Musical Musings

The busyness of living had taken over the days, and I felt a little soulful pondering and meandering was in order. I listened to an uplifting album of Anoushka Shankar as I went about the chores in the home after a long week of deadlines, and never-ending demands on my time physically and emotionally.

The children gave me indulgent looks, and nodded approvingly. They had been telling me to get my head out into the clouds for some time now.

I peeked out the window and saw a breeze flutter though the pine tree outside, and resisted no more. I picked up the beautiful children’s book, A Violin for Elva by Mary Lyn Ray, Illustrated by Tricia Tusa.

Fresh from reading Musicophilia – Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, I found myself analyzing the music in our lives. In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes about musicians who don’t read music, but get to listen to the music in their heads as they read the sheets. I imagined the neurons in their brains reacting like those little piano keys – bobbing up and down.

Who remembers Tom & Jerry Piano Concerto? Here it is for those of you requiring a refresher.

The music teachers at our school had been blessed by the muses themselves. I remember many a morning assembly being mesmerized by our piano teacher’s musical notes wafting from her swift hands flying across the piano. The band master and the Indian music teachers were just as talented and gifted. 

How could one man teach the saxophone and the bugle, just as marvelously as the drums?

How could one person teach the harmonium, sitar and the tabla? 

I have always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument. It is probably why I never tire of seeing Anoushka Shankar’s hand leap up and down the sitar producing marvelous music. The harp player must be harnessing a power of the gods, and no wonder the goddess of learning in Hindu mythology holds the Veena.

I sat by the rose bushes reading. A gentle breeze accompanied the birdsong outside. I watched mesmerized as the breeze rippled through the luscious pines generating green soothing waves. Well, I may not know how to play a musical instrument, but I am lucky indeed to be able to enjoy the music.

I opened the book, A Violin for Elva, and was soon so happy with the choice of book. The book talks of Elva listening to music wherever she went. She imagines herself playing the violin, and asks her parents for one, but she doesn’t get one. She goes about imagining her toothbrush, tennis racket and anything else to be her violin. The whimsical illustrations are a joy to behold.

Life passes her by, and in her working years, the faint whiff of her love of music is there, but she is too busy in the busyness of living. 

Finally, after her years of working, she gets herself a violin to teach herself, but finds it very hard. She then goes for music lessons and when she gives her first concert, the sense of accomplishment, the much-delayed gratification she receives is amazing. It is also a reminder to those of us waiting to do what we love that though it is never too late to take up what we love. It is also pointless to let life pass us by. 

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” 

Annie Dillard

Elva’s story reminded me of Mary Oliver’s essay on the three distinct selves within each of us:

  • The Child Self
  • The Social Self &
  • The Eternal Self.

Though in the essay, Mary Oliver, refers to the Eternal Self as the artistic self, I like to interpret it as the Creative self. 

  • The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us. 
  • The second self is the social self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executer. 
  • Then, there is the third self: the creative self, the dreamer, the wanderer. This is the self that needs nurturing.

The essay ended on this note:

“The most regretful people on Earth are those who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither time nor power.”

Mary Oliver

It was a chastening thought to enjoy those things that sustain us, and in doing so make our lives meaningful and joyful.

What would you like to nurture?

The Moon Periodically Enchants Us

It was only fitting that the full lunar eclipse of Wednesday was best visible from the little cosmologist’s room window.

I walked into the son’s room to wish him good night. There he was, lying down on his tummy in his pajamas, his face cupped in both his hands staring at the periodic table poster and glancing at the moonlight shining outside. 

He looked up at me, and said, “Isn’t it amazing how many elements there are? I think I can sing the periodic table song till the second row.” And then, of course, he proceeded to sing it. We talked about the elements and how they found each one. 

The periodic table game is an enchanting one. Which letters don’t have an element? Are there many more elements in the universe that we didn’t yet know about. I mean they found Lawrencium etc pretty recently didn’t they? 

Reminded me of the book, Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks in which he talks of his obsession with the periodic table. 

“The periodic table was incredibly beautiful, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I could never adequately analyze what I meant here by beauty – simplicity? coherence? rhythm? inevitability? Or perhaps it was the symmetry, the comprehensiveness of every element firmly locked into its place, with no gaps, no exceptions, everything implying everything else.” 

Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by [Oliver  Sacks]

We sat there wondering whether our beautiful moon itself has other elements, or essentially those of the Earth. Fascinating questions to engage the mind on a beautiful full moon night. 

