Category Archives: restoration

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.

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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.

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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.

Kingp050

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.

Kalakad: three years in rainforest

(With Divya Mudappa, for a volume commemorating 25 years of Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve)

A place that is marked by the presence of people is not unusual, but a place whose presence itself leaves an indelible mark on people is something extraordinary. In the ancient mountains at the southern tip of the great Western Ghats ranges, sheltering among rocky peaks and rugged slopes draped with tall evergreen forest, lies one such place. A place of beauty and challenge and diversity, which if you have really experienced, you will declare has no real equivalent. And if you have lived and worked there, wherever you go, the place will go with you. It will remain a benchmark, a touchstone, a reference point in felt memory and field experience, against which you will forever measure other places, newer knowledge. A place that does all this, slowly, gently, but inevitably, is Kalakad – Mundathurai Tiger Reserve.

Rainforest panorama

Near the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, the Kalakad – Mundathurai Tiger Reserve sprawls over an expansive forest landscape within the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu state. Occupying 895 square kilometres, it adjoins other wildlife sanctuaries (Neyyar, Peppara, and Shendurney) and reserved forests lying across the administrative boundary in Kerala state, forming a forest tract nearly twice as large over the Agastyamalai – Ashambu hill ranges. Biologists consider this landscape one of the most significant areas for conservation of biological diversity in the Western Ghats. It retains one of the largest and last remaining unbroken tracts of over 400 square kilometres of tropical rainforest, much of which has not been logged or converted to plantations, ripped by roads or ravaged by mining like many other parts of the Western Ghats have been. Partly for these reasons, Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand the ecology of rainforest plants and animals in a relatively undisturbed setting: an understanding that is a vital step to help conserve such a place for posterity.

* * *

From the wide sweep of the Tirunelveli plains, the Kalakad mountains rise abruptly in looming grandeur. South of Tirunelveli, on the national highway that runs down to Kanyakumari at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, the road turns sharply west towards the mountains. It passes through a rich countryside where paddy, banana, and other crops are grown in flatlands amidst scattered lakes, old village ponds, and rocky outcrops. Past villages at the foothills, the road ascends the mountains to a Forest Department camp.

A mile further, up a steep foot trail along a torrent passing through dense forest, on which everything from rice and gas cylinders and pipes and field supplies had to be carried, in the middle of the rainforest in the shadow of Kulirattimottai mountain, we established a base camp that became our home for three years.

Field station

It was an abandoned house with a cardamom drying room, the remnant of an earlier plantation lease that had expired. It was a house with no electricity or modern embellishments, but as a camp from where we just had to step out to enter the rainforests for our field research, it was perfect. People said we were cut off from the rest of the world. Yet, there in the rainforest, we felt more immersed in the world than ever before.

Photo: P. Jeganathan (19 March 1999)

Photo: P. Jeganathan (19 March 1999)

We had come there to study small mammals and birds, posing fundamental questions of ecology: on the distribution and abundance of species in relation to their environment. What were the small mammal and carnivore species, from rodents and shrews to civet and marten, that lived in the rainforest? And what was the community of birds? How did the distribution and abundance of all these species change from lower to higher elevations or from abandoned plantation and previously logged forest to undisturbed mature tropical rainforest? How did endemic species such as the nocturnal brown palm civet thrive in the rainforest: how much area did the civets need, what did they feed on, where did they roost by day before they set out to feed by night?

BPC_trsr_low

With a bunch of such questions tucked into our belts, we set out to answer them through field research and observations. We laid quadrats to measure vegetation and grids and catch-and-release traps for studying rodent populations. We surveyed transects and point counts for birds and walked trails with tagged trees to document monthly patterns of leaf-flush, flowering, and fruiting of rainforest trees and lianas. We radio-collared brown palm civets to track and study this elusive and enigmatic species by night. With eyes and ears on the mountains and feet on the earth, we tried to discern the pulse and flow of the rainforest.

* * *

radio tracking lowImmersed in the rainforest, day in and year out, our work slowly brought us to appreciate the enduring rhythms of nature and cycles of renewal. From early morning counts of birds, daytime surveys of plots and trails and transects, through nocturnal tracking of civets onto the next day: this was our daily round of activities. Around us, the daily rhythms of the rainforest played on. Every morning, the eagle owls tucked into their tree hollows and as the sun crested the mountains, the black eagles came skimming over the treetops. At the end of the day, as the giant squirrels went to roost in their tree nests, the flying squirrels and civets emerged to roam by night.

