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These are a set of field notes written by ISRO artist in residence, Pratyay Raha about our last field trip to Valparai in Tamil Nadu. This is a set of notes on our regular series on acoustic ecology, listening and environmental sounds.

Field notes

Monday, December 5, 2022:

We started with an introductory session by Dr. David Picherit (Anthropologist and Researcher at CNRS France) He briefed us on the project which he termed ‘Sensitive Approach to Forest’. The key areas of exploration discussed were:

1. Exploration of sensitive relationship between forest and human communities (Engagement with the forest)

2. What are the different ways of capturing that sensitive information coming from the forest, soil, animal population, human population (activities) and their interrelationships?

3. How can we bring this sense of forest to a broader audience?

4. How can we bring in interdisciplinary approach to the research and exploration? To see and study it from environmental, scientific, artistic and economic perspectives.

5. Valparai is chosen because of its unique fragmented landscape with monoculture in most places and restored forest patches in some areas.

6. How can we sonically understand and/or study this fragmented landscape using non-isolated field sound?

We began our field work with a walk along the Sirikundra estate road, where we met tea plantation workers spraying the Peria Karamalai Tea (PKT) plantations (Nadumalai estate) with pesticides/fungicides. (The sound of the spraying machines and the men walking around with it was the most prominent sound in the landscape. It had a drone sound which kept creating this buzz from all directions.) Then we walked back to the road, where we saw women cutting tea leaves with tea-plucking shears.

Manager speaking about the estate:

Pesticide spray machine sound:

(The women used a mechanical device in the form of a cuboidal box with a shear on one side, which made a unique metallic clan every time the leaves were cut.)

(The path to the new road was originating from a junction in between a large plantation and a forested patch. This junction provided a contrasting sonic landscape in one scene, with the cars, trucks and workers occupying one side and the distant sounds of water and birds on the other.)

Tea cutting machine sound:

When we took this new route, which was more forested and with a lot of coffee plantations, that is when we noticed the huge sonic difference between the silent tea plantations and the vocal wildlife inhabiting these woodier areas. We stopped on the road to capture these sounds, there were unmarked graves opposite to the coffee/pepper plantations. Then we continued and we stopped again at one point where we met with women workers having their lunch. Down the hill there were labour lines (Nadumalai North (leased/owned by PKT), and we continued up to a bridge.

(The bridge was placed at a scenic location with water running beneath and trees and plantations around. The perspective of sound was recorded from both sides of the bridge, one facing the road and one facing the plantation and a difference was observed between the two. Though the bird and water sounds were quite loud, they were being masked by the movement of diesel engines vehicles at regular intervals. Also, the sound generated by anthropogenic activities at a distance were becoming part of our acousmatic listening and signal in our recording devices)

Temple near bridge sound:

Bridge sound:

Just before there was a temple named Thundu karuppan, located on the banks of Vellamalai tunnel river. We walked back to Valparai through the tea plantations near the Nadumalai estate nursery. (While returning we stopped at a four-lane junction (elephant corridor) and did some recordings. It was surrounded by plantations so the sounds were one dimensional and interrupted regularly by vehicle sounds.)

In the evening, we took a taxi to go to NCF Anamalai information center (Iyerpadi) at 4pm. There, we met with Divya Muddappa and TN Shankar Raman, as well as with Kshama Bhatt, who gave us a tour of the information center and explained the efforts taken by NCF to restore rainforest patches in the area. They explained that these patches had never been planted with tea but were woody areas with eucalyptus. The space had maps about the local biodiversity, paintings and sketches by Nirupa Rao and Sartaj Ghuman, and murals by Maya Ramaswamy. They spent a lot of time showing us the material they had on their computer, i.e., interactive posters, time lapse, and drone shots.

(The interactive posters at the information centre were interesting as they were populated with different species sounds and their descriptions.)

