Back from the Brink

Matt Sewell’s, book, Forgotten Beasts: Amazing creatures that once roamed the Earth is a highly captivating book of animals that once roamed the Earth. Beautifully illustrated, this book is a marvel. Every time, I marvel at how life managed to thrive, sustain, and regenerate in all its fantastic forms. As I thumbed through the pages, admiring the defense mechanisms of each animal, the unique ways in which they thrived and survived, an obvious question flickered through the brain : how many of our current organisms are having the same sort of trouble?

Starting with prehistoric animals, the book slowly walks through the animals through the ages, and finally arrives at the timeline in which human-beings appeared. 

The next book was the obvious pair to Matt Sewell’s book of extinct animals. It is: 100 animals to see before they die – By Nick Garbutt & Mike Unwin. 

Reading these two, along with Birds, Beasts & Relatives by Gerald Durrell, made for an interesting time in the old head. Gerald Durrell is a naturalist and his obvious enchantment with the fauna he finds around him, led to create the Durrell Foundation for Conservation of Animals.

Birds, Beasts and Relatives (The Corfu Trilogy Book 2) by [Gerald Durrell]

 

So, it was a surprise indeed to be able to watch the excellent documentary, Back to the Brink at the Boston Science Museum. 

We charged and weaved through traffic to make it to Back from the Brink. The documentary was playing in the Boston Science Museum for which the son & I were going. This was going to be our special afternoon, and we had made any number of snafus with the tickets, the cab to get there etc. But we were there at the right time, and the pair of us took a few deep breaths. 

How often we find ourselves mired myopically into our own lives? It is at moments like these, that books, museums, and documentaries do their bit I suppose. We sat there, as the camera zoomed and picked us along for the ride. We were there to watch the exhilarating recovery of 3 animals who had made it off the endangered list. 

As I sat there watching nature’s survival unfold before us on the high ceilinged dome, I remember thinking of Gerald Durrell’s book, Mockery Bird, and the sense of awe when I learned that Charles Darwin predicted a particular kind of species- a long proboscis, he said, should be there, given that there were flowers with a long tubular structure. A decade later, they did find the hawkmoth capable of pollinating the star orchids. How thrilling is must be, to be able to figure out things like that?

In Back from the Brink, the documentary walks us through 3 different scenarios in which man-made decisions led to the near extinction of certain species, and how man-made efforts also brought them back from the brink of extinction. 

  • The first one was about the foxes in Catalina Island, off the coast of California
  • The second one was on golden monkeys in China
  • The third were the red crabs in an island near Australia 

Each species has a different story arc – the foxes in Catalina Island were the result of DDT spray affecting the eggs laid by the bald eagles near the island. This led to a mass dying / migration of bald eagles. Once the bald eagles were no longer there, the golden eagles swooped in, and for them, these tiny foxes were prey. How the team of naturalists figured this piece out, and how they went about trapping foxes, bald eagles, and golden eagles, and then nurtured and relocated them till they could thrive again, is a marvelous journey.

The golden monkeys were a simple case of stopping poaching, but a hard fight indeed to get the poachers to act as guardians in these snowy terrains. 

The red crabs had an army to fight and thrive against. The yellow crazy ants who accidentally came off the ships years ago, had ran amuck, and the crabs were being inched out of their own homes. This one, had a unique solution too. The naturalists introduced another species(knowing fully well out how much havoc such an act could cause). After much deliberation, they did so. The yellow ant population came down, and the crabs could thrive again. 

The Boston Science Museum is a marvelous place for the curious and the uninterested alike. 

Is This Bohemian Chic?

We have been gallivanting across Boston and New York the past few days. 

I remember reading a children’s book a long time ago about the country mouse who came to visit his cousin who lived in the town. Not surprisingly, I commiserated with the little country mouse who was dazzled and sprazzled by the city. 

I felt the same way when I first visited Bombay, now known as Mumbai, as a little girl. From the hills of Nilgiris, where bus drivers stopped so we could safely straggle across while learning to ride the bicycle, and train drivers stopped for the mother running to the station, to Bombay, where no one, it seemed, stopped for anyone or anything else, was a long journey – 2 days and 2 nights by train to be precise. I clutched my father’s hand, the whole time in Bombay, and never let go, especially on the electric trains. Maybe, some of those calluses on his old hand, are from that trip. 

I have the same feeling in New York. The city sprawls in all directions. The people, the subway, the sights, the movements feel too fast for a country mouse. There is so much to do – the energy exhilarating and enervating at the same time. 

