Antheia’s Gifts

April has the whiff of spring about it. Fresh green leaves, and flowers bursting forth everywhere. 

I could not help thinking of William Blake’s ‘heaven in a wild flower’ as we made our way through the trails. Really! I am in awe of poets – how do they think up these things? 

“Who was the Greek god of flowers? Persephone?”

“Nope! Persephone was agriculture, you know when she comes out of the underworld, she brings Spring with her and the world blooms again. She was the one who was abducted by Hades.”

“Ah yes. There should be one for flowers though. Or is it just nymphs?”

She shrugged – “There is a minor goddess. I forget.”

I looked it up as I sat down this morning after sniffing a couple of roses in the garden. Antheia is the greek goddess of flowers.

I was out walking with the daughter on a trail. She was telling me about a fascinating piece of fan fiction she read about the lives of Remus Lupin and Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series. Told from the perspective of Remus Lupin, it was truly amazing. A deer grazed in the river bed now overgrown with shrubbery, while the stream-like river played host to herons and geese. It was fitting setting for the story of The Marauders who first made their appearance in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

I stooped to sneeze. “You know? I think you deserve this!” she said, looking severe. That child has the heart of Minerva McGonagall. Her lips looked thin and her eyes had just a hint of a smile that could not be displayed for wanting to look stern.

“Do you really have to sniff every flower when you know you have allergies?”

“But I do! Just see this my dear. A spider has patiently woven its web within the petals of a narcissi bloom. What is that story of the Ariadne challenging that Greek goddess?”

“You mean Arachne challenging Athena.”

“Yes…really how perfect these spider webs are! As an engineer, I admire the tensile strength, as a artist, I love the clean nature of their work, as a minor creepy crawlie phobe, I want to squeal, and as a clean freak,  I know I clean out cobwebs, but it makes me wonder every time about the nature of work. The constant doing and undoing of it all. It all seems so haphazard, but nature is so intensely productive in its being, no.” I said and then told her about the book I was reading just then.

Titled The Tree, it is part meditation on nature, part autobiographical detailing the relationship with the author and his father, and their differing views of nature. His father was quite the productive fruit producer in his narrow strip of land in the city, while the author’s love for trees bloomed away from the structured fruit producing expectations – in the wilder countryside.

On the walk, in the meanwhile, I pointed out the resourcefulness of the vine that can jump fences and leap between trees, the flowers that think nothing of scenting the world as they go about blooming, the humming bees, and the humming birds darting about all of this with a purpose of their own. “I suppose one could spend all day thinking about these things without any sort of cogency huh?”

“Yep! Like you are doing now? You know this is where some folks really surprise me. I mean, they regularly write and put out a chapter of fan fiction every week, to this brilliant story of Lupin and Sirius I was telling you about. ”

“Yes and look at humankind’s imagination through the ages. All those myths and stories of nymphs turning into rivers, and running through worlds and sprouting off into geysers. ” We walked back in admiration of writers and poets. Oscar Wilde, the daughter’s favorite poet and his life, William Blake, Greek myths, her re-reading of The Song of Achilles, Harry Potter characters all contributed to a magical spring-time saunter.

Imagination and Creativity are always enthralling themes to engage in. How do you cultivate it – are we born with a natural gift that we then need to prune and cultivate like the trees the author’s father looked after or does it thrive and bloom like Antheia’s flowers in the wild?

No fruit for those who do not prune; no fruit for those who question knowledge; no fruit for those who hide in trees untouched by man; no fruit for traitors to the human cause. – John Fowles, The Tree

Mothers and Calves

During the few months of spring and early summer, the bay area resembles fairy land itself. The mustards are blooming alongside the lupines and golden poppies forming a profusion of yellows, violets and oranges against the lush green backdrop of the grassy hills.

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As I made my way through the green hills with my friends, who unwittingly agreed to a walk on a Friday evening, I chirped on happily. A few minutes in, there we were stalled in our tracks, faced with a herd of happy cows who didn’t seem too happy to see us. Right across our path they stood clustered around holding a conference of sorts, while one calf decided that the best place to drink mother’s milk was the pathway. This was one of the few places on the trail where a steep ravine drops on one side, and a rather incline presents itself on the other.

