The Pandemic Year

“Why don’t you pick out a children’s book from the ones stacked there?” I said nodding at the pile from the library.

The son picked out Our Great Big Backyard for us to read together. Written by Laura Bush and Jenna Bush Hager, and illustrated by Jaqueline Rogers, the book extols the beauty of the natural world around us. It is about a girl, Jane whose family takes a wonderful road trip across the United States making several stops along the way at the magnificent national parks. Jane is very reluctant at first, and fights with her brother missing her friends back home initially. But as the family makes their way from Everglades National Park in Florida to Yosemite National Park in California, Jane’s appreciation of the natural world expands.  She cannot wait to share the wonders of the natural world with her friends back home in their own backyard.

“Can you imagine last year this time, we were traveling all over the world?” I said, expressing shock at how soon our world changed for the n-th time since Covid-19 started

It was true. I had made several trips back to back in December 2019, and early January 2020. I remember feeling unmoored from Earth, somewhat dizzy in my speed of movement around the globe, and had felt a strange sense of being connected to the earth when I saw the spider’s web glinting in the winter dewdrops after the hours of flying. (I call it Tao)

It is a whole year since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. A year in which some people adjusted admirably to their changed circumstances, while many others found it much harder.  Life everywhere was shaken out of its steady state. 

The past year was the year in which we morbidly looked at the death rates on a daily basis, and adjusted to losses of family members, and friends to Covid-19. It was also the year in which humanity astounded us by developing a vaccine before the year was out

The vaccines are being rolled out to older populations and front-line workers, teachers etc. While there are variants of the virus, there is already talk of returning to work, normal functioning etc. Many schools have resumed in-person instructions. 

This past year, Covid-19 has made everyone take pause and tread slower. Travel plans are seldom made, and even then, hopefully, are made considering crowds, infection and exposure. Most folks I know have turned an appreciative eye to what lies close by though. How many years the trees near us have had the same flowering in spring and fall, only to be barely noticed by us? Yet these past few months, the enjoyment of it has been greater. 

I feel like a renewed appreciation for Thoreau as he observed the intricacies of nature in Walden Pond. For this long, I hadn’t noticed how the moon rises later and later during the waning period, and earlier and earlier during the waxing period. (Or just the changes in when we see the moon) 

Full Moon Rising – March 2020

The Spring equinox means the days are getting longer, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and the leaves are sprouting everywhere. I remember one night when I was wakened by the sound of the pelting rain. I watched the rain for sometime, but wascompletely awed the next day, for the rains had ushered in the leaves on the trees overnight. I swayed around the trees wondering how  it would have been to watch the leaves grow overnight. 

Like Jane, the protagonist in Our Great Big Backyard , many of us realized, maybe for the first time, the many wonders of the natural world around us. 

As the vaccines are rolled out, and life limps back to normal, I hope we put the trying period behind us, but also remember the good things of this phase. The CDC announced that those who have been vaccinated can now gather indoors safely.

The Joys of Walking

There are places where walking is no longer allowed. Especially in densely populated areas where the coronavirus is raging and ravaging the population. Talking to my parents the other day, the father sounded strangely dull. A little prodding revealed that the evening walk was cut from his list of allowed activities for a few days, and I felt keenly for him. I, like him, enjoy nothing more than tying my hands behind my back (unladylike as my mother often said when I was growing up), and taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the air around me. Often, I don’t remember where all my mind has wandered during these walks, but I always come back strangely uplifted, the day’s conundrums a little clearer, and life’s perspectives a wee bit sharper.

I sympathized with the father and told him that all we could do was to make the best of the situation. For instance, I told him,  I had not enjoyed tea in my backyard for all this time. My work spot is a good 50 miles away from where I live, and I spent many an hour getting to and from work. Silently sipping my tea in the backyard before the day at work began the other day, I felt strangely grateful for this time – the time that I would ordinarily have been rattling to work on a crowded train. But that morning as I sat under the cypress trees, watching the sycamore sway in the breeze outside, I slowly raised my head upwards and was dazzled at the most beautiful blue that greeted the eyes.

The father lightened up at this little piece of my day that I shared with him, for he enjoys our backyard too when he visits, and spoke fondly of the squirrels. The squirrels really are admirable as a means of entertainment. They titter, run and make merry all day long in the fruit trees, and before you know it, a pleasurable time has been had by the entertainers and entertained alike. 

Walking makes philosophers of us. How many times have I admired the mallard ducks and the geese for their spirit? All these little creatures that we share the Earth with have to be the most engaging lesson-givers in the world. Squirrels, cats, butterflies, dogs, geese, ducks, and blackbirds – they are all marvelous teachers to the philosopher willing to take in lessons.

We fell into discussing the joys of walking, and he spoke of Thoreau and a number of writers who were known for their musing during their daily walks. We laughed at how some of our best ideas after hours of walking were nothing short of ordinary, while these authors of whom he spoke so highly had truly world-changing ideas at the end of theirs. One day at the end of a long walk, I came back with an epiphany about ducks, I said, and I wasn’t joking. 

