It’s a jungle out there!

A green offense-defense

Plants are often bunched up as green leafy ‘thingies’ and not really considered as smart or formidable as animals. By humans, that is. But once you start looking around, one can realize why the word ‘jungle’ is so apt for the plant kingdom! There are all sorts of defense, offense being mounted in that one quest for survival – thrive, propagate and reproduce. One such observation was of this hairy shrubby plant with huge leaves! Given the hairy nature, I suspected it may not be browsed upon easily, but come scarcity, and the local domestic cows and goats did not let this plant continue with its photosynthetic process, with much success! 🙂 As I was mulling whether to give it a ring guard, I found it resilient enough to grow back leaves and so waited to see what unfolds. Soon enough, beautiful pink tubular flowers appeared and the plant was on its way to the next stage of its life.

So far the plant looked innocuous enough but strong in its ability to grow back. And then the young fruits appeared. Sheathed in green they were also furry and spongy. Until it started to dry and split open the sheath to reveal the ripe fruit. The various common names given to this plant, became sorta obvious now! Devil’s claw, cat’s claw, tiger’s claw! 🙂 To say that the end of the fruit curved into a sharp spine is an understatement. It was as sharp as it gets, in a plant, without metal! This really got me hooked (get the pun, eh? :)) and I looked for more information about this plant. Known as Martynia annua this is the only species (monotypic genus) of the Martyniaceae family and apparently native to Mexico and central America, but introduced and naturalised in other tropics such as India. The spines help the fruit hitch a ride with mammals that help disperse them. And trust me, one would not want to mess with the fruits and so the defense to stay safe works out, admirably! Interestingly enough, it finds place in Ayurveda and Siddha medicine, despite its non-native status!

And so it was a lesson in plant smartness for me! Watch this space for more jungle lore – stories of the tropical flora, in the tropics and how they do justice to the ‘jungle’ they are a part of! What is your ‘jungle’ story? 🙂


Sahasram (‘ஸஹஸ்ரம்’) – The 1000 mile journey

This is our journey for a humble attempt at a sustainable, environment conscious living. Follow on…

The beginning or the end?
(Let’s just say, it’s somewhere out there in the complicated circle of life!)

It is a popular saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Herculean it may be, but start it must, somewhere; sometime; somehow. 1000 is a daunting number, as anyone who knows the sanskrit word, ‘Sahasram’, will tell you. For it connotes limits and thresholds, for better or for worse.
Just to set things clear from the outset – this IS NOT your average ‘how I turned over a new leaf’, or ‘how I became an environment conscious individual’, or even your ‘I have transformed and sold my “possessions” and moved to the country’ types! This is about an honest struggle full of heart to walk a path of compassion and coexistence. You can trust me on that. Yes, absolutely! 🙂

Art by yours truly; tutorial credit: Sheshina @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Puhi5j5Zf0&t=631s

Part 1 – Confessions, of the petty kind

I loved nature, from childhood. As Lord Byron is supposed to have said, ‘I love not man the less, but nature more’. And so there was always this yearning to stay close, to the natural ecosystem. Yearnings only go so far, before the practical life takes over; and walks over it and bends it backwards. More on that long backstory of a journey in another post. Long story short, I took the conventional route of being a common woman and a decent family provider. ‘Coz it had to be done. The unsettled nagging continued, nevertheless; a lack of connect – with people or places; except for the superficial. It took a very many years, a very many attempts, a very many hardships, to steer life in the direction I was hoping would ground me; root me; and complete me. Finally, yes, finally, we have reached that turn on the road; Will it see us through? Is there a possibility of fruition – of a living that is more close to nature, respectful of natural resources and serves our role on this planet – to conserve rather than deplete it. To live, and feel that it has been of some purpose, besides the obvious self-serving one. This then, is that journey – a humble attempt at a sustainable and ecologically respectful living.

Walk with us, follow this post, if you would like to join our exploration – of the self, its strengths and weaknesses and where it takes us; and support us with your encouragement if you find it worthy of your support.

