On The Ribbons of Wonder

The ‘Scenic Highway’ sign brings about an overwhelming goodness of heart; a promise of something worthwhile; a yearning for the treat ahead.

Nuts? (Absolutely – especially near the symmetrically placed Almond plantations on Californian highways.)

Cuckoo? (Of course! Who wouldn’t be to the musical trilling of the birds?)

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_Scenic_Highway_System_(California)
The image was created by Mario Salje from Greifswald, Germany. (Wikipedia)

I poke my head out to inhale the scent of fir, pine or eucalyptus, only to be chided by the children. Amma – stop that! It is cold, or it is hot or it is windy. I try to look repentant, but the joy in my face is a give-away. I become a child collecting wildflowers for the vases that spot every side table in every room in my childhood abode again. The same vases that the father used to roll his eyes at before gingerly moving them out of the way, for they had a tendency to fall and spill onto his ubiquitous newspapers. These tastefully collected possums of wildflowers, interspersed with pine or fir with a sprig of Eucalyptus is joy in a vase. I never learnt the art of Ikebana but my grasp and plonk technique gave me as much joy. 

Even on days when childhood woes and worries weighed heavy on the mind, a saunter in the hillsides with a wildflower bouquet in my hands was enough to get me looking at the world benevolently again.

Adulthood has cured me of this eternal optimism and benevolence, but it has had no luck when it comes to the joy nature can give me. I still potter about the neighborhood sniffing at primroses, admiring cow-slips, and reveling in the wild grass as it pokes its shoots out of the cracks in the pavement. I don’t know the names of the wildflowers, but when I see a squirrel sniff at one, it doesn’t seem to matter whether one knows the name of the flower or not. On road trips, I relish the beauty of the highways, the trees and flowers beside the highways, and thank Earth for its natural bounty. 

Little did I know that I really needed to thank Lady Bird Johnson for this bounty in USA. Having grown up in a small town in Texas, she enjoyed nature and its calming influences first hand. When her husband, Lyndon B Johnson, became President, one of the things she did as First Lady, was to get the Highway Beautification Act underway.

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Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers – By Kathi Appelt, Illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein

The nation was still pained at John F Kennedy’s assassination, and she wanted to cure the nation with the remedy she knew best. Natural beauty.

 

I am grateful to Lady Bird Johnson for this foresight. I belong to the class of people who derive spirituality from Nature, and wholly agree with the feisty Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.)

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” 

― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of Green Gables

The next time you see a scenic highway stretch out like a wondrous ribbon unravelling itself from its spiel, send a wave of gratitude out to the thriving beauty of life out there, and the person(s) responsible for it. 

Beautiful highways are not a quintessential American feature either. There are accounts of beautiful tree lined roads, hugging mountainous roads with marvelous vistas, roads by rivers and through deserts, built as early as 300 BC. The most famous ones I can think off are the Silk Road(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road), and sections of the Grand Trunk Road (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Trunk_Road) 

“The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.” 

― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of Green Gables

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How Windmills Became Giants

No giant or dragon

Is bigger or stronger

Than the human imagination

– Margarita Engle

That was the first poem in the children’s book, ‘Miguel’s Brave Knight – Young Cervantes and his Dream of Don Quixote‘. It acted like a magnet on me – not that iron had entered my soul, far from it, but you get the gist. Silly thing to say that magnets work on people, what I mean is that the book appealed to me. 

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The son and I read it together a few days later, and he cackled, “My goodness! This boy thinks of Knights on every page. “

“Yes. Doesn’t he?” I said, bemused that one who introduced car and ninja motives into everyday speech should find it amusing that another young boy was fixated with knights. I told him so, and he laugh good naturedly. “Yeah – but how come he sees knights everyday? I have never seen a knight.” said the little fellow.  We then had an illuminating discussion on the lure of the knight in the olden days. How ubiquitous he seemed, and what enamored thousands of boys to sign up as knights. Could it have only been a means of livelihood or a quixotic quest for glory? 

Back in the book, the story of Miguel Cervantes flowed along poetically.