So, we stood, patiently awaiting the calf to finish drinking milk. Looking at my friends’ faces – not to mention the cows’ faces, I realized that this may not be the best time to tell them heartwarming stories of the elephant calf drinking milk on the Bandipur highway. (Galactic Plumes) So, I cheesed it, but here it is:

Along the roads from Karnataka towards the Nilgiri Hills are thick forests on either side. The Bandipur and Mudumalai national forests lie on this path. A drive through these roads is picturesque and can grant many marvelous views. Bison, spotted deer, and elephants are only a few of the marvels along this road. One such time when I had taken the night bus home, the bus stopped with its headlights off, and did not budge. The whole bus was awake within minutes and all of us were starting to get excited in those loud tones when the bus driver and conductor shushed everyone vehemently and told us to quieten down. It was apparent from their faces that there was potential trouble. Peering out into the road, we realized, they were indeed correct. There, in the middle of the road – on a national highway no less, stood an elephant mother, and her calf, who had decided to drink milk at 2 a.m. 

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While this may seem a trifle dramatic, the one thing elephant mothers do not tolerate is being disturbed when their infants are feeding. There have been several instances of a mother elephant losing it, and sending vehicles tumbling down ravines if disturbed. So, we waited. The waiting vehicles snaked for miles on each side, while the calf drank peacefully in the glow of the moonlight, and the headlights dimmed out of courtesy. How no one honked is beyond me, for Indian traffic is not known for its patience. Maybe, the road only attracted regulars, and they knew the ways of the forest creatures well. In perfect silence, the hundreds of vehicles waited on either side, quietly, patiently. Finally after 45 minutes, the calf had had its share, and the mother sagely moved to the forest. The drivers let out a perceptible sigh and slowly revved their engines on again, before proceeding. 

Where am I going with this? Well, replace the elephant with a cow, and add a herd of them in the middle of the road, and that was the situation facing us. We stood there, carefully waiting for the calf to finish its evening snack. Whoever termed the phrase ‘Mama bear’ got it right. Mamas aren’t to be messed with especially when they are in Mothering mode. It was a fitting lesson for Mothering day. (In the UK, Mothering day, different from Mother’s Day, is celebrated close to Easter.) 

I don’t know if you have ever walked through a herd of cows and calves before. If you haven’t let me assure you, it isn’t easy. It isn’t that the cows are going to do anything. Like the son said fairly during the wait, “We are in its home. So, it is better we wait!”, but the weight of even a calf is enough to send us tumbling down, and no one wants a stampede of cows. 

Anyway, we stood there feeling braver and looking dafter every passing minute. Funny how the braver we felt, the farther we seemed to be inching away from the cows. The cows seemed to be enjoying every minute of the predicament too. There were amused glances and tittering amongst them, I swear! Pretty soon, a cyclist came buzzing down and just parted the herd as he made his way past them. This seemed to give us courage, and we made our way too, though I must say I almost wet myself when the calf and mother gave me a warning as we passed. 

In ‘The Road To Little Dribbling‘, Bill Bryson writes of encountering cows in his walks. I couldn’t help thinking of the book at several points in the walk.

You know how we anthropologize our fellow creatures? I think this particular cow was messing with us. Probably make for a hilarious retelling at the water hole later on. You see, there she was, grazing on the hillsides, and just as she saw us coming, she turned a quiet eye towards us mocking us, and shuffled onto the road. There was simply nothing for us to do, but for us to scramble on to the hillsides ourselves while she looked on amused. The setting sun on one side, and a bright full-ish moon on the other, this picture is truly priceless. If only I could share it with the cow, so it lends her tale credence at the water hole! 

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People sometimes ask me what it is I find so enthralling in nature that I rave about it so much. Well: This is just it.

