The Quixotic Birthday Gift

Family and friends enveloped me with love and showered their kindness on me for my birthday. In the words of Oliver Gold Smith, I often think our lives are lived out in what is called the ‘vale of obscurity’, but this essence of living and giving bathes me in gratitude. This Thanksgiving, I counted my blessings with joy, thanked everyone for enabling a fruitful life and continued to ponder on the mysterious power of love.

I don’t care what physicists have to say about it, or whether the teenagers in my life roll their eyes, it is love that makes the world go around.

“So, what do you want as a birthday gift?”, asked the children dancing around me excited. I had seen and marveled their cards, and they looked on expectantly as I struggled to find a wish they could fulfill.

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Finally, I said,  “Sometime this year, I want to go a national park I have never been to before.

“Ugh! I don’t want to go another national park!”, moaned the daughter.

“Well…thank you for that marvelous gift my dear. Like Jane Austen says: They are much to be pitied who have not been given a taste for nature early in life. ”, I said.

She had the grace to blush and said, “Good job at the sarcasm Amma! But another nature themed vacation? Seriously?”

I nodded unabashed at this less than enthusiastic response. I had my eyes set on two national parks that I had been planning and dropping for the past 10 years: Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.

“Why? It will be lovely, we can go hiking, running and playing.”, said her little brother skipping at the prospect of the great open.

“Oh please!” was the only response she deigned to grace us with. Not one to mince words, she made it clear that she was a reluctant camper, and that I had pulled a low trick in asking for a National Park trip as a birthday gift. I chuckled. A grunt told me that the matter was under consideration, and I left the matter to rest for the time being.

The next morning we scrambled to school in the usual fashion. One snack pack lay forgotten on the kitchen counter, two clean socks had flown through the car window hitting the car-driver squarely in the cheek (Appa! Duck your head, Socks incoming!) , and three sheets of loose paper trailed the way to the car. I tootled cheerfully as the car left the garage, ‘Have a nice day! Remember – next week is off!’

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Leaving For School in the morning

That evening, the daughter came back beaming benevolently. Nibbling on a cheese sandwich of her own making, she said, “You know? It might be lovely in Zion national park this time of the year. “

The son and I exchanged quizzical looks at this volte-face.

Apparently, one of her close friends in school had said that the national parks in question were beautiful and that she would love an opportunity to go back there again. That evening, the banal national-parks-again tune had changed to a vibrant symphony of Zion-is-beautiful, but Bryce-is-much-prettier. I smiled to myself. Oh! The beauty of friendship. I only hope she continues to have level headed and smart friends, was my private thought.

The daughter’s friend was right: Zion had a majestic grandeur to it,  while Bryce Canyon can only be described as breath-takingly beautiful. I had never imagined sparse vegetation and sheer rock face to be this splendid.  I have always been more a lover of trees, and streams. But Zion and Bryce made me think of beauty in a whole other manner. It was as if in one short trip across 4 states(CA, NV, AZ & UT), we had been transported to another planet.

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A land where hoodoos made magnificent shapes against the blue sky, 

A place where bristlecone trees cling to cliffs

Towering over the abyss of erstwhile marine trenches, 

Where overhead, peregrine falcons swoop swiftly upon their prey 

Hundreds of feet below in the rust colored labyrinths. 

It is a vibrant diorama sparkling underneath the weak wintry sun in the desert

An ecosystem that has seen it all, and still persists. 

 

 

Can Mammoths Stop Thawing Arctic Permafrost?

“Let’s not watch this – it is depressing, and some of that stuff makes my blood curl.”, I said as the daughter suggested some gothic fiction. It was the week-end before Halloween, and we were picking our Friday evening entertainment. Never an easy task.

“Fine! What do you want to watch?”

Cosmos” I said without flipping a heart beat. (Watch the you-tube video introducing Cosmos here)

To her eye-roll, I said “No really! You see, there are so many things in there that I wanted to understand as a student.  I plodded along to the library and I got to admit, the Physics books in there. “ I gave a shudder here, and I fully meant it. “I suggest you curl up with one of those tomes in our library looking jaundiced, pale, and excellent cures to Insomnia. I thought some of them needed vitamins, sunshine and exercise to regain what Doctors call a healthy glow. “

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So, we sat together and watched a Cosmos episode by Neil deGrasse Tyson on global warming. In his slow, sure voice, he rumbled like the volcanoes on Venus that set the poor planet into an irreversible green house cycle.

The World Set Free (Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey)

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/cosmos-a-spacetime-odyssey/episodes/the-world-set-free/

We have twenty years at the current rate to stop us from going into an irreversible state like Venus.

The daughter gave me a significant look .I gave her a more sig. look, and we sat there looking like stuffed frogs with s. looks etched on our faces digesting the info. “How could you think this was okay to watch, but that movie was too scary. This is the scariest thing I have ever seen. How do you think it will all end?” said the daughter sounding worried, and deeply stirred.

 

A few days later, I read out a passage from the book I was reading. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures. (Related post: Mankind trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth by impregnating Asian elephants with mammoth genes.)

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Pleistocene park  – Using 160 square kilometers of Siberian Tundra given to him by the Russian government, Zimov’s goal was repopulating the area with modern equivalents of prehistoric animals that had adapted to Arctic conditions (moose, Yakutian horses, Finnish reindeer and even North American bison.) … To re-create the effects of the Woolly Mammoths on the land, he’d bought in a World War II tank …. Punching holes in the snow, … , using the tank treads to mimic the continual stomps of Mammoth feet, he’d worked the land, year after year. And along the way, he’d accumulated data that were staggering in their implications.

Within his 16- square kilometers refuge, he had lowered the permafrost temperature by an average of fifteen degrees. 

We change the world just be being. I remember watching a video by National Geographic in which they chronicle how 41 wolves introduced in the Yellowstone park, changed the ecology and even the physical structure of the park.

Introducing Wolves in YellowStone National Park – National Geographic Video

If that was the case with 41 wolves, what would introducing Mammoths do? Would it save us from the brink of extinction or introduce problems of the kind we hardly envisioned?

We never know the ramifications of our creations. I mean we are a species who has unintended consequences from a ‘Like’ button on Social Media.

The Physics Of Myth

“Which is your favorite tree?” asked the children one day.

I am often asked questions like this, especially by the elementary school going son. Your favorite color, your favorite food, your favorite flower and on and on till I shriek in agony, at which point he flips to – when was the first time you ate with a spoon, when was the first time you touched a frog, when did you first climb a tree?

I thought about the favorite tree one though: which one was my favorite tree? Is it the oak tree that I plonked my satchel under every day in school, or the flowering jacaranda trees under which we had steaming hot cups of tea with friends, or the tall eucalyptus tree that edged our street towering majestically against the skies signaling home was nearby, or the fir & pine trees that contributed to many an amateur flower arrangement lending beauty and joy to the surroundings, or the willow that made one want to relax just by its shape and allure, or the gingko tree that makes me smile on a evening walk, or the oleander trees that sag with flowers in the summer, or the fruit trees in my backyard that are so hospitable to squirrels ,or the redwood trees that urge me to be like them: strong, resilient and upright, or the curious, curvy bristlecone trees that remind me they are older than our oldest myths, or the pine tree with an elephant head that reminds me of the time the son as a toddler tried to fit his understanding of Physics into Myth?

 

It was a tough question and I told them so. The son scenting a ‘wild’ story from his childhood asked for the story, and I mock-sighed before telling him:

“One day a couple of years ago, when you were very much a toddler, and had just started attending a preschool, you picked up a book from the library about Lord Ganesha. You were thrilled with the find because Indian mythology is hardly found in the libraries in America, right? Lord Ganesha Curses The Moon – was the title. Appa and you settled down to read together at night.

Anyway, so, remember the story? It went something like this:

The moon used to beam as a full moon every night. One day, the moon laughed at Lord Ganesha when he tripped and fell in the forest.  Ganesha promptly got angry at the moon, and cursed it into oblivion.The whole world plunged into darkness (this was before electric lights remember?). At this, the book painted some gory pictures of the problems faced by the population because it was completely dark. People fell, people bumped into each other, people were robbed. Soon, everyone begged Ganesha to take back his curse. But he couldn’t. His word being law and all that. 

So.

An impasse was reached, and soon the king of Gods, Indra, came to him and asked him to do something about it. Ganesha thought and thought, and finally reached a compromise. He said the moon could grow from no moon to the full moon, and then shrink back again to no moon. That ought to teach him not to laugh at people. The moon agreed, and that is how it remains to this day.

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After the story, Appa asked you, “What do you think of the story? Do you really think that is what happened?”

You had that serious look on your face as you thought about it, and you said, “Yes, of course. That’s when the moon must have started going around the Earth, and the Earth started spinning, so the moon could grow bigger and smaller.”

“Appa told me what you said later, and ever since I think of that story and remember how you fit your understanding of Physics into that mythological story when I see that fir tree with an elephant head.”

“Did I really do that?” asked the son laughing heartily, and I smiled.

It was true of course. His response had us flabbergasted, for we hardly ever consciously think about how we continually shape our worldly views and understanding. We subtly and subconsciously incorporate the stories we hear, choosing to consider which ones to digest and which ones to leave.

“So, as you see, I cannot only name one favorite tree. I love them all. Just like…”

“We know…. we know! Just like you love us both!”, said the children, and I smiled my favorite smile.

Godly Superheroes or Super-Heroic Gods?

The clocks had been changed, and the evenings suddenly signaled the arrival of Winter. The stars shone, the moon beamed, and the crickets clicked much sooner than usual. I was pottering about the kitchen when I overheard an interesting conversation between brother and sister.

“What is the difference between a Super-Hero and a God? “

The question was obviously the son’s. The young fellow had a curious look on his face, and he wanted to learn the truth, and nothing but the truth from his older, wiser, newly minted teenage sister. His sister looked discomfited, and said, “Dude! Seriously?”

I tried my best to keep the stuffed frog look about me, and acted non-committal. A vitally important step if you want to see how the discussion proceeds.

The son is a great lover of mythological tales. Hanuman, the monkey god, who could jump across seas, carry mountains with one hand, and fly with the mountains is a positive hero. This is such a change in pace for us for the daughter was never one to ask for super-heroes or Indian mythological tales.

Her philosophy matches the Roman poet, Ovid’s, thoughts on God:

It is convenient that there be gods, and, as it is convenient, let us believe that there are.

“Hanuman is my favorite super-hero.” said the son. “Was Hanuman a super-hero?”

“Yes …. and … no. Well…Hanuman is a super hero, but he is also a God. Most Gods are also super-heroes, you know?”

This must’ve felt like a tantalizing puzzle to the fellow, for he continued with the quizzing.

“But not all super-heroes are Gods right? Superman is not a God. “

“Yes…he is not. Definitely not. Nor is Spider man, and Captain America and all the rest of the fellows you watch.”

The son gave a raucous peal of laughter at this. It amuses him that the super-heroes who mean so much to him, mean so little to his sister. He looked at her with that look artists paint on disciples waiting to hear some Saint giving life-advice.

“Well… Gods don’t die, but super heroes do.” She sounded tentative, quite unlike her usual self.

“But Rama died, and he is a God right?”

super-heroes

The daughter looked at me with pleading eyes, and I threw up my hands. This child asks the kind of questions that spiritual speaking the Dalai Lama could answer. Me? I sputter and stutter and look like a duck stuck with duct tape in her throat.

His world has super-heroes, and if in the olden days, they were Gods, they must have been the super-heroes of the day.

To ruminate consciously is a privilege: Who are our super-heroes today? Which ones will be the Gods and which ones the Demons?

P.S: I recently read a book titled The Delight of Being Ordinary by Roland Merullo. It is a book chronicling an unlikely trip taken by the Pope and the Dalai Lama together. It is an opportunity for them to escape the fanfare that is constantly around them, and delve into what their sub-conscious has been telling them. I don’t usually read forewords, but after reading this book, I felt happy enough to go back and read the foreword. The author said that the concept of having the two world’s most prominent religious leaders, who also have a wonderful sense of humor appealed to him, as so many leaders today are so devoid of this important ability to laugh and delight in little things.

Part 2: Incorporating Physics Into Myth

Teapot Spirituality

Sheesh kababs! What is with Amma – is she tired and cleaning again?” said the daughter, when I acted like a teapot sliding off my tea spout.

I whistled my protest with as much dignity as a teapot sliding off the tea-sp. could when caught in the act. “There is nothing wrong with me. Merely that a lot of work needs to be done, and I cannot come and play a game of Life now. I have Life to deal with now.” The queenly dignity sounded overdone like these actresses who act for 10 dollars when paid 3. I waved my hands impressively at the surrounding environs.

It was true, at least in my mind. Pots and pans needed washing, the floors needed scrubbing, the ….

“You said you are tired at the end of the week, and it has been a tough week. You just said we escaped a fire, and we should just be thankful for Life huh? Get it. Get it? Come on now.”

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I could not argue, and after a flimsy protest, waved down by the children who helped me get the kitchen to a state of relative cleanliness, we sat around playing the game of Life. There was a serendipitous beauty to it. The evening had made me nervous and jumpy, more conscious of the gift of Life, and as usual the children had led me to the calm instead of the frenzy, with their customary élan.

Northern California had been reeling from the effect of wild fires. After an unnaturally hot summer, calamity struck too close to home for comfort. This time, it was people we had lunches with, people we holler out to when we catch a glimpse of them in crowded places. People who will slowly extend that quizzical look into a slow, wide smile as they recognize you, these were the folks asked to evacuate.

Luckily the fires had been contained, and I felt like we could look forward to a quieting down. I had spoken too soon.  That evening, flames leaped higher than trees behind our home, and smoke billowed from nearby. The bags were packed in the car: documents, some cash, a change of clothes, laptops, water bottles, snack bars, and a few pictures. When it comes to it, that is all there is, isn’t there?  Nothing else matters.

That night, everything felt keener. The comfort of putting away the dishes, the joy of playing a board game, the delight of being ordinary, the familiarity of the mundane, the contentment of a bedtime story, the gratitude for the simple act of breathing.

“I just got twins Amma.” said the son after rolling his dice.

“There goes your quiet retirement!” said the daughter, and the children went into peels of laughter, and I joined in noticing how much better it felt to laugh with abandon. I felt the 17 facial muscles work as the laughter gripped me. I observed the act of laughing together as if I was perched atop the roof, looking at us having a good time. Is this what consciousness is?

I finished the piece on resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth using genetic samples obtained from the pristine Arctic Tundra, and impregnating an Asian elephant with the questions on consciousness, and whether or not there is a Soul. I love it when a work of fiction explores the questions posed by futuristic Science, and I finished the post by tying it up with Never Let Me Go, By Kazuo Ishiguro.

Everyone knows, teapots are far from spiritual, and my understanding could make a teapot sing. If you were to explain the concept of consciousness, conscience and soul, how would you do it?