Here was a mighty river, as large as the Indus and the Ganges systems, that was expressly reverenced above all other rivers in the Vedas; that shored up the Indus Valley civilization; even dispatched old cities and created new ones as it mercurially shifted its course again and again by connecting and disconnecting with the neighboring Himalayan rivers flowing down to the marginal seas...
... It was amply written about in both literary and archeological tomes, oftentimes with evolutionary and hydrological precision (impressive even by current day standards);
Other well-known rivers continue to flow its path today; traditions tied to the river continue to be followed in the places that are now dry and built upon. Still, the Saraswati River was presumed to have been mythological, because the proof of its existence was muddled up with traditional stories, and all geological evidence was buried beyond the reach of scientists... until today!
Today, satellite imagery confirms that the River Saraswati did exist, and substantiates many of its hydrological properties that were recorded in the old texts; Scientists are now sifting through the old archeological material, religious texts, and folk stories, and separating the errors from the truths, the erratums from the political plugs, the nonsense from the non-science, the non-science from the science... in general, challenging some previously divined truths, and also crediting some previously dismissed views.
This book is a comprehensive compendium of the search for the lost, and the research of the found River Saraswati, and the civilizations that lived along it. It is presented more thoroughly than any other book has done thus far (for laypeople).... Except, its dryness rivals the River Saraswati as it is today! I still waded through the book's slough, imagining the river's once awe-inspiring stature, because it was written conscientiously and with untiring diligence.
I read only recently that, among other things, the purpose of science is also to come up with questions that have never been asked before. This books shares some new questions that archeologists have only just begun to ask, and that says a lot about how far we have come with exploring the River Saraswati, and how many more questions there are to ask, and with some luck, answer. In archeology, guided speculation is an important component of discovery.
I hope the next edition of this book includes many more well-designed maps and colorful images integrated into the text, to help readers unfamiliar with the geography of the area, string along with the author better.
The author shares a lot of detail on the past and present work by archeologists to find and excavate Indus-Saraswati sites. But, I would have liked to see the places alongside the 1500 kms of River Saraswati come to life in a more vivid way, by tying archeology to anthropology, and the civilization to the river. I would have also liked to see more story-telling, and more scientific, political and social contexts of the current archeological investigations.
Because this book is dry, I recommend that the reader read the last two chapters, that is, 'Part 3: Section 11: The Saraswati's Testimony', and the 'Epilogue: Saraswati Turns Invisible', before diving into it whole hog. That way, you kind of jump into the pool knowing how deep the water is. :)
(This book would make a fantastic documentary film).
The jury may be out on whether a leopard can change its spots or not, but a Snowy Owl certainly can and will! It used to be believed that the male Snowy is white with little barring and gets whiter with age, and the female has more barring and gets darker with age. But, in reality, Snowies cannot be aged or sexed with certainty. The darkest males and the lightest females are selfsame to the human eye. Also, no two owls are identical, and even throughout an individual’s lifetime, Snowies may choose to increase or decrease their coloration based on the environment and their physiological condition.
The female’s barring serves as a camouflage to help her hide herself and her chicks in the nest, but not in the way that we automatically reason. Animals don’t see colors like humans do. For example, several animals see our black power lines as glowing and flashing bands. We are also not always who they display to or hide from! So their visual appearance is tailored specifically to their needs, keeping in mind their primary ‘ultra-awesome’ predators and prey.
Several of the owl’s prey have UV vision. So while the white plumage of the Snowy may seem to humans as allowing it to camouflage itself against the snow, it is in fact highly UV absorbing, making the owl conspicuous to its prey! To the prey, neither the Snowy Owl’s white plumage nor its dark parts reflect in UV or near UV. In fact its dark parts peak in the near infrared part of the spectrum. So the Snowy Owl appears starkly grey against the white background of the snow. Moreover, Snowies breed in the open tundra, where they can be seen from great distances both in white winter and in colorful summer. They are the largest avian predators on the tundra and can protect themselves from intruders. Having said that, they spend as much time fighting competitors and bullies as it do minding their own business, because every predator in the Arctic is plucky; Pluckiness is a prerequisite to survival in inhospitable terrains (unless you are a lemming, in which case, good luck, and hope the Snowy shines!).
In fact, the males that do all the hunting during the breeding season, reflect significantly more light than the females, so their white color is not an adaptation to camouflage the bird, but is an impairment during hunting! But, this is the sacrifice that the birds make, because pigmentation production costs energy that is better used to minimize energy expenditure during the moult, when all Snowies loose one or two primaries on both wings (the moult intensity is higher for non-breeding Snowies). At no point during the moult do the birds lose their ability to fly.
