Ian Lockwood


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Father Matthew’s Shola Tree

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Hidden jewel and a giant at that….Beilschmeidia wightii in the Kukkal shola. It was first identified by Father K.M Matthew in the 1980s. Finding it in the vast Kukaal shola seemed like an impossible task but in April we managed to stumble across it perhaps more by accident than design.

Botanists who describe the structural characteristics of sholas often emphasize their relatively low canopy height. Shola trees are known for their stunted, gnarled morphology that many species have as a result of their exposure to fierce winds in the upper altitudes of the Western Ghats. Most cloud forests do indeed have short canopy heights of 15 meters or so, as compared to the towering 50meter trees of lowlands tropical rainforests. However, there are exceptions and one of them was first noted by the esteemed botanist and plant taxonomist Father K.M. Matthew (1930-2004). Working out of the Angalade institute at Shembagagnur he was a prolific documenter and guardian of the sholas and other forests of southern India. He played a key role in the founding of the Palani Hills Conservation Council  (PHCC) and was a major supporter and mentor to the Vattakanal Conservation Trust.

This last April I accompanied Bob & Tanya of the VCT on an exploratory hike to find Beilschmeidia wightii in the Kukaal shola. This is a very large shola covering a large basin area on the western border with the Anaimalais Tiger Reserve – not quite the classic “patch shola” that you find in the upper reaches of the Western Ghats. I had doubts about finding a single individual but was keen to get out into the hills and forests. Kukaal shola is widely known for its enormous, blood-thirsty leeches. However, it was undergoing a rare and brief dry spell and we shed relatively little blood. Remembering directions from two decades earlier, Bob, Tanya and I meandered along wood-cutting paths and then climbed up a slope following one of the larger streams. The forest was fairly dense and populated with a variety of tree and shrub species that we are familiar with from the temple path. At some point I saw it from a distance and as we approached realized that this had to be Father Matthew’s tree. It was indeed very, very large and towered far above…perhaps 30 or 40 meters.  In some ways it was similar to Bombay Shola’s “500 year old” Syzygium densiflorum, only its trunk was not half rotted out! The girth was large-it would have taken 4 or 5 of us to make a ring around it,  though we need to return to make more exact measurements.  For now, the idea that all shola trees are short has been definitively put to rest. We trust that somewhere Father Matthew is smiling down on Kukaal and the Palanis.

A veritable needle in the haystack? Looking over Kukaal shola as we get our bearings to look for the mystery tree.

Written by ianlockwood

2012-07-14 at 3:06 am

Auroville after many years

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Auroville’s Matramandir, seen from the visitor viewpoint that is as close as most people get.

It has been nearly 15 or so years since I was last in Auroville. The utopian community and settlement just north of the union territory of Pondicherry (now named Puducherry) was motivated by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Their pioneering experiments with sustainable living in a south Indian context has long attracted my interest and admiration. I use a video that documents their experiments with afforestation, energy use, biodiversity conservation and low-impact architecture in my IB Environmental Systems and Geography classes. The film is a great resource and always makes me want to take the students to Auroville for a week of work-study. So far that has been impossible but I will continue to build links in the hope of taking students there in the near future.

Auroville, of course, has changed a great deal in the years that I have been away. The Matramandir has been completed and there are complex barriers in place to keep the busloads of tourists away from it. Because of this I could not photograph the banyan tree that overlooks it but was able to spend time with several other banyans nearby. The townships on the periphery have grown and the dusty road that leads up to the plateau from the East Coast Road has now been done in concrete. The interiors still evoke the sense of peace with the cycle lanes leading through groves or eucalyptus and native tropical dry-evergreen forest. This time I brought my family and it was gratifying to share the place with them.

Lenny under a banyan (Ficus benghalensis) tree near the visitor viewpoint at Auroville’s Matramandir. The community hosts dozens of impressive trees and, of course, the banyans are amongst my favorites.

The highlight was taking Lenny to visit Johnny Allen (now Auroville) at his hermitage in Fertile. There are a kaleidoscope of personalities and lifestyles in the community but Johnny lives my idea of the vision. He uses locally available materials for construction, the power comes from the sun and biomass and the impact on the ecology is minimal. He is still using a biomass-fueled Stirling engine to make peanut butter and dosa mix and chutney every Saturday. This was the engine that had first brought my father Merrick here. I had tagged along on several trips in the early 1990s. Johnny’s home is set amongst towering trees, thatched workshops and cowsheds. He is just the sort of teacher that helps you understand the practical side of sustainable living. Lenny was given a personal tour of the Stirling engine, a compost toilet and models of housing units that Johnny is designing for young people. The significance of Johnny’s example may have eluded Lenny this time but he enjoyed playing in the tree houses and variety of swings created from recycled life preservers.

Collage of Lenny interacting with Johnny Auroville…friend, teacher and amazing human being living in Fertile, Auroville.

Written by ianlockwood

2011-07-03 at 4:56 am

Under the Great Banyan Tree

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Great Banyan (Ficus benghalensis) at the Kolkata Botanical Garden: four part composite image without blended layers

Great Banyan (Ficus benghalensis) at the Kolkata Botanical Garden: four part composite image without blended layers

On the way back from Mizoram our family spent several days in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta). It’s a city that I am quite at home in, thanks to its position as the key gateway to Bangladesh from India. After several years absence it was cathartic to walk Calcutta’s gritty streets, delve into the outstanding street food, interact in Bangla and take in the vibrant commotion that define the city. The botanical gardens remain a place of inspiration for me as a photographer looking for grand trees. This is a variation of a composition that was used in the 2001 postcard set on Banyans of Bengal that I produced through Drik. This time around I brought along my son Lenny who put up with the early departure but was disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to climb on the countless limbs and aerials roots!

Where the old Salvation Army guest house used to be on Kolkata'sSudder street

Where the old Salvation Army guest house used to be on Kolkata's Sudder street

Written by ianlockwood

2009-03-11 at 3:31 pm

Posted in Sacred Trees

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