Out for a walk….

I am not an adventurer or a traveller going to places, where exotic species can be observed.. but every weekend we have made it a habit to go out for a walk into the forest… It does not matter what path we take, for around us is the not so well known ‘Kalatope-Khajjiar Wildlife sanctuary’ and its importance can be gauged by the very fact that the total area of this sanctuary is going to be decreased from 69.7 sq kms to just 11.9 sq kms… The Kalatope sanctuary is primarily a coniferous forest and has a typical vegetation, which is unlike the mixed forests of the same altitude. And this too is fast depleting with the developmental fallouts of road-making, tourism and construction…

But even in this fast diminishing forest there is no lack of variety…. one just needs to be  appreciative, to realise the beauty of nature…. A good example was our routine weekly foray….

A ladybirds conference happening on a twig.. the difference in the number of spots on a ladybird usually signifies a different species (but not the only identification criterion), and it seems, interesting.. As we walked further, we suddenly spied a good sized ‘Morel‘ mushroom, looking carefully I saw that it was infested with tiny worms.. so wisely we left it to spread it’s spores into the soil for the next harvest (which can take up to five years)… As we move ahead, a white flower stood erect in our path, it  seemed unknown (well new for me at least)… quickly whipping out the ol’ camera I snap off a few shots of this little herb.. about 3 inches in height.. looks very similar to some of the other wild flowers to be found this time of the year… I’ll leave the identification for later.. A fungi growing on a piece of dead wood… looks like a jelly fungi, hmmmm… (will identify it back at home).. and the then on another dead tree nearby there is a slime mold.. growing like  fuzzy candy on a piece of stick.. (of course in a miniature form).. this is called ‘Stemonitis sp.’ difficult to identify properly without a microscope (I satisfy myself with the genus)… AHA.. I sight the white flowers of the ‘wild strawberries’, mmmm I could almost taste the season on my lips as I spy the ‘Wild raspberry’ flowers also growing on a shrub nearby…. And then as we move on… something under the dark underside of a fallen tree catches my eye… (by now I am quite good as spotting something unusual on the wood).. which is usually a bug or a fungi.. This one seems to be a ‘Slime mold‘ again.. could be belonging to the same species as I found earlier.. the ‘Stemonitis’ or there was another one ‘Arcyria’.. I feel quite happy at even having remembered this much.. (going by the fact that I almost failed in my high school science exams)…. Walking along the forest tracks, on a mild sunny day, after a few days of rain seems blissful. It is the time when one finds everything from birds, bees to flowers and mushrooms happily blooming and buzzing… And talking of mushrooms, we find one next to the path… a medium sized, brown colour, I take note of it’s surrounding and keep it in my sample box. Later at home I’d keep the cap on a piece of paper, where it would leave it’s spore prints which help in determining it’s species, next to it we find another mushroom growing on a rotten piece of wood… This has to be a ‘Polypore’, since it has pores on it’s underside. Great…!!! As we go further, I felt like chirping with the birds, but before I could let my euphoric yodelling echo in the mountains….. we find another mushroom…. and this one looks simply too good…. shaped like a cup, it is aptly called as the ‘Devil’s urn’…. It has been a fruitful day.. and not finished as yet… The paths are lined with the ‘Gerbera Daisy’ a flower from the ‘Aster’ family, and they look so beautiful…!! Around in the forest, I also sighted the ‘May Apple’ flowering, which I think is called so, be cause around the month of May it will bear large red fruits, and thus the name… The forests are full of wondrous things.. and once my eyes opened to these wonders, it became like a playground…. Now we sight a big silverish growth on a dead Cedar tree… a close examination and a conference before we decided that it was not a nest but a fungi of some kind…. and of course later we found it was a species of ‘slime molds’…. And then we decide to take a rest on the grassy patch in front of us… but here too, a butterfly (an ‘Indian Red Admiral’), decides to come and check if we are worthy place to sit and sun itself.. and sits on my knee contentedly while I click away… and then my attention wonders away to a small lump of white which seems to be moving, examining it closely, we found a small bug carrying it’s food/house (don’t know) on it’s back…. will wonders never cease, I think as we move back towards our home… but even in this last leg of our walk we come across a mushroom colony on a decaying trunk… doing their task of re-cycling the waste in nature.. and for the last time that day I again sit down next to the trunk, photographing what I know to be a species of the Coprinoid mushrooms…

Back home after a whole day in the forest, tired but happy, I set aside the material for research and identification… the walk providing not only breath of fresh air and exercise.. but also the opportunity to study and learn about these life forms co-existing with us on this earth. I know that after this where ever I might live.. I’ll always be aware and looking out for the beauty of nature… be it in desert, mountains, seas… where ever…..


The elusive ‘Morchella’….

As soon as the winter is over.. the first wild flowers begin to appear.. there’s no more frost on the ground… it is time for the annual ‘hunt’ to begin.. One sees villagers, in two’s or three’s, lurking around in the bushes.. climbing slopes with thorny bushes, peering carefully into the bushes, below the cedars, sunny places, damp places, north slopes, south slopes… just about everywhere you can think of.


It was then that I too got my knife and kit and told my family, that it was time for the hunt and unless we wanted to return empty-handed we’d better join the HUNT. Just as we started our quest and were eagerly talking about the catch that we might find this year when I heard a thrilled shriek from one of my team members…. aaaaand we’d made a catch…!!! That too right on the roadside… there it was between the stones.. our first ‘Morchella’ of the season. It is a ‘Yellow Morel‘ (I think), although, gone are the days when one could just look at it and say,… Oh it’s a yellow, or a black mushroom. With the new DNA studies being done, I doubt if it is that easy any more.

To find morels is not easy and I know that any true blooded hunter would never reveal their hard found areas to anyone. You have to know the right time, place and weather as well as have a lot of luck to find your catch. We just found three morels… but it was a ‘CATCH’…. They are delicious..!! Cooked whichever way you like.. For me it is , spaghetti or as the villagers cook as a vegetable.

‘Morchella’ or ‘Morel’ are called ‘guchhi’ in the local ‘pahari’ dialect of Himachal Pradesh. For the villagers who are hunting for them, it fetches a tidy sum of 3000-4000 rupees (75-100$) per kilo of dried morels.. which means that they have to collect 10 kilo of fresh morels to have 1 kilo of dried morels. It IS quite a lot of collecting, which is why the younger generation of villagers are not interested except small kids, who do it for pocket-money or the really poor. But these same morels fetch a tidy sum of 400 – 500 $ once they reach the markets of New Delhi. In order to compensate for the low price, the villagers would collect the morels by uprooting it totally from the ground and for a good measure with a lump of mud attached to it, adding to the weight of the morels. I do not blame them for this cheating… after all it is not fair for the people who actually do all the hard work to get the least amount of money. Taking these mud laden morels they’d string it with as thick a thread they can find and dry them over the cooking fires at home. Beginning of April, there would be traders knocking on the doors of every house, cajoling threatening and luring out the villagers to sell their morels to them. I have often tried to convince the villagers to chop the morels from the base and leave the root in the ground to spread the spores.. and to cut and wash them before drying… but who would pay them the price for selling clean morels…. in India…?? But this is how we promote corruption and cheating in the simple people of these mountains, who are fast learning the techniques of the world….. unfortunately…