The Nest

Summer had spread its warmth and happiness in myriad ways. It had browned the state of California, made children cherish a vacation spent in the warm company of cousins, friends and grandparents. It had also led us to discussing a pair of swallows or robins who had raised their family over a friend’s garage recently. The excitement over this last item was palpable, if second-hand. I have told the children lots of tales before of growing up amidst nature, and their favorites are the ones featuring fauna of various shapes and sizes. The time we ran from a mouse, the time the panther came, and so on.

Amma – have you really seen a nest before?”

“Yes. Of course.” I replied.

They had the look of expectancy about them, and I did not disappoint.

I told them that not only had I seen a bird’s nest before, but was so shocked at having seen it, that I almost toppled off the tree in fright. They guffawed at this, as though nothing amused them more than mothers falling off trees, and I mock-pursed my lips at this misplaced joy. But I had to admit, if I imagined my mother falling off a tree at their age, I would’ve guffawed too, and genetics cannot be helped and all that.

I cleared my throat and continued with the thrilling tale of the nest. They listened with rapture.

We were playing what loosely passes for badminton out in the rushing wind just to see how to play when the gusts of wind took the shuttle askew. One time, the shuttle caught in a tree, and we tried retrieving the thing with hockey sticks,  shouting (our sound waves generate sonic boom to dislodge shuttle – duh), and a myriad other techniques before placing a stool on a chair and hoisting me up to the nearest branch. It was then, I saw the dear home. It looked just like I liked it: haphazardly thrown together, a comfortable haven from a stormy world. Cozy, if a little messy. I stood there for a few seconds delighted at my find, and prudently did not holler the finding to my playmates below.

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I have always had a soft spot for babies, and there must have been some being raised there. I almost clambered down without the shuttle-cock in shock.  I kept the information quiet from some of the more cruel children, and expertly diverted our game elsewhere.

The children gave a wistful sigh, “Hmmm…..Wish we could see a nest!”

Every time we go to a wooded area, we look for a nest, but so far we have been unsuccessful in our quest.

A few days later, I was meandering around the lanes, when I spotted something on the floor. The pine trees in the lane had shed plenty of its pines, and the brown pine needles and the pine cones make an interesting scene partly because we are always on the lookout for lovely looking pinecones. It was then I spotted what was unmistakably a nest. There it was – perfectly shaped to house little birds (an ornithologist could probably look at the nest and tell you which birds planned to raise a family in them, but I could not) I picked it up and saw the nest must have fallen a good 10-15 feet even if it were on the lowest branch. Luckily, no eggs were in the vicinity, and I gingerly picked up the nest to show it to the children.

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After the initial excitement, I was told that I had been heartless in bringing the nest home. Why could I have not put back on the tree? While I admired the sentiment behind this, I felt that expecting me to scramble up that large a tree to put a nest back was a bit much. So, the nest was housed in an adjoining tree whose branch was accessible to my height, and we hoped some bird who had procrastinated nest building would be able to find and use it.

“How will any bird know to look for a nest?”, the children asked. I was doubtful too.

A few days later, I picked up the children’s book, A Nest Is Noisy. The dear book assured me that there were plenty of birds that look for built nests, and the nest I had picked up could one day become a home again.

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. John Burroughs

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Magic of Zen

“Chitthi, you should read this book for sure. I am sure you will like it.”, said the niece, holding up some teen fiction. She has been reading what she calls Dystopian Fiction and some of her stories tend to mistake my blood for milk set out to curdle. I looked skeptical.
The daughter joined in the conversation with another book suggestion. “Adults won’t enjoy it, but I am sure you will Amma.” she said.
I donned an amused expression. That I should be pegged for having a child’s capacity made me feel truly honored.

Like Ursula K Le Guin, the famous fantasy author said, ‘The creative adult is the child who survived.’

“I mean of course you are an adult and stuff, but … well you know what we mean.” The girls rushed on almost immediately, “This is the good stuff – you will love it.”

