To School or Not to School?

Last week Meena wrote about the conundrum of schooling in the age of Corona lockdowns. While school-going children and teachers of all ages have been thrown overnight into an entirely alien pattern of e-teaching and learning, parents have been facing some of the biggest challenges in terms of new role and responsibilities. This period has also triggered numerous dilemmas and debates about how to provide the best possible education for children while schooling at home. Several parents have seriously started considering the merits of ‘home-schooling’.

Since the early days of formal educational systems as defined by the institution of the School, there have always been a cohort of parents who have chosen to experiment with alternative methods of teaching and learning for their children. The jury is still out on the strengths and weaknesses of this practise, but there are certainly interesting examples and experiences to peruse and ponder over. Here is a particularly inspiring one.

The story goes back to 1847; when 7-year-old Al, who had been in school for just three months, came home with a note from his teacher which stated that the young boy was “addled”, was not capable of keeping up with studies, and that he was advised to leave the school. Al’s mother Nancy refused to accept this harsh judgement about her child; she took this as a challenge and decided to teach him at home. She knew that though he was shy and retiring, but this was probably because he had a hearing difficulty that constrained his active participation in the classroom. Having once been a teacher herself Nancy diagnosed that the imaginative and inquisitive child was a ‘misfit’ because he was bored by conventional rote learning. Nancy encouraged her child’s curiosity, and love for books, and gave him the time and space to use his head and hands by exploring, experimenting and discovering for himself.

The young boy was fascinated by mechanical things and experiments. An elementary science book that she gave him when he was nine, explained how to do chemistry experiments at home. Al was hooked! He spent his pocket money on buying chemicals from the local pharmacy and collected basic equipment for experiments; when he was 10, he set up a simple lab in the basement of his house where he spent hours. Encouraged by his parents, he read voraciously, including literature and history. Thus began a lifelong passion for learning for a boy who never had more than three months of formal schooling.

Al grew up to be known as Thomas Alva Edison, one of the most prolific inventors of all times whose inventions changed the world in many ways–from the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. In his 84 years, he acquired an astounding 1,093 patents. He invented both product but also systems to support the process of invention, a forerunner of the concept of R&D labs. Edison went beyond being an inventor to also become a successful manufacturer and businessman, marketing his inventions to the public and setting up what was one of the early forms of a successful corporation.

Thomas Alva Edison’s mother Nancy died when he was 24 years old but she remained his source of inspiration through his life and career. In later years, a grown and very successful Thomas always acknowledged that his mother’s discipline for a focused life was responsible for his great success. As he said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Not all of us can be a Nancy Edison, and certainly not every home-schooled child may grow up to be a Thomas Alva Edison. What interested me more about the story was not so much the great inventor Edison about whom much has been written, but Edison’s deep thinking on education that was well ahead of his times, and clearly reflected the deep impact of his personal experiences.  

Edison was critical of the education system of his day. He felt that “The present system does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mould. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning and lays more stress on memory than observation. The result of accepting unrelated facts is the fostering of conservatism [in thinking]. It breeds fear, and from fear comes ignorance.”

Edison’s entire life was an intense and passionate quest for knowledge and understanding which came not by blindly following books but by learning-by-doing. All his life he adhered to a meticulous recording of innumerable experiments, thoughts, and observations in thousands of detailed laboratory notebooks. Even when he became a successful businessman, his intense love for information, communications, and learning led him to set up his corporate office in his beautiful and well-stocked library. He even considered his childhood deafness, which increased as he got older, as an asset rather than a liability. For someone who was an inventor, he was asked why he did not invent a hearing aid. He said that not being assailed by outside noise made it easier for him to concentrate on his experiments and research.

Even when he had his own labs and research staff, Edison continued to endorse his style of hands-on learning-by-doing. One of his early experiments, in the early 1890s, was to produce bricks that were porous, but which would not absorb moisture when exposed to rain or snow as they were transported in open train cars. Edison and his colleagues spent almost a year experimenting with different materials and solutions to come up with a suitable binding solution or “muck” as they called it. Edison started referring to his researchers as “muckers”, and then on, the name stuck for all researchers who worked in his labs, who later formed an organisation called Muckers of the Edison Laboratory” or “Edison’s Muckers”.

This is the core of Edison’s strong views on education Edison believed that most schools taught children to memorize facts, when they ought to have students observe nature and to make things with their hands; in other words ”be muckers”.

Later, as a parent himself, he set up small problem solving searches for his children. One of these was “team-based research”; he would tell them what he was interested in reading about, and they would have to go through the books in his vast library and search out not only the books, but also mark the relevant pages or sections with slips of paper. The family also played indoor games where the traditional rules were often changed.

It was natural that Edison’s own upbringing and his discomfort with the education system would lead him, in later years, to appreciate and support Montessori’s positive alternative   philosophy of education. As he wrote, I like the Montessori method. It teaches through play. It makes learning a pleasure. It follows the natural instincts of the human being.”