Because the white of the Snowies is an impediment, it is only the best hunters that can pass on their genes to further generations. In fact, a female might be mighty pleased to know that the male can hunt even without pigmentation!
While their preys have UV vision, Snowy Owls themselves don’t. To Snowies, white is white. On sunny days, they orient themselves toward the sun so that the snow’s albedo enhances their visual display. This is how they broadcast their territorial claims, prey information, and show-off to conspecifics. The lighter Snowies display longer than the darker ones.
Even though Snowies are not UV-sensitive, their vision is one of the most highly developed of any owl, and can track distant objects in all variations of ambient light! Unlike other owls, the Snowy Owls are diurnal (active during the day). Some believe this is the case because they have adapted themselves to the long nights and days in the Arctic! In fact, their multifocal tubular eyes are one of the most ecologically adapted of any bird. The species eyes are roughly 1.5 times more sensitive than those of humans, but with lower limited field view, and increased ability to see in low light levels. Like all owls, the Snowy can turn its head 135 degrees in either direction giving it a total of 270 degrees “field of view”. It can even turn its head almost upside down.
Interestingly enough, the primary reason for the eyes being set at the front of the head is not to give them binocular vision as much as to accommodate large ears. The Snowy Owl is distinct from the other avian predators in taking prey from under the snow. It even prefers to hunt through the snow than over thawed surfaces. Such hunting is clearly done using sound, as much as vision.
And even though their pupils maintain an unchanging diameter of 12mm giving them a small depth of field, they have well-developed rictal bristles around the eyes and beak that help them feel for their newborns, and assess their well-being, or detect the shape and softness of the captured prey.
(This is an uber-long post, because Potapov and Sale's book is fascinating. If you've made it this far, you will enjoy reading the rest of this post. So read on, and do read the book!)
Imagine if you unexpectedly came upon a Polar Bear, an Arctic Fox or a Snowy Owl casually moseying down your street. One might assume it’s also the day when the sun decides to remain under the horizon! But, the sun came out, and a female Snowy Owl, found herself nestled cosily on the ledge of The Washington Post building (fortuitously, a few floors down from the Capital Weather Gang’s workspace) in DC. But sadly, her fate was sealed! She was hit by a bus, and is now being cared for at the zoo.
Birds don’t usually draw the same brouhaha as animals! Hedwig may be more popular than Iorek, but in the human circles, Polar bears outclass Snowies all the time. No one made a fuss about Hedwig being played by male Snowy Owls in the movie because Harry “Daniel Radcliffe” Potter can’t handle a heavy female. The popularity of animals over birds has nothing to do with their beauty, rareness, fearsomeness or intelligence. This is how we have come to size things up. But, this year the Snowies are attracting a deluge of onlookers, because of the unlikely places they are being sighted in.
Snowy Owls are one of very few avian species who have the audacity to wait out the winter season in the Arctic. It is usually the full grown adults wanting to breed that stick around in these unmerciful areas. The Snowies that choose to skip the breeding season, and the young ones who are less equipped to survive up there, fly southward where the weather is less extreme. Still, it nearly never happens that south-flying Snowies fly all the way to the Mid-Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, as we witnessed this year. One curious Snowy even made it all the way to Bermuda!
For years, scientists cerebrated over these on and off massive irruptions, and have not been able to make sense of them. In order to do a systematic study of Snowies, scientists need to understand how the owl’s live in their main domicile, as well as what motivates them to travel to places with extremely different ecologies, especially since they don’t migrate every year but sporadically, and for a limited amount of time. The hypothermic weather in the Arctic makes observing the owls there impracticable. Added to that, Snowies are extremely nomadic even in the Tundra. They not only follow the cyclical nature of lemmings, that are abundant one year and scare another, and move around a lot, but also go after bigger lemmings, and therefore an abundant population of those that breed less! So scientists have been limited to compiling information about the the owls that migrate to the south, where are more easily observable, and have been doing so since the early 19th century!
What they’ve found so far is that Snowies are both individualistic and collectivistic. Every owl follows a different trajectory of living, hunting and breeding, making it difficult to make broad generalizations about the species. At the same time, they also choose to travel in boids (loose groups), so that one’s fate is tied to another’s. It seems as if being a part of a boid to them is a choice and not a given, making boids fundamentally different from flocks.
