The Great Quivering of Autumn

“I just witnessed the Great Quivering of 🍂🍁🍃 Autumn!” I said as I stepped into the house flushed with the exercise and thrilled with the beauty of a blustery day. “Luckily, I checked the weather before heading out.” I said taking off my light jacket.

“What’s she saying?” said the daughter, raising her sleepy head from the couch, and pulling her teeth out of a bagel.

“Its windy outside!” said her little brother, already practicing that teenage eye roll, and the art of turning poetry into the prosaic.

I rolled him up and said, “You too buddy?! Come here – you would have loved it. you know that? I saw so many hawks – I have never seen so many of them soar up together in great big circles like this. All of nature quivered. Trees shook, branches swayed, waves lapped at the shores of the lake, and leaves, oh my goodness – so many leaves went quaking to the floor. I stood with my arms apart like this and just stood there!”

“In the middle of the road?! Appa, I told you not to let her out alone!” moaned the teenager, and we all laughed.

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No amount of pictures and videos will do the least bit of good when you catch glimpses of the rays filtering through the quivering leaves, or feel the light caress of falling leaves against your skin or catch the beautiful leaves of all colors against the blue skies. How does one capture the beauty of seeing a dozen hawks soar overhead, or the awe of seeing the pelicans do their little ballet dance of fishing, or the susurration of the leaves murmuring in the wind. There is a word for this: Psithurism.

As I gathered my little brood around me for a hot cup of tea after that invigorating walk, I shushed them to peek outside to see what I meant. The leaves were fluttering down in our garden, but there was another creature up and about at work regardless of the winds. 

“Bulby!” said the son excited.

“You named the squirrel? He can give you rabies you know that?”

“He can, but he won’t, and certainly not for naming him! You talk as though he is yearning for our company. I assure you, he isn’t. Just watch what he does. Bulby never fails to entertain.” I said, and the son nodded fervently. 

After sometime, we all burst out laughing at the squirrel’s antics. We have seen him hide great nuts in the soil every now and then, he nibbles and gnaws at the fruit on our trees, I have seen him scamper on seeing us sometimes, other times he watches us as though he doesn’t mind allowing us to enjoy a spot of nature with him. Today, he dug up my recently planted flower shoots, and dug something out, looked at us and furtively patched the garden up as though nothing had happened, and scurried. He had something on his mind, maybe a gut feeling of what was to come.

The morning out amidst nature, and finishing up with Bulby’s antics made me think of one of Mary Oliver’s poem:

From the Book of Time – By Mary Oliver

I rose this morning early as usual, and went to my desk.
But its spring,

and the thrush is in the the woods,
somewhere in the twirled branches, and he is singing.

And so, now, I am standing by the open door.
And now I am stepping down onto the grass,

I am touching a few leaves.
I am noticing the way the yellow butterflies
move together, in a twinkling cloud, over the field.

And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.

Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.

The wind whipped and whooshed around all day. By evening, the winds had gathered speed alarmingly, trees that had swayed earlier in the day were lying broken, roads closed, emergency responders were keeping the populace further up North informed about the situation, power was down. It astounds me every time how forceful nature can be. But it also made me stop and think – the hawks had been more fitful than usual that morning, the squirrel was bustling more too. The animals knew we were in for a rough time, and responded, while we waited by our gadgets to give us the news.

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It is marvelous how Mary Oliver puts her finger on the pulse of the Earth :
Maybe just looking and listening is the real work,
Maybe the world without us is the real poem.

Biophilia

Oh! What a surprise amma?! The book, Nature’s Fix appeals to you.” said the daughter peals of laughter barely concealed in the sentence.

“I know right?! I always keep an open mind to see how else I can improve, my dear!” I said not to be undone in the sarcasm department. 

“You are cooped up in a dull office building in the bustling city – you need a change. I get it! But I am quite happy and young enough to not ‘stretch my limbs’ in nature walks! Nature kook is what you are! I suppose you will now use bits of the books to convince us to come on walks with you. I’ve got homework to do, bye! ” said she mock-straining at my tug to come on a walk with me. But she came. 

As we walked around our neighborhood, watching the leaves slowly turn colors, birds making their way home against the brilliant sunset, children playing and biking, I felt calm. How much of that was due to the fact that I could take the time for a walk at the end of the day, and how much of it was Nature’s work, I am unable to say, but I felt a wonderful shiver as I watched the evening breeze rustle through the large trees in the neighborhood. Slowly, as I watch the wave of leaves tremble in the wind, some of them shaking loose, and others just swaying to the orchestra of the evening, there is a definite sense of belonging to this wonderful planet.

