Featuring The Forest Way in the South Deccan Plateau Dry Deciduous Forests ecoregion.
Arunachala Hill is an arresting sight; like a child’s picture of a mountain, it rises alone from the surrounding plains to a height of 814m. The technical term for a solo mountain like so is an inselberg. Arunachala Hill exists as a geological outlier of the Eastern Ghats, which run ~40km to the west in the form of Javadhu Hills. Arunachala Hill has captivated people for millennia, glorified by early bhakti poets of Tamil Nadu, and worshipped to this day as the God Shiva manifest. It holds a special place in the heart and psyche of the people of South India. Full moon nights and the annual Karthikai Deepam festival draw devotees in millions to walk the 14km road that circumnavigates the hill.
Of course, the sanctity of Arunachala Hill did not shield it from centuries of ecological stress that has degraded so much of our landscape; colonial extraction, overgrazing, wood-cutting and frequent fires have all left the mountain devoid of the forests that the ancient poets had eulogised. If one looks at the earliest available photographs, Arunachala Hill is decked in unpalatable wild lemongrass, which remained the predominant vegetation until recently.
The earliest efforts to bring tree cover back to Arunachala Hill date to the 1970s, when the Tamil Nadu Forest Department (encouraged by Professor Swaminathan) planted saplings of Pterocarpus santalinus and Hardwickia binata on the hill slope above the town and in the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi. There were even efforts to trial aerial scattering of seeds at this time. It is possible the presence of species such as Pterocarpus marsupium, which is now prominent on the hill, got established through this method.
In the 1980s, Apeetha Arunagiri and the Arunachala Reforestation Society dreamed up the possibility of greening the hill once again. An Australian permaculture teacher John Button moved to Thiruvannamalai and lent his energy and experience of drylands regeneration to the project over eight years.
They, too, started work on an area where initial efforts had been made a decade earlier. Experimenting with different species and methods of preventing soil erosion, little by little, they showed that not only could trees return to the hill, but the effort could also generate significant work for local people and great satisfaction for all involved.
Inspired by these early efforts and a quixotic dream, our team began their conservation journey in the region in the early 2000s. Entrusted by the local government with some revenue land at the foot of Arunachala Hill, we set up a plant nursery and started visiting nearby forest areas to gather seeds. Thus began a journey of getting to know the flora of the region, their beauty and diversity, habitats and distribution, and preferences and challenges. It is a journey that continues to this day. Wandering along a forest path, searching for seeds or fruits that will find a home in the nursery before returning to the forest, is still a primary source of our learning.
Our first year of planting on the hill was in the 2003 monsoon season, on the lower slopes of the southeastern face. The rains that year were good. It seemed like an auspicious start, and we were full of hope and hubris for all we thought could be done. But come the summer of 2004, and our first encounter with manmade forest fires, things suddenly looked very different. We spent an entire day beating the advancing fire with the branches of green shrubs, aided by college students bused in by the Forest Officer at the time, Mr Pasupathiraj. When night fell, and we couldn’t go on anymore, the fire was still burning. By the time we managed to bring it under control the following morning, thousands of young saplings we’d planted were nothing but burnt twigs. Still, we had managed to put out a fire, and despite our planting area suffering a lot of damage, the entire hill had not burned as it usually did in the dry months. Vigilance was stepped up, and a precedent was set of people putting their bodies on the line to protect the plants on the hill. From then, we knew that the most critical player in the story of our hill regaining its forests would be the fires.
Forest fires in this bioregion can occur naturally since summer thunderstorms are not always accompanied by rain, and there is always the possibility of a dry lightning strike. The fact that a number of tree species in our forest have thick, corky bark shows that over millennia many species have found it useful to adapt to occasional fires. However, it didn’t seem to us that such natural fires would happen to any particular piece of forest too often. Now after 20 years of experience, we can confirm that assumption. Of all the fires we have seen in the years since, only one was the result of a lightning strike. A fire every 20 years or so is a very different proposition to one every year or two. In between fire cycles, seeds are allowed to germinate, establish and reach a good height. But more importantly, when a forest is destroyed, light reaches the ground, and the grass grows tall and vigorous. Given time, trees and shrubs begin to shade the ground vegetation, making fires at the ground level less intense. But annual fires were preventing this natural return to a forest.
In the intervening years, we have evolved a fire management strategy whereby we create fire breaks crisscrossing all over the hill. These are lines where all the grass is removed manually across a 10m-wide strip. If and when a fire breaks out, the lines largely limit the damage and give us something to defend, and in strong winds where fire-fighting is difficult, they also provide a safe place to set counter fires. An equally important part of our strategy remains fighting each and every fire until it is out. This is gruelling and dangerous work, but it has been crucial, primarily for its effect on the regeneration of the forests and in spreading awareness of how deeply we care and how sometimes people can make real sacrifices and put nature first.
The result of this has been miraculous to behold. The hill is now largely cloaked in a young forest, and a canopy is closing across large areas. New niches are forming all the time, bringing new joys and surprises. Old rootstock has sprouted up, and birds and bats have brought seeds from nearby forests. The return of forest birds such as Jerdon’s Leafbird and Racket-tailed Drongo has been heartening, as has the flourishing of mammals such as langurs, civets, porcupines and boar (though present previously, were rare and elusive). Over the years, we have planted over three lakh saplings on the mountain, and overall the survival rates have been gratifying. But while our planting has added diversity, bringing back plants lost from the hill, natural regeneration and fire protection have been responsible for most of the young forest that we see emerging. It is clear that wounded landscapes often don’t need major interventions but simply need those destructive forces to be removed. This is not false modesty on our part. It has been a life-changing experience being a part of a whole mountain erupting in a symphony of life, and we are more than proud to know that we played our part.
As the forests of Arunachala Hill flourish, our role and contribution are evolving. We no longer see the need to plant drought-hardy pioneer species. Even in the remaining open patches, tree species such as Ziziphus xylocarpus, Chloroxylon swietenia, Grewia orbiculata and Pterocarpus marsupium are emerging through the lemongrass, while on the flat land, at the base of the hill, where grazing pressure from Spotted Deer is most intense, thorny species such as Carissa spinarum, Rhus mysorensis and Acacia chundra provide the protection needed for other trees to get a head start.
We now concentrate on supporting the spread of rare and threatened species like Hildegardia populifolia and Drypetes porteri, and establishing groves of evergreen species where conditions are conducive. These species are unfamiliar to the locals since they are slower-growing plants and often cannot germinate in harsh scrubland conditions. But they are an integral part of a healthy forest in this bioregion, lending it a special character. Since the topsoil has built up on the slopes, and with the emerging deciduous canopy providing protection, we have been planting a rich diversity of dry evergreen species such as Nothopegia sp., Celtis phillippensis, Memecylon umbellatum and Diospyros ebenum, creating a forest type with a lower canopy, dense shade and rich leaf litter. The fruits of the evergreens are also edible to a range of animals.
We are also branching out into nearby forest areas, using the experience of the last twenty years to find ways to help other stretches of land towards diversity and vitality. It is the most satisfying and essential work we can imagine, giving something back to the forces of life that, in truth, give us everything.