The Mother of the Rhymes

Meena’s piece last week on nursery rhymes set me thinking. How is it that one clearly remembers most of the rhymes that one had heard and learnt when one was between 2 and 5 years of age, while many poems ‘learnt by heart’ subsequently do not seem to pop up as effortlessly? Why is it that the minute I see a toddler, I can’t resist the playing the silly  little game of Johny Johny Yes Papa, or This Little Piggy Went to Market? This is not the case with just English nursery rhymes, but equally with the Gujarati rhymes that I heard as a child. We may not have understood the words, (and often the words themselves were nonsensical), but it was the repetitive rhythm and rhyme that frolicked and danced in the head till they were firmly entrenched for life.

Today many studies have shown that nursery rhymes are very powerful influencers in early childhood development and education. At an age when children have limited attention spans, the brevity and repetitiveness make them fun to recite again and again. In the process, children develop the practice of listening and speaking; their ears and tongues become sensitive to the rhythm and patterns of language, and their vocabulary is enriched. Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.

Thinking about nursery rhymes also led me to remember that as children our nursery rhyme books were titled Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. While Meena discovered the  curious origins of some popular rhymes, for hundreds of years it was thought that all the popular nursery rhymes were written by an author called Mother Goose. Over the years scholars tried to find out who exactly was this Mother Goose?

Mother Goose is so old that no one knows for sure whether she was a real or a fictional character. There are several legends, dating back to the tenth century, related to this character. One theory is that she was based on an actual person—the second wife of King Robert II of France who was nicknamed Queen Goose-Foot because of her misshapen feet. Her real name was Bertha of Burgundy; she was also known as Berthe la fileuse (Bertha the Spinner) as she was believed to be a wonderful storyteller, spinning tales that enraptured children, though she did not have children of her own. But historians have said that this is but a legend and not a fact.

The character of Mother Goose seems to have made her first appearance when French author Charles Perrault published a collection of rhymes and tales inspired by the old oral traditions of French and European folklore. The collection, in French, included rhymes as well as the classic fairy tales like CinderellaSleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood. The book, published in 1697 under his son’s name, was titled Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé). It was subtitled Tales of Mother Goose (Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye). And it became known by this subtitle. Perrault’s publication is believed to be the first authenticated starting-point for Mother Goose stories.

The English-speaking audience was introduced to Mother Goose through the translation of Charles Perrault’s book by Robert Samber.  First published in 1729, the book was titled Histories of Tales of Past Times Told by Mother Goose. The illustration on the cover of the English edition of the book showed an old woman telling tales to a group of children under a sign that says “Mother Goose’s Tales.” Some say this art is what started the Mother Goose legend. In subsequent editions and publications she was also depicted as a sweet elderly woman who magically travelled on the back of a gander or male goose. Thus the only rhyme in which she appears as a character goes

Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.

Somehow, over time, the sweet old lady metamorphosed into the legendary human-sized goose with thick glasses and a bonnet. 

Mother Goose was not widely known in America until after 1786 when a publisher Maby Isaiah Thomas reprinted Samber’s book under the same title. But this gave rise to another theory that the original Mother Goose was an American lady from Boston whose name was Mary Goose, and who used to sing ditties to her grandchildren and other children. The legend spread and her grave became a tourist attraction, where visitors toss coins, even today, for good luck!

Whether fact or fiction, Mother Goose has been synonymous with childhood rhymes for generations, and remains popular even today. So much so that in America, 1 May is celebrated as Mother Goose Day. This started in 1987 when a book titled Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, tracing the history of the character’s evolution was published. This day reminds yet another generation of parents of the continuing magic of rhymes.

In naming a national day as Mother Goose Day, America has recognised the value of rhymes in child development, and uses this day to remind parents and educators of this. This is with specific reference to the well-known and popular English rhymes. Perhaps we should take a cue from this and also recall, as well as revive, the great wealth of traditional rhymes in our own regional languages. Sadly many of these have been part of the oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation; many have not been compiled and published. And with the craze for everything “English medium” our children are rote learning only English rhymes from Mother Goose. In the age of nuclear families and YouTube offerings, it is sad that young children today are missing out on rhymes in their own language. If only every child could have a Nani Goose or Dadi Goose to enrich and enliven their life and language. 

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

 

Maria and her Magic Mushrooms

Source: psychedelicreview.com

I recently read a beautiful poem and I was curious to know more about the poet Maria Sabina. I assumed that she would be a modern poet, but what I discovered was a fascinating story. 

