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

What We Do

I bobbed among the sea of fresh laundry. The children were helping with the folding and sorting, while I cackled and rattled around like a mother hen. Mother hens don’t fold clothes, I know, but it is a metaphor, or a simile or an odious comparison when viewed from the angle of a hen. Anyway, the conversation was quicker than the folding and after some time, I patted them on a job well done, and sent them over for a spot of week-end television. They tumbled off clucking happily. A prized activity they seem to think it is, though they seem to watch the same programs over and over again. 

After some more cleaning, I took stock. True, there was loads of cleaning left to do, but that was always the case. For now, the boats of laundry were taken care of, the family fed, the kitchen scrubbed, the shoes, jackets and all the paraphernalia that is plopped all over the place were back where they belonged. The children were happily watching their week-end television, and the husband was pretending to do some work on the computer. All was well.

I gingerly stepped out for a breath of fresh air even though it was cold. As soon as I opened the door, the wind gently lifted my hair welcoming my foray into the quiet pleasures of a Winter day. I surveyed my flower pots weathering the wind, rain and still cheerfully raising their heads welcoming the end of Winter. If that isn’t an invitation for a stroll, I don’t know what is, I told myself and set off, an umbrella swinging on my arm, and my spirits slowly rising to meet the clouded skies above.

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I stopped to gaze up at the trees sprouting the early Cherry Blossoms every now and then. One particular tree looked marvelous: There seemed to be a luminous glow on the cherry blossoms, with the dew drops glistening on them, and I could not help standing there, and catching a respite from the never ending activity that swirled around me. Our tasks and accomplishments seem to be so loud and cantankerous compared to this marvelous phenomenon of early Spring don’t they? 

The blossoming of a flower. 

I stood there wondering how lovely it would be to see the flower blossom, to actually see it expand into a flower from a bud. I suppose you could show me hundreds of time-lapse videos, but I still wanted to see the real thing. In front of my eyes. 

That is the sort of thing that will try the Dalai Lama’s patience, and I am happy that the thought to at least try it crossed my mind, since I knew my limits when it came to stilling the mind. A monkey mind if ever there was one. 

Watching a flower bloom is a thought that has occurred to many before me, and will occur to many after me. All we need to do is stop and admire a flower. In the River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks, he says that as a boy, he used time lapse photography using multiple photographs and frames to develop the blossoming of a flower. To play with time in a sense.

“I experimented with photographing plants. Ferns, in particular, had many attractions for me, not least in their tightly wound crosiers or fiddleheads, tense with contained time, like watch springs, with the future all rolled up in them. So I would take set my camera on tripod and take hourly photographs…and make a little flick book. And then, as if by magic, I could see the fiddleheads unfurl, taking a second or two, for what in real time took a couple of days.”

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When seen this way, we are all time machines, slowly growing and morphing all the time, are we not? Unfurling with furious energy that detracts at times, but all of us unfurling all the time, hopefully evolving into what we shall and can be.

I gazed up at the flowers again and wondered whether self reproach, achievement, contentment, ambition, or any of the things that seem to matter so much to human beings meant anything in the grand scheme of things. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Ursula Le Guin.

“Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

The rain picked up, and I opened up my umbrella. I had stood there a long time, and my feet and hands were numb. I went in to the home, and put my wet, cold hands against the warm cheeks of the children watching TV, and they squealed half in exasperation and half in fun as the rain drops trickled down their cheeks. They chided me, united in their purpose: “Walking in the rain – being nuts! again? You will catch a cold. Go and get warm. Now!”

It was lovely to see the chicks take charge, and get a glimpse of the unfurling.

The Secret To Blooming Like a Flower

I gabbled on about the beautiful Kurinji flower over a distinctly sub-par dinner one night. Sometimes the rhythms of cooking are too frequent. “Do we really need to eat every few hours?!” I said drowning out the sound of “You haven’t cooked in 3 days!”

The children listened – one with ardent curiosity bursting with questions and the other cloaked in teenage blasé that belies the true interest behind the flowers. ( “Cool!” – only a little wag of the ear indicating possible interest).

“Can you believe the Kurinji blooms without alarms and clocks to set store by? Every 12 years like clockwork!”

The questions that followed were better than the answers:

  • Do all of them bloom at the exact same time?
  • What about plants that grew later, won’t they all flower at different times?

My answers are not answers that would have pleased Charles Darwin perhaps, but if he wanted to answer right, he should’ve been there, not let me field them is my stout reply to this.

Interesting aside:
The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks starts off with an essay on Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers.

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I could see why Darwin liked his flowers so much. This was long after his magnum opus, The Origin of Species, was completed. He actually spent the last decades of his life pottering about his green house, setting the children in his life to chart the course of the bees, studying orchids and their flowering patterns etc, and was therefore immensely better prepared than yours truly.

His joy was evident in his letters:

“You cannot conceive how the Orchids have delighted me .. What wonderful structures! … Happy man, he [who] has actually see rows of bees flying around Catasetum, with the pollinia sticking to their backs! .. I never was more interested in any subject in all my life than in this of Orchids.”