I knew he would be equally thrilled about an adventure in space that was to take place early the next morning, and told him about it. A full lunar eclipse my boy! Can you imagine that?

“…We ourselves were made of the very same elements as composed the sun and stars, that some of my atoms might once have been in a distant star. But it frightened me too, made me feel that my atoms were only on loan and might fly apart at any time, fly away like the fine talcum powder I saw in the bathroom.” 

Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten

Almost immediately, he said, “Okay Google! Set an alarm for 4 a.m.”

The next morning, I snoozed my alarm titled ‘Moon Magic’ at 4 a.m., and was wondering whether to pull myself out of bed, when I heard the son bustling about. He tugged us all downstairs and we stood there in the courtyard in front of our home gazing at the beautiful red moon – a giant golden orb that huge low in the sky had morphed into a silver ball of luminescence and was now a red rock suspended in mid-air. If this wasn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

The husband went into the home after a few moments – we were slightly cold, but stood mesmerized by the slow show being put up for us by the cosmos. The husband called in a few seconds, and said to the son, “By the way, the best view is from your room!” We raced up to his room, and gazed outside the window. True enough. It was the best view. Snuggled up in his warm comforter, sipping hot cocoa, I left the fellow to gaze and dream on as the silvery moon emerged from earth’s shadow. 

The eternal magic of light combining with the structural elements of the earth and moon make for a magical night indeed. 

The Music of Rose-Scented Winds

Roses are blooming everywhere. The white, saffron, yellow, pink, corals and red roses are a real treat to behold. Watching the breeze gently take the rose essences and waft off into the neighborhood reminded me of an old Tamil song. “Rojavai thalaattum thendral…” a few weeks ago, and I hummed it as I went about my day. Loosely translated, it means a breeze that caressed the roses. 

“Dei! One more time, you sing that song……” said the husband. 

His tone of voice reminded me of my elementary school friend all those decades ago, when I sang something continuously, wrongly and unknowingly at times. 

Particularly prone to these brain-itches or ear-worms, I am not particularly fond of them either. I thought life was full of them, till I noticed my friends seemed to be able to enjoy a song, hum it a bit and then move on with their lives, without the annoying thing being stuck in their heads for weeks at a time. 

The curious case of not being very good at picking the lyrics out in a song also means that I am singing garbled nonsense, and often just snippets of them as I go about the house. 

I don’t know how folks live with me, for I want to box my ears every time  ‘rojavai thaalattum thendral ‘loops on in the old brain. Apparently, the song itself has a good enough lyrical quality, but I would not know anything about it for I have never been great at catching the words in a song. I sing

Rojavai thalaatum thendral, poon thendral, yen mandral (No meaning). 

Un nenjil porattangal hohoho (Santa Claus>!), rojavai thalaatum thendral…”

I am sick of the song, but luckily not of the roses. 

For one prone to brain-itches such as these, the modern world can be quite the problem. There are catchy songs on television, in cars, radio stations, not to mention gas stations, almost everywhere. It is only recently that I found listening to instrumental music helps since it allows me to listen to music without having garbled phrases stuck in my head on an endless loop.

“Many people are set off by the theme music of a film or television show or an advertisement, This is not unusual for they are catchy tunes” says Dr Oliver Sacks, in his book, Musicophilia (Read the essay titled “Brainworms, Sticky Music and Catchy Tunes”)

He writes of his friend,Nick, who had fixated on the song, “Love and Marriage”and was ‘trapped inside the tempo of the song’. 

I nodded along fervently as he wrote of his affliction:

“With incessant repetition, it soon lost its charm, its lilt, its musicality and its meaning. It interfered with his schoolwork, his thinking, his peace of mind, his sleep.”

Originating from the literal translation of the German term Ohrwurm, an earworm can go on for weeks, or in some cases months.

When I read about this phenomenon in Oliver Sacks’, Musicophilia, I hummed the broken piece. I wish I could’ve written to the wise doctor and asked him whether he had come across any cases where the patient was stuck in a song with lousy garbled words in the correct tune, and how their marriage with a man who could not hold a tune but could ace the words would function. (Read: The Noetic Touch to the Poetic Muse

Alas! Dr Oliver Sacks is no longer alive to share his insights with us.

Good Morning Bilbo-Style

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

Poetic alarms and the secret to blooming like a flower.

