Good Morning Bilbo-Style

Why I was unable to sleep early last night, and got up like an excited cat this morning is beyond me. Usually, I sleep like a sloth that had an extra helping of eucalyptus for dessert: just leap into bed at the end of the day, read for a bit, and pop off. That extra helping of eucalyptus probably contributes to the birds having to tweet very loudly to rouse the sleeper from sweet slumber (The birds have since taken to partnering with poetic alarms).

Poetic alarms and the secret to blooming like a flower.

I can’t say I leapt out of bed, that would be too much, but I did get up smiling. The promise of holiday cheer is definitely a factor.  I smiled sleepily to myself with the lovely realization that child-like enthusiasm only takes the promise of fun to be up and about. 

Also, it has to be a good thing if the first thing I thought of was Gandalf and his good-morning sequence with old Bilbo Baggins. There has to be a word for that sort of magic. 

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain.

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I stepped out for a little garden stroll Shire-style, thinking and noticing the fine things nature had to offer that beautiful morning. I nodded appreciatively at  the brave show the snow peas were making again. Not for the first time did I admire these hardy low maintenance plants that give out so much joy. I have planted ferns, potatoes and lord knows what else, but they elude me. The fruit trees in my little strip of garden all require some expert care seeing that they bear no fruit. The occasional gardener who comes along to help has little to offer by way of advice, and I feel for the sorry trees in my care. 

I read books that said we have the knowledge of natural things in our very being, and nobody has yet planted a sapling wrong and all that sort of thing. Yet the plants in my care don’t seem to know that. Maybe I should read out some of these books to them. Like Frog & Toad reading to their little seeds to make them grow fast.

Everything in its Place – By Oliver Sacks

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I noticed the perfect structure of the budding chyrsanthemums, the beautiful symmetry of pinecones, and wondered why we humans have moved away from the beautiful aesthetics that nature has created for us. It is time we embraced Biomimicry in our design patterns.

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This modern tendency to create monstrous piles of rubble and call them buildings is tedious. Modern plumbing and electric lighting aside, what was the problem with medieval castles? And a little variety of structure?

I was trying to get a good picture of these beautiful little things when I noticed a neighbor who had come walking their dog give me a quizzical look as if to say “Do I not have better things to do?”

I felt this was the perfect time for the final “Good Morning!” Bilbo-style.

“Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.

“What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again

References:

  • The Hobbit – By J R R Tolkien
  • Everything in its place – By Oliver Sacks
  • Frog & Toad – By Arnold Lobel
  • Biomimicry – By Janine Benyus

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:

Beavers & Skunk Weeds

We were out in the mountains, and had stopped for a little walk into the wilderness. Stellar jays popped in and out of the bushes. The marshes ahead had water logging the path, and in the beauty of the day, that too became an adventure. We plopped into the water, squealing as the snow melt felt its way through our shoes, past the socks and then our toes. 

It was the perfect spot for The Wind in the Willows. There was a swift flowing river, the marshes nearby looked supple and full of life. “Look! There is a water-mole!” I said pointing to swift movements in the river. We peered to the movements in the opposite bank looking excited. I was quite prepared to find the water rat and the mole enjoying a cup of tea together after sailing down the river on a wooden boat. 

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“How do you know it is a Mole Amma?” said the young son looking at me with awe.

“Why – by looking at it of course!”, I said confidently, forgetting for a moment how nature always finds a way for me to eat my words, and in this case was quite eager to do so within a mile.

It was a marvelous day – with a touch of Spring still about. The nippiness in the air did not smell Summer just yet. It seemed to be just the sort of day to abandon Spring cleaning for a glorious day outside with one’s friends. I know that was what I was doing and not a bit guilty too. This is what days like these were sent for.

“To walk on Earth and fall in love with it. “, as Mary Olivers would say.

We had the most pleasurable hour discussing The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Some books are blessed with gloriously sunny spirits. I thought of Kenneth Graham’s words that it was a book meant for those who want a whiff of childhood. He said, it was

“A book of youth, and so perhaps chiefly for youth and those who still keep the spirit of youth alive in them; of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides, free of problems, clear of the clash of the sex, of life as it might fairly be supposed to be regarded by some of the wise, small things that ‘glide in grasses and rubble of woody wreck’.”

 

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I looked around me rapturously taking in my surroundings. What better place to imagine looking for Toad, Mole, Badger, and Rat? This was a beautiful setting with a fast flowing river, probably making its way into the larger lake below, and the fertile river marshes were thick with forest cover – the area of transitions as it were.

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Where the marshes meet the river, 

Where the river meets the lake, 

Where the brush meets the forest,

Where the distant clouds meet the snow capped mountains,

Where Spring meets Summer

In short, a place

Where the spirits meet the soul

Walking along this setting, I was thinking of the beautiful concept of Biomimicry and all the wonderful things such a place can teach us. 