Art by yours truly; tutorial credit: Tanoy@ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fhw5Nq4M6A

Part 2 – Of societal qualms

Only when you have truly experienced the sense of not ‘being at home’ or ‘feeling at home’ in a place/ environment/ situation, can you possibly fathom the sense of restlessness of someone struggling to ‘fit in’. Growing up without adequate security is often a harsh reality for many, in the lower social strata. And some of the primary elements of that security stems from identity and support – a place to call ‘home’, a roof over your head, a societal support system that begins with the family and extends into the larger community of friends and fellow kinsfolk. In the absence of all or many of the above, one is often found wandering, within the spaces of time and the mind – constantly rooting and uprooting oneself. It’s not a stable system and needs constant calibration to maintain sanity. From the primal human needs, this then extends to the larger conformist cliches of society – be it related to age, gender, ‘academic’ qualification, ambition, all of which can easily bypass/ sideline (and usually do) skill, ‘knowledgable’ qualification, passion, integrity. It’s through such ‘society’ that some of us trudge through, to literally ‘make’ ourselves. And ‘living’ becomes a space where reality and illusion blurs, into one composite.

When reality and illusion blur into one composite

An uphill task (November 2022)

It’s been a mammoth uphill task (in the plains! :)) to move along on this – both on the digital media (to get to this paragraph) and in the real field of action! Some countries can be notorious for their bureaucracy that can hamper more than further forward movement of files or activities! And so it inches slowly on ground. Land is a difficult resource to come by, let alone own, when you are one without roots. There’s a common saying in Tamizh that loosely translates to ‘build a house and see’ – to indicate that it is an undertaking not to be taken lightly and cannot be completed easily! I should know! Our search for land began way back and while the inclination was there, the means were not. And so, we ended up looking endlessly, for something that would fit in our budget and vision of what we set out to do – a place to practice a sustainable lifestyle, to support nature through our own living. Finally, we ended up down south with a piece of degraded uncared for land, waiting to be restored, revived, relived – by itself and by us. Here it begins – a story of talking and listening to the land. The land can speak in very many hues and senses; what does it whisper? what does it roar? what does it yearn? will we learn to understand its language? and respond accordingly? I sure am at it, I know. And with time, I will grow; into the land until we become one, and the same. For we are but ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

A green earth, red tape, and people politics (December 4, 2022)

Let the ends with your means, is an oft stated wise saying. After years of searching, hitting roadblocks at every juncture, we finally managed to get a degraded piece of the earth that we sought to restore, rejuvenate within our limited means and abilities. Limited financial resources means that prime real estate is hard to come by and so one settles for difficult landscapes. This one was near to the forest, but last farmed over 40 years back and then left to degrade, for lack of interest in anything other than looking at land as an ‘investment’. When left on its own, growing wild is the best defense/ offsense for the land to survive. So, the land is covered with thorny hardy plants that ensure their survival at the hands of an enormous amount of grazing, and during the brief rainy season, lush vegetation sprouts which is promptly chomped down by the time the summer is done. Access is another huge issue in most rural areas and if you choose to move away from prominent roads, disentangling the access dialogue can be as bad as a prime time TV reporting that leads to nowhere but goes in circles! This, coupled with vague land acts that leave a lot of interpretation and speculation means that departmental processes are slow to resolve aspects and so it drags on with an endless red tape.

Garett Hardin’s ‘tragedy of commons’ also applies to abandoned private lands which may not be commons, but for lack of ownership discipline falls into all kinds of use/ abuse. This was also an unfolding feature in this land, as left with no voice, anyone and everyone around, claimed a use of it – some for access, some for grazing, some for extraction, some for plain destruction – all intent in using the land and none intent in nurturing it. Nature will regenerate if left to its own means and ends; however, when continually interfered with, by man, it cannot bounce back and needs the same human interference in the form of informed management and conscientious conservation.

During the monsoons the land becomes lush, but mostly taken over by weedy invasive kind of vegetation

And so it is where it stands now – to resolve these dialogues while beginning to nurture the land for what its worth (can/ should be, truly). A land, distressed, but full of potential.