“I like being in a country where when cows attack, word of it gets around. That’s what I mean when I say Britain is cozy.”
Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island

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

When The Baahubalis Met Betsy

The husband was back from watching the movie Baahubali 2.  Indian cinema had outdone itself, and he was regaling us with the story line and the amazing fight sequences. This enthusiastic performance was greeted differently by the household:

(a) Avid interest in the toddler son, who was wondering whether to raise Baahubali to the echelons of Hanuman, or Spiderman,

(b) An eye-roll from the daughter who was doing something with her slime (coming up soon), and

(c) An almost soporific nod from me wondering when would be a good time to get a cup of tea.

“There is one scene where the bulls are all charging at Baahubali and he catches them by the horns like this and flings them – booyang!” , he said reaching for a water bottle, with a loose lid, to demonstrate. I held the water bottle on the other side, and he looked piqued that his bull showed resistance. Baahubali’s cows did not resist, they flew.

I had smartly declined the movie invitation and enjoyed a quiet afternoon in the park with the children.

The next day, the husband, friend and I were up early for a hike in the rolling hills nearby. The early morning clouds were scuttling about in a desultory fashion, the grass was swaying to the breezes. Only the birds seemed to be bright and energetic. I was plodding along not yet completely awake, and the husband and friend were talking about the Baahubali movie again. The friend had seen a late night show and was bleary eyed after the movie. But mere mention of that great and able Baahubali seemed to infuse him with energy. I watched the pair of them make animated conversation and smiled to myself as I imagined the daughter shaking her head and saying, “Boys! Amma – they can’t help themselves!”

There was a touch of the English countryside about us that morning. There were cows grazing calmly, and an occasional deer or two were visible far away. I was throwing my mind pleasantly to a book I had read recently, A Road To Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. There were lovely passages in the book that seemed to match my surroundings at the time. The rolling hills, the slight chill in the air.  In the book, Bill Bryson writes about how he took up a road trip across Great Britain without the use of a car, and mostly on foot.

“What a joy walking is. All the cares of life, all the hopeless, inept *wits that God has strewn along the Bill Bryson Highway of Life, suddenly seem far away and harmless, and the world becomes tranquil and welcoming and good.”

Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling

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As we were ambling along, we noticed several cow-shaped obstructions in our path. Three cows stood in front of us blocking us quite effectively. One of the cows locked eyes with me.

I looked at her, she looked at me.

I looked, she looked.

I blinked, she didn’t.

I looked away, she didn’t.

“I like being in a country where when cows attack, word of it gets around. That’s what I mean when I say Britain is cozy.”

Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island

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The cow showed no inclination of looking away, or moving.  I am in for the long haul, she seemed to say.

I can wait, I told her.

Ha! she said. It is you humans who are always in a hurry. I have no problems. I could stand here all day. Want to see? she said and stood there chewing the cud in what I thought was an unnecessarily exaggerated manner. If I had chewing gum, I could have played the game too, but I didn’t have any on me at the moment.

I then actually tried talking to her. “Please – we won’t do anything. We just want to pass you by.” I said.

To this she responded. She stared at me even more intensely, and then donned a positively bored look and looked away. It was like I was giving a teenage kid advice.

The husband and friend were standing nearby in a thoroughly helpless fashion.  I looked at the pair of them shuffling their feet and asked them to summon their inner Baahubali and scare the cows away.

The duo guffawed loudly at this, and said the best performance they could come up with was to flex their muscles till it plopped and then fly like Baahubali’s cows in the opposite direction.

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I looked back at the cows to appeal to them once again, and started laughing. It reminded me of one of the passages in Road to Little Dribbling where Bill Bryson had gone walking through a field. The field was on a hill, and he huffed and puffed up the hill, only to be confronted by an angry bull or cow(he couldn’t stop to see). One cow-or-bull-snort later, he came charging down the 2 mile hill to the nearest village. He entered a pub sorely in need of restoration to body and spirit. There, in the pub, was an old farmer who listened to his tale of woe, and said calmly, “Oh, That is only Betsy. She won’t do anything!”

The Betsy in our path seemed to derive inspiration from the story, and moved enough to let us pass.

The Baahubalis scampered across, while Betsy got her entertainment fix for the day.