The Height of the Sky & Depth of the Ocean

Sometimes you read a book and wonder what it would be like to live a day just as if we lived in the book. A magical do-nothing day, a day when your dreams come true, a day when you imagine being in a fantastical place, a day you drift into the seas with your paper boat, or just drift into the beautiful worlds of a book.

Then you go on with your life, but with a tinge of that imagination shining a beautiful light on everything around you. 

One day, with a glorious light of shoshin shining in you, there comes a day from a book that you admired. 

The Depth of the Lake and the Height of the Sky – by Kim Jihyun.  

In the book, a child leaves the environs of the city to go and live with his grandparents in the countryside. The lake and forest nearby look inviting and the child starts exploring on his own. 

Usually, when I take a color photograph of a luscious green forest or a beautiful waterbody, I prefer the picture in all its glory. Even if it does seem over-saturated at times. But in this book, the muted colors do nothing to diminish the relaxing feel of the book. 

Image from Height of the sky & Depth of a Lake – Kim Jihyun

The author says that she wrote the book after a week back from a relaxing sojourn with nature and the moment I came back from a vacation in Hawaii I picked up the book. In the book, it is the lake the boy dives into. We dipped into the ocean, and the height of the skies we explored with a helicopter ride. 

In one glorious day we soared to the skies and took in an aerial view of the beautiful island of Kauai – soaring over the cliffs of the Na Pali coast and diving into the rocky coral reefs for an afternoon of snorkeling.

Na Pali Coast – Kauai

Not all of us in our group were good swimmers. So, in order to experience the joys of the oceanic creatures, we learnt swimming everyday in the past month.

Was it worthwhile? Resounding yes! We swam in the sublime beaches of Hanalei Bay and during snorkeling were able to see schools of fish and a large sea turtle swim right by us, along with marvelous creatures such as parrotfish, sea cucumbers etc.

We could not take our phones while snorkeling, so this is a pic of a turtle while I sat on the rocks above.

The height of the sky and the depth of the oceans are both within us. 

🐓 🦆 🦢 Akua Manu 🐓 🦆🦢

Almost as soon as one lands win the quaint island of Kauai, the unmistakable feeling of rural bliss welcomes you with the rooster crowing. As one fellow traveler put it, the roosters of Hawaii are like squirrels everywhere else. They are everywhere, and probably contribute to the seeding and flowering of the habitats near them in myriad ways. 

They ducked and weaved through the airport traffic, just as surely as they waddled into the fragrant plumeria flowers flitting down from the trees above.

The roosters there sure have a comical element to them. Moana’s Hei-Hei could have been a real life characterization of any of these birds.

heart-moana.gif
Hei-Hei of Moana Fame

The children sat inside the car cackling and laughing as I ran out into the parking lot ahead of me to shoo the birds away as the languid car trundled into its spot in the parking lots. Sound effects included: baaackk—buck-buck-buck….shoo-shoo-duck-duck-goose, nene-nene-nene with an inspiring arm flailing and running after the birds. 

“Just one video of this ma! “ said the teenage daughter and niece to many enthusiastic nods from their little brother. I joined them in the laughter but refused to star in a video like this. One has one limits – even if it is to entertain our fellow human beings.

“I love birds too much and these birds seem to be so – I don’t know, bird-brained! Huh! Is that where the term comes from? Makes sense. These birds seem to think the roads belong to them and they sit there – pecking at whatever it is on the roads!” I said.

Just as engaging as the roosters are the red breasted cardinals, the nene (geese), cattle egrets, starlings, mockingbirds, plovers, sandpipers near the beaches , and the marvelously inspiring long-tailed tropicbirds. 

Standing atop the viewpoints of the Waimea Canyon in Hawaii, the long tailed tropic birds gained our attention and admiration. Gracefully traversing the yawning canyon below them in swift smooth flights, these birds seem to fly in and out of rainbows 🌈 . If that isn’t magical I don’t know what is. 