Inching ahead, slow and steady (December 14, 2022)

The rains have been less than normal this year. That was a bit of a disappointment but you take what you get and run with it; that is life. So, that’s what we have been at. A lot of land preparation work was the first order of the day, not to mention getting some semblance of road access so we can physically reach the land. Encroachments, intimidation, money plays have all been part of this game, for better or for worse. And a valuable lesson in human degeneracy. Despite all that, progress has been made, with time; persistence and time heals, as they say. The road is still paved with slippery ups and downs (literally! ;)) but there is some road now; a lot of thorny and invasive shrubbery had to go to make way for other planting. I spoke about how the land has a tendency to get wild left to its own measures in a harsh unfriendly setup; the thorny and invasive shrubs were a manifest of that condition of the land. While there is miles to go, some of it has been cleared and the land is getting ready for some love and care – in the form of green manure planting. A bunch of percolation pits were dug too, to allow a better retention of water within rather than move as surface runoff taking the soil with it. The land had been washed off in this manner in the past making it poor. Now the journey begins to enrich it, back to health. While it gets easily summed up in a short paragraph, it has taken a few months of keeping at it, tirelessly, working with people, weather, process, finances to get this small para worth of work, done. 🙂

Interestingly, the whole time of working on the land, also got us to observe it closely, at the soil level; for instance, how it varies from one place to another – from sandy to clay. Interesting on how I found many residents of the land – from the numerous butterflies, beetles, birds, ants, worms to scorpions, boars and peacocks! It’s the hope that we will live alongside, without loss of home. So the long drawn journey has been great, in this regard – allowing me to absorb all this, while work chugs along.

All things homely and tasty

Taste is said to be subjective – for one, because people can have preferences and second because different people might have different taste buds. That said, I consider myself a good and capable taster, able to differentiate the subtle flavours; with this ability to taste subtle differences, comes the ability to cook well, for the former is often needed to validate the latter. I have always loved home cooked meals as nothing, ever compares to it, when to comes to satisfaction, if done well.

A sweet sour dance story

Went to volunteer at a friend’s farm for paddy sowing, as it is the season now, and I happened to look at their fruit laden bilimbi tree (Averrhoa bilimbi) right there! I had not gotten the chance to try bilimbi before but had identified the small dainty flowers of the tree long ago, while walking the streets of Bengaluru (will post a pic of this after I have successfully traced and retrieved it ;). And so, our friend kindly offered for us to take home a few bilimbi and I did.

Initial taste testing revealed a prominent sour taste with notes of sweet (for the riper ones) and a mild after taste of bitter-sour, especially when you bite into the raw fruits, as-is. I had earlier tried making a simple fresh juice from amla (gooseberry), ginger and jaggery that came out really zesty and so decided to try a similar hand with the bilimbi.

And it did not fail to satisfy. The sour taste of the bilimbi, with the slight raw spice of the ginger, with the jaggery and added salt was the perfect way to round up all the tastes into one concoction! And the cool-heat combo of the bilimbi ginger is also great refreshment while packing a gentle kick. So next time you are around the bilimbi, try it out. And from here, wait for more recipes to be tired and partaken. 🙂

My ‘experiments with bilimbi’ continues! (Dec 8, 2022)

There was still some bilimbi left after making the juice and so it was onto other attempts at working with this fruit and giving it new ‘colours’. Given its souring nature, the first 2 attempts were to make some chutneys – a green one with coriander and a red one with red chillies. And a third even more yummy pachadi style – taking inspiration from the mangoes pachadis and pineapple gojjus that get savoured! And these did not disappoint me! They taste zingy and yummy! so now you know, if you see one, never let a bilimbi go by! 🙂

Little worlds within worlds

The cartoon caterpillar

When you are born with an insatiable wonderment about nature and carry it into your adulthood, you tend to observe and pick up tiny things around you. On a morning walking your cat, preparing a vegetable bed patch, or whilst catching the water for the day! Only flip side? sometimes you are caught without a camera or phone to capture the moment! at other times, you have to make a mental note and come back after chores; or if your specimen is off in a hurry, you pause your works quickly and go and grab your phone or camera (depending on what is alive at that point! most often one is dead on the battery or space! 😉 ) so that you can get photos! The observation has nothing much to do with it though! And one can still always always enjoy the company of little things – camera or no camera!

The cartoonish caterpillar that I walked into

And that was how this guy got my attention! The mornings temperatures here rise to a crescendo very quickly and so everyone has to follow the early bird, to survive! Here I was, up early and digging up an earth patch to prepare it for veggies, when I saw this guy snouting its way around! The whole appearance itself is like that of a cartoon character (or one of those Japanese anime character types, don’t you think? with the dotty eyes and spiny tail? :)) And my hands were generously coated in soil and dirt! I thought of finishing up the work and heading in for a phone, but this fella seemed in a hurry to get on with. And so I quickly decided to stop, wash, run in, get a phone and take a shot (this shot). Here’s a video of the fella, scurrying! 🙂

A alien looking caterpillar on a human inhabiting earth!