The magic of the Snowy Owl is not in how they survive in a pitiless landscape, but how they transform themselves physically, and make the impossible possible. But, magicians never reveal their secrets, not even if you put them under a knife. If you saw them in half, they won’t tell you anything at all, and you won’t be able to put them back together, because you are not a magician. I consciously share this analogy to underscore a sad piece of information that I learnt from the Snowy Owl book. Up until the 1940s (and perhaps even later), biologists who wanted to understand the diet of Snowy Owls would cut them open to examine their stomachs’ contents. One particular scientist examined 205 stomachs, meaning 205 Snowy Owls were killed; 78 of them had empty stomachs, which means they were cheated out of life for nothing! This is in spite of the fact that one scientist in the 1930s made popular how owls’ regurgitated pellets could be used to understand their diets, so that owls don’t have to be autopsied to understand their diets! Snowy Owls are one of the most delicate bone digesters in the world. They preserve more bones of prey in their pellets than most other birds and make ‘little’ modification to the bones in their pellets.
Pellet analysis can reveal not only what an Owl ate, but also how many species and the size and weight of each! Moreover, Pellets of owls take as much as 10 years to decompose, because of the cold weather in their chosen habitats, so the information is in tact for a long time! In fact, the Owl too routinely tastes its chicks’ pellets to assess their wellbeing and hunger levels. For instance, the absence of bones in the chicks’ pellets would mean the chicks didn’t get enough food, so the digestion sucked every last calorie from their meal. Fortunately, today, scientists don’t cut open Snowy Owls! They capture, examine, band and release them!
This year Snowies migrated southward is unusually high numbers! This kind of irruption hasn’t been seen in may never happen again (even though a long-term look at irruption patterns point to more and more Snowies migrating over the years!). Over two dozen researchers, including the Pulitzer nominated author Scott Weidensaul have come together to work on Project Snowstorm to understand this anomaly, and other physical and behavioral characteristics of the owl! They are using new methods of tracking the birds, such as solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitters, and also performing DNA and feather analyses, among other things.
The transmitters weigh 40 grams, which is the size of one lemming, and about 1.5-3% of the owl’s weight. This makes me uncomfortable, as owls determine what they eat and what they feed their chicks based on the weight of the hunted prey and their energy budget! The transmitters that are attached to their wings using a backpack harness should make flying inconvenient and cost them some energy on top of their usual expenditure.
That being said, scientists are already recording many differences in hunting strategies and invalidating many commonly held notions about their migratory motivations and their movements. One such myth is that the Snowies are here due to a shortage of lemmings in the Arctic. In fact, the abundance of lemmings in summer, led to a successful breeding season, and the current bumper crop of Snowies!
It has been believed for a few years now, that the mass irruption is the result of complex stochastic processes having to do with the availability of prey, winter snow thickness, but more importantly, the relationship between individual owls in their boids. Snowy Owls tend to travel to wintering grounds and breeding grounds in groups. It’s a loose structure where individuals keep safe distance from each other while also monitoring each others movements to get to places with rich food sources. Sometimes, this strategy works very well, and they hit a lemming bonanza, and pair up and start breeding. But, in some other years, they find themselves in an infertile area deficient in lemmings or alternate prey, but are too weak to move elsewhere and leads to mass deaths!
Snowies' most-preferred urban habitats are airports, because they offer vast open spaces with few trees and limited human access, and noise pollution. The noise factor gives the Snowies an advantage over other owls that use their ears and hunt in the dark close to dawn and dusk! Even though the Snowy Owls are diurnal, in the airports, they become very active when the sun begins to set. Here, they capture everything from tiny insects to large raptors, and even the Great Blue Heron and other Snowy Owls. While some airport owls are very healthy, others, especially the adults are exhausted and underweight.
Some years there are as many as fifty owls in one airport, which makes them all the more susceptible to being hit by planes. FAA recorded over 120,000 wildlife strikes (the vast majority were birds) in a 10-year period, and 11,000 strikes last year alone. Bird strikes have caused up to $700 million a year damage to civilian and military aircraft. At least five snowy owls were hit by planes in the US this winter season! A few States have “shoot-to-kill” orders, but most prefer to trap and relocate them.
But, in the early 1980s, research of 385 owls at Logan Airport revealed that the presence of owls in airports discourage flocking birds from roosting in the area. And attempting to disperse the owls only created a greater risk of a bird strike than just leaving them alone.
I recently watched the Magic of the Snowy Owl, which documents the life of one Snowy Owl pair raising their young in a very bleak part of the Alaska North Slope, where food seems scarce and there is little relief from cold winds, rainstorms and freezing fogs. It’s a story of struggle and triumph with all the deflating and elevating elements of reality-melodrama. There is this sense that you are furtively observing The Addams Family of Snowy Owls. The narrator suggests that everything the family are doing is unusual and never been recorded before; like one kawaii scene of owlets daring to cross the river. It was the first time that this behavior was ever recorded or filmed.
