Do We Belong On Earth?

I envy these people who can quote things in passing with confidence. I have not that kind of eidetic memory. But I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that one of those great philosophers of yore, Socrates or Plato or one of their ilk, said something to the effect of the worst thing humankind has ever thought of was the concept of countries. I heartily agree. For what is a country boundary if not a line in the sand?

I was in a taxi a few years ago heading from somewhere to somewhere in the madness of Bay Area’s evening traffic. The driver looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked me if I came from India or Pakistan.

He then went on to say that he had just dropped someone who came from Pakistan. He loved the Biriyanis in the Indian and Pakistani restaurants. What delightful spices, he said and the conversation moved towards the role of spices in the world economy. He taught Economics in a small college in Greece before the country collapsed and he managed to move to the United States and he now drove taxis for a living.

While there are multiple things to spin out from this little interaction, I would like to draw the attention to a little thing said almost in passing. He thought India and Pakistan were one and the same, and I have often experienced the same sentiment and kinship whenever far away from the Indian subcontinent.

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Image from The Night Diary – By Veera Hiranandani

It has always been something refreshing to note – especially given the continuing tensions in the region ever since the partition in 1947. It amuses me and gives me hope when I see how Pakistanis and Indians bond over a common culture, similar culinary traditions etc outside the Asian subcontinent, but within the sub continent the tensions continue to simmer.

A friend had recommended Veera Hiranandani’s book, the Night Diary. One of the largest human migrations in Human History at the time took place during the Indian independence from the British Raj. The India-Pakistan segregation is fraught with gore, bloodshed and the unfathomable rivalry that can be brought about by politically divisive acts.

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The book itself is lucidly narrated – a twelve year old introverted child, Nisha, writes in her diary to her late mother as often as she can. She is lovingly cared for by her father, their paternal grandmother who lives with them and the cook, Kazi, who has been with the family for a long time. Her best playmate is her twin brother Amil.The mother, who passed away when the children were young, was Muslim, and the father is Hindu. It is heart-rending to read the way, the twins Nisha and Amil puzzle over what would have been the case had their mother been alive. Would they have to leave her and go to the Indian side?

“I had never wondered about being safe before. I just thought I was.”
― Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary

I thrust the book in my mother’s hands to read, for I knew she would appreciate how cooking forms the bond between Nisha and their cook, Kazi.

Image from Wikipedia on Indian Spices:

Spices_in_an_Indian_market
This image was originally posted to Flickr by judepics at https://www.flickr.com/photos/43546466@N00/409841087. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

The spices as they pass through the hands of Kazi and how Nisha derives a sense of creation and wholeness is captured as only one who loves the art of creation can. The feel of the dals and the peppers in the hands, the smell of the saffron in the rice and the whole time in the background a tension is brewing, a rift simmering when one night it is upon them – the pressure bursts, and the little family has to flee.

“I needed all the feelings to stop boiling like a pot of dal and be cool enough for me to taste them.”
― Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary

Millions of people fleeing Pakistan, and millions making it into Pakistan in the opposite direction. Mobs ready to inflict violence at the slightest opportunity.

War is meaningless, and it is particularly unfair to the children.

14 million people were displaced in those few months of turmoil and over 2 million killed during the partition. One line in the sand that suddenly determined belonging or the lack of it.

One would think one learns from these events, but look at the numbers.

In the world today, there are currently more refugees than ever before. The rise of populism and nationalism means that the situation is deteriorating everyday. As of Jun 2018, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world had been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

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Screenshot from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html – Jun 2018 figures

Source: UN Refugee Agency

We belong on Earth, do we not?

Fiction Inspire Non-Fiction?

While reading a good piece of fiction, I often wonder about the inspiration behind the writing.  Dune, for example, is a book that immediately lets you know the author must be a personality of prodigious learning. The ecological angle, I was delighted to read in the note by his son, had its origins in Frank Herbert’s work for an an Op-Ed on the Shifting Sands in Oregon. The government was toying with the idea of planting grasses that could help with stopping the sands from shifting and collapsing onto roads and rivers. 

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Quote: 

In 1957, Dad flew to the Oregon coast to write a magazine article about a US department and Agriculture project there, in which the government had successfully planted poverty grasses on the crests of sand dunes, to keep them from inundating highways. He intended to call the article “They stopped the Moving Sands” but soon realized that he had much bigger story on his hands

Dune is a modern-day conglomeration of familiar myths, a tale in which great sandworts guard a precious treasure of melange, the geriatric spice that represent, among other things, the finite resource of oil. The planet Arrakis features immense, ferocious worms that are like dragons of lore, with “great teeth” and a “bellows breath of cinnamon”.

Planetology is a marvelous word for taking in the intricacies of a life sustaining planet (Dune makes reference to planetologists for figuring out survival strategies),  and the effects of our consumption of finite resources. 

I would love to study Planetology.We know that we are stretching the Earth’s resources – National Geographic came up with a simple number: we are currently using 1.71 times Earth’s resources every year and it is increasing. The effects are everywhere.

A friend and I were discussing the lack of tree cover in a country like Iceland for instance. Blessed with enormous natural beauty, the lack of tree cover is quite unnerving. Everywhere you turn is green because it rains a lot, but there are no trees. Apparently, excessive logging first got rid of them, and replanting did not take root as intended for sheep grazing ate away the saplings and the seedlings before they had a chance to sprout. 

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This too is not a new phenomenon. World over there are examples of over-grazing that edged out forest cover( Ireland, England, Mauritius are all examples of how our lifestyles has altered the ecosystem drastically). In the book Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell, the author is on a mission to collect endangered species from Mauritius so he can bring them back to the Conservation Center for breeding and releasing into the wild. He writes about Round Island and how the simple act of introducing goats, sheep and rabbits into the ecosystem by humans has eroded the tree cover irreparably. 

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From Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell – Round Island

While reading this book, I realized the inspiration behind his fiction book, Mockery Bird. This hilarious fiction book, Mockery Bird – was based on a story doing the rounds in Mauritius surrounding the Dodo bird and the loss of certain trees. The knowledge gave me immense pleasure. How lovely to see the inspirations behind good fiction.

 

Just as fiction draws its inspiration from reality, reality too can draw its inspiration from fiction.

In the Dune universe, the planetologist, Kynes, shares the visionary dreams for the planet Arrakis – a vision outlining a glorious self sustaining future for the planet that will take three or maybe four generations to come to fruition. We can derive our inspiration from fiction and set ourselves on a similar path working towards setting aside half the planet for forest cover to reverse global warming, sustenance etc. (News item : here)

 

A Planet of Wizards & Prophets

I was reading The Wizard & The Prophet by Charles E Mann on a crowded train one evening, and a pair of young girls shared the seat with me. The name of the book is a highly appealing one especially to little girls, and it piqued their interest too.

One of them was probably in the 1st or 2nd grade, and showed a precocious interest in my reading material. Her curly hair was made into numerous tiny plaits, and her eyes shone with a curiosity that would make her teacher’s heart sing. Her mother’s heart though, quailed. She said, “Now…now don’t bother the nice lady there, let her get on with it. “ I looked up at the mother, and told her that I love reading to children, and though this particular book sounds pedantic when read to children, I did it anyway. It taught me never to under-estimate children – the child soaked in everything, and asked the most engaging questions.

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I saw a certain amount of editing would need to be done if I were to sustain the interest of a 6 year old. The book is a non-fiction tome going strong at 678 pages – pages richly adorned with facts and figures, and life histories of all the people involved. I had already been through about 300 pages, so I knew the interesting bits, I knew the bits where a child’s wonder can be kindled. For the rest of the hour, I told her about wheat strains, water tables, and climate change.

The Wizard & The Prophet is a marvelous title because it encapsulates the polarity of our thinking so beautifully, and in this sense, they are both required for us to thrive. The Wizard in the book is Norman Borlaug, who is credited with leading the way for GMO strains of wheat production that along with stalwarts in the field such as Dr M.S. Swaminathan saved billions of people from hunger and starvation. 

William Vogt is the Prophet, who during his study in the Mexican coastal areas observed how we are stretching our natural resources and the effects it has on things as far-flung as bird migratory patterns and climate. In many ways, he is the one who set up the first bells of Global warming and Climate Change. He is the Prophet.

Do you believe in Climate Change? asked the girl wide-eyed.

