Grey to Green: Resurrection of Nagla
Life’s many mysteries could be unravelled by simply observing nature. A forest fire though alarming and scary, dies down eventually; the tree of life being reborn from its ashes. Our author talks of one such forest fire at Nagla and how her subsequent visits to the place have only left her more in awe of nature.
Fierce flames, billowing smoke and clouds of ash kept devouring vegetation and burning everything in its path. The forest floor was ablaze with hot flames, which were resolutely spreading inwards. The alive were being burnt with the dead. Being mid-March, the scorching temperatures simply fuelled the fire. It was a sad to see such a rapid and complete destruction.
I was on a trail at Nagla Block, the northern most range of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, along with fellow naturalist Saurabh Sawant. This part of the park is separated from the main park by the Vasai Creek. Though only 16 sq. km. in size, this mixed deciduous forest is unique as one side of the forest, framed by the Ulhas River estuary, is covered by a rich mangrove forest. The fact that this small patch of forest acts as the only corridor between Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary adds greatly to its significance.
Starting very early in the morning, we had wonderful sightings of the antics of the White-rumped Shama amongst the bushes. Moving along the path, we saw the forest lit up with the pink and red foliage of the Kusum tree. About half an hour’s walk later, we saw the flames of the forest fire for the first time. Taken aback initially, we had to quickly gather ourselves to call the forest control room at Borivali. But watching the fire eat away the forest floor was troubling our naturalist instincts.
To arrest the spread of the fire we decided to try to create a fire line, a burnt patch devoid of vegetation where we could put out the small flames and prevent the fire from spreading. A couple of branches were our puny weapons to beat the all engulfing flames. At places where we could not get close due to the searing heat and suffocating smoke, we removed all dried leaves and twigs from the fire’s path to stop it from spreading. We had worked upwards towards a slope and at the top, we realised that the fire had already spread down the slope on the other side. This was all we could manage as further the ground was very steep and our fight had left us feeling tired and helpless, watching the fire roll on.
The loss of life in such a fire can only be imagined. The fire had possibly been raging overnight. A careless flick of a cigarette, or the dying embers of a campfire or perhaps nature’s own way of regeneration – we can only speculate the reason for the fire. The few locals we saw walked by nonchalantly, this being a scene they might routinely see, assured that nature would regenerate.
Life does go on and it has been two years since we fought the fire at Nagla. In the intervening two years, I visited Nagla off and on, newer and exciting sightings dimming the memory of the fire. Wild places have a way of doing that; making us forget our worries and troubles. I might have walked into a forest with a heavy heart but never walked out that way. In nature’s ongoing cycle of death and birth, Nagla has regenerated in the two years since, re-growing with an enthusiastic fertility in an attempt to erase all scars.
Where there was smoke, a fresh breeze blew, the grey ash replaced by brown sprinkled liberally with green. The wide paths were now overgrown with fresh flora encouraged by the monsoon. Plants like Silver cock’s comb made dense thickets with the pink combs now silver and drooping with age. The shorter grasses and plants crowded near the open paths, trying to gather all available sunlight.
The grasses also held clouds of butterflies which, as we walked past, rose up from their hiding places and settled down again once we were out of the way. The ground was covered with leaf litter and amongst this we saw red silk-cotton bugs of all ages, miniscule red dots that looked as if they had just emerged, to full-grown ones emulating ‘the birds and the bees’ in the process of making new bugs. Tiny skinks also scuttled around, their bronze bodies glinting momentarily before they dived under the nearest pile of dried leaves. Bird sightings at Nagla are generally low, the dense forest helping them hide better, while also acting as deterrent for the determined birder to venture too far inside. Even sunbirds that prefer open perches to show off their colours could only be identified by their short cheeps as they flew overhead. A Shikra called raucously from a banyan tree while Ashy Drongos mimicked it effortlessly. Occasionally, some birders have been luckier, ticking off a list of 70 species in a single day!
But Nagla is best known for butterfly sightings. With rare sightings like Red spot duke, Tufted white royal and Abnormal silverline, Nagla has traditionally attracted macro photographers by the droves. With water available for a better part of the year, proximity to a saline water body seems like the perfect recipe to attract these jewelled beauties. They alight on the muddy patches right in the middle of the trail, where warm sunny areas create the perfect landing spots for them. We saw Common crows, Striped tigers, Blue tigers and sailors mud-puddling at such spots, and also had a short glance at a Gaudy baron as it alighted for a split second and flew away.
At the end of the trail a Crotalaria bush in flowering, framed by the perfect amount of sunshine, had more butterflies hovering around it than we could care to count. In search of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which are essential components of female attracting pheromones, the male nymphalid butterflies crowded around the plant. It was the perfect memory to leave Nagla with, a new generation of butterflies doing their best to carry forward their legacy.
Left to her own devices, nature has this wonderful cycle of creation, destruction and regeneration. The old making way for the new, old leaves feeding new plants which are surging to the surface to enjoy their spells on earth, till they in turn feed the next generation. All the while the benign old trees, having seen fires come and go, spread their benevolent branches in protection of the forest floor.