In reality, a lot of what the movie thinks is unusual has in fact been observed many times before. The Snowy Owl book by Eugene Potapov and Richard Sale that I mention a few times in this post, provides both scientific and anecdotal evidence from all over the world to this effect. If you’ve enjoyed the movie, I recommend the book to contemplate the bird’s stunning and peculiar ways and facets.
In a different post, I share insights from the book, and clarify some of what the movie thinks is unusual. But mainly, I intend to share how the owl magically transforms itself physically and does amazing non-birdlike things; such as how it changes its spots, manipulates the sex-ratio of its offspring, and enjoys recreational sex, among other things!
David Attenborough is one of the most consummate storytellers of our time. What makes him endearing are things that make him curious and the lengths he will go to satisfy that curiosity. And his things are in the uncharted hinterlands teeming with invisible and mysterious energies; where everything is fluid and transforming; and where humans are one small blip in a more diversely inhabited world.
And because he gives the air of being the most unlikely person one would find whispering from inside a toxic bat-cave or sitting snug next to a gorilla (even though he may be the first person or the only person to have done a lot of what he’s done); because the technology he uses is always groundbreaking; and because the world he reveals is unfailingly awe-inspiring, you are left both amused and astonished. And so, he goes about fossicking in the boonies and presenting us with many banquets of wonder, and letting us know that there is more wonder than we’d ever dream of wondering.
In this series, which is a mix of memoir and science, he meticulously chronicles sixty years of his adventures in the wild. It serves as an unbeatable testament to one man, and his bid to make the stunning complexity of nature’s superior design known to everyone.
He begins in a time much different from our own; when we were still taken with the boundlessness of nature; and everything was waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing itself. Collectors hungered to own the rarest birds and beasts from the farthest corners of the world. Wild animal dealers, private and traveling menageries and zoo gardens were ubiquitous all over Britain.
Then, he saw wildlife diminish over time, and succumb to its own lavish generosity and our insatiable appetite for everything it has to offer. Extinction became a reality, and he became one of the many voices for conservation. He spent the next half of his professional life, not collecting, but being a diligent observer, translating the wonders of the natural world into exquisite words and visuals.
When he narrates this story, he paints a vivid picture of a revolution in thought, and displays a sapient inwardness, like a Once-ler reuniting with his inner-Lorax; and we take his wistful rumination, his hopes and questions, and make it our own.
There is something marvelous about the wisdom and knowledge he has amassed over time. He always seems unburdened by the scientific prose or activist rhetoric, while somehow striking the elusive balance between the two and oozing erudition. He embraces the science of scientists and the subjectivity of conservationists as being dogged pursuits towards a common ideal. He presents them as the warps and woofs of the natural world, who work to understand, protect and grow their environments, sometimes without heed to personal consequences.
Naturalists, more than any other kind of science maven, display an exceptional ability to observe! There is nothing purely rational about their line of work. Nothing in their world is mechanistic. No two beasts of the same kind are alike; and the interconnectedness of nature, and the complicated symbiotic relationships between flora, fauna and the natural forces, make the process of revelation labyrinthine. And still, researchers show their tremendous skill in taking in all the sights, smells, sounds, and other sensory information around them, and filtering them through scientific thought processes and making deductions on behavior and their consequences. It is a delicate dance between astute observation and skilful intervention; like rearranging all the pieces in a salad back to their respective whole fruits.
In that sense, Attenborough, is not a naturalist-scientist or naturalist-activist. His job is to passively extend his senses to the natural world and make us see what we wouldn’t see without his help. But, having done this for sixty years, he has the unique privilege of sharing impressions about our world over a long passage of time and constructing implications. And because these implications are not just scientific, but moral and emotional, he serves as a calm light of reason, a new door-opener, who leaves us with a questing belief in the future. His life is evidence of how our triumphs, uncertainties and errors recycle into new hopes and anxieties over time.
One, perhaps bonus benefit of this series is the stories of some remarkable women who put themselves in physical harm's way, as they work intimately with wild animals, in hostile regions full of poachers and angry locals. They have single-handedly saved whole species from extinction. And in them, as in the 87 year old Attenborough, and many other naturalists featured in this series, I find personal inspiration; it is clear that there is nothing one cannot do, and certainly not because of somatic reasons.
