the National Wilderness Preservation System. Despite its rather forbidding name, or, perhaps, because of it, Desolation Wilderness now manages to entice well over a hundred thousand visitors every year. As a place for more routine recreation rather than wilderness tourism in the same landscape, Lake Tahoe receives, every year, around three million.

Like elsewhere, the history of human presence and use in the Tahoe Basin landscape is longer than the history of preservation efforts. The Washoe lived, hunted, and fished here for over 8000 years, leaving a smaller imprint on the land than what came later. A little over a century before the wilderness legislation, human impact on the landscape escalated with the discovery, in 1859, of silver ore in the famous Comstock Lode. In the ensuing ‘silver-rush’ and mining boom, ground was broken for trails, railroads, and roads through the mountains, and the demand for timber spurred logging in the Tahoe Basin.

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Comstock Lode, c. 1870; via Wikimedia Commons

Old-growth forest area in the basin soon declined by two-thirds and, as logging continued into the twentieth century, plummeted further, until less than two percent remained. The legacy of logging is still marked on the land, and the forests—now with fewer large trees, more pines, and an altered fire regime—are still changing.

And yet, it is possible to imagine something different. Ascending the grand Sierra, one feels a certain exhilaration, like finding beauty untempered by loss. Scaling a high pass down to South Lake Tahoe, turning off the road into Pioneer Trail, one can imagine a frontier landscape that early visitors, forerunners of others to come, came to explore. One imagines miners prospecting for ore, riders seeking land, timber, or game, or even thieving raiders of the wild west escaping the law—outlaws riding into the outback with rangers on their tail. One imagines a time when people left the urban and the suburban, the ranch and the farm—all of it—behind, and set out on expeditions into uncharted territory. Into wilderness. Desolation.

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The map of Lake Tahoe and its encircling forests bespeaks a different reality that is neither desolation nor wilderness. Everywhere, trails squiggle from trailhead to viewpoint, to alpine lakes and waterfalls, through logged coniferous forests and upland meadows, up rocky slopes to smooth ski-trails, or down ravines, past aspen-lined creeks, back to the lake. The tourist map carries a smattering of points to visit—to ratchet-up your been-there-done-that list—emerald bays, white beaches, silvery cascades—promising vistas that inspire, places that are heavenly. You can even reach Heavenly by gondola lift, ascending to the mountain-top ski resort on cable-car. There is a peppering of private property in the landscape—wood cabins with verandahs overlooking the lake, log houses tacked to wooden jetties where boats with oars and outboard motors are tied, homes fronted by the inevitable garage, the ubiquitous lawn.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day at Lake Tahoe, people are out in numbers. My brother, sister-in-law, a cousin and her husband, and myself are joined by my younger cousin sister and her fiancé, who have driven down from the university at Reno for the weekend. Together, we thread our way through walkers, cyclists, and vehicles to the lake. Everywhere, small plastic American flags flutter on windshields and bonnets, or taped to the spokes of bicycles, go spinning and spinning. Some of the people have cycled up, but most have carried cycles perched on bike racks on their cars and trucks. A few motorcyclists ride past, from bikers on humble, purring Yamahas, to the men mounted on growling Harley Davidsons—faceless people in helmets marked with fearsome stickers and logos, wearing black gloves and leather jackets, sometimes sleeveless, often tattooed. The walkers on steady march, in hiking boots and walking shoes, are outfitted in casuals, shorts, jackets, or outdoor clothes, their heads bare or covered by hats or baseball caps, their clothes of every colour from white to black to flourescent yellow and orange. On many shoulders are slung backpacks with rehydrating tubes leading to water bottles, from many ears emerge the wires of earphones connected to music players.

