Old Growth Forest in Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary.

Of the 67 acres of land in the sanctuary’s care, seven acres consist of old-growth forest, namely an ancient forest that has never been clear-felled and has grown largely undisturbed over time. Every time I walk in this forest, I cherish the fact that this tiny stretch is primeval. Rainforests are the worlds’ most ancient terrestrial biomes, or communities of distinctive plants and animals. Scientists estimate them to be 200 million years old, perhaps more. I tell children who come to the sanctuary for nature-immersion programmes that they are setting foot in one of the most ancient natural communities on the planet.

The rest of the Gurukula land is secondary forest, vegetation slowly recovering from clear-felling. Recovery began when each piece of land came under our care; the first pieces are about four-and-a-half decades old. From barrenness to baby forest, we have been witnessing the miracle of a forest reviving. More than 100 species of trees grow where once there was lemongrass or a ginger plantation. More than 400 species of herbs, shrubs, creepers, climbers and epiphytes have established themselves on this once-denuded land. Here too live 150 to 200 species of mosses and liverworts, while 240 species of birds have their homes or their annual wintering grounds on this land. Dozens of frogs, rare and fragile species, breed here, as do many lizards, snakes and mammals. I cannot even begin to describe the insects, except to say that we see new ones all the time.

Stinkhorn Fungus

“After a period of time in Japan, when I arrive in the rainforest, the diversity is dizzying,” said Sora Tsukamoto, an ecosystem gardener, who specialises in cultivating many species of plants in diverse families. He travels back and forth from his home country to the Western Ghats. “I almost feel a kind of motion sickness. The homogenisation of vast areas in Japan makes this Wayanad biodiversity incomprehensible at first, this sight of hundreds of species all together.”

A rare Shieldtail snake.

The sanctuary is contiguous with a reserve forest in the custody of the Kerala forests and wildlife department. This area, which is a couple of hundred square kilometres in size, consists of some old-growth forest, a much larger area of secondary forest, and other parts that had been cleared by the department a few decades ago to make way for plantations. The first logging in this part of Wayanad was undertaken more than 120 years ago by the British colonial administration, which cut ironwood trees to make sleepers for railway lines. Subsequently, the forest department’s management practices have included clearing native trees for plantation species such as eucalyptus, acacia and mahogany.

Much of the work of the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, a forest garden, can be described as ecosystem gardening, a spectrum of strategies ranging from horticulture and plant conservation, to nature education and landscape-level restoration. The core idea here is that gardeners can help to heal ecosystems.

Ecosystem gardening at the sanctuary, and wherever it is practised the world over, has some basic ecological premises. The first premise is that nature evolves diversity over immense periods of time, a fact established by science. Diversity differs from biome to biome and habitat to habitat. It also changes with time and under different forces acting on the landscape, such as the reach of glacial sheets during the ice ages. On the flipside, diversity also influences climate and ecosystem processes.

The second premise, which has also emerged from numerous studies by evolutionary biologists, is that diverse species depend on each other to survive and thrive. Every level of life, from cellular to planetary, has communities of interrelated beings, each performing a unique function, together forming a whole, from genome to biome. In a rainforest, for example, the cool cover of vegetation on the land leads to water condensing. This gives rise to more plants, which in turn support more animals. Indeed, a primary rainforest, which has grown undisturbed for millions of years, like the one in our sanctuary, is among the most diverse places on earth. This is partly the work of time, and also the result of each species creating possibilities for more species.

Bee Orchids.

A third widely shared premise among scientists is that diversity leads to resilience at different levels: of each species, of the whole community and also of the planet. Resilience is the capacity to survive challenges of different kinds, to maintain integrity of form and function through periods of adversity. Diversity, for instance, leads to multi-layered forests that are healthy; they do not succumb to outbreaks of disease.

“The first line of evidence is born out of Charles Darwin’s ideas,” explained Antonio Nobre, an earth systems scientist from Brazil, in an email. “Putting it roughly, natural selection has functioned over aeons to select organisms that correlate with environment stability. Individual fitness depends on group success, which depends on environmental stability. There is no other explanation for the observed climate stability on earth over billions of years.”

Living laboratory

At the sanctuary, I daily witness the three ideas working together. I walked on that morning to admire lichens, which are symbiotic organisms consisting of an alga, a plant, and a fungus, which is neither a plant nor an animal. Lichens grow on rocks or barks of trees, sustained by minerals and organic debris. Snails graze on lichens. Cormorants pick up snails. Eagles hunt cormorants, and bacteria, beetles, rats, worms and vultures feed on eagles after they die. So the feeding goes.

I then stopped by some Oberonias, a strange-looking genus of epiphytic orchids, with flat leaves growing fan-like from a sheathed base, and slender pendulous inflorescences. I find orchids to be great starting points to explore interdependence in nature. I examined a few closely, to look at their seed pods, which had taken weeks to mature. A few had split open. Orchid seeds are just motes of dust in the understorey, the layer of the forest beneath the canopy. Where they land, a specific fungus must grow or else they will not germinate. This is because orchid seeds lack an endosperm, the food package that starts off most flowering plants, like beans, corn and jackfruit, on their new life.

Oberonias in flower.