The book recommendations discussion was happening before our trip to Mt Shasta, and I was deciding what should be taken along for reading.

After a little deliberation, I picked out Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin. A better book for the wilderness could not have been chosen if I had researched the thing for weeks. Earthsea is a mythical archipelago where wizardry is not uncommon. This book contained tales from Earthsea set in various points in time. The stories are set in beautiful islands amidst forests and meadows and was the perfect read at Shasta.

One fine early morning, on a hike in the forests of Shasta, I chose a spot in which to slowdown and take in the surroundings just like the characters do in the Grove. I sat myself on a rock, and looked out upon miles of trees and forest cover. Sitting there, I noticed how the leaves were shaped against the blue skies, the clear, sharp shapes rising up against the sky, looking majestic and beautiful. Why is it, that nothing man made can even hope to compete with the magnificence of a leaf, tree, forest or mountain? It was a biomimicry moment.

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With the forest around me and Mt Shasta in the background, Nature helped still and quiet my senses so much that I felt strange. The incessant chatter of inner turmoil quiet, the constant rippling of life’s waves smoothened, the distant and affectionate view of my own foibles on Earth. In only a few moments of this relative calming of the senses I could feel every observation keenly as though the distant telescopes were adjusted better to give a clairvoyant view into life.

To hear, one must be silent.
Ursula K. Le Guin

I resolved to take the children on a hike that very evening. The evening hike was just as splendid. It hugged a coastline on a lake, and the evening sun transformed a normal forest setting into a magical one. We trudged up the mountain path chattering happily and gaining altitude. A number of meandering trails and paths criss-crossed the ones we were taking as we hiked on.

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As we were hiking, I told my daughter about the moment of Zen that I felt during the morning hike, and she said she would try it too. I looked up surprised, but noticed that a while later, she sought out a rock and sat there just drinking in the scenery. I hope she felt the same sense of quiet.

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As we made our way back, the sun had started to set and colored the sky with patches of radiant pink, purple and orange. It was then that we realized that we may have lost our way. I remember going left from this mountain peak, but that trail up there also goes there, how about this one? Every one was sure we had come up by a completely different path. The daughter was unusually quiet and then she exclaimed thoroughly proud of herself, “This is it! I know now. This is it. This is the way to go!” and she was perfectly right.

Days later, when we were discussing the concept of magic, I went all Ursula Le Guin on her and said, “You know? That day, on the hike, you were so much in tune with nature that you were the one who found the way back. You know how appalling you are usually when it comes to directions, but that day because you loved the hike so much, the forest revealed its magic to you.” She rolled her eyes, but the joy in her eyes was unmistakable.

Le Guin writes of magic in a way that is manifest in our daily lives without us ever stopping thinking of them as magic. It is neither wand waving nor dramatic, but it is spectacular. It is in the unique talents we each have, and just like any other talent needs nurturing and nourishing to develop to its full potential.

The Author’s work has the influence of Tao-ist philosophies, that help us tap into the ageless wisdom of generations. The books talk of listening to the Earth as a means to understanding the greater forces at play, the ability to gauge what is to happen, but have the sagacity to neither judge nor criticize its actors unduly. In short, it is life cloaked in the glamorous garbs of magic.

Lao Tzu Tao – Ursula Le Guin

When Humor Jumped In Neptune’s Pool

California has many things to offer: it is home to sprawling deserts, cold beaches, misty forests, rainy fogs, snowy stretches, marvelous lakes, fast flowing rivers, and so much more. It is one of the reasons why we had neglected the Hearst Castle in San Simeon California for this long. Every time some one asked us about Hearst Castle, we’d say, “Oh – yes! Must go” without conviction and move on. This time, however, we took the plunge and buoyed up in Paso Robles, California.