I said as much to the children, and they gave me pitying looks. “What you need is some Bohemian Chic!”, said the daughter diagnosing me with a severe expression on her face.

I had no idea what that meant, but told her we would do our best to find Bohemian Chic.

We had great fun running in one direction, only to find the little GPS dot turning slowly away from where we were supposed to go, and then charged back again. “Is this Bohemian Chic?” I asked.

One time, we stood looking diffident and muddled when a pair of flamboyantly dressed gentlemen stopped and asked us directions to get to some square. We told them we were new to the city too, and agreed that it was best to ask someone else. A good twenty minutes later, we had boarded the train in the wrong direction, gotten down at the next station and came back riding the train in the correct direction, and found the gentlemen boarding the train too. I swear they tipped their bohemian hats and winked!

I splashed into bed after 2 hectic days in New York City, and felt spent. I had no idea how much we had walked. We had spent so many hours and days in the city, soaking in sights and the sounds of traffic, that I yearned to see the moon rise over the hills, the ducks squawk and geese fly. I had no idea how much these things refreshed me. 

Subconsciously, I think, I had selected for my reading during this time of city-living, the book:

Birds, Beasts & Relatives by Gerald Durrell.

Birds, Beasts and Relatives (The Corfu Trilogy Book 2) by [Gerald Durrell]

A sequel to My Family & Other Animals, it is the second set of autobiographical tales by naturalist Gerald Durrell set in the beautiful sun-lit island of Corfu near Greece. After the hurried, panting days of New York, I bathed in the refreshing days of Corfu and the young author’s adventures ranging from rearing sea-horses and hedgehogs, to bear-dancing, and donkey-riding. It was all that was necessary. 

“Coming from the calm, slow, sunlit days of Corfu, our arrival in London, late in the evening, was a shattering experience. So many people were at the station that we did not know, all hurrying grey-faced and worried.”

Gerald Durrell – Birds, Beasts & Relatives

I remember feeling a similar kind of gratitude to Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard on a similar long urban trip to the crowded cities of South Asia.

Today, we decided to walk around Brooklyn and not much more. The day was sweltering: the children wanted a bookstore-day, and we ducked into a couple of them with gratitude. After a cool few hours, we staggered out with books, and very pleased expressions on our faces. 

Do you have any books by Gerald Durrell? I asked the lady at the counter, and she looked it up, and said, “I have My Family & Other Animals!”. I have the book, have bought it several times to gift it to others, but I still felt a strange sense of calm at this. 

Is this Bohemian Chic? If so, I like it!

Moons : Worlds of Mystery

“Aah…..see…see the moon!” I said. The moon had risen alongside our flight wing on the way to Boston, and the son and I were enamored by it. We usually are. The daughter ensconced on a different row from us on the flight gave me a carefully controlled eye-roll. Love for her mother tussled against the desire to show that the crazy moon lady was her mother, and she went in for a I-may-know-her-vaguely-as-an-acquaintance stance. I beamed and smiled as only a mother could. Luckily, the mask hid the genuine full-moon nature of the smile for the time-being.

The moon has long fascinated all creatures I think. I take long walks by the river and lake in our hometown during the waxing moon season, and wonder about how the beautiful creatures of the land perceive it. The deer, coyotes, water-rats, pelicans, fish, manta-rays, octopi, geese, ravens and hawks. Do they notice and set their little rituals by it, or is it something human-beings rave over?

It wasn’t till the pandemic that I noticed the timing of the moon rising and setting. The waxing season giving us unexpectedly delightful glances of our lovely sole cosmic neighbor, while the waning cycle going for days without seeing our delightful companion. No wonder, songs have been written about, the magic of moon-drops milked by fantastical thinkers, and lovers for centuries gazing and strolling in the moonlight.

The next day, I was pointing to the pale gibbous moon that was visible between the towering buildings of Boston downtown. 

“Ma! Would you stop it with the moon? The moon comes everyday, and is the same!” Said the teenaged daughter, who despite (or may be because of) my nature-kookiness remains cautiously apathetic to it. Could have been Toni Morrison’s best pal the way she ignores the phenomenon. 