In 1913 when Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States for a lecture tour she stayed at Edison’s home.  Edison helped found one of the very first Montessori schools in the United States thus helping to spread the message and mission of an alternative educational system.

Edison’s inventions transformed the world in many ways, and many of these were the pioneers of the tech revolution that has changed the way we think and operate today. But Edison also concerned himself equally with the true meaning of education and the processes of learning. His work and life was guided by four simple principles, taught to him by his mother:

Never get discouraged if you fail. Learn from it. Keep trying.

Learn with both your head and hands.

Not everything of value in life comes from books-experience the world.

Never stop learning. Read the entire panorama of literature.

If only every parent could internalize, and instil, with conviction, these principles that lay down the foundation of life-long learning.

A century later, the world is grappling anew with the same question: What should be the future of education? While re-imagining the transformation of education in the age of technology it would still be worthwhile to leave space for our children to be “muckers”, and for the unfettered joy of learning.

–Mamata

On the Wing, By the Thousands

It has been raining on and off for a week and more here. But yesterday, as I took a walk after the rain, I saw swarms and swarms of winged termites circling the lampposts. Even as hundreds swarmed, as many fell on the ground, lost their wings and started crawling around, hopeful of mating.

But in reality, most became a high-protein meal for the frogs that were out by the dozens, hopping and mating all over the paths. And should some land on a wall, there were the lizards, ready to give chase and swallow them up.

It was a full-on display of with predator-prey drama. An amazing sight.

It often rains, but it is not every day that these creatures swarm. What triggers this? When do they swarm? Why do they swarm?

Swarming termites, also called alates, swarm when their original colony has reached a certain capacity level and is ready to expand. This usually happens once a year. All colonies in an area swarm at around the same time, which explains why one sees the phenomenon of thousands of them out in a small window of a few days.

The swarms have both males and females. They live close to the soil and when conditions are right, they take to the wing.  Their sole job is to reproduce and set up new colonies, so once they are airborne, they find a potential mate, shed their wings, fall to the ground and mate. They then find a new place to start a nest.

The swarming usually happens on a day following a rain shower, when the skies are overcast, and the wind speed is about 9.5 kmph. Alates wait for the rains to have moistened the soil well, as damp soil makes it easy for the couples to build their nests, and survival rates are higher when there is more humidity. But even in the best conditions, survival rates are only about 0.5 per cent, which explains why there must be so many swarmers!

Humans being conditioned to think of other creatures from their point of view, and term termites as pests. But termites have a huge role to play in nature. They are nature’s best recyclers. Termites feed on cellulose and hence break down dead plants and put nutrients back into the soil. They burrow and aerate the soil, allowing rainwater to trickle in and enable the mixing of nutrients. Their sticky excretions hold the soil together, preventing soil erosion. Without all this, the cycle of life would not go on.

We marked Environment Day last week. A good time to remind ourselves of the role of every living creature in the complex web of life, and that they were not put there to be of use to us. Each has a purpose and meaning, beyond their roles in our puny lives!

Having said that, we can still smile as we read Ogden Nash’s verse:

Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good!
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.

–Meena

Carle’s Creatures

A very hungry caterpillar, loads of food, lots of colour, very few words (224 to be precise) and little holes to poke tiny fingers through—that’s the formula that made one of the most popular children’s books of all times. The book simply called The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold more than 55 million copies around the world since it was first published in 1969, and has been translated into more than 70 languages.

This was one of the many books that author and artist Eric Carle created to delight generations of children (and parents like me) across the world.

Eric Carle died last week at the age of 91 leaving behind a legacy of colour and care for the generations to come.

Eric Carle Jr. was born on June 25, 1929, in Syracuse, New York, to German immigrants. When Eric was six years old, his parents moved back to Germany. With the start of World War II his father was drafted into the German army and soon became a prisoner of war in Russia. Eric, who was then 15, managed to avoid the draft but was conscripted by the Nazi government to dig trenches on the Siegfried line, a 400-mile defensive line in western Germany. The war left its ravages all around; his father returned home a broken man.

At the end of the war, Eric joined the State Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown Stuttgart to study typography and graphic art, from where he graduated in 1950. Eric always dreamed of returning to America, the land of his happiest childhood memories. In 1952, with only 40 dollars to his name, he decided to move to New York City, where he got a job in advertising, working as a graphic designer for The New York Times where he worked for nearly a decade. By then, he had had enough of the advertising profession, and was thinking of changing direction.

Inspired by what his art teacher had once told him—“start anew, move on, keep surprising”, Eric Carle embarked on a career as a freelance designer when he was almost 40 years old. He knew he wanted to make pictures but the thought of doing children’s books never crossed his mind. But as serendipity would have it, one of the pictures that he had created for an advertisement caught the attention of Bill Martin Jr, a respected educator and author, who asked Eric to illustrate a book for him. That opened up the new direction that he had been seeking. Soon he began writing and illustrating his own picture books.