Then, seeming to outnumber and outpace the bikers and walkers, come the vehicles bearing names strangely reminscent of the pioneer years: cars. The roads thrum to the traffic of the Explorers, the 4Runners, the Outback riders, the Escapes, the Ascenders and Uplanders, the Rangers and Raiders, the Suburban Expedition adventurers. Cars. Cars in steely grey and flaming red. Cars in lake blue and sky blue and meadow green and moss green. Cars in brown and bronze and beige. Cars in passionate pink and pollen yellow. Cars in white and ivory and pitch black. Cars small enough to tuck in your legs and squat into, cars so large that you must haul yourself up like ascending a mountain with handrails. Cars that are trendy hybrids or gas guzzlers. Cars called trucks, called sedans, called SUVs, called cars. Cars with roofs open, retractable, convertible, closed. Cars with people, cars with attitude, cars with unassailable confidence. Cars. Cars. Cars.

Like a giant, colourful, wheeled millipede, the traffic crawls on the road along the lake. In favoured tourist spots, the rarest find is a space to park the car. We drive more than a mile, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, past the stationary millipede of parked vehicles, to find a space to park our own.

Yet, the few hours spent in casual birding in Lake Tahoe are enjoyable, yielding familiar birds and new species, some imprinted on memory. On the fens and fenceposts, flocks of red-winged blackbirds chatter and screech, their epaulets flaming on feathers black as an oil slick. In the trees, a male yellow-headed blackbird gleams, black mask and dagger beak on a sunflower yellow head and neck. On the lake, California gulls bob white and placid, alongside a couple of cantankerous mallard drakes. A tree swallow sweeps overhead, as a skein of Canada geese whips past, and flying even higher, a dark, slow raven rends the air with raucous cries. Later in the afternoon, as we head back to the car park, after seeing the sights, after the photos with lake and landscape as background, we see the osprey in the skies again—is it the same one?—carrying a glistening fish in its talons. Wings held wide, the bird bends its head to its feet to tear at the fish, apparently for a mid-air meal.

Our bird list hovers at around fifteen species, representing a dozen bird families. But the marques of cars seen exceeds twenty: Subaru, GMC, Dodge, Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, BMW, Lexus, Acura, Hummer, Volkswagen, Audi, JEEP, Opel, Mitsubishi, Chrysler, Land Rover, Datsun, Scion, Chevrolet, Hyundai, and Volvo. And the species and shades of cars—from the tiny two doors to the hunkering Hummers, the Oldsmobiles to newsmobiles, the Corollas and Sequoias, the Jaguars and Mustangs—there was no way to keep count. One SUV is even named Tahoe.

U.S. Route 50 in South Lake Tahoe, California

Traffic and lights in South Lake Tahoe; by Constantine Kulikovsky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps, in our birding today, lost in our own distractions as we were, it is safer to assume that we missed many species. It is safer and more reassuring, because the alternative explanation—that on a pleasant weekend spent outdoors the species and races of cars outnumber the species and races of birds—is truly frightening.

Fifty years on, the legacy of the Wilderness Act still raises questions that deserve attention. Why does the Wilderness Act talk about opportunities for solitude or recreation when, in many areas, a person seeking the former in all likelihood will be interrupted by others pursuing the latter? What does it portend for recreation that is primitive and unconfined, when the ability to immerse oneself into such an experience, untrammeled as the wilderness, eludes most of us, benumbed passengers of a world careening in the opposite direction? Why does the Act insist that man must himself merely be a visitor who does not remain, when all land, forest, and air bears telling evidence to the contrary? Ultimately, too, whose standards of recreation are we to consider? Those of the Washoe Indians who lived here for millenia before the white man, those of the visionaries of the American wilderness system, or those of the ever-shifting throng of tourists at the entry gates among whom a form of recreation may be discovered by each person anew? And what of the other kind of tourism, hovering at the edge of the wilderness, in places like Lake Tahoe: when the desired experience of landscape is something that can be purchased, how does one value one’s place in nature?

