Seed Dispersal Patterns of the Dipterocarps of Sri Lanka

Short fiction

SEED DISPERSAL Patterns of the Dipterocarps of SriLanka—this is the title of my research proposal.

A fruit with-two wings—that's-what the word means—any botanist would know that. "It's the calyces that become the wings. There are five-, but only two-have become wings." I showed Christy the three undeveloped auricular projections on the brownish red fruit I picked up from the ground. "In some species, there are three wings; some have just one, some don't have any. But they are all Dipterocarps."

The wings had veins, like the wings of an overgrown cockroach. Christy was looking down very intently. I held the dry fruit in the palm of my hand. "These socks,"she said still looking down and at the same time turning her foot at different angles. "The leeches don't go through them?"

"No," I said, looking up for the source of the fruit. It was a Dipterocarpus zeylanicus. Its crown was in the canopy; its girth was about my arm span, about one and a half metres, and its height on visual estimation, about 90 feet.

"Aren´t you wearing one?" Bob asked pointing to my feet with a large shining machete.

"No," I smiled, after having quickly recovered from the shock of seeing the evil-looking silver blade. Bob looked like Neil Armstrong on the moon. Well, at least that is the first thought that came to my mind at the sight of him and all his gear.

"That´s crazy," Bob shook his head and walked away, amazed, perhaps indifferent. The white leech-proof socks glared against his brownish-greenish, military-looking outfit.

I never wear shoes in the forest. It´s just a habit. Well, not in the rainforest at least, because there are hardly any thorns and prickles on the ground. Instead, the thick carpet of decaying leaves feels like a cool, soft sponge.

"But the leeches will get at your feet," Christy tried to persuade me. After all, they had heard the most terrible things about leeches. "It has been found that leeches transmit diseases."

I smiled. "I´ll put them on, if there are leeches." I patted the bag containing my shoes that hung from my shoulder. I can´t afford to let them think I´m off-beat or a little eccentric.

It isn´t easy to describe the feeling of bare feet on the soft, moist humus of the rainforest. Trying to describe it won´t do any good to my prospects of getting my research proposal approved at Cambridge.

"We haven´t even gone into the forest yet," I half laughed, hoping to lighten the mood. "Maybe the leeches have all gone away."

I told the tracker to lead the way. Our tracker was from the village on the fringes of the reserve forest. He was about my age, but had a wife and two children. Nobody asked him whether he needed leech-proof socks.

He wore a pair of blue rubber slippers and beach shorts with the word TITANIC printed on the broad hem on both legs.

Bob followed him, slashing anything that lay even an arm´s length away from the path. The sharp edge of the new machete made clean cuts even of the woody Lantanas and Clidemias, and a pearly white latex exuded from the cut ends of the Macaranga saplings.

Christy walked ahead of me. I can see a bob of hair dangling through the opening over the strap at the back of her baseball cap. Her hair is brown, or is it blond? I could never really tell the difference. I haven´t seen many of either anyway. I tried to see what colour Bob´s hair was, but his cap was turned around.

"Lion king…isn´t it strange?" Christy mused as she strode on, her gaze keenly fixed on the gravel path for leeches. " I was reading that there never was a lion or a king here. But it´s called Sinharaja, the lion king. The forest of the lion king." She took a large sweeping look at the greenery above, almost thrilled at the sound of her Own words, at the enigma of their meaning, the dual enigma of being some foreign language and at the same time meaningless.

"Sounds like a Walt Disney sequel," Bob added between two slashes of his machete. Christy laughed, and I laughed because it reminded me of that warthog and the little lizard-like creature in the movie. Hakuna matata….I wanted to say it out aloud. Hakuna matata! But I didn´t. The path narrowed and began to climb ruggedly. The vegetation changed from Osbekias and Bracken ferns to the medium-height forest fringe species. The undergrowth began to thin out, and the path turned sharply into a winding passage between the tree trunks.

The rainforest is a living creature, breathing a humid air, exuding its own leafy, earthy smells. Its own milky saps, heavy with the wetness of a never-ending season of rains, filled the air with a vast sensation of vitality, of fecundity. The innumerable living things, from the unseen birds on the distant treetops to the hidden insects beneath the fallen leaves, all passionately asserted their presence with sounds.