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Once in there, it is imperative that you follow your hosts’ instructions scrupulously, for the tour guides there do not put it past themselves to take a ruler and rap it across your knuckles if you don’t. One time, we found ourselves standing in the game room and the guide went on and on about the parties the rich man used to give there (Their guests used to play scrabble here, and then they would move across the hall, and play the uno cards there. Sometimes, they would think that chess might be a good idea, but thinking was hard….). Then, she stopped mid sentence, found my pinkie toe not on the carpet, and pulled me up in front of the whole tour. “Ma’am. Ma’am. I ask that you stand on the carpet.
To which I looked around to see who the rule-breaker was, and found there was no Ma’am in the general direction she was shouting at except me. I asked her, “Who? Me?”
Yes Ma’am. Please stay on the carpeted area.
“I am on the carpeted area.”
No ma’am. Your pinkie toe is out.
Sticklers for perfection the Hearst Castle folks.

When you go up to the Hearst Castle, you cannot but help noticing that the man, William Hearst, had nothing to do, had wealth with which he knew not what to do, and therefore he thought it a perfectly reasonable thing to build a castle that made Napolean Bonaparte, Julius Caeser and King Henry the VIII all squirm together in a co-ordinated pirouette in the nether world. As though the human built edifice wasn’t enough, he decided to introduce some zebras, llamas and mountain goats into a habitat that boasts natively of some squirrels and lizards.

If the tour guide is any reflection on the hospitality offered up at the home of old William Hearst, I should like to pass on the invite. We were all now made to stand in attention in the dining room where folks, I was enlightened by the tour guide, ate. I did not know this. So, I looked up.
Sometimes, they had potatoes for dinner, sometimes they had eggs, oatmeal…

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I must mention that this punishing tour was happening at an hour where breakfast is a memory and lunch a yearning.

The guide’s voice was one of those voices these sharp nurses who brook no nonsense have. To top that, she seemed to belong to the category of folks who swallow their sense of humor mistaking them for calcium tablets in their youth. Her jaw set, her face impassive, she went on and on like a steady drip into your veins.

I have always felt for these tour guides. I am not sure what draws them to the career in the first place. It must be a beautiful thing to proudly show the legacy of the place the first three hundred and two times. But the three-hundred and third time, must get somewhat repetitive what? And then, you have people who refuse to keep their pinkie toes on the carpet. Hard.

If you were a guest here at the castle, you would be given the place of honor the first night and sit right next to Marion Davies (his mistress), and then as more and more guests joined, you will be moved along the table. When you find yourself at the end, it is time for you to go.”, she went on in that flat dictaphone commanding her troops sort of voice.

I am sure that was a line inserted for humor. I could almost see Humor springing gay and carefree in that line, and then tripping on the carpet that all toes were supposed to be on, and falling nose first and splattering on the floor.

People shuddered at the implication, thankful that their pal William Hearst did not send them a personal invitation.

A giggler throughout, I was quite sure I would have myself thrown out of the hilltop if I did not behave, but I could not help thinking of P.G.Wodehouse’s quote:

“It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.”

P.G. Wodehouse, The Girl in Blue

I laughed and the husband yanked me to the back of the troupe, to save me from myself.

It was in fact, P.G.Wodehouse, who had put up that gag about being shoved off the table if you stayed too long.
Meals are in an enormous room, and are served at a long table, with [William Randolph] Hearst sitting in the middle on one side and [actress-mistress] Marion Davies in the middle on the other. The longer you are there, the further you get from the middle. I sat on Marion’s right the first night, then found myself being edged further and further away till I got to the extreme end, when I thought it time to leave. Another day, and I should have been feeding on the floor.”—Humorist P.G. Wodehouse, in a letter to a friend describing his visit to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, Feb. 25, 1931, quoted in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes.

If only PGW knew how his good pal, Humor, jumped into Neptune’s pool to avoid further torture, he would have had a gag or two about it for sure. (Neptune pool is a monstrosity with *gulp* Roman columns surrounding a humongous pool, that was dry and was up for renovation because it drained some 5000 gallons of water, when the rest of the state was smacking their lips in thirst).

The Butter Battle Course

When you look up the definition for religion, it states among other things that it is “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”

How many conflicts has the world endured, is enduring, and will continue to endure because of this belief to which one ascribes supreme importance? I had written about it here (religion).

Who was it who said that every good kind of learning  can be obtained from Childrens’ books?  I whole heartedly agree.

The latest book that I am babbling about is the Butter Battle book, by Dr Seuss.

The Yooks and the Zooks live on either side of a long, meandering wall. The Yooks wear blue, the Zooks wear orange.
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The Yooks think the Zooks silly for buttering their bread with the butter side down, while the Zooks think the Yooks are somewhat dim-witted for buttering their bread with the butter side facing up. The flags of the Yooks and Zooks represent the belief in buttering bread, and the animosity builds from this bread-butter-theory to which they attach supreme importance.

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One day, the Yook patrolman is prowling the place with his Tough-Tufted Prickly Snick-Berry Switch, when a Zook pelts him with a slingshot. This sets in motion an escalating conflict, with both sides coming up with more and more exotic and dangerous arms with which to fight each other.

The Triple Sling Jigger, the Jigger Rock Snatchem, the Blue Goo-er, the Kick-a-poo kid operated by a cocker spaniel – Daniel, the Eight-Nozzled Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz.

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The last page has the Yook patrolman sitting atop the wall with a Zook warrior. Both of them have in their hands a Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo – a small bomb that can annihilate life as we know it, signifying the nuclear threat.

I know we ask of no formal training as a politician: there are no politician licenses, no courses one has to complete to take up public office, but I really think there should be a set of children’s books that they all have to read and re-read as refreshers every year in order to stay in office. We could call it the Butter Battle Course.

The Butter Battle Book has of course given rise to great hilarity in the house. “Do you want to be a Yook or a Zook?”, we ask taking out the butter and the bread. We now butter our bread on both sides so we can be Yooky-Zooks, and sometimes Zooky-Yooks.

The next time any two nations start warring, I suggest thrusting bread buttered on both sides to both parties.

Complement with:
Kahlil Gibran on the Absurdity of Self righteousness
The Colander Religion
Bertrand Russell’s Teapot Religion

The Magic of Biomimicry

I recently read a book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus. A book, whose underlying concept appealed to the very core of my being, for it outlined how little we know of the world around us, and how much more there is to learn from Nature’s processes.

How do we become harmonious citizens of a planet that houses, apart from 7 billion of us, billions of plant and animal forms? It is a question that floats into my mind every so often. How beautifully a bee arranges its hive, how marvelously a dandelion reproduces, how trees take in water, how they produce energy. All of these things make me wonder and marvel at Nature the Tinkerer.

I am afraid I made rather a pest of myself with friends and family. I cornered parents-in-law while they were taking a rest and spoke to them of Do-Nothing farming, I got a children’s book on the subject and read tantalizing bits of information out to the children. I bored friends with it. I could see the scramble-and-run-before-it-is-too-late look on everyone’s faces when I stopped to admire the squirrel prudently checking whether the fruits are ripe before digging in.

‘Why is it wet winter or hot summer, some grasslands thrive?’, I’d ask, only to find that tasks of monumental importance spring up requiring immediate attention for my audience.

Did that stop me? No. If anything, I am going to go and do on the blog what I have been physically doing to those around me.

The book is arranged into the following sections:

Echoing Nature
 Why Biomimicry now?
How will we feed ourselves?
 Farming to fit the land: Growing food like a prairie
How will we harness energy?
 Light into life: Gathering energy like a leaf
How will we make things?
 Fitting form to function: Weaving fibers like a spider
How will we heal ourselves?
 Experts in our midst: Finding cures like a chimp
How will we store what we learn?
 Dances with Molecules: Computing like a cell
How will we conduct business?
 Closing the loops in commerce: Running a business like a redwood forest
Where will we go from here?
 May wonders never cease: Toward a biomimetic future

Higher education in Science has arranged itself along silo-ed areas of expertise. Biologists rarely study Computer Science. Mechanical Engineers rarely take up Zoology.

