Wilderness

UTKARSH PATHAK
File_018.jpeg

MANY texts that speak of the ecology of the Kodagu area refer to it as the tropical evergreen mosaic – a word that denotes knitting, collaging, tying together. From a distance, the choice of words is obvious. Here, one undulated geographic area provides the avenue for two completely different kinds of landscape to exist together – the valleys, which are compact and moist, are comprised of a darker, more vibrant viridian. This is the Shola Rainforest, appearing in low elevated pockets. The tops of these hills transition into dry, airier grasslands, a gradient of green to yellow forming as the eye travels upwards. 

 

A walk through one landscape is a journey through two. On our travels through the knitted patchwork of this ecology, we find that the warp and the weft are made of two different materials altogether, each with their own, undeniable function in holding the cloth together. Here, every thread touches another, each one tightening and unravelling together.

In many ways, the forest conceals. Behind the shrubs and leaf cover, it hides where we have come from and where we are headed. Every corner turned is a surprise, every path trodden is soon forgotten – the forest thus keeps us rooted firmly in the present. We take each step as it arrives, each duck underneath a branch, each slip-and-almost-fall as it comes. We are suspended indefinitely in this time; we do not know how far we have travelled, and there is no way to estimate how much further we must go. It is an odd comfort – a reminder to live each breath fully, take each step knowingly, to see more wholly. We do not know if we will recognise the places on the way back in the same way we discovered them the first time.

OUR trek begins on a thin concrete road cutting through and leading up from coffee plantations that surround the wilderness. 

 

These coffee plants are young, barely above waist-height. In some patches, plants are not planted at all, and bits of dry, yellow grass grow tall and spine-like in their clusters. 

 

It makes sense that the edge of the forest holds younger coffee saplings – this is recently claimed land and the edges of the wilderness have been cleared for growing coffee demands. We are told that coffee requires generous amounts of sunlight, so taller trees have been cleared to make way for light to reach them. In many places, cleared land has been left alone for years altogether; investment ran dry after the clearance, and the owners have been waiting for a fresh influx of capital to start their plantations.

The loss of taller trees tells a tale more sorrowful than the empty land itself. When we hear the call of a hornbill, we stop for a moment. The hornbills, the great larger birds of this landscape, need these taller trees to survive. They nest in them, in the holes situated above the canopy where the female seals herself inside with the eggs. The male feeds this family even after it hatches and the seal is broken only twice. 

 

Once the chicks can reach the hole, the female breaks it to take flight again, with new feathers grown in captivity, sealing them inside once again. The seal is broken again once the chicks begin to fly, and the hornbills wait another year before they begin nesting. 

 

Research has found that hornbill memory is long and can last upto thirty years. A pair reaches for the same hole they nested in last year. These holes are ancestral, lived legacy. They are homes torn down slowly to make room for more coffee plantations to meet rising demand.

Paying attention now to more bird calls, I realise that our walk upwards is an orchestra itself. I cannot identify all of the birds singing, but the morning has them busy, and dull shuffles are heard in the trees above as each melody skips through the air; each bird interrupting the other, repeatedly trying to out-whistle the others.

 

Occasionally the sources of some of these songs are pointed out to us, and it is always surprising – some of the loudest whistles come from the smallest bodies, and I am reminded of how bird breast bones are hollow, how the air passes through these open spaces to be expelled with greater force. Birds, it seems, sing with not just their throats but their entire bodies, and their song circles the heart before it reaches our ears. 

 

We become an unexpected part of their songs, drumming the ground with our footsteps, oddly rhythmic and orderly as if we provide the beat to the birdsong. We interject with our camera shutters, our breath pulsing in our ears, the shuffle of our bags against our clothes, our clothes against our skin. Low voices pepper the 

distance between us and people further ahead, and the wind carries these sounds back to me. 

Occasionally, the road is flanked by cliff walls encrusted with moss and small tendrils of other plants. These are the spaces where the mountain has been cut to build the path.

On these cliff walls, most evident and eye-catching is the Star Moss that seems to cover all available surface. Star Moss is resilient – it is found on almost every continent, and survives both extremely dry as well as extremely wet environments. During dry periods, it shrivels up and recedes into itself, in a coma-like state that reduces its life systems to barebones to preserve resources. Entire sides of cliffs can turn brown in this way, and wait for the next rainfall to grow vibrant again. 

