Tweet Talk

The cheery morning had us all chirping – much like the world around us. A beautiful, bright, sunny November morning around the time of Thanksgiving is always a special time. The glorious world around us transformed into multi-colored hues, and the auditory world rich with the orchestra of birds made our human companions on the trail more friendly as well. Every single one of them cheerily greeted one another on what a lovely morning it was. The world seemed to be in harmony.

Geese lifted out of their slumbering fields and flew squawking great big messages to one another as they splashed down into the lakes and rivers nearby. The blackbird murmurations overhead trilled and flew flashing their streaks of red in marvelous patterns overhead. The californian blue jays swooped among the marshes and the trees, their brilliant azure feathers twinkling and shining in the rays of the sun. The great blue herons and egrets stood waiting in their great cloaks of grey and white, relishing their solitude and just being part of the great lovely world around them. 

I read somewhere that people who were among many birds were generally less stressed in life, and I could readily imagine why. The joyous chirps, blending together in a great, harmonious orchestra along with the swift usage of wings to fly up and above, taking one’s spirits with you is enough to reduce the stress. 

I sniffed rapturously and we walked on. The ponds in the marshes seemed perfect for reflection, and the mind wandered. I took some pictures: not too many, and certainly not of great quality for posterity. There were talented photographers  for that. I have several friends whose photographs have that essence of transcending the current space and time and tranporting you to that very moment they captured. How they manage to catch the birds in flight is beyond me. I said as much to the son, who gave me an amused look at yet another blurry picture I took of a nesting heron in the marshes. 

Seeing how enamored I am with our winged companions in this world, the daughter got me a book titled Bird Cottage – by Eva Meijer for my birthday. I look forward to reading it. I looked at the son as we walked on in companionable silence, and told him so.

“Now, I am reading a book on hummingbirds.” 

“I am sure you are!” He said with a smile on the corner of his lips.

“Less sass young man. It is a fascinating book. “

“That’s what I meant. You would like to read a whole book on hummingbirds. What’s it about?” he said indulging me as he walked on.

I was proud of the fellow. He had been promised a short, zipping bike ride with the wind blowing against his face. Instead, here he was on a long walk. On the trudge back, he said, “I think I am going to go home and replace my legs with another pair. They hurt!”, and he laughed raucously at his own joke.

“It would be nice to fly on home, wouldn’t it? Become a hummingbird so we can fly swiftly and purposefully home every few minutes if you so wish!”

I told him about this person who lives in Marin County who takes on orphaned hummingbirds and nurses them back to life. “They need to be fed every 20 minutes all day every day till they are strong enough to be released into the wild.” I said.

“Wow. Why do they eat so much? They are so tiny!”

“Well! They are tiny and almost fully lungs – so you have to give them tiny portions every few minutes, so they can survive and thrive. A hummingbird mother is a very busy one. She has to fly in and out of the nest every few minutes feeding, and looking after her little ones, till they are strong enough. Just like most babies.” I said. He looked confused and awed. I addressed that look and said, “Even human babies need to be fed every couple of hours throughout the day for the first few months. You know that?”

He had a vague idea until then that babies were work, but he had no idea they needed to be fed every 2 hours.

He was quiet for a few moments digesting this piece of info. I swooped in, and gave him what the early days of human baby care looked like. I rounded it off saying, “Yep! You do all that, and what do they do? Sass you on walks, and roll their eyes when they are teens!” He laughed raucously frightening a goose nearby, and we spoke of this and that, the great web of life, and the fantastic nature of living.

Rainbow 🌈 Conscience

A few years ago when the son was in kindergarten, I attended a class room show-and-tell in which their works of art were displayed. Endearing pictures of zebras, horses and assorted flora and fauna painstakingly done, were being showed off brilliantly by the children. When I drew up close to the son’s painting, I paused. There in the corner of his painting were several people with rainbow colored faces. I loved the idea, and asked him why they had rainbow colored faces, to which he said, “Our teacher said to put colored people in our drawings.”

I turned to his teacher, and she nodded smiling, “Yes, I did for diversity, but I didn’t expect this!” My heart warmed at his interpretation.

I loved it! How beautiful and void of prejudice we are as children.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

I started reading Henry Thoreau’s book, Civil Disobedience, last week, and I must say the first chapter itself has me drawn in.  “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

A few sentences later he says again, “It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing however ancient can be trusted without proof.”