 

As I move around the office or often when I am walking to and from work in the city, I feel a concrete shudder. We are so proud of concrete as a structural material, we pour it everywhere. I feel a lonely stab when I see our gleaming imperfections reflected back to us in the gleaming glass panes of the concrete structures. Even the trees on our city sidewalks seem to be lonely, surrounded by concrete footpaths, and millions of people jostling by them everyday. 

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The book, The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, details studies taken up in Japan and South Korea around the effects of nature. It studies blood pressure, release of  how long the effects of nature remain with us – does it only last as long as we are with nature, or does a weekly hike contribute to our wellness over a period of time? More interesting questions such as these are handled in the book. 

I was lured into the book reading about the concept of Shinrin Yoku & Salim Yok(Forest bathing in Japanese & Korean respectively) The Japanese are also probably the only people in the world who have a word for commute hell – Tsukin Jigoku.

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Excerpt:

Study in the Nippon Medical School:

Qing Li is interested in nature’s effect on mood states and stress as manifested in the human immune system, Specifically, he studies natural killer immune cells called NK, which protect us from disease agents and can, like cortisol and hemoglobin, be reliably measured in a laboratory. 

Only in 2016 did we officially became an urban species – for the first time, population in cities outnumbered population in rural areas. As we cluster around in larger numbers, it is even more important to study the effects of nature on ourselves. After all, our biophilia has evolved over millennia and this abrupt change from it is bound to bring changes in the ways we can adapt.

Definition of biophilia. : a hypothetical human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature.

Is Nature the next wave after Meditation, Exercise and Organic Foods? 

There have been days when I have wondered how the children found out whether I indulged in a spot of meditation. 🧘‍♀️ 🧘‍♀️ I might have, but did they find out because I had taken the time to meditate and therefore already in a better mood, or did the meditation itself help with specific stressors? Nature studies have similar questions, though I am truly grateful for its personal influence on our well-being. Whether it is because of my beliefs or something else, Nature soothes.

Read also: Music & Gardens by Oliver Sacks

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The joy and importance of walking – Solvitur Ambulando – It is Solved by Walking

 

Moonbeams in the Morning

The morning alarm trinkled: Dawn’s misty summons. I got up, wondering why the nights passed so quickly, hoping for a little more precious sleep in the mornings. I stepped out of my bed and gingerly peeked out the window. Dawn was doing the same thing – trying to sleep in a little more, while the moon shone high above the tree tops, bathing the surrounding clouds in a magical shroud of moonbeams. The dew drops on the trees glistened in the same benign light. I stood there shivering a little for the night temperatures had dipped, and there had been a mild drizzle.

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The moon is there every night, the sun rises every morning, and yet the moments of quietly standing there before the hustle and bustle of our days started made me appreciate everything a little more sharply. When the son woke up, I held a finger to my lips not ready to start talking just yet, and made him peek out at the fine moon too. His eyes widened a little at the beauty of the morning, dew drops, trees, clouds and the moon. He chattered in his bright tones that sent the waves of sleep flying from him, “Did you know? We may not be able to enjoy the view of the moon for very much longer?”

“Why?” I asked in spite of myself.

“Well… we are already working on building colonies on the moon. Soon, the moon will be full of houses just like ours, and then who knows how the moon will look from here?”

“Who told you that?”

“No one!”

“Okay….where did you read that?” So much for quiet mornings bathed in contemplation.

“In the Time for Kids magazine. It seems we are already planning on moving there.” he said a tinge worried that I hadn’t received his original memo in my sleep addled state.

“Well…for all the things we have built on Earth, from outer space, it still looks beautiful you know? Maybe it will be the same for the moon. Although, I am not sure I am happy with the idea of looking in on someone’s home like that. Wouldn’t it be creepy?!”

He laughed.

I was reminded of the essay by Oliver Sacks in the book, Everything in its Place: Who Else Is Out There?

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In it, he starts with his thoughts on the book, First Man on the Moon by H.G.Wells.
Anybody Out There?- Oliver Sacks essay
One of the first books I read as a boy was H.G.Wells First Man on the Moon. The two men, Cavon & Bedford lie in an apparently barren and lifeless crater just before the lunar dawn. Then as the sun rises, they realize there is an atmosphere – they spot small pools and eddies of water, and then little round objects scattered on the ground. One of these , as it is warmed by the sun, bursts open and reveals a sliver of green.’A seed! “says Cavor, and then, very softly, says ‘Life!”.They light a piece of paper and throw it into the surface of the moon. It glows and sends up a thread of smoke indicating that there is oxygen.
This was how Wells conceived the prerequisites of life: water, sunlight (a source of energy), and oxygen. “A Lunar Morning” was my first introduction to astrobiology.