And after all the shots and work, I walked in to check on the species of this little guy! Turns out, it is the caterpillar of the Vine Hawk-moth (Hippotion celerio). I was curious about its host plants (larvae of moths and caterpillars are usually dependent on a few or many host plants that they love to devour on their journey towards winghood! :)) While there isn’t a lot of information on this, on the internet, a listing indicates cissus species and impatiens (balsams) and I suppose that could be the case here, as those are to be found in the vicinity. Now to wait and see if we can spot this fella in the moth form!

Until the next nature observation post, take a look at your backyard and let me know what you find there! 🙂
PS: Caterpillars (or cats as they are fondly called 🙂 ) get a bad rep as pests or some for their toxicity. But remember, they play their own equally important role in their natural environment and as adults too!
Found this nice website that talks about how the author reared these cats! You can access the website here: https://breedingbutterflies.com/hippotion-celerio/

Here’s a picture of the adult moth, for visual identification (taken at a different location, long ago – Bengaluru, 2018)

The cute green alien

Ever wondered why movies go to such lengths to depict aliens with quite a lack lustre creativity, when nature has a bounty of alien-look ideas to borrow blatantly from? 🙂 The green caterpillar instar of the common mormon is definitely high up in that list!
Fact note: I came across the mormon sect while reading Sherlock Holmes, as a kid, long before I ever laid eyes on the mormon butterfly. But it was fascinating to later learn that the name derives from the idea of polygamy and the female mormon adopting different forms, including a wonderful mimic of the toxic rose. The early instar looks like a poop splat of a bird and is missable for most, because you aren’t looking for it. The real alien inside comes out well and truly in the final instar and if you happen to be missing this one around you, you surely need glasses! 😉

So, next time around, don’t go to the movies for aliens! Just look at your neighbourhood curry tree or lime trees! 🙂

A story of David and Goliath (November 2022)

I saw dung beetles closely for the first time, long back when I was a part of a survey of grasslands in south TN. I wasn’t studying dung beetles, but the team was, and that was when I was fascinated at how insects seem to perform herculean tasks way beyond their might. In case of the ‘roller’ dung beetles, it is fascinating how they manage to roll such a perfect round mass of dung that then become food storage or brood mass. They are able to push their dung ball over distances with their strong hind legs and it is stated that they can roll 10 times their weight! a truly ‘goliath’ an attempt for something so ‘david’ sized! 🙂

Copper dung beetle rolling away

In this video, a copper dung beetle navigates a small plant to get its dung ball to where it wanted to. Reading up a little more on these interesting beetles, I learnt that they may use it as food or for making brood ball, into which females then lay eggs! And in this case, both the male and female participate in the dung ball rolling. And it turns out, I happened to see this as well, with a smaller dung beetle species in these areas!

Dung beetle pair rolling a brood mass

The speed at which they roll, the distance covered and the size of the dung ball, are all, to say the least, most impressive! a true story of David and Goliath! So next time you see a dung beetle, stop and watch what it is upto! you may come away surprised! 🙂

Green Dreams – Agumbe

Around 5.30 am, I peeked out of the window and could see we were in the ghat areas already – foggy morning with very less visibility, forest cover on either side of the road and winding roads …

The start of a new beginning

The year was 2003; and we were all enthused and looking forward to the weekend trek. This was my first trek! And marks the beginning of many more to come. The location was Agumbe, the destination was Narasimha Parvatha, the highest peak in Agumbe. The rides those days, were a lot less optimal in the ‘comfort’ experience but no one really went to lengths complaining about it. When there was ‘chaat’ and ‘dosa’ to be had at 2 am, at a stop! 🙂

