Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wish I were a monkey!

Little did I know what I was getting into when I agreed to work in the Forest canopies. “Climb trees?”, “What do you mean?” would be the obvious response of any person who has never climbed a tree before even in the wildest of dreams! And needless to say I was no different.

Soon enough, I was in KMTR, with the harness around the waist and busy climbing up the trees in search of epiphytes. With some initial hic ups I managed to attain the comfort level in climbing trees but the hurdles to carry out the work were aplenty and as a matter of fact were taller than the trees themselves!
One day the assistant does not turn up, the other day the bus does the same and yet another day, the bike has a puncture! If none of these happen, the rain gods decide to be kind enough and burst open the clouds; thus singing an end to the work in the canopies.
With time on my side, I managed to overcome these hurdles to some extent and managed to partially finish the work and each day was invariably associated with a lot of exciting things be it the sheer contiguity of the forest canopies or the sightings of the canopy dwellers up close.

After having seen much of the diversity of life up there, I always kept wondering “why do so very few people work in this field of canopy ecology?”
Of late, I have been having experiences which seem to answer my question.
In this context, I would like to share a day’s experience which almost shattered my will to work in the canopy. The day started with a wonderful sunrise and a clear sky which was a very good indication that rain gods still in deep slumber and soon myself, Mutthu- my ever smiling assistant and Mythri- an enthusiastic undergraduate who volunteered to assist me in the work, went to the field to sample trees and what followed was one of the worst field days if may say!
First, the rigging which was done a few days back was not proper and in the effort to set it right, myself and Mutthu attached a karabiner to the free end of the nylon thread and hauled it up only to see it dangling up the tree stuck in the thick undergrowth of the selection felled forest. A hard thug and both the thread and my palm got effortlessly cut. With a heavy heart, we set to rig the tree again using the sling and it took six hard tries to finally get the thread up there with more than a dozen cuts on my palm while trying to pull the misfired thread from the understory.
When we finally got it up, the climbing ropes were quickly hauled up as we had lost more than two hours in getting the most critical part of climbing right. But we realized that the ropes were inclined in an angle and impossible to climb up and my brilliant self decided to use the laws of gravity and attached the harness itself to the rope to the hauled it up thinking the weight will drag the rope towards the bole of the tree due to gravity .But with the understory, the rope decided to defy the laws of gravity and stayed half way up the tree! No amount of tugging seemed to even budge the rope and poor muthu had to climb a short tree with calamus all around to pull the rope back to ground.
All was set and we were relived that things were in place and soon realized that the thinner ropes used to haul the rope and my backpack were so badly entangled in the leaf litter that it took a good one hour to unwind the mess but meanwhile, Mythri managed to climb up the tree.
After four hours under the tree, we finally made progress with Muthu and Mythri up the tree and me half way up. On reaching the top, we were rewarded by some excellent views of the Black eagle at eye level and the Mountain imperial pigeons flying out of Syzigium trees below us and I was also able to record calls of a canopy frog. But bad luck seemed to have climbed the tree with us, as soon as I reached up and sat down to write; the pen slipped off from my pocket and went straight down! We would have ended up writing with a marker pen if not for Giby who popped in to see how we were doing and generously sent up a pen. With a lot of branches to sample for epiphytes, we were comfortably seated on the tree for the next five hours, living on bananas for lunch and a little water. Coming down took a good one hour. The packed lunch of cold idly, equally cold sambar and stale chutney was finished in no time and later, we spent a good two hours in the night un-entangling the rigging thread.

Though the mess we had been into was largely the doing of the new nylon ropes which coiled faster than a constrictor, coiling the thinner strings beyond easy un-entanglement, I too had a considerable role to add to it due to some foolish ideas like sending up the harness itself up!
Such experiences are one of the many difficulties in accessing the canopy and carrying out rigorous research activities are surely one of the deterrents which has since long kept many people off the forest canopies and those who have pioneered this field of ecology were for sure driven by the taste for high adventure, beauty, diversity and complexity of interactions which take place within it.

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