Archive for the ‘gardens’ category

Crafting India’s Landscapes!

20 May 2010

(An extreme view of tree plantation & a small example of practice)

Its that time of the year when civic and nature organisations in India wake up from their slumber and begin to consider tree-planting yet again. Though this is an annual affair, strangely India’s forest cover and biomass doesn’t seem to improve even where these activities are being carried out.

Typically, tree plantation begins with the collection of whatever dismal fare in saplings the forest department is willing to provide, followed by the desultory digging of holes and careless planting of trees. This activity, concluded in a couple of days in the early monsoon, will be followed by a relapse into torpor.  The final act is, of course, the appearance of a plague of self-publicised reports in the papers.

School-children plant trees as they take part in a "One day - One lakh plantation programme" on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Is this the way we should plant trees? (Click image to read more)

Over the next few months though, the thousands of saplings, thoughtlessly planted, are exposed to the harsh Indian environment accompanied by the complete neglect by the tree-planters.  The subsequent perishing of the year’s plantation by the end of the next summer (except for the miniscule few which by God’s grace actually manage to survive) should come as no surprise. And in the hallowed traditions of Hindu religious ideology, the kaal-chakra turns to bring us back to tree-planting season again. Paradoxically, all of us feel good having participated in a worthwhile activity even though it is conducted so abominably.

Not all tree-planting is conducted this way. People plant carefully selected saplings to enhance their gardens and backyards. Some corporates do succeed in giving strikingly good tree-scapes and gardens to their campuses. Children all over carry out this activity with the single-minded intensity of play. To them it is something well worth doing. A few civic organisations do exceptionally fine jobs of restoring plant cover and biodiversity to their favourite haunts. But these are a drop in the ocean when compared to the morass of carelessly contrived tree-plantation schemes in our country. Not convinced by my assertion? Please see the text box below :

Unhealthy trends in tree plantation

I am sure you would have your own “war stories” to tell.

Its not that we are cultural “philistines” as far as trees and plants are concerned.

The Pipal or Bo tree (ficus religiosa) (Image: Eric Guinther)

Hindu culture gives trees (or plants) an importance of their own. Planting a tree is said to be more fruitful than having a hundred sons. A number of trees figure in our pantheon of objects worthy of worship – the Peepul Tree (Ficus religiosa) and Banyan (Ficus benghalensis) come immediately to mind. The Kalpavrisksh which fulfils the wishes of all, the Bo tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment, the Aak (Calotropis spp) tree under which Emperor Akbar was born are some examples of trees in our culture. Fragrant flowers are offered to our Gods in obeisance. Certain plants are associated with our deities – the “krishna” and “laxmi” varieties of Tulasi (Ocimum sanctum) and the Lord Dattatreya’s fondness for the Umbar or Audumbar (Ficus racemosa) spring to mind.

Kalpataru, the divine tree of life. The wish-fulfilling bountiful tree is guarded by mythical creatures Kinnara and Kinnar. This bas-relief is the adorned wall of Pawon temple, an 8th century small shrine between Borobudur and Mendut temple, Java, Indonesia.

Above image by Gunkarta. Source : Wikipedia.

Yet, we tend to approach tree-plantation with less finesse than a three year old child.

Perhaps it is semantics.  The term “tree plantation” implies that our job is just to plant – it’s nature’s business to do the rest. The truth is, if we want to really make a difference, the business we should be in is “growing trees” not “planting trees”.  That implies a whole lot more than partial burial of an juvenile plant in unprepared ground. The successful planting and growing of trees is not a rapid paced activity but takes an enormous amount of time and effort. Accordingly, there is a need for  thinking deliberately, planning and careful preparation before we get down to the plantation which is just one event in the long process of growing trees.

Maybe the  reason is selfishness. In this materialistic world, there is nothing to be gained by labouring for unborn generations. In such a view point, tree plantation would be meritorious only as a means for acclaim (for publicity and public adulation), getting rich (through corruption or by marketing one’s products) or as an indicator of performance (X planted more trees in his tenure than Y).