“How many ways can you describe the sky and the moon?” —Toni Morrison

The son, like me, though, raves and pulsates with the cosmos – the moon, stars and planets excite him to no end. The next day, the husband had a surprise in store for him. We had planned a day at the Boston Science Museum, but the crowning glory came with the planetarium show focusing on the Moons of the Solar System – Moons – Worlds of Mystery

The show was spectacular. Starting with our very own Moon, it goes on to explore the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Pluto. How every planets close cosmic neighbors were formed to the exciting possibility that some of them could harbor life in its watery oceans, and icy surfaces, it was a show that appealed to his every being. If ever a being was made of stars, there he was! When the camera plunged into Enceladus and Titan, he quavered, and the seat shook.

The pair of us headed out after the show, subconsciously scanning the skies for the near full-moon over the Bostonian skies, while the daughter conceded the magic of the moon and its strange pull on us. If it was a tonic to us, then so be it.

Books:

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon – By Kelly Barnhill
  • The Edge of the Sea – by Rachel Carson
  • Cosmos – shows by Neil DeGrasse Tyson & Carl Sagan

Am I Duck?

The lakes shimmered in the early evening light, the rivers glistened in the beautiful spirit of Kawaakari (River glistening in the setting rays of the sun, or the moonlight) and I was trying to get the children to come on a marvelous trail for a bike ride. But the children would have none of that. They wanted ice-cream and no physical exertion.

“Aww…come on kids! It’ll be fun – we can do that!” I said in my sing-song child-like voice.  

“Amma! Stop that! You are doing that thing again where you think you are imitating us as kids, but actually you sound like Donald Duck!”

“Well in this case, y’all are like Scrooges, so …eh!” I said. Clever repartees when they do come need to be crystallized in sea-salt, dipped in coats of honey, and preserved in the Museum of Family Quips (The blog) I received an eye-roll for this one, but still.

“Okay…since you kids are not indulging me I am off on my walk. Maybe I’ll talk to the ducks, they might be more receptive…” I mumbled.

Off I went, swinging my hands and marching purposefully towards the trail by the river. There is something in the evening air that makes the world around us come alive. The crows were flying home, bluebirds swooped and swallows tittered, cats prowled, and I saw a large water rat slink into the river bed. The river was more like a stream just then, but this scene was life was welcome.

After some time, when clouds were flitting here and there, wondering how to place themselves just-so for the sunset, I sat myself down on a rock, watching a flock of ducks 🦆 (what are the flocks of ducks called? A chime of wrens, pod of pelicans? It turns out they are called a raft or paddling of ducks). The scene was a calm one. I was taking in the peaceful scene, feeling a sense of hope and a prayer bubble up inside.

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

Anne of Green Gables

I closed my eyes to send a vague prayer of sorts into the Universe. A prayer of hope, joy, unity, elevation, and what-not. I opened my eyes slowly and the whole paddling of ducks rose together in one coordinated flight. The grace, beauty and their obvious comfort with one another made let out a yelp of joy and I clapped at the scene.

I live in a suburban area, and am not always alone. I hadn’t noticed the family ambling along in the distance. They were closer to me now, and they gave me puzzled looks. I looked sheepish, but the joy of the ducks taking flight must’ve lit up my face, and they gave me cautious looks. I looked harmless enough, and was obviously caught up in the rapture of nature. Their children smiled, and joined me in clapping and cheering for the ducks. 

The ducks did not quite see the joy they had sparked off when they flew as one. If we are all happy together, do we exude the same joy to fellow bings? I wish we do.

I headed back and narrated this to the family.

“This! This is exactly why I said I wouldn’t go! People assume that we are like her when she does stuff like this!” Said the teenager to her father.

“Well – I am duck. Duck! Not cuckoo! Get it? Get it?” 

The moans of feeble laughter was worth that, and I quacked happily upstairs.

To See The World

I remember the first excitement at seeing the bubble maps of population vs GDP for countries around the world, and how they changed across a span of a century. If one could have their mind blown, that chart was it. Then, a few years on, I saw the TED Talk by Hans Rosling in which he explained Large Families/Low GDP Vs Small Families/High GDP, and this time the wonder grew.

In the intervening years, the power of big data and visualization grew by leaps and bounds, and there never was a dearth of graphs, or data analysis. Causal analysis, correlations, search engine optimizations, ad targeting, and numerous other concepts entered the lingo of the normal person. As early as 2012, Target could predict when a woman was expecting a baby even before her family knew.

Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky changed our perceptions by introducing the world to a whole new world of Behavioral Economics.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by [Michael Lewis]

So, when I picked up the book, How I Learned to Understand the World, I thought I would find about more interesting statistics about the world, but I was in for a pleasant surprise.