While it is interesting for us to dream of conquering alien worlds and expanding our footprint with habitable planets, such as K2-18b circling a red star called M Dwarf; it is also highly interesting to see that even on Earth that is our original home, we require a very specific set of circumstances for our life to thrive. We need our oxygen levels to be exactly right, our carbon dioxide levels to not rise too much, we need our microbiomes to be in a particular state of harmony with the larger ecosystem.

Read: Good Food Mood

Take for instance, this excerpt from cosmonaut Alexei Leonov – the first man to walk in space for 12 minutes. Excerpt :
“I decided to drop the pressure inside the suit … knowing all the while that I would reach the threshold of nitrogen boiling in my blood, but I had no choice” Leonov said

I enjoyed Oliver Sacks’ footnote, for in one sentence, it reconciled both the resilience and delicate nature of our entire species.

“If Wells envisaged the beginning of life in the The First Man on the Moon, he envisaged its ending in The War of the Worlds. where the Martians, confronting increasing desiccation an loss of atmosphere on their own planet, make a desperate bid to take over the Earth (only to perish from infection by terrestrial bacteria). Wells, who had trained as a biologist, was very aware of the both the toughness and the vulnerability of life.”

How many species have left behind their fleeting impressions on the cosmic playground? Our own are laughably recent. Will the Quod-liop-tukutuk-sfaunusaurus call us by the same name when they dig up our remnants millennia from now?

Books:
The First Man on the Moon : H.G.Wells
War of the Worlds : H.G.Wells
Astronaut Alexei Leonov: First Man to Space Walk
Everything in its Place : Oliver Sacks

Moments of Love & Power

Half a decade has passed in a heartbeat, yet I can hear the clear voice of the then elementary school going daughter ringing out in the aisles of the toy store : “Oh! That isn’t sexist at all!”

I laughed, the proud, indulgent laugh of a strong girl’s mother, even as I hushed her.

We had gone looking for a bow and arrow as a gift for her then toddler brother. His fascination for the super-hero phase was just starting and she wanted to get him his own Quiver of Arrows. After looking hither and thither, the heart sinking just a little bit at the amount of plastic and mass produced toys, we bobbed up to the lady in the front desk to ask where we can find bows and arrows for young children.

“In the first row of the boys’ section. “ she said, and I thanked her.
“Oh! That isn’t sexist at all!” said the daughter to me in her clear, ringing voice, as we left the puzzled clerk who had heard the daughter’s remarks. I laughed, hoping that this clear sense would always aid her as she navigated life.

I was reminded of that scene as I held the Forest of Enchantments in my hand. I hoped it would assuage a little of the disappointment I have had with Sita’s characterization in the epic. Every time somebody sang the virtues of Rama the Just, and Rama the Virtuous and Rama the Obedient, I was sure I was not the only one in the room whose thoughts were clouded by his treatment of Sita.

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There was no justice there. The virtuous man would have overcome his doubts, believed and trusted the one he loved, and helped right the wrong of perception. He could have set the tone for innocent-until-proven-guilty with ease.

The obedient man could easily have made a case for the need for civic disobedience and charted the course of millions by his actions, but the epic fell short. Always.

He was a human incarnate after all – so his flaws were there, was all I was given by way of explanation along with being hushed for asking inconvenient questions.

While the book bore the hallmark of Chitra Banerjee’s poetic twists and turns, coupled with the magical realism, there were a few areas in which I wished she had done better. The epic of Ramayana is a well-known one and while she cannot be expected to go over all the nuances and side-stories, there are places where, had she spent more time on certain aspects would have made it a more enjoyable and nuanced read.

Like the relationship between Lakshmana and Sita for instance. 14 years in a small hiking and camping group of 3 is a long time, and one in which I am sure a person of Sita’s calibre would definitely have formed a relationship of mutual respect with her brother-in-law, even if he had left her sister back in the palaces to protect his mothers. That would have meant it was harder for Rama to do the things he did to Sita for his own brother would have chastised him for it, and that in turn would have humanized Rama’s flaws to a greater extent. As such there is a little of the anguish but how much of that is Sita’s hope?

The book, however, was still an enjoyable read with the author’s many meditations on the different aspects of love. The kind of love that makes you do unimaginable things, the forces of love when thrown together with duty, loyalty and ambition, the feelings that love can engender, the kinds of things love can make one do. The kinds of clarity love brings in complicated situations; and its paradox more apparent in our lives than we realize: the kinds of complications it can bring to otherwise clear situations.

I could not help thinking of Jane Austen’s words on Love – “There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.” It was true – the intensity, kinds and forms of love were always unique, and ever evolving.