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

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

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

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

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

hobbiton

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

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

Everything in its Place – By Oliver Sacks

everything_place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

Missing Chemistry Lab?!

“How are you managing to do Science experiments during these Covid times?” I asked the daughter as she munched on a cookie while on a diatribe about her latest Chemistry assignment.

“Oh we do it online. You can tip stuff into test tubes with your mouse, and it shows you what happens.” she said with a shrug, and I must tell you, I paled.

Wasn’t the whole fun of Chemistry lab the hissing noises as two unlikely elements reacted? Or the joy of seeing the colors change inside the test tube as you held it up to be seen by the light? The bright copper sulphate blue, the lilac, the pinks and turning neutrally to white letting out fumes? What about the olfactory? The hydrogen sulphide that sent us gagging towards the windows with the rotten egg smells. (The fact that we made it straight to lunch after a Chemistry lab with H2and tucked in with an enormous appetite speaks volumes to the marvelous feeling of youth.)

Chem_lab

I said as much to the daughter, and she gave me the pitying look she reserves for me when she senses that I miss my school days. “It’s just Chem Lab, it will be fine! Don’t worry!”

“Should I just forget about those eggs I bought a while back, so you can experience the rotten egg smells to your heart’s content?!” I asked solicitous.

She roared with laughter at this and said, “Your cooking is Chemistry enough Mother!”

It was in part conversations like this that peppered my read of Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten, A Chemical Boyhood.

uncle_tungsten

His journey with the Sciences and his joyous epiphanies as he realized the neat order of things, and his poetic joy  as he traversed the Periodic table, gave me a new appreciation for the Periodic table too. In his words,

“Chemical exploration, chemical discovery , was all the more romantic for its dangers. I felt a certain boyish glee in playing with these dangerous substances, and I was struck in my reading, of the range of accidents that had befallen the pioneers. Few naturalists had been devoured by wild animals or stung to death by noxious plants or insects; few physicists had lost their eyesight gazing at the heavens , or broken a leg on an inclined plane; but many chemists had lost their eyes, limbs and even their lives, usually through producing inadvertent toxins or explosions.”

Chemistry, is tucked so far away in my consciousness, that I reveled in the beauty of it all almost anew. Glimpses of my committed Chemistry teachers in my youth came to me. I remember the feeling where their passion for the subject came through as they explained how the electrons revolved around the nucleus, the atomic weights, the inert gases and all the rest of it. I can vaguely begin to recognize how it must’ve felt to wax eloquent about the structural wonders in the world around us, to a bunch of mildly interested, if not completely indifferent, teenagers.

If ever there was a profession that was steeped in delayed gratification, teaching must be it. Why does it takes us decades to realize the stalwarts who did their best by us?! I tried putting all of this into words as I discussed the book with the daughter, and she said, “Yeah age makes you kooky I suppose. Must find the chemical reactions for that!” She laughed at her own wit while I  scowled. Slowly, she donned a far-off look, and said, “You know? Chem is just fine if he doesn’t keep having us go back and write out our mistakes for him so we show him why we made the mistake! Really! He is a grumpy old man and he is only twenty!”

I guffawed out loud at this – I must remember to ask about this Chemistry teacher of hers a few decades from now.

The Noble Accolades

The sun was up briskly rousing all of nature’s non-nocturnal creatures to rise and shine. I opened my eyes – the sun had nudged me half heartedly wondering whether I was to be classified as nocturnal or non-nocturnal that beautiful Sunday morning. I had after all spent a good part of the night reading several books late into the night. Covid-19 has wrought a strange change in reading habits and I found myself yearning for some uninterrupted time in which to get my reading done. I devoured two short stories by P.G.Wodehouse, read some tidbits of 3 other books and finally settled in for a long-ish snuggle with Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks.

Bookworm_ReadingCorner

I felt strangely alive – with that beautiful feeling of youth-ish rebellion stealing over me as I read on. How long had it been since I had defied reasonable bed-times and gone on reading late  into the night? Moreover, I was reveling in the boyhood of the great Oliver Sacks – a boyhood steeped in Chemistry and his experiments with them.

But, there is a reason for such pesky things as sleep times. As a teen, the body shrugged off a night like that with a spot of tea, but I found the intervening decades did not take so kindly to this sort of treatment, and I was being given by the stink eye by the neurons in the brain that refused to wake up.