In the book, How I Learned to Understand the World, written by Hans Rosling and his daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling, it is Dr Hans Rosling’s journey that is written. The book isn’t written in the style of can’t-put-it-down. Instead of a compelling narrative that is keeping one’s interest, it is the genuine interest in the human being who was instrumental in changing the way we think of global health and economies. His journey to help humankind starts off with being a doctor in a impoverished nation, but moves on to much more than that. This is an inspiring sketch of what is possible when we think outside the box. That varied interests and knowledge-seeking is never wasted: they truly do come together in myriad ways.

The book starts as most biographies do, with a character sketch of the good doctor’s parents, grandparents, and his modest upbringing in Uppsala in Sweden.

He goes on to study medicine, and then travels to lesser developed countries hoping to do good work. His perception of developing countries such as India undergoes a transformation as he studies and travels there. It is here that he gets an appreciation for public health. The Indian Government at the time was battling one of the largest public health initiatives of the time ( possibly polio vaccinations – I forget). It is a humbling experience for him. He realizes, for instance, that medical facilities were not as backward as he assumed, medical knowledge was quite on par, or better, where it was available. The true problems were scale, population and outreach. 

After his return to Uppsala in Sweden, he goes on to begin work as a doctor in Impala. Where is Impala? Nacala? The joy of studying a map for these places is half the joy.

Here, in the coastal region of Nacala, he settles into his work as a doctor with his wife and children. Faced with less than ideal facilities, low budgets, and even less trained people to work with, he slowly learns the areas in which he can make a difference. He learns the importance of cultural awareness, and his humility for people’s knowledge and way of living, helps him reach the people he is attempting to serve. Without this realization he might never have been able to understand the devastating Konzo (‘Konzo’ means tied leg referring to the paralytic symptoms) disease that was paralyzing children in rural areas.

His work in Nacala, and his researches around the paralytic disease, konzo, led him to a life in research after his medical practicing days. The cassava plant is a staple diet in these areas. The cassava root is treated to a long, and arduous process of preparation before being made fit for human consumption. For example, the cassava is dried in direct sunlight for more than 8 weeks, to remove bitterness coming from a cyanide like substance that causes partial paralysis in human-beings (The long process is usually sufficient to remove the amounts of cyanide, but during times of drought, the plant produces more of this chemical content). Dr Rosling was the person to identify this link between the food process and the paralysis in his patients, and it was because he made the effort to understand the way of life in these areas. In times of food crises, the cassava plants are the only source of nutrition, and the results are devastating for those affected: their disability spiraling them further into poverty.

His ability to reach dictators, elected officials, and private industry for the sake of public health is remarkable.

His book, Factfulness, is the next one on my list to be read. In this one, he outlines the state of the world in terms of actual numbers. Is our world as bad as we think it is, or are we progressing better than we give ourselves credit for? I am waiting to read this one.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by [Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling]

A Dip into another Dimension

The July 4th long week-end is always a special one. It comes panting along after the first half of the year has whizzed past in a blur of life. The northern hemisphere goes on as it always has with winter transforming into glorious spring that gradually melts into summer haze.

School finishes with a flurry for the children and their long, luxurious summer holidays are there to stay, while those of who belong to the sterner corporate world have no such long, idle, ideal, vacations to look forward to. But the infectious joy of doing nothing is catching, and by the time this long week-end rolls around in the summer, there is an itch for the magical that is too strong to ignore.

So, we gave in. Going in to the long week-end, I took a long resolute sigh to not work over the weekend, and what was more, I kept my word. I only worried about the deadlines, and the nagging problems  a few times. For instance, I firmly pushed away worries about work when I was trying to be an otter, when I was gazing marvelously at the anchovies swimming beautifully in the forests of kelp, and while taking a long deep sigh at the deer grazing by a pod of pelicans in a lake nearby. 

We started the week-end to a marvelous romp to the library in which I picked out books like a hungry child at the candy store. I sat that evening looking contented and happy after a long-ish bath and read one children’s book after another. I admired Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, I sat up and had a couple of mind-blowing life’s lessons from Seussisms by Dr Seuss, while admiring the grit and tenacity of Helen Keller and her marvelous life with her teacher, Anne Sullivan. 

Helen Keller’s writings about absorbing the life around her was truly fascinating.

