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. 

Is This Bohemian Chic?

We have been gallivanting across Boston and New York the past few days. 

I remember reading a children’s book a long time ago about the country mouse who came to visit his cousin who lived in the town. Not surprisingly, I commiserated with the little country mouse who was dazzled and sprazzled by the city. 

I felt the same way when I first visited Bombay, now known as Mumbai, as a little girl. From the hills of Nilgiris, where bus drivers stopped so we could safely straggle across while learning to ride the bicycle, and train drivers stopped for the mother running to the station, to Bombay, where no one, it seemed, stopped for anyone or anything else, was a long journey – 2 days and 2 nights by train to be precise. I clutched my father’s hand, the whole time in Bombay, and never let go, especially on the electric trains. Maybe, some of those calluses on his old hand, are from that trip. 

I have the same feeling in New York. The city sprawls in all directions. The people, the subway, the sights, the movements feel too fast for a country mouse. There is so much to do – the energy exhilarating and enervating at the same time. 

I said as much to the children, and they gave me pitying looks. “What you need is some Bohemian Chic!”, said the daughter diagnosing me with a severe expression on her face.

I had no idea what that meant, but told her we would do our best to find Bohemian Chic.

We had great fun running in one direction, only to find the little GPS dot turning slowly away from where we were supposed to go, and then charged back again. “Is this Bohemian Chic?” I asked.

One time, we stood looking diffident and muddled when a pair of flamboyantly dressed gentlemen stopped and asked us directions to get to some square. We told them we were new to the city too, and agreed that it was best to ask someone else. A good twenty minutes later, we had boarded the train in the wrong direction, gotten down at the next station and came back riding the train in the correct direction, and found the gentlemen boarding the train too. I swear they tipped their bohemian hats and winked!

I splashed into bed after 2 hectic days in New York City, and felt spent. I had no idea how much we had walked. We had spent so many hours and days in the city, soaking in sights and the sounds of traffic, that I yearned to see the moon rise over the hills, the ducks squawk and geese fly. I had no idea how much these things refreshed me. 

Subconsciously, I think, I had selected for my reading during this time of city-living, the book:

Birds, Beasts & Relatives by Gerald Durrell.

Birds, Beasts and Relatives (The Corfu Trilogy Book 2) by [Gerald Durrell]

A sequel to My Family & Other Animals, it is the second set of autobiographical tales by naturalist Gerald Durrell set in the beautiful sun-lit island of Corfu near Greece. After the hurried, panting days of New York, I bathed in the refreshing days of Corfu and the young author’s adventures ranging from rearing sea-horses and hedgehogs, to bear-dancing, and donkey-riding. It was all that was necessary. 

“Coming from the calm, slow, sunlit days of Corfu, our arrival in London, late in the evening, was a shattering experience. So many people were at the station that we did not know, all hurrying grey-faced and worried.”

Gerald Durrell – Birds, Beasts & Relatives

I remember feeling a similar kind of gratitude to Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard on a similar long urban trip to the crowded cities of South Asia.

Today, we decided to walk around Brooklyn and not much more. The day was sweltering: the children wanted a bookstore-day, and we ducked into a couple of them with gratitude. After a cool few hours, we staggered out with books, and very pleased expressions on our faces. 

Do you have any books by Gerald Durrell? I asked the lady at the counter, and she looked it up, and said, “I have My Family & Other Animals!”. I have the book, have bought it several times to gift it to others, but I still felt a strange sense of calm at this. 

Is this Bohemian Chic? If so, I like it!

The New Nest

The chirping of the birds in the morning is a welcome sound. I hadn’t really stopped to think about it much till the pandemic year came about. The sudden quieting of the traffic, the necessary stalling of our maddening rush all contributed to this I suppose.

I found myself taking my little cups of refreshing coffee and tea out into the backyard whenever I could so I could enjoy the sips while getting in a spot of fresh air, and a look at the trees. The birds chirping has been a nice gift. I suppose they always chirped.