It is no wonder that Hawaiian folktales are so rich with their imagery of birds and ocean animals.  

Every morning, as the sunlight crept in through the clouds, and ushered in another surreal day in the magical islands, The Hawaiian state birds, Nene as the geese there are called, did  their bit and squawked their way into our consciousness as well. 

Some nights I would wander outside to stand under the stars when I’d notice groups of nene sleeping under the stars. ✨ Seeing them under the stars like that made me slightly envious I must admit.

Whether it was the beautiful darting and elusive ‘i’iwi (hummingbird -like creatures that are endangered) or the common roosters, starlings, egrets, cardinals, and nene, the birds (Manu) of Kauai have a divinity (a certain Akua) about them that make you want to soar in spirits with them. 

One morning I caught the daughter sounding very much like me and chastising her little brother who was watching Marvel on the television. “You come to Kauai and watch these super-hero fellows again – no! Nuh-uh! Out!”

“But there is nothing now – just eating breakfast and watching TV!” came the wounded reply from the budding naturalist. But his sister was firm and switched off the television.

The fellow came into the kitchen, and I shushed him, for out on the verandah was a small, and elegantly regal-looking red-breasted cardinal. We watched the bird in awe for several minutes before our spell was broken, and we sighed contentedly and went about the day.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_birds_of_Hawaii

If naturalists go to heaven (about which there is considerable ecclesiastical doubt), I hope that I will be furnished with a troop of kakapo to amuse me in the evening instead of television.

Gerald Durell

🌺 🌹 🌸 Leilani Pua 🌺 🌹 🌸

Almost as soon as one lands in the quaint island of Kauai, in the Hawaiian islands, the unmistakable feeling of rural bliss welcomes you with the rooster crowing and the colors of the flora.

Within hours of being in the island, the phone yearned for some plumeria pictures and before we knew it, there were hundreds of pictures of plumerias, hibiscus and so many plants whose name we knew not, but contributed to the vibrant colors of the Hawaiian islands.

Really! How marvelous flowers are.

“Who was that poet who said something about ‘infinity in a flower’, or ‘universe in a grain of sand’ or something? I think he hit it spot on.” I said burying my beak into a fragrant multi-colored frangipani blossom and sniffing rapturously. 

A flower elegantly floated down from the tree above into the grass below and I ran to catch it with open arms. I proposed to adorn my hair with the beautiful blossoms. The children wondered whether to clip this behavior or indulge it when I picked up a blossom from the verdant green grasses below and gave it to the children. The perfect symmetry of the flowers won their hearts instantly, and they gave into my whimsy, with a smart quip instead.

‘The grain of sand is probably parrotfish poop, but whatever!’ 

How does sand form?

As I looked into the photos of the particularly alluring flora of the fertile land, I fell in love with the flowers themselves as much with their names. I am not one for classifying and categorizing everything to within an inch of their existence. But even I couldn’t resist the poetic beauty of being classified as a Nymphaea Capensis (Egyptian water lotuses in brilliant colors) or Heliconia Bahai (false birds of paradise) 

On hikes through the rain-forest like surroundings, the canopy above invited one to look up, but every now and then some beautiful wild orchids would attract the attention. A slender piece of purple or pink vibrance holding its own in a lush forest of greens, just as surely as the Moa (roosters) held their own on tricky rocky beaches, rainforests and parking lots alike.

Painter’s Palette, Laceleaf, bamboo orchids, purple wild orchids (spathoglottis plicata), milkworts, pink and purple colored thistles, crepe ginger, red frangipani, lance leaved coreopsis, Cooktown orchids, shell gingers, Egyptian lotuses (nymphaea capensis or pygmy water lilies) , birds of paradise (heliconia bahai – the red ones or the false birds of paradise) 

Pua means flowers in Hawaiian 

Leilani denotes heavenly flowers

The most beautiful surprise was the clumps of touch-me-nots (Mimosa Pudica) everywhere. All those warm afternoons of playing with these marvelous plants in the countryside in the Nilgiris as children came flooding back.

