Toilet Travails

Last week we marked World Toilet Day. Continuing on the theme, I thought I would share some experiences of constructing and running urban public pay-and-use toilets. Never a dull moment in this game, I assure you. But the stories about operations I shall keep for another occasion. Here I would like to share some feedback from a survey we did of women in Hyderabad, as part of our planning exercise before we took up construction of toilets when the city decided, for the first time, to open up this activity in Public Private Partnership mode. The survey is over a decade old. But sadly, most of the challenges we found still probably stand.

Here are some of the findings from a survey of close to 400 women:

  • About a fourth of the respondents were not even aware that there are Pay-and-Use toilet facilities for women.
  • About half the respondents reported that they wait till they reach home even if they feel the need to use a toilet when they are out. 
  • Women in higher economic strata, non-working women and students use these facilities significantly less than women from lower economic strata and working women.
  • 64.2% of those respondents who used public convenience had a bad experience. The reported major reasons for the  ‘bad experience’ were:
ReasonPercentage
1. Unhygienic Conditions92.5
2. Insufficient water availability69.2
3. Bad smell62.8
4. Caretaker being male57
5. Joint infrastructure (both male and female facilities in one building, with a partition)53
6. Feeling of insecurity36.4

The respondents also made several valuable suggestions:

  • About 53% women suggested that there should be exclusive toilets for women.
  • Around 57% women opined that the caretaker of the public toilet should be properly trained and should be gentle, and he/she should be educated and middle-aged.
  • Respondents also expressed that the following facilities are needed by women in  public toilets; dustbins for disposable things; small shelves for women carrying things; mug and bucket provision; mirror; good lighting and alternative lighting arrangement in case of power fails.
  • Indian and western toilets both to be provided for convenience of various types of users.
  • Security is paramount.
  • Proper maintenance, cleaning at regular intervals and supervision.
  • In some cases, men are using the space around the toilets as the toilets! This not only leads to bad smell but also a feeling of embarrassment on the part of women who want to enter.
  • In many toilets, there is no proper indication for “gents” and “ladies”, which creates problem for women in using public toilets.

Public toilets are definitely more prevalent today than a decade ago. And the maintenance is not as bad as it was. But I think some of the survey findings and recommendations are still very relevant to those concerned about public sanitation, and about making the most basic of facilities accessible to one half of humanity!

–Meena

‘Down in the Dumps’ Day

No, let me hasten to clarify that there is no such Day. But there is indeed a World Toilet Day which is observed on 19th November every year, and ‘celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation’. The Day is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water and Sanitation for all by 2030.

Well, if we were to ‘celebrate toilets’ as urged in the mission, I would advocate for  a lovely little book called ‘Toilets of the World’ by Morna Gregory and Sian James, and published by Merrell Publishers.

The book begins with a very brief History of Toilets which is followed by a continent-wise round-up of interesting toilets. The beautiful colour plates are themselves an education of how creative photographers can make art out of not conventionally photogenic items!

Here are some interesting nuggets of information from the book.

  • The oldest known flush toilet is that of the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, dating back to 1700 BC.
  • Solid waste generated by astronauts in space is compressed into round, flat discs and brought back to earth. NASA’s toilet engineers refer to them as ‘people patties’.
  • Toilets on board ships are referred to as ‘heads’.

And here are some toilets mentioned in the book which caught my attention for their ‘extreme’ qualities:

Public Toilet, Ephesus, Turkey. About 200 AD.

Keith Siding Road, Crandon Wisconcin: Someone as part of their garden decorations has put up an outhouse with the sign ‘Up North Rest Stop’. The door of the facility is open, and on the toilet sits a life-like lady in full view of the road, using the facilities!

Incahuasi Island, Bolivia: In the middle of 12000 sq. km. salt desert is a toilet carved from the trunk of dried cactus, with the needles removed to allow for comfortable seating.

30-Gold Store, Kowloon: This gold washroom put up in his shop by a Hong Kong jeweler is down in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive washroom. Fixtures, sinks, toilet brushes, toilet paper holders, all are made of gold.

Ancient Roman City, Ephesus, Turkey: Built around 200 AD, these communal pay-and-use marble latrines were for men only, and were a place for social gatherings and where many business deals were struck. Slaves used to come in early to literally warm the seats so that their masters did not feel the chill of the marble on their bottoms. There are many other yucky details, which I will refrain from sharing. (The picture is from an unforgettable family trip there.)