As we re-evaluated our nest of many years, we found another charming gift. The birds chirp quite noisily in our new nest. These days, sub consciously, I look forward to taking my cup of tea or coffee out into the backyard and admiring the little welcome sights of life around me. The swooping blue jays, the amazingly quick humming birds, the butterflies, little swallows, black birds, and wrens all make for a marvelous orchestra of sorts.

Every time I open the doors in the morning, there is a fluttering sound. I was amused till I found that a dear little swallow has made its nest in our rafters by the front door. The poor creature seems agitated every time the door opens. I wish I could’ve told the little one to build the nest on the other side of the rafters so that she may have a little privacy and not be worried every time the door opened. But she did not check with me before painstakingly building her best nest for her little ones. Little birds don’t need property managers approving their spots before building their homes.

I feel a strange sense of kinship with this little bird. She must’ve been looking for a suitable spot for her little nest around the same time we were. And we both seem to have found the same spot to identify as home. If that isn’t special, what is?

Apart from the little bird, I have other new neighbors as well. For instance, every day a cat comes a-visiting and looks at me with seeking eyes. I did not quite understand the context – for she came every morning, evening and night. Sometimes, she approached me and stood a little distance away preening herself as if to say, “What’s taking you so long?” I was baffled – was I supposed to do something? Then, one day, I met my new human neighbors, and they enlightened me. Apparently, the previous owners had a cat that was this little beauty’s best friend. So, while we may have arranged for mortgages and property statements to be transferred, the cat was miffed. She needed her friend, and where was she?

The little dog in the mornings is another unexpected source of joy. He comes, and is so genuinely excited to greet us in the mornings, that it is a joy even though I am not much of a pet person. This little puppy was the first to welcome us into the community and thinks it is his job to get a belly rub and has me smiling at the memory all morning. 

Well, considering how much I love Gerald Durrell’s writing, I am sure he would approve of this domestic menagerie.

“I believe that all children should be surrounded by books and animals.” 
― Gerald Durrell

I wonder when the birds will hatch. Our nest is already noisy – it will be a joy to see the little nest in the rafters noisy too.

The Laughing Life

The son tumbled out of his room with yet another joke. His teachers apparently tell them a joke every now and then, and he repeats them to me if he finds them really funny, or remembers to. One of the many gifts of the Covid lifestyle are little snippets like this.

I stood there waiting and wondering what today’s j would be about.

“Why did the skeleton not go to the party?”

“I don’t know – because it had too many bones to pick?”

“Ha! Good one. But no.”

“Umm…don’t know. Why didn’t the skeleton go to the party?” I said a little impatience in the tone. I had to get to that next meeting.

“Because it had nobody to go with. Get it? Get it? No Body to go with?!”

I moaned and laughed at the same time. A lovely feeling of warmth spread through the being as I headed off. 

Later that day, I sat musing about humor and how marvelous a gift it is to humankind.

My Family and Other Animals is a marvelous book by Gerald Durrell. This book has the distinction of being the first book that I read belonging to the Humor genre. I remember it as though it was yesterday. Sitting in class 8-B, the sun was shining outside, there was a butterfly in the lawns outside, but our English teacher seemed to prefer the miracle of the written word to the fluttering butterflies outside. She put on her glasses and whipped the book out of her handbag in one elegant motion and said we were going to read the book.

My Family And Other Animals: See how the author makes you laugh when you read the title itself? she said. We must have looked like Canadian geese being tickled for the first time, for she proceeded to explain the humor in the title. I don’t know whether you have tried tickling a Canadian Goose. I haven’t, but I think they would react the same way. Stern looking creatures Canadian Geese.

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Anyway, I hope for my teacher’s sake that we loosened up as the reading progressed. But, now that I look back, it was one of the first books that made me look for humor in daily situations. Mark Twain – especially the little story of Tom Sawyer painting the wicket gate was another. Swami and Friends by R K Narayan was equally memorable. I remember reading somewhere that R K Narayan when asked about his inspiration for Malgudi – that eternally inviting town that beckons you every now and then, said, he just watched life pass him by and that was all there was to Malgudi.

