Barefoot Notes: Under a Palash Tree

A Stink Bug landed on my head and got entangled in my hair. Thinking that it was just a wayward fly, I brushed it off instantly – and out spurted a spray of the stingiest chemical that became stuck to my head and the hand I used to brush it off! Just above me, a murmuration of Chestnut-tailed Starlings fed merrily on the brilliant blossoms of a Palash (Butea monosperma) tree, now in its full splendor. I had been sitting here for the past hour observing birds that came to feed on it. It was my alternative to a nice afternoon siesta on the quietest time of the week – Sunday – when all the human voices retract to the recesses of civilization. To call it quiet in the real sense would be unfair – only someone oblivious to the sounds of the birds will interpret it so. It was my sixth day of sitting under this tree. I had decided to spend an hour every day, divided into morning and late afternoon hours, sitting under this tree and pretending to be a part of it.

Initially, although the merry riot of birds kept me occupied, I started feeling a sense of solitude settle upon me – mostly because it was hard for them to adjust to an intruder. As time progressed, I started to observe some peculiar behaviour amongst birds – behaviour largely influenced by my presence, but also oblivious to it. The impact my presence had – or did not have – largely depends upon how you, a human observer, perceive me: as a part of the landscape or removed from it. Being a part of this natural world, albeit being a human, I found the disturbance of the birds in my presence justified when I observed the disturbance caused when other birds like starlings and the treepies arrived. Although I could not fly, I started to feel that I was a part of the landscape. And under the shade of this Palash tree, I found solace.
The Palash tree I sat under; on a cloudy day
It stands just beyond a small perennial pond, near the bank of a dried-up stream that arises from this pond and joins Jamunia several hundred yards further. The tree stands about four meters from ground, is a little bent at the base, and branches into two before it rises straight up. It bears scars of hacking near its base which appear to have healed, and up high on its crown rests a magnificent coronation of flowers like little oil lamps setting the forest ablaze.

The tree is probably a decade or two old. I noticed it first last summer, when it scarcely blossomed and soon shed leaves. It now stands magnificent amongst trees that are either shedding leaves or sprouting new ones. It is the only tree that would catch your attention if you stood by the pond. Three other Palash stand close by, one to the left and two behind the tree, all in their early stage of flowering.
A Purple Sunbird (male) exploring the chandeliers of Palash
Birds of an array of colours visit this one – from the tiny warblers and sunbirds, to treepies and woodpeckers – to relish its vast reserves of nectar. At any point of the day, between sunrise and sundown, at least a few birds would be occupying the tree. Most lively of the lot are the Purple Sunbirds. Their chatter is a constant company, and you will see them chase one another with fervor between their feeding breaks. Oriental White-eyes are rather noisy ones, chasing each without any particular reason, chuckling to themselves in what sounds like clicks. Both these species are content with chasing their own counterparts, and the interspecific competition seems to be absent – probably because there are just so many flowers to drink from.
A murmuration of Chestnut-tailed Starlings
It is only when a band of Chestnut-tailed Starlings appeared that they disappeared to find shelter on nearby trees with thick foliage, or visited the newly flowering Palash trees. Although I did not see starlings intentionally bothering the little birds, their presence in large numbers seemed to deter them. A little flock of starlings, about three or four in numbers, is tolerated by most birds. I once saw them feeding peacefully in the company of Common Myna, Golden-fronted Leafbird (Chloropsis), Purple Sunbird, Oriental White-eye, and Black Drongo. But I’ve also seen them in tens, reigning over the tree in absence of others.
A Golden-fronted Leafbird (female) looks on from a bed of Palash's inflorescence
The Leafbirds were rather random in how they approach this tree, perhaps because they know several others in the vicinity, or it could be because of the fact that they are shy. But I saw them feeding contently – both males and females – while I was calmly sitting under the tree.
A Golden-fronted Leafbird (male) feeding on Palash's nectar
When I approached the tree, careful though I was, I sometimes flushed the birds out. But as I settled, I noticed a trend. The earliest birds to return were the sunbirds, closely followed by white-eyes, warblers and tailorbirds, and later large birds like leafbirds, starlings, and mynas also appeared.
A Black-rumped Flameback wodpecker takes a break from feeding
The vagrant visitors, and most shy of the lot, are the larger birds like Black-rumped Flameback, Rufus-bellied Treepie, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, and Rose-ringed and Plum-headed Parakeets – all extremely wary of my presence. Only on a few occasions, when I hid under the lush canopy of an adjoining Jamun (Syzygium cumini) tree, could I observe them contently from the crack in the canopy.
Rufus-bellied Treepie (one of the courting pair) looks on through the foliage. Treepies also feed on nectar,
but they were also seen intently plucking flowers and dropping them to the ground.
What’s curious is that all these birds vary in their habits, and their beaks are of a variety of shapes, adapted to what they feed on. On Palash, they all converge; broad-billed, short-billed, and needle-billed alike; feeding on the nectar with sheer delight. The Palash tree has evolved itself to make the best out of this: to get itself pollinated.
Oriental White-eye, seen with a bindi on its forehead - probably a mark left behind by Palash's pollen.
The exposed filament and stigma can be seen just below the beak of the bird.
Most birds that have been feeding on Palash’s nectar carry a bindi on their foreheads – a saffron mark left there by the anthers of Palash’s strategically designed flowers.
The curious shape of Palash's flower probably evolved with the birds
that learnt to feed on its nectar. The basal petal is flat, in which the bird can insert
its beak, and the upper petal encloses the plant's stigma and anthers,
which protrude out when pressure is applied to the inner base of the flower.
Appearing like a set of jaws, the flowers of Palash open outward from the branches, and their inflorescence creates a bed on which birds can land and feed. The birds require to reach inside the mouth of the flower for the nectar in a peculiar way, and while doing so, their crown (or throat – whichever way the flower or bird is oriented), rubs against the folded petal that enclose filaments carrying anthers and a style carrying stigma. As the birds try to reach further in for nectar, the filaments get exposed, and rub against the bird, transporting pollen with a hope that they will be cross-fertilized when the bird visits another tree to feed upon.
A Black-rumped Flameback feeding on nectar using its long tongue; in such instances pollination fails
Some birds, though, also feed from the side, or the flower grows in an awkward shape to reach in properly, completely skipping the intricate mechanism set in place by the tree. Most birds would try to reach in for nectar in any way possible. I saw a Black-rumped Flameback woodpecker feed on the nectar using its long tongue from far.
A Golden-fronted Leafbird (female) feeds in the typical manner which helps the tree
transplant its pollen onto the bird's crown
Almost all the birds like the Tailorbird, Purple Sunbird, Oriental White-eye, Black Drongo, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Chestnut-tailed Starling, and Common Myna, feed as per the mechanism set in place by the tree (if the flower is properly placed) owing to their small sizes or shorter beaks.
A pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos masked with pollen
I once saw a pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos with a rather exotic colour on their faces – only to realise that it was the pollen they were smeared with (which likely belonged to a neighbouring Semal (Bombax ceiba) tree that is also currently in full bloom).

The reason why so many birds converge on this tree was quite interesting and boldly apparent: its colour. Trees in summer (like Palash, Semal or Red Silk Cotton Tree, and Indian Coral Tree (Erythrina spp.)) often blossom in bright shades of reds to attract birds.

Birds are sensitive to light around 570 nm in wavelength (i.e. light between green and red) thanks to the presence of the cone pigment “iodopsin” (Varela et al., quoted in Wikipedia). And almost all trees relying on birds for pollination are known to have brightly coloured flowers in this same visible wavelength, exploiting a bird’s excellent sense of vision. This colour is what makes Palash’s profusion stand out in the landscape, attracting birds from far, and ensuring the passing of its progeny.

Plants that flower in shades of purple and violet (around 300 nm according to Markha et al, 2004 and Backhaus et al, 1998, quoted in Wikipedia),  do so to attract another efficient pollinator: insects. Although insects visit a variety of flowers irrespective of their shape, colour, and scent, purple and violet colours are much more common in plants during monsoon, probably to attract insects which are higher in diversity and density during this season.

Read more about this hypothesis in On a few Wonders of Sahyadri.
A Lesser Whitethroat - a winter migrant and rather uncommon visitor of Kanha's forests, carrying the bindi near its beak
As I sat under this Palash tree, I began to wonder about these intricate relationships plants have with animals. Both are subconsciously providing crucial services to one another, maintaining the balance in an ecosystem. What if this mechanism was adopted for afforestation and habitat restoration?

