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

Nothing For Something

We were listening to the audio books of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy over the numerous trips we took during the holidays. There is a section where the Earthlings manage to meet the creative team that designed Earth. The designer walks out very proud of his latest fjords in a section resembling current-day Africa, and I remember being awed. How marvelous would it be to think up new concepts, new colors and new landscapes. What shades to give the acacia tree bark? How about the Palm tree bark? Rustic brown or brown acacia sparkle? How about hay? Should hay’s shade be different from the dried grass bundles?

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-4-46-53-pm

I suppose it will be a salutary task for everyone to create something beautiful from scratch just to see the myriad choices and decisions one is faced with. There is beauty in creationism. Much more than in consumerism.

Henry David Thoreau would have been pleased indeed that his words about the world being a canvas to the imagination, was taken to heart.

The activity we had chalked out for New Year was painting the daughter’s room, and talk of shades of colors was ripe. I never knew that this many shades of light blue existed with such exotic sounding names.

If somebody had given me the list of colors from the paint section of the hardware store, I could have stumped my audience in Crocodile-Crocodile. Those of you who have not had the pleasure of playing Crocodile-Crocodile should do so at least once to experience the joy of looking up new colors. “Crocodile Crocodile, may we cross the golden river?” is a stellar game in which the crocodile has to catch a person who is attempting to run across the river (strip of land) if they don’t have the color on their persons.

Crocodile, crocodile, may we cross the golden river?

Yes you may. If you have Turquoise Blue.

What is Turquoise Blue? Is it the color of a turquoise? Is a turquoise a turtle or a tortoise or a porpoise or just a turquoise who is blue?

croc_croc

Anyway, once the paints were in, the smell of fresh paint along with the envisioned end product of a beautiful, clean wall was enough to get us going. There we were, looking ebullient and hanging off the walls at various angles and heights with rollers in our hand. Music played in the background and talk turned to various topics, including the dumb painter, Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture, Tom Brown’s School Days, the Asian Paints advertisement featuring a boy who looked remarkably like a cross between Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and R.K.Narayan’s Swami which of course led to Mark Twain’s short story of Tom Sawyer and his friends painting a fence.

After a few hours, I noticed that the toddler son had taken a break from painting. I asked him what he was doing. ‘Nothing.’, he said. ‘Just sitting and seeing you paint,’ . There he was sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce on the floor with his cheeks cupped in his hands looking enamored with the soothing aura of activity around him and content to absorb.

It is an answer I love to get from children. In their world, it is okay to say they were sitting, and doing nothing. It is those of us who have bought into this idea of being busy who loathe the term.  Sometimes, nothing is good. Maybe we all need to carve out worthwhile moments of doing nothing, so we can do something worthwhile.

“I soon realized that what I really wanted was time to ruminate, time to observe, and often time to be alone.”

Miss Read, Early Days

It reminds me of this drawing that occurs often in Brain Pickings articles : Everybody should sit quietly near a stream and listen.

Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen
Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen

In fact, I think it would be phenomenally better for our current President to do nothing at all. That will be something, and something is better than nothing.

Scoff at Coffee Or Chess With a Super-Hero?

This winter has been a time of amazing road trips:

Dodo, Dragon, Dinosaur Dis-apparitions
In Boysenberry Jelly & Mistletoe Jam
The Wind, The Snow & The Rain – Part 1
Weaving The Sequins Of Time
The Curious Curvy Trees
The Salons of Bodie

With all the excitement of the trips and the experiences therein, there is also the time in the car. Audio books and songs compete for time with games in the car. Playing games with children is an experience unto itself. Peacekeeping forces are deployed every now and then, council meetings to determine rules and regulations, are required. Who said the family isn’t a mini-government unto itself? In spite of all this, hiccups arise in the most unexpected quarters.

I remember the time we were playing hangman. I was wondering what the words were and how I was getting them all wrong before I realized that for playing hangman properly one needs to know the spelling of the words, and foneticaly speaking, that is a very different game for kindergarteners.

‘Let me give you a hint’, the toddler son said one day as I was waiting for a cup of coffee en-route to somewhere. He was trying his best to mask his frustration, since my A, E, S and I, had all gone to nearly hang the man. He then coughed and sputtered and then beamed up at me expectantly. Could that be C-O-U-G-H?

‘O?’

‘Yes! Very good amma,’ he said and added O at the second place. I was frazzled. He had 4 dashes laid out. What could mean ‘Cough’, but be spelt with 4 letters?