The next day, we set off to peek into another dimension altogether. It has been almost 2 years since we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium thanks to the pandemic. But this week-end, in our resolve to make it magical, we went over there. You do have to get an appointment slot now, but once inside, all of the old magic stirs in your heart, and you feel lost without fins and scales.

I remember harking back to the book, Flatland by Edwin Abbott. Technically, watching the sea creatures in an aquarium setting does not constitute traveling to another dimension, but it feels like it. Every time. The tentacles of the octopus, the slow mesmerizing motion of the jellyfish, the all-encompassing tales of the ocean whisper and roar with every peek.

One instant, I remember looking at the manta-rays and the hammer-head sharks scattering the schools of fish as they lazed around their huge tank, and wondering where the turtles were, when a large one swept past me. Turtles aren’t particularly fast, but the wonder and excitement of seeing one swimming that close is enough to get your adventurous heart all a-swishing. 

Reading the assorted jumble of books this week-end, combined with the therapeutic effect of a peek into oceanic life, constitutes a dip into another dimension in my book, and I wish it with all my heart for all of you.

For as Helen Keller says:

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.

Helen Keller

Books:

Cerulean Chatter

“Ta-da-da! Let’s go!” I said dramatically closing the laptop and toppling the relaxed summer vacationers from their comfortable positions on the couch.

“Ouch! Must you really be this dramatic?”, said the son, who is fast learning to use the tone of a teenager in these matters.

I said with my hands firmly upon my hips , “YES! I have a long week-end approaching and I intend to enjoy it. Come on now!” 

A low moan like a donkey stuck with its foot in a can was heard, and I turned towards the distressing noise. It was the daughter. I was surprised at this. “I thought you have been pandering on about that Cerulean princess book all week! Don’t you want to go to the library?”

“I told you! It isn’t available in the library yet.”

I ran an amused look over her appearance. She looked like an indoor plant with no desire to be planted outdoors. The child’s loose clothing, lazy groans, and the fact that she had made lunch for the family seeing how busy I was that morning melted my heart, and I said, “Fine! Either you come to the library with us, or you read Persepolis. Your choice.”

She willingly picked the latter, and I wondered why I had not resorted to this technique before. I have been begging her to read the book for at least a year now, and have been met with vague shrugs and the you-don’t-know-teen-taste mantra. It was very perplexing. I knew she would enjoy the book. The comic strips had humor, striking visuals, and a highly engaging take on the history of Iran. I knew her women’s rights part of the brain would itch and she would want to find out more.

Persepolis – By Marjane Satrapi

So, off the son & I went. We were celebrating freedom and these long summer evenings seemed just the way to go about it. We grazed along the aisles, less leisurely than we’d have liked, but very glad to be there all the same. I found that book on the Cerulean skies or whatever it is the daughter was looking for, and was wondering how to show her my smugness at finding it in the library when a text chime interrupted us. 

I finished it finally!

“Sooo…..what did you think of it? Interesting that it took you less than an hour!”

Something tells me you look smug right now. It was very good.”

I grinned in spite of myself. If I looked smug – what of it? Life doesn’t often give us the chance to feel that way.

That evening on a walk, we talked of this and that before we meandered back to Persepolis

“Ever wondered why the book was called Persepolis?” said the husband. She shrugged, and we gave her the little secret: Iran was known as Persia. The Persian empire, a grand old civilization etc.

She stopped in her tracks, and said, “Oh! That makes so much sense now. I mean not just for this book, but a ton of other stuff just clicks now. I always wondered about references to Persian this and Persian that in songs and stuff.”

I pressed into action. 

“What is it with teenagers not accepting our life’s wisdom huh? If you had read Persepolis before, you could’ve been armed with this superior knowledge – just saying. You know? We were perfectly angelic children, who listened to everything our parents said!” I said.

She chuckled and said, “You do realize paati and thaatha (grandma and grandpa) are just a WhatsApp message away and are always willing to dish the dirt on you right?”

I laughed and changed tracks. “By the way. Please be ready to eat your hat once again. I found the Cerulean Princess book in the library.”

She turned and giggled. I saw the book you picked out. It isn’t the one I was looking for. The one you got is the fourth and last installment in a series. I cannot read that just because you saw Cerulean in the title!”

Huh! How many new fiction books in the teen section would have the word Cerulean in them?

The sky above was looking beautiful. The sun would set soon ushering in a whole plethora of colors. “Never mind then. The sky looks beautiful, and we can resume our chatter under the cerulean skies!”, I said and laughed.