For more interesting information on toilets, the place to visit would of course be the unique Sulabh International Museum of Toilets at  New Delhi, which, to quote the museum website ‘has a rare collection of facts, pictures and objects detailing the historic evolution of toilets from 2500 BC to date. It provides a chronological account of developments relating to technology, toilet related social customs, toilet etiquettes, prevailing sanitary conditions and legislative efforts of different times. It has an extensive display of privies, chamber pots, toilet furniture, bidets and water closets in use from 1145 AD to the modern times. It also has a rare collection of beautiful poems related to toilet, their usage.’

In India, where close to half the population does not have a toilet at home, and where no ‘nudge’ or carrot or stick or government slogan seems to work towards reducing open defecation, every day has to be Toilet Day, and every person a Toilet Warrior!

Let’s get Vocal for Local Toilets!

–Meena

PS: I had borrowed this book from a dear friend David Foster and hope to meet him soon to return it.

PPS: Photo credit: Ashok Seshan

Beach Lore

The good news that newspapers brought us yesterday was that eight Indian beaches had qualified for the Blue Flag tag—an achievement indeed! This Certification is awarded by Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), an NGO, and is a respected one, with stringent requirements. There are 33 criteria spanning environmental, educational, access and safety related parameters. Beaches tagged as Blue Flag provide clean and hygienic bathing water, along with basic infrastructure for tourists.

It is not impossible to spruce up for an inspection and get a certification or award. The challenge is make the improvement sustainable, and an inclusive shared vision with all stakeholders. Let us hope these eight beaches are able to do this and stay on the list, even as more join them in the years to come.

At any rate, it provides an opportunity to revise some beachy information:

A beach is a narrow, gently sloping strip of land that lies along the edge of an ocean, lake, or river (yes, technically, even the land around a lake or along a river is a beach!).

Beaches are made of materials such as sand, pebbles, rocks, and seashell fragments. Over the decades and centuries, forces of nature—water, wind, erosion, weathering—act on the cliffs, rocks and landforms at the edge of the waters, and break them down.  As tides come in, they deposit sediment which may have sand, shells, seaweed, and even marine organisms like crabs or sea anemones. When they go out, they take some sediment back with them.

Beaches are constantly changing. Tides and weather can alter beaches every day, bringing new materials and taking away others. There are seasonal variations too. In the winter, storm winds throw sand into the air. This can sometimes erode beaches and create sandbars. In the summer, waves retrieve sand from sandbars and build the beach back up again. These seasonal changes cause beaches to be wider and have a gentle slope in the summer, and be narrower and steeper in the winter.

At 7500 kms, India has the world’s seventh-longest coastline, with nine states and two union territories having coasts.

Apart from aesthetics, beaches are habitats for many, many species. The Olive Ridley coming to nest in the Gahirmatha beach of Orissa is a phenomenon that naturalists come from around the world to witness. In all, about 2,50,000 to 3,00,000 turtles nest here every year, in the space of about two weeks. Thousands of female turtles arrive each night to lay eggs. They make nest holes, lay 100-300 eggs, smooth the nests over, sometimes covering them with vegetation, and go back. Fifty days later, the eggs hatch, and millions of little turtles, each the size of a brooch, make their way into the ocean to start their lives.  

Our coasts and beaches are also witness to a hoary past: The rockcut temples of Elephanta date back to the 6th century AD. The temples of Mahabalipuram are almost as old—going back to the 7th century. The Konarak temple dates back to the 13th century, at which point it stood directly on the sea, though today the sea has moved about 3 km away. Dwarka is believed to have been the Krishna’s capital, and is said to stand on the site of five earlier cities. Fort Aguada, Goa, built in the 17th century has a unique lighthouse. Rameshwaram has the largest temple in India.

And of course, on April 5, 1930, Gandhiji and 78 satyagrahis reached the beach at Dandi on the coast of Gujarat to make salt and history.

So let’s protect our beaches! Let’s Blue Flag them all!

–Meena

Look Around for the Butterflies!