(Outside the centre, there were a couple of bird sounds we wanted to record at the threshold of the forest, but the sound of the diesel trucks and buses overshadowed any sound of the birds. Then we wrapped up for the day)

Tuesday, December 6, 2022:

We started early. Kshama joined us at 8 am and we went to various restored forest patches. We first stopped at a restored forest patch that Kshama called Matha shrine junction located at the start of the Valparai-Athirapalli Road. We recorded Kshama’s commentary about the forest patch.

(Kshama briefed us on the history of the restored patch and we got the recording of her speaking about the process. Apart from that the area had lot of bird sounds, the directionality was interesting to observe as the sounds were coming from different height levels corresponding to the different heights of the tree branches where the birds were positioned)

We continued down the Valparai-Athirapalli Road and stopped a little distance away from the second restored forest patch. We recorded Kshama’s discussion about the area. She talked about:

1. Vegetation

2. Animal Movement

3. Swamp

4. Pesticides

5. Forest patches surrounding that area

6. Change in landscape during monsoons

Forest patch sound1:

Then we walked towards a restored forest patch. It was located on the tea estate land managed by Tata Coffee Limited. A signboard indicated that this was the ‘Selaliparai-1 Tata Coffee Limited & NCF Rainforest Protection Site’. Restoration work began on this patch from 2007, and infilling was conducted three times since then. The patch is long and narrow, and as compared to the first forest patch the canopy was more mature with dense undergrowth.

Bernie Krause in his ‘The Niche Hypothesis (1993)’ mentions “If, as we are suggesting, the ambient sound of primary growth habitats functions much as a modern day orchestra with each creature voice occupying its own place on the environmental music staff relative to frequency, amplitude, timbre, and duration of sound, then there is a clear acoustical message being sent as to the biological health of these locations. Some people, believing that fragile environments can be continuously and endlessly developed, must begin to listen, as well as observe what changes are taking place.”

Forest patch sound 2:

The other side of the road had a forest patch which was degraded and NCF had recently started restoration work. The temperature was much cooler, and thorny bushes (Pandanus) were present to dissuade travellers from venturing into the forest patch. We saw Nilgiri Langurs eating the flowers of Cullenia exarillata

(The sounds of insects, birds and small mammals were loud. Gayatri and I did some recordings 20 m inside the forest and the sounds were significantly different from that of the road. We recorded the calls of the Langur. As we find categories of animal calls in R. Murray Schafer’s book and vision ‘The Soundscape’, the one that we heard might have been territorial-defense calls as we were encroaching on their space)

While walking down the road to the third forest patch we saw a large Albizia tree, which is exotic and was likely planted during colonial times.

While proceeding to the third patch we avoided a flying-ant nest, although one team member was stung on the finger.

We had breakfast at a tea shop in Old Valparai, close to which was a stretch of land where Kshama mentioned many species of birds could be heard (especially Hornbills). That was the point where me met two ecology researchers Vishnupriya Sankararaman and Shashank Dalvi, exchanged few words on field sound recording and bird photography.

(The sounds of the tea shop included lot of diverse sounds including speaking voice of people, food making and vehicles passing by outside. I specifically recorded Dosa making sounds as it was new and unique to me)

Tea shop sound:

We continued by taxi on the Valparai-Athirapalli Road, and dismounted at the start of the Valaparai Tata Coffee Estate. We continued on foot from here. Kshama talked of how coffee estates are more bio-diverse. Coffee, in contrast to tea, requires shade and therefore native tree species are allowed to exist, and therefore allows for other small mammals to be present on the estate. The road down the hill is a busy state highway, and therefore animals crossing from either side of the road have often been killed.

At a particular point Kshama showed us an animal crossing bridge built by the NCF, to reduce incidents of roadkill of arboreal mammals. The coffee plantation was electrically fenced, and Kshama mentioned that the fences were recently installed by a newly-transferred estate manager. It wasn’t clear, however, if the electric fences were meant to keep out animals or humans.

(Here on that road, we listened to and recorded cicadas, water sounds on the rocks by the side of the road and other different bird and insect sounds)

Water on the rocks sound: