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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Of Change and Changing: A Grass Spider Story

“God's Own Country”, Apparently

A little surreal to be back in Kerala after a while. Not particularly the State, but certainly my hometown, a now bustling town on the verge of declaring itself a “city”. There was change for sure, but perhaps it was me, or maybe it was just the way things were, but the changes that greeted me seemed to be the kinds of “issues” and “conditions” that people in other parts of the world were having to put up with on a daily basis – escalating human and vehicle populations. How surprised was I to see that not a single square inch of sidewalk, or what passes for the same in a town like Tellicherry (or "Thalassery" as it is now known), could be spared for one more pedestrian, lest the person finds that he or she is “playing chicken” with an oncoming bus or lorry. Worse? The vehicles themselves seemed to be on a special dose of “crazy”, so wild in fact, that it has necessitated the patrolling of street crossings all over town for two hours in the morning and afternoon when schools start and finish the day, just to make sure that those kids who go to schools that are not “fancy” enough to provide them with transport, which forms the large majority, do not end up meeting a swift and gruesome end at the hands of a maniac driver. I say “maniac” with some disdain because although I've been with some crazy people in whose cars I've had brushes with death, several times in some cases, something we all collectively relegate to the “heyday” chapter of our lives, all of them have been sensible when they've been on the road. Add to this the fact that the side of the road is considered to be an open waste dump, not to mention the randomly dashing pedestrian who most chicken-like tries to get to the other side of the road, intact and in one piece but without paying attention and darting from either side of the road unannounced, because even if there are zebra-crossings (and there aren't any), a pedestrian never knows when a swerving, speeding, car or bike will come flying out from behind a bus or lorry by overtaking from the left side ("Reader's Mail: Road to development" from The Hindu)  So, needless to say, and in an attempt to bring it back to the issue of change, or perhaps to put it more accurately, the issue that I was having with the change that I was confronted with.

Things didn't get any better after I got home, walking along my usual route from the railway station to the house, happy to see that although some of the houses had gotten sizable and luxurious makeovers, most of the green cover had been left intact, helping retain that lush, tropical feel to the environs. The house, as its people and pets, was in a state of disrepair, but mostly like I remembered it from a few years ago. Maybe the cracks had gotten bigger, maybe my imagination was causing them to grow wider and deeper inside my head, I don't really know. All that I can say for sure was, the change in climate that once saw early November/December mornings start off a little cooler than most summer days, well, it had now become a case of a fog so thick that it literally took my breath away, giving me a cold and cough from which I didn't recover the entire time that I was there. One of the final nails on this doomed return happened to be the sudden and violent strike that was called by people who felt threatened by a report by a committee that aimed to in some way re-establish people who had set up their livelihoods inside ecologically sensitive areas along the Western Ghats, the predominant geographical region that forms the State of Kerala ("Bandh in Kerala against Kasturirangan panel report on Western Ghats" from Turns out, this report was a milder version of the earlier WPEEG (Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report) aka. “Gadgil Committee Report” that sought more stringent measures to be enforced to, among other things, immediately arrest the encroachment by people into 'core forest' areas. What shocked me about all of this was the fact that the people, the people of Kerala State, “God's Own Country” as they self-righteously claim, with all of their love for things “Natural” and “Traditional,” having promoted several 'Eco-friendly' tours the length and breadth of the State, were now up in arms about something that was trying to preserve the bio-diversity of these fragile ecosystems that they have long celebrated. It made no sense. What made even less sense was the fact that they torched a public bus or two, a government office or two, a police station, and couple of other vehicles on the road, not to mention having set up roadblocks all over the place. What makes a nature-friendly people so militant about saving their own, immediate environment? Most probably the fact that they aren't really nature-friendly, but more on that another time.

So, it was like the perfect emotional relief that I chanced upon what I first suspected was a series of patches of mildew on the lawn-type area in front of the house, only to later discover that they were actually spider webs that had caught and held on to the severity of the morning dew. Even more excited was I when I noticed a spider in one of them, and then with a quick glance around, confirmed that there was one in each web.

If At First Your Eyes Deceive You...

Truth be told, I think it took me two days to, after waking up and hocking up all sorts of phlegm and mucus from my deepest, darkest depths, to finally notice the patches of something-or-the-other that seemed to be catching dew every morning. These little guys were great! Not only had they woven some intricate web matrix that only they could figure the way into and out of, they seemed to also know which insects that came upon and tested their web were a potential meals, and which ones weren't. This is what the web looks like, and before I post the next photo, see if you can spot the spider. I'll admit that the photo isn't too great and you have to look a little harder than you normally would, but you'll probably go “Oh, there it is” when you see the modified image.

