Sunday, January 18, 2015

The story of the pink orchid - an extract from 'The Last Wave - An island novel'

THE LAST WAVE - An Island Novel

Chapter 16
Flower Power 

Pg 187-189

(The story of the pink orchid)

‘David must have told you about this. My work on PT had already begun by then – even before I discovered this report on this Canopy Lifting System.’
‘Oh! Sorry! The name’s a little complicated so I just made it easier – papilionanthe teres – PT – my orchid,’ he said with obvious pride. ‘It’s also called vanda teres, but I prefer to call it PT. See, flowers brought me to botany. Flowers fascinated me from childhood, and when I learnt that I could be forever in their company and also make a living, I knew exactly what I had to do with my life. With time, of course, my botanical horizons expanded, and I came to be interested in other aspects of plants that were equally fascinating. But, that’s another story. See . . . I first noticed PT on my second or perhaps third visit to the northern islands. I noticed the flower all along the Andaman Trunk Road from Port Blair right up to Mayabundar here. Those days, I used to come here for the routine field surveys that my office was conducting.’
He opened a photo album lying on his table and showed Harish the first picture. ‘A nice pretty pink. Beautiful flower, isn’t it? Like all orchids are. PT is very common. You can’t miss it. Along certain stretches of the Andaman Trunk Road, entire trees are covered in its pink hue. It was actually this profusion that first drew my attention to the flower. See,’ he closed the album and looked up at Harish, ‘there is one very important ecological characteristic of PT that is extremely relevant here. It needs to receive direct sunlight to bloom. Let alone the flower, even the plant will not grow in the shade. It’s out and out a sunlight-loving plant. It’s what can be called an ecological indicator.

‘On one of my following trips, this was a bus journey more than a year ago, I noticed something even more striking – something that really set me off. It was true that the flower could be seen all along, but there was also a very curious division along certain lengths of the Andaman Trunk Road. For long stretches, the flower was seen only on one side of the road. Forests on the other side were completely devoid of its pink beauty.
‘It was actually quite stark, two different worlds separated by only a ten-metre-wide tarred road. I looked at the Working Plans of the Forest Department, and should have I been surprised? The overlap was striking. Forests where I was seeing PT now had seen extensive timber extraction over the years. This might interest you – the other side of the road, where there wasn’t a sign of the flower – was the Jarawa Reserve, and there the Forest Department has never been allowed to enter. There seemed to be a clear connection between logging in the past and the pink flowers I was seeing. It sounds too easy, so simple, it’s almost bizarre. But it’s true – cent per cent true.
‘I then studied the Working Plan carefully and identified two different categories of land areas – one in Baratang, where the Forest Department had conducted large-scale logging operations, and the other inside the Jarawa Reserve, the untouched pristine, evergreen forests that once clothed every inch of these islands. I surveyed these patches and did a simple scientific exercise of assessing and estimating the presence of PT in each of them. The outcome was stunning.’
‘So,’ Harish asked, ‘maximum orchids in the extracted forests, and almost none in the unlogged forests?’
‘No. Not almost none. Absolutely none.’ SK stressed. ‘Not a single in the original, undisturbed forests. You’ve seen some of these forests now. The canopy of an unaltered rainforest closes above like an umbrella – not a scrap of light can get through. PT does not have a chance of establishing itself here. It never has and never will grow in an undisturbed forest in these islands. They wanted scientific evidence. Here it was. I then further refined my survey, and made it more complex to eliminate other factors that could be playing an influencing role. Another month of surveying in the same areas, and the same result. In such an enquiry, one can never say that such and such is the only reason, but it became clear that the most important influencing factor was the character of the forest. There could be no doubt about that.’

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