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. 

The 3 Cs

The daughter was educating me on Cancel Culture. I sometimes get classes such as these from the snarky teenage daughter. The syllabus is contemporary and loosely defined. Topics include ‘vibing’ with the times, progressive thinking patterns, book/movie reviews etc. This, she says, is necessary for someone like me who knows nothing about trends, latest pop culture references etc. “I get by!”, I tell her. But even as I say it, I get the feeling that I must sound like a wheezy dinosaur who hibernated too long and woke up in today’s age to her. Time is a curious entity for I remember the parents laughing when I enlightened them on some of these things as a teenager. 

“Anyway, want to come for a walk with me?” 

“Nope – going by myself.”

In the written medium, it is hard to pull off the time-lapse between the question and the ‘nope’ because there was none. Immediate response. Nope. Going by myself. 

“Fine! Be that way! Canceling walks with mom huh?!” I said, rolling my eyes. It did not seem to bother the girl. Off she went, straight backed and a little wave of her hand as a response. 

A few minutes later, I set out on a walk by myself, and who should I find? But the darling daughter, in apparent distress too.

“Hey! I am here!” I said waving inelegantly. I was thrilled to be seeing her, but by the looks of her reaction, I was no better than a twig fallen from the trees bereft of leaves above. Some people quietly act like their raised hand was just an attempt to stretch or straighten their hair. Nonchalance, ease, grace are all words that come to mind. Yours truly, on the other hand, upped the efforts. I was now gushing steam from my trunk-like spout of a nose, and waving like elephant ears in mid-sprint warding off pesky flies, not to mention sounding like a hoarse trumpet. 

I finally attracted the child’s attention. As I should have guessed, she had air-pods stuck in her ear-lobes and seemed relieved to see me. Her slipper straps were broken, and she needed help hobbling back home. 

It was a beautiful, sunny February day, The cherry blossoms were in bloom everywhere, the trees had not yet started to grow their leaves, and the blue blue skies above made for a perfect day! Though it was technically winter still, Spring was clearly in the air. If I lived near fields, hedgehogs may have been up and about. I didn’t know. All I knew for certain was that yellow thrushes, sparrows, and blackbirds had all hatched, and the air about us was rich with the twittering of birds. I said as much to the daughter. She rolled her eyes. 

“Yes Miss Different. I know you don’t think you are like me, but look at you mooning about the roads on a beautiful day inhaling the deep fresh air! “

She had the grace to laugh. I looked around sniffing rapturously and stopped. There was a beautiful patterned bug going about its business by the sage and lavender bushes. “Oh! Look – such a beautiful pattern on its back too!”

“Amma! Don’t touch it. This is a red bug – it is probably poisonous!” she said. 

“That’s Color-ist! So, what now if a bug is red, it is poisonous?! Going cancel-culture on red bugs now, are we? Oooh! “ I said. She laughed, and I carried on, feeling encouraged, “What about ladybugs huh?! You were constantly telling me to bend down and watch lady bugs slurry about in spring time when you were a child. Are they poisonous too?!”

“No….it is their defense mechanism. “ 

“Huh! How interesting!” I said. I think the genuine surprise and curiosity in my voice took her aback somewhat. But she liked it, and carried on. “Yes…monarch butterflies for instance are that bright orange for a reason. They are poisonous to birds, and birds know to leave them alone. So, painted lady butterflies evolved that way as a defense mechanism. They look very similar, but they aren’t poisonous.”

“Wow! You know so many interesting things. That is why I ask you everyday to go for a walk with me my dear.”

“Yeah! Ma! This is 4th Grade Science.” she said in her Elementary-my-dear-Watson voice. We laughed and sailed home together. I think Maria Meriam would have approved of our natural wonders lesson in Spring time.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science – Joyce Sidman

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The Queen of Espirit d’escalier

One cold January morning, I clutched at my tea for life giving support. I was sitting through the kind of gathering that happens across Corporate America when a calendar year rolls over. Executives suddenly pep up, and sit up looking important, and feeling purposeful. Like a pup in spring, who thinks he can play with the ball if only folks would toss it instead of gadding about.

aging

I sometimes like to watch these events. The actors change every so often, and the ones who remain have subtle changes in their motivations and ambitions too. The varieties of personalities we surround ourselves with is an ever fascinating experience, and we only really have the luxury of sitting back and watching occasionally. I suppose that is why the Dalai Lama is full of the milk of human kindness – he meditates, and observes.

Anyway, the gathering reached a place where credits were rolled and I noticed happily how people brightened when they were given credit for their work. It is true one should do the work without expectation of the reward, but how nice it was to see people get the credit where it is due. The meadow suddenly seemed spotted with frisking happy pups.

There was an amusing interjection when one team was accidentally left out of the credits, and claimed what was their due.

I smiled to myself thinking of this normal human tendency to crave recognition. We all do it. Just the other day, I bragged about how clean the kitchen floor looked: ‘gleaming like glass’ as I said, till I was reminded by the family almost gleefully that I had better stump it given that I had to clean up the glass I had broken, and therefore ‘gleaming like glass’ doesn’t really count.
“I am neither Jocelyn Bell Burner nor Alfred Russell Wallace. When I clean the floor, I want credit! “ is the quip that I would have liked to come up with.

But I didn’t.

I came up with the inelegant, “Well…I am eating the potato fry then!”, and stuck my tongue out at the children.

I am a queen of that phenomenon where you think of the perfect verbal comeback too late. I was delighted to note there is a word for that: Espirit d’escalier.(Wiki Link for the word, Esprit De Escalier) The link writes about the amusing origins of the word, please read it.

Where am I going with all this spirited Espirit d’espalier, potato fry stuff? One moment. Yes, Credit and Work and Meaning and all that.

Sitting there at the corporate meeting, and watching the team claim credit for their small part in the puzzle, I was reminded of Jocelyn Bell Burner and Alfred Russell Wallace.

Wallace, independently arrived at natural selection for the mechanism for evolution before Darwin did, but he jointly published the paper with Darwin. Darwin’s Origin of Species is vastly credited with the theory though. Did that make Wallace spout and keep the potatoes? No, he continued to travel the world, writing about injustice and social causes. He never stopped exploring or lost the joy of wonder or ceased writing on the causes that deeply appealed to him.

Jocelyn Bell Burner is another scientist whom I find admirable for this very reason. She was passed over for the Nobel Prize. Credited with detecting the first Pulsars in the universe ( she should have been a Nobel Prize recipient for Astrophysics in 1974). When asked how she felt that her Professor got the prize, and did not adequately exert himself to get her name on the nomination, she shrugged and said, “If you get a prize, it’s not your job to explain why you got the prize. ”

I read about these two stalwart scientists in the books, Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris and Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin. Every book teaches us different things. Even queens of Espirit d’escaliers can find a way to come back with Jocelyn Bell Burner & Alfred Russell Wallace and their phenomenal attitude towards recognition as it related to their work.

 

It makes me realize now what my stellar teachers were saying on those cold Assembly mornings when they dangled tantalizing pieces of wisdom in their morning speeches.

Bhagawad Gita on work without reward

Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana,

Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani

कर्मण्- ेवाधिकारस- ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।

मा कर्मफलहेतु- र्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्- वकर्मणि॥

Loosely meaning: Do not anticipate fruits while doing the labor, this was oft quoted by teachers trying to inculcate the importance of work.

The Secret To Blooming Like a Flower

I gabbled on about the beautiful Kurinji flower over a distinctly sub-par dinner one night. Sometimes the rhythms of cooking are too frequent. “Do we really need to eat every few hours?!” I said drowning out the sound of “You haven’t cooked in 3 days!”

The children listened – one with ardent curiosity bursting with questions and the other cloaked in teenage blasé that belies the true interest behind the flowers. ( “Cool!” – only a little wag of the ear indicating possible interest).

“Can you believe the Kurinji blooms without alarms and clocks to set store by? Every 12 years like clockwork!”

The questions that followed were better than the answers:

  • Do all of them bloom at the exact same time?
  • What about plants that grew later, won’t they all flower at different times?

My answers are not answers that would have pleased Charles Darwin perhaps, but if he wanted to answer right, he should’ve been there, not let me field them is my stout reply to this.

Interesting aside:
The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks starts off with an essay on Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers.

river_sacks

I could see why Darwin liked his flowers so much. This was long after his magnum opus, The Origin of Species, was completed. He actually spent the last decades of his life pottering about his green house, setting the children in his life to chart the course of the bees, studying orchids and their flowering patterns etc, and was therefore immensely better prepared than yours truly.

His joy was evident in his letters:

“You cannot conceive how the Orchids have delighted me .. What wonderful structures! … Happy man, he [who] has actually see rows of bees flying around Catasetum, with the pollinia sticking to their backs! .. I never was more interested in any subject in all my life than in this of Orchids.”

He went on to write the book with the fascinating title: On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects

Meanwhile, the kurinji flower was still blooming in the home: the river of questions on What Is Time flowed on:
What is Time when you are a flower?
What is Time when you are a squirrel?

The husband had a bemused and half-exasperated expression on his face, as he heard me talk about alarms, time and biological clocks. He watched me squirm and the urge to tut came to me. I knew what was going on in that optimistic mind of his. He hopes I will have the sense of a Kurinji flower someday.

I feel bad for the old boy.

The thing is, I set beautiful poetic alarms, replete with soothing ringtones to go with it, place them on his side of the bed, and then proceed to sleep like a blessed bear in the winter.

If we need to get up at 6 a.m., I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. thereby allowing me to snooze a few times, and then go back to dozing the doze of the blessed. It is marvelous to get that snooze time, and some of my best snoozes are at this time. This vague time of day between wakeful consciousness and blissful unconsciousness.

If everything in the universe follows a pattern, how do we determine what ours is, without the aid of all our poetic alarms? There is a beauty to seeing the natural things around us, for they soothe us in ways quite unknown to our hectic way of life.

I was reading Village Diary by Miss Read for the n-th time (like a flower knows when to bloom, I know when it is time for a Miss Read re-read), and I admired yet again the simple way in which she had set a truth about humanity in her beautiful language.

village_diary

Quote:

As I ironed, I amused myself by watching a starling at the edge of the garden bed. He was busy detaching the petals from an anemone…

This short scene, I thought as I pressed handkerchiefs, is typical of the richness that surrounds the country dweller and which contributes to his well-being. As he works, he sees about him other ways of life being pursued at their tempo – not only animal life, but that of crops and trees, of flowers and insects – all set within the greater cycle of the four seasons. It has a therapeutic value, this awareness of myriad forms and varied pace of other lives.

So, maybe that is the secret to blooming like a flower. Set our patterns to the natural rhythms of the world around us rather than to the dictates of productive days.

“Hmm … when would you naturally feel like doing stuff? Like cooking! Just asking!” said the teen rolling those eyes of hers. The loud guffaws that accompanied this were appreciation enough for a chef.

I think I will take after that Kurinji flower after all.

Books:

  • River of Consciousness – by Oliver Sacks
  • Village Diary – by Miss Read
  • Origin of Species – Darwin
  • On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects – Charles Darwin