Emerging from the rainforests, near Teirei village in a remote corner of Mizoram in northeast India, my phone comes alive, beeps a message as if from another world.
Peter Matthiessen is no more.
It brings me to a halt. Head bowed, I read the message again. At the end of a long trek, my shoulders slump with heavy backpack. A tiredness changes to an ache, the forest rest house in the village two kilometres away is forgotten.
Divya, my wife, had sent the message from our home in the Anamalai hills in the other corner of India. Peter Matthiessen, exceptional observer, witness, versatile writer of nonfiction including The Tree where Man was Born, African Silences, The Cloud Forest, and Wildlife in America, fiction such as Shadow Country and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, has long been one of our favourite authors. A cherished collection of his books fills a row in our wooden bookshelf at home. The previous day, on 5 April 2014, at the age of 86, Matthiessen, at his home in Sagaponack halfway around the world, had died of leukaemia.
How does one respond to news about the death of one of the finest writers about the natural world? And, too, in a text message? I find my fingers moving over the keypad writing something to Divya that I know would be inadequate, mean nothing.
Oh damn. So sad. I guess his books won’t die so soon.
Weeks earlier, when I set out for Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram for a spell of fieldwork on birds in the rainforest landscape, I had no doubt about the one book I would surely carry. The first book I tucked into my backpack was Matthiessen’s masterpiece, The Snow Leopard. The book, a lyrical chronicle of journey and quest in the high mountains of the Himalaya, itself rang with his searing attempt to reconcile life and death.
And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.
I carried the book in my bag and Matthiessen’s words in my head as I moved between camps over many weeks spent in Dampa. I was here at the invitation of the Mizoram State Forest Department to carry out a comprehensive bird survey, revisiting the same mountains and forests where I had lived and worked twenty years earlier. At that time, I had come to carry out field research on the tribal system of farming in the region called shifting agriculture or jhum and its effects on forest recovery and birds. Why had I returned now? Was I here only for the bird survey? Or was there more? A reliving of experience unearthed from the ashes of memory? A search for something forgotten, or missed for long?
But why was I going? What did I hope to find? … And so I admitted that I did not know. How could I say that I wished to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching?
And so, along with my fieldwork, I read Matthiessen. I read him with a headlamp on cold nights in the watchtower camp on Dampatlang peak. I read him under fierce sun in the muggy afternoons at the other bamboo forest watchtower on Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang ridge. I read him by candlelight and firefly flicker in the Tuichar Cave deep in the valley below.
Dampatlang Watchtower, 1 March 2014
At nearly a thousand metres elevation, the Dampatlang watchtower overlooks a grand, wild landscape. On one side, to the north and east, the forest canopy of rainforest trees and Rawnal (Dendrocalamus longispathus) bamboo steps away from the ridgeline in a panoply of green. On the other, just metres away, the land plunges several hundred feet past grey cliffs of serow and bear into the valley of Tuichar Lui (river). Beyond the river, dark primary forests climb the slopes of Chawrpialtlang from valley to summit at 1,100 metres. Across the valley of Tuichar, the steep sleeping cliffs of the Assamese macaques face the rainforest from where the hoolock gibbons sing.
At 4:40 a.m., a dark, starlit sky, the silence of mountains, the susurrus of leaves in the wind, the yawing creak of bamboo culms. Soon, I would have to head out to survey two transects, lying about four kilometres away, down a narrow and steep trail. Two decades ago, I walked the same transects with little trouble, but today my legs are killing me. My knees are swollen, I cannot fold my legs, and squatting or standing is agony. Still, unless my legs give way completely, I resolve to see the fieldwork through, walk the transects as many times as I can.
It takes over an hour and a quarter to reach the transects in bamboo and mature evergreen forests. The forests throb with morning bird sounds, sweet songs of babblers and shama, the loud cries of barbets and hornbills. Walking, listening, looking, I pass a stately Khiang (Schima wallichii) tree where a black and white Malayan giant squirrel and a coal-black Pallas’ squirrel with red belly are chewing at fruits for seeds. Clasping fruit to mouth and hanging by their hind legs or stretched along the branch, long furry tails hanging, the squirrels gnaw and chew, unaffected by my presence directly below. A light rain of bitten fruit showers on me and patters softly on the earth as I pass.
It takes over two hours to finish the transect surveys before it is time to return. Plodding back uphill, I consider what it is about fieldwork that draws one out, beyond the call of duty or discomfort, into the wild. Beneath the scientific quest, lies something that is far more personal. Behind the aura of exploration, lurks the ego of achievement, the arrogance of conquest.
Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.
Suddenly, a scurrying rustle sounds from the path ahead. A pair of grey shapes darts from the trail, a dozen pairs of iridescent green eyes glint from long feathers: Grey Peacock-Pheasants. One bird crosses the trail, another follows, cagily circles a fallen log before vanishing into the forest. From deep in the forest sounds the guttural laugh of another peacock-pheasant, the ‘Varihaw’ singing to attract his mate. Ahead, on the trail itself, I find a small space, about five feet by two, cleared of twigs and litter, perhaps for the Varihaw to tilt and dance, fanning wing and tail to dazzle his inamorata with his profusion of glinting ocelli.
Further ahead, just off the trail, a dumpy bird—mud brown below, green above, a swatch of blue on his nape—hops away on long legs into the undergrowth, from where he issues a loud two-note whistle. The Blue-naped Pitta carries the touch of earth, forest, and sky on his plumage. And a bit further, a cluster of black feathers, some tipped white, is all that remains of a male Kalij Pheasant killed by a wild cat: a leopard cat perhaps, or that more elusive, shadowy creature, photographed on a field camera placed along the same trail, a clouded leopard.
Stave in hand, I walk favouring my hurting right knee, wonder if I will be able to repeat the survey tomorrow. Or should I move camp, instead, to the new bamboo forest watchtower, find a water source nearby, and stay closer to the transects?
Despite the hard day that has ended in defeat … and the very doubtful prospects for tomorrow, I feel at peace among these looming rocks, the cloud swirl and wind-whirled snow, as if the earth had opened up to take me in.
I lean against a Schima tree, my hand on the deeply-ridged, tough layer of bark. In the driest of weather, the tree is yet felted by cool moss, soft to the touch. Now, in the forest of peacock-pheasant and clouded leopard, my pain disappears: I am still beneath the Schima tree.
Only one question remains. With all the earth underfoot in the forest, why does the Varihaw dance on the trail that I, too, must walk?
Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang, 12 March 2014
Stultifying, sweat-sticky heat by day, worrying, whispering wind by night. The bamboo forest watchtower, perched on this high ridge in Dampa, eases my strain of walking to distant transects over rugged terrain, but is otherwise most ill-suited for camping. It lies open to lashing rain and scorching sun, becomes intolerable in the furnace heat after ten in the morning till three in the afternoon. The only water, a mere trickle, seeps out of dank rocks and litter in a dark ravine almost half a kilometre down a steep, pathless slope. It is a place that stokes the furnaces of the mind, flames through eye to brain, reduces ideas to ashes.
The bamboos on the ridgeline, facing west and south over steep cliffs, are crisping in the sun. The green culms are clothed in leafy clusters of drooping green and papery browns and yellows, as if hung with a grizzled pelt the colour of summer. The forest floor is a slippery slithery mat rustling with dry bamboo leaves. The bamboo forest around the watchtower is rimmed by tall trees of evergreen rainforest over a hundred years old.
Returning from the transects, I stretch out my blue carry mat in the drifting shadow of the watchtower, Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard at my side. Too tired to read, I lie down, cover my face from searing sky with my hat. The ants and flies find me instantly. A black ant, indignant, bites me on my neck. I spring up and swat her away, spend the next minutes flicking ants from mat, hat, book, foot, hair, sleeve, collar, and wrist, until I realise that, but for the first, none are out to get me. They scatter distraught because the grass had been cut, the litter pushed aside, burnt even, to make a small space for my mat, for me to sit on or stretch out. Now they run about to reorient to the changed contours of their own space. So, I sit still, let them figure it out. After a while, the bustle quietens, we readjust to each other.
Then the flies buzz in. A duller one, dripped in grey, like a drab honeybee, and a little gold-and-black hoverfly, a torpedo winging back and forth like a shimmering jewel. I wave, I swat, I blow, I twitch, until I stop to see what they want. The flies come only to sponge a little sweat-salt off exposed arm or leg with their tiny, tickly, tongues. If I stay still, they dab away for a while, lap up a little from elbow-crook or leg, make a short survey of ankle and shin, give a glancing touch to my cheek, a skimming look from the air over my nose. Then they disappear, resume their busy lives, perhaps visiting flowers, transmitting pollen from plant to plant.
Why should I grudge the flies this much? What am I but a little ephemeral fly myself, scanning and surveying, gathering my own little crumbs of learning off the rugged skin of Dampa? What can I aspire for in my fieldwork but to leave carrying a pollen-grain of perception to share with others, when the moment arrives of my own vanishing?
The stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence.
Tuichar cave, 27 March 2014
After morning transects in the valley, I return to the camp at the Puk, the cave in deep rainforest beside Tuichar Lui. Rending the morning quietude, a family of gibbons howls from the far forests on Chawrpialtlang. Almost in retort, another gibbon family, closer, louder, begins to whoop and hoot in morning abandon. The latter, I notice, are calling not from the primary rainforests to the south and east. Their calls—urgent, clarion, challenging—come from the old bamboo forests of Tuichar, downriver; the gibbons perhaps swing and sing from high trees in the patches of mature rainforest closer to the river, perhaps from the great Tatkawng (Artocarpus chaplasha), Lawngthing (Dipterocarpus turbinatus), Thingdawl (Tetrameles nudiflora), and Ficus trees that tower over the bamboo, or, who knows, perhaps from the bamboo itself.
Past a whinnying Great Slaty Woodpecker, who dips and darts from the broken fig tree above the cave, we turn off the forest trail, down to the Puk, where I am enveloped by grey rocks, great trees, soft voice of stream. How much this place has given me! Not by asking, just by being here, living, watching, recording: water, food, fire, shelter, experience, data, learning, and unlearning. All steamed in tropical heat, washed in thunderstorm, wafted by winds, lit by starlight and firefly. And yet, how much, really, have I perceived, have I been ready to perceive? How much remains?
The Puk stands on a threshold, a line stretching from river to ridge where dark forest gives way to light bamboo greens. Standing on that threshold, I wonder: have I been wrong about shifting cultivation or jhum all along? My study on shifting cultivation had concluded that many bird and mammal species of deep rainforest will survive in the landscape only if mature or primary forests are retained, that young bamboo forests resulting from short cycles of cultivation of five years or less are insufficient to conserve the full spectrum of rainforest wildlife.
Some conclusions may stand for a while: attested by birds and squirrels and primates persisting in mature rainforest and bamboo forests, in much the same places and manner as two decades ago. (And yet, did the hoolock gibbons not call, just this morning, not from the primary forests where they were expected to be, but from the old bamboo forests?) But my work, like other studies of jhum, was also being selectively cited and quoted as having drastic effects on wildlife. In the landscape around Dampa Tiger Reserve, decrying jhum as destructive, other land uses were being ushered in—monoculture plantations of teak, oil palm, rubber. The part where I had written that the landscape mix of bamboo and secondary forests, resulting from jhum cultivation, was more diverse and preferable to monocultures: that part had gone unread, unquoted, unheeded. Tangentially, I was implicated in the assault on jhum, the picture I had drawn, within the circumscribed ambit of science, was flawed, incomplete.
Perhaps my field study, seen closely, resembles the great Char (Terminalia myriocarpa) tree that stands by the trail to the Puk: an apparently strong framework outside, hiding a hollow inside, home of dark beings that fly by night. One day, the tree will come crashing down, return to the soil from where it sprang. And just as the canopy gap opened by the fall of the Char would stream again with sunlight, crowd with seedlings clamouring towards the sky, so, in the space illuminated anew, other studies will follow mine.
At the Puk, I cannot shake myself out of the self-questioning. Was it all worth it? The studies, the surveys, the travails of fieldwork, camping, the money raised, spent, the energy expended, the ligaments torn and knees pounded, the shoes shredded tromping sharp bamboo and hard rock? The hour upon hour spent walking, looking, listening, binoculars clutched in my hands.
Already the not-looking forward, the without-hope-ness takes on a subtle attraction, as if I had glimpsed the secret of these mountains, still half-understood. With the past evaporated, the future pointless, and all expectation worn away, I begin to experience that now that is spoken of by the great teachers.
I look at my hands, my thin brown arms. In the humid heat, my skin beads with tiny droplets of sweat, small as the pores, in every crinkle and crevice on the skin along my arms. In slanting shafts of afternoon sun, the little droplets glint and twinkle, like flecks of gold on soil. The glimmer shifts and slides as I flex my arms: even sweat is beautiful. In its winking lights, I see the flicker of fireflies in the dark rainforest, the pinprick gleam of spider eyes in the crevices of rocks, the eye-shine of nocturnal civets on leafy trees. I see starlight sprinkled between branches of towering Thingdawl trees, the spangles on the plumage of drongos, the eyes dancing on the feathers of peacock-pheasants. I see the bamboo erupting in flames in distant fields, the flicker of our evening camp fires, and sun flecks and sparks and the eternal shimmer of star and moon and sun in the flowing waters of Tuichar Lui.