The son, who spent a whole hike through a mahogany forest endearingly called The Enchanted Forest, playing with the touch-me-nots said with a contented look on his face. “I think touch-me-nots are my favorite plants!”

I agree with him. They have learnt to adapt and interpret the steady trickle of rain doesn’t need them to close up their leaves, but other external stimuli warrant that. How marvelous?

If ever one needs to be intensely aware of all the things that need to co-exist for a beautiful ecosystem, a well preserved island would do the trick. Being there amidst nature’s bounties only reminds me of Mary Oliver’s quote on attention being our only task.

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

Mary Oliver

The Enchanted Turtles

We are back from a beautiful few days in Kauai, Hawaii.

There is something about the light and sights of an island paradise that always amaze me. Even the darkness seems to be scented by a different tint of light (could it be that the surrounding oceans make for darker skies and the magical stars spread their light more?)

As Gerald Durrell says about the island of Corfu in his writing:

“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquillity, a timelessness, about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.” 

Gerald Durrell, The Corfu Trilogy

One morning, two days into our vacation in the Garden Island, Kauai, we decided to have a slower morning. We had been rushing and ticking sights off our list ever since we arrived. So, that morning, we lolled and strolled nearby. A tourist magnet like Hawaii doesn’t have too many hidden gems, but walking through the streets has gems enough. We strolled to a nearby lagoon or bay with some rough hidden spots. We sat on the rocks watching the waters slosh into the rocks below. There is something surprising every time we stop and still our senses. 

10 minutes into sitting on the rocks and watching the waters below was enough. We spotted 3 large turtles almost all at once. The children and I squealed at the turtles 🐢 swimming and sloshing in the rough waters below. To see a large sea turtle in the ocean is a gift few get, and even fewer appreciate. As for us, we were thrilled. 

The delight and serendipity of a sight like lit the world around us. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can see the magnificence of the sea turtles coming up, looking around and ducking back in with the waves. 

That afternoon, a helpful lady at the resort told us about a hike in a mahogany forest, and off we went. Through the forest, with the sun light filtering though the green canopy overhead, there was a diversion marked ‘Enchanted Forest’. How could one resist a path marked thus? Off we tread into the enchanted forest then, and enchanted it was. There were clumps of touch-me-nots every few feet, and the quiet of the forest only interspersed with the chittering of the exotic Hawaiian birds was magical.

That evening, as I closed my eyes for the night, the turtles came unbidden to wish me good night – sloshing and rolling in the tumultuous waters of the bay. I clutched the firm  bed, made probably of mahogany wood, and couldn’t help feeling a sense of gratitude for the enchanted turtles and forests that bless our days on Earth.

“I walk in the world to love it.” – Mary Oliver

Bewilderment – The book and the feeling

A friend of mine teased me lovingly and perfectly validly that every time she looks at the stars she thinks of me looking up and wondering about the various kinds of worlds out there, the vastness of it, the beauty and grandeur.  “You will become a star one day.” , she said, and we laughed. 

I would love to become like Oogway the Turtle master who, when the time came became one with the stars. That picturization is brilliant and so poignant. 

Oogway becoming one with the stars

It is true – after a long day, when most earthly duties of the day are done, I take myself off to ponder at the stars – the distant worlds and the beauty of sentience to appreciate the vastness of our presence in this universe. Truly, one of the biggest leaps of humankind is to have found our humble place in the cosmos – the worlds do not revolve around us, the gods were not thinking of us and our fates during the grand creation. We just are, and while here, we can make the best of it. 

Photo by Mohan Reddy Atalu on Pexels.com

The more we discover earth-like planets, the more we realize that our planet is probably the only home we have for at least 10 (possibly much higher) light years in every direction. It should be a moment of awakening then for us to look after our one home. 