Growing up, my grandparents' houses saw an influx of guests of the feline variety. Owing to them, the cats developed a taste for milk and a wholesome vegetarian diet; they found safe nooks in our cupboards to give birth to their young, and lots of corridors and stairways to play in; but most of all they experienced the freedom to wander as much and as far as they pleased. Whenever they disappeared, we would puzzle over their mysterious furloughs; never doubting that they would return. They always came back looking as happily zonked as one does after a long vacation. Cats confidently take on predators large and small. I have seen them terrorize dogs and monkeys twice their size; and within their own kind, there are quick to establish a pecking order and territorial divisions, even though the queens are happy to nurse anothers' young, and will work together to move all young away from the toms and other predators. Home is where they came to recuperate from wandering, to snuggle in their hiding places, to show off their nifty feats, to add an air of mystery to our lives and make us fall in love with the unfathomable! They taught me many valuable lessons; such as that you can lick every inch of your body; twirl down from great heights, and still land on your feet with grace and style… if you speak Meow.
A researcher at the University of Illinois spent close to two years observing the lives of 42 stray and pet cats, and found that on average an unowned cat covers about 388 acres of land. In fact, one particular wild cat covered 1359 acres (2.1 sq. miles) and travelled through urban and rural areas, fields, forests, and manicured lawns, and places overrun by wild predatory animals.
The pet cats on the other hand, were found to travel up to 5 acres of area around their houses, which is still a lot of area given that their travel pursuit is mostly driven by wanderlust and not necessity, and that they somehow manage this distance in spite of being asleep or in low activity 80-90% of the time. The unowned cats too are active only 38% of the time.
Despite covering a lot of ground, changing travel patterns seasonally, learning to share space with other species, cats are highly territorial. Two of the leading causes of cat deaths in that study were fights with other cats and diseases (from both cats and other wildlife)! Pet cats were surprisingly found to have a disproportionately more damaging effect on wildlife than unowned cats. (Another article).
Although cats love wandering, because they are territorial, they are in so many ways homebodies, more so than us. We can literally pick up our pieces and move on, but cats find our constant aspiration to be upwardly mobile very distressing. As soon as we move houses, our cats run back to our old house. They have a strong homing instinct that enables them to find their place of comfort, and we are not it.
Among other things, A Cat in Paris does well to remind us of this characteristic of cats. They are homebodies with wanderlust and a persistent itch for adventure. The film has a vibrant hand-drawn storybook-like feel to it, with many wonderful noir elements; but the biggest draw for me is that it evokes nostalgia. The storyline is slightly under-developed, but there's enough substance in there to inspire you to add your own depth to it, if you like.
I also recommend TS Eliot's delightful book of cat poems: Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which I read right after I watched the movie. More on this some day!
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
It said on the FMX 2013 website that the motto this year is "lean, smart and agile". Tee hee.
Until the Renaissance period, women were not allowed to become artists. Art was mainly a man's vocation, and in fact, women were rarely even depicted in paintings, except as angels or other divine beings.
But even as some women attempted to enter the 'artist's guild' in the Renaissance period, artists were considered respectable only if they were knowledgeable in mathematics and biological sciences; and women were unequivocally barred from learning biological sciences, since the study of the human body required working with male and female nudes and corpses; and also women working with animals and insects was associated with witchcraft! It was a frustrating conundrum, which did not fully get resolved until the late 19th century, although with each passing decade women inched closer and closer to full freedom: first painting still life, then depicting historical and mythological scenes, and then portraits of draped people (In fact nudes had to wait till the 20th century)! The few women who did manage to somehow break this quandary during the Renaissance were nuns or aristocrats who were able to gyp the system. Needless to say, few were willing to risk everything for a trifling chance to paint!
In the 1600s, a time when both art and science were inaccessible to women, a woman called Maria Sibylla Merian broke every rule in the book, and became one of the greatest naturalists and scientific illustrators of all time! At the age of 13, she was the first person to observe the metamorphosis of a silkworm, and her account of this pre-dated published accounts of scientists by almost ten years! She was also one of the first few scientists to venture out of Europe and travel all the way to Surinam to study insects with the help of local tribes; and eventually became the first to study the relationship between insects and their host plants, which changed the way naturalists thought about symbiosis; and gave birth to a whole branch in science called ecology. Until Merian drew insects with the food they ate, scientists believed that they reproduced spontaneously from decaying matter. Moreover, her aesthetic detail and the stunning quality of her work raised the standards of scientific illustration.
It convinces me that some of the best work in science happens outside of the strict parameters of scientific approaches. Maria's work was uninhibited by predetermined rules, and was a result of her own unfettered curiosity and imagination. You see this holds true even in other areas of Science. Several amateur astronomers even today contribute significantly to the study of astronomy, not only with finding comets and novae, and data collection, but also with inventing telescopic devices.
But even after two hundred fifty years since Maria Sibylla Merian, not all was fine for women artists and scientists. In the Victorian era (late 1800s), Edith Holden showed every sign of greatness, but her vast knowledge of her local ecology went completely unnoticed for fifty years after her death, and seventy years after she wrote The Country Diary and The Nature Notes!