"There never was a lion," I said, for some reason feeling that I had carried a vacuum with me up the slope. "It´s a mythical lion. A mythical ancestor." "And what about the king?" Bob asked laughingly. "The lion is the king of the forest, even if he is a myth." I said, though it didn´t seem to make much sense. But before I could rethink it, our tracker picked up a little greenish- yellow fruit from the ground. "Shorea," he said, pointing to the flecks of light in the canopy. But Christy was not looking up. She was looking hard at the tracker. "Yes, he knows a few botanical names," I put in quickly. "Must have caught it from some visiting professor." I riveted Christy´s attention to me by showing her the small single-winged fruit. It´s a Shorea stipularis. There are six endemic species of Shorea. Some of them are very large, mostly emergents. They can be identified by the leaves and the fruits."

Christy was looking down very keenly. "There!" She gasped, pointing to her shoe. She wore a pair of soft white Reeboks, unlike Bob´s heavy Caterpillar boots. A small brown leech was shinning up her shoe, bending and stretching like a hysterical rubber band, desperately seeking to plant itself on Christy´s pale skin. I used a dry leaf to sweep it off her shoe. By that time there were three more on my feet, which I flicked off with my fingers. Our tracker tells me to keep walking, to avoid the leeches. He tells me there is a small stream, where we can rest, without having to worry about the leeches.

As we reached the stream, Bob began to look back at me with a curious expression of panic and suspicion. He sat on a rock and removed one of his boots quickly. "Damn." He cursed at the sight of blood oozing out of the skin on his ankle. "Where is it?" He asked angrily, turning his socks in every direction. "It has crept out after having its fill," I said. Then I had to explain to him that the blood would continue to flow for some time, but there was no reason to panic. "But what do you do usually when this happens?" he asked. But our tracker was ready with the remedy. He had burnt a piece of paper on the dry surface of a rock, and had collected the ash in his hand. He put the ash on Bob´s wound before either Bob could protest or I could explain. The ash absorbed the blood, and Bob looked at me helplessly. "Isn´t there anything else we can do?"

"We have to wait till the bleeding stops," I said and walked into the shallow water. I sat on a mossy rock and let the water run over my feet.

Christy has settled down on another rock, and looked around at the vegetation. The best view of the forest is from the stream. It´s a cross-sectional view, the whole aspect of the large trees can be seen from here, the canopy trees, the emergents, and at the same time the numerous levels of undergrowth: the little saplings, the half-sized juveniles of large trees, unable to grow any taller for the lack of sunlight, but waiting patiently for years till one of the large trees falls, and makes space.

"You know, when the British invaded the Kandyan kingdom, they found that the Kandyan king had all the leeches defending his territory," I said, above the sound of the water gurgling below the rocks. "The British feared the leeches more than they feared the Sinhalese soldiers." My audience had other occupations, perhaps caught up in the intricacy of trees that arched above the stream, or perhaps awed by the magnificence of the emergents These tall, lean trees broke through the canopy of the forest, and stood above everything else, like the aristocratic heroes´ of a tragedy. The very height of the canopy only helps to accentuate the even greater height of the emergents that, like some Maname or Singhebahu, stood above all the other players.

"There are more plant species here in this forest than in all of England," Christy opened herself to her surroundings. "Actually, there are more species here than in all of North America." Her words were followed by the hum of the stream and the intermittent scraping-screaming of the insects in the trees.

"I´ve never been to America," I heard myself say. And the silence among us was again imbued with the primeval music of the unseen insects.

Bob had put his boot on. He responded to all this by producing his camera.

I know that Christy is an Ecologist, but I don´t know what Bob is, or why he is with us. He is dressed up to explore. There are pockets and loops and penknives hanging out of everything that he is wearing. Christy wore only denim jeans and a thin white T-shirt through which I could see the outline of her bra against the redness of her heated body. She is from Cambridge.

"I haven´t seen any snakes," Bob said, looking around, as though expecting to see them at his feet, in the undergrowth, on the tree trunks, in the canopy. "Do you have poisonous snakes here, vipers, cobras and that…that deadly chap," he clicks his fingers, "the krait, is it?"