Life on Earth

Space.com – Earth like planets

Obviously, I was thrilled to read the book Bewilderment by Richard Powers. He writes about a dedicated, loving father who is raising his neuro-divergent son as a single father. He is also an astrobiologist whose job it is to model the worlds found depending on their atmospheric possibilities and constitution to simulate the kinds of life possible. (Even on Earth, the extremophiles found in sulphur vents deep inside the ocean were a revelation. If that was possible, what else and how many kinds of life were possible? )  The unique nature of their relationship, the steadfast and somewhat refreshing outlook of the possibilities of life outside Earth make for a fabulous read. A dip into the stars and beyond while being earth-bound. 

Bewilderment – By Richard Powers

For those of you who wish to read the possibilities of worlds and the ability to dream past our current home and circumstances, I shall not spoil the end (but I wish it had not ended the way it did) .

Richard Powers is quickly becoming one of my favorite Science and nature based authors.

Snippet :

One night in mid-August, he asked for a planet before bed. I gave him the planet Chromat. It had nine moons and two suns, one small and red, the other large and blue. That made for three kinds of day of different lengths, four kinds of sunset and sunrise, scores of different eclipses, and countless flavors of disk and night,. Dust in the atmosphere turned the two kinds of sunlight into swirling watercolors. The languages of that world had as many as two hundred words for sadness and three hundred for joy, depending on the latitude and hemisphere.

He was thoughtful, at the story’s end. He lay back on his pillow, hands clasped behind his head, looking up at the idea of Chromat on his bedroom ceiling.

Bewilderment – Richard Powers

The book has rekindled the wonder of the universe, and the wondrous ponderings associated with them. How can one be bored by our narrow lives when the cosmos offers itself as a venue to ponder and more importantly, get a perspective on.

Dancing Hippos of Loango

The summer solstice was unusually hot this time of the year. 

I was just back from the pool. The children looked at me approvingly as I hummed through the early evening light making dosas for dinner. “Amma is like one of those partying surfing hippos of Loango isn’t it?” said the children, and I beamed.

“Those hippos are so cool – riding the coastline, swimming so well – I want to be able to swim like them. I mean, I sputter and bumble in the pool. Imagine if I could swim like the happy hippos of Loango?” I sang and danced a little hippo jig. 

The children exchanged glances and burst out laughing. “You know? Some moms would be offended if they are called the surfing hippos of Loango. “ 

“Well, I am honored.” said I truthfully. “Fascinating creatures hippos. Do y’all remember the hippo handbag I had? Drew admiring glances a few times that one.”

“Yeah – also pitiful ones ma. That one was falling apart – we know, actually the whole world knew, you liked the hippo handbag.” Said the older eye-roll and the younger eye roll in unison.

I laughed. “By the way, did you also know that Taweret – the greek goddess of childbirth was a hippo?” Said the mythology experts in the house, and I glanced up from my dosas with wonder and curiosity. 

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taweret

Taweret , a goddess depicted as a pregnant hippopotamus standing upright.

Mankind has for ages gleaned its inspirations from the animal world. All the more reason for us to protect the diversity of life and the planet that nurtures them all. 

Ever since we saw the first episode on National Parks narrated by Barack Obama, we all fell in love with the surfing hippos of Loango, the flying sifakas of Madagascar, the camouflaging coolness of the sleepy sloths that have the potential to cure cancer and so much more.

Watching programs featuring the wild in the National Geographic or the National Parks series make me glad that I am alive in today’s day and age. The camera angles, the kind of cinematography, the explosion of knowledge and sharing, the entertainment options and standards, technology everything is instrumental in a wildlife show. Where previously, we had to rely on the mental imagery through words such as Gerald Durrell’s, now we have the ability to see the guanacos act of survival in the Patagonian landscapes right along side the sluggish sea lions on the Californian coast. If that isn’t lucky, I don’t what is.

I have tried capturing a butterfly with my phone several times, and I must confess this simple act is all it takes for me to gain a sense of awe with the captures of these wildlife photographers and documentary producers. 