Then came the pulse of seasons. The year opened cool and dry, or laced with the moist departure of the north-east monsoon, and Canarium trees flared red amidst a sea of rainforest green. After the elephants passed by in March, peeling tree bark and snacking on Ochlandra reed bamboos, came two hot and tempestuous months with pre-monsoon thunderstorms that revived the wilting shrubs and replenished rainforest streams. Then, from June to September, the southwest monsoon reigned, with short sunny mornings and rain-lashed afternoons under dark, gloomy skies. The forest turned damp, as did our clothes and books and everything in the camp, and fruits of Palaquium trees littered the forest floor and little seedlings sprung up on the moist leaf litter.

Misty rainforest

Then, as one monsoon withdrew, depressions in the Bay of Bengal brewed another. The north-east monsoon brought persistent, torrential rains and thick mists that swallowed the rainforests hardly twenty metres away from our doorstep and poured in through the windows into our home. The swelling rivers, which sometimes flowed over the trail cutting off our base camp, thundered down the valley, carrying revivifying waters to the people in the plains. Even during a deluge it was remarkable how, as the slopes were swathed in dense forests, there was so little erosion and the waters remained clear and pure to drink. Finally, as the year wound down, the winds and clouds and rains withdrew, cool, clear skies would open over the forests again, and the crimson flush of Canarium would flag the beginning of another year.

canarium flush low_Arati_Rao

Photo: Arati Rao

* * *

The rainforests were a place of eternal surprise. Even as we went exploring our study questions, looking for our study species, other creatures, puzzles, and wonders confronted us. We could take nothing for granted: all our senses had to be on alert all the time.

The trail cameras had been set, the civets collared, but dense vegetation kept much hidden. In the darkness of night, our spotlight would reveal little more than shining eyes of flying squirrel or civet in the canopy, or a shy mouse deer nibbling on fruits fallen on forest floor. Even by day, birds were noted more by their songs and voice than by sight, although a glimpse of an elusive Malabar trogon or the sweet songster, the endemic white-bellied blue flycatcher, was an almost daily joy.

Malabar Trogon - Male_KalyanVarma_D08_0133

Malabar Trogon male (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

The sights and sounds of the forest hinted at what was there, and yet constantly surprised us. That loud honk was not the alarm bell of a distant sambar, but the courtship call of a nearby frog; that black blur on the branches was not a scampering giant squirrel, but a Nilgiri marten on his hunt; that repetitive pulse was not the beep of a receiver left on by mistake, but a tiny cricket peeping in the undergrowth; that flash of yellow streaking from tree trunk to trunk was no darting woodpecker or butterfly, but a Draco, the gliding lizard; that whistle emerging from the dark rainforest by night was no forlorn cry of mystery mammal, but the haunting call of the rare Oriental bay owl. In the rainforest, even a sudden silence or a carpet of fallen Mesua leaves revealed something: of the hushing of an unseen cicada on tree bark under the scanning eye of a treepie, or the passing of a sated troop of langur in the trees.

Civet scat with Diospyros seeds

Civet scat with Diospyros seeds

Watching animals, we learned more about plants. The civets, although carnivores, ate more fruits than animal prey, and so we tried to document and identify the fruits and the plants they came from. And fruits were always there: every month, through the year, some species provided sustenance to civets and macaques and birds such as hornbills and mountain imperial pigeons. Seeing seedlings sprouting from civet scat or trail side, we grasped how many native rainforest plants could be regenerated from seed, into seedlings that could be planted to bring back rainforest in abandoned plantations and other degraded sites.

* * *

We had come to the rainforests for our research, but when we left three years later, we went with so much more. Working by day and night, more than what we came to study, we learned about natural history and ecology of the rainforest. And what we gathered informs and guides us to this day. As we completed our doctoral research, wrote our theses and papers and reports, we began a project to ecologically restore degraded rainforest fragments in the Anamalai hills.

Bischofia javanica seedlings in the nursery

Bischofia javanica seedlings in the nursery

Our restoration work was inspired by field experiences in the Kalakad rainforest. It was this place that taught us to not just take away new knowledge, but try to return something to the forest through informed conservation actions. It taught us how we could assist the civets in their task of forest regeneration, how we, too, could contribute to renewal as farmers of the forest.

four years laterFourteen years later, in the hills hundreds of kilometres away, the planted saplings now reach towards the sky having become young trees over twenty feet tall. In the restoration site, the young Canarium flames upward year after year, alongside quick Elaeocarpus and slow Palaquium and many other species, and on the leaf litter below, a passing civet has deposited a fresh batch of seeds.

The plants evoke a recollection of a distant rainforest, a home by the river running below the rocky dome of Kulirattimottai, a place where we would like to be again—to be reinvigorated, to learn, to be surprised anew.

Yet, in this moment, the forest does not seem to be outside of us at all: seeing seed and scat and surging sapling before our eyes, we perceive the rainforests of Kalakad.

 

Madagascar essays

Two essays of mine based on field experiences in the island of Madagascar appeared recently. In these, I write about lemurs, tourism, conservation, and restoration of rainforests in the island. Here are a couple of teaser extracts and links to the essays.

Black and white ruffed lemur in Ranomafana

Black and white ruffed lemur in Ranomafana

From ‘Madagascar, Through the Looking Glass’ that appeared in EarthLines in March:

Where are the other trees in the countryside, he wonders? They see only a single palm tree during the drive and stop to photograph it. A few mango trees, Chinese guava, and that is all. Everything else is eucalyptus or wattle or pine. He feels something deep and significant is missing but cannot put his finger on it. Is it the absence of the great forests and other trees that were here once? The missing lemurs, even the giants, and the birds, like the elephant bird Aepyornis maximus – the mythical roc? Is it them? Were they even here, a millenium, two millenia ago? What was here then? He does not know. Does anybody know, he wonders. There appears no trace, no trace at all that he can see or sense, no memory of the past, of life before loss. He has never before seen an entire landscape that has lost its memory.

Read the full piece here: PDF (1.1 MB).

Indri in the forests of Andasibe

Indri in the forests of Andasibe

From ‘The Call of the Indri’ appearing in this month’s issue of Fountain Ink:

The smallest primate in the world is a lemur. At 30 grams, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur is just a tad heavier than a sparrow. Imagine a miniature tennis ball, covered in a soft pelt of brown and cinnamon and creamy white, which has sprouted delicate limbs and clasping hands, a long furry tail, and a little head that turns to look at you through large, lustrous eyes. Like all other lemurs—including the iconic ring-tailed lemur, the aye-aye and sifakas, dwarf lemurs and sportive lemurs—this lemur’s natural range is confined within the island of Madagascar. The largest living lemur in Madagascar is the indri. At seven kilograms, the indri weighs as much as a healthy, six-month-old human infant. But instead of a crawling or bawling child, imagine a wild primate, dressed in striking black-and-white, capable of prodigious leaps from tree to tree and endowed with an incredibly loud and mesmerising singing voice.

In October 2012, one month before our visit to Madagascar, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur and the indri, along with four other lemur species, were listed among the world’s 25 most endangered primate species. … All lemurs larger than the indri are already extinct.

Read the full article here.

Integrating ecology and economy: five lessons

“One of the hardest things in politics,” US President Barack Obama said in a recent interview, “is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.” Obama’s words are pertinent not only to the rules proposed on June 2 by his administration to cut future carbon emissions by US fossil-fuel power plants as a step to address climate change. They are also relevant to the other great democracy and its spanking new government on the other side of the planet: India.

The science whose central concern is the long term and leaving a healthy environment for future generations is ecology. And within ecology, on a planetary scale, it is the science of climate change. So when India’s new government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, renamed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) appending ‘and Climate Change’, it was a timely move. It signalled that even as the government pursues its stated policy of industrial and infrastructural expansion for economic growth, it would place tackling climate change firmly on its agenda, along with the protection of environment, forests, and wildlife.

But a slew of media reports belie this interpretation. According to these reports, the MoEF, in its new avatar, plans to redefine what an inviolate forest is so that more forests can be opened for mining. It proposes to dilute environmental norms and procedures to bypass existing legal requirements for large infrastructure and defence projects. The government announced plans to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam, raising concerns over the rehabilitation of 250,000 people, even as a ‘leaked’ Intelligence Bureau report attacked civil society NGOs for working on ‘people-centric’ issues. Meanwhile, the MoEF has been silent on other pressing needs: releasing the long overdue India State of Forest Report 2013, acting to save critically endangered species such as the Great Indian Bustard (now down to less than 300 individual birds in the wild), or implementing pro-active measures to combat climate change. Within hours of taking charge as Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar said with unsettling brevity in a TV interview: “… India needs a window for growth and emissions and other things.” To his credit, Mr Javadekar has promised to ensure that environmental protection and developmental activities will go together. While it is too early to assess promise against practice, this is as good a time as any to recount five lessons from ecology on why environmental protection should concern India’s new government and 1.2 billion plus people.

Thinking long term

Obama’s words point to lesson one: ecology takes the long view. Development projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs for people and nation. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its 10-year tenure allowed the conversion or loss of over 700,000 hectares of forest—an area the size of Sikkim—for development projects and non-forest uses. Natural forests of diverse native tree species function as watersheds, wildlife habitats, and sources of livelihood for tribal, farming, and fishing communities, contributing to long term human well-being in ways not captured by indices such as annual GDP growth.

The science of restoration ecology attests that such diverse natural forests and the living soils they spring from, once destroyed are difficult and costly, or infeasible to bring back, and appreciable recovery may still take decades to centuries. This is not adequately factored into the estimation of net present value (NPV) of forests that tries to approximate economic losses over a 20-year period, by which time the losses are ‘recovered’ in compensatory afforestation sites. A project developer pays out the NPV—at current rates, a maximum of Rs 10.43 lakhs per hectare for very dense forests in the most biologically rich regions such as the Western Ghats—and flattens football fields of forests for the price of a mid-range SUV. Furthermore, compensatory afforestation, if carried out at all, frequently involves raising plantations of one or few alien tree species such as eucalypts and wattles. Such artificial forests are no substitute for the more diverse natural forests of mixed native species, including centuries-old trees. This is why, as the Modi government worries over its 100-day report card, ecologists will be concerned about its 100-year fallout.

Minding the connections

Lesson two is that ecology is a science of connections, of food chains from plankton and fish to sharks and men, of energy flowing from sun through grass to deer and tiger. Pluck the hornbills out of their forest home and forest trees whose seeds the birds disperse begin to decline. Destroy forest remnants amidst coffee plantations and farmers suffer as coffee yields dip due to the loss of pollinating bees. Strip the oceans of sharks and predatory fish with industrial fishing and entire ecosystems and livelihoods of artisanal fishers unravel in what ecologists call a trophic cascade. So, the wholesale construction of 300 large dams in the Himalaya as proposed by the government would not just generate power, but have other negative consequences radiating down the chains and webs of life, including to people downstream. When these are taken into account, implementing fewer and smaller projects or alternatives appears more attractive.

The third lesson, the mandala of ecology, is that ecology closes the loop. Nature recycles, without externalities, wasting little. If the government applied this to everything from recycling municipal waste to curtailing pollution by industries, it could generate jobs and induce growth without leaving behind irredeemable wastes. Ecology is replete with such cycles. One sees it in the organic farmer practicing rotational shifting agriculture on the hillslopes of north-east India, in the cycle of water from earth to cloud to rain and river, and in the dung beetles and fungi and vultures that help return dung and vegetation and carrion to the elements.

Fourth, ecological processes transcend political boundaries. We pump CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the common pool of our atmosphere anywhere and affect people and the earth’s fabric of life everywhere. The migratory warbler that picks the insects off the plants in our gardens may depend for its survival on protection of its breeding grounds in China or Central Asia. To conserve tigers and elephants in protected reserves, we need to retain connecting corridors and forests, some spanning state or international boundaries. Development and infrastructure projects can be designed and implemented such that they do not further disrupt fragmented landcapes, but instead help retain remnant forests or reconnect vital linkages.

On the road to development?  Destructive project promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation.

On the road to development? Destructive projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation (Photo of logs lying along the Andaman Trunk Road).

The science of home

Finally, ecology teaches us that humans are not external to nature. Land and nature are not commodities to buy or sell recklessly or reduce to a packaged spectacle for tourists to gawk at. They form the community we belong to: we are part of nature, it is home. In the debate over ecology versus economy, we must remind ourselves that both words originate from the Greek word oikos, meaning home. The science of our home environment (ecology) must inform the management of our home resources (economy).

What is often forgotten, in the debate falsely caricatured as environment versus development, is that for almost every destructive project, there are often alternatives and means of implementation that cause less harm to environment and local communities, and can provide overall long-term benefits. For instance, roads can be routed to avoid wildlife sanctuaries and provide better connection to peripheral villages, thus helping both people and wildlife. Decentralised village power generation systems that use biomass, solar power, and other renewable sources can help reduce reliance on mega power projects plagued by corruption and requiring long powerlines that suffer transmission losses and cause forest fragmentation. Mining can be carried out avoiding areas valuable for conservation or local people, after due environment and forest clearances, and keeping aside topsoil to ecologically restore even these areas later.

There are already many promising examples of ecologically sensitive development. If ecologists, engineers, and economists synergise their efforts, and the government chooses to exercise its electoral mandate to take the long view, there can be many more. The integration of ecological considerations into economic development is vital and valuable if, in the pursuit of profit, we are to ensure the long-term well-being of people and planet.

An edited version of this article appeared in the op-ed pages of The Hindu today. The longer version with links and images is posted above.

