A tree among trees

This article was submitted to the M Krishnan Memorial Nature Writing Award 2017, organised by Madras Naturalists’ Society every year, and won a special mention. It is largely inspired by the writings of M Krishnan (1912-1996) who was an exceptional naturalist and a nature writer who could, with a spell of his words, cast a fresh perspective on what many of us perceive as the most mundane acts of nature, toppling over our outlook and revealing something of a miracle that nature is. I am borrowing an excerpt from a Wikipedia entry under M Krishnan which has a lot to do with this article.

In 1967 he asked several university graduates to name two red-flowered trees or an exclusively Indian animal. Nobody passed his test and he wrote:

is there something radically wrong with the education and culture of our young men and women that they should not know the answers to these reasonable questions, or is it that I have become a monomaniac and am therefore unable to perceive how unfair my questions are?”

A tree among trees is about a beautiful tree I once sat under, a glimpse into its seemingly mundane but a colourful life. It is one of the many red-flowered trees of India visited by a number of animals during a short period of a year.

A tree among trees

It is not soft on touch, or smooth either; neither is it the shapeliest, nor does it revel in the middle of its own orchard. It is the shortest of the lot, pockmarked by axes and mined by insects, and it is, one might even say, the most timid tree of this little copse. Its trunk is short and bent southwards – rising barely four feet off the ground – and is split into two arms, one hacked short by firewood collectors and the tallest other bearing the majority of its bulk of branches and leaves. A small river-fed stream carves its way to the nearest river from its south, and its neighbours are Saja (Terminalia tomentosa), Jamun (Syzygium cumini), the great Bargad (Ficus benghalensis) and the tall Semal (Bombax ceiba), and its nearest sibling stands twenty yards from it, at the edge of a perennial pond.

For the longest time of the year it remains concealed in its own nonchalant aura; I think that it prefers to remain solemnly reserved – always keeping to itself – except for a window of a few days a year when it celebrates its life in a bright, brilliant – pompous even – conflagration. Flame-of-the-forest some call it, for it fans its flames right at the beginning of summers, but it has its own name in central India: Parsa, the locals know it as, and it is more widely known across the country as Palash or DhakButea monosperma.

My tryst with this tree happened one monsoon morning when I took the desire path created by the cattle to explore the secondary forest. This nearly twenty-acre patch is reminiscent of the more pristine mixed deciduous forests of Kanha Tiger Reserve not half a mile from this copse. Bisected by a stream that runs diagonally and at certain places forms a fifteen-foot gorge, it is flanked by Jamunia River to its south, a kuchha road to its west and north, and a tract of private lands fenced and left fallow to its east. It is still largely untamed and wild boars often cross over from the denser forests further eastwards. I chanced upon this tree, which lies at the north-eastern edge of the copse, while following silver-braided flies dancing in its shadows: a swarm of males with reflective abdomens which they spread-out in flight – imagine a peacock displaying his train of feathers while in flight – were trying to impress females that were sitting at the base of this tree. Close to where the females delighted in the sights of the dancing males sat a two-tailed spider, his body flat against the bark. With eyes placed high on the tip of his head, he was eyeing the inconspicuous females with rapturous attention. I waited, camera in hand, to see if I was in for a tiger-and-the-deer chase, but the spider appeared to be in no hurry to make its kill. I ran my hand on the surface of the tree, and gazed up to its canopy of leathery leaves as streams of sunrays glimmered through. The floor was damp with the last night’s rainfall, and in places littered by dung which was being packed into balls by the dung beetles. An Indian palm squirrel pranced around this copse, using the tips of the tender branches as spring to hop from one tree to another.

In this quaint little woodland that morning in June when the rains began, I looked upon this tree as nothing more than a substrate to the more volatile life-forms that abound it: from the cattle that would scratch their bodies against it to the little rodents and the flies that would run or fly around. Whenever I entered this copse I laid my hand around its tallest branch to get a good footing on the slushy mud-path churned up by the hoofs of cattle. Its girth was larger than my grip, it felt stronger against my hold; I like to think that I felt it pulsate from the inside, while it was cold and hard and rough on the outside. Of course, I felt no flicker of movement from within the tree, certainly not likes of the capricious birds that were gallivanting around. It moved gently in the monsoon breeze, effortlessly but also stiffly. For most of the day, indeed for weeks, it would just stand still and let whatever that wishes approach it.

Dhak-ke-teen-paat, is an old saying which literally means three-leaves-of-Dhak. It stands for ‘unyielding’ – someone who cannot mend his ways or something that is always in the same state of things. The leaves of Palash are trifoliate, one each on the opposite sides and one at the apex, and they will always be in triplets, unyielding to the dusty storms when they unfurl or undying in the summer fires or unbending from the attacks of insects, their strength perhaps was the origin to the phrase. They also age slowly, much like our skin, and wither away quietly unlike the rustling decidere of Saja and Mahua and the great Bargad. If you stretch the meaning of the phrase to the tree itself, it does somehow seem to take its own time to move ahead in life – the nurseries do not culture Palash saplings because they are painfully slow to grow. It does not, they say, serve the purpose of reforesting an area within a short, stipulated time that almost always outwits the pace of nature.

This tree is quite possibly one of the oldest of this copse, likely older than its sibling by the pond. I know this because this pond has a long cultural significance to the neighbouring village. Here dwells their goddess, and my friends who’ve been visiting to worship the goddess since they were kids have seen this tree right there, which I assume makes it at least 25 years of age when we met. Despite being the smallest, it would have been one of the first to regain this degraded forest. In ecology, Palash trees are indeed hailed as pioneers of the plant kingdom – they are one of the early trees to get hold of the soil that has lost all its former rich nutrients – they are the first settlers, sending down roots and leading the way to rebuild a forest. They may be slow in growth – not growing five feet above the ground until they’re five years of age – first appearing as a lanky little toddler with only two seed leaves at the top, and then growing into a trifoliate profusion to resemble a plump shrub. Even at that young age they can bear the brunt of stampeding cattle, people hacking at their tender arms, forest fires, and insects incessantly nibbling at their leaves all monsoons. Given time and space, Palash is one of the most promising trees to naturally reclaim a tract of land with little protection.

Its leaves – the unyielding ones – are tough as old boots. When I first made contact with this tree, its foliage was a bluish green. They were leathery, but they lacked that lustre which was more like a coarse paper, slightly softer than sandpaper. The leaves of this one were being nibbled by small insects with an azure-blue carapace glistening like the deep blue of the summer skies. These tiny little jewel beetles were eating the upper layer of the leaves, leaving behind a haphazard chewed-upon pattern that would scar into a brown flake. On its veins sat the horned treehoppers that had pierced it with their hard, needle-like mouthpart to suck out its sap. A horticulturist might worry that this tree was under an attack. The tree seemed defenseless, but not quite.

When it was but a seedling, this tree inherited a very peculiar trait from its parent. It wasn’t an aposematic colour that would warn off herbivores, nor did the tree try to hide its signature green colour that attracted them, no, it stood, like a brave soldier, facing its attackers. Its secret lied in chemical deterrents such as tannin and alkaloids that ran through its vascular system. In Palash, they are present in the trunk, branches, flowers, and in the leaves, which makes them taste unpleasant to a large array of herbivores. It is especially disliked by the larger, hoofed wild herbivores than insects which quickly adapt to its taste or selectively eat layers of the leaves. Of course, when I touched this tree, I did not know this. It was a tree I could hold onto conveniently as I passed through the slushy patch of the forest. Very few birds would visit it during this wet season and the rodents would prefer the denser undergrowth or the high reaches of the taller trees, leaving the Palash and me to be on our own.

The Palash trees tend lose their bluish sheen to that of a dull grey when the winds turn and the air becomes dry. The humidity is zapped by the increasing coldness, signalling the coming of winter. The first sign of it is seen in the undergrowth: as soon as the grasses seed they begin to dry out root-to-tip. Grasslands turn to gold, and a song of the season of autumn, sung by birds that arrive in central India from the northern regions, fills the air.

There is a small hillock on the other side of Jamunia that looks over this copse. From here the trees appear as little soft-board pins rooted onto an undulating canvas of browns. The Palash is barely visible, but one can tell where it lies from the positions of the tall Semal and the great Bargad. In the morning the fog is thick enough to blank out everything in view – a grand drape that keeps everyone in anticipation before the performance begins – and it unfurls with the rising sun that bathes the entire landscape in its golden light. Little puffs of fog mixed with the woodstove smoke from villages rise like performers, their downy arms caressing each and every tree in a gentle embrace, waking them up from their winter sleep as birds begin to sing. And every day, as days shorten, a secret affair of fog and trees takes places in the woods. What does the fog whisper to the tree, what does the tree say to the fog in return, I wonder. Their conversation is perhaps forlorn, for as it gets colder the trees lose their charm. As we celebrate the New Year’s, the trees lament by shedding their leaves. The Palash looks dreadful during this season. Its leaves drop, branches break, and it appears to be in agony at the loss. A woodcutter’s axe left a gaping wound one morning, and it oozed a sap that startlingly looked like mammalian blood. There was nothing I could do to dress it up. All I could do was let it feel the warm embrace of a human – to let it feel the other side of human force which it has often felt through the swift blows of the cold axe.

Tok-tok-tok, resounds the beating axe, hacking at unsuspecting trees and ridding them of a chance to do what they were meant to: to reach the skies. But the hackers of this copse are no timber mafia or land pillagers; they are firewood collectors and hut builders out to gather a stack to keep themselves warm. They lop the trees so that they can be harvested again and again every year as they mature. This is what stunted the Palash and almost all its neighbours, except the great Bargad that is considered holy, and the tall Semal that has softer wood. I would cringe if that sound came from where the Palash stood, and stare vacantly if the woodcutters with their nimble axes passed by it. That mattered not at this time of the year. It was time for this tree to prepare for its ultimate ceremony that would see it light up the woods with its cheerful aura, a time when it could mesmerize even the shrewdest of the woodcutters.

The anthesis occurs like lighting of lamps. One by one, the flowers blossom towards the end of January, and within a few days just when it being to get warmer, the Palash is engulfed in its own flame. Birds as timid as the sunbirds, as effervescent as the leafbirds, as raucous as the starlings, converge on this tree to obtain the treat it has on offer. It only seeks one thing in return – to spread its pollen to as many flowers as it can. As many as 20 species of birds came to feed on its flowers – carrying a tiny saffron bindi on their foreheads – from the migratory Lesser Whitethroat and the Greenish Warbler, to the large residents, the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and the Alexandrine Parakeet. There was a particular reason why all the birds suddenly noticed this Palash in the corner of the copse.

The two go back a long time. They coevolved to allude to one another, the tree striving to attract the birds with colours and the birds evolving to see better in the lower frequency of light – the colour in shades of yellow and red – so that they could easily spot these bright flames in the forest during their flights. They developed the most efficient barter on this planet: to take food in return for transporting pollen to enable the plants to successfully commingle with others and pass on their progeny. This fair trade is not foolproof, though, and the trees know it only too well, and hence they prefer to flower en masse to negate the losses of failed pollination that they incur. One particular bird not very efficient at this is the Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker. Although they are primarily insectivorous, pecking out wood-boring insects from tree trunks, they are also fond of nectar, and use their extremely long tongue to lick the nectar that is retained at the bottom of the Palash’s flowers without having to thrust their head into the petals, excusing themselves from partaking in the pre-arranged barter.

To ensure successful pollination, the flowers of Palash have evolved in a very peculiar fashion to appeal to birds like the Jerdon’s Leafbird and other passerines. They typically have a basal petal which is flat, an erect down-turned upper petal which hides the stamen and the stigma, and two wing petals which grow from the opposite sides, with the nectar lying right in the middle of the upper and the basal petals. When the bird juts its head inside to reach for the nectar, it forces the upper petal to expose the long stamen which deposits the pollen onto the bird’s head, giving all Palash feeders a mandatory saffron bindi – a pollinator’s mark – on their foreheads. They transfer this pollen from flower-to-flower as they go on feeding, and deposit it from tree-to-tree, enabling different individuals to interact intimately.

For two months of a year the tree is visited by hundreds of birds – from individuals to flocks of over thirty. Time goes by like it does for children at a funfair. In March the earliest flowers that successfully fertilized give out small, velvet pods containing a single seed. In a few weeks they turn green and large enough to fit in one’s palm. The birds leave as flowers wilt, chasing their own conscience to wherever it takes them. As summer progresses, the pods, fully mature and packed with all the traits required to survive in this harsh world, fall to the ground or blow away in the hot winds. A cycle is complete.

April is when one feels the summer get a grip over central India. With most trees having shed their leaves a lull begins to settle upon the landscape. The melody of birds is restricted only to the shaded groves. Yet nothing ever comes to a standstill in a wilderness. Around the middle of April, when the Palash seems to have spent every shard of its energy, it begins sprouting new leaves. They sprout as small, soft, tanned little buds covered in a down which within a few days unfurl into their signature trifoliate leaves. The leaves turn to a dazzling green as they mature, and within a week the Palash dons its new crown that gives off a silvery sheen under the summer sun.

The scorching month of May is the breeding season of drongo. They time their nesting so that their fledglings can gorge upon the winged termites that emerge with the first rains, and when the Palash’s leaves turn bluish green again. While the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo prefer the tall trees in dense forests, the Black Drongo of the countryside are not so choosy of their nesting sites. One summer morning as I sat under this tree long after the flowers and the pods were blown away, I saw a pair of Black Drongo construct a nest on its tallest branch.

The Baiga have told me that once you approach a nesting pair of drongo, they can single you out from a crowd of people anywhere close to their nest again, squawking and chasing until you’re out of sight. It meant that I had to move away from its shade, and then I realized: it did not matter who I was – a wanderer or a bird, an insect or an axeman – the Palash always stood there, offering shade and nectar and leaves to nibble onto, or branches to hack through. Its character was resolute, but I like to imagine that the tree delighted to have found a more reliable friend – certainly more than a human – in this pair of drongo that would attentively snarl at or even try to peck the pesky woodcutters if they approached their tree. Someone came to call the tree their own, and it meant that I had move out of its embrace – much like its seedlings – like one among its children.

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