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T’was one evening after a nice long walk, I sat by a lake. The waters were clearly more than 20-30 feet in depth, and I remember wondering whether ducks felt any qualms about plunging into waters that deep. Do they examine their toes studying the webbing and decide to swim? Do they stretch their legs knowing it is waddle-worthy? I have watched the ducks hatch their little ducklings countless times in the spring, and watched them teach their young to take to the waters. But how do they know their capabilities? Do they stretch their wings knowing it is intended for flight?  Ducks have to be the most admirable creatures for they adapt to any medium with ease, and seem to enjoy  it. They waddle, swim and fly with ease. 

How about that? 

“Anyway, why don’t you watch what you eat since your daily walks are also cut?” I said taking a large dollop of ice-water and pouring it over his igloo.

The mother came hissing into the phone like a queen bee in-charge of delivering the daily news updates to the BBC at this, and said, “As if! Now, because he is bored, he eats almost continuously from 4-8 p.m!” . We all landed up laughing at this. 

“Must see how these ducks control their diet Appa. But now that I got the chance to observe squirrels, I don’t think they control their diets very much. Munching on fruits all day long, and talking bites out of them and flinging them to the ground without even properly polishing them off!” I said.

And on this note, we said toodle-oo to each other. I continued on a walk grateful that I could indulge in this activity though my mask made me feel sweaty and hot. He went to make himself some coffee to go with his mid-morning snack. We both pondered on life.

A Philosophy of Walking

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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The Lake of Lousy Metaphors

This post was published in the Nature Writing online magazine dated 11th August

The past few months in the nourish-n-cherish household have been a whirling vortex of activity. I enjoyed most of it, but one night I felt exhausted. A sense of being spread too thin washed over me. I tried chuckling at Bilbo Baggins’ famous quote in The Lord of the Rings,  ‘like butter scraped over too much bread’, but what came out was a whimper. 

I walked over to the window, and gazed outside. The view of a spring night with its flowering plants and trees bursting with young leaves is beautiful. The faint moonlight breaking through the clouds above, makes for a serene scene, and made me reach longingly for Thoreau at Walden Pond, though it was well past midnight.

 

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Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond, and lived there for 2 years 2 months and 2 days. What emerged from this minimalist living of Thoreau’s was the great writings, that to this day offers us wisdom. (In case you run away with this notion of my acquiring wisdom, I  assure you, that I am in no such danger. I am still firmly rooted in the hustle and bustle of the human village.). The book I read was a graphic book meant to introduce Walden Pond to those who draw like me (stick or easy sketches – the actual sketches were of course better than any I produce). The words and captions belonged to Thoreau, and I enjoyed the drawings – minimalist sketches to match a minimalist lifestyle. 

In the book, Thoreau refers to the calming influence of observing nature, and how if you stay still in the woods, you will notice things that are otherwise not revealed. I let the book flop on my tired torso, and threw my mind back to the day the husband & I managed to get a day to ourselves in the wilderness. We went on a strenuous hike up to Upper Yosemite Falls. It was a beautiful day to hike. Several cascades trickled across our paths, and we jumped joyously across them. The water trickles are the highlight of that hike, and we thoroughly enjoyed splashing ourselves with the fresh water from the snow melt. It was steep going, and we huffed and puffed our way upwards. 

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The trailhead helpfully said, that one must not under-estimate the hike, and that it would take 5-6 hours for average hikers. The husband, in his typical fashion, said it would only take 4 hours. I haha-ed somewhat helplessly at this optimism that has been my bait and mate, and said 6 hours it is. It took us 5 and 1/2. So there.

I was keeping my eyes out for some wildlife, and I was disappointed to find that apart from some squirrels, there really wasn’t any other wildlife of note. Of course, animals have learnt to keep away from wild humans. I remember reading somewhere that the only large animals to survive the Anthropocene stampede are those that are domesticated.  All others, we have managed to slowly wipe out. 

On the hike, it was a perfect day, the skies were a brilliant blue, the weather neither hot nor cold, anywhere you pointed the phone, you got a pretty enough picture ( I paid for this by spending an hour deleting 98% of these photos). The steps and switchbacks were exacting a toll on the calf muscles that I paid for the next day. Then we turned a bend, and there in front of us was the spectacular Yosemite falls crashing and thundering its way down to the Merced river. Loud crashes probably meant large shelves of ice chipping and crashing into the depths below. The mists created rainbows. It was marvelous. One could stand there for hours watching the waterfall. 

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It was mighty lucky for us to enjoy Yosemite like that. For just a few days later, a storm engulfed the region, and Yosemite valley was evacuated, several rivers ran swollen and we heard of tragic mishaps and washed away roads. I thought also about how on our recent trip to the mountains, we had narrowly missed a snow storm.  There is something eerie about knowing how close one was to mishap. I was yanked back to the present by the goose-bumps on my skin, and I held the Walden at Thoreau in my hands as if looking at it for the first time. Maybe that is what the wise mean when they say ‘Enjoy the present’, and ‘Savor the moment’ and so on. I opened Thoreau slowly, mentally leaving the human village behind, and entered a sanctuary of peace and calm. I  retreated into the book for several blissful minutes, like a deer in the meadow at a rare moment.  

Thoreau had written about Walden Pond itself: 

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful feature. It is Earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depths of his own nature. “ 

I dipped my feet into the lake of sleep, thought of what a lousy metaphor that was, and drifted off.

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