Many of Eric Carle’s picture books are about small creatures like caterpillars, ladybugs, spiders, crickets and fireflies. These are a tribute to some of his happiest childhood memories of walks with his father. As he recounted “When I was a small boy, my father would take me on walks across meadows and through woods. He would lift a stone or peel back the bark of a tree and show me the living things that scurried about. He’d tell me about the life cycles of this or that small creature, and then he would carefully put the little creature back into its home. I think in my books I honour my father by writing about small living things,” he continued. “And in a way I recapture those happy times.”

Eric celebrates these little creatures and the world they inhabit with vibrant art work in his signature style of creating images by layering tissue paper painted with acrylic colours, and rubbing with his fingers, brushes or other objects to create different textures. His love for bright and intense colours was perhaps a subconscious rebellion against the colourless and grim palette of the Nazi Germany that he grew up in. Under the Nazis modern, expressionistic art was banned and all exterior facades were painted a dull grey or brown. As an illustrator Eric Carle not only used brilliant colours but often portrayed his creatures in unconventional colours to show his young readers that in art, there is no wrong colour.  

What makes the Caterpillar book so unique is its interactive element which is created with using a hole in the pages. Suddenly the book becomes a toy which little fingers can explore, and enjoy, just as they want to. The idea for that ‘something extra’ came to Eric as he was idly playing with a paper punch and saw the holes that he had punched in some papers.

These were the design elements that defined Eric’s work. But the content was equally rich and meaningful. Eric had an instinctive sense of what made children and childhood so special. He drew upon the child in himself to reveal the cherished thoughts and emotions of children, and treated then with understanding and respect. The confusions and insecurities of the little creatures in his books reflect those of the little children who face their first transitions like leaving the familiar security of home to enter the strange new world of school. As Eric Carle explained, The unknown often brings fear with it. In my books I try to counteract this fear, to replace it with a positive message. I believe that children are naturally creative and eager to learn. I want to show them that learning is really both fascinating and fun.”

Above all he believed that children needed hope and excitement for what the future holds; and nothing expresses that better than the hungry caterpillar that transforms itself into a beautiful butterfly!

The magic of Eric Carle’s books lies not just in their visual appeal but in the opportunity that they offer children to freely express their curiosity and creativity as they learn about the exciting world around them.

Every little child is like a hungry caterpillar, hungry for taking in the colours, sounds, and tastes of the world around. And just as the ravenous caterpillar ate its way through apples and pears, plums and strawberries, oranges, and piles of other goodies, through every day of the week, children have a voracious appetite for learning and imbibing new knowledge and new experiences. And unlike the caterpillar, they don’t get a stomach ache from being overstuffed with these! Let us strive to satiate these hungers by opening up the world for our children, by joining them in the adventure of exploring and discovering the world around them.

A good day to start is World Environment Day that is celebrated on 5 June.

–Mamata

The Future of Education

A year ago, when we were just beginning to understand the impact of Corona and lockdowns on our lives, my colleagues and I had a brainstorming, and jotted down what we saw as the impacts of these on school-age children. These included:

  • Loss in educational achievements due to long break
  • Increasing inequity in educational inputs– limited access of Govt School children to e-learning
  • Challenges in parental support to facilitate learning at home
  • Inadequate interaction with other children /adult
  • Difficulties in adjusting to new teaching methods/ technologies/ new curriculu
  • Inadequate educational inputs, resources
  • No exposure to outdoors, play, co-curricular activities
  • No outlet for energy
  • Less structure, discipline
  • Lower nutrition due to disruptions to mid-day meals
  • Challenges to govt. school infra of social distancing norms, sanitation, water
  • Pressure on Govt. Schools due to reverse migration, and shifting from private to govt. schools due to fall in income.
  • Timely availability of textbooks, coping with new timelines
  • Pressure of change in Academic year, exam patterns
  • Increased dropouts for various reasons, increase in child labour, child marriages etc.
  • Fear, anxiety
  • Parents stressed with loss of incomes, confinement etc.
  • Lowered access to healthcare.

In the year that we have gone through, not many satisfactory responses to these challenges have been found.

The pandemic is forcing us to focus on the short term, on questions like:

To open schools, or not to open schools?

To start classes, or not to start classes?

To conduct exams, or not to conduct exams?

But the responsibility of policy-makers is to go beyond, and think about the future shape of education, and to re-imagine it for the new world. This is where the UNESCO titled ‘Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action’ will be useful. While it not a kunji  to give short answers to profoundly important questions about the future of education, it does give some useful frameworks to think about these questions. The nine ideas it propounds are:

‘1. Commit to strengthen education as a common good. Education is a bulwark against inequalities.

2. Expand the definition of the right to education so that it addresses the importance of connectivity and access to knowledge and information.

3. Value the teaching profession and teacher collaboration. Encourage conditions that give frontline educators autonomy and flexibility to act collaboratively.

4. Promote student, youth and children’s participation and rights. Prioritize the participation of students and young people broadly in the co-construction of desirable change.

