Post 63 – Day 36 ‘I Participate in an act of Environmental Pollution’ (Pt 1)

Post 63a Post 63b Post 63c Post 63d Post 63e

At first light, and tiring of laying prone in bed, awake and continuously counting the passing of trains in the distance, I rise and take advantage of the apparent absence of overly diligent camp attendants and wander across the surrounding low sand hills. I take care not to approach several huts located close by for I do not know where private property boundaries might begin and end, the few tumble down fences in sight not giving a clear indication of where I could venture without giving offence or trespass. I am keen to discover what creatures are responsible for the hundreds and hundreds of holes excavated everywhere in the sand, each entrance being at least five centimetres wide. The air is cool but not uncomfortably cold and so I am hoping that several of the little denizens might be active at this hour and that if I tread gently my footsteps will not intimidate whatever animals they are. Cautious and quiet as I am, my efforts are rewarded with nothing more than a fleeting glimpse of a single rodent-like mammal that emerges for but a few seconds, hurriedly evicts sand from the burrow entrance and disappears before I can attempt to gauge what form of beast it might be. The only thing I was certain of was that its tail was not noticeably long and so was unlikely to be a rat; an observation better than nothing. Nevertheless, my observation provided an example of ‘biopedturbation’ in action, short-lived and too far away as this particular episode unfortunately was.

Biopedturbation means nothing more terrible than soil disturbance by animals, in particular vertebrates; those animals with backbones. Soil disturbance by humans using bulldozers, ploughs and back-hoe tractors does not qualify. Holes, specifically ‘smials’, built by fanciful hobbits just might qualify. Though such activities are a kind of biopedturbation, they are not really what ecologists had in mind when they coined the term.

Disturbance to soil caused by mammals is a major source of the patchiness, or heterogeneity, of nutrients and microhabitat niches in ecosystems, especially arid and semi-arid ones. It is important in soil formation, and water filtration and storage. The foraging pits and nest burrows produced by a variety of mammals in different environments, be these arid zones or tropical forests, are features that trap plant litter and seeds that are then rapidly buried. The excavations create a mosaic of germination sites that are rich in nutrients or that result in the relatively quick covering of seeds by further burrowing and foraging activity. The buried seeds are then protected from seed-eating animals, thus biopedturbation can alter levels of seed mortality and increase the germination of plant seedlings, and subsequent plant abundance. Soil ejected, ‘ejecta’ if you prefer jargon, from animal burrows is generally of low bulk density, can erode readily and varies greatly with respect to the concentration of nutrients and organic matter depending upon the animal species and the landscape in which the species lives. Whatever the species I observed was, either there were a lot of them, or by the sheer number of burrows, there were a few zealously industrious animals that worked overtime and didn’t get to relax much. In terms of their potential influence on the ecology of the landscape, the sparseness of vegetation and the seemingly uniform nature of the coarse sand hereabouts suggested these creatures did not have much to work with. It all just looked so barren. However, recent studies on the foraging impacts of the Short-beaked Echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus, in arid and semi-arid habitats in Australia, demonstrated that their foraging pits trapped significantly more leaf litter compared with surfaces that were not pitted, and soils in pits were often softer and moister, and that pit temperature was lower; conditions more favourable for seed germination and seedling growth. Thus echidnas, iconic Australian egg-laying and ant eating ‘monotreme’ mammals, whose quill-armed bodies are almost impossible to pick up with unprotected hands, are important ecological engineers and critical for the maintenance of small scale landscape heterogeneity and the efficient ecological functioning of ecosystems. I can only assume the unknown little Indian animal makes parallel contributions to the ecological well-being of the arid ecosystem that surrounds my glamorous tent.

Some hours later, breakfast complete, issues of unanticipated hotel meal surcharges attended to, and luggage safely packed in the rear of the car, I depart. I am not happy. Actually, I’m particularly aggrieved. It was a tourist trap alright, and I was ambushed, financially. Only my plumber knows how to charge more exorbitantly. Even the driver was caught up by my bursts of negativity. The person we call William Shakespeare is said to have crafted the lines “He who steals my purse steals naught, but he who steals my good name steals all”. Not my purse, ‘my wallet’. I cherish it. It’s a part of my family. If I had the option I’d have it welded permanently shut and surgically padlocked to my hip. I know every one of my coins therein by its first name, every last little cent of them. I nursed each one from when they were tiny babies, when they were just innocent little bits of shapeless alloy. I was there at the Federal Mint for their birth, I saw them individually stamped and dated by the delivering surgeon, and when I part with any one of them, I cry tears of blood. They’re children. My ‘purse’ is not a repository for useless money that I have no care for, it’s a nursery. The camel camp proprietor bit my wallet, and out of a sense of betrayed loyalty the wallet bit me. And I still have the scar. Only the driver’s position of relative safety in the front seat later saved him from the worst of my innovative display of Australian colloquialisms. My knowledge of Old English and Early Saxon ‘street speech’, even surprised me. I put the ‘F’ in ‘foul’ good and proper. No wonder the head waiter acted cool when I had raised the subject of the missing menu at dinner. They gave me no idea that the bland potato strategically positioned and alone in the centre of my dinner plate was the last of its kind and had been blessed by the Dalai Lama. I would have given it back, and would have been more than content to just rent out the empty plate for half an hour. Thank goodness I didn’t order that second glass of water!

Back out through the entrance gate of the camel camp theme park we drove, the driver cowering down in response to my unabated verbal onslaught, the tour car picking up sufficient speed to raise a small cloud of grit-laden dust, the driver’s side rear wheel leaving the ground maybe several centimetres or so as we wildly facilitated a sharp exiting turn to the left. The weight of the driver’s foot on the accelerator was in direct proportion to the weight of my tongue on his ear. That morning, suitably irritated by the exorbitant price I was charged on departure for last night’s Spartan meal my ‘Mr Toad’, like the proverbial ‘Mr Hyde’ of Dr Jekyll and Company notoriety, was seriously peeved. ‘Toad’ had risen with a vengeance. If I had been entrusted to the care of the car’s steering wheel and gear stick I would have done some serious ‘spin-outs’ on the proprietor’s garden beds. I’d have shown him how the lads back at Hometown drive on Saturday nights when they put their mortality on the line in the seeking of favours from unattached young women out on the streets way past an honest girl’s bedtime. Barely had the guard opportunity to rise from his chair as we sped by, he having no time at all to finalise the eloquent flourish of his salute before we were off over the nearest sand dune, vanishing from his sight. Poor man, I hope he doesn’t get paid by piece work, ‘by the car’ so to speak, for my party was one of only two I counted in residence that night. Obviously word about the price of the establishment’s meals had got around. Hopefully, like the security man outside my hotel at Varanasi, the camel camp guard was content, in the intervening hours between the rare coming and going of vehicles, to slumber. Or maybe he’s undertaking a post-graduate study of the ecology of fossorial mammals, the need to rise to attention every so often to greet guests nothing more than a rare day-job interruption that supplements his university grant. One never knows.


We make the short drive to Osian before continuing on to Jaisalmer, this being quite close to the Pakistan border. By the hour’s end I had cooled down somewhat, but I couldn’t help wondering how many days some poor under-aged Indian child worker would have to put in hand stitching soccer balls for the Australian sports market before he or she earned the amount of ransom I had been fleeced of. The meal I ate was worth in price about a month’s salary for a Varanasi silk weaver.


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