Day 1 – The ascent to Narasimha Parvatha

It was a foggy January morning, when the bus made its way through the winding roads of the western ghats – my first whiff of the cold fresh air of the ghats! By the time we were near Agumbe, the bus had emptied itself, leaving only 7 passengers, six of us, another passenger, a driver and a conductor! Around 6.00 am, we were dropped off right outside a small restaurant, where we met Mr. Raghavendra Pai, who gave us directions to Mallandur from where we were to hire our guide for the trek. Though we did not stay or go around Agumbe, it gave the quaint village picture of the ‘Malgudi Days’ fame that I used to love watching on TV. We soon found out that they also had a very different, efficient and interesting paper delivery system as well – which involved a speeding minivan that whizzed by the small hotel and dropped the daily morning ‘Yuga Vani’ speedpost, literally with a thud on the dusty mud side road! After a 5km walk on a forest department built tar road, we reached Mallandur, where a few enquiries soon lead us to our guide’s house, near a ‘kallu mane’ – the house of M R Krishnappa alias MR.

A typical shola grassland landscape where the grasslands can be with rocks and boulders while the shola forests cloth the valley folds of the hills

From the bottom of the trail, till the view point / vista point, it is a well defined trail without much steep climbs. From the viewpoint, Barkana Falls could be seen as a shimmering silver sliver across the valley on the mountains on the other side to the left of the view point. From hereon, now and then, the trail would vanish and MR alone would know which direction to take, while we followed behind. Also, the jungle got thicker and steeper in some areas and we started taking more short breaks, to ease a leg, or wet a dry throat. After a 7-8 km walk, we could hear the sound of running water, and soon enough we reached the top of the falls. It was a beautiful scene (for a first timer like myself) with the falls going over a bed of boulders that we had to cross over to get to the boulders overlooking the gorge of the falls. The water was clear, cold and refreshing to us tired trekkers. By then it was 12.30 pm, and the lunch call was slowly but surely heard from our bellies. So, we unpacked our rations and sat down at lunch – chapathi with chutni pudi, jam and bread, and oranges and chocki. With a bit of resting and cooling our heels in the water, we set off for the next phase of the trek from Barkana Falls to Narasimha Parvatha, that MR said would be a bit more difficult that the first phase, with no more defined trails and more steeper climbs!

The route was thick jungle with no signs of trails whatsoever, in most places,except when we came upon a peak or a clearing, where there
were signs of some kind of trail made due to human treading on the grassland. But inside the forest, we had to just about go above and beneath fallen logs and push against branches and make our way.

The Seetha river on which Barkana Falls is situated flows gently

By 4.30 pm, we were close to Narasimha Parvata with a last little stretch remaining.With renewed vigour we decided we could make it as planned and finally reached the peak by 5.00 pm! This was my first trek through the shola grassland mosaic that is distinctive of the western ghats! and little did I know, its pull would continue to be a life long journey. Everyone clambered on top of the big boulder at Narasimha Parvata, to get a view of the landscape around and relax! About 15 minutes later, we decided to head down to the campsite clearing, which was a little distance downhill from the peak. Well visited by humans as observed by the presence of litter! The camping kit was soon out – the light weight tent and accessories, the water purifier and the light weight pots and pans! Near the campsite we saw the remains of what must have been a young cow or calf, a vertebra here, a leg there and a face with skin torn and dried out. MR informed us that it might be the handiwork of a wild cat ( the cat family species – perhaps a leopard or so ).

Its hard to find good guides like MR nowadays!

Soon the tent was pitched, firewood was collected, and water from a small water hole was tested with the purifier! By then folks wanted to see the sunset and so headed back to peak before it got late. But by the time we reached there, the sun had already gone below the horizon; also the fog prevented us from sighting the sunset in its full glory. Made our way back and got to dinner preparations. Dinner was a combo of chapathi and MTR RTE. Chatting around the warm campfire sit out, it was 10.00 pm and time to head to bed.

Day 2: Descent to Kigga and onward

Day2 saw us wake up early to take in the sunrise and then pack up the camp gear as we headed down a relatively clear trail down to Kigga on the other side (this mud trail is commonly used by the locals). A bus ride from there took us to Shringeri where after a good bath, we went to visit the famous temple, followed by a sumptuous lunch at the temple. Walking around the streets of Shringeri, we were treated to Goli Bajjis and tea, before riding the night bus back to Bengaluru!

The team that made it to the top! 🙂

PS: This is from the era of pre-digital SLRs, when the 35 mm film roll had to capture memories! and hence the old style photo quality 🙂