So, if you remember, I referred to this patch of grass at the front of the house as a “lawn-type area” simply because it was a mostly unintentional melee of plants that had managed to survive long enough to soak up the Monsoon Rains and bloom ferociously. However, once this happens, the cats seem to take this as a sign of previously non-existent toilet facilities being reinstated, and as if by some token system, they take turns doing their business right in the open, at the front of the house. Sure they do that little pawing-burying move at the end, but on this kind of surface, such a move is cursory, at best. So, as overgrown as it was when I saw it this time, it would have just been the watch-out-for-cat-crap front lawn-type area, if not for these grass spiders. Now, I'm calling them “grass spiders” because a 10-second Internet search seemed to suggest this as a sort of general title for spiders that sport this kind of behavior, or life preferences. However, like I started out by saying, I thought these white patches on the grass where some kind of mildew, only to discover otherwise after looking more closely at the earlier picture.

The Grass Spider World of Webbed Cavernous Wonder

The more I looked at them and crouched down on the ground to observe them closely, the more I got to observe their ways of being. Sitting there, waiting patiently, and scurrying for cover down a funnel like escape chute that the spider has woven for itself just behind where it takes up its position as predator-in-ambush-mode. The really funny thing is, it reappears exactly from where it would have disappeared from, having dashed away all cylinders pumping. Most other animals would retake their positions cautiously, but not this spider, certainly not afraid to bounce back into attack position its own web. Curious me, I obviously decided to test out the spider and its feeding habits. Sure there were all kinds of ants around, and some of them even seemed to want to serve themselves up for lunch, stumbling onto the edges of these webbed caves as they went about foraging for food, but the spiders seemed to either be tired of ants on the menu, or they seemed to steer clear of them in general, some of the ant species being as large as the spiders. No, I had a far readier source of potential “bait” - mosquitoes. I don't know the breed of mosquitoes that swarm around Kerala, there are a few for sure, but the biggest ones are at least as long as your thumbnail, and when they stick you for blood, it feels like a rough nurse just manhandled a shot into you. These are the mosquitoes that if you manage to smack one against your arm, you will notice a reprint of the tiny ringed pattern of its abdomen, like one of those temporary tattoos that you got with Fusen Gum. I managed to smack a good dozen, par for the course, if the course was say, fifteen minutes of strolling around the house early in the morning or evening. It just so happened that I was out and about pretty early the morning that I took these pictures, so there were plenty of mosquitoes to go around. It also just so happens that, for whatever reason, smacking mosquitoes is a bit of a pastime with me when I'm back home in Tellicherry, my record being 50-55 or thereabouts in a two-hour, early evening session once. I picked out the ones that I had managed to swat but not obliterate or mush in my enraged haste to kill them. Some of them seemed to be in the last throes of death, a perfect scenario that offered a hint of movement, enough to get a curious and ever-eager spider very interested. And sure enough, of the dozen or so that I distributed across some of the webs in my immediate vicinity, each and every one of them was snatched up by the spiders in precisely the same way. At first they'd do a bit of a half-step to make sure that the disturbance on the web is prey or danger, then, once they had made their assessment, it was a quick dash to the fallen mosquito, a grab and dash back to the little funnel area that I described, but was unable to photograph with even a meager level of success. I thought I'd try and shoot again the following morning, but I guess no one thought it necessary to tell me The Specialist had been called for, and that all things small and green, were about to be part of a landscaping preen.

A Hitman of Flora, If You Will...

Now, the area that we pass off as a “front lawn” at home in Kerala is mostly weeds, so they grew of their own accord until someone at home thought the situation dire enough to warrant the call of “The Specialist”. This gentleman to whom I sarcastically refer, while certainly no Sylvester Stallone, was armed with a curious and loud weed whacker that used metal blades and could bring down small shrubbery with nary an additional effort from the wielder. What this meant for all the plants except the tall trees with their thick trunks was that, it was “hunting season” and anything the blade managed to fell was fair game. Imagine an area that was thick with vegetation right up to one's waist, so much so that the question was always, “Do you really want to tackle this 'jungle'?” suddenly disappearing thanks to the magic of the mechanized blades, only to be replaced by a rich but barren earth and rotting vegetation mixture. Sure it cleared all the “rubbish vegetation” that made the bit of land around the house an ideal hideout for stray dogs and marauding jackals, among other potential residents like snakes and mongooses. But at what cost? In fact, a few years ago, and after much effort by my no-idea-what-I-was-getting-myself-into self at the time, I managed to clear a sliver of vegetation near one of the boundary walls, thinking to myself that a little bit at a time would totally be possible for people at home to be able to handle, without paying some guy 200 bucks an hour to machine everything out of existence. But alas, it was too late. As I heard the first sputters of his contraption's engine, I rushed to the upstairs window overlooking the soon-to-be-far-less-green lawn-type area, only to catch him shredding up the poor white patches that, even if they were mildew or some kind of delicate fungus, I would have felt anguish at having witnessed its cold destruction at the hands of a mechanized-blade-wielding brute. I shed a silent tear on the inside.

