11th April 2009
Post field-work, a ride back home with Bomma is by far the most entertaining part of the day. Hours of brain numbing data collection later, this little man still retains incredible energy, spouting anecdotes in rapid succession - like a teapot on steroids, and without breathing between the incessant giggles from his audience. It makes a day’s work completely worth its while. He tells stories of the forest, Veerappan, boss, vets, profs and students and researchers at the field station – long gone but never quite forgotten, elephants, tigers, the weather, rain and fires, the river, food, tribal medicine, sickness, forest rangers and guards. But what really blows a mind away is his ecological insight into the maddening mess of processes that a dry forest is (ask us poor researchers...trying to find patterns, however small our scale be, in all that chaos!). He has advised several of us on experimental design (his own versions of random blocks and basic anova designs). Sample this: I wanted to see what kind of light makes seedlings grow in the forest. To the three basic light treatments I wanted to give my seeds, Bomma suggested a two-way treatment. He wanted me to divide my little nursery enclosure in two, and fill one half with burnt soil, and the other with unburnt soil, and set up light treatments in each half, and compare how seedlings do under each combination of treatments.
“What purpose will that serve Bomma?” I had asked.
“Fire happens so often in the forest medamu, and it will surely affect seed germination. You could see how seedlings grow after a fire...and what kind of light they need after a fire”, he had replied matter-of-factly.
At other times, it would be practical advice about methods in field. My field study involves tagging seedlings and monitoring their growth across seasons. My tags consist of a small square of transparent plastic marked with a unique code in permanent ink. This is tied to seedlings using a thin wire made of clear plastic. After almost a year, the plastic is slowly giving up the fight and succumbing to the sun, heat and rain.
“Medamu, thappu pannitengo”, he said – madam, you have made a mistake. “you should have used fine aluminium wire with fine aluminium tags. They would have lasted forever – against the elephants and gaur and cheetal and the weather”
I nodded in agreement. Only, our general state of poverty and abysmal logistics prevented us from implementing the improvements.
But his most recent question took the cake in fine thinking. Mind you, it is a thinking born without any formal education or training. It is purely observational. It comes from being born in the lap of nature, walking her well worn paths, reading the subtle signs she leaves for men to survive in a wild world, eating little of what she has to offer in plenty. It comes from having an unceasing marvel about nature. From treating it as a living entity that grows, wounds, heals, breathes, dies, rots and is born again, uncannily phoenix-like. Be it the grey, leaflessness of trees in December or the fiery red tongues of rogue fires that sweep effortlessly across the crisp lifelessness of dry grass. Come April and a stray spell of rain would nudge every sleeping bud back to leaf, and every black spot of charred earth becomes miraculously coated with a powdery carpet of new grass. Easy to get carried away by the majesty of life here! And imagine being one with this spectacular being. I do believe that every tribal who has walked his share of forest paths is a first rate ecologist!