The Oceans As Soul Refreshers

Explorers arriving at the nourishncherish home would have found the chronicler walking around with one book more often than others, Chasing Science at Sea – Racing Hurricanes, Stalking Sharks, and Living Undersea with Ocean Experts by Ellen Prager.

You see, I wanted to finish reading the book before World Environment Day World Oceans Day on June 5th. Then, I thought I will somehow make it to World Oceans Day on June 8th. Now both days have come and gone, many marvelous meals have been tucked into, many laughs shared with friends and family, many meetings sat through, many hikes and bikes to appreciate the world around us, but the book is still in my hand.

The book is engaging at a fundamental level – a subject and set of anecdotes so absorbing and amusing that despite all the demands on my time, I do not want to set it down unfinished. Every time I have gone to the edge of the land overlooking the waters, the lure of understanding the world is beyond me. How would it be if we had evolved under water instead of on land. How would our technologies have taken shape? Then, there is a gratitude that we are land dwellers and 3/4ths of the Earth is uninhabitable by us.

The pressure of living under the sea must be enormous and I wonder about how the various creatures of the sea manage. A friend of mine had taken a picture of a chips bag at high altitude. Imagine that bag 10,000 feet under the ocean. Apparently, every 33 feet the pressure increases by another atmosphere. With what ease these dolphins and whales navigate the pressure differences as they come up to gulp air and go back into the depths of the oceans?

One evening I stood watching the magnificent waxing gibbous moon over the bay waters one one side, and the setting sun on the opposite side. I remember reading that the creatures of the ocean have their own lunar cycles to follow. The little turtles that come ashore on full moon nights to lay their eggs, the fish orienting themselves by the direction of the stars, the birds using their innate gifts of navigation to traverse the Earth on there impressive migratory journeys – everything ebbed and flowed into the mind’s eye much as the gentle waves lapping nearby.

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.” –

Rachel Carson

There were pelicans bobbing elegantly in a uniform motion a distance away, seagulls, avocets and blackbirds flying energetically, while the herons stood stoic as ever apparently gazing at the moon and waiting for the fish in the waters below.

The edge of the sea

How must it be to live under the sea? How I wished to be a little mermaid just then to glimpse into the ocean worlds? Imagine my surprise when I sat with the Chasing Science at Sea book that evening to read about Aquarius – the under sea research station that allows marine biologists and oceanographers to research the oceans. They spend hours at these deep pressure stations after which they need to be carefully acclimatized to the surface atmosphere before returning to the surface. While inside Aquarius, they can stay for as long as their mission takes, but:

At the end of a mission, aquanauts undergo a 17-hour decompression that is conducted within Aquarius itself, while on the bottom. At the end of decompression, aquanauts exit Aquarius and scuba-dive back to the surface.

NASA site on Aquarius

The truth is that the oceans are still an enigma. Despite underwater diving equipment, the ability to scuba dive, submarines, and remote access vehicles, the oceans are vast, and full of an alluring mystery. 

A few years ago, I read a book on marine farming and was enthralled at the possibilities of seaweed farming and kelp forests, but not a little afraid as we start taming the seas. We have not shown ourselves to be good custodians of the lands and the atmosphere.

Kelp Forest – Monterey Bay Aquarium

As I determinedly read about the adventures or the scientists, a strange calm engulfed the soul. Water and water-related imagery often does this. I slipped into bed with beautiful thoughts of the oceans and how little we really think of them in our day-to-day problems. What amazing soul refreshers the waters are?

The Happy Cluckers Are Named

I pinned the Volunteer badge proudly to my chest and walked into the son’s classroom. There, on the board, was a list. The teacher was busy adding to the list and I was flummoxed. There was no categorization. I mean this was not a grocery list, not an author list, not a mailing list, it didn’t look like ice cream flavors either. This list had no theme. 