"Snakes see you long before you see them," I said. I don´t think he quite understood.

"What about the leopard?" Bob asked, very excited, clutching his camera, ready to aim and shoot. "You´ve seen the leopard? I´ve heard that the Sri Lankan leopard can be as big as the Bengali tiger. And it´s a real man eater."

I asked our tracker about the leopard. "He tells me that the leopard comes down to the village sometimes and kills and carries away their cats and dogs and even their chickens."

Bob deflated angrily. "Don´t you see any animals?" he asked after he spent some time looking around the vast embodiment of life that surrounded him. "No," I said pallidly. "They have too many places to hide." Christy giggled. It was the giggle of an Ecologist. Maybe she understood what I said even more than I did. "What are you expecting, elephants?" She laughed. Bob laughed too. The tracker then told me that he had seen animals so big that they could eat a cow in a single mouthful. And I translated it squarely to Christy and Bob, who stared back at me. "What?" Bob thundered. "Jurassic Park," the tracker smiled slyly, and showed me two fingers. "Jurassic Park II," I verified, much to Bob´s annoyance. "How the hell did he see that, living in a place like this?" He threw his hand out at the forest.

It was time to continue. There was an initial mapping out of the areas where Christy would work the next several days. We marked the trees with yellow paint. I noticed Bob´s interest in the forest was beginning to wane. Taking girth measurements of trees was not his idea of a trip to the rainforest. He was always looking around hoping, expecting to see something he knew, expecting something to leap on him from the branches or wrap around him from the lianas. Maybe someone would shoot a poison dart at him, curare! The rainforest! No 30-foot snakes, no faces and bodies with colourful war paint, no bare-breasted women frolicking by the water, waiting to carry him away as their god and nurse his wounds with potions made by the old medicine man.

He was glad to turn and head back to camp by mid-afternoon. Our camp is a small wood cabin in the forest reserve itself.

.    The first thing to do when one reaches camp at the end of the day is to remove one´s clothes and check for leeches that may have got through despite all the precautions. As I removed my clothes and changed into my swimming trunks by the stream near our cabin, Christy called out to me. She had removed her jeans and her T-shirt hung loosely over her hips. I stopped a few feet away. "Look at this." She showed me her denims, turned inside out. There was a large, thick patch of  blood. "A leech has got in, " I said. "Where?" she asked looking

down her long white legs. "There," I pointed to the back of her thigh, just above the knee. There was a dark maroon patch on her bleached skin. "Like you´ve been shot," I laughed, and walked back to the stream. Bob was there on the shore, still in full regalia, and our tracker was basking in the water like a satisfied otter. "Are you thinking of getting in there?" Bob asked. "Yes," I said, walking into the cool, running water. "From where does this water come?" he asked. "You mean the source, I don´t know, from springs somewhere in the forest," I said, splashing the water around. "It is clean?" Bob asked, this time a little cautiously. "No," I said and dipped into the water. He had to wait till I rubbed off the water from my eyes and nose before I spoke again. "It starts somewhere in the forest, where there are no people. So it should be quite alright." "But there is a possibility of contracting Schiztosomiasis," he said after some thought. "What?" "Schiztosomiasis, from the water." I dipped into the water, and held my breath. I could hear deep rumblings as if I had pressed my ear on the belly of the Earth and listened with my eyes closed. Schiztosomiasis—the word hissed like a snake. Nowhere in the depths of the water could you hear that hiss. There was no room, no place here for anything that made that sound. I threw my head above the surface and spat out the water as I said the word under my breath. Schiztosomiasis.

"Is it cold?" Christy´s voice broke through the tumult of sounds. I didn´t answer. She stood there a few feet away from the water, in a swimsuit of different colours bright luminous greens and yellows and pinks, and the rest of her was like snow. The curves and edges of her body stood out like someone had cut the scenery with a pair of scissors, puncturing the continuum of time and space with her colours, her shape, her very presence in this place. I didn´t answer.

She walked into the stream, thrilled by the cool forceful prying of the water into her body. She giggled shrilly a few times and then dipped in.

Bob stood where he was, on the shore, in all his heavy, grimy clothes—a whole day´s sweat and mud clinging onto him.

