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FIELD TRIP: VALPARAI



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:



We continued walking towards the NCF nursery, before which we stopped at a tea shop opposite the trail leading to the nursery.





(The sounds of the tea shop included lot of diverse sounds including speaking voice of people, tea/coffee making and vehicles. At the nursery we recorded everything that Kshama said about the nursery, ecological restoration and human animal conflict)


Tea shop sound:




Kshama talked of the planting process, the reasoning behind growing the saplings in the plastic bags and introduced us to the staff of nursery who came from tribal settlements in the Tiger Reserve. The nursery contained five sections (A to E), corresponding to the growth of the saplings. Section E was the final section for saplings ready to be planted in the following season. A part of the nursery was caged so as to protect the seedlings from small mammals which feed on the seeds. The planting season coincided with monsoon from mid-May to late June, with the NCF aiming to plant 5000 to 6000 saplings in restored patches. The NCF was also attempting to grow saplings of endangered tree species on the IUCN Red List.





Wednesday, December 7, 2022:


We left for Old Valparai (tea shop) at 5:45 AM. The goal was to collect soundscapes early in the morning before anthropogenic activities affected the soundscape. While we wanted to visit the resorted forest patches, an elephant warning was issued, due to which we couldn’t enter the patches. We spotted three Gaurs in Tata rainforest patch.


Morning forest sound1:





Morning forest sound 2:








Upon reaching the tea shop, we walked from Valparai-Athirapalli Road to another tea shop at Varatupparai, recording sound on three devices. Early morning sounds were totally different from those that we captured the previous day around noon. The masking by anthropogenic activities was not present at all, so even the softest of insect or animal sounds were clearly audible.


Morning forest sound 3:








We continued by taxi to the Sholayar dam reservoir – it was a dead landscape, without any natural sounds. There was just a continuous drone sound of pesticide spraying which was happening a distance.





Then, Mani, our driver took us to a patch, we walked through a short trail with 200 meters of forest to our right, the trail then opened to the tea plantations. Here we recorded bird and insect sounds. The highlight was recording a bumble bee whose sound was unique and had a drone effect.





After breakfast at Lakshmi Inn, we drove to Sholayar tea estate. The area was on the borders of a tea estate and a forest patch. We crossed the river, but we decided not to venture deeper since elephants had recently visited the area, we saw fresh elephant footprints and dung from the night before.


Here we recorded the fast-flowing river sounds, bird sounds, bells hanging on the neck of cows. Ashank also ventured slightly inside the part of the restored forest patch to record some forest sounds but came back after an elephant warning from Mani.


River sound:









We climbed back through the tea plantations, and we drove back into the city. In the evening at 4 PM, we left for the Balaji Temple on the way to Akkamalai. At the Balaji Temple bus stop, we saw a Gaur enter the village.





On the way up to the temple we recorded frog sounds. They were really loud and filled up the space without the intervention of any other sounds. When Abhinav started recording, suddenly the sounds vanished. In my experience too, this happened couples of times. The sound just vanishes when I start recording.


Balaji Temple pathway sound:






This was privately built by the PKT estate. The pujari was not keen on us recording the area with our mics or cameras. The idols were gold plated (?) and at a large distance from the visitors. The speakers were playing bhajans just as we entered.


David and Ashank went to the Karumalai labour lines. At the location there exists a large tea factory, a Velankani Church, and multiple temples. A state highway leading to Kerala crossed the village. The Karumalai Factory and labour lines is currently leased out to PKT company owned by Marwadi family. Prior to 1972, it belonged to a British company. We met at the labour lines, three workers hailing from Jharkhand. It appears that the workers hail from the local population as well as migrant labour from Jharkhand and Bihar. A conversation at a tea shop revealed that some workers and tea dealers had family in the estate going back three generations. The factory operates throughout the day, employing workers in three shifts. While closed to visitors, we could see from the gates that there was a stockpile of wood that is used for roasting the tea leaves.






Thursday, December 8, 2022:


We had a late and slow start, and the taxi came 30 minutes late. We headed to Lakshmi mess for breakfast. Then we headed to Nallamudi view point. On the dirt road we observed a lot of activity: women (who looked middle-aged) were cutting the tea leaves, men (several groups) were spraying the tea leaves. We reached the entry of the viewpoint are and had to walk for about 1 km through the tea plantation… very silent tea plantation.





This was the Bombay-Burma Tea Company Ltd. We saw porcupine poop. We had a 360-degree stunning view of the Annamalai hills, including the Annamudi peak. We also visited a local shrine about 50 m towards the forest. Once again, the contrast in the sound between forest edge and plantation was striking. We came back had lunch and finally had our wrapping session.


(The soundscape difference was stark between the plantation and the small, forested patch. The plantation was dead silent, not even the sound of wind was present, giving our recorders an empty graph, whereas the chorus of birds, animals and lizards in the forest patch of the viewpoint was a treat to record and enjoy.)


Forest patch:




Tea Plantation:




Similar kind of experience was shared by Bernie Krause in his ‘The Niche Hypothesis’ “When we have tried to record in new stands of trees planted in the Olympic peninsula by Georgia-Pacific and other lumber companies, we have found a profound lack of bio-diversity evidenced first by the obvious monoculture of corn-rowed stands of fast-growing pines and very little supporting vegetation growing on the forest floor, but more so by the overwhelming silence. Compare these recordings with those of nearby healthy old-growth forests and the measurable differences are astounding.”


My reflections on the trip and the study:


1. It was a great experience working with two experienced anthropologists Dr. Sarah Benabou and Dr. David Picherit. Their research vision led us to think about the areas beyond one particular topic. We discussed the age of the Anthropocene, ecological catastrophe and existential crisis on the basis of race and species. Their experience on multi-layered complex human-politics-environment relationships gave us new direction to think about the microcosm of Valparai which can later be mapped and demonstrated in other locations as well.

2. The discussions with Ecologist Dr. Doris Barboni also brought in ideas of ecology from a historical and paleoclimatic perspective. This gave the project a lens of time and timeline on the basis of land, soil, forest restoration and cross-pollination.

3. I envision the study to progress as a network of different ideas as we had discussed in our meetings. The most important idea to explore I feel is the domination of the human species over all other species in a particular place.

4. There still exists diverse life forms in a forest ecosystem. We need to use and apply technology and human resource to delve deeper into detailed living patterns of each of the species.

5. It is important to study the sounds and silences of each of these species and how over time we can facilitate the restoration of more forest patches to bring back the biodiversity in a forest ecosystem.

6. The sounds generated by human activities like pesticide sprays and vehicle engines needs to be studied and addressed for advocating better sonic outputs which would not interfere with the communication systems of animals in a forest. (or as a matter of fact in any ecosystem)


In total, over 4 days, we collected 21 GB of audio files.

We used five different field recorders (Zoom H1N, H2N, H3-VR, H5, H8) and one 360-degree VR camera.


The Team - Dr. David Picherit - Anthropologist at CNRS · laboratoire d'ethnologie et de sociologie comparative et Institut Francais de Pondicherry

Dr. Sarah Benabou - Anthropologist at Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD - France)

Dr. Doris Barboni - Ecologist at The French Institute of Pondicherry Gayatri Manu - Senior Program Associate at Science Gallery, Bangalore Ashank Chandapillai - Program Associate at Science Gallery, Bangalore

Abhinav Suresh - Sound Designer and Location Sound Recordist Pratyay Raha - Sonic Artist and Experimental Composer




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