I told her I did not need to believe Climate Change at all, and the experiments were here to show me how we are changing the air around us, and I showed her the pages outlining the experiment where humanity managed to pin down Carbon Dioxide as the problem-maker in the first place. 

I cannot deny that global warming and climate change has always intrigued me. Carbon Dioxide only accounts for 0.03 % of the atmospheric gases, a remarkably small proportion for it to be causing global warming on such a scale as to change weather patters and cause severe climatic catastrophes, is it not? 

In The Wizard & The Prophet, the author outlines the experiments used in determining that it is indeed carbon dioxide that is the culprit and how our industries are directly contributing to its increase. The correlation between carbon-dioxide levels increasing and global warming followed. I found it a fascinating experiment and one that school laboratories can demonstrate I hope. 

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By Scrippsnews [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keeling_Curve

(During the spring, there are dips because the Arctic tundra sprouts plant life and plants absorb Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere. )

Looking at the worried expression in the child’s face, I asked her, Did she know what we can do to reduce the carbon dioxide?

Trees? she said, and I nodded yes.

I went on to tell her about the excellent example set forth for us by the Kenyans in The Green Belt movement, and how a person called Dr Wangari Maathai helped the Kenyans plant millions of trees over the past 30 years.

Planting the Trees of Kenya, by Claire A Nivola, The Story of Wangari Maathai

Planting the trees of Kenya - Wangari Maathai
Planting the trees of Kenya – Wangari Maathai

She glowed at the simple solution thought of by Dr Wangari Maathai, but her stop had come, and she stepped off the train with her mother who was now listening to her daughter talk to her about The Wizard & The Prophet.

As I reflected on the chat with her, I realized that the narrative around Climate change and Global warming is quite confusing.  It is no wonder that the child framed her question as – “Do you believe in Climate Change?” The prophets in this case are doing their job, but the question of : “How does one realize when an extreme storm or flood is part of a natural occurrence and when it is a direct result of our tampering with the delicate balance of the climate?” is a vexing one.  

The Prophets have sounded the alarm bell often enough, and the Wizards have yet to think of a sustainable solution to it. But there is hope: I am glad to read that China proposes to plant and nurture a forest the size of Ireland to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. 

China to create new forests covering area size of Ireland

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A Life Well Lived

One of my earliest memories were of sitting next to the grand old man and pressing the mole on his hand. It was a button, he said, that made him laugh. Every time I pressed it, he sent a shiver down his body and laughed. That is the kind of game that cannot ever tire a 4 or 5 year old child. I’d press the button at random times hoping to catch him off-guard. But the button always worked. It even worked last year when I showed the button to my little son as an adult. The great grand old man laughed.

He was known as Pattu-Mani, a loving nickname given to the bluish—gray-eyed handsome boy with a twinkling smile and pleasant personality.

He was the closest my mother had to a father. (How I Mother Saw Her Father)

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My Mother Being Given in Marriage By Pattu-Mani Maama(Kanya Daanam – usually given away by the girl’s father)

I remember listening wide-eyed to the stories of my maamas (Pattu-mani and Ambi as they were popularly known) and how they raised and educated my mother, their little sister. (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. )

The one who regaled the story was often my father. He was the story-teller in the household. In his stentorian voice, he would go on to narrate how they educated their sisters making them the first graduates in their village, in a time and age that girls were married off before completing high school.

These people were the true heroes of the #HeForShe movement.

The same loving, doting aunts and uncles who bathed us in the warm glow of their smiles were heroes?

As a young girl, I cannot quite describe the impression it made on me.

Clad modestly in cotton dhotis with no fancy degrees or awards, living lives of modest means in normal houses with dignity and self-uplifted from poverty; the ideas of personality, achievement and greatness conflicted with the world’s idea of greatness. Was it not always associated with wealth and fame?

Confusing as it all was as a child, it helped me understand that greatness comes in so many shapes and forms. It helped me understand that life is unfair, but we have to fight fairly anyway. That there is no correlation between (wealth, fame), and (wisdom, greatness). Sometimes, the wealthy and famous are also wise and great, but not all wise and great people are wealthy and famous.

So, what constitutes a worthy life?

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Is it in the fact that every one of us nieces, nephews, and grandchildren felt they were special to him?

