Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Hijol Tree

Do you see? Do you see the hijol tree? Note its cracked, thirsty bark and the determinedness of its stance. With majestic bird’s-nest-in-crown and orderly ant lines it brings connectedness. It stands alone... they stand in clumps and pairs across the plain. Scan the empty lowland horizon between depressed watery stretch and rice field to find those lasting symbols.

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.

Birds nest.

We can imagine the walking in circles not being sure of the forwards from the backwards or of knowing in which direction lay the way out and which the way home. The canopy, the vines, a wealth of green so abundant that even the harsh sun’s rays must’ve been a little shy to shine there, knowing, chances were, they’d never touch the ground.

The landscape is open and empty.

Of an afternoon it would’ve been stifling with humidity – it still is as we stand in the open with Lal Miah – and crawling with insects, then. Who could’ve heard their thoughts when the green hell was decked with the din of the jhi-jhi poka cicadas? For the darting crows, jumping bough to twig, it must’ve been a heavenly supermarket in that season, with those delectable insects in their millions to be snatched as easily as leaf litter by the bucket could be lifted from the forest floor.

The few hijol trees are symbols of what was.

Wild elephants passed by, stomping, crushing, playing with bamboo stalks as toothpicks in their trunks – Lal Miah remembers. Rhesus macaques, capped leaf monkeys and the choshma bandor – the phayre’s leaf monkeys which wear the ghostly imprint of spectacles – they called loudly. Guardians of their territories those primates must’ve held confidence in where the tastiest flower-fruit-bug morsels were.

Sunlight finds the hijol.

The full moon must’ve been the decorator then, sprinkling light panes down into the first of the leaves. And to the moon the jackals raised their voices, with hundreds howling as if to triumphantly summon the shadowy places to stalk with liberty and loiter through the forest night.

When the sun sets over Hakaluki there are still a few jackals to hear; of a day a few monkeys, if you can find them.

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.

Hakaluki dreaming.

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.”

Hakaluki's abundance.

And along the road, stationed in the dry fields we saw the yellow nouka boats looking absurd. Even now Hakaluki is still that type of wetland called a haor. Even now a clacking frog is at work making percussion in the reeds beside the deepest permanent water body; and somewhere spotted flapshell and hardshell turtles are wondering how long before the sea returns.

The 40,000 hectares of the Hakaluki Haor area forms one of the remnant wetland ecosystems that dot the up to 25,000 km² of the Sylhet Basin. To go back further, before the howling jackals, before the cicadas, before the serpents in trees... in ancient times the whole Basin was underwater. A true inland sea, the so-called Ratnag stretched from Meghalaya’s cliffs to Tripura’s uplands, then, and provided a maritime home for the mysterious Kirata people.

The vast Sylhet Basin used to be underwater.
Hakaluki Haor, towards the summer.

Long afterwards, probably when Hakaluki was already forested, there was a locality, some place somewhere, where the local Bengali people took to pronouncing the letter ‘s’ as ‘h’. It’s from such custom that the word morphed, so it is believed: when the Bengali sagor, meaning sea, became the large seasonal wetland, haor.

Freshwater mussel shells.

Oh, and see the freshwater mussel shells – someone has eaten those – scattered along the summer shoreline? Sometimes they held pearls.


Oh, and see the youths with the grape-sized, devil-faced hingai fruit in their basket? Sweet like the rose apple, it grows underwater in the shallows of the dry season only to disappear when the sea arises.

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.

“When the forest was here we couldn’t sleep for the sound of the birds,” says Lal Miah.

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.”

Some efforts are being made to restore Hakaluki. Since 1999 it’s been declared as an Ecologically Critical Area by the Department of Environment and projects are afoot. The Dutch are investing. This year three new bird species, the black headed ibis, the glossy ibis and the painted stork, found elsewhere in Bangladesh, were sighted for the first time. And beehives, absent since 2006, returned – three or four of them. These are signs of increasing biodiversity.

It would be a great dream to see, one day, that submerged forest rise again. Maybe it will never be. For now we can only imagine, knowing that secret past while inspecting the hijol tree.

Do you see? Do you see the hijol tree?

Another day dies.

Will the forest ever arise again?

Lastly, you know, a strange thing happened in Hakaluki which you won’t believe. It was when we’d walked a few hundred paces away from Lal Miah – still in the open vastness, not a single tree to hide behind, no rise to the land. But when we turned, looked back and scoured the scene, it was more than a little perplexing... that Lal Miah... he was gone; vanished as if into thin air.

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.

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