The book is artfully written, and tastefully illustrated (Pen,ink and watercolor – sample below) . In short poems, titled Hunger, Imagination, Comfort, Daydreams; the story takes one through the life of Miguel Cervantes, the poor boy with an indifferent education, who made the world a richer place by imagining the modern day novel into existence. His flawed, grandiose, knight, Don Quixote lingers on in human imagination centuries later. 

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Miguel’s Brave Knight – Young Cervantes and his Dream of Don Quixote

The poems really talk of the life of Miguel Cervantes, but are lucid enough to be relished on their own. Miguel Cervantes lived during the sixteenth century, and had a far from easy life. Born to a barber cum surgeon, his early life was in constant turmoil as his father was frequently in debt, and was arrested for it several times. They had to move often, went to school if he could, but throughout all his travails, his imagination was his best friend. At a time when books were rare, and imagination frowned upon, the young Cervantes managed to learn to read and write, and carefully hone his imagination: a gallant knight on a magnificent horse was ever ready to rescue him and the world.

Daydreams  

My daydreamed knight

protects farmers and maidens

from ogres, goblins and trolls

The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Don Quixote of La Mancha was the original title of the book that was eventually published in Spanish. 

He sees windmills as giants 

with enormous, spinning arms

The first time I saw a windmill, I stood transfixed, even as an adult. It is no wonder that it appealed to the imagination of a young boy.

Beautiful poetry, mellow illustrations and the story behind Don Quixote is truly irresistible, and I have read the book several times already with joy.

Also read: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

Lord Float A Duck!

I remember the first time I heard the Duck-with-an-F word in public. I was horrified. It was in a meadow where we had convinced a gullible teacher to take us out on a nature amble instead of listening to the stern and necessary work that goes into maintaining a civic society. The middle school children far from being lambs and observing nature were trying to play a game of Kabbadi instead. Kabbadi for those who don’t know, is a game where one runs saying the word Kabbadi Kabbadi Kabbadi Kabbadi Kabbadi Kabbadi Kabbadi Kabbadi over and over again till you want to shriek in agony.

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What horrified me was the fact that far from shouting Kabbadi Kabbadi Kabbadi, the boys were insisting on shouting Mucking-an-F or Duck-with-a-letter-that-comes-after-E and this seemed to incense the whole lot of them unduly.

As they looked around in that male-hen-y fashion, I was appalled that something this crude was expected to draw admiration from the girls. I cannot say the girls admired the swearing nitwits very much. We felt a little sorry for the new teacher who was flailing his arms like a shepherd who had just let a puppy loose in the herd by mistake.

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The Fabbading went on and on till another resourceful teacher hovered in sight, saw the plight of the poor new recruit who had completely lost control of his class, and showed the fellow how to regain control. Under this stern shepherd, suddenly the fowls spitting F’s became lambs again, bleated a little pathetically, and quietly headed back to the classroom. But I had altered that day.

Then, I remember reading the first “adult” book, and gasping for air every few minutes. For something strange happened: contrary to the adults I knew, the folks in the book hissed and puffed and cussed all over the place. I was wondering whether being adult meant puffing like a penguin in a desert.

I can’t say things have changed much since then.

Society far from growing out of this trend seems to have taken this to alarming extremes. Presidents freely use S-*-*-* words, and worse the news agencies gleefully repeat them.

I wonder how many of you remember cackling at the Tintin comics by Herge: Tintin comics are great fun. I read a few last week, and found myself giggling like a preschooler being tickled by the carpet on which they are rolling. Captain Haddock was my favorite. When he lost his temper, which he seemed to do on every alternate page, he swore in the most imaginative manner possible. The bumbling-bashibazouk made me smile every time he swore. He made one think. He made one use one’s fumbling brain and every swear was one in which you smiled at the brilliance of it.

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Would he call you a jelly-fish or a marinated eel? One never knew.

Imagine yourself facing off a street punk who looks ready and willing to punch your nose. If you call him a Mucking-Duck with a double F, he has to stop mid punch with his hand drawn back and ask himself, “Whaddideesay?” and it gives you valuable time in which run away like krill fleeing the direction of the whale’s rumble. Fumble, tumble, rough and scramble.