5. Protect the social spaces provided by schools as we transform education. The school as a physical space is indispensable. Traditional classroom organization must give way to a variety of ways of ‘doing school’ but the school as a separate space-time of collective living, specific and different from other spaces of learning must be preserved.

6. Make free and open source technologies available to teachers and students. Education cannot thrive with ready-made content built outside of the pedagogical space and outside of human relationships between teachers and students. Nor can education be dependent on digital platforms controlled by private companies.

7. Ensure scientific literacy within the curriculum.

8. Protect domestic and international financing of public education. The pandemic has the power to undermine several decades of advances.

9. Advance global solidarity to end current levels of inequality.’

Excerpted from: https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/education_in_a_post-covid-world 

The world has changed. Crisis has to be turned to opportunity. We have to start to re-imagine the Future of Education–now.

–Meena

The Men of the Trees

Last week the cyclone that battered the western coast of India left thousands of trees, old and young, uprooted. It also saw the demise of the venerable tree man of India Sundarlal Bahuguna to whom we paid tribute earlier this week.

Many of us (then) young environmental educators cut our teeth on the legend of Chipko and its inspiring leaders. But behind these movements and leaders were earlier pioneers who paved their thinking and the way. One of these was a man who Sundarlal Bahuguna called his Guru, and who in turn considered Bahuguna as his kindred soul

This was Richard St. Barbe Baker, an English biologist and botanist, environmental activist and author who is known as the pioneer of a worldwide movement to plant trees, and remembered simply as the Man of the Trees. 

Richard was born in 1889 in Hampshire in England in a family descended from lines of farmers, parsons and evangelists. Growing up in a home that was surrounded by woods young Richard spent hours wandering among the trees and getting to know and love them. He also spent a lot of time gardening, and developed a lifelong belief in the value of manual work. After school Richard travelled to Canada in search of adventure while he did some missionary work. There he saw how the prairie was being destroyed and the soil being degraded by unsound agricultural practices. Young Richard was shocked and shaken; he felt that he was seeing Mother Earth being stripped alive. Richard had the head of a scientist but the heart of a humanitarian which could not bear to see the forest cover being torn from the earth. He returned to England to study forestry at Cambridge. After suspending his studies to serve in World War I, he graduated, and went to Kenya as a colonial forester in the early 1920s.

In Kenya Richard witnessed the environmental devastation that resulted from a combination of the traditional slash-and-burn farming methods of the region, overgrazing by goats, and from the colonial farmers’ introduction of crops and methods requiring enormous acreage. He developed a plan to restore the land by planting food crops between rows of young trees. But he faced tremendous resistance from the indigenous Kikuyu people who believed that planting new trees was “God’s business”.

Quite different from the ‘White Man’s’ attitude to native populations, Richard felt that he needed to gain their trust. As he later wrote: To be in a better position to help them I studied their language, their folklore and tribal customs, and was initiated into their secret society, an ancient institution which safeguarded the history of the past which was handed down by word of mouth through its members.

Soon I came to understand and love these people and wanted to be of service to them. They called me 
“Bwana M‘Kubwa,” meaning “Big Master,” but I said, “I am your M‘tumwe” (slave).

Richard looked to one of their long-held traditional practices—holding dances to commemorate significant moments as an opportunity to also promote an awareness of the significance of tree planting and conservation.  From this integration of cultural values and environmental stewardship was born the Dance of the Trees. His work of healing the land in partnership with the Kikuyus led to his becoming the first white person inducted into the secret society of Kikuyu Elders. He was given the name Watu wa Miti, The Man of the Trees, an appellation that became the name of an international organization that began as his first reforestation project in 1922.

In 1924 Richard embraced the Baha’i Faith and his deep belief was expressed in a love for all forms of life and in his lifelong dedication to the natural environment. His personal mission of spreading the message of the importance of trees and forests in sustaining life was carried through his organisation originally called Men of the Trees which grew into The International Tree Foundation, the first international non-governmental organization working with the environment. This is just one of many organizations he established in his lifetime.

St. Barbe’s formal work as a forester and his personal mission took him to many countries in Africa as well as other parts of the world including New Zealand. He looked upon the world as his garden

Perhaps among the places and people that touched him the most was India.  In 1959 Baker came to India, where he assisted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in instituting a tree-planting program to address the Indian desert problem and to raise the water table. He made similar efforts in Pakistan, Australia, and other countries affected by encroaching deserts.

In 1977 Richard came to India to participate in the International Vegetarian Congress. This is where he met Sundarlal Bahuguna who had come down from the hills especially to meet him. In an article written in 1979 Sundarlal recalled how “Two months earlier I had written a letter to him at his Sussex address through the Ecologist, offering my services for his mission, while giving a brief account of the ‘Chipko movement’ which we had launched to save trees in the Himalaya. I had made a request to him to devote some time for the Himalaya on his arrival in India. He never received my letter, but as what I had read about him inspired in me a profound veneration for him, I had come all the way from the hills to Delhi as if on a pilgrimage to have his ‘darshan’. When I touched his feet, he kept his hand on my head and gave me an affectionate pat. He does not shake hands but acknowledges greetings with folded hands. I felt as if I was in the presence of a heavenly soul.

