The scarlet dome erupts over the rainforest canopy. On this cool, clear January morning in the mountains, the tree emerges like a flaming island in an ocean of green. The leafless branches hold fiery red blooms on twigs lined with thousands of thorns, like flowers strung on razor wires. In resplendent minority, the deciduous tree stands flamboyant over the evergreens, whose flowers, if there are any, remain modestly concealed among millions of leaves. The splayed branches of the great emergent twitches with movement and pulses with song, like the flicker and crackle of sparks in a fire. The silk cotton tree, Bombax ceiba, under which I stand, is alive and alight. I sense a portent of something unexpected.
Across the backwaters of the Lower Sholayar or Ambalappara dam in neighbouring Kerala, across an imaginary border drawn on the waters of a river, from the midst of a vast forest tract, looms the red dome of another silk cotton tree. From the Tamil Nadu side, peering through binoculars, I see life flickering on its branches. Called ilavu or elavan by people – including Kadar forest-dwellers – on either side of the border, the trees seem rooted to place. And yet, they are linked by tendrils of language and life that I barely begin to discern.
Shrill squeals pierce the morning air and I look up. A dozen jet-black birds, with golden leathery wattles on their heads, frolic among the flowers, dipping their orange beaks into the red corollas. Hill mynas. Sated after a swig of sugary nectar or disappointed that someone got there before them, the birds fly from flower to flower in a squeaky, whirring beat of wings. They are not alone.
Bell-like clangs announce the arrival of a pair of racket-tailed drongos, dressed in glossy black and sporting audacious tails. I barely glance at them before a buzzing see-see-see draws my eyes to a little green blur whizzing onto a neighbouring twig. The vernal hanging parrot perches, pulls his tiny matchstick leg over his wing to scratch his face, his wings falling partly open to reveal a red rump set against his parrot green.
Below him, on a stout branch, a thrumming mass of rock bees covers a large U-shaped pendant hive. On a nearby branch, a jungle-striped squirrel walks gingerly over the thorns, nibbling at flowers en route. And there’s more. A flourish of black and yellow arriving with a screech: golden oriole. A flutter of reds and olives: common rosefinches, males and females, migrants from the Himalaya and further north, here to make the best of winter blooms and seeds. A tree-top violinist fiddling fast: a tiny purple sunbird singing his heart out, the energy of his notes falling like rain. A party of birds winging back and forth: Malabar starlings, leafbirds, and bulbuls. Darting about, chattering, diving for a drink from deep-red cups, they even look like they are having a party.
It’s a party thrown by the silk cotton trees. Come, partake of this prolific nectar, they seem to say – a generosity hiding an agenda. For when the birds and bees, and, too, the bats by night, visit the flowers, they are dusted with golden pollen to carry onto flowers of other silk cotton trees, ensuring cross-pollination. Each flower produces over eight million pollen grains from its ring of about 80 to 100 anthers, but pollen falling on the stigma of the same flower or of another flower on the same tree will fail to result in fruits. For reproduction, cross-pollination is vital. With crimson cup offerings, the trees entice animal vectors to do the job for them.
By April, many of the cross-pollinated flowers – those not eaten by macaques or dropped onto the forest floor to be munched by muntjacs – form capsule-like fruits that are silk-stuffed cocoons of seeds. The capsules burst open in the hot, dry weather, letting the seeds, each with its little wispy parachute, fly with the winds. Silky white carpets form in the forest floor in the vicinity of silk cotton trees, just as the pre-monsoon thunderstorms arrive to trigger the germination of the lucky seeds downed in the right spots. On the branches, new leaves sprout and splay their fingers to catch the light as the trees flush green again in sync with the rains, as if following a clock of the spinning earth.
My thoughts swing to other flowering silk cotton trees that I had stood under across India in years past. I recalled the stately semal trees in Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi, welcoming birds of astonishing diversity in the national capital. I thought of the trees in the far northeastern forests of Dampa in Mizoram, bordering Tripura and Bangladesh. There, one January, I had watched birds feasting on nectar on a tree spiring over bamboo forests. Across another river and another border, this one not just imagined in maps but sliced on land by ugly fence and razor wire, were other silk cotton trees, whose pollen would be carried by birds and bats and bees and whose seeds would fly with the wind across states and nations. There, the tree was called bochou by the Bru, sinigaih by the Chakma, and phunchawng by the Mizos at that territorial trijunction.
It struck me then how absurd it is to affix territorial tags to trees: could the silk cotton trees be Tamilian or Keralite when all that separated them were seamless river and air? Could the tree in Mizoram have sprouted from a seed blown from Tripura by the winds of time, growing over decades to stand tall and free? Would we deprive it of a record in our national registry of trees because it was spawned by a pollen grain winged over from Bangladesh by an unwitting myna or starling? The trees remain rooted but are not isolated, immobile individuals. They are active, mobile, and complex living beings connected to hundreds or thousands of other plants and animals, in what the novelist John Fowles once described as a “togetherness of beings”.
At the turn of every new year, as silk cotton trees erupt in red across India’s forests, they signify neither flags of territory nor salutes to freedom. They celebrate a togetherness of beings who know how to live as citizens of the earth.
The writer is a scientist and the author of The Wild Heart of India
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