So, here is a plea – make people work out their insults. Give them work. Mucking a Duck is far too easy. Call a fellow who does not like his vegetables a squash-nibbling centipede. Tell a fellow who is proud of his batting that he is a bat-bungling bamboozle. Think nonsense and regain the pleasant sensibilities of being in one’s senses.

As Theodore Geisel, or Dr Seuss says, “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.

The Dance of the Butterflies

Magical March gave us the immense satisfaction of walking to school under magical rainbows,  leprechauns had wreaked havoc and left treasures, my mother got to see her father for the first time at the age of 73, we had a beautiful trip playing in the snow, the doting grandparents arrived and the children have been reveling in the social rainbow that enveloped them.

Out in the natural world, the hills are alive with the sound of moo-sic (cows grazing – get it, get it?), the cherry blossoms send sparks of joy piercing through the soul every time I look at them, and the butterflies have been dancing the dance of joy. Rain showers cleansed the Earth, and all nature around us seems to be smiling benevolently.

 

One beautiful evening, I stepped out on a walk with my little son. Elementary school children derive a certain pleasure in crouching and looking at ants, snails or ladybugs. This time, however, we crouched down to look at a furry, black caterpillar. After reading Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, everyday for months at a time with each of the children, I did not think that I would be enamored sitting and observing caterpillars, but such is the infectious enthusiasm of youth. (The Wind in the Reefs – Working title of The Wind In The Willows)

I found myself excited and thrilled to crouch and watch the caterpillar make its short journey across the concrete path back into the sidewalk where the bushes grew. I still find it amazing that these creatures metamorphose into butterflies. Eggs->Caterpillar(larvae)->Chrysalis(Pupa)->Butterfly has to be the most magical thing in our daily existence next to rainbows.

Later that week, the crouch with the caterpillar made me reach longingly for the book, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science – Joyce Sidman

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Maria Merian was a naturalist and illustrator in the seventeenth century.  Written by the children’s author and poet, Joyce Sidman, she says:

In many ways, Maria was an enigma. She rarely wrote about anything other than caterpillars…What we do know is that she had boundless energy, insatiable curiosity, and superhuman focus – traits that would have been difficult to live with, but ones that marked her as a true scientist at a time when the odds were stacked against her.

How does one find the passion and perseverance to stick to a field of study in spite of societal disapproval, familial duties and demanding businesses?  The book gives us a glimpse into seventeenth century life: The impossible clamps on Women, the dangerous possibility of any curiosity being mistaken for witchcraft, the difficult life of artists in general and so much more.

I have always admired those who have high energy levels and put it to good use. Maria Merian was one of those people. She was a brilliant artist, had business acumen and her curiosity about insects made her a pioneer in the field of etymology (A field that did not even have a name until several decades after her death). Her contributions to etymology were remarkable because she also managed to travel to Surinam near Barbados in those days with the sole purpose of studying animal life. Her paintings on Surinam and her books on caterpillars had great appeal in Europe, and Maria Merian went on to transform Art and Science forever.

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The book is full of beautiful diagrams, paintings, flowers and plants with little insects on them. It is a joy to thumb through even if it is just to look at the pictures.

 

 

Here is to more butterflies, rainbows and magic.

How My Mother Saw Her Father

My mother saw her father for the first time last week. She is 73 years old.

Her older siblings are in their eighties and nineties. Yet, their reactions on unexpectedly seeing their father made one think the last seven decades never happened. Will miracles never cease? Geriatric Joy is a lovely thing to behold.

My mother was the last born in a family of seven. When she was 3 years old, her father passed away. A shock that left the family bereft, and sent their mother into a decline from which she never recovered. Kind relatives helped, but there was no denying that the household was headed for turbulent times. Her older brothers, then teenagers, made for the nearby towns in search of work. They were hard-working boys, and slowly, the boys managed to bring the rest of the family to the town. Despite all the hardships and the lack of money and resources, they sent my mother and her sister (still young children) to school.

The girls did not disappoint them. Their intelligence, hard work and perseverance was easily recognized by their schools, and soon, they were encouraged to get a college degree. When all the world around them judged the brothers for spending their hard earned money on educating the girls (That too sisters, not even daughters wagged the tongues in the village), they did it anyway. The sisters became the first graduates from their village and went on to become Physics and Chemistry teachers.

Life’s tempests may have denied my uncles the opportunity to study, but they did not hesitate when it came to educating their little sisters. They, in my mind, are the true heroes of the #HeForShe movement.

“O, brave new world

that has such people in’t!” 

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

I remember reading the children’s book, Are You My Mother, By P.D.Eastman . In the book, an egg hatches when the mother bird is out. The chick goes out into the world searching for its mother. The little chick asks all types of creatures: dogs, cows, and even cars and planes, “Are You My Mother?”. 

 

 

I remember thinking that my mother must have felt the same way about her father. She had no recollection of how he looked, and this was something that always wrung my heart given how much I adore my own father. She, however, was stoic and practical about it, just as she is about life. She always considered herself lucky to have been a sibling to such a loving set of brothers and sisters, all of whom dote on her to this day.

Her brothers, our dear maamas, told us that they looked and searched for any photographs of their dear father, the good-looking, duty bound man.  They had combed through the scant wedding albums, peered into old archives since he had worked as a chef in the Kanchipuram Sankaracharya’s Mutt,  but they were disappointed. Though many people had good things to say about him, and even went on to say my mother looked a lot like him, there were no photographs anywhere. He lived on in the memories people had of him, but my mother did not even have any of those to hang on to.

Then, one spring morning in 2018, on a new moon day,  her 90 year old brother sat down with his morning coffee in hand and opened Dinamalar, the Tamil newspaper. That day the newspaper had printed some pictures from the Kanchipuram mutt’s archives. And there he was. In the frame beside Sankaracharya stood their father. Maama recognized him, and immediately hollered to his son, to send the picture to my mother. “She is the only one who has no memory of how he looked.”, he said smiling like a child again.

 

 

So, at 73, my mother finally saw her father. Radhakrishnan Iyer had 7 children, two of whom have already passed away. The youngest is a septuagenarian. What were the chances of a 90 year old man still retaining the habit of reading the newspaper every morning? Why he had been reading that particular newspaper that day? The fact that he retained the mental acuity to recognize his father who passed away 70 years ago is nothing short of a miracle.

I sat with my mother while she massaged her arthritic knees, and asked her how she felt at seeing her father’s face finally. Her face broke into a slow, wide smile, and she said, “I felt very happy to see him of course! You should have heard anna and akka (elder brother and sister) though. They were so excited and happy to finally show me my father!”

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I love the word, Serendipity.  If this isn’t Serendipity, what is? Though a tiny analytical piece of me nudges me about probability and coincidence, I think Radhakrishnan Iyer wanted his youngest daughter to have a glimpse of him in her lifetime, and he revealed himself to her.

 

How Squids Shaped Our Myths

We are familiar with the Pangea theory (large hulk of a landmass floating together, and breaking apart into the continents of today, current day India going and joining up with the Eurasian chunk and creating the Himalayas in the process etc). Supporting evidence for this theory has been largely in the form of marine fossils found in the Himalayas, a region that is landlocked today.

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Pangea animation from Wikipedia

It was while reading Squid Empire by Danna Staaf that I realized how intertwined the evolution of the world, our myths, theories and culture are.

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Culture is a funny word. It is supposed to capture the intellectual and sociological elements of a group of people living at a certain point in time in a certain place. The clothes, the food, the music and drama, the myths, the beliefs, the societal graces etc are what loosely constitute culture. It always amazes me how a word that is essentially an observation of life can be taken by the self righteous and used to noisily monger about the manger (but that is another post for another day.)

It is not surprising that our myths reflect our surroundings. Some cultures where myths have intertwined with religion are also reflective of the evolution of mankind over time in these places.

Indian myths, for instance, say that the Himalayas are home to the Gods. At the time when the myths originated, the Himalayas were probably looked on with awe (they still are, but probably more so 5000 years ago), and the only beings capable of living and scaling the mountains were attributed to having god-like capabilities. (Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, apparently could be reached at Mt Kailas, Himadri Range, Himalayas. )

Lord Vishnu (The preserver), was always depicted with a conch and a shell. I have often wondered why Vishnu had a conch and a shell. Why not a sword and scythe?

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Shiva-Vishnu: Image from Google Search

But like a minute puzzle piece waiting to chink into place, I realize that these were the fossils found in the Himalayas at the time. Nautilus shells, and ammonoid shells. They are shaped like conches and shells. Of course, they became the accessories for the popular gods. <Pictures of ammonoid shell fossils below>

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Quote from The Squid Empire by Danna Staaf:
Just on the other side of the Himalayas in India, certain coiled ammonoids fossils are named saligrams, symbols of the god Vishnu, and are believed to offer spiritual rather than physical healing.

Quote from: Adrienne Mayor’s paper on  (Fossil Appropriations Past and Present), (Classics and History of Science, Stanford University)

A current popular exhibit called “Mythic Creatures” at the American Museum of Natural History (May – Dec 2007) demonstrates how some stories of fantastic creatures, such as griffins, unicorns, and water monsters, arose from observations of extinct animal fossils around the world.

There is always a beauty to observing the natural phenomena around us. We are minute in a large throbbing cosmos, occupying a still thriving ecosystem on Earth for minuscule specks in time.

When you think about life that way, it seems beautiful:  a gift meant to be nourished and cherished. Did the squid think they would influence homo-sapiens millennia later, and help shape their culture? Probably not. But they did, just by existing.

 

 

 

Cephalopods

The husband had an amused expression on his face as he walked into the kitchen and saw me reading while making dinner. His eyes were set to roll, and his lips had already started on the journey to upward curvature that results in an indulgent smile. I told him so.

“Your neurons, it seems, are all controlled by one brain – tut tut! Not the case with Cephalopods. Take octopi or octopuses for example. They have neurons tingling all over their many arms, and each arm can function almost independently of another. Severed arms have been known to collect food on their own you know?”

“What are you reading now?”, asked the husband.

“Squid Empire by Danna Staaf. It is a book about squids, octopuses, and some other creatures called nautiluses and ammonoids, coleoids and cuttlefish and god-knows-what-else. Apparently, they are all called Cephalopods.” I said beaming happily, while slowly roasting the dinner. It made me feel like an eight armed goddess myself just reading about these fascinating creatures, and cooking at the same time. Never mind that I was making the most gawd-awful hash at both these tasks.

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“Did you know? The humble garden snail is descended from the ammonoids and squids?” I said.

“Well….I will leave you to it then.” said he squiggling out of the kitchen like an octopus out of a tank.

I went back to the book and though I was at times confused by the various scientific terms, I enjoyed the read. It yanked me through the ages, and took me to a time in Earth’s history well before dinosaurs or life on land had started. It was intriguing to see how they formed shells, and how those very shells helped them move from the ocean floor to the central zones of the ocean where they could swim and live with no apparent threat till the whales and larger fish evolved to eat them. The shells secreted a liquid less salty than the surrounding sea water, and this helped them float and remain buoyant instead of being brought down by the heavy shells.

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The Evolutionary History of Cephalopods from the book, Squid Empire

Why did I pick up a book on Squids?

I don’t really know, except that I loved the children’s book, Octopus and Squid by Tao Nyeu. A book that the son and I read every now and then for its beautiful friendship between two seemingly different creatures.

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Squid and Octopus by Tao Nyeu

Then, a few months ago, I read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

Cosmic Nature of Living:

Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”

Now, I felt it was time to get acquainted with Squids. I don’t distinctly remember a squid – I must have seen them at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Their evolution is fascinating. The book is written by a genuine marine lover (Danna Staaf’s site is here: cephalopodiatrist), and her love for these creatures shines through in the book. I only wish the book had more pictures. I had to keep looking up pictures on the internet. Pictures of nautilus, cuttlefish, squid and octopus obtained from Google search below:

 

I had never used the word, Cephalopod, before, and I was glad to learn so much about another way of life, even if I may never fully comprehend what it means to have consciousness so permeable, so distributed, and yet co-ordinated.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. Loren Eiseley

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