Although several scientific methods are being applied for such initiatives, exploiting the visual aspects of trees and pollinators is crucial to invite the diversity of life into a degraded ecosystem. In case of Palash which is found across India, it can be vital in long-term conservation of afforestation projects, because they invite a diversity of other animals to the area. Similarly, trees like Red Silk Cotton Tree and Indian Coral Tree can be used in such programmes as well.
A Chestnut-tailed Starling looks on from its perch amidst flaming flowers
My theory is based on this premise: When I sat under the tree, I represented the disturbance (in the presence or absence of the tree) because of which no birds would arrive. Then, they noticed I had settled down – or probably left – and in my place stood a Palash tree in its full blossom. Soon, the most tolerant of the lot, the sunbirds, white-eyes, tailorbirds and warblers arrived – followed closely by leafbirds, starlings, and mynas – and later by other larger birds like parakeets and mammals like squirrels. This completed the picture – the birds fed, the tree pollinated, and a balance between the two was set in place.
A carpet of Palash flowers under the tree
Unfortunately, most plant nurseries do not breed these species, and therefore obtaining them is difficult. The logic of plantations of Eucalyptus and Acacia, which is still rather prevalent in Central India even today, is not ecological, yet their saplings are still common in nurseries. Adopting a ‘visual invitation approach’ by using indigenous trees which produce flashy flowers will help in the process of attaining a balance in an ecosystem, if used in combination with other species.
An Oriental White-eye takes a break from feeding
It is important to understand relationships between plants and animals, not only for mere research, but because they can help us bring back the forests that we have destroyed, and trees – multitudes of them – to sit under and gaze upon. I still sit under this Palash tree, and will continue to do so whenever I get time, with a hope that by being one with the landscape I’ll find more about this tree’s secret. By doing so, I think that I’m as much as a starling or a treepie, only without wings.

Birds observed feeding on the Palash tree I sat under:

1. Purple Sunbird
2. Oriental White-eye
3. Common Tailorbird
4. Greenish Warbler (?)
5. Lesser Whitethroat
6. Golden-fronted Leafbird
7. Chestnut-shouldered Petronia
8. Red-vented Bulbul
9. Chestnut-tailed Starling
10. Common Myna
11. Black Drongo
12. Rufus-bellied Treepie
13. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
14. Black-rumped Woodpecker
15. Rose-ringed Parakeet
16. Plum-headed Parakeet

Birds that visited but did not seem to feed:

17. Common Rosefinch
18. Spotted Dove

Other birds observed feeding on Palash in the same locality (added on March 13, 2015):

19. Brahminy Starling
20. Alexandrine Parakeet
21. Black-hooded Oriole

All photographs were taken on the single Palash tree I sat under.

The Cogito: Sui generis

A subtle scent of Alstonia still lingers on the road I take to work – a leftover from the winter when these avenue trees had filled the air with their sweet, intoxicating scent. It lingers only in one particular place, near a secluded street that leads away from the main road where vehicular exhaust slaps against your face. As I meander through this road every day, I see more and more of lone parakeets darting through the air, squeaking as they fly to get somewhere in hurry, rather than flocks of them. I also notice more crows than sparrows. And I feel the exhaust and the aftertaste of being blasted by the soot of vehicles more strongly, piercing my lungs and leaving me breathless. My senses are heightened only when I experience these things as an outsider. If I were to sense it as a part of this landscape, I’d be seeing, smelling, and feeling the flavours of the city every night and every day, and so I would never have smelt the flowers, nor seen the birds nor tasted the fetid toxins I inhale, so vividly.

We are (most if not all) oblivious to this, not only because we are too used to this but because we are too familiar with this. We accept it as it is – as a by-product of how we function: on laws, beliefs, and the economy. Many argue that a city is like a living organism – a breathing, eating, excreting, and a growing creature; sometimes it even splits into two and grows separately, but never independently. Cities of today, if they are allegorized as organisms, have gone beyond a step – they are now more dependent on external resources than ever before. Emile Durkheim considered human society as a ‘reality sui generis’ (Lefebvre and White, 2010).

Sui generis is a Latin phrase meaning of its own kind or belonging to its own genus.
A society is not a mere product of individuals coming together, but is of its own kind. Explained in his own words: “the liquidity of water, its sustaining and other properties, are not in the two gases of which it is composed, but in the complex substance which they form by coming together” (Durkheim, 1982. The rules of sociological method).

Lefebvre and White, quoting Durkheim, explain this further:

“[…] the association of individuals engender a synthesis sui generis, which constitutes every society, [and] gives rise to new phenomena, different from those which occur in consciousnesses in isolation…”
Our cities are essentially expanded societies – formed of individuals who came together for different purposes and gave rise to a modern, more homogenous culture. And these expanding societies gave rise to not only division of physical labour – to break stones and dig canals, and build houses and fight wars – but also a building of psychological fundamentals that govern us. According to Durkheim, we differ from functions that run in natural co-operations in something more substantial:

“In the organism each cell has its definite role which it cannot change. In society tasks have never been allocated so immutably. … If the role of each cell is fixed almost immutably, it is because it has been imposed upon it at birth. It is imprisoned within a hereditary system of habits that put their stamp upon its life and from which it cannot rid itself. … Its structure predetermines its life. … The same does not hold good for society. (Emphasis added by authors).”
Excerpted from Lefebvre and White, 2010, pp. 461
This malleability of our society makes us more dynamic, more resilient, but only in the context of social stability – a little external change (such as in the environment) and we are, or a part of our society is, affected by it, but our social dynamism lets us adapt quicker and bring us back to normal. This social stability, though, has also given rise to self-absorption. Although we are flourishing as a city, we are doing so not as an organism. We are becoming increasingly mechanical rather than biological in our approach.

James Redfield, in his fine work of fiction The Celestin Prophecy, has put forth a valid thought:

“And that’s what we did. Four centuries ago! We shook off our feeling of being lost by taking matters into our own hands, by focusing on conquering the Earth and using its resources to better our situation, and only now, as we approach the end of the millennium can we see what happened. Our focus gradually became a preoccupation. We totally lost ourselves in creating a secular security, an economic security, to replace the spiritual one we had lost. The question of why we were alive, of what was actually going on here spiritually, was slowly pushed aside and repressed altogether.”
Dobson to the narrator, The Celestine Prophecy, pp. 26
The spirituality Redfield talks about is not so much about meditation and mysticism, but deals with religion and the belief that we were at the centre of the universe. That has changed today without changing the fundamentals that govern our belief. Durkheim explains this as (pp. 121), “the religious dogmas of Christianity have not changed for centuries, but the role they play in our modern societies is no longer the same as in the Middle Ages”.

The securities can be viewed as social facts that Durkheim considers sui generis – “one that are capable of exercising some coercive power upon individuals” (Elwell, 2013). And these facts are leading us somewhere that does not secure our future per se, but perhaps leads away from security.

Cities are essentially developed to make us feel secure. But we are for the most part merely adapting to one problem as another develops: most done on technological advancements. What makes our cities of today stand apart is not mainly modern technology: we are more-or-less the same as we were since we learnt we are not at the centre of the universe. What sets us apart is that we are more asocial-social – not because of wire and wireless gadgets – but because of an underlying change in our innate behaviour, a stronger drive that keeps us chasing a social fact, an endless struggle to get somewhere that does not physically or naturally exist but exists in our individual minds – we are preoccupied with getting somewhere at an individual level which should not have reflected on our societal premise, but is being reflected quite boldly, and this is driving us far from a biological organism-ist view of a city and towards a mechanical view.

The conflict between individualist and a societal view is explained by Durkheim (excerpted from Elwell, 2013):

“There are in each of us…two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety…the other, on the contrary, represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual”.
When we start projecting our individual desires over the societal, things begin to change. We do not drive in our big fat cars alone solely because we can afford to, but because society subconsciously accepts it. But society does not accept us to be violent towards one another, and yet sometimes we are. These dynamics lead to a conflict of thought, a conflict between individual and societal values, pulling us deeper with the preoccupation within – to improve, advance, and become secure.

In all these generations that mankind has witnessed, it is only natural to me to assume that we are never going to be entirely secure. After all, it is often the social conflicts that gave rise to social facts – both change with a slight change in either.

Our city is sui generis today because we are no more naturally compatible to any phenomenon that governs the natural world. We are not psychologically similar to any other living organism or sociologically stable within our own society, and this makes us distinct. Distinctly mechanical.

My views on a sui generis city are not entirely pessimistic, but they are conditional based on our ignorant existence-in-isolation model. Machines work mindlessly as long as there is an input of energy. Our cities have become mindless like machines. As long as there is a promise of material security, we are stable. We think we are stable in isolation, but not as a city.

We are now at the turn of the century, much like how we were when we realised we are just a blue dot in space, but just as we chased what we thought we should in that moment, we must in this moment as well. Only this time we should choose more wisely.

--
Further reading:
Lefebvre, Alexandre; White, Melanie. 2010. Bergson on Durkheim: Society sui generis. Journal of Classical Sociology. 10 (4). 457 – 477. Retrieved from http://jcs.sagepub.com/content/10/4/457.short?rss=1&ssource=mfr
Durkheim, Emile. 1982. The rules of sociological method. Retrieved from http://comparsociology.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Emile-Durkheim-Rules-of-Sociological-Method-1982.pdf
Redfield, James. 1993. The Celestine Prophecy
Elwell, Frank W. 2003. Emile Durkheim on Anomie. Retrieved from http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Essays/Durkheim1.htm