September is observed as Butterfly Month in India. We have about 1400 species of butterflies–from the 190 mm wingspan Southern Birdwing, to the tiny Grass Jewel with a 15 mm wingspan. And we are yet to discover all the species there are—in the last few years, 77 species have been discovered in just the Matheran Hills near Mumbai.

Citizen-scientists who sight, record and report their findings are critical in any exercise of species monitoring. So here is a list of some popular guides to Indian butterflies which can get you started on your butterfly journey. Who knows, you may discover a new one, or help to expand the understanding of range or behavior! Good luck!

Common Rose Butterfly. Bangalore. August 2020. Photo credit V. Raghunathan
  1. Butterflies of India. Thomas Gay, Isaac Khemikar and JC Puneetha. WWF/Oxford University Press.
  2. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Butterflies of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan,  Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Peter Smetacek.
  3. Identification of Indian Butterflies. J.H. Evans. BNHS.
  4. Butterflies of the Indian Region. MA Wynter-Blyth. BNHS.
  5. Butterflies of India. Arun Pratap Singh. Om Books International.

There are several excellent region-specific guides too, including:

  1. Butterflies of the Western Ghats. H. Gaonkar.
  2. Butterflies of Peninsular India. K. Kunthe, G. Madhav.
  3. Butterflies of Sikkim. Meena Haribal. Nature Conservation Foundation.
  4. Butterflies of Delhi. Peter Smetack. Kalpavriksh.

(Unapologetically non-conforming to  APA or any other referencing  style!)

And a few tips to help butterflies along:

  1. Butterfly gardening is a great way to provide a hospitable environment. Butterflies need different plants for different stages of their life-cycles. So planting a garden with many different types of flowering plants (or having pots with different kinds of plants) is a good first step. On the whole, plants like hibiscus, shankpushpi, sunflower, chrysanthemum, marigold, mint etc. are among those preferred by butterflies.
  2. Wherever you live, see if you can have some small areas which are left wild, with local species of wild plants. This will help butterflies, as these are probably their preferred vegetation.
  3. Stop use of chemical pesticides in your garden. These can cause serious harm to the butterfly  at the various stages of its development.

–Meena

Craftily-challenged in COVID times

Lockdowns have seen people taking up a plethora of hobbies and
pastimes. Non-cooks have become chefs; non-housekeeping types are Mary
Kondoing; those who have never noticed a bird are becoming meticulous
bird watchers.

Here is my Lockdown craft saga:

Since school, I have, to put it politely, been craftily-challenged. My
needlework teacher systematically made me rip out my homework every
week and re-do it; when we had an assignment to crotchet a sweater in
Std. 8, I started by trying to make one for myself, but ultimately, it
was large enough to fit my pleasantly-plump mother; when we had to
make a tea-cosy (yes, such things were used and we had to make them,
in the days of yore!), it vaguely resembled a small cushion whose
shape did not have a geometrical name.

But my burning ambition has always to been to do fine-embroidery! Such
is the way of the heart, that it yearns for things unattainable!

So when everyone was doing creative things in Lockdown, I thought I
should do something vaguely connected with fabric and needles. I have
by now reached the age to know what I simply cannot do. So laying
aside my ambition, I decided to work on a concept level (a slightly
stronger suit than my craft skills).

The idea was to re-purpose things which I was not using. Clearing out
cupboards and drawers was definitely something all of us have been
doing in these times, and I had done my share. I found well over a
dozen dupattas which I hadn’t used in years. They were all very pretty
and in good condition. The dresses they went with had died long ago,
but when do we ever discards dupattas? We keep tucked away in some drawer,
sure we will be able to match them with another dress in the future.

33F6AB30-20A2-4A65-8402-62E7BFB31CBBSo I thought I would turn these into baby quilts. My interpretation of
quilting is to tack folds of materials together into something
resembling a rectangle. Tacking is the most low-down of stitches one
can do—simply put the needle in through the folds and draw it out at
an interval of 0.5 cm or whatever. Repeat.

And so I have turned a dozen dupattas into 6 baby quilts, because I
fold one into another, to make the quilts soft and warm. My tacking
wanders a little drunkenly across the quilts, and stiches are not of
uniform length (overall defining the word ‘tacky’). But they are going to serve the purpose (partly because the poor infants will have no say in what they are going to be draped in). Babies are not going to judge me for the quality of my
handiwork! I they will like soft coverlets made of pre-loved cloth.