In July 1989 on the occasion of St. Barbe Baker’s birth centenary, Sundarlal spoke at the International Conference of ‘The Men of The Trees, Trees are Life’ at Reading University, England. He shared how St Barbe Baker got engaged with the Chipko movement.

As soon as he heard about the Chipko Movement in the Himalaya he left the conference hall (of the Vegetarian Conference) and decided to go there. In those, days I was regarded as an undesirable person, because we were fighting against the so-called scientific felling of trees. The important people in Delhi did not want him to go to the Himalaya. To persuade him they said. “You are an old man (he was then 88) and in view of your failing health you should not take the risk of travelling through the rugged mountains”. He replied, “At the most it will mean my death. I am already living on bonus. I live only for a day and if I die for the cause of the Himalaya, that will be the most glorious event of my life. I will go straight to heaven.” When they saw his determination, they asked, “Since when do you know this man with whom you are going?” He instantly replied “What do you mean, since when have we been knowing each other–for many lives!” We were together for eleven days. I took him to Vinoba Bhave, the walking saint of India, the disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. When the moment of our departure came, I was very sad. I asked, “When shall we meet again?” He cheered me up by saying, “We shall be meeting each other during our prayers and while working to save trees.”

St Barbe Baker died at the age of 91 on 9 June 1982 during a visit to Saskatoon, Canada, only a few days after planting his last tree. Sundarlal Bahuguna died on 21 May 2021 at age 94. Both inspirational figures whose lives were a unique blend of environmental awareness, spiritual activism, and total dedication to their cause. Their life was indeed their message.

–Mamata

RIP Sundarlal Bahugunaji, Sentinel of the Slopes

The story of the Chipko Movement was one of the examples that was held up to the youth of the ‘70s and ‘80s, to inspire them towards caring for the environment, and to urge them towards peaceful activism.

Deeply rooted in the Gandhian philosophy and the Sarvodaya movement, Sundarlal Bahugunaji and Chandiprasad Bhatji were at the forefront of this, one of the first people’s movements in the country which saw the connection between the degradation of the environment and the well-being and livelihoods of people.

For decades, Bahugunaji had been working in the Tehri Garwhal area of what would become the state of Uttarakhand, organzing people along Sarovdaya lines, addressing issues of livelihoods, women empowerment and ecological protection.

These years of work prepared the ground for what would become the Chipko Movement.

The story begins in the monsoon of 1970. The Alaknanda, along with other Himalayan rivers was in flood and swept down the valley, leaving behind a wake of destruction. The people in the area could clearly see that the extent of the havoc was linked to the destruction of the thick forests that had once covered the mountain-sides. For many years now, trees were being cut by contractors, and the wood taken away to the cities. This left the slopes exposed, unstable and vulnerable to floods like this. Not only that, while the contractors were allowed to cut wood, the communities who had lived in and around the forest for generations and depended on them for food, fuel, medicine, timber  and other forest produce, were denied these. The forests were originally of oak, and the people knew these trees and used them in a number of ways. But now, contactors were not only destroying the oak forests, but they were also replacing them with chir pine which was not suited to the area, nor useful to the people, but whose wood was prized commercially. All this led to an increasing sense of frustration in the people.

The spark was lit on a March morning in 1973. A group of people from a sports-goods factory in Allahabad reached Gopeshwar village in Chamoli District. They had come to cut ash trees for the manufacture of cricket bats.

The villagers were in no mood to let these people cut their trees. They requested the axemen to go back, but they were under orders to cut the trees, and so refused. The villagers spontaneously decided that they were not going to let a single tree be touched even at the cost of their own lives, and rushed forward shouting ‘Chipko, chipko’ (roughly, ‘hug the trees’). They clung to the trees. The axemen, not knowing what to do, returned without cutting a single tree.

It was a battle won, but the war continued. Two months later, the contractors got permission from the local forest officer to cut the trees in a forest near the village of Rampur Phata, about 60 km away.

News of this reached Gopeshwar. The people were incensed. The entire village—men, women, old and young—set off in a procession to Phata. They carried drums and trumpets and banners with messages like ‘Chop me, not the tree’. The marched to Phata, singing and shouting slogans. People from other villages along the way joined them, and ‘Chipko’ was on everyone’s lips.

The huge procession reached Phata. The axemen were once again forced to flee by a peaceful crowd ready to give up their lives for the tree.

Confidence grew in the communities that they could protect their forests and environment.

But the contractors were worried. They were plotting and planning. Once, when they knew that the menfolk of Reni village would be away, they sent their men to the forests there. But the news of this reached the village, and a procession of women and children led by the fearless Gaura Devi walked towards the forests. At first the contractor’s men were not worried, as they thought here was not much the women could do. But they were wrong! Gaura Devi made it very clear that they would hug the trees and not let them touch a single one. ‘Shoot us first. Shoot us, only then can you cut this forest which is like a mother to us.’

Once again the axemen had to return empty-handed.

Not only did the women make the tree-cutters exit this once. They saw that the men had to cross a path to reach the forests. But this path on the steep mountain route had caved in during a landslide. A cement slab had been placed across it to allow people to cross from one side to the other. This was the only access to the forest. The women had a brainwave. With a strong stick and their combined strength, they managed to push the slab into the deep gorge below. The path could no longer be crossed!

And so the Chipko movement took root, impacting not only that area, but the environmental consciousness of the country and the world.

And this is the legacy left to us by Sundarlal Bahugunaji. The troubling question is whether we are living up to it.

–Meena

Froglore

May 22 is marked as the International Day of Biological Diversity. Last year the theme was Nature is the Solution. And carrying forward the same, the theme this year is We are Part of the Solution—a reminder that humans are but one strand in the intricate web of life, and that our lives are intricately and inextricably bound with every other strand in this web. Nature sustains us not only in terms of resources, but also nurtures us culturally and spiritually.

A few weeks ago I wrote about an example of how plants are an integral part of the traditional knowledge, culture and customs of many indigenous peoples. (see https://millennialmatriarchs.com/2021/04/22/maria-and-her-magic-mushrooms/).The study of this close relationship is called ethnobotany. Scientists and anthropologists also study the past and present interrelationships between human cultures and the animals in their environment. This is called ethnozoology. One of these relationships that has long fascinated anthropologists is the one with snakes and amphibians. These are creatures that commonly evoke revulsion, fear, suspicion and awe, sometimes even hysteria. And yet these are richly represented in mythology, culture, art, and literature of indigenous cultures around the world.

Source: Frog artefact collection of Seema Bhatt

While researching for an exhibition on frogs, I discovered a wealth of fascinating facts and beliefs about creatures that we don’t often give a second look, let alone a second thought to—frogs and toads.

The human imagination, has over eons, cast and recast frogs and toads in legends, and beliefs. They appear in the stories and myths of almost every human culture, taking on almost every role conceivable, from the trickster, to the devil, to the mother of the universe.

In many traditions around the globe, frog is generally associated with the water element and it symbolises cleansing, renewal, rebirth, fertility, abundance, transformation, and metamorphosis in different cultures.

In ancient Egypt, the frog appears as a symbol of fertility, water, and renewal. The water goddess Heket often appeared as a woman with the head of a frog. Frogs were also the symbol of the midwife goddess Heqit, who ruled conception and birth, and Egyptian women often wore metal amulets in the form of frogs to enlist her good favour. Ancient tribes in Central America worshipped a goddess known as Ceneotl, the patron of childbirth and fertility, who took the form of a frog or a toad with many udders.

This association with fertility was also ecological. Every year the flooding of the Nile provided water and brought rich silt to grow crops; at that time frogs also proliferated in such huge numbers that the frog became a symbol for the number hefnu, which meant either 100,000 or simply “an immense number.” Thus the frog’s association with water and fertility, so important for life, made them positive symbols, 

Frogs and toads were also considered to be spirits of rain, and were used in many rituals intended to invoke the rains. The Aymara tribe of Peru and Bolivia made small frog images, which they placed on hilltops, to call down the rain. Indeed, if the rains failed, some tribes blamed the toads for withholding the rain, and would lash them in punishment.

In India it is believed that the ‘singing’ of frogs indicates that the rains have come and it is a time for celebration, while the silence of the frogs means that nature and the Gods have forsaken man. In some parts of India frog weddings are held with rites and rituals, and celebrated with feasts to invoke and appease the rain gods, especially in times of drought.

In Ancient China images of frogs were found on the drums used to summon thunder and much needed rain.

Frogs feature in the myths of many Native American tribes. In some they represent transformation and growth, while in others they are associated with springtime and renewal. They are believed to have healing powers and are considered medicine animals. In the shamanistic traditions of some of these cultures, hallucinogenic compounds derived from frogs and toads are used for religious rituals of communion with the spirit world and self-transcendence.

Thus most native cultures revered frogs and toads, as they did all forms of life, and recognised that these were all intrinsically linked with the elements of nature and each other. However in later periods and cultures, the “strange” appearance of frogs and toads with their awkward form, huge eyes and croaking calls evoked fear and a sense of eerie mystery. Folklore from medieval Europe depicted toads as evil creatures whose blood was a potent poison and whose body parts had unusual powers. Toads were commonly seen as evil spirits who accompanied witches, assisting them in their evil designs, and providing poisonous ingredients for potions. Many myths were perpetuated around toads. One widely held myth concerned the Toad-Stone, a jewel that was supposed to be found inside the toad’s head. According to myth this jewel, placed in a ring or a necklace, would heat up or change colour in the presence of poison, thereby protecting the wearer from foul play. Such references are even to be found in some of Shakespeare’s plays.

