Of Seeds

So this summer I had the good fortune of spending ten days in the Western Ghats, as my absence from this blog might have indicated. Specifically, I was in a town called Valparai – famous for its lion-tailed macaques, elephants, and hornbills. But what I was doing there actually had nothing to do with any of those things.

What I was doing was seeds.

Valparai is a hotchpotch of coffee plantations, tea estates, eucalyptus – and immensely valuable primary and secondary rainforest, though as is the pattern worldwide, the latter two are growing more and more steadily into a fragmented minority. And therein lies the key: fragments. As in patches, unconnected stands of trees, broken up even further with roads that are in themselves an even greater danger for inhabiting wildlife.

Fragments have a tendency to degrade even faster due to a phenomenon known as the edge effect. It’s simple math: large areas of forest have a smaller perimeter than the same am area broken up by roads and plantations and the like. So therefore, those broken up areas have even more of their edges exposed to the sun and the wind and the rain. In most rain forests, the edges are composed of hardy buffer trees that thrive on such conditions. But when a road exposes an edge in the interior of the forest, the buffer trees are no longer present. At best, a host of hardy invasives spring up in the newly formed clearing. At worst, or perhaps anyways, trees used to the dark, cool forest interior are exposed to the outside for the first time.

And that’s far from the only resulting complication. Animals residing in separate areas of forest can no longer breed, due to the slight issue of a giant highway separating them. Precious genetic diversity is lost in the process, and interbreeding amongst the small, isolated populations remaining reduces it further. Extinction can often result from simply that alone.

So all very happy stuff for the future of our planet. But sarcasm aside, there is actually good news, at least as far as Valparai is concerned. There, an organization known as the Nature Conservation Foundation is working to restore these fragments.

That’s where I came in. For ten days, I helped out with this project in what ways I could – and while my accomplishments were minimal, I nevertheless got the chance to see the bare bones of one of the most (over)used words in wildlife: conservation.

Here, it came down to seeds.

The first part of the process is collection. Year round, they go to various places – coffee plantation trails, the roads lining the edges of fragments, and the like – and look for seeds. What they want is native trees. And by collecting a variety of seeds in different seasons, they ensure they get future plants capable of withstanding an array of conditions.

I assisted with collecting, grossly misidentifying most trees and avoiding leeches (which I have to say I really don’t miss in mammal-poor Singapore). Our yields varied – from jackfruit to figs – and once we had returned, then came the next part: planting.

This is a seed of Heritera, with wings that have since decayed into a skeleton, creatingly a beautifully fragile piece of artwork.
This is a seed of Heritera, with wings that have since decayed into a skeleton, creatingly a beautifully fragile piece of artwork.

Which is exactly how it sounds. The seeds, once obtained, have to be grown into viable saplings at least a meter high; they have to be protected from squirrels and the raiding monkeys; weeding has to occur frequently to ensure they aren’t out-competed by any others – it’s a lot of work. All this occurs in the Nursery (capital letter courtesy of moi), which is the hub for restoration activities.

Once the saplings are appropriately large, they’re moved out of the Nursery to a nearby plot to harden – to get used to the outside environment, to survive without care like in a real forest. And after that – well, after that comes what makes it worth it.

Once a year, come June and July, the work really begins. Obtaining land from one of the surrounding coffee or tea estates, they take hardened saplings (which are usually one or two years old by now) in their thousands aaaand plant them. They select them based on what they can withstand – water-loving trees for swampy conditions, high-altitude trees for hilltop locations, and so on – thus maximizing their chances of survival. With enough luck and a little weeding, a few years later they have a thriving secondary rainforest where previously was sometimes nothing, or perhaps just Eucalyptus. These ‘new forests’ provide corridors between fragments, restore the health of old fragments, and generally take a step closer to making the place something what it was like a few hundred years ago – healthy, thriving rainforest, largely devoid of humans.

And it all starts with this.

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Jackfruit, fig, Palaqium – botany experts, any other familiar cotyledons?

 All photographs were taken and edited on a smartphone.

A Banyan Story

So the last week has been just… wow. Seriously. I have no other words. It’s been a chaotic whirlwind of just stuff happening, one after the other after the other.

So, first thing’s first. I’ve talked about the banyan tree before on this blog; I was under the impression, however, that I was talking to a cyberspace void.

Apparently, I was not. Someone named Joyce contacted me after reading that post and asked whether I could participate in a project telling the stories of Singapore’s trees and people, in honor of SG50. It’s called Singapore, very old tree, after a postcard with precisely that caption. And last Saturday, I went back to the banyan tree to meet the artist, Robert Zhao Renhui, and one of the organisers behind it, Adeline.

It was wonderful talking to them about what they do and what they’re planning to. The project aims to publish a book of these trees they find, and an exhibition will be hosted at the National Library May this year. My story – hopefully – will be included.

However, due to the timing of our meeting – in the middle of the afternoon – it became a bit hectic. Not because we were short on time – far from it. The sun here was the party that refused to cooperate. It was a Goldilocks situation. When photographing, either the roots came overexposed and the branches exposed correctly, or the complete other way around. The only option was to wait for clouds to cover the ball of flaming gas that was the source of all the trouble.

The moment that happened, it was showtime. We ran to position so fast you’d have thought a bomb was going to explode. The fact that it was just a few photographs did nothing to decrease the tension. The clouds would only shade the roots for a few seconds, and we had to make the most of them.

According to Robert, what makes this tree interesting are its root formations – it is, quite literally, holding the hill together. Fig banyans like it exist all across Singapore, but the extensive root system of this one is unparalleled.

Have you got any stories about trees special to you or simply just fascinating? Tell me in the comments!

Belted Trees

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Orion’s belt is my favorite constellation, mainly due to the fact it’s the only one I can actually identify. In Coorg, it was framed perfectly between the leaves of the trees, while a streetlamp in the corner of the image put stars a thousand miles away in the spotlight.

2014

We have come to the end – of an era, maybe not, but of a rotation around the sun, of the usage of 2-0-1-4 in dates, of – well, really, nothing. Still, it’s as good a time as any to round up what I’ve done and figure out where I’m going. No doubt you’ve been overladen already with these kind of posts, but really, I can’t think of a better time just to say thank you. When I began this blog, I expected nothing. And I mean nothing. As in zilch, zero, nada, in terms of followers, or likes, or really anything. You guys have overwhelmed me. The fact that people want to (or are forced to) actually read my rants about nature is beyond comprehension. This year has been a huge one in terms of my photography and my experiences in nature.

My trip to Africa in July produced many unforgettable experiences which I am far from done with sharing with you guys. In October, I visited Kullu, a district in the Himalayas; aside from 25 species of birds, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the simple beauty of nature. And just recently – two days ago, in fact – I returned from a trip to Coorg and Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary. I’m still at a loss for words to explain my experience there, but when coherence returns you will see what I saw, as best as I can show it to you. Closer to home, I made numerous trips to MacRitchie (including one trip with Lavanya of My Nature Experiences, who is a person so amazing I have no idea why I didn’t meet her sooner, and also my former partner in crime for the Crazy Tiny Insects challenge), Dairy Farm Nature Reserve, Sungei Buloh, Greenleaf Forest, the Green Corridor, and many, many more fantastic places within Singapore. When this was combined with an afternoon spent with Birds of Singapore, my count of birds I’ve seen within – you guessed it, Singapore – was pushed up to a whopping 92, not including swiftlets. (They are irritating little buggers to identify, ok?)

On the photography front, I would like to say I have gained a greater understanding of a) how and when to use my camera and b) how and when not to use my camera this year. Maybe it paid off. I won a Consolation Prize in the NParks Trees for Life competition, and also received third place in an intra-school photograph competition, for a photograph I featured earlier on one of my Journal Journeys posts. (I haven’t mentioned this earlier on my blog, actually. So yay?) In addition, my photograph of Karambe, the largest black rhinoceros on the Masai Mara, received Spotting of the Day on Project Noah. My photograph of a yawning African Spotted Hyena was selected as Pic of the Day on National Geographic’s Great Nature Project.

I have no idea why any of you would have wanted to read all of this or indeed why any of you came here in the first place. I certainly have no idea why I came here or, indeed, where I’m going. So my New Year’s Resolution, I guess, is to keep it fresh. Never forget the feeling of whispering forests in the afternoon, or the call of birds at some unearthly hour in the morning, or the thrill of excitement in identification and realization. Nature is – well, nature is what it is, and that is something uncorrupted by humans, something more beautiful than hoping or wishing or any of these twenty-six letters, really. And nature, I believe, is essential – for us, in the moment of knowing, and for itself, in the moment of being.

Beneath are all of the photographs I’ve uploaded to this blog this year. See at will. This is my 100th post, fitting for my final words of 2014, which (really) don’t matter. Still, for what it counts – thank you.

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Eclipse – Black and White Challenge Day 2

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Day two of the black and white challenge is here, and with it, a romp through the photo archives.

I missed the famed lunar eclipse by simple virtue of forgetting about it but caught a brilliantly red moon the next day. However, my lens proved too short to capture it properly (as expected). Rather than a boring shot of the (almost) full moon, I decided to try for an ‘eclipse’ of my own with a bit of bokeh. The flowers of the plumeria tree proved willing subjects and after finally figuring out how to manipulate my tripod to point upwards rather than forwards, I got this.

NParks Trees For Life 2014

I’ll be the first one to say I don’t photograph many stationary objects; the occasional fungi, of course, is there, but my lack of skill when it comes to portraits (or, indeed, people in general) has been emphasized more times than necessary by my family, so when I learned of the NParks photography competition ‘Trees for Life’, I was sceptical. Trees? Really?

Today I got an email from Joelyn Oh, the manager of the competition, informing me that I had won a Consolation Prize in the Secondary category.

I was– and still am– ecstatic. Let alone the fact that I’ve never won a photography competition (let alone enter one, but that’s another matter), this means that my photograph will be exhibited at the Singapore Garden Festival at Gardens by the Bay, as well as at several public libraries around the island.

I submitted three images; one has been showcased before on this blog, but it didn’t win, so it doesn’t really matter. It was the Old Banyan Tree.

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If you remember, my blog post on it was chiefly spent complaining about how hard it was to get a decent photograph of it that truly exhibited its magnificence, et al., so it’s not too much of a surprise it didn’t win. Here’s the caption I entered for this photograph:

“I can bicycle to the old banyan tree blindfolded; I’ve been there so many times. But every time, I cannot help but slow down as I wonder at its majesty, its age. It carries itself with a certain grace that I cannot hope to capture fully in this single photograph.”

My next submission was of a Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopus moluccensis) I spotted on a coconut tree near my house, pecking away as it searched for termites.

I entitled the image “Coconut Peckers”.

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“A Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker looks for termites to eat: trees not only provide a home for wildlife, but food as well. This coconut tree was most likely there for decoration, but the reason I love this tree is because now it’s part of Singapore’s ecology and part of our biodiversity.”

My last image has kind-of-sort-of been feautured on this blog before. If you remember my post “Beginnings in Bulbuls“, this photograph– the one that won (hah– homophone– no one? Never mind.)– has, not-really-coincidentally, almost the same name, and technically the same subject as that one did. Only not really. It’s complicated.

So, I present to you, Consolation Prize-winner of the NParks Trees for Life competition 2014: Bulbul Beginnings.

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“I took this photograph of a juvenile bulbul sitting on that branch in that tree one year ago. I was very proud of it. One year later, I’ve photographed many more birds in many more trees but this one will always be special to me for having begun my journey.”

What’s that I hear? Non-existent applause? Why, thank you, thank you.

In all seriousness, I’m so excited about this. It truly is an honor and I would like to thank National Parks Singapore for all the work they put into this and all the other fantastic projects they maintain all across the isalnd.

If anyone’s interested, here’s the exhibition schedule for the photographs. While I haven’t had a chance to see any of the rest of them yet, I’m sure they’ll all be fantastic!

Venue Exhibition Period
1 Singapore Garden Festival @ Gardens by the Bay 16 – 24 August 2014
2 Woodlands Regional Library 25 August – 10 September 2014
3 Tampines Regional Library 11 September – 22 September 2014
4 Central Public Library 3 – 16 October 2014