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.

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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:

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.

 

Nature’s Shows

This article was published in The Hindu Open Page: The Art & Charm of Shoshin

If anyone has spent time watching pebbles make ripples across ponds, they will know what I am talking about. If not, I encourage you to take on your person a couple of pebbles and hike up the high hills and mountains, or cut through the pristine forests, in search of a puddle, pond or lake of reasonable size to cause ripples. Then, with the hand held flat, proceed to skip the pebbles into the water. The skillful amongst you may get the pebble to skip and skim the waters in the first few attempts causing beautiful rippling waves as they go along. I did not. Watch for the word skilled in the sentence – pebble throwing is an art that isn’t appreciated enough.

The son attempted a large stone throw and I held onto him lest he launch himself with the stone. Size matters: large stones and small boys could cause the cannon to fly with the missile. This is the kind of thing that would have made Newton come up with complex mathematical calculations to support the theory of pebbles and ripples, missiles and cannons, and extend it to comets and stars. We, on the other hand laughed, and substituted a flattish stone is his hand. Father and son threw pebbles and I sat watching mesmerized at the beautiful rippling effect it had on the water.

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It was a lovely bright day, one of those gems that present itself in the midst of a rainy stormy week. Much as I adore watching the storm rage around me, and the wind whip the bare branches to breaking point, it doesn’t make conducive walking environments. I tried. I went out for a walk during the raging storm that had flights circling the air space multiple times before attempting to land, and I must say that I was wetter than water. It took 3 days for my shoes to start feeling damp again. The daughter shook her head sternly and said I was going to come down with a pneumonia if I continued on this idiotic path of loving the rain. “Are Pluviophiles Pneumoniophiles?” I asked her, and told her to be crazy and feel the rain, love the rain and watch the rain. She watched me with love, and a strong feeling that I was crazy. Oh well.

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I raised my face upwards towards the sun and my thoughts drifted once again. As I sat there thinking of this and that, a beautiful thing happened. The mind snapped out of the mundane and omnipresent things that occupied it, and went into a lovely, meditative state. Watching the sun sparkles drift meditatively on the waters was marvelous. The world seemed to be throwing these tiny diamonds into the water for our enjoyment and they drifted obligingly with the tiny waves, Little shimmers bobbing up and down, dancing and shining in the sun’s rays, set to the perfect rhythm of the breeze rustling through the bare winter branches of the trees nearby. The earth was bursting with new shoots and moss lined pathways.

Ducks, coots pelicans and geese were bobbing on the waters in the distance. Birds were chirping and swooping -I enjoyed the swift elegant swoops of swallows as much as the impressive regal swoops of the hawks overhead. Some people were biking, some others walking. The clouds – white today, drifted lazily across the skies, as though they too enjoyed the sunshine and did not want to hide the sun. The air smelt fresh and clean with little wafts of eucalyptus and fir scented drifts.

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Nature’s shows are marvelous. For a moment I forgot about the to-do lists, the worries and tensions that a concept of a New Year brings, and enjoyed the free show in front of me feeling revived and refreshed in spirit with every passing moment. All my senses keen, alert and marveling at the wonder around me. I looked at the little fellow enjoying himself by the waters, and hoped that he would remember these simple pleasures as he grows and takes his place in this frenetic world.

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Edit: After I wrote this post, I saw this excerpt by Mary Oliver on one of my social media feeds: it is from the book, Upstream, and I look forward to reading the book, but this piece of writing spoke to my heart (bolding my own):

Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatia . Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones-inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones-rosemary, oregano. Given them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves, and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

My hope is for everyone to savor a moment like that every now and then, to keep the capacity to wonder alive in us. The beauty of Shoshin.