María Sabina Magdalena García was born over a century ago in a community of Mazatec, an indigenous people of Mexico who live in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Maria Sabina spent her entire life in the remote village of Huautla de Jiménez, up in the Sierra mountains in this area. Maria Sabina belonged to a family of traditional curandera (healers) and shamans. Among many indigenous peoples the healer or shaman has a very important function in the community. It is believed that these healers communicate with this world and that of the gods, and thus have the ability to cure both physical and spiritual conditions, and even predict the future.

The healing ceremonies of the Mazatec included the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms (which they called “holy children”) as a method of contact with divinity. It is said that when Maria was just eight years old she and her sister were sitting under a tree when they noticed some of these mushrooms growing wild, and ingested them. The little girls had a terrifying hallucinatory experience, but during this Maria heard an otherworldly voice that told her about some herbs that would cure her uncle who was very sick at the time. She followed the instructions about where to find these, and the herbs cured her uncle.

The young girl became known in the village as a sabia or wise one. Maria seemed to have intuitively developed a knowledge of the ancient Mazatec rituals and the healing power which was attributed to the ritual intake of a particular species of fungi (Mexican Psilocybe) which grow only in mountain range of Sierra Mazatec.Thus began Maria’s lifelong use of ‘magic mushrooms’ for special healing sessions known as velada. Local people visited Maria not only to be healed physically, but also for spiritual guidance. Under the influence of the hallucinogenic mushrooms she guided the patients through out-of-body experiences that revealed the cure for the illness. She claimed that the mushrooms produced wisdom in her; as she said much later in life “I am the woman who looks inside and examines.”

Maria was totally dedicated to her healing ceremonies with mushrooms that included ritual chanting, tobacco smoke, consumption of mescal (an agave plant), and ointments extracted from medicinal plants. Therapeutic laughter was also a part of the ceremony. The rituals were conducted at night because it was believed that the healer was guided in the journey by the stars. The veladas were held purely for medicinal purposes, to purge illness and heal the sick.

Maria Sabina would have continued to live her life as the local curandera and sabia in her remote mountain village, and she and her practice of magic mushrooms or “holy children” as she called them, would have died unknown to the outside world. But destiny had planned another ending to her story.

In the early 1950s, an American Robert Gordon Wasson and his wife who were interested in ethnobotany were looking at the use of hallucinogenic plants in the rituals of indigenous groups in different parts of the world. As they were travelling in the Mazatec Sierra region, they heard of a famous healer of Huautla. In 1955, they travelled to the remote mountain village, and to gain access to her, pretended that they had come to be treated by Maria Sabina. As a curandera, Sabina would never deny a request for help. By then she was already in her sixties and her ceremonies were not known outside her immediate area. She conducted several veladas using the mushrooms with the foreigners, who also documented the entire experience in photos and recordings. When they returned, they also took back with them samples of the fungi which was identified as Psilocybe Mexicana. The fungus was cultivated in Europe and its primary ingredient, psilocybin, was isolated in 1958 by Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD.

In 1957 Life magazine published an article which chronicled the Wasson’s experiences with Maria and her magic mushrooms. Maria Sabina became famous; people from all over the world began to visit her. By the mid-sixties, at the height of the hippie culture, there was a deluge of visitors to Huautla de Jiménez–media, tourists, artists, intellectuals, anthropologists, researchers, and celebrities (including among others, John Lennon, Walt Disney. Aldous Huxley, and Carlos Castaneda). Sadly, many of these visitors were interested purely in getting high on the magic mushrooms, and psychedelic recreational pursuits, and were disrespectful of local culture and traditions. The wanton rush to gather the mushrooms also eroded the delicate ecological balance of the mountain slopes and forests.  

The unwanted attention completely altered the social dynamics of the community and threatened to destroy an ancient Mazatec tradition. The people of Huautla de Jiminez put the blame on Maria Sabina and accused her profiting from their tradition. Villagers attacked and tried to burn down her house several times; they tried to run her out of the village. The police accused her of being a drug dealer. Maria Sabina was ostracised by her community.

Interestingly, she accepted her fate as if it were pre-determined and had been told to her during one of her ceremonies. But she regretted that she had opened up the ceremony for a foreigner, and felt that the sanctity of the velada had been irredeemably desecrated by the recreational use of her “holy children”. She realised that From the moment the foreigners arrived, the holy children lost their purity. They lost their force. They ruined them.” Later in life she became bitter about her many misfortunes and how others had profited from her name. She spent her last years in abject poverty and malnutrition, and died in a hospital in 1985 at the age of 91 years.

While she may have later attained notoriety for her magic mushrooms, María Sabina is regarded as a sacred figure in Huautla. She is also respected and honoured as one of Mexico’s greatest poets.  She did not know how to read or write; her verses were either spoken or sung like chants in her native dialect. She said that it was not her words that she expressed, but the voice of her ninos santos or holy children who spoke through her. She claimed to see the mushrooms as children dancing around her, singing and playing instruments. She was simply their interpreter and she treated them with great respect. She added cadence to her words and expressed them with her entire body. Her chants were first translated from her native Mazatec into English and, only later, into Spanish.

