´Unlucky knock on wood´ by C.K. Meena

C.K. Meena is a columnist in The Hindu, one of India´s biggest news papers. She was my teacher when I took up a certificate course in Journalism and we soon became friends. We keep in touch and she sends me her features by email. Her writing is a real piece of Bangalore and makes me feel like I might, just for a few minutes, be there. She has kindly given me permission to share her latest feature article on my blog.

At first glance it looked like a dead tree. Because a tree without leaves, flowers or fruit must be dead, right? Stripped of foliage, with its many branches and twigs sticking out like the skeleton of some multi-limbed beast, it stirred my curiosity about the tribal artist who had painted it. And then I looked closer. And saw that the tree, though leafless, was by no means lifeless. Every inch of it crawled with living beings! There were ants, lizards and chameleons, bugs of every description, a visual food chain with birds and snakes at the top. Only someone who had lived in the heart of nature, sensing its pulse, observing every twitch and spasm, could have painted this.

We urban creatures are handicapped in this respect. We are blind to the countless life-forms we destroy as we cut back undergrowth in our trim gardens. Removing what appears unseemly or ungainly is, we believe, the sign of a civilised mind. No sooner does a tree shed its leaves than we sweep them up and throw or burn them; even a carpet of flowers is not spared. A withered branch is an eyesore, and nothing more. Nothing more, did you say? Let me disprove you with a firsthand example; in fact I’m dying to get this off my chest because it has left me with a feeling of recurring sadness.

My story begins one forenoon in April, when a persistent knocking outside my kitchen balcony attracted my attention. “Woodpecker?” I asked myself, remembering the rat-a-tat from my childhood. But I was wrong. It was a small green barbet clinging acrobatically to the surface of the lowest branch of a tulip tree, a naked stump about five feet long and rising up at a 120-degree angle from the trunk. The barbet was attacking a spot two-thirds of the way from the base. At first I thought it was feeding on termites but then I noticed its plump mate perched on an adjacent leafy branch. I arrived at the shamefully sexist conclusion that he was doing all the work and she, sitting back and watching. No sooner had I done so than she switched places with him and began to peck away industriously.

Were they creating a nest? My hope was well-founded. Every forenoon the two took turns at the job, taking breaks arbitrarily, continuing at noon whenever it pleased them and, at the end of the workday, chiming “kuturrr-kutturr” together in evensong. Flexitime schedule, obviously. A week or so later they disappeared, and I was beginning to think that they had abandoned their engineering project altogether when they reappeared and started work at a new site. This time, the chosen spot was the ‘armpit’ where branch met trunk, and only he seemed to be employed fulltime (if my guess about the plump one being female was correct). The sound of knocking on wood at odd hours became a familiar background to my day.

We went on vacation and when we returned the barbet was still at it. If you looked up at the underside of the stump you could see two perfectly circular holes, one being the earlier attempt that was relinquished midway, and the other, the work in progress. As the hole got deeper, less and less of the bird would be visible, until only his rump showed, and then a bit of his tail. Finally, his entire body was obscured. He now began to dive in for prolonged spells, coming up for air only after two minutes of vigorous spadework. And he started emerging beak-first, which meant that the base of the cylindrical cavity had been hollowed out into a chamber — for the mother to sit on her eggs, I thought. I stopped in the middle of my chores, once, to watch him. He dove into the nest. Two minutes later his head popped out and “thoo!” Like a paan-chewer he spat out a fine spray of wooden slivers! In late June, she began to make frequent appearances in a purely supervisory capacity. The construction activity seemed to be drawing to a close. Sometimes, in the evenings, I would see one of them ensconced in the new nest, with just the beak sticking out, surveying the world briefly before darting out. Maybe they were checking whether the nest was comfy, in the way we might test out a new sofa in the furniture showroom by sitting on it.

Without warning, one morning, I was greeted by a vacant space where the branch used to be. I was speechless. Flabbergasted. Which foolish hand had wielded the chopper, pruning the ‘useless’ branch? Two months of hard labour and who knows how many bird-hours spent in searching for just the right stump — wood that was dry and soft enough to be drilled, and inclined at an angle that would shelter it from preying eyes — all wiped out in a single moment. My visions of watching the parents feed their young crumbled into dust. I made forlorn searches on the Internet for pictures of the bird, and learnt that its nest is reused year after year and even ‘loaned’ to other creatures such as parakeets and squirrels.

Now there was just a gaping hole, the chamber gouged out by a tiny beak, at the base of the invisible branch. And an even bigger hollow in my heart.

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