The author writes of her interactions with various scientists who have successfully transcended narrow areas of study to walk the line between disciplines to see where we can benefit from nature.
1) The materials science engineer who combines fibre optics and biology to study the beauty and resilience of spider silk

2) The agriculturist who, over decades, has perfected the technique of do-nothing farming, conscientiously chipping away at unnecessary practices while studying natural prairies and grasslands to see how plants grow in the wilderness, thereby coming up with the highest yield of natural grain per acre.

3) The anthropologist who studies chimps and how they cure themselves to see how we can identify cures for common problems.

Quote:
In exploring life’s know-how, we are reaching back to some very old roots, satisfying an urge to affiliate with life that is embossed on our genes. For the 99% of time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we have a leaning to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.

This about sums up our position on Earth.
“In reality we haven’t escaped the gravity of life at all. We are still beholden to ecological laws, the same as any other life form.”

Now is the time for us to take our place as one species among billions in the ecological vote bank, and make wise choices.

P.S: Please see the TED talk on Biomimicry

Another World

We are back from what can only be termed an exotic vacation by the seaside, and the old brain nudged me to look for something written on marine life a while ago, and I did. I had written this post a few months ago, and forgot to publish it.

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So, here is the old post while I marshal my thoughts from the vacation.

One evening over dinner, the husband asked in what he thought was a nonchalant tone whether we should go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium that week-end.

“Hmm…Did they send you the renewal plea for the annual pass?” I asked shrewdly.

He laughed and said that they had indeed.

We are as gullible as galloping oysters in fish sauce when it comes to the annual pass gab. We look and analyze the thing from all angles and figure that if we go just once more in the next year, it all makes sense and buy the annual passes. The year ahead seems to be sprawling with empty week-ends. Week-after-week, month-after-month: having nothing to do, we say why not set aside one week-end a month for the Science museum, one for the zoo, one for the natural history museum and another for ecological preservation?

Then, of course life unfolds, which in the nourish-n-cherish household has been established to be somewhat erratic, and hectic, and we are left wondering whether the weekdays with all its attendant worries is calmer than week-ends with all its hectic activity. Before we know it, the renewal plea arrives and we try our best to scramble in another visit before the annual pass expires.

“If we go straight to the Diwali party from the museum, we can work in that week-end.”, we say and scramble in a trip to the Aquarium.

Anyway, what I meant is that we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium a few months ago. The salty, tangy, eucalyptus-scented air ruffles your hair as you make your way towards the museum. The cawing of the seagulls and the faint smells of seals and seaweed greet you long before the wonders inside.

Observing marine life is as mesmerizing as it is mystical. Standing there in front of the large glass tanks and looking at sharks, turtles, fish of every color and variety, is magical.

There is one section where we can see jellyfish boink around. Jellyfish that are colored brilliantly, transparent jellyfish, and jellyfish that contain bioluminescent bacteria. As I was standing there marveling at the brilliance of nature, I noticed that there were patterns in the glowing bacteria. Some had patterns that if one squinted one’s eyes resembled constellations in the night sky. I don’t know whether the patterns in the jellyfish are unique to each one much like the Zebra’s stripes are, but it would definitely not surprise me if that were the case. Nature’s patterns are as varied as they are diverse.

We came home that night, reluctantly pulling ourselves away from the enthralling environs of teeming marine life, and sat around for a hastily thrown together dinner. The conversation drifted towards marine life, a topic that is dear to the daughter’s heart. The love started young as we know to our chagrin – we might have watched Finding Nemo five hundred times when she was growing up. Every little fish and piece of coral was much loved in the home. The conversation flitted dangerously close to the ‘I wish I could live in the sea’ theme. The husband watched us for a moment and said in a strangely ruminative tone: “It is a scary world out there isn’t it? A-fish-eats-fish world.”