"Monocultures are ecological deserts. Tree plantations are not forests." (click image to learn more).

Another malaise in tree-plantation is mono-culture. It could be that most people do not realise that the planting trees of a single species, termed as mono-culture, is harmful. But the gaurdians of Indian forests should know. Invasive trees take away more from our environment than their successful propagation. Yet it is the bureaucratic forces which have championed the cause of ecologically harmful  exotic trees which grow quickly  –  such as Australian Acacia (Acacia auriculiformis), Kubabul (Leucaena leucocephala) or the various forms of Eucalyptus – or even worse, the highly poisonous Jatropha curcas, purportedly for “bio-diesel”.

Jatropha curcas, the Physic Nut tree, is a poisonous, semi-evergreen shrub or small tree. Useful for biodiesel, it is ecologically useless. (Image: R.K.Henning, http://www.jatropha.org, CC-BY-SA 2.5)

It is the banal attitude towards tree plantation which reduces such a worthy activity to a pedestrian one that irks me greatly.

The highest form of appreciating nature is in growing exotic trees - Alexander von Humboldt. (Public domain image)

A great scientist of the nineteenth century, Alexander von Humboldt stated that the highest form of nature worship was engaging in one or all of the following :

  • Writing Nature poetry.
  • Painting landscapes.
  • The rearing and planting of exotic trees.

I find that I agree broadly with Humboldt. This blog showcases some of the finest nature poetry. You can read about Frederic Edwin Church and his “Heart of the Andes” over here. I agree that growing of plants is a really worthy activity but I would replace the word “exotic” with the adjective “right”.

As far as growing trees is concerned, my own humble opinion can be summed up as :

Tree-planting is a craft. We should be “tree-smiths” – carefully crafting the environment in the manner that we make a Japanese garden, with each tree carefully chosen for effect, harmony, utility, importance, i.e. for a purpose. Growing trees is not meant to be hedonistic or banal. It must be done spiritually – a kind of zen activity.  It must be done to completeness. And the result must be healthy trees that give us the benefits we hoped for and more.

For that, we really need to know and love our trees. I love to recall the feel of the bark and leaves of the Banyan, the smell of flowers of the Neem (Azadiractha indica) or the crushed leaves of the Kadi Patta (Murraya koenigii) , the visual extravaganza that the Laburnum (Cassia fistula) provides in summer. Once we get a feeling of love and appreciation of trees, then and then alone can we make quality choices about the best or most appropriate shrub or tree to be chosen for a spot.

Umbar or Audumbar (Ficus racemosa) - one of the trees best suited for biodiversity. (Image : Dinesh Valke, CC-by-NC-ND)

If you want to attract birds, the Umber or wild fig (Ficus racemosa) is your best bet. If you want a red avenue in summer, it’s the exotic Gulmohar (Delonix regia) you need to choose. For lots of shade with few trees, opt for the Rain tree (Albizia saman).  You can never go wrong by planting Babul (Acacia nilotica) for the welfare of the poorest of the poor – it’s firewood has the highest calorific value.

Babul has the highest calorific value of Indian trees and is consequently of great importance to the common man. (Image credit : Dinesh Valke, under CC-BY-NC-ND)

On the other hand, if you don’t do the learning yourself and rely on the “experts”, expect to find that you have created yet another tree-covered barren landscapes by using Kubabul provided by the Forest Department or orchards of stunted Jatropha if you believe the agro-industrialists.

The real challenge in growing trees is not planting trees but keeping them alive. We can tackle this is many ways.

One is commitment. Choose carefully based on what level of care you can commit. In other words,

“Bite off only what you can chew”

or

“Cut your coat to suit your cloth”.

Our children of the Painted Storks Nature Club wanted to plant trees in the Sarvatra Bird Sanctuary. But it is not possible (or realistic to expect) for the children to come  and water the plants since the sanctuary extends over many acres, has lonely corners, and very little access to water. So we decided to plant in close vicinity of the Middle Lake Garden which is frequented by the children, where water is nearby and where the gardeners can help water these plants.