In many ancient Chinese tales and legends also, the toad is a trickster and a magician, a master of escapes and spells. Some Chinese tales refer to the toad whose face is believed to be visible at the full moon; and they believe that it is this moon-toad that occasionally swallows the moon, causing eclipses.

But the Chinese also believe that that toad is the keeper of the real, powerful secrets of the world, such as the secret of immortality. There are several legends that reinforce this belief. One is about a wandering wise man called Liu Hai and his three-legged toad companion Ch’an Chu who knows the secret of immortality, and who reveals this secret to the wise man who befriends him.

This awe of the benevolent magical powers of frogs and toads is seen in most oriental cultures. In China the frog is a symbol of good luck. The Frog spirit Ch’ing-Wa Sheng represents prosperity in business and healing. Frogs and toads also signify protection. The Chinese Danwu, or Dragon Boat Festival was traditionally celebrated to ward off diseases and plagues for the coming year. Several symbolic creatures are worshipped on this day for protection against evil spirits, and ill health, among which the three-legged toad Ch’an Chu is significant.

In Japan frogs are very auspicious. The Japanese word for frog is kaeru. Kaeru also means “return”. Travellers carried bring a frog amulet on their journey as this was believed to secure a safe return.

Thus have frogs and toads captured human imagination since time began. It is also these myths and beliefs that reminded humans of the vital role that even the seemingly insignificant creatures play. But with the march of “progress” and as humans have been relentlessly destroying the habitats of uncountable, and as yet unaccounted for, living things we are losing much more than species. We are losing the essence of what makes our lives rich and meaningful. Who will populate our mythologies when these creatures are gone? Perhaps we will be left with only one story: the story of loss.

–Mamata

Of Logs and Constants…

I grew up believing that there were three pillars on which every middle-class household was built: a dictionary, an atlas, and the Clark’s table!

Our household dictionary was a Chambers with a hoary history (see https://millennialmatriarchs.com/2021/04/13/silver-tongued-orator-of-the-british-empire/). My father would often read out to us, and such occasions were always punctuated with me or my brother being asked to go and fetch the dictionary when we came across a difficult word. I am not sure why we did not bring the dictionary along with the story book, in the first place. It might have saved the interruptions. But I don’t recall we ever did that.

One of the tasks my father set us was to open the dictionary as close to the word being searched as possible. He maintained that one should be so familiar with the dictionary that we should have a good feel of where a word would be. For instance, if the word we wanted to look up was ‘signet’, at first go we were expected to open the book somewhere between ‘se..’ and ‘so..’. And as we progressed, within a few pages of the word.

The newspaper was generally the trigger for referring to the Atlas. I was a reluctant and late newspaper reader. And I think my father’s well-intentioned efforts to ask me to find obscure places and landmarks mentioned in the day’s news as part of the exercise only intimidated me and put me off newspapers even more. Political maps were a little more comprehensible than the physical maps, but neither was my comfort zone.

The Clarks Table was the third pillar. This was called for at frequent intervals when my father needed to look up any constant, any formula, any log. Being a small book, it had the tendency to get mislaid, unlike the dictionary or atlas which had their own set places. So as I recall, I spent more time looking for the Clarks Table, than into it. As we grew up and were doing our homework, if the Clarks Table was on the study table, it seemed to reassure our parents that we were seriously at work. It being the era before parents got too hands-on with regard to studies, it was a useful ploy!

Of the three, the Clarks Table was the least ubiquitous, probably confined to families who had serious science students. But my father would be sad when he came across any household which did not have all three. I have no idea what kind of conversations could possibly take place during social home-calls (frequent when we were young), which would veer around to the need for calling for the Clarks, but they did seem to happen. Because my father would often return from a friend’s house clearly saddened by the fact that there were households which did not have all these books. It was not that he was being judgmental, but he felt in his heart the disappointment that some people were being deprived of access to true knowledge!

And I let him down! Soon after we got married, my father visited us in Ahmedabad. He was there to present a paper at a scientific conference and was going over some calculations. At around 7 o’clock in the evening, he asked me for a Clark’s. And I did not have one! He was fairly taken aback, though he sought bravely to mask his disappointment. Not only had I let him down, but Raghu, a serious academic not caring to have the Tables in the house (never mind that Raghu was a professor of Finance, not math or science)!  We went out and bought one the very next day, but alas, we could never quite make up!

I am sadly not able to find out much about the history of the Clark’s Table. Apart from the fact that it is now published by Pearson, and edited by Tennent, and that it ‘..contains tables with information about topics like squares, square roots…, and all the necessary data for reference purpose for science students’.  I am not able to find any clue as to who the meticulous Mr. Clark was, and how the book was put together and when. And who is Mr. Tennent who has edited this? I am sure there must be lots of interesting stories about all this, but no information is available to the casual reader.

