Sense of a Forest

We leave Bangalore one rain-soaked morning and somehow find the stars and the traffic signals aligning in our favour. This lush, post-monsoon countryside is the world of our nostalgia, however delusional. We live in the urban crush of the city, working in tall towers without sunlight or fresh air, but when we travel for a holiday, we like the houses to be small, the trees to be massive, and the horizon to drop away past forests or fields.

About a minute after we cross the BRT Forest check post, our smooth ride comes to a halt. On the curve ahead of us is a roadblock. 12 of them, actually. It is a party of wild dogs or dholes, all alert ears and bushy tails. We cannot believe our luck. Like so many wildlife-lovers and photographers, what we yearn for on every forest trip are good “sightings”. This one has come early, and with unexpected abundance.

A pack of dholes

Alert ears

Alert ears

At K Gudi Wilderness camp, we check into the log hut at the very edge of the camp. Over the next two days and two nights, we have many safaris on our menu. We see the usual denizens of this forest—Spotted Deer, Barking Deer, Sambar, Gaur, Crested Serpent-eagles, Crested Hawk-eagles, Brown Fish Owls—but this time I wish for more exciting sights, in line with that welcoming party of dholes. I am here on my birthday and, despite my strong rational leanings, the child in me believes that this increases my chances. I wish for good light and the right amount of shade, I wish for a leopard draped on a curving branch.

A juvenile Crested Serpent-eagle

A juvenile Crested Serpent-eagle

However, the rain is a constant on this trip, and so is the poor light. On one evening, the forest grows dark and quiet as early as 4pm. The trees in the background start fading like old ink, and even the jeep track seems like a ribbon that unfurls just as we drive. The rain hesitates for a minute, then descends in a fine drizzle. I instinctively shield my camera with my body. “Shall I pull over the roof?”, asks Basavanna, the JLR naturalist. Me and the husband both shake our heads, not knowing exactly why. The rain begins to come down in surer drops. I put away my camera in my bag with quiet resignation.

There are times during safaris when all your senses become alert. Your eyes pick out forms and movements in the foliage. Your human ears may be primitive for the animal world, but they seem to prick up with every new sound or call. But a little excitement is a dangerous thing. You see the ears of a tiger as it crouches behind a tree, but as it comes closer, you realise that it is just orange fungi growing on a fallen log. Wild dogs sitting with their backs to you are tree stumps withered by time. Shadows in the foliage become elephants, tree vines become snakes, and every leaf that catches the wind is a new bird.

A herd of Spotted Deer

A herd of Spotted Deer

I drift in and out of this phase every day. And then once, with a soft rain falling on my face, I sit back and drift away into a daydream. I am not sure how many minutes pass—or if they are hours. The forest no longer seems composed of discrete shapes; instead, it is one large being that has consumed us—a jungle. I notice things I haven’t seen before. Somewhere, a feather falls in slow motion and stops on a flower. I see missing tiles on crocodile-bark trees, branches twisted like a schoolgirl’s plaits, a nest of orange twigs that has fallen into ruin. Near a green meadow, a single strand of spider web stretches impossibly across the trees, catching the last sliver of sunlight left in the day.

A soft cry from our driver and I see a mass of black hair anointed with raindrops, so close to the jeep we could touch it. A sloth bear. The second our wheels stop, it disappears wholly into the bushes. I rub my arms to get rid of the goosebumps. I have missed the shot completely, and I smile.

The jungle

The jungle

Here is a feeling, I think, that I must bottle up and store, preferably in my camera bag. It seems more important than spare batteries or lenses. The next day, I try to remember this new gift of seeing. We see sambar again, like we have every day here, but I stop because one of them steps into a shaft of light that turns its shoulder golden like a blessing. A Checkered Keelback far away in a pond makes a perfect squiggle on the landscape. I stop the jeep to take a picture of a stag whose antlers are outlined with light. I have just framed the shot when Basavanna spots a Madras Tree Shrew. “It’s here, it’s so close!”, the husband says with excitement. I am quick this time. I twist my lens back to 70mm, lock focus, and press the shutter at the same instant that the shrew turns away. I laugh at myself, feeling happy without reason.

A sambar lit up by the sun

A sambar lit up by the sun

There are more missed chances. I try and shoot a pair of Greater Flameback Woodpeckers but they keep flying away or disappearing behind the trees. A few hours later, we are finishing a fabulous lunch at the camp when there is sudden a flurry of activity. A Greater Flameback alights on a tree right in front of my eyes and strangely, it does not seem to be mocking me. We walk back to our log hut and a long rat snake crosses our path. We sit in the verandah to read and are visited by the Indian Blackbird. The Orange-headed Rock Thrush, the Spotted Deer, the Wild Boars, they are all right here, in the property.

Too often, we peg our hopes on safaris, but the experience of the forest refuses to follow an itinerary. It is here, in all the spaces between.

Orange-headed Rock Thrush, a songster commonly seen in the property

Orange-headed Rock Thrush, a songster commonly seen in the property

The beautiful Jungle Lodges & Resorts property

The beautiful Jungle Lodges & Resorts property

On our last morning, Basavanna is taking us to see Blackbucks in the plains outside the reserve. They were spotted last year, he says, grazing in farmland now left fallow. We are driving downhill today, so Basavanna turns off the engine and we hurtle down quietly. In the old fields, we find about six or seven black bucks, mostly stags. I have never seen these creatures before, and I am struck by how small and shy they are. The landscape is ringed by mountains, and there is an abundance of birds: drongos, koels, Baya Weavers, Long-tailed Shrikes and even Pied Cuckoos. A few Pipits walk across a patch of grass and cry out in thin voices.

A Blackbuck outside the reserve

A Blackbuck outside the reserve

I take photos for a while and then we just sit in the open jeep, enjoying the birdsong and the sun. I think back to the oddest of things, my performance review at work last week, with my half-yearly goals staring me in the face. In another sanctuary far away, another naturalist had told me how visitors gave him lists of birds they want to see—their “target species”. I had scoffed at this. I wasn’t that kind of birder, I thought then, I wasn’t that kind of photographer. But in this new sunlight, the truth is laid bare. As I frame yet another black buck in my viewfinder, a Red-wattled Lapwing flies over my head, singing out “Did you do it? Did you do it?”

I didn’t, I want to say. I didn’t see that big cat, I didn’t make that perfect image. We often use the word “escape” when we describe a holiday. This time, I merely escaped from everything. I slipped into the rhythms of the jungle. I saw more, I captured less. And that is enough.

[Note: This article was first published on the JLR Explore blog]

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

The post A Plague of Giants appeared first on Elitist Book Reviews.

The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.

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