|Birds-nest-in-crown, the hijol tree.|
|Lal Miah, 45.|
In the vast open lands that have come to be, where there is not even a hijol close at hand, he’s pottering, inspecting the paddy. Shirtless and in lungee, he says his name is Lal Miah, 45. His skin is darkened by the sun. “Maybe thirty-five years ago there was jungle,” he says, “everywhere.” His hair is grey and largely gone.
|It used to be a forest.|
There used to be a great forest in Moulvibazar’s Hakaluki that stretched as far as the imagination, even a little further. It was so thick with unkempt growth – branch and trunk – that every hope of finding a way through seemed lost. It wasn’t only the hijols’ home. There were koros and boron trees too. They were the main arboreal forms.
|The landscape is open and empty.|
|The few hijol trees are symbols of what was.|
|Sunlight finds the hijol.|
|The hijols grow in pairs, here and there, or stand alone.|
But that forest was special – not just any forest – because it delighted less in ages and lunar cycles and roving pachyderms, and more in drenching rains.
|When the monsoon comes it will recreate that inland sea.|
|Hakaluki, waiting to be submerged entirely.|
When monsoon reached Hakaluki the trees waded, they got used to that – soothed and soaked all the way up their lower trunks to the first of their boughs. In those months that forest swam: a great forest submerged in an even greater but temporary inland sea. Fancy that!
|The Hakaluki water is clear and as a garden underneath.|
Wind-called waves leapt up at tree snakes sheltering in the nautical treetops, then, with several snakes, if Lal Miah’s memory holds true, in each and every tree. “The forest protected our houses,” he says, “Where we stand will be under ten feet of water in the monsoon.”
|The vast Sylhet Basin used to be underwater.|
|Hakaluki Haor, towards the summer.|
|Freshwater mussel shells.|
Oh, and see the freshwater mussel shells – someone has eaten those – scattered along the summer shoreline? Sometimes they held pearls.
|Fishermen. The local fish catch is not what it used to be.|
|Paddy at Hakaluki Haor.|
There was a plentiful piscine society bustling among the roots of the trees underwater, then. With 107 identified species to some extent there still is, but 32 species are currently threatened and the fish catch has dwindled.
|Some birds are migrants, others remain.|
And the birds – locals and winter migrants: the egrets, the little greb, the pheasant-tailed jacana... Some fly in from as far as Siberia to be gone by the summer; all are attracted to Hakaluki’s possibilities: the purple swamphen, the Asian openbill, the little cormorant and the country’s smallest duck species, the cotton pygmy goose...
|Egrets are still to be found in numbers.|
|Egrets preparing to roost not far from the edge of the haor.|
The mammals meanwhile, greater and lesser, retire to the fringes when the sea arrives. They can hardly live on boats. The porcupine, fishing cats and various civets, excluding the palm civet which may prefer to climb one of the remaining trees... Only when the water recedes will they rediscover their usual stamping ground.
|Lal Miah remembers how it was.|
And beyond the animals, the birds and fish, there were other things that dwelt in that forest, then. “In the jungle time nobody would dare to venture off alone at night,” says Lal Miah, “They would go in groups, if they had to, of at least five people. There were some forest places where bad things, maybe jinn spirits, killed people – time to time they’d find bodies.”
|Do you see? Do you see the hijol tree?|
|Another day dies.|
|Sunset at Hakaluki Haor, Barlekha, Moulvibazar, Bangladesh.|
This article is published in Star Magazine, here: The Hijol Tree
With thanks to Bashir Ahmed of the ECA Management Unit, Department of Environment, for introducing the haor ecosystem.