Pickwick Papers was slow going initially, but the humor in the book was unmistakable. These are the times I am thankful for growing up in a pre-Internet, pre-on-demand television era. I might not have stuck with Pickwick Papers otherwise. 

The ultimate guide was of course P G Wodehouse. When in high school, I changed upon P G Wodehouse, I did not immediately appreciate it. It took a few readings, but oh! What a gift?! What a gift! 

The father, of course, was and remains a constant reminder to find joy in every day life. His jokes were not always appreciated by the mater, but he could take a the rough with the smooth. Life was funny, curious, interesting and not always serious if only we stopped to admire the humor in them. The husband, the daughter and the son all joined the bandwagon too. My Family and Other Animals was taking shape in the Nourish-N-Cherish household.

Where am I going with all of this?! Oh yes! The blog itself. Nourish & Cherish started as an act of whimsy 16 years ago. It is a place that I regularly choose to don the sunny side up mentality in life.  As I started to write down this little skeleton joke, I mused on the thousands of little jokes that did not make it to the blog. For of course, I am guilty of thinking about writing and reading about writing far more than writing itself. But I am glad for the ones that did make it.

In over 900 posts over the past 16 years, life has taught me time and again, that you can choose the sunny side up.

To infinity and beyond!

How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel

When the Covid lockdowns started, many folks went on a buying spree (we all know the toilet paper jokes). Ever the dutiful one, off I went too. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when I got an extra bag of rice, and headed onto the library (to get books to tide us over during the lockdown).  When the husband called to ask where I’d gone, I sheepishly said that I was at the library just in case we were unable to get books during lockdown. I could hear a sound like a paper bag bursting – his version of a cross between a snort, and the urge to laugh. I bragged about the extra bag of rice, and I could see his face wondering why he had to be landed with someone, who in P G Wodehouse’s language, ‘must’ve been bumped on the head as a baby’. 

Well, I must say that when we staggered home with books for the children and self, I felt better. The local library has been one of my favorite spots to visit of course, but over the Covid period, I felt like Rapunzel in the book: How the Library Saved Rapunzel (Not the Prince). The library allowed us to schedule an appointment and arrange to pickup books on hold. What was more, they were kind enough to include a few picture books of their choice if you requested them to do so. I am eternally grateful to have access to libraries.

I felt almost an irresistible urge to increase my Science based reading this year (maybe this is a tiny rebellion for the disturbing anti-Science strain emerging with the 45th POTUS office). Starting the year off by re-reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos set the stage for the year ahead. The following books gave me no end of pleasure and learning over the year. (My Science writing class for children)

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2020 was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day

  • Unbowed – Wangari Maathai (in progress)
  • On Looking  – Alexandra  Horowitz
  • Losing  Earth  A Recent History – Nathaniel Rich
  • This is the Earth – Diane Z Shore & Jessica Alexander, Paintings by Wendell Minor

Bill Anders said: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

What a lovely statement that is, and together with his Earth Rising image, contributed to the concerns around Planet Earth that led to founding of Earth Day in 1970.

1200px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise

It was also a wonderful year to take in poetry. Mary Oliver & Margarita Engle were always welcome in a year when poets alone seemed to know the right turn of phrase for the bizarre. Dr Seuss & Jackl Prelutsky always know to turn one’s frown into a smile. 

  • Blue Iris – Mary Oliver
  • Enchanted Air – By Margarita Engle
  • Dog Songs – Mary Oliver
  • Owls and other fantasies – Mary Oliver (Yes! no!)
  • Be Glad your nose is in your face – Jack Prelutsky
  • Dr Seuss books (always worth reads and re-reads). I found a few gems that truly tickled the mind and got out some belly laughs.
    • Horton hears a Who
    • Horton Hatches an Egg
    • Sleep book
    • Oh the Thinks you can Think
    • How Lucky You Are
    • Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose

summer-collage

With the Black Lives Matter movement, the year was ripe for educating oneself on the inequities of society and civil disobedience. The local library, news media, and friends all helped with an excellent array of reading material. Notable among the works read then were:

  • Becoming – By Michelle Obama
  • Black Panther – by Ta Nehisi Coates
  • Sneetches and other stories – Dr Seuss
  • A Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela‘s children’s book version
  • My Many Colored Days – Dr Seuss

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With uplifting books and humour, life can be truly marvelous. My all-time favorites kept me company, and I am eternally grateful to their influence of course but a few others were added to the list this year.