He went on to write the book with the fascinating title: On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects

Meanwhile, the kurinji flower was still blooming in the home: the river of questions on What Is Time flowed on:
What is Time when you are a flower?
What is Time when you are a squirrel?

The husband had a bemused and half-exasperated expression on his face, as he heard me talk about alarms, time and biological clocks. He watched me squirm and the urge to tut came to me. I knew what was going on in that optimistic mind of his. He hopes I will have the sense of a Kurinji flower someday.

I feel bad for the old boy.

The thing is, I set beautiful poetic alarms, replete with soothing ringtones to go with it, place them on his side of the bed, and then proceed to sleep like a blessed bear in the winter.

If we need to get up at 6 a.m., I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. thereby allowing me to snooze a few times, and then go back to dozing the doze of the blessed. It is marvelous to get that snooze time, and some of my best snoozes are at this time. This vague time of day between wakeful consciousness and blissful unconsciousness.

If everything in the universe follows a pattern, how do we determine what ours is, without the aid of all our poetic alarms? There is a beauty to seeing the natural things around us, for they soothe us in ways quite unknown to our hectic way of life.

I was reading Village Diary by Miss Read for the n-th time (like a flower knows when to bloom, I know when it is time for a Miss Read re-read), and I admired yet again the simple way in which she had set a truth about humanity in her beautiful language.

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Quote:

As I ironed, I amused myself by watching a starling at the edge of the garden bed. He was busy detaching the petals from an anemone…

This short scene, I thought as I pressed handkerchiefs, is typical of the richness that surrounds the country dweller and which contributes to his well-being. As he works, he sees about him other ways of life being pursued at their tempo – not only animal life, but that of crops and trees, of flowers and insects – all set within the greater cycle of the four seasons. It has a therapeutic value, this awareness of myriad forms and varied pace of other lives.

So, maybe that is the secret to blooming like a flower. Set our patterns to the natural rhythms of the world around us rather than to the dictates of productive days.

“Hmm … when would you naturally feel like doing stuff? Like cooking! Just asking!” said the teen rolling those eyes of hers. The loud guffaws that accompanied this were appreciation enough for a chef.

I think I will take after that Kurinji flower after all.

Books:

  • River of Consciousness – by Oliver Sacks
  • Village Diary – by Miss Read
  • Origin of Species – Darwin
  • On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects – Charles Darwin

Blooming Time?

A version of this post was published in the Nature Writing magazine: When The Kurinji Blooms

In a small corner tucked away from the hectic panting of the world lives a small ecosystem,  nestled in a range of hills that is fast losing its unique beauty to ‘progress’. It is the place I was lucky enough to call home when I was growing up.

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Primrose jasmines – Image by Wouter Hagens[Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
The thought of flowering lupines takes me to Iceland; lotuses to a temple tank surrounded by trees with the breeze rippling the tank waters; primrose jasmines and Kurinji flowers back to the Nilgiris.

One of the marvels that is highly unique to the Nilgiris is the flowering of the Kurinji.

These flowers only bloom once in 12 years, and when they do, they are a joy to behold. I have only seen them once, and I remember thinking that for all this drama of blooming once in a dozen years, they should be, more grandiose, more robust, a trifle less ephemeral. But that is the thinking of an ignoramus, and I sensed the idiocy of the sentiment even then.

The flowers were beautiful, and the fact that there is a plant that knows the time to bloom when the rest of the world needs alarms and clocks to rise and shine is nothing short of marvelous. We need apps, calendars, schedulers, reminders and alarms to go about our daily business of living, and yet these unassuming flowers go about their act of procreation, maturing and enthralling the world without any such aids. What is more beautiful than that?

The kurinji flowers were in bloom last month, and I lived vicariously through a few friends of mine who live in the beautiful Nilgiris and posted the pictures. Entire hillsides clothed in royal robes of purple, swaying and billowing in rainy wind splattered skies, or waving and tossing their crowns to the blue skies with the scudding clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The beauty of a functional model like a flower is a joy to behold. Imagine my joy then, when I opened the book, What Do You Care What Others Think – By Richard Feynman and the very opening of the book spoke straight to my kurinji-flower yearning heart.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Ode to a Flower – By Richard Feynman. This brain pickings article links to the beautiful animated video made by Fraser Davidson based on his ode to a flower.

 

I could not see the Kurinji flowers this time. I know many hillsides that were carpeted with these marvels have now become home to resorts and hotels. So, I wrote to the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers requesting them to try and obtain a sample of this marvel: a tiny piece of magic tucked away for generations to behold. I hope they can.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
– William Blake

 

The Earth Laughs in Flowers

Quote from Education of Little Tree:
Everyone is born with two minds: one is the mind that is necessary for worldly survival – we need it for having young ‘uns, surviving and stuff. But there is another mind that is linked to the soul, that is the one that we must nurture.

