Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Walk In The Woods

My Book Shelf - 7

Last week I went for a hike in a reserve forest near the hill stations of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. It was part work too, I am giving geological consultancy to an ecological tourism company, so work and play together made for a fun experience. It was a perfect late January day. Bright sunshine but not too warm. I found the woods quite soothing unlike Bill Bryson who found the Appalachian woods somewhat dark and a little creepy.

Woods are not like any other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs.Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.

I can agree with the alive bit. Its not yet spring in this part of the world. Come to think of it we don't have a very well defined spring. Winter just becomes summer in a matter of days. But the woods were blooming with flowers and fresh buds and leaves.

It felt like the spring woods that Bryson loves:

In a normal year we would be walking into the zestful bounty of a southern mountain spring, through a radiant, productive, newborn world alive with the zip of insects and the fussy twitter of birds- a world bursting with fresh wholesome air and that rich, velvety, lung-filling smell of chlorophyll you get when you push through low, leafy branches.

There was a biologist with us who kept up a steady stream of chatter about the botanical display in front of us. Non stop talking encyclopedia my friend concluded. I had to agree. He gave a really informative exposition on the plant life. How to distinguish between a Jambul tree leaf - Syzygium cumini and Anjani - Umbalatus memecylon.., which bees pollinate which flowers, and .. look at this leaf, Phycus exasperata. The surface is like sandpaper. It grows at the edge of the plateau along steep slopes. Abrasive enough to scrape the metal coating of a pen. Even goats avoid it. Damn, that's abrasive..

But he did not talk about evolution.

That was a conversation I was having with myself.

Oh....look at that Paradise Flycatcher. Too quick for my camera. Tails at least a foot long. ...Male. Sexual selection. why do only males develop elaborate ornamentation? Doesn't that depend on parental investment? If only one sex invests in child care that sex will be the choosy one. Females mostly. Males advertise their genes by evolving outrageous gear. Females evolve greater and greater discrimination of male ornaments... positive feedback... runaway selection. What if both sexes invest a lot in the children? W.D. Hamilton once remarked that if he understood why both sexes of a particular species of bird were brightly colored he would die happy.....Hmmm, he died of malaria contracted in the Congo...

Up ahead, .. interesting lichen on a tree. Two different species. One with a foliose form, leaf like and the other also plant like but forming fruit like bodies, fructiose form. The foliase form is the paler growth on the tree in image below. The fructiose is the golden brown clumps.

Source: Elements Eco Tours

..What's the term.... ya.. character displacement. When two closely related species cohabit the same geographic space, natural selection will favor traits that enable the two species to exploit different resources. ...That leads to rapid divergence in their form.

We walked and took short breaks.


No thanks

How about a chickoo?

Had a banana..



Then there was a clearing in the woods. The cubic space surrounding us opened up and I saw a slope capped by a thick dark layer. Made me really stand there and think about the geology of the Western Ghats.

That layer you see is about 50-70 feet thick. It is one of the most important geological horizons of the Deccan basaltic province... and its not a basalt.

Can you guess what it is?

......Coming soon.

See: My Book Shelf


  1. That certainly looks like columnar basalt to me. I'm curious!

  2. Surely the Deccan doesn't have any welded ash-flow tuffs? (You're not going to get us with basaltic andesite, are you?)

  3. good tries, but no to both... :-)

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