Is it in the fact that the entire town showed up to say farewell to him when he died last week? The very town to which he came barefoot and penniless, looking for work as a teenager after his father’s sudden death.

Or is it in the sparkling affection behind the smiles he bestowed on those around him every time?

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts. William Shakespeare

Here is to a man who played every role well, who made the show enjoyable for all those who had the privilege of sharing the stage with him.

My heart aches, my eyes tear up as I hear things like ‘end of an era’, ‘great soul’ etc. Maybe his parting gift is the meditation on what constitutes a good life, and working towards the very qualities he embodied.

TED Talk on a Worthy Life: here

The past few days have been a glorious recollection of a life well-lived.

A life that shouldered responsibility with élan
A life that never questioned sacrifice and duty
A life that gave and accepted love
A life whose inner light lit the world around him
A life that showed us how extraordinary an ordinary life can be
A Life Well Lived.

I have a small birth-mark where he had a mole, I propose to make that my laugh button. My way to remember Maama and to remind me to laugh when life gets me down.

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I love and miss you dear Maama. Thank you for your influence, your love and your beautiful presence in our lives.

 

Hero-Worship, Nicomacean Ethics & Baloney Detection Kits

I have heard friends rave about Dune by Frank Herbert many times over the past few years. I finally got to read the book, and I feel richer in mind and thought for it. The book was long and at times hard to keep track of (especially in the beginning). This is one of those times when I realize how my mind flutters with attention spans that drive calm butterflies to frenzy. But slowly, steadily, I settled into the book, and there were multiple moments when I felt like I must grab a pen and start writing (but that stern butterfly gave me a look, and kept me at my the task of reading). This, is probably the reason I have forgotten half the things I wanted to write about (This is where I glare back at the butterfly guardian who kept me reading)

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First Edition Cover – Image from Wikipedia

One of the many things that appealed to me in the Dune was the fact though there were vague references made to technology and the number of technological devices used by those living at the time, it is not a mainstay.

The book is a multi-layered piece of literature with over-arching themes of ecology, the art of war, religion, philosophy and politics. There is a particular quote that stuck with me in the Prologue written by Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son, about the dangers of hero worship.

Quote:

As Liet Kynes lay dying in the desert, he remembered the long ago words of his own father: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

Having studied politics carefully, my father believed that heroes made mistakes…mistakes that were simplified by the number of people who followed such leaders slavishly.

In many ways, hero worship is what leads people to choose leaders who then turn into despots and dictators. Adulation affects everyone, and those with fragile egos are the most prone to its lure.

Towards the end of the book, Paul Atreides recognizes that he is being hailed as the Messiah and regardless of his acceptance of the title, there is a holy jihad in his future. He can either lead to the best of his abilities like his able and excellent father, Duke Leto or simply be the mascot of a movement that has already gathered momentum – a force that is much larger than him. This sort of trusting faith in one human being is never a good sign, and is a malady that has affected us for centuries. 

I quite agree with how Aristotle describes the nobility required of politicians: he opines that politicians should take an oath, almost as sacred as a Hippocratic oath, to remain fair and mete out justice. From the Nicomachean Ethics – By Aristotle. 

The lecture on Aristotle and Socrates on How Does One Live The Good Life? From 36 Books That Changed The World (Chapter 8) is an excellent listen.

 

There are no initiation courses for politicians. No training. Though, I have a suggestion to have every politician complete the Butter Battle Course, it is unheeded. (The Butter Battle Course is an excellent course consisting of childrens’ books not more than a few pages each, and should only take a few moments of every leader’s time):

butter_battle

However, till politicians start taking their careers to truly be in service of humanity, we need to equip ourselves with Carl Sagan’s excellent Baloney Detection Kit from the book: The varieties of scientific experience : a personal view of the search for God / Carl Sagan ; edited by Ann Druyan. This book contains the Gifford lectures given by Carl Sagan in 1985.

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By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28513011

When someone asked Carl Sagan after his lecture what we can do when the governments do not act in our best interests, he advised us to have Baloney Detection Kits handy.

Quote:

“I would say that the first thing to do is realize that governments, all governments, at least on occasion, lie. And some of them do it all the time – some of them do it only every second statement-but, by and large, governments distort the facts in order to remain in office.

And if we are ignorant of what the issues are and can’t even ask the critical questions, then we’re not going to make much of a difference. If we can understand the issues, if we can pose the right questions, if we can point out the contradictions, then we can make some progress. There are many other things that can done, but it seems to me that those two, the baloney detection kit and use of the democratic process where available are at least two things to consider.”

This seems to be age old wisdom: our oldest myths write about flaws in heroes, what brings about the downfall of the most powerful tyrants  etc; and yet, the reminder for our own Baloney Detection Kits is a timely one.

Books:

  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Varieties of Scientific Evidence  – Carl Sagan 
  • Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
  • 36 Books That Changed The World – Lectures on Great Courses
  • Butter Battle Book – Dr Seuss

The Chance To Catch A Deep Breath

What Do You Do With A Chance? Written by Kobi Yamada and Illustrated by Mae Besom, is a insightful read on a young boy who sees a chance, and decides not to take it. The chance flutters by him, and he misses it. 

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What Do You Do With A Chance – By Kobi Yamada, Illustrated by Mae Besom

The next time, he decides that he will not let a chance pass by him again, and he reaches for it as it flutters tantalizingly by him, but this time, he falls flat on his face, and is laughed at by the other children.

So, he refuses to entertain chances again. They flutter by him multiple times, but he turns his back on them. Slowly, they stop fluttering by.  Time goes on, and he starts to yearn for a chance, This time, he thinks, come what may, he will grab on and go wherever the chance takes him. 

The chance does arrive eventually, and it is a huge one. A bright shining illuminance that lights up everything nearby, and he jumps on, and soars watching the monochrome world around him explode in technicolor.  

Like all good children’s books, this one made me wonder too. 

How often have we missed chances? It is one thing for a book to beautifully illustrate a chance, but quite often the chances we miss are not always that beautifully illuminated in the landscape of our life, except perhaps in hindsight.  Sometimes chances come in the guise of problems, and they transform into opportunities. Sometimes chances are so common-place you barely recognize them at all. Sometimes, a chance comes in the form of slowing down, catching a deep breath and taking a glimpse of the world around us.

Take for instance the time I was running around a lake, watching the sunset throw its myriad patterns on the lake waters. It was beautiful and fleeting. My pounding heart was pouting at this sudden enthusiasm for fitness. I myself was quite miserable. Running can be quite the mental exercise: the mind jabbers on:

Why does it have to be so hard? Really, after all this time, has it only been a mile? So slow, I could have beat myself if I had been 5!

Then, I looked at the shining lake waters and chided my brain for being such a wet sod, took a deep gulp and pushed on. But after a few miles, I stopped by my favorite pepper willow trees. I had been running around the same spot, and yet, I had not noticed so many things. It was as though my senses suddenly woke up when I stood still. I could feel the evening breezes lift off the stray tendrils of my hair, the sun’s rays seemed magical: sunset orange is a lovely color, and the way it transformed the clouds in the sky was beautiful. Breath-taking as it was, its true beauty lay in its very essence of being ephemeral. 

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Dandelion Wine: A Sunset is only beautiful because it doesn’t last forever. – Ray Bradbury in his book, Dandelion Wine, when discussing the Happiness Machine.

I watched the pelicans go about their evening business of co-ordinated fishing, small groups of geese were making their way back to the lake, landing together smoothly with the most melodious sounding splashes, and a fluidity of movement that would have made any pilot look on with awe.

We are lucky indeed to be able to stop and enjoy nature. As humanity huddles more and more closely in densely populated urban areas, we seem to have squeezed out these natural pleasures. For decades now, people have flocked to cities in search of livelihood. What option is there otherwise? Cities get larger, people cluster closer together physically and yet farther apart emotionally. How many city dwellers know all their neighbors?

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I looked at the pelicans and geese spotting the lake as they settled down to roost for the day. There was companionship there. The pelicans were steadily drifting towards me – together, gracefully, and I could not resist going to a vantage point by the willow tree. I have always loved how these trees look like princesses, letting their tresses down in the stream – looking joyful, and serene to let the flowing water tickle the hair-tips, even as the breeze caresses their locks. 

Nature, the soother, had worked her magic again, and my heart bloomed and expanded with joy. Sometimes a chance flutters by and you need to stop and take a breath to catch it.

