The message travelled across the micro land of the plateau. Faster than how a wildfire spreads, faster than how a rumour spreads in a village, `faster than light’, said one of the snakes who woke up with a start from sunbathing on a rock. He rushed into cover. Giant footsteps of the humans had once again fallen upon the land. How did the humans know that the rain was going to be away this morning, and wouldn’t be pouring as a way to protect the plateau? The humans always seem to know when to land up in places.
This is the Bambolim-Taleigao laterite Plateau of Goa, bordered by the Arabian sea, and of the Gawda tribes, the aboriginal inhabitants of the land, some of whom today still cultivate Comunidade land. In the last many decades, a large part of this stretch also holds the Goa University.
Come rains, and what appears barren, rocky, dry and hot the rest of the year, magically transforms such coastal plateaus into a vibrant colourful carpet eco system of several herbs and flowers.This microcosm of herbs, wildflowers, grass, their co-evolved pollinators along with their adaptations to the laterite rocks and soil, have spent their energy over millions of years learning how to thrive and strengthen their interconnectedness in relation to the temperature, weather and season.
Not only for their own selves, but they have also evolved to nurture the land that feeds and protects them, becoming home for several other creatures. Though in the food chain, there is always a certain amount of give and take, yet they keep their eyes on the ball, which is working hard to stay in balance to ensure all life on the plateau thrives.
This morning, the bees, other insects and the gentle morning breeze, quickly investigated the human group and spread the message to the grass and flowers across the plateau, `There are about twenty humans. They appear very keen to explore the wildflowers of the plateau. It’s time you put up your best show if you have any plans of winning them over’, declared the bees and breeze to the plants.
At their level, at their real tiny micro level, there is only one way to try and win such a war against odds, especially if the odds are humans, who have the power of technology that can wipe out the plateau in one tractor, or the power of words that can convince anybody that this land has nothing of importance, `look it is just some grass and some tiny flowers that grow in the rain’, or possess the power of money and declare, `we shall build an apartment block here as the view is lovely’. So their collective fear when they sensed a large human group was about to visit them, was indeed justified.
This one way of protecting their territory – was through their display of love and beauty. By pressing the buttons of awe and wonder in the humans, by seducing the visitors with how they look, the skills they possess, their unique adaptations, and in doing so, making them fall in love with the plateau.
So together they decided to put all force behind this, even if it meant some of them would be plucked, closely examined, trampled upon or photographed, or gathered and taken home. All sacrifice was worth it for the long term protection of each other, for the collective, for the rich web they had carefully woven for generations, with their kith and kin.
After all, they weren’t just a blur of nothing – yes they are tiny, yes they are seasonal, yes we can miss noticing them as they are at the level of the human feet, yes they might feel like a carpet laid for us to tread. Or because they are so wild, and many of us humans have lost touch with the wild, the first response maybe to assume if they are wild, they need to be tamed by removing the excess. Especially if these wildflowers are growing everywhere in the rains – be it in the groomed gardens, sides of the road, hanging from empty sites and jungle lands, the urge might be to clean up and make way for the familiar, which is the cultivated garden flowers. Yes, garden flowers are pretty, but many have started their journey as wildflowers. May we not forget this.
To get this straight some more – if the evolutionary history of flowering plants go back to over 135 million years, researchers and scientists have shown that the endemic wildflower plants of Goa, part of the Western Ghats ecosystem, could be at least 70 million years old. This is vast amount of rich genetic pool surrounding us and like Nandakumar Kamat, in his blog mentions, it is ‘priceless biological wealth’. This micro-forest is as much an ecosystem and home of endemic flowers, endemic grass, endemic pollinators, and several other species, as are the big vast jungles in which larger mammals live, that are protected under National Park status.
Let’s get back to the war of love and beauty declared by the creatures of the plateau that morning.
At that human foot level, the tiny flowers, the tinier insects, the various grass, had to really strain their ears from the ground to hear exactly what the humans were discussing. What an utter relief when towering right above a whole bunch of Senna tora, a legume with tiny yellow flowers, stood a man whose voice and tone Senna tora recognised and perked up. Quickly she sent word to all other flowers in the plateau, that this is Professor Janarthanam. As a Senior Botany Professor of the University and someone who had just retired, he had over several decades become the plateau ecosystem’s admirer, researcher, spokesperson and torchbearer. They knew him as Professor Jana. Suddenly the whole plateau became ever more glamorous, ever more abundant, ever more delightful, and decided to display their beauty wholeheartedly.