I was reminded of a quote that floats up in my mind every so often when I am observing the world around us. A quote that is prominently placed in the Monterey Bay Aquarium too:

The sea is as near as we come to another world: Anne Stevenson

Yes, it is a fish-eats-fish world, but it is also the world of beauty, survival, co-existence, and a symbiosis of life.

Can Llamas Use Zebra’s Mascara?

‘What can I do to help you for your play? Can I help you rehearse or give you some tips on how to render your lines?’, I asked the daughter one night. She is starring in ‘The Lion King’ musical in her school and I wanted to show my support. An act she was quite keen to avoid. We were fiddling about when I offered help, and she bucked alarmingly at this train of thought. She can diagnose an enthusiastic helper when she sees one, and she did not like it one bit.

‘No! Thanks.’, she said. Frosty and a tad too vehement perhaps, but I let it go.

‘How about ..?’

‘Amma – no! How about this? Apparently, we need to put on some make-up for the play… ’

I tchah-ed her and said, ‘We already have stuff from past years – I am sure the powder and the lipstick can be used – so what if it is a year or two or three old?’

‘Amma – there is an expiry date!’

‘Fine – we’ll check it. What else?’

‘Apparently, we need mascara – I am a hyena this time remember, so why don’t you go to the store and get me mascara? That’s help right?’, she said, and I agreed. She will make a good robotic manager one day.

Please stop me if you have heard me babble about my demented fashion sense or crocodile-crocodile before. One of the things I would have said, had I been a cosmetologist going about designing these moistening creams and so on,  was that there were so many different shades of people in the world. I mean, how do you come up with a cream that suits every complexion type? That is why the great cosmetic industry has given me a miss thus far and has prospered without my help.

Drop me in a cosmetic store and I bumble famously. Mascara, unlike facial creams, is easy. One color – black. I strode into the store with confidence. I surveyed the area and located the cosmetics section. Once in there, I balked at the lipsticks and sneered at the nail polishes and went straight to the section that has eye-stuff. Golly beans!

I mean, I had no idea, which just goes to prove that confident strides mean nothing if you don’t know the different types of eye make-up available in the eye cosmetic department. I stared limply at the multi-colored eyebrow pencils, eye pencils (they are different apparently, and I had no idea green eye liner was a thing), liquid eye liners, eye shadows, and I had not even touched the eyelid section. By the time I crawled to the eyelash section, my eyes looked like it could do with a dash of all the above to make it look peppy.

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Finally, I saw what I was looking for: extra voluminous mascara, the label screamed and one confident that mascara and eye lashes go together, picked up one number. Back in the confines of the home, I gave it to the daughter proudly, and we opened it.

‘Gee – thanks Amma – Good job!’, she said and patted me in a puppy-dog-good-doggie manner. We tore open the packaging like lions tearing their prey apart.

Something was amiss. The product we had in hand may have suited a zebra, but they certainly did not seem to be for the human eye. It was white. Do you know of any person whose eye lashes are white? So, why was this white?  Curious. Very Curious.

We pieced together the ripped apart packaging like piecing a puzzle together and it seemed that this white colored voluminizer was meant to fluff up your eyelashes till they look like a chihuahua’s tail, and then you put the actual mascara on top to get the real effect.

This of course led to an interesting discussion in which the daughter insisted that zebras have black eyelashes, while I said they could be white in one eye and black in the other. The zebra, wherever it was, decided it was better to meditate than listen to this hypothesis.

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It turns out that zebras have black eyelashes. Humble pie tastes marvelous.

Llamas, on the other hand, have beautiful white eye lashes. But the last time, a meditating zebra checked with a llama, it did not want our mascara. Plus, the Lion King play has no place for llamas, and it is too late to change the script.

I am heading back to the store. Let me know if you’d like anything.