The world isn’t such a good place either, and reading books such as these helps to remind us about the many problems that still beset society

The lure of power, and how we are seeing it all play out in real life

  • The Fate of Fausto – Oliver Jeffers
  • Louis I – The King of Sheep – Oliver Tallec
  • Yertle the Turtle and other Stories – Dr Seuss
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (pieces relating to the Minister of Magic refusing to acknowledge Voldemort’s return so he could stay in power)

Of course the true magic of life is never complete without children’s books. There are so many of them in this genre, that I did not even note half of them. But a few of them lit up my life

  • My Grandma is a Ninja – By Todd Tarpley, Illustrated by Danny Chatzikonstantinou (When I become a grandma – though it is a few decades off, that is how I wish to be 🙂 )
  • Gondra’s Treasure – By Linda Sue Park
  • Enchanted Wood – by Enid Blyton (old Saucepan Man, Silky and Moonface with the lands above the enchanted tree – though it doesn’t hold the same level of magic it did as a child, it still has its charm)
  • The Red Pyramid – By Rick Riordan (this was the son’s recommendation, and thoroughly enjoyable it turned out to be romping down the Egyptian myths!)
  • The Quiet Book – by Deborah Underwood
  • A Fun Day with Lewis Carroll – Kathleen Krull & Julia Sarda
  • Peter Rabbit’s Tales – Beatrix Potter
  • Why is my Hair Curly – By Lakshmi Iyer
  • A History of Magic – Based on Harry Potter Universe
  • Tintin Comics (a fair few)
  • Calvin & Hobbes
  • The Velocity of Being – Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick

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On that magical high note, here is wishing everyone a healthy, happy new year in 2021. Things are already turning around, and looking hopeful. Keep reading, and sharing 🙂

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The Magic of Story-Telling

“Stop being a Jellyfish!” said the husband.
“I knew you were going to say that – you are such an open book yourself!” said I.

We both giggled like children at our own pathetic joke. T’was the time for hulking men with or without mustaches and serious women to quack like ducks, twirl like fairies, flex those non-existent abs, and find that little teeny bit of whimsy that adulthood so expertly hides away beneath the layers. Halloween was here.

 

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T’is the time people astound you with their imagination. Who doesn’t like having 3 spidermen knocking on your door all at once? Or to see the twin toddlers dressed as Nemo & Dory? The super-heroes and ninjas cowering behind their larger siblings in Vampire clothing, or the witches cackling hard?

There is something so uniquely beautiful about Halloween – the one festival where we can display our idiosyncrasies with grace, be accepted for whatever we are. You want to be a skeleton? That should be fine. Here is some candy for you. Really, buddy? You want to go out in the world in that costume? Well, if this appeals to you, then I suppose you deserve some candy anyway!

How many times in our lives do we get that kind of universal approval?

The husband and I were very proud of our last minute Halloween costumes: an open book & a jellyfish.

The little fairy lights I had taped into place made the jellyfish glow, and I received many compliments – I must say I glowed all evening with the praise, though I did credit the Internet with it.

When people asked me where I got the inspiration from, I replied truthfully that I have always wondered what it must be like to live under the sea, and they invariably laughed at my answer.

But it’s true. Every trip to the aquarium rekindles the magic of another world – right here with us. Reading Gerald Durrell’s essay about scuba diving is enthralling.

I have often wondered how we would have adapted if we had evolved under the ocean. Would we have figured out the laws and physics of the Universe to the extent we have, or would the medium have made little difference in understanding. The Octopus’s evolution to have more neurons than us is truly astounding.

Quanta Magazine: What shape is the universe? Closed or Flat?

