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THE FOREST OFFICER
THE elephant knows. When the mahout wants to get on to her neck, she takes him on her trunk and bends it till he can walk up her forehead. When you want to get on to her back, she lets down a hind-foot to make one step, and curls up her tail to make another. She knows that a branch she can walk under will sweep you off her back; therefore she goes round, or, if that is not possible, pushes down the tree with her trunk as gently as you put down a teacup. At every ford she tries the bottom, at every bridge she tries the planks: she knows better than you do how much she weighs and what will bear her.
Jerk, jerk, jerk — she seesaws you at every step, for you are sitting on a blanket just atop of her shoulder. Now and again the mahout addresses her in a language, handed down from father to children, that only mahouts and elephants understand, or smites her over the head with the heavy, iron-hooked ankus. It falls with a dull thud on her hairy forehead; it would crack your skull like an eggshell, but it hurts the elephant as a dead leaf would hurt you. Behind her ear you see a crevasse of raw flesh in the armour-plating of hide: that wound is kept open, and through it only can she be made to feel. She just tramples on, now tilted almost on to her head, now all but standing on her tail; over the shallow rivers, along the rutted cart-tracks, till the sun begins to bake and the line of hills in front changes from a wash of blue to a clear-cut saw-edge of shaded greens and browns.
Past a village of leaning mud, past a string of squeaking carts — the elephant knows the bullocks will shy, and tries to skirt round them: they shy none the less, and the cart twists on the yoke-pole and turns clean turtle. The driver is not in the least disturbed: time is plenty in India jerk, jerk, on we go. Now we begin to climb the lowest slopes — the toes of the Himalaya, whose waists are girdled with clouds and whose heads look over the floor of heaven. We tilt up and down narrow paths, brush past mats of branch and thorn and creeper: now we are in the very forest, the native immemorial jungle. From the elephant you look over a sea of tossing greens curling into a yellow foam of young leaves, or flecked with eddies of rusty brown where the frost has bitten. Nearer are pavilions and cloisters roofed with slabs of blue-blushing creeper-leaf. Across the alleys dart sun-birds, gold-green dusted with bronze, or magpies flashing yellow-plush bodies under black-and-white wings, or tiny blue-satin kingfishers reflected in diamond cascades. Then a creaking wooden screech, a crackling in the underwood, and overhead, with his crested prow, his sea-purple side, his long wake of plumes, floats by in full sail the royal peacock. In the intervals the jungle is dead silent.
Another rise, another elbow of cliff, and the elephant, plucking a tuft of grass to shampoo herself with, is kneeling down by a little plastered bungalow on a dry lawn. It is the forest lodge. Here, looking out and down to the blue steak of the river as it scrambles out of the hills and trundles the rafts of deodar-sleepers down to the railway, looking across to the scarred sides of the hills beyond, to the floor of plain on his right and the giant's stairway of mountain on his left, lives the forest officer.
He stands nearer six feet six than six feet, and rides nearer fifteen stone than fourteen; therefore, drawing the pay of a forest officer, he usually walks. In the corner of his bare-plastered living-room stand a rifle and gun, which he takes out when he walks, in order to persuade himself that he has his recreations. At his feet snores a retriever-spaniel, which he keeps that he may not forget how to talk English. His food comes out of tins, except the jungle-fowl and hares he shoots and the unleavened chapatties his servant bakes instead of bread. Religion in this region allows the shooting of pea-fowl, but because of religion he denies himself beef. He gets up two hours before dawn, that he may waste no daylight in beginning his work at the far end of the forest. After dinner he is too tired to read, though he loves books, and his opinions on them are those of a man who thinks when we are talking. As it is, he nods over the five-days-old "Pioneer"; he cannot keep his eyes open after half-past eight. Thus he lives alone from month to month and year to year. His wife and children and friends are the young trees in the forest. Sometimes in the jungle he comes across another white man, who stays five minutes and talks English over a peg.
If he wants to save his soul alive, he must save it, like three-quarters of the rest of them in India, by work. The work of the forest officer is strange enough to the ordinary Briton: there are forests of a sort at home, but no forestry to speak of. My friend knows nothing except forestry, he cheerfully alleges, and therefore he must cling to his present billet through solitude and fevers, or else starve. In France and Germany they have State forests — ten square miles to an officer with efficient rangers and guards, where the Indian officer has perhaps a thousand with hopeless natives. Eleven million acres — over a third of the area of England — are the domain immediately under the Indian Forest Department, and of late years Government has begun to make money out of them.
The forest officer must save his soul by works, but also by faith. He differs from the other slaves of India in that they can reap the fruit of their labours; he never. The district officer sees his people harvest their crops and Government garner its revenue; the engineer watches his canal make fields out of sand. Of the trees the forest officer plants, the first will not be felled till he has left the service; before the last is turned into revenue his very tombstone will be moss-grown. He plans by night and sweats by day to create what he will never see. Of all India's bondsmen she asks the greatest sacrifice of him; of all she asks the best of their life, but of him she asks his very individuality. He must sink himself to be a mere connecting-link, a hyphen in the story of his wood, taking up that which was old before he was born, and passing it on to be still young when he is dead. Twenty rings in a log — and the life's work of a man!