I dragged myself from bed the next morning and set some dish-pots on the stove for the afternoon meal. I don’t know what I plopped in there it terms of ingredients. I moped and moaned, “Oh with Covid, all these folks are posting these amazing pictures of their culinary adventures in Facebook, and I don’t even know what I am making!”

“Aww! Don’t worry ma! You always manage to make it palatable except when you get creative and experiment and stuff!” said the daughter eyeing me drooping over the kitchen counter. She shuddered and said, “Remember that bread pudding?!”

I maintained a dignified silence for post-bread-pudding, most people had to do the same as the pudding seem to get their jaws stuck. While the pot bubbled, I flopped over to the Uncle Tungsten book again, and started  reading. The chapter was about Eve Curie’s biography of Madame Curie. The book was given to Oliver Sacks when he was a ten year old boy by his mother and he had savored the copy over the years. 

uncle_tungsten

 I seemed to finally awaken as I read the passage below aloud to the children:

Eve Curie’s biography  of her mother – which my own mother gave me when I was ten –   was the first portrait if a scientist I ever read, and one that deeply  impressed me. It was no dry recital of a life’s achievements, but full of evocative, poignant images- Marie Curie plunging her hands into the sacks of pitchblende residue, still mixed with pine needles from the Joachimsthal mine inhaling acid fumes as she stood amid vast steaming  vats and crucibles, stirring then with an iron rod almost as big  as herself; transforming the huge, tarry masses to tall vessels of colorless  solutions, more and  more radioactive, and steadily concentrating these, in turn, in her drafty shed, with dust and grid continually getting into the solutions and undoing  the endless work.”

The book is full of footnotes, and annoying as this can be sometimes, this particular footnote was fun. 

Footnote:

In 1998 I spoke at a meeting for the centennial of the discovery of polonium and radium. I said that I  had been given this book when I was ten, and that it was my favorite biography. As I  was talking I became conscious of a very  old lady in the audience, with high Slavic cheekbones and a smile  going from one ear to the other. I thought, “It can’t  be!” But it was – it was Eve Curie, and she signed her  book for me sixty years after it was published, fifty-five years after I got it. 

The pot I had set on the stove sizzled over, and I charged to take control. When the dish was salvaged, I said, “See what all can happen when Eve & Madame Curie worked together dear? Madame Curie won the Nobel prize, and her daughter chronicled her! Imagine all that is possible if we were work together more sweetly in the kitchen together? I plop, you stir, I salt, you pepper. Maybe we could have our picture posted on Facebook as two smiling chefs who were never happier than when cooking together, and you can post the dishes-finale in your Insta account!” I said. 

The child did not even have to think before she shook her head. “Mom and daughter working together with chemicals and stuff! Oh they must’ve fought plenty. Besides! Think Mother! Is a Facebook photo worth all that?”

“You think!” I retorted. I have always been quick with dumb repartees.

She laughed and tousled my hair – she is now fully a head taller than my head and these days when I need to give her ‘the look’, I get the feeling of a meerkat peering at a giraffe. I suppose my noble culinary marvels will just have to wait for the Facebook accolades.

The Other Side of the Glass

There is a girlish delight in tucking oneself in the mode of Being, away from the duties of a Doing life on a Saturday morning. As I watch the minutes blend into hours, I sense my senses relax and delve deeply, calmly and yet completely enthralled at the prospect of indulging in my favorite pastimes of reading and writing. I feel the privilege in that sentence as I write it, for I recognize it for what it is: a luxury.

I hear the bees buzzing in the beautiful Spring day outside, a pair of blue jays have chosen a tree nearby to make their nest, and I watch the pair of them flit about busily during their days. Every now and then, one of them would come and peck on the window pane as if to check on me, though I know that comes from the human longing for self importance. The blue jays may just like the sound of the glass against their beaks, or probably; the reflection of themselves as they fly past. Whatever their motive, it is one of their many acts that I relish from the other side of the glass.

The other side of the glass.

What a wonderful way to observe the world? The internet is rife with jokes on humans sheltering in place with animals peeking at us, with their clever commentaries of us, and I must say I relish it. For once, we are all unanimously united in that state of achieving inner peace against the steady dripping of the news around us.

So, here I am sitting comfortably and reading the book, Uncle Tungsten – Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks.

