Gopika is employed as forest watchman but I’ve only seen him in the old forest a few times in all these years. The forest does not inspire him; he’s just the watchman. Before big festivals he repairs the thorn barricades surrounding it: this is his duty. His cows graze in here: one of his perks. Most of most days he sits on a cement bench in the roadside shrine area nearby, from where plastic bags blow in to the forest. He sits waiting for ears to hear his problems – convinced that he is a victim of black magic.
People rarely go inside the forest because wilderness is frightening to the modern man. Ghosts inhabit forests. Occasional suicides find consolation preparatory to hanging themselves from obliging trees. Occasional drinkers brave it and leave little messes. Desperate ladies are also sometimes encountered but they only take old wood furtively for their kitchen fires. Except for my grandson Prabhu, who still begins to whisper upon entering, I’ve never seen a child in here.
On one of my first walks around Arunachala Mountain many years ago I stepped impulsively from the circuit road into the forest and only after several hours did I return. From then on I went frequently for many years. Sometimes I’d sleep there in a bed of leaves in the place that became my place to die.
Noticing the barrenness of the surrounding area it occurred to me that it was a miracle that this old forest survived. As far as I know there is no old growth forest like this for a radius of 30 kilometres of conspicuously barren plain surrounding the sacred mountain, and rare trees flourish here even now. Years ago the locals told me that we could attribute this miracle to the little Ambal — the goddess in the shrine next to the frog pond. It is she who protects the forest. Although a community that regards trees as firewood standing up has worshiped Arunachala for millennia, this solitary old forest could very well be virgin. The surrounding community is exploding monumentally now in the age of progress and we are just beginning to wake up to the fact that trees are our lifeline, although the mountain still burns every summer.
This old forest is a robust seed bank for the diminishing dry deciduous trees of South India. The very beginning of the greening of Arunachala was the pleasure of my young daughter Ambal and I collecting seeds here. Women members of the Arunachala Kattu Siva Plantation continue to collect seeds here now.
Thirty years ago I would climb up one of the big trees to secure a comfortable spot and wait, curious to see who came into the forest. People didn’t come, and the Bonnet monkeys soon revealed themselves to be distinctly different from the urban Bonnets around where I lived four kilometres away. The forest Bonnet monkeys were shy, but they were not hesitant once they became used to me, and it was an honour to witness the integrity of their family life. The old forest still offers a sanctuary for monkeys, although the descendants of the families of those old days are not often seen inside the forest now since there’s a plentitude of fast food available on the roadside.
The langurs come down in summer when their water sources on the mountain are dry; they drink discreetly from the old tanks near the shrines at times of day when the fewest persons are likely to be about. They don’t take fast food, although Hindu humans would be more than happy to feed them with biscuits and buns in honour of Hanuman, Lord of the Ramayana epic. Aristocrats the langurs are; they rely on the nutritious abundance of the forest.
Let’s go in. We can quickly vanish from the road down a path through the thorn barricade festooned with old plastic bags. The sound of the road is not unwelcome once the forest envelops, the pressures from outside don’t dent the rim of this forest at all; the depths of restorative leafy shadow are well protected.
There are a couple of avenues a little way from the shrines that were reinforced at some ancient time by large stones now almost entirely hidden by the rich leaf mould that elevates the forest floor over centuries. A great many smaller winding tracks weave ways connecting all the different areas of the forest; Gopika’s cattle and my dog and I keep these tracks in good condition, although in wet weather many become impossibly boggy since the adjacent seasonal lake on the mountainside leaks in on the forest floor. Later, after the rains, when all the small plants proliferate, these paths are obscured temporarily until the heat sets in and shrivels the leaves of conquistadors.
Dignified solitary standing stones command considerable presence in the mysterious green. Occasionally playful rocky outcrops set their own stages for surprising configurations in the botanical kingdom. Depressions in the forest floor fill with water in the rains, providing temporary venues for frog concerts. In dry times these depressions form magical little clearings, then solitary stones impress their individual distinction. A handmade round-rocky water-holding place lies at the flow-entrance of the old water tank behind the Ambal shrine. The very deep old tank bordering the forest next to the little Ganesh temple used also to reveal the handiwork of past centuries in its boulders but they are smothered now by concrete progress.
Huge termite nests are scattered throughout the forest. Years ago little clay oil lamps, flowers and incense left traces of a devoted worshipper who sometimes coated the mud of one termite mound with brilliant yellow turmeric and left juicy half-limes dabbed with blood-red kum kum, and sometimes milk and honey for the cobras who lived in the labyrinthine termite tunnel. The worshipper discontinued her devotional practice many years ago.
Copses of one type of tree or another are here where glades forming sky-wells draw beams of light. Patches of many kinds of grass are flecked with dew in early mornings when the dry season sets the stalks to their golden advantage and lends a softness to the eyes. Keyholes to the vast sacred mountain standing golden behind remind me that the name of the forest is Sonagiri: Gold Mountain. Where the giant ancient trees stand, particularly the illapais – claimed by the District Forest Officer to be four to five hundred years old — the canopy formed by the lianas above is very thick and strong, creating an entirely different atmosphere in the vivifying shade below. In a heaven-pool among the thick lianas, the late afternoon sun will spotlight the arch of smooth light on a graceful tree corpse. The surrounding leafy crown drops lianas swooping and looping, with squirrels descending, others escalating, frolicking.
Spiders’ skillful webs spread between the elbows of old tree roots and stumps with sprinkles of fallen leaves suspended in their nets, and soft white webs scatter little misty orbs on the carpet of tiny ground plants flowering stars of blue and white. Porcupine quills are often found here, Prabhu smiles mysteriously when he finds one. Brilliant feathers also provide great occasional finds since we have no predators except the civets with their long tails and possumy faces who rarely venture so near to the roadway, although a mother and three babies did live in my roof until it needed re-thatching, after which they moved under a culvert in the garden; I caught sight of them in the dead of night every few weeks for a long time.