C? I got another very-good, and after that nothing. The G finally got the man’s throat and he gasped and croaked. After another few trying minutes, in which the brain felt fairly rattled, the fellow wrote C-O-F-F.  Cough, see? He beamed rather freely at this, and the doting tween sister of his scoffed and ruffled his hair.

‘Scoff all you want, but cough up the dough for my coffee. ‘, I said to my unappreciative audience as I went to get my fortifying cup of coffee.

‘Would You Rather Coff Or Have Coffee? Get it?’,  said the daughter and I rolled my eyes.

I was reminded yet again of a charming book written by Miss Read. The book, Farewell to Fairacre,  written by Dora Saint,  is based in the imaginary village of Fairacre in the English countryside. The protagonist and narrator, Miss Read, taught at the village school, and said of her children.

‘More worldly children require computers and video games to occupy themselves, but the children of Fairacre are quite happily engaged with paper and pencils’

playing_games

I am glad we are able to derive our pleasures in simple ways still.

Then of course, if ever anyone wants to see how Rajinikanth plays Chess, you can come by and watch the toddler play chess with his imaginary friend when bored. If one has watched the old Tamil movies, one knows how villains attack Cinema heroes. The villains would stand around the hero. Cornered. See? Then, they’d go on to scowl, growl, grimace and crack their knuckles on the sidelines, touching their bald heads, caressing their unshaven beards and glaring like tigers given melons for lunch.

The hero stands there sizing them up and then one fellow comes and aah! He gets beaten up in a giffy. You’d think that would knock some sense into the remaining goonda pakodas, but it doesn’t. They all roar and then send another huge guy into the rink. Thulped. Another grimace and still no learning here. All fourteen idiots would go one at a time and get beaten up.

All known laws of Physics are also massacred in the process. Thermodynamics, laws of motion are all left begging for reprieve along with the band the villains.

Apply the same principle to the Chess board and you have the game: Every pawn comes one at a time and gets beaten up by the toddler’s side of the chess set. His shining knight battles on destroying his opponent’s pawns and his brave army thinks nothing of thumping Queens and locking bishops in with his own pawns.

Would You Rather be a Villain in a Tamil movie set or a pawn in Rajinikanth’s Chess? Get it?

Which brings us to the stimulating Would-You-Rather game (Part 2)

The Art of Monkey Pedaling

A variant of the post below appeared in The Hindu’s Open Page

Every now and then, the productive bug gets the husband, and he sets about trying to improve our lot. Last Saturday morning, he was making a nuisance of himself trying to keep us ‘occupied’ in the home, and handing us tasks meant to enlighten and what-not. He was settling steadily into the listen-to-this-podcast routine, when I realized that this handing-out-tasks is a two way street, and told him to get the son started on riding a bicycle. There was a sigh of relief from all the occupants in the house, and I bowed like a maestro acknowledging a master stroke.

I see you pulling out the old monocle from the pocket and pegging it on your nose-tip to give us the penetrating stare. The one employed to make us feel like our spines just melted into goop. but it won’t work. It is true that we let the toddler beg us into teaching him to ride, shamelessly ignoring the bicycle with training wheels propped behind the dining table. Every time the poor fellow hinted that fellows younger than him were riding the cycle, we shooed him outside to play.

Anyway the point is that the nourish-n-cherish street played witness to several scenes that merit enactments on the Broadway stage. A couple of days later, the son was to be seen wobbling along with copious tears cascading down his cheeks, the husband mildly breaking into a sweat, and the rest of the street muttering soothingly. Children came and told heroic tales of their own learning how to cycle. One fellow said he broke not just his arm, but almost broke his mother’s arm too. Some went for the inspirational angle and said that once he learnt to cycle, the adventures never end: One can fly down from pavements and cycle without holding handle bars.

Every story was worth noting down to sit and devour on a rainy evening.  This learning-how-to-cycle is one thing you can always hope to get good stories out of. Ask anyone how they learnt to cycle and depending on where they hail from, the story is bound to entertain, amuse and sometimes curdle one’s coffee.

Watching the son cycle made me think of dear Mr Bopaiah with a pang. It was Bopaiah Uncle who taught us how to ride a cycle. He may have taught the whole street. He had bought a new one for his son who was a couple of years older than I was. The times were such that cycles were not toys everyone had. In fact, toys were not something everyone had. So, obviously, getting a brand new cycle was gripping stuff, the breaking headlines of the street, that toppled the mildly interesting news that the servant maid had run off with the local vagrant.

Mr Bopaiah graciously let us monkey pedal on it (it was too big for us). On that one cycle, he thought 4 kids how to cycle in one week. One glorious week in which we waited with shining eyes our turn to get on the cycle. Praying that the rains would not dish our efforts come cycling time. Armed with the simple trusting confidence that Bopaiah uncle was holding the cycle and would not let us fall.  The hopeful look on our faces as we glimpsed back every now and then to make sure he was jogging beside us holding the cycle.

bike

Mr Bopaiah was the Physical Education teacher at school, and he probably enjoyed teaching us to ride as much as we enjoyed riding.  It is a knack learning to cycle using the monkey pedaling technique, but we all managed it with his help. I also fondly remembered the delicious, large helpings of tea cake that awaited our labors at the end of the cycling sessions. Mrs Bopaiah made the best cake I have ever eaten – to date it beats all the creamy and Mickey mouse shaped ones hands down (Her butter-making was an equally fascinating act) . Many a happy day have we spent at their house, and all the memories of the dear family came flooding back.

Mr Bopaiah passed away last month, but I could almost see him send an approving nod to the son as he wobbled along on his cycle. When the golden evening sun shone down on the street of excited children, and whoops of victory came from the now over-confident cyclist and his friends, I am sure he smiled down at us. It was the kind of thing he would have liked.

Nature’s Adventures

The son and I read a chapter book together. Hitherto, we watered gardens with Liam in The Curious Garden, or ate cookies out of a tin with Frog and Toad. This time we decided to spend several days with Edward and Avon in ‘The End of the Beginning‘. Avon, the snail wants an adventure and he seeks it with the help of his friend, the ant Edward. Over the next twenty odd chapters, the pair of them meet salamanders and have perilous snail crossings on narrow bridges. The beauty of the whole thing is that they had never really left their tree branch. At the end of their long and arduous journey, the pair of them find themselves facing the end of the branch and turn back. The Beginning of the End. Or does the end signal a new beginning?

The book had many philosophical sayings, and the next time the son and I observe a snail, we shall wonder what goes on in that animal’s brain.  Adventures do not need exotic settings or the need to traverse large oceans. It is all right there on the tree branch.

a447d33d-4ce1-48e8-b5f9-e437cc08e6de

It also brought back some of the best adventures I had had as a child in the Nilgiri Hills growing up in those wonderful surroundings cradled by Mother Nature. Everyday from our Elementary school a few kilometers away, we took a different route walking home. One day we stuck to the narrow roads laid out by the municipality as an occasional vehicle passed us. Another day, we slid down the hills, picked some berries at the bottom of the hill and found another narrow footpath leading home. There were days when the walk took us twenty minutes, and days when it took us an hour. The whole place was tiny enough to not merit a marking on the map of the state, but it held adventures enough for a lifetime for us.

sultan's life

The toddler son and I enjoy taking a walk in our neighborhood and finding little by lanes within our neighborhood. For us, it is a revelation of sorts. One path leads you to the shaded path with oleander trees sagging with the weight of the summer flowers.

img_3410

Another path in the neighborhood has an plum tree that shows you how squirrels thrive near that tree. We see clusters of plums flung to the ground with nothing but a bite taken off of them. Every time I see those little eaten plums, I think back to one glorious summer afternoon spent in a friend’s garden. We had a blue quilted comforter laid out on the lawn and were watching the breeze gently ruffle the grass and skim the trees  as the children played. The son was then a baby and sat up in that adorable fashion that made him look and sway like a bowling pin used to prop open a door. Pretty soon, the topic turned to squirrels and fruit trees. Our host then set about plucking plums from his tree before the squirrels got them. We sauntered over to inspect, suggest and generally hinder the fruit picking process when I heard a slurp. Turning around we saw we’d saved the plums from the squirrels, but the baby human squirrel in our midst was looking triumphant: red-lipped, red-cheeked and red-chinned having bitten into the plums himself. Talk about being caught red-handed .

Night Life

There are wonders galore in our own little branch, if only we set out to find them.

The Olympic Spirit

Another glorious Olympics have come to a close. Heroes from within the contingent of heroes were selected, the human spirit soared itching to hear about what drove these champions to achieve, to relentlessly push themselves. 

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetorch/2016/08/21/490854388/closing-ceremony-for-the-rio-summer-olympics-live-blog

We thumped our fists in the air when the first Iranian woman, Kimia Alizadeh, won an Olympic medal, cheered the many girls who overcame societal pressures and barriers to go on to the Olympics from the Indian contingent. We pondered about the need for a personal struggle in order to achieve, we loved the concept of the Refugee team, and rooted for the heroes from this contingent as did the rest of the world. There were a few media gaffes quickly pounced upon by the judgmental social media audience: armchair solutions to world problems, that we mused about on our couches.

We went on to have discussions with the daughter, that we hope will stay with her long after the Olympics are over. In times of strife, humanity can be a marvelous force.

We are not folk who regularly watch Sports in the home. The odd cricket match aired at odd times is watched by the husband with bleary eyes. A few final matches of basketball or tennis comprises the bulk of our Sport watching thus far. However, I cannot fail to notice that every time we do so, it has a profound impact on the toddler (like the time Stephen Curry came to play) .

Every evening depending on the Olympic event aired, there was an inspirational performance at the old home.

Olympic

Simon Biles and Dipa Karmankar flew to perfection in the gymnastics events, only to be followed by an evening of the toddler and his sister jumping off the broken sofa and spinning before landing perfectly on two feet. The doting brother gave his sister a score of 9.9 for this impossible feat.

The swimming events inspired many strokes and dives on the Queen bed.

Courtyard badminton flourished. Flighty shuttles soared to tree tops requiring brooms and sticks to dislodge.

The track and field events saw much charging about the house. Feverish runs between the kitchen and the garage were timed. After every fast charge up and down the house, we noticed the toddler also ran the slow motion version of the run. He thought he needed to run the slow-motion replays telecast by the television networks too.

The Men’s marathon was run in the rain. That meant he needed another hasty shower before bed, since he sprayed water on himself and ran 26 times around the house.

As long as there are broken beds and shuttles stuck on tree tops in enough number of homes, the Olympic torch will burn on as bright and promising as ever.

Onward to Tokyo 2020.

The Spirit in the Photograph

The family got together and tried to take a photograph together:

Challenges here: The Saga of the Family Photos

Precursor here: The Family Photo Saga Part 2

How do you dress for a family photograph?

Motive matters.

  • If you are going for the preserve-family-as-we-are aspect of things, then I suppose we lounge around in daily clothes, crack jokes and laugh at them in a manner that will make Vogue photographers cringe. #BeCool
  • If you are going for the best-behavior-photographs, then I suppose you resort to the prim look, and smile at the photographer like you are meeting him for a job interview. #JobInterview
  • If you are looking for the social propriety angle, then of course you observe and deduce based on women dressed in Tamil TV Serials before their daily evening coffee at home. #TamilTVSerials
  • If you are looking for the co-ordinated angle, what are the colors to pick out? Should we all wear blue and look like Smurfs? #Smurfs smurf_dino

The problem happens when each one is aiming for a different objective.

  • The sister-in-law in a bid to impress her mother-in-law (viz. my mother) shed the slacks and tights and swooped in looking beautiful in a saree (#TamilTVSerials look). The mother said, “See how beautiful your sister-in-law looks in a saree?” This did not bode well for me. Luckily a blouse emergency shot this option down.
  • The sister went in for the #Smurfs angle and said, “A bright color looks the best”. She paraded the sunflower-with-stalks look.
  • The t-shirt wearing men were hustled out of their t-shirts by smart men in pressed shirts and pants. (#JobInterview look)
  • Bearded Blokes refused to shave and went for the #BeCool look.

So it went. For every member of the family not playing with toy cars under sofas.

In all the melee, we forgot to soak the toddler boys, for whose sake the picture was being taken, in Dettol and scrub them with coconut-bristled-brushes. They continued playing till the last minute and looked delightfully dirty. It was in the car on the way to the studio that these boys were made look presentable.

The highlight of the family picture was the fact that as the photographer’s assistant tried to arrange folks one after the other in a way that will make us look good in spite of the clothes and the colors, the grand head of the family took a roll-call in true school teacher style only to find the youngest member of the family missing.

If one were to read through the chronicles – Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, you will notice the photograph was being taken to update the presence of the recently-added-to-family toddler boys. It turns out that the youngest one decided to play with his toy car under the studio chair beyond the range of the lens, and refused to budge. Chocolates did not help, future domestic world war threats did not work. Carrying him with the studio chair did not help. It looked like the picture was going to be taken without him after all.

Every picture has a story. I called the father a social dinosaur who might have called the photographer’s assistant to join in if you remember. True to the father’s nature, this family photograph did have the photographer’s assistant in it. His spirit can be spotted lingering in the photo. A chirpy young man, who showed absolute promise by cajoling the little fellow, hiding his toy car and flashing it out of his pocket at the right moment, making the boy look up in glee.

wildflower_dino

The boy who looked up at the last minute after all this drama looks best, and as far as we are concerned, it does not matter if the rest of us had our eyes open, or were picking our nose, or were about to sneeze.

That is probably why we looked like a dysfunctional bouquet of sorts. I have always liked the impromptu wildflower bouquets with their riot of color, wild grasses and ferns. Captures the beauty of the wilderness.