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As the day wears on and we walk the trails skirting the lakeshore and adjoining slopes, I realise our time in Tahoe brings more than just rest or recreation. My younger cousin, tall and effervescent, describes her doctoral research on the ecology of birds in the high mountains of California, while her fiancé, a hydrologist, talks about the Tahoe basin and the mile-high cluster of sub-alpine lakes. From them, I learn that Lake Tahoe is among the most pellucid lakes, partly due to the low-nutrient soils on the surrounding slopes and consequent low nutrient loading into the lake. In the 1960s, one could see clearly up to a depth of nearly a hundred feet, but with pollution and sediment load from the surrounding developed areas and roads, water clarity and visibility declined to about sixty feet in recent years. They tell me that concerned citizens are now working to restore the lake and the surrounding watershed. The lake appears to be responding, too, and is slowly recovering the clearness of the past. On the roadside, they point to a stormwater drain installed to trap and filter the run-off that may otherwise find its way into the lake. My eyes follow the drain down the slope to the lake, seeing it, again, with renewed clarity. Among human efforts, ecological restoration appears to be that rare endeavour where the past can become a measure of progress.

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe (15387213956)

By U.S. Geological Survey from Reston, VA, USA (Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We turn back to the house where we will stay the night. It might be the last night we will all get to spend together for a long while yet.

In the evening, the cars stream back to city and town, as people leave the wilderness behind for the urban and suburban, leave nature for office and home. Yet, the wilderness they leave behind will not sink into great desolation, and the home that lies ahead will not be disconnected from nature. The people have touched Tahoe and, perhaps, some have been touched by Tahoe, in return. Who knows how many found their solitude, or a primitive and unconfined recreation, or forged new connections with nature, or among themselves? And what, finally, is the real catalyst of it all, if not the landscape itself? For it is the lake and the wilderness, by their presence, accessibility, and grandeur, that drew each of us briefly outside the busy, self-contained cocoons of our lives. And yet, watching the departing vehicles and recalling the milling crowds, I cannot help thinking: catalysts are supposed to remain unchanged by the reactions they facilitate.

The envelope of night slips over the lake. The slithering roar of the highway subsides to muted shush of tyres. One can now stand on the slopes above the lake and the city of South Lake Tahoe, and look—look down at the sprinkling of lights in the landscape, glowing in boats and houses, beaming from streetlights and cars. To the sighing of wind in the pines, one can look at the lake and imagine the unflinching eye reflecting the light of stars.

Why Mizoram must revive, not eradicate, jhum

There is something extraordinary about the cheraw (bamboo dance) performed during Chapchar Kut. The dance is unique, elegant, and spectacular, but it carries a deeper connection to the land and lives of the people, particularly to the remarkable practice of shifting agriculture (or jhum) which subtly encapsulates the dance of the bamboos themselves on the mountains of Mizoram.

I first watched the grand cheraw performance at the Assam Rifles stadium in Aizawl in Mizoram’s Gospel Centenary year. Although the state had seen great transformations in religion, traditions and economy over the last century, the cheraw itself had been retained as a deeper marker of culture.

The cheraw dance performance at Chapchar Kut in Mizoram's gospel centenary year (1995)

The cheraw dance performance at Chapchar Kut following Mizoram’s gospel centenary year (24 February 1995).

Two decades later, in 2014, I watched the cheraw performed again in the same stadium by Mizo boys and girls decked in bright traditional dresses patterned with bamboo-like designs on clothing and headgear.

Nearly two decades later, the cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut 7 March 2014).

Nearly two decades later, the cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut 7 March 2014).

To the clacking beat of the bamboo held by the boys at their feet, the girls gracefully stepped and danced as if nothing had changed across the years. Yet, in the surrounding countryside, much had.

The government had been continually trying to eliminate jhum and replace it with monoculture plantations such as teak, rubber, and oil palm. This attempt to eradicate jhum goes against the grain of ecology, agriculture, and culture of Mizoram. Consider these four reasons.

Jhum helps retains forest cover

First, foresters claim jhum causes loss of forest cover. Scientists have instead pointed out the loss is only temporary and that too in small patches that are cleared. This contrasts sharply with the permanent loss of extensive forest cover when jhum is replaced by other land uses such as settled agriculture and monoculture plantations of oil palm, rubber, and teak. Plantations such as oil palm and rubber that directly cause deforestation are being promoted by the state government. This accounts for over 20,000 hectares of forest loss in Mizoram in just the last few years.