 

The moss is the main reason for the existence of the Sholas, and the reason these patches of forests never dry up. Upto 300 species of moss are found thriving in the region, and they act as natural sponges, pulling moisture from the very air and catching it as the fog drips from the tallest trees. They become a reservoir for the dry season, releasing bits of moisture in increments that nourish the many plant species around that require a steady stream throughout the year – especially the orchids, a species of flowers that the area is specifically known for, which wouldn’t survive without the moss.

We decide to go a little off track in the middle – a Fire Orchid has been spotted fifty metres downhill from our trail. We clamber down in our attempt to see it – the Shola rainforest is the only place this flower grows naturally. We cross barbed wire and treacherous mud-on-rock until we finally see the orange clasped around a tree just below us. The path is narrow though, and the flower only allows a small audience of two at a time to get closer. We take turns and tread carefully around each other to reach it. 

 

It’s easy to see why it’s called the Fire Orchid – alive, orange spikes sprout from the main body of the flower, each a different shade, twisted around each other. A streak of yellow makes the flame seem even brighter, even more animated, and the clusters of flowers look like a bright orange forest fire caught on an unsuspecting branch. We’ve fallen behind the group due to our detour and we hurry ahead to find the pathway again, slipping back into the dense undergrowth of the forest. 

File_006.jpeg

HERE, Tunnel Spiders spreading their webs across the canopy lie in wait for their prey to come ambling into their traps. The dew-drop gemstones glittering in the sunlight attract unaware treasure-seekers.

 

Each spider’s territory is well established by tunnels inside webs (hence, the name) that recede into the shrubbery where the spider lies in wait. 

 

These tunnels are fascinating works of architecture, and I spend a large amount of time watching them. From one side, the surface looks almost polygonal as bits of twigs and stray leaves become anchor points for webs to be stitched together. The surface is then made smoother by covering over any rough bits with higher densities of thread. These second layers act like balcony grills or window ledges to their homes. In the rough centre of each web, the silk folds over itself to form a smooth curve that descends into a gap in the vegetation, symmetrical on all sides – a perfect tunnel.

 

I never manage to see the spiders themselves, but I know they’re there – freshly laid, recently maintained webs have a taut, crystalline shine to them that old cobwebs have lost. The mathematical accuracy of every web is astounding. The structure, woven for accurate, lossless information exchange, the tunnel for ease of movement, right down to the make-up of the fabric itself, manufactured by the spider, all the way through to the glands in its body that make the web.

 

The mathematics of nature is so casual it looks accidental. It goes unnoticed in daily life as we forget the indomitable, intricately woven, physical laws that make our existence possible, but certain things make them undeniable — the weave of a spiderweb, the structure of a rainforest canopy, the movement of a centipede — all phenomena that these landscapes present in their daily workings.

 

The Tunnel Spider nests inside each tunnel, hidden from view and waits for its prey to become entangled in its sticky habitat. The careful, instinctively lain pattern of threads makes sure no information is lost as insects struggle against its bonds. The resulting disruption in the web tells the spider exactly where its prey is entangled, and how far. At this point, the spider will vault itself out of its hiding place, grab its prey and carry it back inside the tunnel. It’s the perfect crime, no evidence remains except the slight web-wobble that only the spider is aware of.

IT is true: insects from the forest never fail to surprise me. A little further we spy a nest of termites lodged firmly between two branches of a tree, situated at a height to escape ground predators. Like the spiders, these termites are wonderful builders, architects, engineers, instinctually programmed for survival. Termite nests are often built to withstand huge temperature changes. An outside variation of almost twenty degrees will reflect in the interior as no more than a deviation of two to three degrees, a feat accomplished entirely by the structural mechanics of their establishment.

 

What’s more, these termites even have a contingency plan in case their dwellings get colder than they can tolerate. In the harsher months of winter, they carry large quantities of animal dung to a centrally located room inside their nests, along with other organic matter. The slow decomposition of this organic matter with the dung results in an exothermic reaction, meaning – the termites can create their own heat in times of need, completely sustainably.

 

It is false to even consider humans the pinnacle of evolution. There are creatures on this planet that far exceed our own standards of mathematics, architecture and engineering. Everything we are proud of deflates before the wisdom of natural selection. Humans are just another coincidental branch of evolution, a different path, as equal as anything else the planet creates.

Eventually, as our climb begins to get steeper and steeper, the trees thin out. Now the plants are smaller, drier, and right beside us are the tops of taller trees whose trunks we passed earlier as we trekked forward. As we approach midday, the sun gets stronger on our backs and filters through more easily. The smell of wet mud dissolves, our footsteps crackle dry twigs instead of sinking into the earth, and in a sudden rush, the closeness and intimacy of the forest falls back as we stare across the vast grassland spread before us.