I have run out of babies I know even remotely. My next step is going
to be to look for avenues for donating these—maybe through some NGO or
institution.

The exercise has definitely given me a good-feel on many counts.
Unused things are being turned into something useful. And some babies
will feel a bit warmer, thanks to my efforts. And there is nothing
like a physical, tangible product at the end of a few hours of effort.

If enough people take it up, it could become a movement for children who will need these in the coming colder months.

Any takers for the idea? If I can do it, anyone can!

–Meena

Just Deserts

I love deserts. Of all the ecosystems and landscapes, I have always felt the closest affinity to the desert. While I have trekked among hills and mountains, and have enjoyed the sea and seashore, it is the desert that makes me feel at once ‘at home’ as it were.

My introduction to the desert dates back many decades.

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Illustration CEE’s NatureScope India  Discovering Deserts 

As a young trekker I was a member of a group called the Delhi Mountaineering Association. One year, the mountaineers decide to descend from the mountains and explore a new terrain and undertake something that was hitherto unexplored. The result was the Desert Expedition—the first-ever attempt (then) to cross the Thar desert in Rajasthan on foot. Eight strangers (5 men and 3 women, including yours truly), sharing a common urge to explore and discover, came together to embark on a two-week journey that touched each of us in so many different ways, and left behind indelible memories.

The walk commenced from the little village of Sam, about 44 km from Jaisalmer. This is where I had my first sight of the dunes rising from a sea of sand in the morning sunlight–a curious composite of the ripples of the ocean with the majesty of the mountains. And from here walked, our motley band of adventurers; day after sunny day, dusty winds, clinging bhurats (prickly thorns). From the sand, through the unending vista of flat arid miles stretching to the horizon, stopping to quench our parched throats with mathira the juicy wild melons, and communing with our accompanying camels. The utterly comforting feel of sleeping on the sand, under the canopy of the Milky Way, lulled by the unbroken sounds of silence. A unique bonding over seven days and 190 km (every inch traversed on blistered feet!), that left me deeply in love with the desert.

While I have not been able to go the desert as often as I would like to, serendipitously the desert has made its way into my life from time to time.

I am often reminded by my erstwhile boss that the only credentials that started me on my career as an environmental educator, was the fact that I had been on that desert expedition! My work in environment led me to study and understand (rather than only experience) the different ecosystems. When I had the opportunity to develop a teaching-learning manual on Deserts, I plumbed the depths of literature on the subject and was awestruck by the fascinating facets, incredible adaptations, and the innumerable strands that weave together create a vibrant ecosystem in a seemingly lifeless terrain. What was once intuitive was bolstered with intellect.

More serendipity! A collaborative project with Abu Dhabi, and an equally ardent desert lover transported me (after so many years) into a desert again—the Arabian Desert, also known as the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali in Arabic). Being amid the immense dunes and endless stretches of sand, was like homecoming. I would never have imagined this, all those years ago in the Thar.

And then, a trip to Ladakh to experience the cold desert—that I had only written about till then. So different–the starkness, the skies, the silence, and the sheer scale, and yet similar.  Nowhere but in the desert have I felt this with such intensity.

My heart lies in the desert. Sadly I may not be able to recreate these experiences if I tried now. The once remote sand dunes of Sam are now a tourist hot spot. The dunes and dune life of Rub al Khali are being decimated by the sport craze for off-road vehicles zooming across the sand. The fragile cold desert ecosystem of Ladakh is being snowed under with overtourism. Deserts are disappearing, and no ‘development’ scheme can ever recreate them.

–Mamata

Ironically while the real deserts are under threat, human activity is leading to transforming non-desert areas into arid lifeless regions through the process of desertification.  June 17 is observed as The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought to promote public awareness of international efforts to combat desertification.

 

World Environment Day

June 5: For an ex-Environmental Educator, the date has huge significance.

June 5 in 1972 was the day the first UN International Conference on the Environment kicked off in Stockholm, Sweden. And since then, the day is observed as World Environment Day.

What was this Conference about? Well, it was called the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. While it was termed a conference on the Environment, developing countries and NGOs brought to fore the need to link Environment with Development, insisting that the environment could not be considered in isolation. Today, this seems obvious, but back in  those days, this point had to be lobbied for, fought for and agitated for.