Sharing the poem that led me to this incredible story.

Cure yourself with the light of the sun and the rays of the moon.
With the sound of the river and the waterfall.
With the swaying of the sea and the fluttering of birds.

Heal yourself with mint, with neem and eucalyptus.

Sweeten yourself with lavender, rosemary, and chamomile.

Hug yourself with the cocoa bean and a touch of cinnamon.

Put love in tea instead of sugar, and take it looking at the stars.

Heal yourself with the kisses that the wind gives you and the hugs of the rain.

Get strong with bare feet on the ground and with everything that is born from it.

Get smarter every day by listening to your intuition, looking at the world with the eye of your forehead.

Jump, dance, sing, so that you live happier.

Heal yourself, with beautiful love, and always remember: you are the medicine.

Today is Earth day. What better way to celebrate than to savour these words and make them our mantra for life and living.

–Mamata

The Nifty Little Fix-It

Lost a button, snapped a strap; need something to hold it, or fix it? It’s the thing to reach for in an emergency. From the diaper to the toddler’s hanky, the sari pallu to the Scottish kilt, from the school badge to the split seam, this is what holds it together. It is the simple but multipurpose safety pin! Of all the many inventions that have made our day-to-day life simpler, it is these small but unsung ones that hardly ever make it to the headlines, but without which we would be quite lost.

The story of the safety pin is one of those. Its inventor Walter Hunt came from humble beginnings. He was born on a small farm in Lewis County, New York in 1796, the eldest of 13 children. He started his education in a one-room school, and dropped out of formal education in his early teens to take to farming. While Hunt was not keen on the 3Rs, his mind was sharp and curious, and he was fascinated with mechanical objects. This led him to help out at a nearby textile mill where several of his family members worked. With his love for tinkering, he worked out some improvements to the flax spinning machine used there. The owner took out a patent on this, but Hunt was not included in that. Hunt however went on to develop an even better flax spinning machine which he patented. But he could not find any investors who would support the production of these machines. Eventually, in frustration, he sold the patent, just to support his family, and relocated to New York.

This was in the days before the motor car. One day he saw a little girl being knocked down by a horse carriage which was the mode of transport. These carriages had air horns to warn the pedestrians who shared the roads, but the driver could not use the horn as he had to hold the reins with both hands. Hunt observed this issue, and developed a foot-operated metal gong to sound the horn. In 1827, he filed a patent for this device. Once again, he could not find an investor to manufacture this device, and so once again he sold the patent. And never made any money from the profits from the sales of his invention.

This was to be the pattern of Hunt’s life. He was always in the need for quick money to support his family, and so he sold his patents outright rather than holding on to them, or opting for the longer-term profits from royalties. Luckily for him, he could also come up with invention after invention.

It was one of those patents that he sold in 1849 that gave us the nifty device we call the safety pin. Here too was a case of a quick invention for quick money. In this instance, he was being pressured to settle a 15-dollar debt, which had to be repaid the following day. As was his default setting, he sat at night tinkering with a piece of wire, while wondering what new product he could invent and sell the next day. The wire reminded him of a pin, which in those days was straight length of metal with a sharp edge. Hunt wondered how he could make the pin less prone to poke the user, and thereby more safe.  In 3 hours, he worked out a sketch, and made a tiny model of a new type of pin. He used a brass wire, coiled it at the centre which provided a springing mechanism, and formed a clasp or catch on one end which shielded the wearer from being the sharp point when worn. He called this a ‘dress pin’.

As he described in his patent application: “The distinguishing features of this invention consist in the construction of a pin made of one piece of wire or metal combining a spring, and clasp or catch, in which the point of said pin is forced, and by its own spring securely retained.”

He then sold the patent outright for $400, and never got a single penny more for a product that has sold in trillions across the world, over more than a hundred and seventy five years.

The dress pin was only one of Hunt’s many inventions.  Earlier, in 1834, he had designed one of the world’s first eye-pointed-needle sewing machines. But his daughter talked him out of commercializing the device by warning him that it would lead to massive unemployment among seamstresses. He created a prototype in wood of the sewing machine, and sold the idea to a company that made it in metal. And in history, the credit for the invention went to Isaac Singer, and the Singer sewing machines became a household name.