A sample:

  • Caramel
  • King Cluck III
  • Nathan Drake
  • Westerpoolch
  • McFlurry
  • Lee

I must’ve looked quizzical, for the moment the teacher saw me, she said somewhat sheepishly. “Well, we are coming with a list of names for the chicks in Science class. Say what you will about my job, it is never dull!”

I laughed agreeing heartily. The son had told me about the chicks they were raising in Science class. I just hadn’t realized all the background work that went into raising them.

I have the greatest admiration for teachers as regular readers know: their job is the hardest (but also the most gratifying as the father likes to remind me. He was a teacher for 40 years and is still happy to teach when he can.)

Once the class had settled down, I set about reading a story I had written : Father’s Day in the Jungle, followed by an article published in The Hindu newspaper: Space Racers – Together the Fun Begins, and the saying on the Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan.

The picture of Earth Rising

The children were a marvelous audience as usual. They were curious, wanted to know about how we got the images of our planet, and how it came to be called the Pale Blue Dot. There is always a moment of awe as I imagine the Voyager II spacecraft turning around just before exiting the solar system to take that picture of Earth – the picture immortalized in Carl Sagan’s words as the Pale Blue Dot. I hope a little of that awe was captured by the children in class that day.  

Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan

The innocence, intelligence and joy in an elementary school classroom was more keenly acute this time so close on the heels of another meaningless gun shooting incident in America. 

I am always grateful to the children’s teachers who allow me to come and read to the children, for the experience is extremely satisfying, and the energy of the young children is like a tonic of sorts.

That evening, I asked the son whether the chicks had names yet, and he said happily. “Yeah! The voting was intense. But Caramel and Westerpoolch are happy cluck-ers ma!”

I was reminded of Miss Read’s sayings: Miss Read was a country school teacher who wrote prolific books about life in the English countryside with generous measures of common sense, nature, and gentle humor.

“Life went on. No matter what happened, life went on, inexorably, callously, it might seem, to those in grief. But somehow, in this continuity, there were the seeds of comfort.” 

Miss Read, Emily Davis

A Special Post to Celebrate Syzygy

“You’d better make it a special post!”, said the son. He is the one who is ardently fanning me in on, and keeping tabs on whether I am writing enough these days. His natural state of calculating kicks in, and he says “So, if you write another post in the next 36 hours then…”, and I have to remind him that it is not like that. One does not have to follow a punishing rigorous schedule for a hobby. That I will write and when I do, it feels joyous and good. Not laborious and like finishing up an arduous task for the sake of doing so.

There must have been a natural syzygy (aligning of the stars) when I started my blog seventeen years ago. The time it takes for a wizard to come of age in the magical world. I must say, the blog has given me an excellent magical education. I may not have graduated from Hogwarts in this time, but I certainly have learnt a thing or two on the magic of persistence, the seer of light in a dark universe, or any number of things.

Herbology: My specimens may still not be thriving, but as a chronicler of the natural world, I think Professor Sprout would gladly have me in her graduating class.

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more,” 

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

Read: A Celebration of 🌎

The Joy of the Natural World

Astronomy: Professors Carl Sagan and his many many friends have been amazing companions in the starship of the night. Comets, moon cycles and changing constellations not withstanding, there have also been the amazing journeys through space on light ships designed and envisioned by Johannes Kepler.

Ancient Runes: Professor Vector has opened thine eyes to many wonders of the Mathematical world and how they help us find a structure to our days. A way to find the incontrovertible truth if you will.

Changing Mathematics from a computational discipline into a beautiful, abstract philosophy.

Pythagoras of Samos (580-500 BCE) who continued the philosophy of: 

Transfiguration: How else does a serious minded member of the software engineering firms of the world transform into a magic seeking writer who will arduously work out a sentence structure sometimes tens of times to get that laugh?

Potions: Professor Snape, Dr Oliver Sacks, Paul Nurse, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Ed Yong, and so many more professors have taken me under their wing and spent many enjoyable hours explaining the joy behind reactions.