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India can be proud of its contribution to this paradigm shift in thinking. Mrs. Indira Gandhi who attended the Conference, famously said in her address ‘Poverty is the biggest polluter’. Interestingly, India had even then realized the importance of Environmental concerns—Mrs. Gandhi was the only Head of State (other than that of the host country Sweden), to attend the Conference.

By contrast, the event to mark the 20th Anniversary of this conference, popularly called the Earth Summit and held in Rio de Janeiro, had 108 Heads of States in attendance!

Equally in contrast is India’s own attitude towards the environment. The high standards we set for ourselves and the world are certainly being diluted by our policy decisions and actions—now more rapidly than ever.

This, coupled with the disasters we are seeing around—from COVID to cyclones–all in some way or the other related to humankind’s exploitation of the environment, make it important to observe World Environment Day with even more seriousness than ever.

And while we are here, here is a quick look at WED themes over the years.

1973 Only one Earth
1974 Only one Earth (during Expo ’74)
1975 Human Settlements
1976 Water: Vital Resource for Life
1977 Ozone Layer Environmental Concern; Lands Loss and Soil Degradation
1978 Development without Destruction
1979 Only One Future for Our Children
1980 A New Challenge for the New Decade: Development without Destruction
1981 Ground Water; Toxic Chemicals in Human Food Chains
1982 Ten Years after Stockholm (Renewal of Environmental Concerns)
1983 Managing and Disposing Hazardous Waste: Acid Rain and Energy
1984 Desertification
1985 Youth: Population and the Environment
1986 A Tree for Peace
1987 Environment and Shelter: More Than A Roof
1988 When People Put the Environment First, Development Will Last
1989 Global Warming; Global Warning
1990 Children and the Environment
1991 Climate Change. Need for Global Partnership
1992 Only One Earth, Care and Share
1993 Poverty and the Environment
1994 One Earth One Family
1995 We the Peoples: United for the Global Environment
1996 Our Earth, Our Habitat, Our Home
1997 ·         For Life on Earth
1998 For Life on Earth (Save Our Seas)
1999 Our Earth – Our Future
2000 The Environment Millennium
2001 Connect the World with a World Wide Web
2002 Give Earth a Chance
2003 Water
2004 Wanted! Seas and Oceans
2005 Green Cities
2006 Deserts and Desertification
2007 Melting Ice – a Hot Topic
2008 CO2, Kick the Habit – Towards a Low Carbon Economy
2009 Your Planet Needs You – Unite to Combat Climate Change
2010 Many Species. One Planet. One Future
2011 Forests: Nature at your Service
2012 Green Economy: Does it include you?
2013 Think. Eat. Save
2014 small island developing states
2015 One World, One Environment
2016 Zero tolerance for the illegal trade in wildlife
2017 Connecting People to Nature
2018 Beat Plastic Pollution
2019 Beat Air Pollution
2020 Time for Nature

–Meena

Turtle Man

This is a week of Days—international days to mark events, or create awareness about different themes and issues. 22 May is the International Day for Biological Diversity, and 23 May celebrates Turtles–one of the millions of species

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Illustration CEE’s NatureScope India Turtles in Trouble 

that are part of the incredible tapestry of biodiversity.

This took me to revisit some of the teaching-learning material on these themes that we developed in CEE, among them, an Educator’s Manual on Turtles. Going through it I rediscovered the inspiring story of Archie Carr–the Turtle Man.

Archie Fairly Carr Jr., was an American zoologist whose studies unraveled many mysteries about giant sea turtles, and whose writings and conservation efforts have helped to save sea turtles from near extinction.

Archie Carr was born on June 16, 1909, in Alabama, where his father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a piano teacher. It was his father who instilled in him his love for nature. The backyard of their home was filled with cages of snakes, frogs, lizards, and turtles that the young Archie collected. As a child he also developed a keen ear for language and music. In later years he further developed these language skills which led him to master several languages, and his work in collecting dialects from the Caribbean area and east Africa where he travelled and worked.

Archie Carr originally went to the University of Florida to study English but was diverted to biology by a professor who recognised the young student’s love for nature. In 1937 he became the first to be granted a PhD in zoology by the University.  And it was his alma mater that became his lifelong academic home; he was associated with the University for more than fifty years.