Do we ever meditate on love the way we do on our breaths?

In short, I expected the book to be the one the now teenaged daughter goes to, and understands clearly the Sita who would have been happy to hear her ‘sexist’ comment in the aisles. The author tried to bring it out, but I am not so sure. The epics don’t always give you a lot to play with when it comes to sexism.

Why must a loving heart not make a power move?

Also read: Mary Beard on Women & Power

https://www.npr.org/…/what-history-and-fiction-teach-us-abo…

https://www.theguardian.com/…/women-and-power-a-manifesto-b…

Running like Elephants

“Guys! Let’s hurry up a little. I like how we are dawdling, but the school bell waits for no ships to sail across the seas! ” I said. There had been a mild spattering of rain across the dry summer season. A few snails had popped out to enjoy the moist, and the son and his friends were looking at them as they chatted and made their way to school. Rain drops on the late summer roses and oleander flowers made the scene a rather endearing one.

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The response from the children was predictable – they ran, and I ran shouting like a charioteer pulling the reins on the excited steeds, “Slow down! No running here – oncoming traffic!”
“But you asked us to hurry up!”
“Yes – run like Elephants!” I said.

I had told the children earlier about the Elephant’s gait, and they exchanged glances and started laughing. The snail they were studying looked startled and showed a leap of speed as it made its way back to the comfort of the garden bed.

Is this walking? *giggle*
Is this running? *giggle giggle*
Is this fast walking? * giggle giggle giputly duggle*
Is this slow running? *giggle puddle chuckle duffle*

I smiled slowly. “Pretend you are Elephants teaching Snails to run.”

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I suppose that was a wrong metaphor altogether. By the time we arrived in the school, not only were we out of breath with the laughing, but we were also fashionably disconcerted. The legs seem to not remember how to walk straight or run properly, and were caught in this limbo of the Elephant’s Gait.

Later that week, I was sitting in the garden and watching the world go about its true business of living. I watched a hummingbird’s fast-paced wing movements up in the trees. A few butterflies were flitting hither and tither. A skein of geese were flying overhead in that beautiful v-shaped formation. Closer to the ground, a few snails were marking their slow way across the courtyard.

This combination of sitting in a garden, and watching life flit by had me take a hundred pictures with my phone. Pictures that may or may not be seen and appreciated again. I could capture the slow motion video of the humming bird whizzing up above or the butterflies in my midst. I could use time-lapse videos to capture the slow moving snails and a dozen pictures to capture the beautiful movement of the caterpillars.

As I sat there musing on the ease with which we capture movement these days, I could not help comparing and contrasting humanity’s struggle to capture that. I remember yawning in the Art galleries after seeing the n-th painting of a horse or the x-th statue of a horse drawn chariot.

But as I sat there that afternoon, I wondered whether I had appreciated them enough. After all, at the time of their making, studying movement was not all easy. One had to have an almost eidetic memory to understand the muscles and the way they moved.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s work is appreciated because of the lengths he went to study the anatomy of the creatures in his works. 300 years ago, movement must have been particularly hard to study.

In Oliver Sacks’ essay on Elephant Gaits in the book, Everything in its Place, he writes about the problem of studying movement.

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More than a century ago, Etienne-Jules Marey had made a pioneering investigation of elephant gaits. Of course, he did not use video analysis then, but still photography. I quote: “Marey’s lifelong fascination with movement started with the internal movements and processes of the body. He had been a pioneer here, inventing pulse meters, blood pressure graphings and heart tracings – ingenious precursors to the mechanical instruments used in Medicine even today.

Later, he moved onto the animal movements and analysis.
For animal analysis he used pressure gauges, rubber tubes, and graphic recordings to measure the movements and positions of limbs. From these recordings, he rotated in a zoetrope, reconstructing in slow motion the movements of the horse.

Muybridge, a contemporary of Marey, however, a peripatetic artist as Sacks describes him used 24 cameras along a track where the shutter would be tripped by the horses themselves as they galloped past to capture the movements of the horse as they raced.

When a similar technique was used to analyze the fast movement of elephants, it was found that they neither walked nor ran, but rather a combination known as fast walking.

I remember a long ago conversation with a friend who was training for a marathon on the more recent study of leopards running, and how he had changed his running technique to take a few tips from the world’s fastest runner.

As we watch the world around us, I wish different creatures could teach us some of their marvelous techniques. The dragonfly and the humming bird for flight; mallards and coots for water locomotion. Doesn’t Biomimicry as a field of study sound more fascinating than ever before? I positively yearn to be Dr John Dolittle at times!

Books/Articles to be read/referenced in this post: