Illogical intervention

By WL Hangshing
It was motionless and lifeless. I had seen it before as it crawled across the green, with its hairy bristles in a design well camouflaged in the khaki-green dry-season grass. It was now a big, fat dead caterpillar in the charred grass.
It is a regular seasonal affair. During the dry season of February, patches of forest floors are set on fire everywhere. It is not jhuming.
Jhuming involves slash-and-burn and cultivation thereafter. In the pine-forested Shillong hills, it is defined as ‘controlled-burning’, and it is apparently done by the Forest Department to save the forest.
Everything has a reason. Even the low-hanging pine cone was there to deflect my golfing foe’s seven-iron shot into the trees. But this? It doesn’t make any sense and a logical explanation to the seemingly senseless exercise.
It is seemingly senseless because pines, and particularly the Khasi pines, are rich in sap, an oily substance, and thereby easily combustible. Small bundles of pine sticks are sometimes sold in the market for use as kindle for kitchen fire. With even the slightest injury to the trunk of the tree, by the peck of a woodpecker or by a cut of a pen-knife, or by the heat of even a small fire, the sap oozes down the trunk leaving it susceptible to slow burning by even the lightest of grass-fire.
The pine forests of the European highlands and of North America regularly witness devastating fires. The forest floors are covered with thick mattresses of pine needles, peat-like, which when kindled produce intense heat. The heat, so deep-set, cannot be smothered even by aerial sprinkling of water. Apparently in Shillong, the strategy is to pre-empt and prevent the development of fallen pine-needles into a thick mattress on the forest floor by just simply burning them while they are still thinly spread.
The damage, however, to insects and birds will be incalculable. Birds make nests in bushes, trees and even in holes in the hillsides. Heat and smoke from the burning grass and pine-needles will definitely cause high casualty among such denizens of the forest.
It is doubtful if this aspect of the cost has been factored into the cost-benefit analysis of the unnatural intervention. It is also doubtful if the objective of protecting the trees is even achieved in the long run. Almost without exception, the pine trees are charred thin at the base. Many fallen and falling trees during wind storms are a testimony to the misadventure. High-scale devastating forest fires may have been successfully prevented but the fact of the matter is that the remedy itself is in the long run still causing the death, albeit slow-death, of the pine forest, the very essence of the Shillong scene.
The creepy-crawly caterpillar, an indispensable link in the ecological system, like others of the insect world, of course never had any chance!
(The author is the chief commissioner
of GST and Customs,
Northeastern Region, Shillong)

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