‘I wouldn’t say the sky islands of the southern Western Ghats are shrinking or being destroyed. Rather, they are being transformed and changed,’ Ian Lockwood tells me over the phone, from his home in Sri Lanka.
Gradual as they are, landscape transformations such as that of the Palani Hills sky islands—from grasslands to monocultures to sholas—are prone to being forgotten. Lockwood is dedicated to capturing these vistas and ensuring their place in history through photography, frequently using monochrome images to create rare representations of these hills.
On his choice of black-and-white photography, he says, ‘I believe photography is a powerful tool with which to record, document and celebrate our human relationship with the earth. In my formative years, 35mm colour film was processed in studios where mistakes and scratches were common. The black-and-white medium format film gave me more control of the process, helped minimise mistakes and produced fine art prints. More than that, monochromatic images convey a different language of the landscape and bring out nuances that may be overlooked in colour.’
An educator, photographer, environmentalist and self-taught map-maker, Lockwood has been motivated by a love for the hills that stemmed from his early days. ‘My grandfather Edson and father Merrick documented the landscape and change in the Palani Hills in the early to mid-20th century,’ he says. A student of Kodaikanal International School in the 1970s, Lockwood was an avid explorer of the shola-grassland mosaic in the Palani Hills—he wrote for The Kodai Chronicle’s October 2021 issue about his discovery of a ‘secret shola’. He has also been a witness to their transformation, watching as commercial monoculture plantations of eucalyptus, pine and acacia rapidly encroached upon the native ecosystem.
The plains and the peaks 1500-1800m above sea level are worlds apart. A few hundred years ago, the Palani Hills sky islands were a unique grassland habitat that fed rivers and lakes down to the plains. Motivated by a lack of accessible maps focussed on the sky islands, Ian began to create his own on Geographic Information System (GIS) software. Map-making, photography, satellite imagery and analysis, and the written word are all key ingredients in Lockwood’s efforts to tell this complicated story. (More information on the Palani Hills maps are available in this 2018 post on Ian’s event, ‘The Hills of Murugan: An Exhibition on the Palani Hills’.
While on a visit to the Nilgiri Hills in 2006, Lockwood had a fortuitous meeting at Cairn Hill with ecologist Robin Vijayan. He went on to apply the concept of the ‘sky island’ to the unique upper ecosystems of the southern Western Ghats. At the time, Lockwood was already a part of the growing cohort of independent shola or sky island explorers, including Vijayan, Prasenjeet Yadav, Pippa Mukherjee, Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar.
He writes, in his blog post dated December 2020, ‘There are ongoing debates about the origins of large montane grasslands—are they human or natural in origin? [Some] scientists consider the shola-grassland mosaic to be the climax stage of a complicated process in the upper hills.’
All photographs by Ian Lockwood