 

On the peak is where I notice sweat dripping from my forehead. We set up an informal camp as people settle around and remove their shoes to loosen their toes. Some of us start preparing sandwiches. I take one and sit on the edge of the cliff among the dry bracken to look at the hills that roll over each other in front of me, but I’m soon distracted.

When I cast my eyes downwards, I realise that standing and walking turns the ground into space that must be covered. You want to conquer it, get past it as soon as possible. You take long steps and quick breaths to cover the distance. 

 

When you sit, your perspective changes.

 

The ground comes alive beneath you. Your eyes open up and suddenly land that seemed empty and dry is no longer so. You notice there are small white flowers among the dry grass. Some leaves are still olive green, thicker and colonising patches among the dryness. A small insect crawls along its tiny world in the soil, crossing pebbles like they were boulders — and then there is another, and another, and another — quick shapes dash through from the tallest blade of grass to another. You begin to notice smaller signs of life that were always there, but never seen – your skin crawls in random spots, and you know there is something exploring you now, your body, your skin, crawling over the seams of your trousers till it reaches a sensitive spot on your lower back. You will come across many such insects, but to this one insect with its small lifespan, you might be the only human skin it will touch – a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, a grand event. 

 

I swat away at it immediately, and stand up again to leave the buzz of the hill behind me. 

ON our journey back down, we take several detours to follow small streams on their way downhill. These are all tributaries of the Kaveri, and flow out as natural groundwater springs from the higher peaks. Occasionally, I get a chance to settle down on a rock or two, carefully balancing on the wet surface. I dip my feet into the cold mountain water and observe the way the water skips over the rocks. 

 

The surface of these rocks calls for more hours of observation than I would ever have handy. Minerals and crystals pepper their surface – molten, crushed and pressed into each other by millions of years of volcanic activity, underground pressure and deposited materials. They are then eroded slowly by the river water, year after year. Every moment is instrumental in revealing an interior that hasn’t seen the sun for years on end.

 

The surface never forgets this touch of water. The rocks, which are easy enough to climb when dry, become slippery when wet, as if the water exactly knows where to find any spaces between the particles, and covers them up, leaving our shoes hard-pressed to find footholds. 

 

It forms oddly specific and constantly recurring shapes as it tumbles over and streams through the gaps in the rocks, as if the water was cool glass I could reach forward and trace with my fingertips. It is interesting to see how the rocks sculpt water as much as water sculpts the rocks.

 

One process is slow and occurs over millions of years, the other is instantaneous, always yielding something new, something surprising. Let’s admit it – the water is young, and sprightly. 

 

Each of these, in turn, affects the other, until one disappears, scattered in the freedom of the other that now rushes onwards.

ON rare occasions on mountainside streams, the movement of the water and position of the rocks creates small, undisturbed sanctuaries of stable water, with only an occasional ripple or two moving across its surface. In these pools, we found curious insects called water striders bouncing from rock to rock, caught in a constant, frantic dance. 

 

To understand the water strider’s curious behaviour and life, we must look closely – so closely, in fact, that we can see the small hair that covers the insect’s feet. We then slowly realise that the insect is never submerged at all. Instead, the hair traps air between the insect’s body and the water, leaving a dent in the stream where the insect moves, without ever  breaking the water’s surface. It balances on two pairs of legs, one in front and one behind, and uses the middle pair to row itself around. The effect is that it rushes forward leaving a stream of ripples behind it, as if it had a tiny jet pack to move with and somewhere urgent to go.

 

The strider is a predator on the surface of water. While it successfully escapes the water, other insects are not so lucky. Their tiny bodies find it difficult to escape the sticky surface tension. The molecules of water cling together, forming an atomic web of sorts that the insects struggle against. The striders, much like a spider in its web, will pick up these subtle ripples with its antennae, and swiftly row over to our poor friend. The prey is held between the front two legs as the strider devours it on the spot, then jets away again.

It’s easy to see in these moments how small decisions branch out, broadening out into larger consequences. A massive net of cause and effect binds all the matter in this universe together, and this is true most of all for life itself, which is little more than a self-replicating net of cause and effect itself. This often means that the smallest intervention will lead to another to support it, and then yet another, and yet another, until the entire structure collapses, falling into chaos much like a landslide.

Utkarsh doesn’t really know what he is, but he likes to call himself an information artist. He works with anything that can be used to tell a story, and likes to mix and match tools and genres for surprising outcomes.