Sunset at the lakeside Mandir - a picture of serenity.

The Lake Garden provided little scope for useful addition, so we decided to plant some trees and bushes around the CME Lake Mandir where except for a Tulsi plant (Ocimum sanctum var krishna) in front and a Tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) above the temple, no other plants were present. It is just 30 meters from the garden and on the lakeshore itself.

We chose our plants carefully. Since we were planting around the mandir (temple), the emphasis was given to shrubs with bright flowers or having perfumed flowers. We tried to choose those which are commonly used for worship in Maharashtra. We also decided to plant three small-statured trees which would highlight the mandir’s background. We chose well-developed saplings for plantation which were sturdy enough to survive (unintentional) neglect and which already had some flowers so as to enthuse the children and give them a foretaste of how the garden would look. It was more expensive but worth it.

Children plant a shrub with rapt concentration.

The Painted Storks planted the following shrubs on the side of the temple :

* “Juhi” (Jasminum auriculatum)
* “Mogra” or “Madanbaan” (Jasminum sambac)
* “Tagar” or Crepe Jasmine (Tabernaemontana coronaria)
* “Anant” (Gardenia jasminoides)
* Red Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)
* “Raj Chameli” (Jasminum nitidum)
* “Chameli” (Jasminum flexile)
* “Zai” (Jasminum officinalis)
* “Sarpagandha” (Rauwolfia serpentina), a medicinal plant.

"Juhi" (Jasminum auriculatum) (Image: Dinesh Valke, CC-BY-NC-ND)

"Tagar" (Tabernaemontana coronaria) (Image : Himanshu Sarpotdar, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Behind the temple we planted three saplings of small trees having beautiful flowers :
* “Parijaat” (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis).
* “Savni” or Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica).
* “Sonchafa” or “Champak” (Michelia champaca).

"Parijaat" (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis) (Image:JM Garg, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The first tree being planted - a "Parijaat".

That is it – exactly twelve plants, but well chosen, well planted and well-located. What do you think are the odds of survival of these twelve than the desultory planting of many more? And when they do survive which will give the better effect?

A child nails an Aluminium name label to a Neem tree.

One could of course say, don’t confuse gardening with tree-plantation, but the principles are the same.

Problems and dilemmas will arise in this activity, as it does in all of mankind’s ventures. The most important one would that as to how to water the plants regularly. In my opinion, this would be the most difficult of all tasks associated with nurturing trees. When we know that we cannot come often to water the plants, should we not plant?

We could choose to plant drought resistant native species such as Neem and Babul. We could jury-rig  drip irrigation with plastic bottles and tubes which would need less water and give a longer effect. We could mulch the saplings – the mulch helps retain the water, reduces erosion, suppresses weed growth and seed germination and adds to the fertility over time. We could water in the evening where our water loss due to evaporation will reduce. We could choose to come at a fixed intervals as per our convenience – say once a fortnight or month, to water the plants accepting the triage due to the environment. We could plant hardy two-three year old saplings rather than very small saplings.

By applying our mind, and by matching our effort to our thought, we can increase the chances of survival of the trees.

If I were to plant a few hectares of arid area in Maharashtra, for example, I would choose native species such as Babul and Ber  (Zizyphus jujuba) for the general backdrop, add a few Ficus to form the focal points and plant many interesting but scarce trees. A few Agaves would help prevent soil erosion in the monsoon run off along with some simple landscaping, a few legumes would help improve the soil condition. There would also be a few creepers, many shrubs (both perennial and annual) and definitely useful grasses and bamboo. Maybe a few exotic Gliricidia trees to provide ready-made green manure for the caretakers. Amidst these, a few trees or shrubs carefully selected to provide all kinds of resources (nectar, food, shelter, nesting etc) to the typical biodiversity of that place.

Mother of Cacao (Glyricida sepium) a green manure tree. (Image :Kim & Forest Starr, CC-BY-SA 3.0, click image for source.)

That’s all I can come up with off the cuff. But in reality, the tree plantation scheme for this otherwise hypothetical scheme would be worked out carefully in much greater detail and perhaps even plotted graphically on a map. The location, aim, species available would all be considered. A planting schedule over two-three years would be considered. The civil engineering works would be restricted to a bare minimum. Nothing more than a fence, water tank or supply. A shed for the forest guard and perhaps minimal amenities in a place under a shade tree where the nature-lovers can sit, rest, enjoy nature, have their meal etc.

However, I would expect the record-keeping and science to be top class. None of the careless generalities thrown in by so-called experts. The practice of science in even such a routine activity as tree-plantation should be second to none.

That then is my view of tree-planting…

Let’s not just plant trees, let’s craft Nature.

Credits:

My sincere thanks to Mr Nandan Kalbag of www.gardentia.net who dotes on his son-in-law (yours truly) and fielded telephone calls on asking what plants to choose at all times of the day and night.

Members of Indian Tree Pix/EFlora India such as Mr JM Garg & Mr Dinesh Valke (and others) who made images available on the internet with Creative Commons licenses.

Century Post & World Biodiversity Day tomorrow

This post is the 100th on this blog. Tomorrow is World Biodiversity Day. I hope that I have done justice to these landmarks with this post/

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Quote – William Henry Hudson on ‘Lawns’

11 December 2009

I am not a lover of lawns. Rather would I see daisies in their thousands, ground ivy, hawkweed, and even the hated plantain with tall stems, and dandelions with splendid flowers and fairy down, than the too-well-tended lawn.

William Henry Hudson,

author and naturalist (1841-1922).

Author of  ‘Green Mansions‘ downloadable here.

Ground Ivy (Glecoma hederacea), an aromatic perennial creeper, growing wild in the Polish countryside, just as Hudson would have loved it.

Din ka raja aur uski praja

12 August 2009

(English:The Day-king and his retinue)

I really like having plants with perfumed flowers around where I live. I plant them whenever we move into a new house. When we moved into ‘Casa Grande’ as my brother and his family refer to the quaint old-fashioned bungalow that we are presently staying in, I had the same sentiments.

(My wife reminds me, that by ‘planting’, I actually mean getting someone else to plant them .)

My father-in-law, the quintessential and ever-obliging gardener, brought two perfumed bushes and a creeper so as to indulge his son-in-law.

The Clematis creeper grew profusely, flowered in all seasons and doused passers-by in clouds of perfume. The Raat ki rani (Night queen, to those who know not Hindi) (Cestrum nocturnum) wafted gentle fragrance into my son’s bed room. But the Din ka raja (Day king) (Cestrum diurnum) though growing tall did not quite live upto the reputation of its nocturnal relative, planted barely twenty feet away.

It was not his fault really. Cestrum diurnum flowers in the rains in India and yours truly was quite ignorant of this. The rains brought flowers but no visitors. I was disappointed.

'Din ka raja' flowers in front of 'Casa Grande' in the rains!

'Din ka raja' flowers in front of 'Casa Grande' in the rains!

One overcast day, around ten in the morning, there was a break in the clouds, and some shafts of golden yellow sunshine poured through. All at once there was a riot of  insect life, buzzing all around the flowers.

The most colourful were the Common Jays (Graphium doson). I had seen them very often in my garden fliting up and down the Mast trees (Polyalthia longifolia). Common Jays are common in CME whereas there are very few records, if any, in neighbouring Pune. It is a electric blue butterfly which can easily be mistaken by beginners as the Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon).

Common Jay - most colourful of all!

Common Jay - most colourful of all!

There were many Common Gulls (Cepora nerissa) around. The bushes just swerved with them. But were they flighty? I hardly had time to focus before they were off. Add to that, their folding their wings.

Common Gull and a wasp!

Common Gull and a wasp!

Another visitor – the Blue Tiger (Tirumala limniace).

Blue Tiger suspended but sipping!

Blue Tiger suspended but sipping!

Besides the butterflies, there were wasp, flies and bees too.

This looked like a fly through the viewfinder till blown up on a computer for identification. It turned out to be the head of a Common Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona), the green wings had seemingly merged in the background.

Not a fly. Common Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona).

Not a fly. Common Emigrant.

Besides this were Lycaenids or blues, Common Jezebel (Delias eucharis) and the Tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon).

My cup runneth over….

My Secret Garden

16 January 2009

It was a childhood wish of mine to have a secret garden all to myself. I did realise the dream when I was much older and the garden I had then was not quite secret; no garden of a commanding officer’s house can ever be so, no matter how small. Despite this, it contained a secret world which was invisible to all who passed through or passed by but was always available to me whenever I wanted to place the cares of office behind and was ever a source of delight and fascination.

My secret garden

My secret garden

As gardens go, it was a slip of one, hardly 20 yards by 25 yards, just large enough to form the facade of the small two-roomed bungalow in the desert of Jaisalmer where I lived. Indeed it had only a single tree, a patch of grass, some creepers on the fence and a few potted plants but it was peopled by creatures who gave me small glimpses of their lives.

My day begins early, the ploonk plink of bulbuls and the caw caw caw of the crows is infinitely preferable to waking up with the help of an alarm clock. It is just after dawn, the sky is still grey as the sun has not risen over the dunes at the horizon and the breeze which blows cross the sand is still cold. The last vestiges of night-life can occasionally still be seen. Today, a flicker of movement at the corner of my eye causes me to turn my head, just in time to catch a last glimpse of the tail of the large desert monitor (Varanus griseus) who lives behind my bungalow in a hole amidst a tangle of barbed wire. He has a regular nocturnal beat at this time of the year which takes him through the matchbox-sized gardens of the three bungalows side-by-side, then around the large store-house, into the transport yard, across the bordering dune, and back along it on the far side till he rounds the dune, crosses a road and is back into the tiny gardens.

Sometimes, late at night I find a large, prickly and wicked looking arthropod, the solifuge, who patrols my garden each night for insects and small life. Of him, I have written elsewhere.

The hedgehog creeps by night!

The hedgehog creeps by night!

About him and the Varanus, the hedgehog does not know or care, for about once a fortnight, he pays me a visit.

It is always dark when he comes for a sip of water from the squirrel-bowl. He easily finds his way in but for some reason stumbles on his way out and so I notice him. He scrambles between the bowl and fence but there is no exit there. He tries the jird’s hole but I lift him and place him on the road outside my bungalow free to go where he wills.

He is easily trapped, and since taking a good picture is difficult, so one day, I catch him and keep him till day-time when I photograph him.

Hedgehog held in hand peeks out!

Hedgehog held in hand peeks out!

Hedgehogs are difficult to identify and my guides are not quite comprehensive and the descriptions not specific enough, so, like a lot of amateur naturalists, I call it an Indian Hedgehog and leave it at that.

Night too leaves behind a few small villains, who now appear or can be found where they were not present the previous evening. I am referring, of course, to the scorpions who have the knack of turning up where you never expected to find it – on the outside of the ‘macchar-dani’ (mosquito net), in the folds of the towel on the rack, three feet above the ground or in your boots, the one day you forget to check. Then, its a ”EEYOWW’ followed by the immediate,abrupt and merciless extinction of the perpetrator and later on a local anaesthetic and some salve. A few bites later, you realise it was the fright and unexpectedness which raced your heart more than the pain and it was your ego that required the balm more than the sting.

Curses! Discovered again!

Curses! Discovered again!

Fortunately, I have never found, horror of horrors, the arch-villain, in my shoes or garden – the saw-scaled viper. I’m sure he must be there for my garden is fenced with old duck-boards standing upright, but I never saw him. Nearby yes, but never in my garden.

