Field Notes from Chimmony

A short trek along Choorathala trail in the regenerating buffer forests of Chimmony Wildlife Sanctuary in the Karuvannur river basin of the Western Ghats.

26th October 2021; Guest Blog: Dr Sreeja KG

This far gone into the monsoon, one can spot signs of a forest readying itself for the summer. The wild ginger shoots had yellowed, the plant preparing for an underground life as rhizomes, waiting for the next monsoon. With the continuous rains we’ve been having this year, I wonder if the drying up of the aerial stems had been delayed this year. The last of the pretty blooms of various wild turmerics could also be seen at a couple of places. The slopes that we walked had plenty of fallen trees, many from past landslides and wildfires. Beneath the canopy, surrounded by the green of the many foliage and the hills that rise up before you upon a twist in the path, it’s hard to imagine droughts and wildfires. It is so important to visit a forest during all seasons; to appreciate the seasonal cycles, to understand that life is never eternal and that there is no one static forest.

The evergreen herb Karimuthil covered the forest floor at many places, with little globose fruits in lustrous red and delicate white flowers. Thippali, the wild long pepper and the wild germplasms of the cultivated variety of black pepper could be seen winding up tall fluted or buttressed trees such as the Cheeni, Telli, Vella-payne, Poovam and Kattupunna. Apparently, the Cochin Forest Cane Turtle, highly endemic to the forested riverine stretches of the southern Western Ghats, love to feed on the fruits of the Kattupunna. Shorter trees of the Mooti which was putting out fresh roots from its cauliflorous trunk, Idampiri/Valampiri with their shocking red flowers, Tathiri with its starry fleshy flowers (that smell like wet socks!) created graded canopies through which harsh midday sunlight filtered through and turned gentle. Many tall trees had already made arrangements for a silent passing through strangler fig associations. The fallen ones were being quietly and gradually disintegrated by tireless fungi in all shapes and colours. Although agents of death and decay, they too made a pretty turnout.  The forest floor, which had its own story to tell, of wayward waters and slippery slopes, had young trees as fragile as hope sprouting all over but mainly along water courses. The fringes of the reservoir had many trees that had once been familiar presence in the homesteads of midland Kerala; from Kanjiram, Vatta, Chadachi, Karalam, Tanni and a Bauhinia with its magenta new flush to woody climbers of Pullani, Cheevakka and Incha.

The ephemeral flora, most of which thrived on monsoonal wetness were indescribably beautiful, many of them in flower from the wild Balsams and Begonia to nameless ground orchids and day-flowers. At a turn in the path, the entire understorey was the dark foliage of Karimkurinji, or Ecbolium viride, the flowers of which are a rare shade between jade and teal blue (called Neelambari in Tamizh which captures the magical hue of the flowers better). There were only a few of them in early bloom. Kumar, our guide on the trail, promised that by the end of November the whole stretch would be immersed in that rare shimmering shade.

The stunning flowers of Ecbolium viride, Neelambari in Tamil

As we circumambulated the reservoir where it had backed up into the forest, we could hear the waters of Virakuthodu joining the reservoir, at one time in the distant past, three streams joining the main river in the forest depths. Grey hornbills, Malabar giant squirrels and Nilgiri langurs atop the tall trees gave lively company on the languorous walk. Time stilled, by that glassy lake on the verge of a precious rainforest fragment, beneath a grey overcast sky.

Kumar, when we got to Choorathala waterfall

The waterfall itself was mesmerizing not just in the fall of the water, but also because of the moss-laden grey granites that towered over us creating cosy nooks underneath, where Kumar said the Adivasi foragers of the past rested on their long forays into the deep, dark forest or “adav“. While taking a short coracle boat ride in the reservoir to the other bank of it, the adav called, breathtaking in its dark appeal. Kumar shared a childhood memory of accompanying his mother in harvesting Cheevakka/ Shikakai. In his memory, a ground that was swept clean before harvest and the boy and mother atop shaking the thick branches of the supporting tree which rained downed the dry and ready fruits. A poignant image of sustainable forest harvests that have faded with the changing times. New standards for sustainable harvests are now being sought to prevent blind cutting down of the thorny climbers. We talked of various wild tubers that would be in season by winter (or post-monsoon/ pre-summer that passes for winter in the hot tropics) – and maybe a wild tuber festival as an opportunity for the non-tribes to get to taste these rare offerings. A salutation too, to the last of the human-forest associations that respect and find joy in the seasonal rhythms of the forest.

A new women’s collective is getting formed at Chimmony, as part of Forest Post’s respectful attempts to nurture these dying links on the one hand, and ease over-dependences on the other. As a first step, they are being trained in beeswax based soap and balm making, and infused honey preparation.  A lovely team of five enthusiastic women and the huge advantage of having a stand-alone building belonging to the Eco Development Committee, in which production can be taken up without hassle. ‘Kallichitra’, another Chimmony sanctuary Malayar community that was relocated from the deep jungles when the reservoir changed the landscape and connections forever, has already begun balm production with a four-member team.

The challenge now is to slowly streamline production to marketing, build professionalism in their work, pride and ownership in the products and in gradually building it up as a community venture. When you buy a handcrafted product from the collective, you would own a wild moment too. And not to forget your valued bit in conservation!

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