It is why I like reading about the intelligence of dolphins and whales: the fact that they have epics the sounds bits of which are roughly the equivalent of our Iliad is amazing. Quote from Carl Sagan’s essay on Whale song:

If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

What must their epics say? For all our anthropological worldview, I wonder whether humans figure in them at all. That will be a fine thing to hear – a Dr Dolittle who finally translates a Whale Epic, only to find their world far richer than our own.

Keena_drawing
Art work by Daughter

I recently re-read the Voyages of Dr Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed visualizing myself sailing the seas with his motley group – either by skimming along like a porpoise, or better yet by getting a place inside the giant snail’s back as it sailed along smoothly churning the ocean as it went.

Swimming with Dolphins

We are all children of stories. We need epics and tales of fantasy. Our very own imaginations need an outlet, and Halloween gives us just that. I know my enthusiasm rubs off on the children as they go about planning their costumes. While I am out with a big smile on my face, a number of people give me an indulgent smile as if to say “Aren’t you a bit old for this?”

Mary Oliver gently reminds me to react with this nugget of wisdom:

“You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” 

― Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

Privately, I am happy that our inner child never really leaves us.

Authors:

How To Be a Good Companion

Simba who was introduced me around a decade ago passed away last week. This post was there in my drafts for over a year since I read My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. Simba’s passing made me acutely aware for the gratitude I feel for these furry friends.

Ask Sanku, Simba, Bogie, Luna, Timothy, Sanku, Tinky and Bolu, and they will all unanimously tell you that I may be a good sort in general, but the best past-time they have is to see me when in their midst. Sanku, Simba, Bogie and Luna have been introduced to me later in life, and though they may not believe it possible when Timothy tells them, they are seeing a mellowed person of years.

Timmy, named after Timothy, the dog in the Famous Five Adventure Series by Enid Blyton. (Timothy (The Famous 5 one) was a raucous, energetic dog who would have done anything for his 4 human companions. ) Having such an illustrious name to live upto, you would think Timmy would have been a better companion to me. Instead, he was a vicious little yip who forever found me atop bushes or gates, where I had scrambled in my haste, squeaking like a rat waiting for help. Timothy has seen the hot stuff. ‘Hot dogs!’, he used to say to himself and go ‘bow-wow-wow’, lackadaisically, sometimes not even bothering to stir from his kennel (which I helped build lovingly with wood panels and nails by the way), and I would find myself scrambling through hedges with spiders in my hair, looking demented and scrappy.

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One flip of a puppy, Bolu (I remember thinking that self respecting mice would scoff at the name), had me charging up 67 steps at such a scorching pace that the physical education teacher leaning on a tree nearby chatting with his friends, promptly placed me on the relay team, where my performance was nowhere close to what it was with Bolu on my case.

The daughter yearns for a dog, and would gladly give Bolu & Timmy a sharp kick for giving their mother this unreasonable fear of dogs. But my recent canine companions have done much to help me overcome the fear.

Simba, Sanku, Bogie and later Luna, have been marvelous in their quest to make me become less eccentric around them.

 

I have often wondered how I would react to people who made it clear that they were uncomfortable in my presence. Would I leave them alone, and feel bad at such a seemingly irrational reaction? I must say the deportment of my canine friends in later years have put me to shame. If anything, they have taken the discomfort with sagacity and a grace that we will do well to learn from. They taught me with patience, and took me under their wing with the understanding of having to deal with a dim-witted student.

Patiently, they initiate me into the art of relaxing in their presence. First a small wag to indicate they think I am a good-ish sort, and then a little curiosity followed by an affectionate brush up against my leg was their method. They instinctively seem to know how to be a good companion.

How can one be a good, even perfect, companion? This excerpt from My Family and Other Animals comes close to addressing the question.

My Family & Other Animals is a wonderful read for anyone looking to experience the wondrous world around us with humor and candor. I admire the work of naturalists as regular readers know. The author wrote of his life in Corfu near Greece, and his adventures on the island were magically transformed by his deep affection for his dog, later dogs. He writes:

pets

 

(Pic my own)

In those early days of exploration Roger was my constant companion. Together we ventured farther and farther afield, discovering quiet, remote olive groves which had to be investigated and remembered. He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good humored tolerance for my eccentricities.

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He goes on to say about Roger – who sounds like the ideal companion anyone could wish for, that:
If I slipped when climbing a dew shiny bank, Roger appeared suddenly, gave a snort that sounded like suppressed laughter, a quick look over, a rapid lick of commiseration, shook herself, sneezed and gave me his lopsided grin. If I found something that interested me – an ant’s nest, a caterpillar on a leaf, a spider wrapping up a fly in swaddling clothes of silk – Roger sat down and waited until I had finished examining it.

Reading about Roger almost makes me wistful for a companion like him during my nature saunters in my youth. But in later years, Simba, Bogie and occasionally Sanku have come with me on hikes, and I have never felt more alive in the natural world than around them. No sniff was too blasé for them to consider, no dog they met on the trail deserved the ignominy of no-greeting. The trails came alive with them around. The flowers, grass, insects and squirrels were granted the same courtesy of curiosity and unflagging acknowledgement. When their human companions flagged in energy, they made their intentions known – “You can do it. I am with you.”

 

How to be a good creature by Sy Montgomery is a children’s book in which the Author writes of what different creatures taught her. The essays on her Dogs and her Pig are particularly good reading.

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Simba passed away last week, and his passing has made me consider the fundamental question: How to be a good companion?

The Elephant Keeper 

I had been on a short trip to a Green island staying at a Purple hotel with White Christmas decorations in a city center. While there, I decided to make the most of it, and hopped on a tour bus to take in the sights of Ireland. It had been a dry few months in … Continue reading “The Elephant Keeper “

I had been on a short trip to a Green island staying at a Purple hotel with White Christmas decorations in a city center. While there, I decided to make the most of it, and hopped on a tour bus to take in the sights of Ireland.

It has been a while since I went meandering off on my own. As I boarded the day trip for Wicklow mountains and Glendalough lakes, that wily Master of Doubt was trying to work his way into the old brain stand, and I was becoming a little unsure. Most people had come with at least 1 travel companion. I saw the knots of people comfortable in their own little groups as we waited for the bus to come and pick us up.  I wondered whether I shall be alone. Not that it mattered much since I had a book about a jolly esoteric family to keep me company on the trip.

Sitting tentatively in the van, I was reading The Garden of the Gods by Gerald Durrell on the kindle. I giggled before I could help it. I was peeking out at the passing scenery every now and then, and imagining the little household at Corfu. The author, Gerald Durrell, then a boy, lived with his ‘Family and Other Animals’ in the island of Corfu. A budding naturalist, his boyhood is a most interesting one in which no living creature escapes his admiration. His bedroom plays hosts to barn owls, field rats, bats, along with the more traditional form of pets such as cats and dogs. He also has a donkey named Sally, and I could not help laughing at the resulting antics this menagerie produced with his esoteric family.

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The Corfu Trilogy is set in the island of Corfu, and since I read each book in the series a few months apart, it was most satisfying.

I could barely believe that it was possible for somebody to live the way he described it. The Universe is not always kind to doubting dunlins, but this time it was.  Within the hour, I was to meet someone whose life was remarkably like the one I had just read about.

The tour bus dropped the folks who had opted to spend time at a Garden. Only two of us had opted for a hike instead of an amble around the Gardens to the dismay of the tour guide. The look we exchanged affirmed that we would be far happier being buffeted by the roaring winds, and gazing longingly at the rolling hills around us. I recognized a kindred nature loving spirit in her, and soon we got walking and talking.

As we loped up the trail with an enthusiastic whoop, she told me a little bit about herself, and I was so glad she did. She loved animals, she said, and lived in a home teeming with pets. I truly did not believe that Gerald Durrell’s family was possible, much as I loved reading his books. But her answer astounded me. She said they had a donkey, 2 geese, 2 cats, 2 dogs and 12 hens. Her business trip was the most interesting one I have heard to date. She worked as an Elephant Keeper in a Zoo in Holland. She was here, she said, on an week-long program to work at the Dublin zoo’s Elephant department, but would be going back to her own zoo at the end of the week.

