It started with a knocking sound in my chimney.
The vent, coming out of the side of my kitchen like a Gothic-style arm, had been fitted with a perforated cap to keep out animals and prevent the deaths of young ones. This seemed to attract wildlife even more: because there was indeed something in the chimney. It went bump in the night, and, in the day, it cheeped.
It’s a generalisation that everything grows in the monsoon, but this is true overall. Many birds, insects and amphibians take a partner and proceed to make younglings. Everything grows by leaps and bounds—including that which is fungal and bacterial.
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This summer has been a tough season of grieving for losses and making a quivering peace with our place in the world. July was the hottest month on record, according to an estimate released by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Service. In June, almost 60 people died in Bihar from the heat. Wildfires have struck Hawaii and almost 100 people have died. A huge flood came to Delhi, destroying the sense of security for many: Even houses in the Capital could be ruined by a river many had forgotten about. The thing about climate or environmental disasters is that they make you feel very small, especially when you have been technologically ensconced in the idea of being safe. But even as climate change rages and we try to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world, there is a bird in the chimney.
The bump sound that emerged had made me think of rats at first. Rats making scabbering, scraping sounds in the night. In the day, they are usually quiet. But this chirp was all bird. While I couldn’t see it, I narrowed the list to which bird could be raising a brood there. It could be a common myna, a placid blue rock pigeon, perhaps even an uncommon house sparrow. The mystery was solved when I finally viewed the parent between a rush of warm showers. It was a jaunty common myna, with a yellow mask over her eyes and a caterpillar in her beak. The young one screamed for food inside the chimney—no matter the floods, or the kitchen fire and smoke, the world had to bend for its need. The parent bird kept foraging, feeding and flying. It had neither time nor patience for woe.
While I wallowed in how little I could do to stave off the environmental crisis, the bird single-mindedly pursued its parental goals. The chick emerged the way teens do—hairstyle all over the place, squawking loudly and consistently, and with no sense of incipient danger. On a gloomy monsoonal day, one on which I had been drawing up a list of birds in the flooded Yamuna’s area, the chick’s squawk drove me out of the house. “You are the most annoying teen ever,” I told it. “And I am going elsewhere just so I can see other birds.”
We decided to take a monsoon stroll through Sanjay Van, part of the Aravalli ridge forest. I use the world “stroll” with caution. Because the first thing to do during the monsoon is to stop yourself from falling. You must pay attention to your steps, avoid slime on the ground and make sure your shoes have a decent grip. Stepping carefully in between mushrooms and algae, and at some distance from the flooding Yamuna, we tried to absorb all that was around us. The monsoonal forest was a thing of lush beauty—in between sprouting saplings, dripping leaves and calling birds, there was an entire audio-world. Frogs called from streams. Some sounded like they were chuckling. The buzzing machine-gun call of the Plain prinia ricocheted amidst branches. As evening came, crickets started their peculiar, sharp crescendo. A gecko was clucking from the rocks. A male Indian bullfrog, transformed into a bright turmeric yellow just for the breeding season, shone like a military hero from the forest floor. As night fell, the forest turned its lights on. Fireflies, winking by the hundreds and hoping to attract mates, were like cinders eddying from a bonfire. When I left, my senses were full. So was my skin, from the ticks that had bitten me.
Back home, the chick was not done with its demands. Adulthood—and a certain cunning wariness—would come soon, but, until then, it could gaily shout its demands. I took notes of where the mother and father would find insects for the chick. Some grub came from the colony park, which was saturated with rainwater and crawling with worms. Some, from gardens. I don’t mean big lawns but vertical, balcony gardens.
Because the garden of today is a garden of opportunism. People plant saplings in old mineral water bottles and hang them with twine. Others plant trees in a few inches of terrace soil or in tub-sized pots. There are riots of creepers that can climb wires and pipes, providing food and shelter to bees, birds and butterflies. There are also plants on plants—one climber on another creeper. The mynas expertly extracted food from these places. While the world churned in climate hazard, I noted how a set of gardens could provide for a little family and how faraway forests seemed closer home through a garden.
But how should we keep the forests? There is agreement that overall, not enough is being done through law and policy to tackle climate change. To achieve large-scale decarbonisation, big change is needed—particularly in production and manufacturing systems and preventing damaging land-use change. Yet, very often the environmentalism we see around us is a personal one: citizens growing native gardens, eliminating trash and plastic, fostering private forests on estates, urging their colonies to create rainwater harvesting and composting systems.
Perhaps our days will be forged by a private environmentalism, conjoined with a sense of fellow feeling with a few people across the state, even as it’s business as usual for nations. Surely, though, we need big-picture change. It also seems that with the rise of climate hazard, some “solutions” might prove to be even more carbon-intensive. The crisis throws up new complexities and a real challenge is to ensure responses to climate hazard are progressive and nature-friendly. For instance, how can we reduce plastic and contamination in flooded areas and climate vulnerable regions? Which industries should absolutely not be built in climate-vulnerable areas? Is it enough to plant forests? For they must also be biodiverse and native to withstand or bounce back from forest fires. Our environmental legislation needs to build in climate risk and vulnerabilities, not disregard them.
I take a leaf out of the myna mother’s determination. There is no time for woe—as we face new challenges, let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of the natural miracles in a biodiverse garden.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.