The world as seen by the prolific writer and physician – his boyhood escapades with Chemistry and the influences of his life, are fascinating, full of learning and wonder, and makes one acutely alive to the fact that each life is a magnificent journey on its own. To those of us who are lucky to see life as an act of not just being, but becoming, it is a subtle reminder of the love of living.

uncle_tungsten

Every now and then, a passage takes you by surprise, such as this one. Oliver Sacks was born into a family of 4 siblings to physician parents, Dr Samuel Sacks and Dr Muriel Elsie Landau (one of the first female surgeons in England).

Reading has a way of taking us into worlds other than our own. I was delving into London of a century ago in his memoirs. The act of taking our consciousness with it to a different place and the ability to anchor us to the here and now, is a unique gift of reading. I found that strange juxtaposition in this passage:

“When it was time for my father to open his own practice, he decided, despite this early training in neurology, that general practice would be more real, more “alive”. Perhaps he got more than he bargained for, for when he opened his practice in the East End in September 1918, the great influenza epidemic was just getting started. He had seen wounded soldiers when he was a houseman at the London, but this was nothing to the horror of seeing people in paroxysm of coughing and gasping, suffocating from the fluid in their lungs, turning blue and dropping dead in the streets. A strong, healthy young man or woman, it was said, could die from the flu within three hours of getting it. In those three desperate months, at the end of 1918, the flu killed more people than the Great War itself had, and my father, like every doctor at the time, found himself overwhelmed, sometimes working forty-eight hours at a stretch.”

Just like that, I had moved to the other side of the glass. 100 years on, here we are, sheltering-in-place with the Coronavirus pandemic, and watching a similar situation of our good doctors being overwhelmed, and resources being stretched to their limits, as the virus sweeps through the world.

The other side of the glass.

The Gingko Trees 🌳

“Did you know about the Gingko trees?” I said, knowing fully well the reaction it would elicit from the daughter.

“Oh Please! There is no need to tell everyone you meet about the Gingko trees you know?” she said.

“But there is! Maybe I will write about it.” I said. The gingko trees have given me no end of pleasure , and I must say, a certain amount of anticipation tinged with a spot of trepidation, during the past few months. The one interesting fact I know about them has been beaten to mythical status and back like the shedding and revival of the seasons.

“Are you seriously telling me that you haven’t written about the blasted Gingko trees yet?” the daughter’s voice was tinged with laughter and embarrassment. The conversation was happening in front of her friends after all.

If you really want to embarrass your teenage child, please take them for a walk explaining obscure horticultural facts along the way. Touch the leaves of the Gingko trees, tell them the scientific name is Gingko Biloba, take them back to the time when the dinosaurs roamed feeding off these very leaves and the time travel is bound to work wonders on them.

Only the teenager most proud of their parents is bound to glow like the dew drops glistening on a Gingko tree at the first rays of the sun. Mine looked like a cross between a beetroot and a maple 🍁 . I stood there poetically exclaiming that the beautiful Gingko trees had shed their golden tresses after all; happy that the interesting fact had been borne out truly by the sturdy trees.

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Months before, as the colors of the leaves changed from olive green to golden yellow, I had told her about the fact that Gingko trees shed their leaves all at once.

“Don’t they all?!” she said being clever, but I had my answer ready.

“No they don’t as the crunch parties we have all of October and November show you. But the Gingko trees in the vicinity all shed together on one day in November apparently.” I said. “It is like the day of the party, and they somehow decide the day between themselves. Nature’s signals are truly quixotic!”

“Did you also know that Gingko trees have been around from the days of the dinosaurs?”
“And how do you know that?” the family asked looking at me curiously, as if my age was finally becoming clear to them. I did not like where this was going, and hastily assured them that paleontologists seemed to have found fossils and put their necks on the line with that fact.

Ever since, throughout November, we watched the Gingko trees with fascination, and self with a tinge of dread, for I had bored the family stiff with tales of the Gingko tree ever since I read the essay by Oliver Sacks in the book, Everything in its Place. He wrote of his learnings from the Horticultural Society of which he was a part, and he had said quite categorically that the Gingko trees party was one day in mid November.

gingko

Mid November came and went, and the yellow leaves swung their tresses proudly as the cold winds coursed through them. Rains lashed at them, and they swished them some more. Haughty Princesses they’d make, I thought to myself.