Care of Magical Creatures: Hagrid, Gerald Durrell, Sy Montgomery and numerous other writers of the natural world have introduced and opened my experiences to the world of creatures around us. Snail tales, pelican and duck friends, and so many instances of the world around us.

Writing & reading have sustained and enthralled me every step of the way, and it has proved to me how remarkable life’s moments are – even in a seemingly unremarkable life such as mine.

Like Sy Montgomery says in her book, How to be a good creature: 

Thurber taught me this: “You never know even when life looks hopeless, what might happen next. It could be something wonderful is right around the corner.”

Sy Montgomery – How to be a good creature

It usually is in the form of a new book, or a new idea that magically transforms an ordinary day into an extraordinary one. The power of fleeting thoughts that can take flame, grow and sustain in a wholly positive way, weaving magical moments and learnings. What can be better than that?

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R R Martin in A Dance with Dragons

Here is to more years of fruitful occupation, magical meanderings and posts that entertain and hopefully enlighten. This is my 1000th post.

Thank you, my readers, for being with me on this magical journey. Of course, the blog owes its very existence To My Family & Other Animals – who are frequent and oft quoted celebrities on this blog.

The Human Experience

“You could be listening to anything at all, and this is what you choose to listen to?” , said the daughter.

I chuckled. We were driving through the Great Plains of the Mid-West between Wisconsin and Illinois. Snow flakes were flurrying lazily across the windshield, which was amusing to watch, since I could feel the car shuddering with the winds sweeping the plains. The great windmills on either side of the freeway were moving and converting the wind energy, while the snowflakes seemed to be dancing lazily and flitting across the plains. To see the flakes against the depth of the vast plain fields was mesmerizing enough, but to have Dr Indre Viskontas’s lecture accompany the scenes outside made for a new appreciation. 

I was listening to the excellent Great Courses lectures by Dr Indre Viskontas. In her energetic voice as she talks about how we hear and see, the world becomes magical again. 

Listening to Dr Indre Viskontas speak about the faculties of seeing and hearing, makes those of us given these two abilities more appreciative of all that goes on beneath the skin to make these happen. 

12 Essential Scientific Concepts

How we perceive light, hear the frequencies of sound that are audible to us, make for our human experience. The frequencies heard and seen by each creature on Earth itself is different. From the magical birds who sense the Earth’s magnetic field for their migration journeys to the fish who are able to navigate by the position of the stars from deep under the ocean, we each have our own unique way of living. Of Life. 

In Dr Oliver Sack’s book, Musicophilia, he says:

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia

Dr Indre Viskontas is also an Opera performer, and her joyous voice brings out the polymathic abilities she possesses. Truly, as she regales cognitive neuroscience and how our brains understand better, I am reminded of some wonderful musings with our dance teacher at school. In between rigorous bouts of dance practice, she insisted that her students were all bright, athletic, and doing so much better than we would have without dance. And, in the energy of youth urging us towards our better selves, we wanted to believe her. Could that have been a belief that spurred us on? We would not know – for good teachers, coaches and mentors all excel in that subtle balance of belief, discipline, and inspiration.

But maybe the musicality and the dance do make for better neurological experiences. As Dr Viskontas says in the lecture above, 

Art and science are after the same thing. The goal is to understand the human experience. Science does it by extracting general principles about the world, and art uses individual experience to highlight what is universal.”

Dr Indre Viskontas

Why is it that we are moved by a piece of music to visualize a god vs demon war on stage, or the haunting love-lorn calls to one another? Because music, like whales can attest, can evoke worlds in our imagination. 

“Music can also evoke worlds very different from the personal, remembered worlds of events, people, places we have known.”

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

And so, I wanted to say to the daughter, “When I could be listening to anything at all, I chose to listen to the lectures trying to understand the human experience in a vast, barren landscape, made unbearably beautiful by the beauty of the symmetrical snowflakes, and the gushing of the winds against the car. “

What I did instead was laugh, and let her call me weird. ‘Weird’ I am beginning to understand is one of the best compliments that a teenaged child can give you.

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