But lets put these night-time experiences away, for the sun has peeped over the dunes. At this time, strangely, it is not the birds that draw you but the bees. For my garden boasted two hives of bees. They appeared almost together one year after the winter had passed. The largest was in the tree and belonged to Apis florea, the Dwarf Honey Bee. The second hive in the thatch of my garden fence behind a bamboo ‘patti’ screen was the hive of Apis cerana, the Asiatic honeybee. For a brief period these hives flourished, each oblivious of the other, and just as suddenly died out in the autumn. But while they were there, the humming of bees around the sunlit portulacas gave an almost-ethereal feeling to me drowsing in my plastic garden-chair under the tree.

The hive in the tree!

The hive in the tree! (Apis florea)

The hive in the thatch.

The hive in the thatch. (Apis cerana)

The abandoned thatch hive exposed. Never imagined it to be so large!

The abandoned thatch hive exposed. Never imagined it to be so large!

The authorities pipe water twice a day, once in the early morning and once ofter dark. So in between these times, you are dependent on water in the roof tanks and stored water in the bathroom buckets. Water is life in the deserts. The pipeline supplying the garden has a small leak at the place where it bends around the garden corner and there it leaks. Each morning, the garden creatures are treated for an hour or so to a thin lamellar flow across a patch of cemented pavement. I have forbidden its repair so that the creatures can get their small but just desserts!

The bees buzz here across the garden from the hive , and like teenagers wearing many pocketed jeans, they pick up water in the small cups or satchels on their legs and take off for the hive. I imagine this water is used to keep the queen and the larvae air-conditioned through the summer. The bees drink greedily of this water and long after it has stopped they crowd the fence, pipe, wet gravel and moist soil with an unquenchable appetite.

Its not just humans who store water each day!

Its not just humans who store water each day! (Apis cerana)

The bees crawl everywhere to get at the water.

The bees crawl everywhere to get at the water. (Apis cerana)

Seeing this and the fact that their presence kept some small creatures away I added two more sources of water. A pot of water hung from a tree branch for the birds and bees and a earthen water-bowl for the squirrels, jirds and other creatures at ground level. Since I was watering them, I decided to feed them, so I added a small wooden feeding tray. The carpenter was so gratified at being asked to do so noble a task that of his own he added a bird-house to the tray. I did’nt have the heart to put him right but gave him an extra shabash! Anyway, the bees now started raiding the water-pot in the mid-morning and afternoons too!

Bees besiege the suspended matka

Bees besiege the suspended matka

The white-eared bulbuls (Pycnonotus leucotis) who wake me are not the bulbuls one meets elsewhere in India but are of the white-cheeked variety but without the pointed crests that their cousins from the hills sport. Earlier considered a subspecies, I am told they have been promoted to the rank of a separate species.

The handsome desert bulbul!

The handsome bulbul of the desert!

They fly around, peck at things, warble in the bushes, or on the fence and provide a running commentary on all that’s happening throughout the day. They, along with the squirrels and jirds are my constant companions and I love them dearly. Indeed, one pair did try to nest in the thatch fence but they abandoned the attempt due to a unseasonal heatwave. I pamper them with choicest grains and by shooing away the ‘Bharadwaj’ (Greater Coucal) bird when he calls upon me. They reward me with their melodious calls and assume coquettish postures for my amusement.

The feisty little purple sunbird.

The feisty little purple sunbird.

The other residents of my garden include sunbirds, sparrows, doves and crows. The sparrows nest in the eaves, the doves in the storehouse rafters, the crows somewhere in the ad hoc repairs of the roof in my backyard and the sunbirds I know not where.

Mrs Sparrow comes to call on!

Mrs Sparrow comes to call on!

It is during the hot hours of the day when I find my most interesting guests. Sometimes it is a Roller perched on a branch under the tree enjoying the coolness just under the canopy where the loo cannot reach directly. On other occasions its a White-browed Fantail, about whom I am constantly admonished by birdwatchers not to refer as a flycatcher any more. Let him catch the two-winged insects, but he must NOT be named as such, declares one soul who fixes me with a glare as if I had just used the much-abhorred ‘n_’ word in a congregation of politically correct citizens.

Remember, a fantail, not a flycatcher! Oh forget it, lets just call it 'Rhipidura aureola'.

