Private groves

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The first morning, I come across piles of freshly chopped wood in front of each house. An Apatani village is built on high ground and is occupied by hundreds of houses, stacked wall to wall. At places, the road broadens to accommodate a lapang or an open assembly platform for clan members. All houses have the same structure, just as all villages have an almost similar plan. A short flight of four or five steps leads to an open verandah , which then leads to a large room with a fireplace in the middle. This, the only room in an Apatani house, serves as both the living space and the kitchen. The structure's design precludes any rooms along its sides, so increasing the length of the solitary room is the only way an Apatani household can increase its living space.

By the time I have done the first round of the village's main lane, a few people are back with more piles of wood.They appear bemused: yet another person, camera belt around the neck, to contend with! But my Apatani interlocutors humour me as they chop up the larger logs. "It will be Myoko period soon. The entire valley will be whelmed in merry making for a month. No one works during that period. To make up, we collect wood in the month before that,' says one without stopping his axe for a moment. " Myoko is the festival held before planting the seeds and their germination. It takes about 20 days to one month and the elders sit down to decide when we shall plant and then take them out of the nurseries to replant in the field. In between is the time of festivity,' Dollo explains later when I am back in Itanagar. He plans to come back for the festival, almost everyone does.

"The Apatani villages are divided in three groups and each group has its turn to hold the Myoko and invite the rest. No one can be refused and you show your prosperity by serving your guests. This time it's my village's turn,' Bukur explains one day as he rides his scooter to school even while his 70-plus father makes his way to the forest to cut wood for the festival.

Where does so much wood come from?
It comes from the forests the Apatani protect and use. Bukur explains the community's forest management system during one of our daily walks. The Apatanis demarcate their forests: there are private bamboo forests and there are private mixed forests, then there are clan forests as well as common forests. There are sacred groves too. The private forests and the clan mixed forests are very often dominated by the oak species Castanopsis indica. They also have the blue pine species Pinus wallichiana. Hotels in Ziro use the species to the hilt to sell the blue pine valley dream to the few who reach the town. But to the Apatani, it's the basis for life.

There is enormous conjecture on how the blue pine reached the valley but today it's firmly rooted in the area's culture and economy. Wood is the only source of fuel and energy for the Apatanis. "We have limited areas under forests. However, except in a few areas, our forests have not degraded. So, sourcing wood has never been a problem,' says Bukur. He then explains, "Keeping the forests intact requires constant work. We have to tend our seedlings and saplings, and replant at the first sight of open space, keeping the basic idea of silviculture in mind. The saplings from the deeper forests are transplanted into private groves in February or March. In January one can see the people walking around looking for the saplings in their forests as well.'

(See the table: Neatly demarcated)

The Apatani methods appear quite simple on initial observation. But there is always a sense of plan to them. I ask Bukur: When exactly do they cut a particular tree? How do they do mixed planting? He has answers but finds it difficult to articulate them. It's inherited knowledge and can scarcely be expressed in formal conversation.

"We do not rely on monocultures, other useful trees also find place in our scheme of things. The fruit-bearing ones are usually planted in March,' my interpreter tells me. The Apatani have four fruit bearing species: cherry, peach, pear and a bitter tasting subspecies of apple. The odd trees the people leave untouched are the only real evidences of their efficiency. It looks random but the patterns in the spaces created in the forests are visually evident. "Well no one has yet looked at the