Unlike Maria Sybilla Merian, Edith Holden did not actively pursue her calling as a naturalist. Her nature notes were never meant to be published, although she meant to share them with her students at the girls' school. She was just a young artist, exploring her countryside on her bicycle and discovering nature, admiring everyone and everything around her, while being blissfully unaware of how exceptional she herself was. Her diaries have simple hand-written notes about her everyday adventures arranged by date; interspersed with her exquisite water color paintings of flowers, plants, animals, birds and insects. When you read her notes, you see yourself in Birmingham in the Edwardian Period. 107 years ago, exact to this date, on a dull and grey day, she was watching birds building nests, carrying a bicycle half a mile down a thorny lane to picnic on a fence, and wondering why the white Periwinkles have five petals and the blue ones have four.
And while she painted the scenes of the West Midlands countryside, and illustrated various species in graphic detail, she had to make do with finding recognition only as an artist for children's books, as women were not otherwise taken seriously as proper artists or scientists. But to Merian and Holden, the pursuit of nature was mostly one of curiosity! They were just full of wonder and amazement; You saw that in Merian because all her writings were presented not as facts, but in sentences that began with "perhaps" "maybe" "probably". And Holden shares not only her thoughts about nature, but poetry written by all her favorite poets. Evidently, there was a poem for every season and every 'naturey' thing; and everyone knew their physical surroundings like the palm of their hand! I am not surprised how much nature was a subject of contemplation by poets, but just the level of knowledge about the wonders that seasonal changes brought to their places! But, I mostly wonder what would have become of Maria Sibylla Merian and Edith Holden if they were in fact allowed full freedom to pursue their dreams.
There are very few male and female naturalist writers in this era who are also painters; This was a lot more common up until the Victorian era. Just as women are beginning to experience professional equality today, we are beginning to lose this ability!
Ever since I pre-ordered Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, I have been on a Bernd Heinrich-athon. I feel this uncharacteristic need to finish reading his books that have been staring me in the face for months, before reaching for his new one. The plan is to check each book off from this list after reading it, and share some overarching thoughts when I am done with the whole pile.
A Year in the Maine Woods ✔
The Trees in my Forest ✔
Summer World: A Season of Bounty ✔
Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
The Geese of Beaver Bog
Speaking of Bernd Heinrich-athon, the man also writes a lot about running: humans running, animals running; Apparently, a lot of living species are built for distance. I am steering clear of those for now, and will save them for when I reach for a treadmill!
In the mean time, I present Anna Raff's bird paintings that have been keeping me entertained for over three years. After 576 paintings, I am amazed that she hasn't run out of ideas, and her birds continue to make me laugh.
David Attenborough believes that TV naturalists could become extinct and be replaced by YouTube amateurs. That made me wonder what 18th and 19th century naturalist explorers might have thought of the very idea of a TV naturalist!
While I enjoy Attenborough 60 Years in the Wild this weekend, I leave you with this Guillermo García Carsí's pilot for a spoof series on creatures doomed to extinction. Even Attenborough might enjoy Doomed.
You can see some clips from Attenborough's 60 years series on their official website , and maybe that will tempt you to buy the full copy.
Months after watching War Horse on Stage, I was still turning over in my mind how a horse made of sticks galloping in front of a ripped piece of paper with surrealist artwork on a bare stage can reveal so much of our world to us, and extend our empathy to an animal, and through it to the million men and horses who lost their lives in a war fought almost 100 years ago!
Humans empathize with everything. If one were to hold a pencil in his hand and call it his sweetheart and break it into two, we would wince like he just broke his sweetheart! So, it isn't very hard to imagine that we are capable of seeing real horses in horse puppets, empathising with them and reflecting on our choices through them. And, in War Horse, we extend our empathy to the most silent character in the story. We see war through this neutral trooper - a horse that finds itself in situations, endures the shafts of human battle as part of British, German, and French militaries, but makes no judgments of anyone.
I was hoping the Making of War Horse would show me what went into making those beautiful life-size horse puppets that looked and behaved just like real horses. This was after I had watched a Ted talk demonstration of the same by the Handstring Puppet Company, followed by the play itself. I just couldn't get enough.
What I saw instead of the making of puppets was the rehearsal of the men who worked inconspicuously from inside the puppet to project a real animal onto it. I also saw them rehearsing wearing just horse hats made of paper, holding a rod that served as a whole horse puppet; and they synchronised their gallops and neighs, the movements of a ear or the tail. They weren't just letting the horses be horses, but were being horses themselves, and reacting not to dialogue, but the emotional temperatures of the scenes. It was like watching kids transform empty boxes into vehicles and themselves into beasts! Only, here, each puppeteer operated one bit of the horse, and together they determined how we saw the whole animal and reacted to it; so the audience was also engaging in their game!