The Magic of Biomimicry

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As if nature heard my thoughts, within moments we heard a family talking about
Skunk Weeds. This was the first we had heard of Skunk weeds. The grandmother behind us on the trail was telling her grandchildren that if ever there were stuck in the mountains and in dire need, they should consider skunk weed instead of toilet paper. I looked at the weeds they were pointing at, and they did not look soft. The leaves looked like they had a scratchy texture, and we giggled at the unsaid thought of the effect it would have on already sore bottoms. Dangle a piece like that in front of school going children who like reading Captain Underpants, and it is easier to keep a kettle of boiling water from singing and bubbling.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!” I said deftly trying to keep the conversation clean. I cannot say I had much success though. 

Skunk weed, contrary to the smells it evokes, is quite neutral smelling. It is also exceedingly soft, and surprisingly strong. 

“Ha! That should teach us not to judge something by its looks.” I said as I stooped to touch skunk weed for the 15th time. I had never encountered anything this soft, and completely biodegradable. Wet as it was with the recent rains and snow, it had an alluring freshness to it that I can imagine even now just by closing my eyes. 

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 A few minutes later, the son pointed excitedly at a sign. “Look amma! That was not a mole, it was a beaver!”

I drew up next to him to read a note pinned by the wildlife ranger that said something to the effect of: Be Quiet and nice – all of you please! We are now hosting a family of beavers!

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Luckily, I did not become a veterinarian was my private thought. But there was something so special about finding ourselves in the midst of a beaver family surrounded by skunk weeds, that the aspiring naturalist in me accepted the humorous mocking and relished the humble pie willingly.

If I were to immerse myself in this version of The Wind in the Willows, I should be ready to have my moles replaced by beavers.

 

Do-Nothing Cooking

It was a mild and breezy week-end morning. “Yeah! We are going to work in the garden today! In the garden! In the garden!” I heard the song gain in strength as the gardeners thumped upstairs. “Get up amma!”, they called. I was lingering on in bed, savoring the warmth of the summer quilt.

“What is this?” I asked a little later. The husband was back from somewhere brandishing several sinusoidal wave-like sticks of blue. Could they be fancy walking sticks?

“No – silly. These are for the tomatoes.”

“Yes – don’t you want large tomatoes from the plants? Look, they are already sagging outside.”, said the father-in-law pointing to his pride and joy in the garden. “The rasam can be even tastier with these tomatoes.”, he said with a sly grin on his face.

“Can you make rasam without tomatoes? I just don’t like tomatoes but I like the rasam otherwise.” said the daughter.

This I-Don’t-Like-Tomatoes theme was getting a bit tiring. I rolled my eyes, and stamped my foot in exasperation. “I do not know how to make tomato rasam without tomatoes! Let me know when you make it. ”

“Okay okay! Sheesh kababs! No need to get all cranky if you don’t know how to cook something.” she said and made off to the garden dragging her little brother with her to help her grandfather.

“Make rasam without tomatoes indeed!” I muttered to myself as I gathered the garlic, cumin, pepper, tamarind and tomatoes for rasam. Once the rasam was comfortably simmering, I went back and forth from the kitchen to the garden. Every now and then I was beset upon to give directions and suggestions for the garden. I asked for an old rose plant and the star jasmine creeper to be pruned.

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“But they are poonchedis ” said the father-in-law reluctant to cut flowering plants. South Indians have this strange, but endearing affection with flowering plants. I assured him pruning was good.

The children were busy discussing how to plant the other little flowers and herbs in the garden. The son was looking mighty impressed with himself for he was patted with admiration by his elder sister on the gardening tip he had provided.

“If you put a garlic in the herb garden, then nothing will happen – you know? Nothing. Yes. Ms Lara told us that. No insects will come.”

“Really? We can do that.”

“What?! Do we have garlic in the house? I didn’t know that!”

“Of course we have garlic in the house! How else do you think we can do any Indian cooking you little diddle gump?”, said the chef, who wanted to make tomato rasam without tomatoes.

The little brother was suitably impressed and a few frozen cloves of garlic made its way to the patch containing the Thai basil leaves.

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I looked at the father-in-law. He was tackling the unruly star jasmine creeper with energy. The jasmine had crept up the adjoining fir and cherry trees and was busy making its way past the garden fence. I saw the intense concentration on his face, and surveyed the garden. He must have taken lessons from the barber in the best army in a past life, for the trees had an efficient crewcut demeanor when he was done with them.

The whole scene reminded me of a short story, Annamalai, by R.K.Narayan in The Grandmother’s Tales. The story is about a gardener who had stopped on with him. The gardeners horticultural knowledge and classifications are simple. All flowering plants were ‘poonchedis’ while non-flowering plants were ‘not poonchedis’. The story writes of his taking charge of the garden and how sometimes he would go on a rampage and prune everything in sight, and the garden wore a threadbare, forlorn look for a few days afterward. At other times, he let things be, and the garden flourished anyway. It is a beautiful story that transports you to a little garden in South India almost instantly.

