Earth-scar evening

The road winds through a disfigured landscape of tea plantations. It skims the contours over the open reservoir with its sloping banks of naked red earth. It passes the checkpost with the inevitable tea stall, and only then does it plunge down. Down towards the rainforest, our destination for the evening. The Nilgiri langurs, on the tree near the tea stall, watch us go.

There is a hint of rain in the air. And the clouds hang dark over the landscape.

The fallen trees by the road
The fallen trees by the road

We come upon the fallen trees a short while later. Twenty-two of them, many towering giants felled as if by an invisible blow, scattered along less than two kilometres of road through the forest. In their fall, they had snapped some of the neighbouring trees leaving their crownless, leafless boles standing like wooden pointers at the sky. These trees had not been felled by axe or chainsaw; at first look, their fall was natural. Was it?

A picture begins to emerge as we look closer to understand what has transpired here. The trees must have all come down at roughly the same time and not so long ago either, as the leaves were still on the branches and just turning brown. A thunderstorm with lashing rain and wind and even hail, typical of this pre-monsoon season, would be the most obvious, immediate cause. There was not one, but two recent storms, on 21 and 24 April. The ground is littered with leaves, twigs, and branches, much of the latter has clearly broken off during the wind and rain. The tree falls seem only natural.

All but one of the trees that have fallen are large, over a metre in girth, some more than twice that. Several are Vateria indica, true giants of the dipterocarp family. Upright, their crowns would have emerged over the rest of the forest canopy, drinking in the bright sun, but exposed to every buffeting wind. Their disproportionate misfortune—if one may so label the almost instantaneous end to their centuries-long existence—seems natural, too.

Almost a third of the trees had fallen on a short stretch of road, less than half a kilometre long, which climbed a little rise—a small, exposed hill crest—before it dipped down into a stretch of bamboo and drier forest. The forest here had clearly received the battering of the wind and rain, in sharp contrast to a more sheltered valley a little distance away. The damage from the storm was only natural, one may be led to believe.

And yet, and yet, a nagging thought tugged us away from believing what appeared to be so plainly evident. Why were all these trees along the road? Is it because we could not see far into the interior of the forest, where doubtless some trees have also fallen? Or, is it the road itself, this earth-scar cleaving its way through the forest that in some insidious, silent way brought down these giants of the rainforest? We look a little closer and the picture begins to clarify even more.

Taking down others
Taking down others

The road takes a sharp bend and we are able to see the opposite slope above the earth-scar. One tree has fallen on that slope, amidst hundreds, and it is just over the earth-scar. The fallen trunk has been axed and sawed and moved out of the way of vehicles. The earth-scar brooks no obstruction.

All along the road, the earth has been scraped or gouged off the sides, to fill in erstwhile potholes. Even as these road-surface quick-fixes have exposed the roots of tree after tree, they cling to the sides, trying to hold back what is left of the earth. The earth-scar feeds on itself.

Punctuated along its length are deepening furrows where, with the open sky and the slope, the pelting rain can now directly strike the earth and carry the soil away. The gullies cut the sides and more roots show. The road goes one way, the soil another. The earth-scar spawns scars.

The forest is a churning engine of life, more complicated than anything human-built, and it can clothe and heal itself. As it tries to heal itself, through a succession of forest ferns, shrubs, and trees, its innards are ripped again by the repeated, thoughtless slashing of vegetation along the road. The canopy, once fully covered overhead, is now rent asunder; the streaming light feeds the weeds. Now the weeds have to be controlled by slashing, again. The rainforest canopy that kept the weeds away and clothed the earth with beautiful ferns and orchids for no extra charge is ignored by the people who, for wages paid by the government, slash away under the arc-sky over the road. The earth-scar craves the sun.

Mikania weeds on slashed roadside
Mikania weeds on slashed roadside

The weeds that now stifle the rainforest seedlings, like a wart growing on a wound, have traveled along the road, with the vehicles, and the dust and the people and their plastic and debris. The mikania is here, and the lantana, as is the eupatorium. With the fall of the giants, light can now stream into the forest, and the weeds, too. The road has also brought a plantation nearby; the seeds of the robusta coffee grown there have now spread into the rainforest. The understorey is a beguiling green—every fourth or fifth plant growing among the future forest is a robusta. The earth-scar brings visitors.

Like the vehicles, the wind, too, can speed along the earth-scar. It can gently toss the leaves and sway the branches. It can lighten the humidity and desiccate the earth. It can bring moisture to the forest even as it lifts it from the leaves. It can, and it does, also blow the trees over. The earth-scar funnels the wind.

Is it Nature that felled these trees? Perhaps. Is it the road? Or is it I, who, getting into my car, ride the earth-scar back home?

As we reach the checkpost, the langur are still watching. There is a hint of rain in the air. And the clouds hang dark over the landscape.

4 thoughts on “Earth-scar evening

  1. Amazing article mama ji. In non-disturbed forests, do the lianas help in giving any support during rains like these or do they make matters worse by taking down everything that they are stuck onto ?

    1. What’s a rainforest without its lianas, yes? Lianas are generally considered to be dependent on trees and widely perceived to have natural but negative effects on tree growth, seed production, and survival. By weighing down a tree or by linking nearby tree canopies, lianas may lead to tree falls and may accentuate losses as they yank down the linked trees. Personally, I feel that they can play a positive structural role as well, when they actually help support trees more susceptible to tree fall by linking them to nearby trees that are better positioned or rooted. The two contrasting views, support versus pull-down, proposed by Francis Putz in 1984, were evaluated in a neat little recent study that’s pretty pertinent to the present discussion: Garrido-Pérez et al. 2008. The study showed that in young (secondary) forests, lianas can play a stabilizing role, whereas in older forests with tall trees they may have more of a pull-down effect. In the latter case, this can have compounding effects over time due to the effects of lianas on forest regeneration, effects of climate change and so on… but that’s a story for another day.

      And yet, and yet, is it the liana that pulls down the tree? Disturbances to rainforest can increase liana densities (see our own work here) including road-related disturbances. Is it the earth-scar at work again?

    1. Thanks, Prashanth. If you look at pathology as the study of suffering (pathos), as Robbins puts it, and as something that bridges medical science and practice, the parallel with conservation is obvious, isn’t it? Incidentally, you should read Aldo Leopold’s 1935 essay Land Pathology. You may like the following quote where he talks about the conservation of landscape beauty under the onslaughts of mass transportation in Parks:

      Parks are over-crowded hospitals trying to cope with an epidemic of esthetic rickets; the remedy lies not in hospitals, but in daily dietaries.

      Thanks for the links. We should explore ‘conservation pathology’ (or is it pathological conservation?) more. Cheers!

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