Thanksgiving came and went, and the family was now baring their fasts at me. “After all those months with the blasted gingko tree, if they don’t shed, you’ve had it Mother dear!” they said. I said that November in New York probably meant December in California, but I also prayed a little. You see, I had made a bit of a pest of myself over the past few months, and I knew it. Oh the horror if they didn’t!

December came, and I went out of the state for a couple of weeks. I cannot say that the Gingko trees were in my thoughts for very long during this time. Year end work-travels don’t give time to think of Gingko trees.

I came back, and I had come for the walk with the girls, when the Gingko trees swam into my thoughts again. Luckily for me, Oliver Sacks, was an astute man. Though, I don’t know whether they had all shed their leaves on the same day, when I saw them, all the Gingko trees in the vicinity, young and old, were bare. Their leaves lay in a heap around their trunks, and I looked vindicated. Thank you Oliver Sacks and Thank you Gingko Trees! I said privately heaving a sigh of relief.

I told the girls about the whole thing: the pest I’d made of myself, and how the solid trees had helped me after all, and they laughed heartily. “I told you my mom is a nature kook! ” said the daughter, but there was laughter there – I seemed to have redeemed myself in front of her friends.

I am not sure when I will be willingly invited next: I’d better get going on some Spring facts to dazzle the lot.

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Book: Everything in its Place

By: Oliver Sacks

Essay: The Night of the Gingko

Biophilia

Oh! What a surprise amma?! The book, Nature’s Fix appeals to you.” said the daughter peals of laughter barely concealed in the sentence.

“I know right?! I always keep an open mind to see how else I can improve, my dear!” I said not to be undone in the sarcasm department. 

“You are cooped up in a dull office building in the bustling city – you need a change. I get it! But I am quite happy and young enough to not ‘stretch my limbs’ in nature walks! Nature kook is what you are! I suppose you will now use bits of the books to convince us to come on walks with you. I’ve got homework to do, bye! ” said she mock-straining at my tug to come on a walk with me. But she came. 

As we walked around our neighborhood, watching the leaves slowly turn colors, birds making their way home against the brilliant sunset, children playing and biking, I felt calm. How much of that was due to the fact that I could take the time for a walk at the end of the day, and how much of it was Nature’s work, I am unable to say, but I felt a wonderful shiver as I watched the evening breeze rustle through the large trees in the neighborhood. Slowly, as I watch the wave of leaves tremble in the wind, some of them shaking loose, and others just swaying to the orchestra of the evening, there is a definite sense of belonging to this wonderful planet.

 

As I move around the office or often when I am walking to and from work in the city, I feel a concrete shudder. We are so proud of concrete as a structural material, we pour it everywhere. I feel a lonely stab when I see our gleaming imperfections reflected back to us in the gleaming glass panes of the concrete structures. Even the trees on our city sidewalks seem to be lonely, surrounded by concrete footpaths, and millions of people jostling by them everyday. 

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The book, The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, details studies taken up in Japan and South Korea around the effects of nature. It studies blood pressure, release of  how long the effects of nature remain with us – does it only last as long as we are with nature, or does a weekly hike contribute to our wellness over a period of time? More interesting questions such as these are handled in the book. 

I was lured into the book reading about the concept of Shinrin Yoku & Salim Yok(Forest bathing in Japanese & Korean respectively) The Japanese are also probably the only people in the world who have a word for commute hell – Tsukin Jigoku.

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Excerpt:

Study in the Nippon Medical School:

Qing Li is interested in nature’s effect on mood states and stress as manifested in the human immune system, Specifically, he studies natural killer immune cells called NK, which protect us from disease agents and can, like cortisol and hemoglobin, be reliably measured in a laboratory. 

Only in 2016 did we officially became an urban species – for the first time, population in cities outnumbered population in rural areas. As we cluster around in larger numbers, it is even more important to study the effects of nature on ourselves. After all, our biophilia has evolved over millennia and this abrupt change from it is bound to bring changes in the ways we can adapt.

Definition of biophilia. : a hypothetical human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature.

Is Nature the next wave after Meditation, Exercise and Organic Foods? 

There have been days when I have wondered how the children found out whether I indulged in a spot of meditation. 🧘‍♀️ 🧘‍♀️ I might have, but did they find out because I had taken the time to meditate and therefore already in a better mood, or did the meditation itself help with specific stressors? Nature studies have similar questions, though I am truly grateful for its personal influence on our well-being. Whether it is because of my beliefs or something else, Nature soothes.