Remember, a fantail, not a flycatcher! Oh forget it, lets just call it 'Rhipidura aureola'.

During the hot hours of the garden, the creatures are to be found in the shadiest, coolest places. Some, for no conceivable reason why, try other methods. The squirrel who lives in my garden is one such. At this time the birds cling to the shade but off the ground, the jirds are deep underground while Wally the squirrel, so named because he scarfed walnut kernels from her one day, insists on remaining on the sandy floor in the dappled shade below the tree. So to remain in that spot, he resorts to all kinds of tricks. Sometimes, he is on his belly with four hot feet off the ground. Sometimes he grasps the tree trunk while standing on his hind-feet. Intent on his cooling tricks, he fails to notice the bucket of water I send halfway across the garden. Suddenly sodden, he is shocked for an instant before taking off up the tree but I do hope I have helped him remain cool.

Ok, first lets try a belly flop with legs clear of the sand.

Ok, first lets try a belly flop with legs clear of the sand.

Maybe hugging the tree is a better idea.

Maybe hugging the tree is a better idea.

Back to the good old hide in the shadow routine!

Back to the good old hide in the shadow routine!

One doesn’t quite expect to find butterflies in the desert but they were present alright. The common danaids were present since their foodplant the Aak or Calotropis was present. In my garden. Every day I saw tiny blues which I discovered to be the Dark Grass Blue Zizeeria lysimon. There was also a Pioneer which stayed awhile and moved on. Insect life must exist in greater variety than one expects small pockets in the desert as I also saw a wasp meticulously scour the garden presumably for caterpillars.

The Dark Grass Blue

The Dark Grass Blue

The visiting Pioneer

The visiting Pioneer

The wasp on the hunt!

The wasp on the hunt!

The star of the garden is, of course, the jird. Most people call him ‘gerbille’ or ‘kangaroo mouse’; he is neither. His short, rounded ears, chubby body, long thinly haired tail with dark tassel, and shorter legs than one would expect of a mouse looking like a miniature kangaroo, he is the cutest of desert creatures in my garden.

Meet the jird!

Meet the jird!

One day he turned up in my newly developed garden strolling in as if he owned the place. This was followed by a detailed reconnaissance on his part which culminated with the selection of a spot by the gate where there was adequate shade available. He then proceeded to dig as swiftly, continuously and urgently as he could, realising the risk he faced of being without a bolt-hole. Every few minutes or so, whenever he felt unsafe or uneasy, he would pause and sit upright, facing this way and later that, till he was certain danger had passed. Then he would resume with renewed vigour. Sometimes his head was not seen as it was buried deep but the rear part of his body and his feet were rapidly jerking upwards above the ground level ejecting a constant stream of sand from the hole. Finally, the burrow was done but it was becoming dark.

Slaking its thirst before bossing us around!

Slaking its thirst before bossing us around!

Tired but satisfied, he went to have a sip in the newly installed water-bowl but instead sat up at the edge and shrieked angrily. Peering to see what was the problem, I espied Mr and Mrs Todarmal stolidly sitting in the water. Only after I had driven off the indignant toads and changed the water, and also hidden myself in the verandah, would the jird take his sip of water.

The Toadar Mals

The Toadar Mals

Now, master of all he surveys, he shows himself during the day only when it is not too hot. Then he emerges from his burrow, does his personal grooming and then clambers up the side of the bowl to drink his water. Thirst satisfied, he seeks to satisfy his palate. This he does by raiding the bird-seed spilled over the edge of the feeder tray or by nibbling pieces of grass sitting outside his burrow. Should another jird enter the garden, there is a thorough free-for-all until he has vanquished the interloper.

One day I saw another slightly smaller jird and realised he had a mate. But alas, I was not fortunate enough to see their progeny as the military authorities cottoned onto the fact that I was enjoying myself thoroughly and decided to remedy the fact by posting me to the North East.

The honeymooners

The honeymooners

Though I am no longer physically present in the desert, in my mind’s eye I can still return to enjoy those pleasurable moments that were once my good fortune to experience.