But Every Cloud Seeks To Tell a Story

The following morning, as I stared at the now brown, alluvial earth staring back at me, the lawn-type area now seemed like it was about to be prepared for a clay court tennis match. I looked at the spots where the spiders were until the mass wiping out, and as I stepped out onto the ground, I even noticed one or two of them scurrying away from my approaching feet, as near perfectly camouflaged as they were against the brown of the barren earth. It was great to see that they had survived, but still, I felt sad that it had come to what it had come to, and I was juggling the ability to appreciate the fact that I had been able to observe this at all, as opposed to having to deal with the feeling of helplessness at watching them and their carefully crafted habitats getting hacked away into nothingness.

The day after, as I happened to be patrolling the edge where the paved step meets the empty lawn-type area, I thought I caught a glimpse of the same telltale mildew, but as I eagerly got down on my knees to look closer, it turned out to be a bit of white fluff, potential origin unknown. Further ahead, a few more regular steps, once I got back up on my feet, and I noticed something similar again, this time around, it had an unmistakable element of absolute delicateness, as it gently gleamed snow-like before me. Yes! It was not one, but two spiders who seemed to be sharing a web, at a safe and previously determined to be comfortable distance from one another, surely. The web was situated right along this periphery that I described between the step and the ground beneath it, where a little, half-centimeter space had been put to good use in the attempt to go on with life, simply because that is the ultimate aim. Or so it seemed. I didn't try and molest these two spiders with the camera and its obnoxious and blinding flash. But I was happy to know that in spite of something as god-awful as a whirring blade the size of a large apartment block spinning around and tearing up the world that they inhabited, they went to Plan B and kept on at it. Because that's all there is to it.

So, The Moral of The Story Is...

I guess there isn't a moral to either the grass spiders and their story, or the people of Kerala and what they're doing to their own beautiful and exalted State. While the former went about and quietly reconstructed its life in the face of ever mounting and indefatigable odds, the latter made a mockery of their own cries to protect the State and its natural beauty prior to this point. No, I guess I had to see it to believe it, that in spite of knowing, at least academically, that an environment out of balance is a cause for concern for all members of that ecosystem, the people of the leafy green State of Kerala had shown that they put themselves and their trivialities before everything else. Such is the 'state', pardon the dry wit, of the Malayalee people and their beloved homeland, home to the most literate and possibly educated people in India. I make this point more and more often these days because it's a very good example of the fact that all the knowledge that's doing the rounds of this world of ours has no meaning when it comes to understanding life any better. The people who we in Kerala seem to so readily label “adivasis”, a slapped on label for anyone who appears to be a “forest dweller” or “original inhabitant” I think, have been living the same way for generations, in harmony with nature, without the need for tiger reserves to save the species, without encroaching on its territory in any damaging way, and without putting up for sale the beautiful flora and fauna of some of the most lush forests in the world.

I guess we're all hoping that more coconut palms and banana cultivation will keep the world green for the foreseeable future. This is another point I've been to notice more and more, and while other ethnicities tout and praise Malayalees as being generally green-thumbed and having an affinity for nature, I want to draw your attention to the fact that while a lot of effort goes into cultivating and maintaining banana and coconut groves, not to mention a whole host of spices and other items that are shipped to the far corners of the world, not a whole lot of importance is given to local animals and plants. Plants in particular, are shared between households, but the more exotic the flower, the better. And so, there are a plethora of flowering plants and exotic fruit bearing plants, but indigenous varieties are all but relegated to the “local” heap. For those who don't know, anything referred to as “local” with a particular sarcastic twist in its utterance refers to something not being worth the money, or the effort, because it is from around these parts and of inferior quality. Worse than all of this, is the finding by both reports, the Kasturirangan report (Part 1 and Part 2) and the Gadgil Report, that encroachments have occurred onto protected forests and lands unabated for decades. This is the same land that the people are disputing and vehemently disagreeing to the potential release of in the future. May there be life for us all at the end of this dark and narrowing tunnel...

And on that note, to end with a modified ending of that famous poem, “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with the outrage of having to point the finger at the self.” Oh, and thank God for all the little creatures and their testament to courage and existence against all odds that we so casually brush aside by describing as “life”.

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