14 to 41: where I had always wanted to be

There are times in your life, when, in an unexpected moment, you come face to face with yourself. It could happen anytime, to anyone. It could happen over your breakfast as aroma and sound — hot coffee swirling in your cup and a dosa sizzling on the stove — suddenly release a sensory cascade of recollections as history intersects happenstance. It could happen in a memory or a dream, where past and present merge into a fused and frozen time indistinct, even, from the future. It could happen while you walk down a street and momentarily catch your own full-length reflection in a shining, shop-front glass. In that moment, the person who you were confronts the one who you have become. Chances are, it might catch you unawares.

It happened to me like this. One morning, I was in Chennai, the city of my childhood in southern India, staying at my parents’ home in Adyar. The house, painted green and ringed by a small garden, faces the street along a line of homes in the quiet neighbourhood of Bakthavatsalam Nagar. It had been my home, too, until I had left two decades ago, after my schooling in Chennai and a Bachelor’s degree in zoology from Loyola College, for higher studies elsewhere, in Dehradun and Bangalore, and then onto other places where my work would take me. As I was staying over during the weekend, my mother asked if I could take a look at some of the books and papers in the shelves upstairs and clear up some of my old things. With pending work and travel on my mind, with the phones ringing every now and then, and various weekend visitors coming and going, I was glad for an excuse to get away upstairs to my old room. I had a few hours to kill, so I told her I would take a look and clear up the stuff, not realizing that it is even in such things as a half-distracted search in an old bookshelf that I would find what would mark the day in my memory.

In the room upstairs, which my elder brother, Sriram, and I used to share, in the glass-fronted, wooden shelves perched on the wall, our mother had meticulously kept all our things, protected behind two sliding glass doors with a ratchet lock tacked to the glass in the middle. I used the key she had had no trouble finding for me, heard the familiar sound as the glass grated open on the aluminium channels running along the shelf. And there they all were. Rows of books and stacks of files, a welter of papers and envelopes, even more stuffed behind the rows of books, all of which I pulled out and piled on the bed.

Textbooks that I had saved from my high school days — biology, history, geography, and English — slanted across the shelf from my brother’s physics, chemistry, and mathematics textbooks from school and his engineering days at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. A row of my brother’s notebooks on various subjects filled with his emphatically neat, determined, cursive handwriting lay next to a stack of foolscap examination answer sheets: my brother’s impeccably scripted, organised under headers, keywords underlined for emphasis, and mine, hasty and scrawled, streaked with teacher’s red. And more. Anthologies, used in our English classes, containing some of our favourite essays, short stories, and poetry, along with a dog-eared Wren and Martin. Two of my scrapbooks on birds and mammals of the world. A file holding dot-matrix printouts of poems and puns and ribald jokes and cartoons. Another filled with yellowed newspaper clippings: on events once recent and now remote, feature articles on subjects from garden plants to forest gibbons, on places from Central India to Antarctica, on people from Mahatma Gandhi to Sylvester Stallone. A tight envelope bursting with old postcards and letters from cousins and friends; another, more secretly wrapped and unopened, a passionate and poignant bunch of love notes and cards from a Muslim girl to a Catholic classmate of mine, which had been too hot for him to even hide in his own home. Finally, there were rows of books: some dictionaries and reference, a trove of fiction from Charles Dickens to John le Carre, and poetry from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to Emily Dickinson. On the non-fiction shelf, Gerald Durrell and Paul Ehrlich rubbed shoulders with Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman. One full shelf carried books on birds and natural history, stacked with my books on stars, planets, and amateur astronomy.

It was an archive: snippets, fragments, ornaments of a personal history already long past. In a quarter-century, I had gone from schoolboy to scientist, become a wildlife biologist after a Masters degree from the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, obtained a doctoral degree from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore for field research on rainforest birds in the Western Ghats mountains in India. It was in the Western Ghats that I now lived, in a hill range named after the wild elephants that still roam the landscape: Anamalai, the elephant hills. In 2000, Divya and I, a year after our marriage and a year before we completed our doctoral studies on wildlife in the Anamalai hills, had established a research station in the hill town of Valparai, about ten hours overland journey from Chennai. It is in this landscape that we work to conserve the dark rainforests that remain — extensive tracts in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve or patches embedded in tea and coffee plantations on the undulating Valparai plateau.

fragment

Rainforest fragment in the Valparai plateau (Photo courtesy: Ganesh Raghunathan)

Streams and rivers veined the landscape, fringed by lofty mountains draped with forests and grasslands, rock faces and cliffs, touched by the grandeur of great hornbills and wild elephants.

Elephants on the move through tea fields with rainforests in the distance (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Elephants on the move through tea fields with rainforests in the distance (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Working in the hills and forests was enjoyable, of course, but trying to conserve wildlife in landscapes with people and plantations was no walk in the park. To persuade people with business interests of profit and production from land to care for nature, to learn to live with wildlife, to help stave off conservation threats and crises as they arose, to prevent or minimise the destruction of beautiful places that one knew well: this was a full-time and often frustrating job. I vented my feelings writing essays that, according to friends, ranged from the lyrical to the depressing. I was now past forty and had little time for my family in Chennai.

That morning, I stared at the items on the shelves, then at the pile I had made in front of me, rubbing my furrowed forehead, as if it would bring some memory back, explain what I saw. As I picked up each item, I kept asking myself, what is this? Why have I kept it?

Frustrated at having to deal with the pile, I even asked my mother, “Why have you kept all this?”

“Well, it was you and Sriram who kept them,” she answered, as she went about her work, “and who knows when you may want your old things, or what you may want to make of them?”

Clearly, I was on my own here. Faced by a single room and its few shelves, I felt a sort of restless anxiety. I had choices to make: what do I keep, what discard?

* * *

It was then that I found it in a pile of papers stashed in a dusty, flimsy file. I knew instantly what it was, although a full twenty-seven years had elapsed, during which it had faded to some innermost recess of my memory, so well hidden that it was effectively buried, forgotten. Until now. I took it out of the file it was in, held it in my hands. Everything else around me began fading away.

Three foolscap sheets, once white, now yellowing, held together at the top left by a rusted staple. In the unmistakable imprint of our old Remington typewriter — the one that had sat on a little desk in the dining room, wedged between the dining table, the puja room, and the path to the staircase — here was an essay from all those years ago. An essay written by me or, rather, by the boy I was, then. A schoolboy, almost a stranger, known to close friends and family by a different name: Sridhar. It is a typewritten essay carrying his name.

I see him now at his typewriter with the bustle of the house around him. I hear his mother’s energetic voice, his brother’s footsteps, the quiet serenity of his father’s unruffled presence. I see him. A gangly youth of fourteen years, his long, smooth limbs, his slim body. I see his dark eyes above darkening crescents, a knife-edge nose, a head of straight, black hair falling on a forehead as yet untempered and uncluttered by life. There is a thin, shining patina of sweat pearling over his lips— lips that are full and fresh but do not move — as he sits slightly hunched at the typewriter. I see his index fingers stabbing, the keys clacking. And then, without pause, I read what he has written.

WHERE I HAD ALWAYS WANTED TO BE

By T. R. SRIDHAR

It had been a tiring day. The exams were just a month away. The teachers had not finished even half of their portions. The realization came only in the morning, when the HM announced over the intercom, the dates for the exam and reminded the boys to start studying. The boys had taken it cool. But not so the teachers. There began a mad scramble for the text-books, note-books, and guides and they came laden to the class with more books than a poor, studious, all-book-carrying boy.

One teacher rattled off three lessons in a period. Then, another finished a chapter so fast that he left the cleverest boys blinking. Fortunately, it was biology, my easiest subject, and I managed to catch on something here and there.

We all ended up feeling famished, exhausted, defeated and dehydrated. I had never heard such a heavenly sound as the bell, when it rang. While returning home, the bus I was on blew a tyre. I waited an hour and clambered or rather crawled into the next one. It crashed into a motor-bike. My money was running out. The conductors didn’t give me a full refund. So I decided to walk it.

It was a tremendously wearying walk. The buildings, trees and telephone poles that had dashed so quickly past me, when I was in the bus, seemed to now become super-phlegmatically lethargic and dragged painfully by. My shoe’s soles scraped on the dusty gravel of the road and I looked down to find my shoes brown and covered with dry dust. I was nearing my house when my knees started buckling. I bent and pulled them sluggishly and stumbled clumsily into my house. I walked directly to the bathroom and flopped into the bath-tub which I had filled with cold water. I soon fell asleep.

I was woken up by my mother’s shouts. After crying out to calm her, I donned my clothes and walked out — without even looking at her — and sat down on the seat of the chair beside the dining table.

“Whatever happened to you?” my mother asked wide-eyed.

“It was a tiring day,” I said. She didn’t ask me anything else and joined me while I had my supper.

It was three minutes more before I reached my bed. My head must have still been falling down to my pillow when I fell asleep again; for I don’t remember having laid it down on the soft cushion.

Then I had the dream. It is, usually, very diffucult [sic!] to say how a dream began, but I remember this one clearly.

At first it was dark. Very dark. The kind of darkness that seeps into you, clogging the very recesses of your being. Then, there developed a haze. A thin greyish mantle that started spreading from the rightmost corner of my right eye. The haze spread throughout and then shrunk until it was just a … sort of doorway through which bright light entered. It turned out to be a tunnel. The tunnel seemed to flicker and move. I realized that it was I who was moving out of the tunnel.