It is his to follow the working plan. A forest, you understand, is so much national capital, and, like other capital, it must be made to bear interest. If you cut down all your timber, your capital is gone, and your children will want for sleepers and window-frames and firewood — that is what naughty rajahs do. If you fell nothing, you are wrapping your talent up in a napkin. The working plan is designed to draw the annual increment from the forest and to leave the principal untouched. The trees in a particular wood take, we will say, a hundred years to reach maturity; then, if the wood is of a thousand acres' area, you fell ten acres each year. As you cut down you sow again; so that at the end of each year's fellings the forest is divided into a hundred ten-acre compartments varying in age from nothing to ninety-nine.
Simple enough so far; but so far the forest officer's work is only a bit of paper. There are a thousand complications. Some young trees will not grow except in the shade of others, which shelter them from sun or frost or Wind; then you cannot simply cut down the forest in strips. It may be that part of the wood is on a slope, and to clear it altogether would untie the binding roots and call down a landslip. In such cases you must have the trees of different ages mixed. Then, again, there are such things as sapling forests, which grow from the stools of felled trees and not from seed; these will be cleared at regular intervals, say, of twenty years — a less impersonal business for the forest officer, for he can actually see his forest grow from year to year.
Whatever the plan, there is only one course for him. Experts argue theories of planting or thinning: he must go out into the forest and look at the trees. No two cases for planting, for thinning, will be exactly alike, because no two trees out of all the millions are: he must go out and judge. So out we will go, under the beating sunshine. First along the fire-lines, where the ground has been cleared to a width that flames will hardly leap over: the cutting of fire-lines around and within the forest is the first precaution of the conservator. In this forest it was at one time neglected; hence crooked trees which have had their sap frizzled up one year and have budded in another direction the next; now they will never make good logs if they grow for ages. Then we turn up a nullah — a mad torrent in the rains, now a scrunching ladder of pebble and boulder. Then aside into the forest towards a sweet savour of wood-smoke: here are half-a-dozen squat hillmen round their earth-banked charcoal furnaces. They asked the other day for new axes, and the officer inquires, in their Himalaya dialect, if they have got them yet. "No, O Presence," says the monkey-whiskered headman. The ranger had been told to serve them out, and has not done it. Then off through the long grass that brushes your ears, breaking through tangles of bush, dodging under branches, wriggling over meshes of creeper; a distant tapping sharpens into the chock-chock of axes, then comes a burst of sunlight, and we are in a half-open glade where coolies are felling and cross-cutting.
This particular work was reported by the ranger as finished three weeks ago; it is still going on. And there you fall once more across the maddening, benumbing clog of all work in India — the native subordinate. In the law-court it is his dishonesty that most strikes you: here it is his indolent incapacity. And, indeed, if you cannot get good native magistrates and clerks, how shall you look for good rangers? The ranger is probably a bunnia's son: that shopkeeper-usurer sees that education brings a livelihood, and educates his son for the public service. Such as are not good enough for desks in the civil service go to the Forest School at Dehra Dun, and presently are fledged rangers. For centuries the rangers' fathers have been sitting on the counter of a shop, sticking their fingers into a pile of sugar and sucking them: what should the ranger do in a forest? He hates the place and everything about it. Why should he walk over a lot of beastly stones, through a lot of beastly prickles? Then in the day it is hot in the forest, and in the morning he cannot go out without his food. Why, indeed, should he be asked to walk at all? To walk is an indignity in India.
So he ambles his pony along the fire-line every few days, and leaves the inside of the forest to the foresters and the guards and the coolies and God. And when his officer asks him what has been done, he draws on his voluble imagination. The ranger in this case had ridden within twenty yards of the fellings every day — or said he had — for weeks; he had never taken the trouble to turn in and see how the work was really being done.
A few yards further the beat of axes suddenly ceased behind a bush, and was succeeded by the buzz of a saw. A turbaned head appeared, watching our approach through the boughs; when we reached the spot, two coolies were cross-cutting a log, and a forester sprang up in great confusion, bare-headed. The meaning of that little comedy was obscure to me, but plain to the expert. The man had been ordered to make his coolies use the saw for cross-cutting, which they, disliking, had prevailed on him to let them hack away with the axe. When he saw the Presence coming he gave warning and they flew to the saw; and to prove he had not been keeping Cave he knocked off his puggari, without which no self-respecting native would ever appear before a superior. With an air of bashful confusion he rewound the turban and humbly pointed out that he was making them use the saw.
Thus native assistants assist. The white man is out in the cold, dead hours before dawn, when the beasts are gone to sleep and the birds are not yet awake, when the very trees doze and the forest is a cavern of black silence, stirred only by the plump of heavy dewdrops on to the decaying humus below. The natives are in bed; and when the white man comes in back-broken at sunset he has two hours of asking why they did not do their work and of doing it for them. By this means, despite the neglect of many generations, the forests are slowly filling up with straight, young trees, and the bookshops with works on the gratifying efficiency of our native public services. That is exactly India.