Savoring the sentences and thinking of the rainbow colored faces in the son’s drawing made me think. What would it take for us to learn what it is to be human? It seems to me like to understand deeper, we need to rely on Science: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Any phenomenon not readily understood suffers from the same problems. Could there be a better way to gauge our human-ness?

Structurally, we are containers for cells, possess neurons for consciousness, and use language for communication between one another. But this puts us in no different a category than octopus, dogs, elephants, whales or dolphins. Most marvelous creatures on Earth have evolved from the same set of conditions the planet has been subjected to, and are hence remarkably similar in these aspects. In fact, we are limited in so many abilities than our far-more abled canine friends or bird friends when it comes to smell, colors and noise frequencies.

Here is a fun game to be played by all age groups:
The High Frequency Hearing Game

Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”

Chemically speaking, I suppose we can attribute Oxygen, Nitrogen, Carbon etc as major components of the human body. But this too, is not unique to us on Earth. Many lifeforms use the same structural elements for life.
Composition of the Human Body

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Image from WikiLink: OpenStax College / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Culturally, we have ideologies so different, yet so similar. Most religions have stories of a big flood (starting from the epic of Gilgamesh, to the Matsya avatar in Hinduism, to Noah’s Ark), our mythologies have similar creatures (how then could we have dragons in Chinese mythology and Norse mythology?) The fossils found in each region seem to have contributed to the myths (Sankhu / Chakra myths originate from nautilus fossils found in the Himalayas). Is myth-making then the only human identifying factor (I don’t think so, for whales songs have tonal informational bits having the same length of an Iliad or Odyssey – some whale songs have been known to be taught from generation to generation and last over an hour long).

wind-in-the-reef

The differences in skin colors too, are no more than an evolutionary necessity – the UV light in different areas of the earth, and ability of the skin to absorb Vitamin D in areas of high or low sunlight is primarily the factors that determine these.

The Biology of Skin Color (The link between human evolution over time; the ability to adapt to different levels of UV  radiation in the tropics vs the poles; and its correlation with absorption of Vitamin D is explained in this video)

I come back to the question of what does it mean to be human? What is our unifying factor? On this globally unified Earth, can we all just find a way to get rainbow colored skin?

How Kindness Became Our Pleasure – By Maria Popova on Brain Pickings

P.S: The son touchingly drew this drawing again when he saw me writing this post:

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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.

timothy_me_on_fence

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.

family_other_animals

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.

good_creature

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

Cephalopods

The husband had an amused expression on his face as he walked into the kitchen and saw me reading while making dinner. His eyes were set to roll, and his lips had already started on the journey to upward curvature that results in an indulgent smile. I told him so.

“Your neurons, it seems, are all controlled by one brain – tut tut! Not the case with Cephalopods. Take octopi or octopuses for example. They have neurons tingling all over their many arms, and each arm can function almost independently of another. Severed arms have been known to collect food on their own you know?”

“What are you reading now?”, asked the husband.

“Squid Empire by Danna Staaf. It is a book about squids, octopuses, and some other creatures called nautiluses and ammonoids, coleoids and cuttlefish and god-knows-what-else. Apparently, they are all called Cephalopods.” I said beaming happily, while slowly roasting the dinner. It made me feel like an eight armed goddess myself just reading about these fascinating creatures, and cooking at the same time. Never mind that I was making the most gawd-awful hash at both these tasks.

SquidEmpireCover

“Did you know? The humble garden snail is descended from the ammonoids and squids?” I said.

“Well….I will leave you to it then.” said he squiggling out of the kitchen like an octopus out of a tank.

I went back to the book and though I was at times confused by the various scientific terms, I enjoyed the read. It yanked me through the ages, and took me to a time in Earth’s history well before dinosaurs or life on land had started. It was intriguing to see how they formed shells, and how those very shells helped them move from the ocean floor to the central zones of the ocean where they could swim and live with no apparent threat till the whales and larger fish evolved to eat them. The shells secreted a liquid less salty than the surrounding sea water, and this helped them float and remain buoyant instead of being brought down by the heavy shells.

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The Evolutionary History of Cephalopods from the book, Squid Empire

Why did I pick up a book on Squids?

I don’t really know, except that I loved the children’s book, Octopus and Squid by Tao Nyeu. A book that the son and I read every now and then for its beautiful friendship between two seemingly different creatures.