The heavy swooping branches of the giant tamarinds are a favourite langur spot, giving an excellent vantage point on the edge of a series of big old neems, the curvy branches of the graceful soapnut and the tall majestic grandparent illapais. The canopy is so strong here that the huge langur king and company, with their beautiful big behinds and long loping tails, can gallop very fast across from one side of the forest to the other. The langurs have tiny heads, very small black leathery faces and their grey fur is wig-wammed on top. Definitely aristocrats.
On the edge of the series of big trees with the marvelous canopy, voluminous branches encircle a big glade that was once a water-holding tank centuries ago when rains were regular and the water table healthier. Some big old fortifying boulders have been set by human hands to strengthen one side. In the rains it becomes marshy in here; dormant water plants suddenly proliferate and mongoose holes can be seen under the overhang of earth on the sides of the glade. Mongooses can be seen in person especially at dusk and dawn, both the soft ferrety small ones and the bigger bandicooty boys. And a big rat snake lives here also — very long golden yellow in the rainy season. The frog concert held at night can be heard at my house on the other side of the Rain Goddess shrine behind the road.
The weight of the lianas bends smaller trees to join in the riot of festoons with bulbous knobbly trunks. My bones bush lemon, a humble tree, bears a skeleton trunk reaching into the exuberance of fancifully twisted branches. The floor beneath the bush lemon is leafy bare since ground plants don’t grow well here and the fallen leaves are dappled greys to browns to soft pinks, very pretty. After the rains the lush leaf mould on top and the rich earth below will be nosed up by the wild pigs and porcupines, releasing sweet smells from the breathing earth bordered by delicate surface creepers on the edge. At a slanted distance the ground creepers look like moss but closer inspection reveals speckles of yellow fallen leaves in between the strands of tiny fragile creepers.
There’s an ancient stillness here and even in the rustles of summer green can be breathed. The long thin earth roots of one canopy vine fall like a curtain of stalactites through the undulating branches of an old tamarind. The canopy itself dips and rises under its own weight and sunlight streams through open heaven-pools onto a dappled carpet. Old lianas corkscrew into enormous fierce embraces and the liana that makes walking sticks for sadhus will suddenly add its thick spiky protuberances to the forest’s riotous display.
Birdsong is almost constant. An astonishingly big bird lives in this forest – far bigger than a garuda; every now and then for many years it takes off heavily from the canopy when we approach below and I marvel at the size of it. Little honey eaters flit about in multitudes at the time of the bursts of butterflies when flowers are blooming and the hoopoe is often seen too, dapper with its black and white stripes, its cheeky face and little red crest, tapping at the hoary barks. Timid little quails hastily retreat into secluded undergrowth as we approach, and occasionally I’ve seen the male paradise fly-catcher with the immaculate white flowing tail weaving breath-taking trails of glory through those slanting beams of sunlight seeking the forest floor. On the mountain side of the forest — on the other side of the leaky embankment — lucky ducks and other water birds gather after the rains on the seasonal lake there; they don’t come into the forest but pass overhead above the canopy.
For some weeks recently a shawl was lost — a good big bright one; I searched but did not find it at home. However walking one morning on a track seldom used I found it lying where I sat beneath a tree quite some time ago; conspicuous it was lying there, purple in the green. Clearly nobody had ventured by this spot during all this time because in this poor rural community an abandoned shawl is a golden opportunity.
All the substantial trees in this forest are numbered in white paint by a recent mobilised bureaucracy; tree number 2040 for example, is quite young, maybe ten years old. Old branches now dead and the corpses of old trees are much respected, they harbour the sprouts of new trees and feed the voracious termites whose labour is essential to the forest. And the old bodies of trees particularly host the bright orange fungi-shelves that evoke the mystery of old tales in whatever culture.
I love the early summer. I love the summer although it’s far too hot because then the dry deciduous forest comes into its own — crackly, crinkly. The percussion of the dry seedpods joins the muted brittleness of the golden grasses, with sunny smells and the austerity of the dormancy required to flow thankfully with the heat, and the fragile textured softness of the season. Many of the trees lose all their leaves. The barebones of the sacred mountain exposed behind is red in the after glow of summer sunset.
In the very middle of the scorching summer the genius of the forest is revealed. Suddenly activity bursts out with unfailing confidence, tiny little buds appear on stark branches, pristine little leaves open slowly, enfolding into shiny new light-catchers to soak up and transform the sun’s radiant energy and spread the green of wellbeing. And then the flowers begin to join in the rejoicing. The indwelling spirit of the forest communicates to us all that this world works.
What will follow in this primeval seed bank are the pods containing the seeds for the future. Women from the Arunachala Katthu Siva Plantation will collect them, clean them, store them and later sprout them in our nursery, fostering and nourishing them for plantation on our still remarkably barren mountain.
Throughout these years as a guest of India I have wandered at home in this forest to my heart’s content. At times when it is exceedingly difficult to accept events in turbulent times, to acquiesce another moment in our deceitful fabrication of substance and certainty, or come to terms with the underlying lies that riddle human experience, or talk about the blind eye we turn from our shared emptiness and the great unknown in our faces, from our failure to acknowledge the way we deceive our children or the tenacious denial of our profound kinship with all that is; when these burdens are all tipping, then, every time, this forest has soaked me up – soothed me and rejuvenated my inner silence. It assures me, as I now do you: that if all attempts at ecological restoration are in vain, we can acknowledge with gratitude and dignity that extinction is no disgrace.
March 3, 2014