Later I sit on one of a circle of wooden benches in the small clearing in front of our Cabin, and I watch darkness creep in between the multitude of sinews, melting them into one black screen around me. Our tracker has gone home, and will be back tomorrow. Christy is in brown T-shirt and gray shorts, and sits on the bench facing me. She wears a scent that pricks at the warm air, filled with the harshness of insects in their intermittent crescendo and the rasping of frogs. "Do you come here often?" Christy asked me after some time. I could only faintly see her face. "No," I said, looking away, "only three times before." I looked away into the blackness that was around us. "Why do you want to work here?" I looked at her, but I don´t know whether she smiled at that or not. ´Because I am an Ecologist," she affirmed, and then let he forest take over the silence between us.  An Ecologist, it is such a definitive word, it is so full, so real. I tried to give myself a definition like that. What am I then? Can I ever define myself like that in a single word? I dressed myself with several words, phrases. But they fitted like a coat and tie on a monsoonal afternoon. "But why here, in this country, of all places?" I asked. In the blackness around me I could see Christy coming out of her little London flat, into the cool breeze of a sunny London morning, and walking gingerly on the cobblestones and the stone steps that led to the underground station.

"Because I´m interested in the rainforest," she said. I could see her walking down the clean, glaze-floored corridors leading to her office room.

"Why?" I asked. I could see her turn around, her heels stomping to a halt in the middle of the corridor. "Why?" She is astonished. "Look at all this!" She convulses her hands outwardly, expansively. "All this needs to be protected."

I can see her behind her desk in a cosy office overlooking a finely trimmed lawn. The air in the room comes through little aluminum vents near the ceiling.

"To protect it, you need to know it, you need to study it," she stated with catechistic confidence. "But why do you want to protect our forests? Our forests." She stood up behind her desk and walked up to her window and looked out. She drew in a deep breath, her shoulders expanding, her chest moving up as if she has taken a whole lungful of a fine after-dinner cigar. "Because it must be done. And we must do it because no one else can. It is our duty, our responsibility."

I tried to make out what she meant by ´we´. The smell of cigarette smoke broke into my thoughts and I looked around. Christy slapped her fingers on her thigh. "Mosquitoes." "Leeches in the daytime, mosquitoes in the evening, isn´t it lovely?" Bob spoke amid a cloud of smoke that came out of his mouth and nostrils. "Like a beer?" He asked me pointing to what looked like a can, which stood beside him on the other bench. "It isn´t cool though." "No," I said, after deciding that I wouldn´t drink tepid beer. Bob stretched out on the bench, and breathed out, audibly. He seemed relaxed at last.

We. talked desultorily, allowing the frogs and the insects to fill in most of the time. There was language in all that noise. There were words, rhythms that painted the most unbidden images in the mind. I closed my eyes. I wish I could block out the sound as well. I wish I could see the inside of Christy´s office again—the white walls, the white sheets of paper on her desk, the gentle breath of air coming in from the aluminum vents. No frogs, no mosquitoes, no leeches, no sweat, no mud. I pressed my eyes shut.

Even as I lay on the thin mattress in one corner of the cabin, I closed my eyes to the darkness—the thick, heavy darkness of the rainforest. But I couldn´t block out the sound, the sound of the rexine mattresses being pressed and pushed at the other end of the cabin. I could hear Bob´s breath; long nasal hisses. I could hear Christy´s short panting exhalation. They whisper, afraid that I would hear. They know I cannot see them, because they cannot see me. I can hear them breathe faster, I can hear Christy whisper desperately, as if her life depended on it. "Up, up," she says between clenched teeth. "Come up."

The words repeat themselves aimlessly in my mind long after they are quiet, long after Bob begins to snore. Come up. Come up.

The next thing I see is Christy standing over me, smiling. She is dressed in a fresh pair of denim jeans and a white T-shirt. "Aren´t you getting up? The tracker is here and we are ready, " she giggled.

Today we will mark out the areas that Christy will study. We will choose the different ecological situations in the undisturbed forest. The tracker will show us the way, as soon as I describe the kind of conditions we are looking for.