Imagining
Squid and Octopus by Tao Nyeu

Then, a few months ago, I read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

Cosmic Nature of Living:

Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”

Now, I felt it was time to get acquainted with Squids. I don’t distinctly remember a squid – I must have seen them at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Their evolution is fascinating. The book is written by a genuine marine lover (Danna Staaf’s site is here: cephalopodiatrist), and her love for these creatures shines through in the book. I only wish the book had more pictures. I had to keep looking up pictures on the internet. Pictures of nautilus, cuttlefish, squid and octopus obtained from Google search below:

 

I had never used the word, Cephalopod, before, and I was glad to learn so much about another way of life, even if I may never fully comprehend what it means to have consciousness so permeable, so distributed, and yet co-ordinated.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. Loren Eiseley

jelly

Cosmic Nature of Living

We have several friends who are whiz-kids behind the lens, and rise before larks to photograph that first ray of sunlight through the crevice of the rock and so on. We are grateful to their creative labors, for the pictures show the artist behind the lens, and one needs only look at them to get an instant nature spa. We, on the other hand, forget to take cameras, or if we do, leave them behind in the car before getting out. Plans for sunrises are often derailed by the low trick the sun plays on us by beaming on us and waking us up with his rays before we beat him to it.

So, it is no doubt that armed with nothing but our cellphones, we had no method of capturing the brilliance of the Milky Way galaxy.

star_trails
Star Trails of the Milky Way Galaxy

Every time we have the luxury of traveling out of our urban areas swathed in artificial light, we try to step out at night to indulge in star gazing. The winter skies over Zion national park did not disappoint. The wisps of cloud that had floated in during the sunset to show us a more resplendent sunset had flitted away obligingly so that we may take in the iridescent brilliance of the Milky Way galaxy unobstructed.

A friend most kindly took a picture of the husband gazing up at the skies that had me yearning to see the sky like that.

milky_way_shree

Photographers will tell you something about shutter speed, and exposures and frames per second: Lark that always has me looking like a glazed doughnut at t+2 of the discourse. Therefore, I produce slightly alarming results that has physicists going back over their calculations to see how the focal length with the curvature and the light ray divided by exposure rate gave rise to the image that I seem to have obtained. (Just a moment: f/1.4 should blur that background, how did it blur the subject?)

I meander as usual. The point is: I thought we required post processing and superior photographic techniques like make-up on a set to be able to see that night sky. However that night at Zion national park, we had no need to resort to these advanced techniques to see the nebulous cloud of the Milky Way. The skies split open, and the stars poured their celestial brilliance upon us. If this was the show our ancestors enjoyed every night, it is no wonder that we have such wonderful myths and shapes in the ‘ever changing panorama of the skies’ (James Woodforde Parson).

As we looked up, we could not help wondering how the desert beauty in the canyons was so different from the beauty of the seaside and yet so unlike the snowy mountain plains. If this many vagaries of nature could exist on one planet, the mind boggles on what exists in the vast cosmos out there. We rarely stop to think of the skies in any color than the ones we are blessed with. It takes children to imagine that. I remember the childrens’ essays in first grade where they were asked to imagine another world, and their skies looked nothing like ours. They opened our minds to the possibility of having rust colored night skies, with swirling colorful gusts of wind and rainbow colored days. When asked to imagine extra terrestrial life, we are so limited by our imaginations that we seldom look beyond the slightly changed human form.

Yet on this very planet, we know that octopuses have a level of consciousness radically different from our own.

For a long time, we thought that being conscious was something unique to human-beings, then Jane Goodall paved the way for several scientists to study animals and not fear being accused of anthropomorphizing their subjects. Finally, in the 1970’s, Jennifer Mather’s work was acknowledged.  Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Once overlooked or dismissed outright, Jennifer’s work now is respected and cited by cognitive neuroscientists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists so that the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”

Days filled with the daily business of living truly and fully demand our attentions so that we often forget the vibrant universe in which we float. The night view from our planet, ‘ a tiny mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’ as Carl Sagan so elegantly put it, is the best cure for arrogance there exists. Instead of taking our place among the harmonious orchestra of the universe, if all our dictators are fighting over, is a small patch in this tiny speck on a remote planet, we must feel sorry indeed for ourselves.