I was off to nurture the soul like nobody has nurtured it for me before, only I had not realized that yet. Long flight journeys are true tests of the soul however, and I was still yelping with pain on the flight. Recent sharp pains indicated the causes: a teenage elbow was lodged in my rib-cage, and a smaller knee was lodged in my stomach. (The children were sleeping.)

I felt like a piece of clay pummeled and distorted by deft children’s limbs to be just the sort of play-doh shape that classifies for shapeless.

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Shapeless, exhausted, hungry and thirsty, I turned my head toward the vague direction of the husband’s head, and mumbled, “Iceland better be worth it after this journey!” He chuckled, or I think he did, for his mass rumbled underneath the jacket he had pulled over himself to sleep. In that strange deluded condition, I thought he looked like an iceberg about to surface, and chided myself for delirium.

Not delirium, leaps of fancy, said the soul-brain.

Little did I know that leaps of fancy were just what the doctor ordered for me, and something Iceland, the Land of Fire & Ice was set to give in the order and magnitude of the seeker’s soul.

These poets have a way of saying things that make you wonder how they put things like that. I mean you think and you think and then you say, Flowers are beautiful, and beam around for approval. But these poets, nuh-huh. They’ve got your back when it comes to hitting the spot. Look at the way Ralph Waldo Emerson put it for instance:

The Earth laughs in flowers – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Iceland not only laughed, it engulfed us all in its merry wake.

The first thing my heart-mind did in Iceland was to attach itself to the flowering lupines. There they were, strewn like birdseed – all over the countryside, the roadsides, the littlest mounds where you expect nothing, was home to purple flowering lupines. Entire mountainsides of them, valleys of them, meadows of them.

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They held their bright heads tall and straight and in their richness, I detected the essence of female kinship – waving and tossing their high spirit in the breeze with mellow grace, enriching those around them: heart-warming in their presence, strong in their roots; the world was infinitely better with them. In fact, in that short span, I could barely imagine Iceland without them.

 

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In my hurried search of pictures of Iceland, nobody had mentioned the lupines, and yet they are there in my mind’s eye, every time I close my eyes and think of beautiful Iceland.

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On The Ribbons of Wonder

The ‘Scenic Highway’ sign brings about an overwhelming goodness of heart; a promise of something worthwhile; a yearning for the treat ahead.

Nuts? (Absolutely – especially near the symmetrically placed Almond plantations on Californian highways.)

Cuckoo? (Of course! Who wouldn’t be to the musical trilling of the birds?)

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_Scenic_Highway_System_(California)
The image was created by Mario Salje from Greifswald, Germany. (Wikipedia)

I poke my head out to inhale the scent of fir, pine or eucalyptus, only to be chided by the children. Amma – stop that! It is cold, or it is hot or it is windy. I try to look repentant, but the joy in my face is a give-away. I become a child collecting wildflowers for the vases that spot every side table in every room in my childhood abode again. The same vases that the father used to roll his eyes at before gingerly moving them out of the way, for they had a tendency to fall and spill onto his ubiquitous newspapers. These tastefully collected possums of wildflowers, interspersed with pine or fir with a sprig of Eucalyptus is joy in a vase. I never learnt the art of Ikebana but my grasp and plonk technique gave me as much joy. 

Even on days when childhood woes and worries weighed heavy on the mind, a saunter in the hillsides with a wildflower bouquet in my hands was enough to get me looking at the world benevolently again.

Adulthood has cured me of this eternal optimism and benevolence, but it has had no luck when it comes to the joy nature can give me. I still potter about the neighborhood sniffing at primroses, admiring cow-slips, and reveling in the wild grass as it pokes its shoots out of the cracks in the pavement. I don’t know the names of the wildflowers, but when I see a squirrel sniff at one, it doesn’t seem to matter whether one knows the name of the flower or not. On road trips, I relish the beauty of the highways, the trees and flowers beside the highways, and thank Earth for its natural bounty. 

Little did I know that I really needed to thank Lady Bird Johnson for this bounty in USA. Having grown up in a small town in Texas, she enjoyed nature and its calming influences first hand. When her husband, Lyndon B Johnson, became President, one of the things she did as First Lady, was to get the Highway Beautification Act underway.

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Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers – By Kathi Appelt, Illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein

The nation was still pained at John F Kennedy’s assassination, and she wanted to cure the nation with the remedy she knew best. Natural beauty.

 

I am grateful to Lady Bird Johnson for this foresight. I belong to the class of people who derive spirituality from Nature, and wholly agree with the feisty Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.)

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” 

― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of Green Gables

The next time you see a scenic highway stretch out like a wondrous ribbon unravelling itself from its spiel, send a wave of gratitude out to the thriving beauty of life out there, and the person(s) responsible for it. 

Beautiful highways are not a quintessential American feature either. There are accounts of beautiful tree lined roads, hugging mountainous roads with marvelous vistas, roads by rivers and through deserts, built as early as 300 BC. The most famous ones I can think off are the Silk Road(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road), and sections of the Grand Trunk Road (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Trunk_Road) 

“The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.” 

― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of Green Gables