Without going into the contents of the documentary itself, but continuing from where it left off, here is some of what the stage play captures beyond what meets the eye.
The first world war marked the beginning of the end of the old order in Europe. Technology was radicalized and warfare changed beyond recognition. Even as armies were learning to cope with the new changes and adapting their tactics, they were active at war and becoming casualties. Everything from aircrafts, machine guns, automatic rifles, tanks, poison gas, barbed wire and trenches were used for the first time, and what ensued was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen! You see the war in the play, and you see the stage turn into a dark war zone, as troops line up for battle, and huge tanks and machine guns come rolling out, overwhelming the British army. It is men on horses against machines!
The art movements of the time too were bloody but unbowed. The futurists saw war as cleansing the old orders, and the anvil upon which the 'new man' would be forged. Their aesthetic of art celebrated machinery and violence. Marinetti, in his Futurist Manifesto declared that "Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice". He saw war as inherent to life itself, and wanted art to "glorify war - the world's only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman". Britain too had its own Vorticists who wanted to wipe out all traces of the Victorian age and place the machine age at the very centre of their art work. You see these two cubist "offshoot" movements represented on the stage, in the backdrops and through the harsh lighting. Every scene was like Paul Nash's surrealist paintings, with stark landscapes, spaces full of darkness defined through light.
But none of this describes how bad the violence really was, and that's where Michael Morpugo's novel and the inspiration behind it comes in. He saw FW Reed's frightening painting of horses during the First World War, in which, Germans were shooting at the British cavalry charging up a hill into german lines. And as men were being shot at, a mass of horses had already become entangled in barbed wire. Later in the documentary, it is revealed that 8 million horses were killed during the first world war, and one to two million were from Britain alone!
With all the improved technology, the horses were still used for cavalry charges, because of the quick mobility they provided, and they remained the best means for moving scouts, supply wagons, ambulances, and artillery to the battlefield. But in spite of all that, the staggering loss of horses meant rural life throughout Europe would never be the same again. Some breeds were so reduced in number that they were in danger of disappearing. It changed the color and culture of the continent and also the ways in which things were done, including farming, mining and transport!
In a way the play captured and represented the fractured environments and inhuman landscapes of the early 20th century through a personal story, not of a soldier, or an animal, but of a collective people. It was a community going to war and returning to what little remained of home.
I enjoy that the whole story can be understood only by allowing ourselves to take in fragments of accounts through various mediums. It is a children's novel set in a historic context of World War I, with a central animal character, that came about as a result of the author's interactions with war veterans, his observations of a young boy's relationship with a horse, some old paintings and photographs of world war, and the poetry of Edward Thomas; It then got transformed into a stage play with puppets that introduced us to the aesthetic of various art movements at the time, and the folk songs that gave us a sense of the community… and together they wove something of a human narrative!
Slightly off-topic, but on the subject of human empathy, here is an interesting TED talk where Jeremy Rifkin explains how we are rethinking the human narrative.
I read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edward Allan Poe around when I watched the Life of Pi (although I had read the book many years ago), and couldn't help but contemplate the two in tandem. There were many apparent parallels in the two novels, right from the names of the characters and the overarching themes of solitary survival at sea and cannibalism, but they also had their own distinctive qualities, so much that even when the story-lines crisscrossed, the similarities only seemed superficial! The Life of Pi was a tamer and more openly spiritual cousin of the Pym of Nantucket.
In almost every great story about sea voyages gone awry, there is truth mixed with the unspeakable; where humans confront their savage instincts, and one Richard Parker becomes victim to the Custom of the Sea. This is true for both fiction and real life. In real life, back when there were no proper telecommunication facilities, cannibalism used to be accepted as an execrable, but necessary evil, unavoidable in certain circumstances, such as survival at sea. In The Mignonette case, a century ago, three lost crew members chose to eat an unconscious fourth (a Richard Parker), and the only objection raised by the law was that it was done so without drawing straws!
But, in all shipwreck stories, there is also the aspect of nature revealing itself in all its splendor, and making itself look dream-like! It brought the element of magic in magic-realism, as was best showcased in The Life of Pi. When the story was uninterrupted by human presence (besides Pi, who stands witness to this phenomenon), the world seemed ineffably vast and harmonious! There was chaos, there was stillness, and there was a perceivable rhythm to both. The twinkling of the stars was echoed in the bioluminescence of the jellyfish; the reflective water faithfully mirrored the golden sky above; the chaos of waves complimented the wrath of the storm, the fusillade of flying fish paralleled the scurrying of meerkats up the trees; the synchronous movements of critters and beasties matched the intricate anatomy of the woods, which in turn contrasted the tiny boat in a boundless sheet of uninterrupted velvet blue. The roar of the tiger and his continued stare into the abyss complemented the lyrical words of Pi and his nonstop monologues!