Read also: Music & Gardens by Oliver Sacks

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The joy and importance of walking – Solvitur Ambulando – It is Solved by Walking

 

Moonbeams in the Morning

The morning alarm trinkled: Dawn’s misty summons. I got up, wondering why the nights passed so quickly, hoping for a little more precious sleep in the mornings. I stepped out of my bed and gingerly peeked out the window. Dawn was doing the same thing – trying to sleep in a little more, while the moon shone high above the tree tops, bathing the surrounding clouds in a magical shroud of moonbeams. The dew drops on the trees glistened in the same benign light. I stood there shivering a little for the night temperatures had dipped, and there had been a mild drizzle.

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The moon is there every night, the sun rises every morning, and yet the moments of quietly standing there before the hustle and bustle of our days started made me appreciate everything a little more sharply. When the son woke up, I held a finger to my lips not ready to start talking just yet, and made him peek out at the fine moon too. His eyes widened a little at the beauty of the morning, dew drops, trees, clouds and the moon. He chattered in his bright tones that sent the waves of sleep flying from him, “Did you know? We may not be able to enjoy the view of the moon for very much longer?”

“Why?” I asked in spite of myself.

“Well… we are already working on building colonies on the moon. Soon, the moon will be full of houses just like ours, and then who knows how the moon will look from here?”

“Who told you that?”

“No one!”

“Okay….where did you read that?” So much for quiet mornings bathed in contemplation.

“In the Time for Kids magazine. It seems we are already planning on moving there.” he said a tinge worried that I hadn’t received his original memo in my sleep addled state.

“Well…for all the things we have built on Earth, from outer space, it still looks beautiful you know? Maybe it will be the same for the moon. Although, I am not sure I am happy with the idea of looking in on someone’s home like that. Wouldn’t it be creepy?!”

He laughed.

I was reminded of the essay by Oliver Sacks in the book, Everything in its Place: Who Else Is Out There?

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In it, he starts with his thoughts on the book, First Man on the Moon by H.G.Wells.
Anybody Out There?- Oliver Sacks essay
One of the first books I read as a boy was H.G.Wells First Man on the Moon. The two men, Cavon & Bedford lie in an apparently barren and lifeless crater just before the lunar dawn. Then as the sun rises, they realize there is an atmosphere – they spot small pools and eddies of water, and then little round objects scattered on the ground. One of these , as it is warmed by the sun, bursts open and reveals a sliver of green.’A seed! “says Cavor, and then, very softly, says ‘Life!”.They light a piece of paper and throw it into the surface of the moon. It glows and sends up a thread of smoke indicating that there is oxygen.
This was how Wells conceived the prerequisites of life: water, sunlight (a source of energy), and oxygen. “A Lunar Morning” was my first introduction to astrobiology.

While it is interesting for us to dream of conquering alien worlds and expanding our footprint with habitable planets, such as K2-18b circling a red star called M Dwarf; it is also highly interesting to see that even on Earth that is our original home, we require a very specific set of circumstances for our life to thrive. We need our oxygen levels to be exactly right, our carbon dioxide levels to not rise too much, we need our microbiomes to be in a particular state of harmony with the larger ecosystem.

Read: Good Food Mood

Take for instance, this excerpt from cosmonaut Alexei Leonov – the first man to walk in space for 12 minutes. Excerpt :
“I decided to drop the pressure inside the suit … knowing all the while that I would reach the threshold of nitrogen boiling in my blood, but I had no choice” Leonov said

I enjoyed Oliver Sacks’ footnote, for in one sentence, it reconciled both the resilience and delicate nature of our entire species.

“If Wells envisaged the beginning of life in the The First Man on the Moon, he envisaged its ending in The War of the Worlds. where the Martians, confronting increasing desiccation an loss of atmosphere on their own planet, make a desperate bid to take over the Earth (only to perish from infection by terrestrial bacteria). Wells, who had trained as a biologist, was very aware of the both the toughness and the vulnerability of life.”

How many species have left behind their fleeting impressions on the cosmic playground? Our own are laughably recent. Will the Quod-liop-tukutuk-sfaunusaurus call us by the same name when they dig up our remnants millennia from now?

Books:
The First Man on the Moon : H.G.Wells
War of the Worlds : H.G.Wells
Astronaut Alexei Leonov: First Man to Space Walk
Everything in its Place : Oliver Sacks