I would surmise from the fact that the older editions were brought out by a Scottish publishing firm called Oliver and Boyd, that Mr. Clark was Scottish. The firm was established in 1807 or 1808, and started by publishing books for young people, as well as abridged histories and songbooks. When the next generation took over from the founders, they established themselves very strongly in educational publishing, especially medical textbooks, and had a strong presence in British colonies. The firm wound up in 1990.

I suppose that in today’s world, we don’t need such reference books anymore. But being old-fashioned and with the conditioning I have, it remains a constant in my life that good education stands on the foundation of three books I can touch and feel!

–Meena

Smiling is Infectious

Among the many “pick-me-up” messages that are circulating these days is a poem that exalts the magical power of a smile. The poem is attributed to Spike Milligan, a British comic poet, actor, playwright and author. The son of a British military officer, Spike Milligan was born in Ahmednagar and spent his growing up years in India, and this is reflected in several of his poems.

I have always enjoyed his tongue-in-cheek poems, but I had not seen this one before.

Smiling is infectious

You catch it like the flu

When someone smiled at me today

I started smiling too

I walked around the corner

and someone saw me grin

When he smiled I realised I

I’d passed it onto to him.

I thought about the smile

And then realised its worth

A single smile like mine

Can travel across the earth.

So if you feel a smile begin

Don’t leave it undetected

Let’s start an epidemic quick

And get the world infected.

When I read this I thought that it was a bit ironic, and somewhat contra indicatory in these times when all our smiles are tucked away behind our masks.

So here are some alternate lines for the times, that I have penned.

Thanks to Spike Milligan (an old favourite) for the inspiration!

.

Sneezing is Infectious

Sneezing is infectious and coughing is contagious too,

It can spread the virus that is way wickeder than the flu.

When someone simply smiled at me today, even behind their mask,

I drew back in terror and turned my face; “Such rudeness?” let them ask!

I walked around the corner, and there before my eyes

I came upon an unmasked group of goodly size.

I had to other way but to pass them by, but I was filled with tension

What was floating through the air, and spreading the infection?  

I thought about the virus and how deadly it can be

And realised how fast it spreads and offers itself for free.

A conversation, a slogan, or a song can spread it far and wide

Crossing every boundary, and respecting no identity nor side.

So if you feel a sneeze begin don’t leave it undetected

Isolate, test, and quarantine; always stay protected.

Wash your hands like Lady Macbeth, and mask up like the Lone Ranger

Let’s restrain and refrain, so that we can live to smile again without danger.

Who would ever have imagined that there would come a day when we would not encourage people to “Be Positive” and instead wish that they “Stay Negative”!

Stay safe. Keep smiling–behind that mask!

–Mamata

Living the Senior Life…

It starts with your mornings…

When you are in your teens and twenties, its all about lotions and potions.

Then, somewhere in your thirties you figure that you must have soaked almonds every morning. So there is one little bowl that makes its appearance on the kitchen platform–on the evenings you remember to soak them. And then of course, simultaneously you start warm water with lemon and a dash for honey. These two things before morning coffee become the routine.

But then the 40s and the 50s happen.

And you slowly add:

  • Maybe methi seeds
  • Maybe garlic
  • Maybe wheatgrass powder
  • Maybe chia or sabza seeds
  • Maybe karela juice
  • Maybe ghia juice
  • Maybe moringa powder
  • …….

Till your kitchen platform groans under the weight of all the little bowls of assorted items soaked every night.

And you set your alarm earlier and earlier, so you take each of these (which is supposed to be taken on an empty stomach), with at least 15 minute intervals.

And then you re-do your lighting..

Lighting in the house of course had to be yellow. How show-roomish and horrible were white tubes! A complete no-no.

And then comes a time, when room by room, socket by socket, you retro-fit with white tubes of the highest wattage you can get. Till only the drawing room and the dining room are left with their soft, subtle yellow lights.

And even then, you give up reading the comics page in the papers because you can’t make out the words for the smudges.

And when someone speaks of Graphic Novels, you quietly go and Google what on earth that is. And then, when you read rave reviews of one, debate within yourself if you should attempt to read it, and not fully convinced, still procure a copy. To find that even under the newly-installed white lights, you have to read the 374-page novel with a magnifying glass.  (I did it! The novel was ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi. Well worth it, but I don’t think I can read another one unless they come out with a large-print edition!)

And then your exercise routines and paraphernalia change…

From worrying about the best cross-trainer and home gym equipment, you are looking for the best knee-braces and neck-collars.

And you set up a hunt for your grandkid’s discarded Montessori toys which helped them develop fine-motor skills at two years old, to keep your arthritic fingers limber at 60 years old.

When you start up an elaborate yoga and stretching routine—only to find that the asanas recommended for your weak knees, are contra-indicated for your cervical spondylosis.

And your routine adds on more and more exercises for newly emerging stiff joints and aches and pains, till it seems to take up almost half the day!

And you sadly realize

That from lotions and potions

It is now all about decoctions and concoctions.

And though you may have avoided Morning Sickness

There is no way you can avoid Morning Stiffness.

Such is the Senior Life!

–Meena