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Crocodiles in your bath? No Problem!

It was well past midnight on a Saturday night, and I opened up my favorite essay in the book, Fruit Bats and Golden Pigeons by Gerald Durrell. Titled, The Enchanted World, the essay is a lyrical and moving piece of work, and begs multiple readings. I wish I had the sort of eidetic memory that could allow me to tuck the whole essay into a recess of my brain, to be retrieved and nurtured whenever I want to. 

Quote:

Any naturalist who is lucky enough to travel, at certain moments has experienced a feeling of overwhelming exultation at the beauty and complexity of life <….> You get it when, for the first time, you see the beauty, variety and exuberance of a tropical rain forest, with its cathedral maze of a thousand different trees <…> You get it when you see for the first time a great concourse of mammals living together or a vast, restless conglomeration of birds. You get it when you see a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis <…> You get it when you see a gigantic school of dolphins stretching as far as the eye can see, rocking and leaping exuberantly though their blue world <…. >

But there is one experience, perhaps above all others, that a naturalist should try to have before he dies and that is the astonishing and humbling experience of exploring a tropical reef. You become a fish, hear and see and feel as much like one as a human being can; yet at the same time you are like a bird, hovering, swooping and gliding across the marine pastures and forests.

He starts the essay with a starfish that turned bellyside up. With startling detail, he describes how the starfish righted itself gracefully and calmly. Gerald Durrell compared the whole thing to a ballerina’s movements, and I smiled. How marvelous nature is? It never fails to astound me or humble me. 

I marked the book and left the cosy confines of my bed to visit the restroom before going to bed. I may not be a naturalist per se, but when moved thus by a powerful piece of writing, the urge to become one is almost overwhelming. Oh how marvelous it must be to float and fly over the marine wonderlands and see a flourishing coral reef? How marvelous to see fishes and octopuses in abundance?

Maybe I do retain a certain amount of Shoshin after all I said to myself. (The ability of being able to see things with Wonder) I hummed a little tune and pirouetted like a ballerina would in her worst nightmares and was very happy with myself.

As I approached the restroom, I smoothly kicked open the door with one swiveling turn of movement that drove my pinkie toe to hysteria, and hopped inelegantly into the bathroom.

I then let out a huge yelp and came charging out again. Gerald Durrell could have compared my move to a rampaging rhino yelping like a pup that soiled itself in bed. “AAAhh!!! There … there …. there  is a …. “

For an aspiring naturalist, I really should show more forbearance towards finding crocodiles in my bath-tub. 

I do not live in the swamps of Florida. I do not live in the rain forests of the Amazon. I do not live near a river delta with those crocodile-nourishing swamps. I live in a vastly populated suburban area replete with parking signs, unlocked trash cans and wide boulevards bearing more traffic than they’d like to. The wildest wildlife we have encountered is a possum and the little fellow who had the presence of mind to drop a wicket basket over it was hailed a hero for 3 days

I hadn’t finished sputtering yet, the pinkie-toe let out an alarming signal at having the attention taken off it so quickly and I winced tongue-tied and pinkie-toe-tied together.”A…oh dear! There is this…this ..gulp…”

The husband, always my hero, put personal peril aside and dashed into the restroom with a paper and brush in hand. He is my shining knight;  his battles with centipedes, spiders and silverfish are the kind of legends I like to read. The kind of battle where no one is killed, everyone is happy at the end, and hearts start beating normally with an excess of love afterward.

He went in and laughed heartily: “Could you take that out of there? “ he hollered to the daughter, who then gave the sort of laugh that made my smarting pinkie toe want to do a number again. “This is a sponge crocodile. The gift from that party, remember?” he said.

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I did remember. The children had been babbling excitedly about the gift they received at a birthday party:  something about sponges, but I had not expected this monstrosity. The thing was over 2 feet long and looked very much like a crocodile. The children had put it into the water to let it grow and we had gone about our week-end business. In a few hours, it had ‘grown’ and was still growing. Its orange feet were a giveaway when one stopped to see the crocodile, but sleepy folks, even sleepy naturalists, would not do that.

“Naturalist as a profession not looking so good is it?” said the daughter’s voice richly timbered with laughter. With the dignity of a cat caught on a prowl, I turned and headed to bed.