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I told her that the children would love to meet her, and she nodded understandingly. Looking at the excitement of their mother, she very kindly sent me some pictures and videos of the animals she worked with in her work spot.  She too had come alone, and the pair of us spent the whole day together – on windy hillsides, amidst towers and remnants of castles looking like giant rooks and bishops on a chess board.

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I was so glad that my earlier doubts had not stopped me from having a wonderful day: the serendipity of finding companionship, the beauty of learning of another way of life, and above all, the opportunity of shaking oneself out of the familiar and the tried and tested.

The universe finds a way of showing us the rainbow if only we stick with the rain.

Fiction Inspire Non-Fiction?

While reading a good piece of fiction, I often wonder about the inspiration behind the writing.  Dune, for example, is a book that immediately lets you know the author must be a personality of prodigious learning. The ecological angle, I was delighted to read in the note by his son, had its origins in Frank Herbert’s work for an an Op-Ed on the Shifting Sands in Oregon. The government was toying with the idea of planting grasses that could help with stopping the sands from shifting and collapsing onto roads and rivers. 

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Quote: 

In 1957, Dad flew to the Oregon coast to write a magazine article about a US department and Agriculture project there, in which the government had successfully planted poverty grasses on the crests of sand dunes, to keep them from inundating highways. He intended to call the article “They stopped the Moving Sands” but soon realized that he had much bigger story on his hands

Dune is a modern-day conglomeration of familiar myths, a tale in which great sandworts guard a precious treasure of melange, the geriatric spice that represent, among other things, the finite resource of oil. The planet Arrakis features immense, ferocious worms that are like dragons of lore, with “great teeth” and a “bellows breath of cinnamon”.

Planetology is a marvelous word for taking in the intricacies of a life sustaining planet (Dune makes reference to planetologists for figuring out survival strategies),  and the effects of our consumption of finite resources. 

I would love to study Planetology.We know that we are stretching the Earth’s resources – National Geographic came up with a simple number: we are currently using 1.71 times Earth’s resources every year and it is increasing. The effects are everywhere.

A friend and I were discussing the lack of tree cover in a country like Iceland for instance. Blessed with enormous natural beauty, the lack of tree cover is quite unnerving. Everywhere you turn is green because it rains a lot, but there are no trees. Apparently, excessive logging first got rid of them, and replanting did not take root as intended for sheep grazing ate away the saplings and the seedlings before they had a chance to sprout. 

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This too is not a new phenomenon. World over there are examples of over-grazing that edged out forest cover( Ireland, England, Mauritius are all examples of how our lifestyles has altered the ecosystem drastically). In the book Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell, the author is on a mission to collect endangered species from Mauritius so he can bring them back to the Conservation Center for breeding and releasing into the wild. He writes about Round Island and how the simple act of introducing goats, sheep and rabbits into the ecosystem by humans has eroded the tree cover irreparably. 

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From Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell – Round Island

While reading this book, I realized the inspiration behind his fiction book, Mockery Bird. This hilarious fiction book, Mockery Bird – was based on a story doing the rounds in Mauritius surrounding the Dodo bird and the loss of certain trees. The knowledge gave me immense pleasure. How lovely to see the inspirations behind good fiction.

 

Just as fiction draws its inspiration from reality, reality too can draw its inspiration from fiction.

In the Dune universe, the planetologist, Kynes, shares the visionary dreams for the planet Arrakis – a vision outlining a glorious self sustaining future for the planet that will take three or maybe four generations to come to fruition. We can derive our inspiration from fiction and set ourselves on a similar path working towards setting aside half the planet for forest cover to reverse global warming, sustenance etc. (News item : here)

 

Crocodiles in your bath? No Problem!

It was well past midnight on a Saturday night, and I opened up my favorite essay in the book, Fruit Bats and Golden Pigeons by Gerald Durrell. Titled, The Enchanted World, the essay is a lyrical and moving piece of work, and begs multiple readings. I wish I had the sort of eidetic memory that could allow me to tuck the whole essay into a recess of my brain, to be retrieved and nurtured whenever I want to. 

Quote:

Any naturalist who is lucky enough to travel, at certain moments has experienced a feeling of overwhelming exultation at the beauty and complexity of life <….> You get it when, for the first time, you see the beauty, variety and exuberance of a tropical rain forest, with its cathedral maze of a thousand different trees <…> You get it when you see for the first time a great concourse of mammals living together or a vast, restless conglomeration of birds. You get it when you see a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis <…> You get it when you see a gigantic school of dolphins stretching as far as the eye can see, rocking and leaping exuberantly though their blue world <…. >

But there is one experience, perhaps above all others, that a naturalist should try to have before he dies and that is the astonishing and humbling experience of exploring a tropical reef. You become a fish, hear and see and feel as much like one as a human being can; yet at the same time you are like a bird, hovering, swooping and gliding across the marine pastures and forests.

He starts the essay with a starfish that turned bellyside up. With startling detail, he describes how the starfish righted itself gracefully and calmly. Gerald Durrell compared the whole thing to a ballerina’s movements, and I smiled. How marvelous nature is? It never fails to astound me or humble me. 

I marked the book and left the cosy confines of my bed to visit the restroom before going to bed. I may not be a naturalist per se, but when moved thus by a powerful piece of writing, the urge to become one is almost overwhelming. Oh how marvelous it must be to float and fly over the marine wonderlands and see a flourishing coral reef? How marvelous to see fishes and octopuses in abundance?

Maybe I do retain a certain amount of Shoshin after all I said to myself. (The ability of being able to see things with Wonder) I hummed a little tune and pirouetted like a ballerina would in her worst nightmares and was very happy with myself.

As I approached the restroom, I smoothly kicked open the door with one swiveling turn of movement that drove my pinkie toe to hysteria, and hopped inelegantly into the bathroom.

I then let out a huge yelp and came charging out again. Gerald Durrell could have compared my move to a rampaging rhino yelping like a pup that soiled itself in bed. “AAAhh!!! There … there …. there  is a …. “

For an aspiring naturalist, I really should show more forbearance towards finding crocodiles in my bath-tub. 

I do not live in the swamps of Florida. I do not live in the rain forests of the Amazon. I do not live near a river delta with those crocodile-nourishing swamps. I live in a vastly populated suburban area replete with parking signs, unlocked trash cans and wide boulevards bearing more traffic than they’d like to. The wildest wildlife we have encountered is a possum and the little fellow who had the presence of mind to drop a wicket basket over it was hailed a hero for 3 days

I hadn’t finished sputtering yet, the pinkie-toe let out an alarming signal at having the attention taken off it so quickly and I winced tongue-tied and pinkie-toe-tied together.”A…oh dear! There is this…this ..gulp…”

The husband, always my hero, put personal peril aside and dashed into the restroom with a paper and brush in hand. He is my shining knight;  his battles with centipedes, spiders and silverfish are the kind of legends I like to read. The kind of battle where no one is killed, everyone is happy at the end, and hearts start beating normally with an excess of love afterward.

He went in and laughed heartily: “Could you take that out of there? “ he hollered to the daughter, who then gave the sort of laugh that made my smarting pinkie toe want to do a number again. “This is a sponge crocodile. The gift from that party, remember?” he said.

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I did remember. The children had been babbling excitedly about the gift they received at a birthday party:  something about sponges, but I had not expected this monstrosity. The thing was over 2 feet long and looked very much like a crocodile. The children had put it into the water to let it grow and we had gone about our week-end business. In a few hours, it had ‘grown’ and was still growing. Its orange feet were a giveaway when one stopped to see the crocodile, but sleepy folks, even sleepy naturalists, would not do that.

“Naturalist as a profession not looking so good is it?” said the daughter’s voice richly timbered with laughter. With the dignity of a cat caught on a prowl, I turned and headed to bed.