‘Senna tora is nothing but the one with which locals make Taikilo bhaji’, mentioned Professor Jana and many in the group exclaimed, `ooooh, this is the one’, and the tiny yellow flowers just plumped up with pride and posed, even as several mobile cameras zoomed in on them. The tender leaves right on top which is what is plucked for the bhaji, a local vegetable, was touched, tasted and appreciated. The walk had begun with the entire group admiring this plant. ‘Well done Senna tora’, the other wildflowers applauded. The stage for seduction had been set.
Right after, Buttonhead Pipeworts offered themselves up as a bunch to the Professor, as he pulled them out of the soil to explain their water storage adaptation as an aquatic herb, and the rest of the humans moved ever so closely to examine the stem, and let out gasps of wonder, `wow, wow, how cool’. The rest of the Pipeworts immediately got busy with the paparazzi thereafter. By now, many in the group had begun to kneel down closer to the ground, to admire the Pipeworts at close quarters.
‘Guess what this plant is? Anybody?’, said the Professor, bringing forward two pinkish-purple flowers in the shape of a bell. How these two pink flowers enjoyed the spotlight they just received. The group surrounded, and began guessing, until Professor declared this was the Wild Til or Wild Sesame. This was met with such fascination, with everyone smelling the seeds and the leaves to find a connection to sesame. Not only that, Professor plucked the flower, and pointed to the speckles inside the flower petal that bees could see due to UV light spectrum, which acted as nectar guides enticing the pollinator. How much admiration, attention and love poured out for these bell-shaped beauties. Did the bees come and buzz around too hearing their name? I think so.
‘We make what is called Kuduchi Bhaji out of this plant’, said a voice, bringing attention to hundreds of tiny erect flowers which were a combination of silvery white at the base, turning into lush rose towards the head. Hearing this the Silver Cockscombs, became extra erect, extra rose, extra joyous. ‘Her stalk and leaves are edible, and what goes into the vegetable the locals make in this season’, added the others. Due to their thin tall structures, they swayed in the morning breeze, charming the humans into taking some videos too.
Wait, what, a carnivorous plant. Professor Jana, was pointing to tiny purple flowers, with one of their petals sticking out like a tongue. Called Bladderworts, he explained that this genus of plants possess bladder-like traps, that feed on prey like insect larvae, worms etc. They have miniature trap doors with tiny trigger hairs and when an insect touches or brushes against it, the door is triggered and opens, sucking the insect into the water-filled bladder for digestion. Since none of the humans are insects, and had nothing to worry about, they touched the parts of the plant and flower and examined it from different angles. There was such collective awe expressed at meeting a carnivorous plant. Many pictures were clicked.
Now the Professor picked up an insectivorous plant, calling it Drosera indica or Sundew. Unlike the Bladderworts whose digestive glands sit below in a Sac, Sundews have tentacles protruding from their leaves with a sticky gland at the tip that look like dew droplets. These glands produce nectar, and the insects who come to indulge in it, since the sap is gluey and sticky, get trapped, and then these glands secrete enzymes to digest it.
‘Why, why, do these plants eat insects?’ asked the humans, and Professor responded that it is because these plants lack the capacity to absorb the nitrates from the soil, so they get this essential nutrient from the insects. By now, the wildflowers could hear the humans better, as many of them were down on their fours observing them, and they constantly heard, `this is so fantastic’, `we never expected to see something like this’, and `such incredible adaptations’.
Blushing with the pouring of love, admiration, wonder, and praise for their beauty, word went around ever more quickly within their communities, they could now enjoy this human group and relax. Nothing to worry.
The Professor also explained how even in what appears to be one large plateau, there are various microhabitats, like hard rock, soil, gravel, rock crevices, seasonal ponds, boulders, tree covers, and the plateau we were walking on that morning, ‘has about 16 different micro habitats’, he said, which supported diverse flora and fauna.
