Part 1 of the Agasthyamalai Field Series

The Malabar whistling thrush calls to me enticingly as I set foot on the One Mile Trail. It has been five years since I heard this haunting tune. The forest rustles gently, and my feet squelch the damp soil. The winding trail is full of leaves. I steady myself on sturdy tree trunks, swinging like the overgrown land ape we humans are, and letting my feet find the firmest ground. The cacophonous sounds of my classmates fades behind as I ascend the slope, the gurgling of the Manimuthar River taking over my senses. The thrush sings again, a few echoing, ghostly notes, and I hear the booming call of a lion-tailed macaque, one of five primates found in these forests. The lion-tailed macaque is a shy creature, preferring to live in the wet evergreen forest far from human interaction. I crane my neck, searching desperately for a sight of this furry black primate, but it evades me persistently. 

One glance at my hiking shoes tells me that I have stood still for far too long. Slender, wriggling leeches squirm up my pant legs, trying to find their way to the tender skin below. Luckily, my pants are well and truly tucked into my pink bunny-rabbit socks. I wonder if leeches feel disappointment. Regardless, they are persistent little creatures and they continue their slippery path up my field pants, hoping to find an available route inwards. Flicking them off is too difficult, and I leave my fate to the gods of the forest. 

Impatiens spp. (P.C. Shruti Samanta)

A tiny pink and white flower catches my eye. Hidden among the dense green undergrowth, it is as delicate as a blush staining a girl’s cheeks. I squat to look at it just as my classmates catch up with me. Ganesan Sir proclaims it to be Impatiens, a genus of flowering plant that is endemic to these forests and very, very rare. Yogesh is beyond thrilled – this is his long sought-after study species after all! We crowd around the flower, and once again I am struck by the delicateness of life in these ancient forests. Tigers may roam in this landscape, but tiny buds and creepy-crawlies reign supreme when it comes to sheer diversity and abundance. 

Back to the forest we go

A flash of purple and beige catches my attention. My return to the forest is marked by old friends. The Malabar giant squirrel squeaks and scampers along a tree branch some 15 feet off the ground. It pauses to study me with beady black eyes. My lips curve up in a smile. This little prankster is one of the reasons I fell in love with the Western Ghats, and meeting him again brings me full circle back to the landscape where I belong.

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