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I smiled thinking of the story. My horticultural knowledge is as woeful as that gardener’s, and my father-in-law’s botanical classification was equally simple. However, I hope our garden too thrives. Maybe we will become the best advocates of the Do-Nothing farming that Farmer Fukuoka speaks so highly of in the Biomimicry book by Janine Benyus.

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Quote from Biomimicry book:

A young man named Masonobu Fukuouka took a walk that would change his life. As he strolled along a rural road, he spotted a rice plant in a ditch, a volunteer growing not from a clean slate of soil but from a tangle of fallen rice stalks.

This proved an inspiration for the young boy : how a grain thrived without the need for coddling and soaking in water canals and so on.

Over the years Fukuoka would turn this secret into a system called Do-Nothing farming because it requires almost no labor on his part and yet his yields are among the highest in Japan. His recipe, fine tuned through trial and error, mimics nature’s trick of succession and soil covering . “It took me 30 years to develop such simplicity” says Fukuoka.

Instead of working harder, he whittled away unnecessary agricultural practices one by one, asking what he could stop doing rather than what he could do.

A sizzling sound alerted me to the rasam simmering over its sides. I charged into the kitchen wondering how to better the Do-Nothing cooking technique.

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The Mountain of Greed

Hiking through the rolling hills one day, I noticed one hill that had the touch of our greed all over it. It was probably a quarry. Set against a state park, this stark mountain made me wince. It was visible from many points in the park, and I moved my eyes away from it as though it was a raw, open, visceral wound. I noticed later in the dozens of pictures I had taken that day, I had deliberately cut this mountain out from my lens. Like my cutting out a mountain from the frame will remove it from my conscience. But it didn’t. I can still see its jagged unnatural edges in my mind’s eye – edges that have been scraped by metal against rock abruptly, not shaped by wind and water over time.

A sight like that got me started on the book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus, for we have devised a way of life that is not sustainable.

 

 

Our corporations, keen on profitability, raced each other to figure out the best ways in which to make us consume more and more. But we have taken the race too far. It is time we stepped away from the treadmill.

As I gurgled on in this vein, I could not help noticing that there was a spring gurgling nearby. I stopped chattering like a monkey and quietened down, and as I did so, I felt a queer feeling seep into me and fill my being. Could it be happiness or gratitude? Whatever it was, I liked it. When birds, butterflies, rabbits, pinecones, free flowing water, trees and mountains jostle in friendly ambience in the early morning sunshine the way that Gaia intended it to be, it is refreshing.

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Please read this marvelous article on The Sound of Silence – Brain Pickings

I looked at the vegetation around me, and I found I did not quite know the type of trees or the plants around me. Gone were the days when I could tell you which berries were good, which ones made you itchy, and which flowers you could sip to get a wisp of nectar. How do animals know instinctively what works and what doesn’t, while we do not? I thought of the chimps in Gombe Stream National Park, the most studied species in the planet thanks to Jane Goodall’s work.

Quote From Biomimicry by Janine Benyus: Observing a chimp in Gombe Stream National Park, anthropologist Richard Wrangham, says: A chimp I was observing had woken up sick and instead of rolling over for more sleep, she got up and made a beeline. Twenty minutes later she stopped at an Aspilia plant [a cousin of the sunflower that grows as high as 6 feet] She suckered up her face and swallowed a dozen leaves before she moved back to her troop. It was obvious from her grimace that this was not a taste treat. Though chemical analysis of the ingested leaves showed no conclusive proof of medicine, he saw that a spike in leaf swallowing behavior coincided with the months of host tapeworm infection.

We too had this kind of instinctive knowledge with us, and instead of adding to its repertoire, we have accidentally followed another path.

Most frightening of all reports is that one in four wild species(including all taxonomic categories) will be facing extinction by the year 2025.

All this huffing up hills takes a toll on amateur knoll-climbers, and on the pretext of admiring a giant pine cone, I stopped to regain my breath. The pine cone was beautiful: It’s tough exterior, perfect symmetry and overall shape made me look at it and wonder why we cannot build jam jars like that pine cone.

It is hardly the first nor the last time I will come across a Mountain of Greed. We have made extraordinary progress in areas pertaining to the skies, the seas, connectivity etc, but seem to grapple with the simple fact that we have one finite resource on which to live. There are no garages to be built for Earth. No extra closets. This is it.

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I sound extraordinarily sententious in this post, so maybe what we need is a reward system for eco-sustenance, so each of us can tap into the Naturalist nestled in us.

To see a world in a grain of sand
To see a heaven in a wild flower
– William Blake

 

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