How much of it was real, and how much of it was made up, we will never know; just as we will never know which of the two stories was true, and if anything like the floating island really exists in our world! What we do know is what we wanted our unexplored world to look like, and it was delivered!
The human aspect of The Life of Pi came in the form of Pi's soliloquies, which at times left me mentally adrift, and trying to find ground! In being besotted with nature, I may have been distracted from the wonder of God. In the end, I was more happy that Pi found his gastronomical path than his spiritual one!
But just as one man and one tiger learnt to share space on a tiny boat in a fictional story, in real life, we have been witnessing a different result to the battle between tigers and humans sharing the same space. For sometime now, the score has been tipping heavily on the human side, so much that last week, 200 men savagely attacked a "released" tiger and ceremoniously killed it!
Almost all reserves in India have tiger populations in two-digits, and tigers have lost 93% of their range, and yet they seem to come in the way of human settlements. Environmentalists have been working hard to reverse this change and promote nonviolence. Tigers too have been somewhat proactive in changing their ways to thrive in this manscape. For instance, the ones in Sundarbans rarely attack the villages encircling the reserves. In order to provide for themselves in the wild, they have learnt to swim, and sometimes tread deep water for up to three miles to catch their prey. They have also adapted to eating honey from beehives. In other parts, tigers have adopted a nocturnal life and prowl on forest paths only at night when we are asleep. It seems they have done everything short of growing wings. Despite that, on occasion, particularly when food is scare, they polish off local livestock, and rattle our cage!
One begins to wonder if the solution to the riddle about transporting the Tiger, Goat and Grass to the other side holds water in real life. Secretly perhaps, our most desirable solution is to let the goat eat the grass, then feed the goat to the tiger, then eat the tiger, and deliver ourselves in fine fettle to the other side!
Cannibalism hasn't come that easily to tigers as it has to us! They do well playing Richard Parker. I know one tiger that did.
More on Tigers: http://worldwildlife.org/species/tiger
One way to experience the beauty of a chemical element is to make it manifest somehow; like when you strike a match and see phosphorus ignite, or add mercury to a neon tube to make it shine blue, or fill a balloon with helium and release it to the sky.
In The Red Balloon, the balloon has a life of its own; bobbing behind a little Parisian boy who is as enchanted by it as the rest of us. It's a simple story that is narrated with a poetic spareness that is as light, and as rare as helium itself.
There is a shortage of helium on our planet. It is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, but not here. Here, in our neck of the woods, it makes up 0.00052% of the atmosphere, not including some in underground gas pockets, a good chunk of which we pack into our party balloons and ship off to the outer space! It is predicted that all helium on Earth may be depleted in about 40 years. To let that happen would be a betrayal of innocence, just like in the story. The price of helium has already increased 300% in the last few years, and is unavailable in some places (although in some other places, like in Calcutta, helium rides are the things to watch out for)! Some stores have begun to impose a helium balloon limit here, meaning you can buy only six balloons at a time.
As kids, we were each allowed to buy one small pear-shaped helium balloon once a year. It was also the only day that I could most pretend to defy gravity. I could ride the roller coasters and ferris wheels, and sit on dad's shoulders as we strolled through the various stalls and sampled treats. Later in the evening we would let our balloons go and watch them get tinier and tinier till they disappeared out of sight, with the exception of one, whose helium would serve to distort our voices!
Helium to me is about the wonders of childhood, now kept alive through cinema - like the unwavering red sphere in The Red Balloon, the twenty thousand colorful blimps that lifted Carl's house off the ground in Up, the hot air balloon that
Francesca and Casanova used to oppose "the gravitational force of witchcraft" in Casanova, the wizard's balloon that "almost" transported Dorothy back home in The Wizard of Oz! Soon, cinema might be the only way to experience the magic of helium balloons.
I came across a humorous project by an independent director who took scenes from classic films and added little balloon props to them. They are something of an homage to The Red Balloon. Enjoy!
Of course, there is more to Helium than balloons.
Here are some recent articles about the crisis (and its effects on scientific research among other things):
• A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage
• Stop the Parade! Should we be wasting our dwindling supply of helium on floating cartoon characters?
• A Helium Shortage Leads to Fewer Balloons in the Sky
… and a link to a related cause: Balloons Blow… Don't Let Them Go!