Jhum does lead to a change in the type of forest cover. As soon as cultivation is over and the fields are rested, forests very rapidly regenerate on jhum fallows. Dense bamboo forests, especially mautak (Melocanna baccifera), and secondary forests with trees rapidly cover the jhum landscape. For every hectare cultivated, at least 5 to 10 hectares are left regenerating. This forest cover is still superior to plantations of a single species such as oil palm and rubber that are not forest at all.

An aerial view of the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

An aerial view of the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

Jhum supports biodiversity in the landscape

Second, biologists report  jhum areas have fewer plant and animal species than mature rainforests. But they also point out the wider jhum landscape supports more biodiversity than terraced agriculture, oil palm, tea, and rubber plantations.

Wildlife scientists, including myself, have underscored the need to protect mature rainforests. Mizoram  has done a creditable job in protecting such forests in the core zones of many wildlife reserves such as Dampa, Murlen, and Ngengpui. In the surrounding landscape, however, the dense bamboo and secondary forests created by jhum are better for biodiversity conservation than any of the artificial monocultures being planted. This must be acknowledged.

A sustainable, organic farming system

Third, from an agricultural point of view, jhum is unfairly labelled as an unproductive system. Comparing yields per hectare of specific crops (such as rice) in jhum with other ‘modern’ agricultural systems, fails to consider many benefits of jhum. Jhum is a multiple-crop system that raises diverse food and cash crops, conserves indigenous seeds and varieties, and promotes household food security. Also, while cultivation may last a single year, farmers gain resources over many years from fields and regenerating forests: fuelwood, perennial crops, bamboo and bamboo shoots, mushrooms and forest foods, housing materials and timber. A fair comparison with other systems of farming would take into account the returns to farmers over the entire jhum cycle (and not just yields per hectare at a single harvest). Agricultural scientists today believe jhum is a sustainable farming system that can be refined rather than replaced.

It is the stated policy of the Central Government and Indian states like Sikkim and Kerala to transform conventional agriculture towards organic farming. This is a progressive trend. For Mizoram, the first state to enact organic farming legislation, it is doubly ironic that the authorities are trying to eradicate this remarkable organic farming system (jhum) instead of capitalising on having a head start. The state’s attempt to eradicate jhum is regressive from the perspectives of current scientific understanding of agroecology and government policy.

The dance of the future

Finally, the cheraw at Chapchar Kut subtly and intricately epitomises cultural connections and values. The  group dance celebrates the spirit of community that Mizoram is famous for and embodied in tlawmngaihna, the bamboo attests the connection to forest and land (ram), and the circular dance within the bounds of the bamboo seemingly reflects the rotational system of jhum cultivation itself. But today, as oil palm and rubber plantations begin to replace bamboo and jhum, an economy based on culture, diversity, and community is being replaced by one dependent on cash, permanent monocrops, and private interests.

What will happen then, in future, to the dance of the bamboos? I imagine Mizo boys and girls assembling at the Assam Rifles Grounds in Aizawl for the dance. But the boys are not holding bamboo culms at the feet of the girls any more: they are at the gates in dark suits selling tickets, collecting cash. The girls, clad in monotonous green dresses patterned with spikes and needles, stand in the sun, alone, their arms aloft, their palms open and fingers splayed wide, their eyes staring, unblinking at the fierce sun. The feet of the girls are fixed to the earth and don’t move. And through the gates, the spectators trickle in, to see the Mizos perform the oil palm dance.

One hopes that such a dance is never performed, that such a day never comes.

This article first appeared in the Chapchar Kut special issue of The Frontier Despatch, 4 March 2016.

Writing about the environment: a letter

Road to Perdition, a piece by Neha Sinha and myself published in the July issue of Fountain Ink, triggered a response from Aasheesh Pittie: a handwritten letter that he has posted here on his blog. Aasheesh critiques our piece for not being emphatic or dramatic enough, given the drastic, unprecedented, and barely-regulated assault on India’s environment now underway. He raises vital concerns on how we write about the environment and hoped his letter would begin a dialogue. In the spirit of taking the conversation ahead, here is the letter I wrote in response. Do read his letter first before reading on. And add your thoughts and comments!

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