The tracker went ahead with Bob while Christy and I discussed the ecosystems that we came across. Come up…come up…the words echo beneath everything she says. I look at her face, her eyes, as she talks. I want to see her in her room. I can see the white sheets of paper, the white walls, her white skin.

We mark the greenish grey lichenous tree trunks with thick yellow paint—smooth, wet paint on the roughness of the tree trunks. The paint gains a coarseness, the tree trunk a smoothness. One merges into the other. Christy´s desperate whisper is louder in my ears than the screaming of the cicadas. I can see myself in my room in Cambridge— the white walls, the white sheets of paper…

"Oh God," Christy gasps suddenly. She is looking up. "Looks like rain." She said, as if she never expected it to rain in the rainforest. Bob and the tracker are nowhere to be seen, but they are not far away. "You´ve got an umbrella? I didn´t bring mine." She begins to panic. "I´ve got this," I said and pulled out a sheet of polythene and spread it over my head and my bag. "May I join you?" Christy asked and crept in, under the sheet of plastic. She put her arms around my shoulder in order to get closer, to get more shelter. I held the edge of the sheet of plastic over her, but drops of water fell off the edges onto her head and down her hair onto her face.

Rain falls like mist in the rainforest. No drop of water reaches the ground before hitting something on its way and bursting into a spray of droplets. In the sunlight they look like showers of silver dust.

Christy moved in closer as the rain invaded more of her clothing. Her hair was over my face, my arms around her back. I could feel her breasts, against my ribs. Drops of water fell on the back of her neck and rolled down her smooth skin—her white, pale skin, like the white sheets of papers in her room, the white walls.

Maybe I too would have a room like that when I get to Cambridge—when I become one of them. One of them. I could feel the warmth of her breasts against my chest. Her perfume mixed with the smell of sweat and trees—the leafy smell of bitter saps, the musty heaviness of powdery lichens. Water dripped off the side of her cheek and hung at the end of her loose hairs—droplets, browned by the colour of her hair.

I would be one of them soon. In my own room, overlooking the finely trimmed lawn, breathing in the gently heated air that came down from near the ceiling.

I looked up at the silver sprinklings as they were caught in the flecks of sunlight. The tree under which we stand is a Dipterocarpus zeylanicus, a large emergent; its crown is hardly visible, beyond the canopy, closer to the sky than all those that surround it—the first to catch the sunlight, the first to touch the rain.

Dipteocarpus zeylanicus—I know this one. I know it well or I think I know it. It is an evergreen tree, up to 40 metres tall and 135 centimetres in diameter-at-breast-height with low, rounded buttresses when mature; that´s what the book says. But if it didn´t have a name, if they hadn´t given it a name, would it still be here, in Sinharaja? Would it cease to exist, or would it never have existed at all?

In shape, I have been told that its crown is hemispherical, tending to remain oblong and monopodial if isolated. Its bark is pale orange-brown, initially smooth, becoming thickly, patchily and irregularly flaky.

The leaves? Ah, yes, the leaves are sub-aggregate, thickly coriaceous, ovate to elliptic, with a broad tapering | accumen, and the leaf base is obtuse to subcordate. The flower buds are fusiform, after all, I know my Dipterocarps well enough. That´s why they are interested in me at Cambridge. The stamens, there are 15, the style and stylopodium are columnar, pubescent in the basal two-thirds. The calyx tube is subglobose, that means like half a globe, half a ball. I wonder whether the tree knows this. Could it have a different shape, a different height, could it be a different tree if they hadn´t described it like this? I suppose the tree would never know.

Its ecology, ah, Christy would like to know that—it is endemic; that means it is found only in Sri Lanka, nowhere else. And in Sri Lanka it´s found especially on riverbanks and well-drained alluvium, where it is often gregarious, forming a characteristic forest type.  It flowers fairly regularly in February. It´s an important timber tree. But it cannot be used for tea boxes because it exudes oil. The heartwood decoction is good for fever. Its oil is used for varnishing and for rheumatism.

That´s how it has been described on half a page of a textbook. What was it before that? Before they came and saw it and defined it?

I held Christy closer to me as more rain fell. I looked up at the tree and let the rain beat my face. I had to decide.

I don´t know. I don´t want to be one of them. I don´t want a room with white walls. I don´t want to be defined.

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Himal Southasian