‘This is Neanotis subtillis, endemic to the plateau’, said the Professor to the wonderstruck group pointing to two flowers from the same plant. One of them had anthers projecting out, and in the other the stigma projected out. ‘Both flowers are from the same plant, and this is their evolutionary strategy to ensure cross-pollination’, he added.
The other endemic plant of the plateau was Indigofera dalzelli, a perennial herb from the legume family growing on dark wet hard rock.
There is something extra precious about endemics, knowing one cannot see them anywhere else, isn’t it?
Then there were the Muradannias, small lilac flowers filling up large patches, growing on laterite rocks, admired for her resilience and beauty.
The world of wildflower plants was becoming magnified. Just an hour ago, they had appeared to the humans to be just wildflowers. No more. Now their true wildness and madness, their architecture, their sculpture, their microscopic clarity, their secrets, were swelling with an extraordinariness and character, only such careful observation could bring.
As time passed, the human group that had arrived towering over, were now bending, crawling, kneeling, sitting, and moving into eye-level with the plants mesmerised by the tapestry of this monsoon microcosm, wishing to immerse into this fairyland.
Like in large rain forests, the group had begun to sense that even this microscopic forest had its several layers, sunlight adaptations, unique and clever strategies, microclimates, prey and predators, camouflages and defence mechanisms, complex interactions across the web, a well-established food chain, many herbs and spices, AND local indigenous people and tribes who knew their local names, prepared local dishes, and revered what the land gave during monsoons, when the hunters like the fishing community transformed into gatherers in the rains, allowing the seas and oceans to heal, as the land produced enough variety to feed during this time.
As the trail came to a close, the group learnt about wild grape creepers, rattle pods, succulent grass, more legume plants, morning glory, the medicinal Kudo shrub (Holarrhena pubescens), Ukshi (Getonia floribunda) a climbing shrub which also had medicinal properties.
This plateau’s creatures, through their display of love and beauty, had reconnected the group to emotions of awe and wonder through the richness they held. In doing so, they had also gifted a peep into every other plateau the humans might come across near and far, and across the world. The after effects of this love, showed up in how the human group had now split into so many smaller cliques spreading across the plateau, to soak it up in their unique ways – some were gathering flowers, some clicking more pictures, some discussing ways to support conservation work with Prof Jana, and more.
The wildflower plants, the grass and the pollinators felt like how children do at the end of `Parent’s Day’, having showcased their talents, skills, gifts, beauty, enticing all the adults present to fall in love with them twice over.
Oh, their mission was well accomplished for the day.
Over breakfast, the creatures of this microcosm concluded that even after millions of years of evolution and co-existence and trying out several intelligent strategies for generations, what appears to be very clear is that love and beauty could still be the best strategy to put into action, if the world has to thrive. And the gossipers among them, just couldn’t help discussing, how, how is it that Professor Jana knew so many of their secrets and strategies so well, and the time had now come to dig into some of his, very soon.
I think that is a fair way to end this story.
No, no, wait a minute, I forgot the invitation the plateaus bring to you:
If you live near a plateau, a meadow, a place rich with moss and more, remember you are basically surrounded by micro forests. All we need is to change our perception and angle, literally and metaphorically.
Make a picnic out of it. Go in a small group. Carry magnifying glasses – kneel down, lie down flat on the stomach, observe them real close, and you will see architecture and tapestry, flora and fauna, a forest that is in your neighbourhood as rich as any big jungles of India, or the Amazon forest, or any gigantic forests of the world. No better time to go than in the rains, or when there is a window between rainfall, which is when they come doubly alive. If you can go with a local naturalist or an expert or someone from the local tribe, what we can see, learn, and sense can enrich us some more.
When you enter such a land, just announce the magic words, `we are here for love and beauty’, and see how the land and you both transform, in this new, yet millions of years old relationship, just like the human group on Bambolim-Taleigao plateau were transformed.
Thank you for reading/listening. Happy weekend of micro-foresting.
I want to end by thanking Professor Janarthanam for his generosity of sharing and guiding us, and my entire Tree Group members in Goa as we together compiled the names of the wildflower plants, which support this story.