Carr was a true, and early, ecologist of his times. While his early training was in taxonomy and evolutionary biology, he combined this with his wide knowledge of zoology, botany, soils, geology, history, and cultural anthropology, and he showed his students the need to weave together all of these disciplines to begin to understand the subject matter of ecology. This breadth of understanding and perspective also permeated his writings which beautifully combined the different strands.

Above all, Archie Carr was a great biologist. His early descriptive studies of turtles set the standard of quality in the field of natural history. He published his first paper on sea turtles in 1942, but it was not until he wrote his classic Handbook of Turtles (1952) that he began to focus his research on sea turtles.  He described his early discoveries about the plight of sea turtles in his book The Windward Road particularly in his chapter The Passing of the Fleet, which was a call to arms and resulted in global efforts to conserve sea turtles from extinction

As he focused on sea turtles, Carr moved toward ecology and behaviour, although his work always retained a taxonomic and evolutionary perspective. His decades-long research at the research station at Tortuguero in Costa Rica, enabled him to initiate one of the longest lasting and most intensive studies of an animal population that has ever been done. Almost all of these studies have significance for conservation; Archie Carr was a conservation biologist long before the field was recognized.

Carr’s book The Windward Road published in 1959 deeply touched a newspaperman Joshua Powers. He sent copies of the book to twenty friends with an invitation to join a new organisation called The Brotherhood of the Green Turtle; this grew into The Caribbean Conservation Corporation, and later the Sea Turtle Conservancy, which became an international force for the preservation of sea turtles.

Like many of his generation Carr was at one time an avid hunter, but he gave this up after his travels in Africa. This change he described in his book Ulendo: Travels of a Naturalist in and out of Africa, in 1964. And also, like many hunters turned conservationists, such as Jim Corbett in India, Carr wrote extensively and evocatively about wildlife and nature. ”It was the lion song, and I sat quiet to learn it, as you learn the trill of a tree toad, or how an alligator goes. And though there may have been little real song in the sound, it came in strong and lonely through the whisper of the mist; and to me, at the time, it seemed to tell of an age being lost forever.

He was far from the stereotype of a ‘scientist’ whose highly technical and academic language could be understood only be a select band of fellow scientists. He combined his original academic interest in English, and his love for the language, with his passion for biology by writing 11 books, several of which won top awards were a model of authoritative yet lively scientific writing.

His colleagues remember him for his sense of humour that often included practical jokes, and which peeped through his writing. I like the look of frogs, and their outlook, and especially the way they get together in wet places on warm nights and sing about sex”.

His wife once jokingly told him “You’ve done a lot for turtles.” To which he replied “They’ve done a lot for me too.”

Professor Carr, died at his home on May 21, 1987. At the time of his death, he was the world’s leading authority on sea turtles.

The world that Archie Carr explored and wrote about has changed a lot today. Yet the sea turtles remain, thanks to the painstaking pioneering work,  passion and life-long mission of this brilliant scientist and inspiring human being.

Today is a good day to remember his words, “For most of the wild things on earth, the future must depend on the conscience of mankind.

–Mamata

 

 

Tuk Tuk

Tonk tonk tonk…it starts before dawn has broken. Even before the crows start their warm-up caw-caws, and the magpie robin tunes up to launch into its melodious repertoire. 

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Spot Tuk Tuk! 

A steady metronomic metallic sound—like the hammer of a coppersmith softly hitting the metal.  The Coppersmith of the avian world is awake and ready for another call-marathon.

Last week when it first began calling, I rushed out to look for the source of the sound. It seemed to be all around—almost like sound-surround! But I know where look for it–the remains of the big rain tree that once overlooked my kitchen wash area. The tree died naturally last year, but its skeletal remains continue to invite so much other life–to perch, to play, and to pause awhile. This is the Coppersmith’s favourite post. And sure enough there it was—on the highest point of the tallest bare branch—a speck against the blue sky. Almost invisible, but certainly not inaudible. It puffed up its chest, and raising and bobbing its head from side to side (perhaps the secret of the sound surround!) called out like a muezzin from the minaret.

