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The humble pine

These are the thoughts of Dr Supriya, my friend and colleague, who visited QR in August. She is a nature lover, with a deep knowledge that matches her passion for the environment.

My last few trips to Kumaon brought me face to face with one of my prejudices, an inexplicable shunning of any stay in a pine forest. And my visit to QR forced me to shed that prejudice and get more fully acquainted with the humble pine.

Uttarakhand hill pine communities are of three types:

1. Pine Sal communities: found at the foothills at lower elevations, mainly comprising of Chir pine and Sal trees. Now most have fallen prey to timber mafia or development. especially the Sal trees that can only be seen in certain protected clumps near Kathgodam.

2. Pure Pine communities: as we go higher, mainly Chir pine Pinus roxburghii (with 3-needle fascicles) and at higher elevations mixed with Himalayan blue pines Pinus wallachiana (5-needles fascicles). They are comparatively rare and most prone to forest fires because of the thick carpet of fallen dried inflammable needles on the forest floor with hardly any other trees or undergrowth to stop the spread of fire in summers.

3. Pine-Oak communities: over the years I have come across a major lack of veneration even to the extent of condemnation, of Oak Baanjh trees particularly amongst the young generations.

There is this widespread misbelief that baanjh is not good for the air! The only people oak is not good for is the timber mafia. Some believe the oak trees deplete the water table. How preposterous!

Oak is one of the forest's biggest protection against forest fires. It provides massive shady canopies, regulates temperature, and holds water in various ways. Forest departments also have been observed to mainly praise and promote monocultures of pine. This lobbying for the fast growing pine and against oak has led to a decrease in oak and other commercially non-attractive tree communities while their (commercially useful to humans) friend buransh has been relatively left alone. As far as timber goes they don't even have the patience to see a Tun tree growing. They would rather replace that with pine too!

Maybe this is the reason why I never wanted to stay in a primarily pine forest. It carries too many tell tale signs of human intervention and stupidity. Pine forests were supposed to be important for the livelihood of the local people. All parts were used - bark, cones, seeds and needles. The deadwood can be used for fuel and the resin for medicine. Now wherever one looks there are scars of illegal commercial resin tapping on almost every mature pine tree and the local communities don't seem to be benefitting from this.

As we go higher there are deodars and other conifers but nothing like the charm of a pine for greedy humans it so seems. And what doesn't fall into the kitty of timber mafia, it is very likely to be felled for "development ".

As I said, my stay in the forest cabin at QR broadened my thoughts in many ways. The cabin can be reached only by a long jungle trail and nestles in a mixed Chir pine and Himalayan blue pine forest, This standalone humble cabin is like a monk in meditation.

The silence and solitude of this place is unforgettable. Every forest has its vibe and its silence. Unlike the constant chorus of cicadas in a deodar forest or the unceasing sound of wind rustling in an oak forest, this pine forest is soaked in absolute stillness.

It has not an eerie silence but a soothing, soul lifting kind which can lull you into a much-needed nap on the terrace or take you into depths of introspection. I have always been partial to the stately majestic deodars and the gnarled mighty oaks but this monsoon I discovered that a pine forest during rains is relatively well lit and is less intimidating with only mild under growth hence easily walkable trails, provided you are well protected against leeches. It has a sunny disposition as compared to its other coniferous cousins and the dense oaks.

It was an experience to remember!

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