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. R 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 R 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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The Lure of NorEaWesSou

I picked up a light hearted book that outlined how journalism was done 100 years ago: Scoop By Evelyn Waugh. Written in the 1930’s, the book deals with how newspapers made do with telegrams from remote locations to fill newspaper columns: How they decided ahead of time on the stance to take, the line to pitch. Journalism was and is a series of Scoops. Which nugget gets scooped by whom?

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The book is based on William Boot, a thoroughly good-natured hedgehog type of fellow, who writes the nature column about life in the English countryside. One week his column writes of the country mouse, and the next week about thriving lobelias. Up in high brow London, he is mistaken for a dashing up-and-coming novelist, also Boot, and asked to go to Ishmaelia, a fictional country in Africa to cover the news. Given no choice, he embarks on the journey, and learns a thing or two about journalism from his journalist pals.

Corker looked at him sadly. “You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read, and its only news until he’s read it. After that, its dead. We’re afraid to supply news. If someone else  has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news.”

William Boot is not only ignorant of the scoop business, but distinctly inept at keeping his bosses in the know. His telegrams read like stories; and lack buzz and content. When asked by his head office to send regular updates, Boot replies, that nothing much is going on, and that the weather continues to be fine.

The sort of missive that drives his editor mad. “How am I to fill a column based on the weather being fine?

The dilemma is real. Nobody wants to know when things are going well, and the weather is fine. The populace wants sensational news, and if there isn’t any, they have no qualms about creating some.

Purely by accident, William Boot uncovers a plot to overthrow the powers in the country. When he is composing the telegram with his first real piece of news, he receives the sack from the head office.

Telegram by William Boot:

Nothing much has happened except to the president who has been imprisoned in his own palace by revolutionary junta …. but governess says most unusual lovely spring weather …. bubonic plague raging.

He got so far when he was interrupted. Frau Dressler brought him a cable: your contract terminated stop accept this stipulated months notice and acknowledge stop beast.

William added to this message, Sack received safely thought I might as well send this all the same.

The book is not as engaging and funny as its critics claim, but the premise of the book makes for a charming plot. It is amusing to see how little things have changed since the days of the Telegram: our telegrams arrive almost instantly via tweets, but the essence is the same.

In the current era of news, and fake news, how does one discern truth, and in which cases does one have to bother to do so?

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I remember being about a decade old, traveling in South India, when I saw the headlines from a local daily: “Prime Minister resigns”. I gasped, and tugged at my father’s arm, and showed him the headline. Apparently, he had resigned from the milking committee of a farm or some such thing.

That is my earliest recollection of questioning the sanctity of print. Up until then, I read anything printed with a wholesome innocence assuming purity of thought and intent. The father noticed my shocked expression, and we went on discuss the nature of the Scoop, and the thrill of Sensationalism. Television had not yet entered into every home, and one waited every morning for the newspaper to bring us news of the wide world. A whole day in which to ruminate on what one read.

Aristotle apparently wrote, It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. 

Did he really say that? We don’t know.

Sensationalism and Scoop-ism have steadily chipped away at the hallmark of ruminating and discerning narratives having a semblance of truth.

Refection on Reflection

I often feel this way after some heavy reading, or hard periods of news activity. Frazzled, taut if you know what I mean. On edge. One fine day, a voice in the upturned cauldron piped up and said, “Look, I know you mean well, and all that, but the old brain is not quite suited for deep learning, heavy news and all that lark. We’d better leave all that to the algorithms, while we potter around in the sunny recesses of the spring garden. What? What do you think of that?” I took a serious look at the proposition, and nodded along enthusiastically. Everyone should do what’s best suited to them, right? So, I should .. eh..potter and totter, nourish and cherish, or perhaps enjoy refection on reflection.  

So, it was with a wholly energetic outlook that I went on to read several books to air the musty brain a bit.  P.G. Wodehouse – that unwavering rallier of spirits rallied like nobody’s business, and started off by soothing the sore spot at once:

The Pride of the Woosters is Wounded, By P.G.Wodehouse:

If there’s one thing I like, it’s a quiet life. I’m not one of those fellows who get all restless and depressed if things aren’t happening to them all the time. You can’t make it too placid for me. Give me regular meals, a good show with decent music every now and then, and one or two pals to totter round with, and I ask no more.

It was after I had revived after a spot of humor that I went in for a bit of magic. The Wisdom of the Shire by Noble Smith. It is a lovely little collection of essays on Middle Earth. The courage of Hobbits, the lore of the Ents. As I started reading the little book on Magic, it made me realize why we love Lord of the Rings so much that it endures on a century later. The hobbits are lovable in a way that is easy to relate to. They lead us to the joys in a simple way of life.

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The Wisdom of the Shire

Hobbits like a good meal, think nothing of throwing in an energetic walk in the Shire, enjoy the companionship of fellow hobbits and are generous enough in their outlook. Some of the essays on the Hobbits were:

Eat like a Brandybuck, drink like a Took

Sleep like a Hobbit

It seems they know how to enjoy a magical do-nothing day as often as possible.

Incidentally, A Magical Do Nothing Day is a wonderful children’s book written and illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna. The book practically tugged at me in the library. Some titles speak to your heart, and this was one of them.

A Magical Do Nothing Day. Swirl it around, and feel that sense of peace descend upon you. The book gently takes you on a slide down the mountains, a whirl among the leaves, a dip in the pond and the exquisite pleasure of touching a snail.

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For each of us, a Do-Nothing Day would be different. I am curious to hear what a Magical Do Nothing Day signifies for you. Please share your ideal version of a Do-Nothing day with me.

I had several Magical do-nothing moments recently. Moments  in which the children and I learnt to skip stones in a pond, or I stood mesmerized by a cherry blossom tree that looked like garlands on every branch. The beauty around us is ethereal, and that makes it all the more inviting to go and enjoy nature.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower – William Blake