The Crimsonbreasted Barbet, as it is ornithologically called,

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Cover bird of my favourite bird book!

is a small bird with a loud call. It  is just a little bigger, but chunkier, than a sparrow, but certainly not as drab. It dons a striking combination of brilliant colours—grass-green top feathers and green-streaked yellowish underparts; a crimson forehead and patch on its breast; vibrant yellow throat, and concentric eye rings of red and yellow. It has distinctive whisker-like feathers around its stout black beak, and a short truncated tail.

My bird book tells me that this bird is mainly a fruit eater, and is commonly found wherever there are fruiting trees, especially fig or banyan. The closest trees around my house are Gulmohar and Copper pod, which are also in full bloom, but not with the fruits and berries that this bird likes so much. Perhaps it finds these in the park next door. Although it baffles me, given the very short breaks between the continuous metronomes, how it manages to partake of sufficient nourishment to sustain its energy to call non-stop.

As the sun climbs higher, other birds fall silent as they seek refuge from the heat in the foliage of trees and hedges. But not our relentless caller. Under the blazing sun, on a high bare treetop, it goes on and on. Funnily, nowhere could I find out why it calls—is it to attract a mate? Difficult to know as both male and female look alike! Is it to warn of predators and danger? But then, why call continuously? Or is it for the sheer joy of being alive and and sharing its song each day? I rather like to think of it this way!

Last evening during a lull, I scanned the tree and spotted it perched woodpecker-like, using its strong beak to excavate a hole in the dry branch. I discovered that it nests and roosts in these small holes.  I am glad though that it has chosen to make its look-out point, and perhaps its home, on our tree. It is nice to have a Tuk Tuk for a neighbour!

Tuk Tuk is one of the common Gujarati names for the Coppersmith.

–Mamata

 

Earth Spring

22 April 1970 saw what, at the time, was perhaps the planet’s largest civic event. Millions of American citizens took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet.
“Earth Day” as this event was dubbed, was a unified response to the numerous environmental crises that engulfed the world in the 1960s—oil spills, smog, polluted rivers, and newly exposed dangers of pesticides.

2020 marks 50 years since what was considered to be the trigger that launched the modern environmental movement. In the five decades since, much has transpired and much has changed for, and on, planet earth. Despite all the noble intentions, movements and efforts (which I have also been a part of for three decades), the planet seems to have been damaged beyond limits, plummeting in recent times into an uncontrollable downward spiral. Poisoned waters, toxic air, melting ice, disappearing forests and vanishing wildlife have become so much a part of the daily news that we have become inured. Worst still, we continue to pretend that all will be well—after all man is the master of technology, and we will find the answers.

It has taken 50 years for Earth to have gotten a respite from human interference. Ironically, this has been given by an invisible, seemingly indestructible microbe.

Almost a hundred years ago, pioneering environmental philosopher John Muir wrote “The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge…”

In the three months since this ‘creature’ has sent us scurrying for shelter, and changed the world as we know it, the earth is changing too. It is coming back to life.

The theme for this year’s Earth Day was Climate Action and events were planned to draw attention to the critical need to take action to combat climate change. Ironically, what a hundred conferences did not do for climate change, is happening today simply without human activity.

When I read about the revised suggested activities for a house-bound Earth Day it made me wonder though! All the activities were digital– webinars, online learning, nature videos, teach-ins and make-ins, and more. Everything that called for virtual interaction through digital media. What a paradox! What a missed opportunity to open windows and minds to the world outside. Some thoughts on this.

A lot is being written and shared about windows and balconies. WIMG_20200306_071238550 (1).jpghile these are great to reach out to other humans, they are also a wonderful opportunity to be inside looking out, at nature. One does not have to be in the countryside to see Nature. Even in the midst of the urban jungle, look from the same balcony or window, and you will discover—a bird, a butterfly a bumblebee, a spider. A patch of sky and a puff of cloud. The branches of a tree with fresh green leaves, a bird call, a shaft of sunlight on a wall, or the stars on a clear night.

One doesn’t have to be outdoors to do one’s bit for Earth day. Just making time to stop and stare is as much a contribution as a ‘run for earth marathon’.

And why make Earth Day just a one-day celebration? Even in 1970, the entire month was marked by events and it came to be called Earth Spring.

In these unusual times, let us be grateful for Nature which is never in ‘shutdown’! Come let us celebrate every moment, every day of our Earth Spring.

–Mamata