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Feathered Omens

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By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

In the garden of our cottage in the oak woods of Mussoorie, there is a plate on a shoulder high rod. On it sits a metal bowl filled with water. This is a bird-bath.

It has now become our guide to the changing environment of our little hill-station.

At one time the Whistling Thrush streaked his clarion call every dawn and dusk, before having a long bath, twice a day, even when it snowed. He has not visited us for years and his nest of moss and down, renewed every year when we were in our teens, was abandoned and blew away in the wind. And we don’t see the flocks of Scarlet and Golden Minivets, flashing in our trees like Christmas Tree lights in mid-summer. And where have those Peacocks of the Himalayas, the Long Tailed Magpies gone? And the pair of Doves who ambled through our cottage, from the kitchen, down the verandah, past the aviary and into the garden where they rested after their safari! And naturally, naturally, we miss the Sparrows. We were on their morning flight schedule from Hampton Court, where the Principal, Mother Xavier, fed them, to our cottage and back. Their roosting place in a large rose creeper has gone and so have they. Much has been sacrificed to the rapacity of the builders and their well-lubricated cohorts.

The old institutions of Mussoorie hold many dark tales as their namesakes in Britain including Henry VIII’s Hampton Court and Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels! We are still involved, as Scott’s novels were, with the clash of the noble traditions of the past and the cynical practices of the present.

The absence of the once-familiar birds is a sign of a more dangerous phenomenon: Climate Change. The birds no longer need to come down to us because their higher environment is getting pleasantly warm. Last summer was said to be the earth’s hottest. Now, on 25th March, a news report in a national daily said, “Due to prevalence of dry weather conditions and increase in maximum temperature the conditions are becoming favourable for the spread of forest fires in Uttarakhand. Moreover, the increase in maximum temperatures in the hills is likely to cause melting of snow.” When snow melts, large chunks of it begin to move as glaciers, carrying rocks with them. These ice-slicked rocks are likely to adhere together to form which form short-lived glacial lakes. These are very dangerous because when their blockages burst, they cause the sort of destructive torrents of water that sweep everything before them, as we have experienced over and over again. We do not seem to realise that all these are entirely avoidable, man-made, disasters.

Sadly, very sadly, our state’s record as a protector of the environment, wildlife, forests and climate is deplorable. We seem to spend our time looking for ways and means to eat the crop which we should be dedicated to protect. The recent protests in Dehradun against another threat to our fragile environment are a glaring case in point.

Would someone like to investigate how many of our dearly beloved netas live in air-conditioned comfort, with humming air purifiers, all paid for by We the taxpayers? If you, netaji, have breathable air at our cost, don’t you think the humblest of your voters are entitled to it 24 x 7? Or do you believe, like those porcine creatures in

Animal Farm that all Indians are equal but Netas are more equal than others?

Finally, most living creatures need oxygen to survive. Nearly all this chemical is produced by a process called photosynthesis. This occurs exclusively in the green leaves of oceanic and terrestrial plants. When we destroy large swathes of forests we are, in very real terms, destroying the efficiency of our lungs.

The birds which no longer visit the bird-bath in our garden are feathered omens of the suffocating shape of things to come.

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)