I came out. The chill morning mist hit me like a sledge-hammer. I was suddenly feeling free… there was no weight on my legs and the path before me lead into a lush, green jungle. I looked up to see the Blue Hills in the distance. I was in the Annamalai woods.

My passion for ornithology had still not left me. The rising sun was directly in front of me. I soaked up its warmth greedily and experienced a state of quixotic euphoria. A Magpie-robin sang its melodious song from somewhere deep in the forest. I heard a tittering, musical cry from my left and turned to spot a beautiful Yellow-backed sunbird in its glossy yellow, green and crimson plumage diving into the thick undergrowth. A group of Orange-headed ground-thrushes and Slaty-headed babblers landed in front of me making a cacophony of gurgling calls. The whole forest came alive. I listened to the calls of a million birds, the harsh chatter of the nocturnal owls in quest of a roosting hole in some gnarled branch, to while away the day; the raucous cries of the macaques and, the faint trumpet of a wild elephant.

It was absolute peace. I had been in the heat and dust that had made me so weary. But now I was in the Western Ghats — at the Annamalai jungles at the foot of the awesome Nilgiris. I was where I had always wanted to be.

THE END.

* * *

After reading the typescript, I am elated and confused, at once. Falling asleep in a bathtub after a tiring day at school? really? Thoughts and emotions aswirl, I laugh at the dream, cringe at the use of language. Super-phlegmatically lethargic? Where did he even find such words, leave aside the horror of using such an expression? (The answer stares back at me from the bookshelf: the well-thumbed pages of How to Build a Better Vocabulary within its bright blue cover, tacked alongside its white sequel, All about Words, by wordsmiths Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum.) I note with satisfaction his attempts to proofread and correct the typescript with a pen and the single typo in spelling, but itch to confront him, to correct the errors that remain. You have identified the sunbird wrong, your punctuation is awry, and go easy on the adverbs and hyphens will you? Also, it is Anamalai, not Annamalai, I want to tell him; the Nilgiris is a different hill range over fifty kilometres to the north.

But most of all, I am incredulous. Incredulous at the boy imagining himself as an ornithologist in the Anamalai, someone he has no assurance of becoming. How could he? My first field research on wildlife was a study on deer and antelope in Guindy National Park in Chennai. My Masters fieldwork took me to tropical rainforests of remote northeastern India, studying effects of slash-and-burn shifting cultivation on birds and primates in Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram. Then, I had scouted widely for topics and sites for my doctoral research, before electing to work on rainforest birds in the southern Western Ghats, in Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in the extreme south and in the Anamalai hills. Surely, the boy had no way of knowing that — after my doctoral degree in ornithology — I would remain to work in the Anamalai, would read the words he has written over a quarter of a century later.

I am confused: what is this typescript on its yellowing paper saying? Is it prescient prophecy, plain fact, or fiction?

The words seem prophetic. I do live and work in the Anamalai hills now, in a landscape where, on any day, we need to only step out of home or research station to be assured of seeing wildlife: great hornbills whooshing over the canopy, stately gaur moving through the plantations, creatures of all sorts from fireflies to frogs and earthworms to elephants, amidst great trees festooned with orchids and ferns. A landscape where I can take that walk in the woods he writes about, hear the conversation of macaques and the sounds of elephants.

GH in flight

Great Hornbill in flight

Yet, that is not what I do most of the time, not what I have become. Instead, we work as a team in a landscape where extensive plantations have historically replaced and now lie between forest patches, where land is managed not so much for conservation as for commodities and cash: tea and eucalyptus, coffee and cardamom. In land intensively used by people, we work to restore degraded rainforests by raising native plants in a nursery and planting them out in degraded sites and coaxing private landowners to protect the forest remnants. We work to reduce conflicts with wildlife like elephants and leopards, studying the ecology of these animals, informing local people of elephant movements to prevent unexpected encounters, helping planters and Forest Department implement appropriate measures to reduce or avoid conflict, all to build a landscape of coexistence with wildlife. To keep our research, field station, and conservation efforts going, we raise grants to support our work, write proposals and reports, meet all sorts of people from tribals to tourists, make presentations to planters and policy makers, try to start dialogues and bridge gaps: this is what takes up much of our time in the field. This is not the story of a boy who forgets his worldly cares when placed in the forest of his dream. This is about what it means to care, deeply and all the time, for the world one is in, the real world. A world where the forest is only part of a landscape that also includes the human.

A landscape of forests, wildlife, and people.

A landscape of forests, wildlife, and people.

Could the child have known what he would become later in life? Clearly, when he wrote this, he already loved biology and birdwatching. He had been birdwatching since he was eleven (“My passion for ornithology had still not left me” he writes, at fourteen!) That summer, he had gone on a memorable trip with his family, I knew, to Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in the Nilgiris and to the farm at the foot of the forest-covered Anamalai hills that had belonged to his great-grandfather. The same farm that his grandfather, after laughing at the boy’s offer to study agriculture and take to farming when he grew up, decided to sell and distribute the proceeds across several dozen heirs. The farm remains, inaccessible under new owners, but the forests could still be visited. Perhaps the boy had only projected a subject he liked onto a place he loved. Perhaps the dream had gone deep and dormant, working surreptitiously, like auto-suggestion or astrology, towards an eventuality that seemed inevitable. Yet that very year, I knew, he had also taken a course in journalism… as training for a career as a writer. What of that? Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by? No, he could never have known I would end up in the Anamalai hills. And besides, these are words put down on paper and words taken literally must mean what they say. I know the place he wrote about, in the forests around Sarkarpathi, for it is a place in my memory, too, and he has been there, but I, in all the years since, have not. This was no prophecy.

Perhaps it is fact, then. A dry, reasonable, factual narrative of a day at school, followed by coming home, falling asleep, dreaming his dream. But the dream, the tunnel: is it not a classic artifice to enter another reality? Anyhow, I know what he writes cannot be true: the bathtub is a dead give-away. He has never lived in a house that had a bathtub, not to mention that, in perpetually water-starved Chennai, using so much water for a bath was unthinkable.

Unthinkable. Yet, here it is: thought, articulated, punched on paper in black on white. It is all made up. It is fiction. After all, does the boy not describe his euphoria as quixotic? A word conveying an imagined and fanciful idealism, a quest for the unattainable, made immortal by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a founding work of literary fiction? It is a concocted world in which the boy has placed himself, not me. I am not in it, I am not it. It is just a teenage boy, with his straight black hair falling over his unfurrowed brow, sitting at a typewriter, dreaming up a world out of his imagination.

It is then I recall that his first manuscript accepted for publication was a work of fiction, a short story that appeared in the Indian Express. The newspaper had paid three hundred rupees and his mother had opened a bank account to deposit his first honest earnings. Then, he published a poem, even began work on a novel. Short story, poem, novel: I have no copies of those now, no traces of their existence except in memory. And no, I am not making all this up. This is not fiction. This is true.

What then is the dream and what the fiction? And who, ultimately, is he, and who am I? Shankar, the birdwatcher-scientist walking the woods, or Sridhar, spontaneous writer of fiction? Or do the two roads that diverged in a wood now converge, or connect by myriad streets, to create a scientist who is better able to say why he cares so much for all the life in the real world, and why others should care, because he may be a writer, too? Perhaps one is mistaken in thinking of the road that one takes as leading from origin to destination, as diverging in the woods, as separating past and future from present, when all it is, is a trail that turns into itself, a closed loop walked once where each point exists and connects eventually into every other. Who, among us, has not imagined, or yearned for, alternate lives that may have been? And yet, what if those alternate lives are only distractions, suitable for fictional worlds or for the life of imagination itself, maybe, but not for a life lived truly and well in the world one is in? The subtle seduction of imagined other-lives may be subsumed in a love for the life that is palpably real.

* * *

The only thing I end up discarding, that day in Chennai, is a skeleton. Yes, really, a skeleton in the cupboard! Actually, a parcel of deer bones: lower jaws, skull, ribs, hip bones, femur, vertebrae, a couple of small antlers. These, collected during my field project on deer and antelope in Guindy National Park, were meant to be handed over to a scientist who studied animal diets through isotopic analysis of bones. Clearly, I had never got around to doing that. My parents, steadfast vegetarians who could not have liked having old bones lying around, even if they were bleached white with no trace of flesh or putrefaction and wrapped into a parcel and placed deep in my shelf, had nevertheless tolerated this for over two decades. Long enough, I thought. The bones need to go. I shall keep the typescript with me and place everything else, for now, back in the shelf. I shall tell my mother: I need more time.

Weeks later, I find myself taking courses in writing: writing creative nonfiction, writing for newspapers and magazines, writing fiction and poetry. I try my hand again at fiction and poetry, at an occasional essay. I carry the typescript around with me and I still wonder what that boy was doing. I wonder if he was making up a world not because he wanted to be in his own dream, but only because he was already there. There, in front of a blank sheet of paper open to the imprint of human imagination: where he had always wanted to be. And I wonder at how he dragged me into it.