Hunt continued his prolific spree of improving upon, inventing, and patenting numerous other daily-use objects. These included for a saw for easily cutting down trees, a flexible spring attachment for belts and suspenders, and an attachment for boats to cut through ice. He developed a machine for making nails, hob nails for boots and shoes, a knife sharpener, an inkstand, a fountain pen, bottle stoppers, paper shirt collars, and a non-explosive lamp. He developed a repeating gun and cartridge that was eventually adapted by Smith and Wesson. He even invented an suction apparatus that could be attached to shoes so a person could walk upside down on a ceiling. The contraption was used by circus performers as late as 1937.

Walter Hunt died on June 8, 1859 at the age of 62, with perhaps as many inventions under his hat as his years on earth. All his life he continued to outright sell his patents, and did not reap a single penny in royalties. His only claim to fame, if not fortune, is that 10 April has been designated as International Safety Pin Day, to mark the day on which he received his patent for the safety pin!

Let’s hear it for the safety pin–a handy little friend in need!

–Mamata

Feeling Fool-ish?

When we were in school this was the day when we were on high alert—looking over our shoulder, and wary about opening packages and envelopes; while at the same time planning silly pranks to play on family and friends. Whether the attempts on both sides were a hit or a flop, perhaps the highlight was the gleeful shouts of “April Fool”!

Interestingly, this is one day that does not have any specific geographical, cultural or religious significance but it is universally marked by fool-hearted fun and frolic. And yet, it is a day with a long, and somewhat hazy history. While it has been celebrated for many centuries by different cultures, there are several theories about its exact origins. 

Some historians speculate that it may have originated in 16th century Europe when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, the spring equinox which fell around the first of April was thought of as the beginning of the year in the Julian calendar, but in 1582, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, January 1 was designated as the start of the new year. As the stories go, it was a while before everyone found out about this change, and adopted it. Those who were ignorant about the change, or who refused to accept it, and continued to celebrate it in March-April were the butt of derision and pranks, and were called ‘April Fools.” One of the popular pranks was to paste a paper fish on their backs, and calling them “poisson d’avril” (April fish), which referred to a young, easily caught fish, symbolising a gullible person.

Other historians feel that its precedents lie even further back to a Greco-Roman festival called Hilaria, honoring Cybele, an ancient Greek Mother of Gods, which was celebrated with parades, masquerades and jokes. In fact most cultures have some kind of festival to mark the end of winter and the return of spring which is marked by the vernal equinox. These “renewal festivals” were an occasion to invert the traditional social order for a day—children could challenge the authority of parents, and servants of masters—and tensions were diffused with boisterous hilarity and playful pranks. Anthropologists see 1 April as a modern form of a renewal festival where forms of behaviour that are normally not allowed (lying, deception, playing pranks) become acceptable, for this one day.

It is only in the 18th century that April Fools’ Day spread through Britain. With time, different parts evolved their own traditions and events to mark the day. In Scotland and Ireland, a popular prank was to send people on phony errands; someone was asked to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requested help. In fact, the message read “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile” which translated means “don’t laugh, don’t smile, send the messenger another mile“. Each recipient upon reading it would send the person on to the next person with an identical message. This version of a wild goose chase was called “hunting the gowk” as gowk means a cuckoo bird, which symbolises a fool.

With time, even as its history became more blurred, the spirit of April Fools’ Day spread across the world, triggering challenges to devise and play the most elaborate and outrageous  hoaxes. These were no longer confined to slapstick pranks and juvenile jokes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites also joined the tradition by publishing or broadcasting reporting outrageous reports and news that would convincingly fool their audiences.

One of the best remembered hoax was pulled off by none other than the BBC, which had an old and solid reputation for its reliable reporting. On 1 April 1957, the BBC show Panorama gave the news about a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland and aired a three-minute segment showing people harvesting spaghetti from trees. Viewers were totally taken in; many wrote in asking how they could grow their own spaghetti trees! The BBC even replied: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best!”

In 1962, before the days of colour TV, a ‘technical expert’ on the Swedish national network told the public that viewing its black-and-white broadcasts through nylon stockings would enable them to view these in colour. Many Swedes seriously tried this, ruining many stockings in the effort!

The neighbouring Germans have contributed their bit of April foolery too. In 1994, a Cologne-based radio station ran a story saying that local joggers should keep their speed below ten kilometres an hour so as not to disturb squirrels during mating season; while in 2004, Berlin paper Tageszeitung reported that the American embassy would be relocating to get away from the French embassy across the street.

As the world leap-frogged from print and broadcast to virtual communication, the pranks continued, in more high tech and sophisticated forms. Google became known for its clever annual pranks on its different platforms, cooked up by its best tech minds. It goofed however when it announced the real trial launch of Gmail on 1 April 2004, and everyone thought it was a joke! Last year, April 2020, for the first time since it began its April Fools tradition in 2000, Google did not put up any pranks and jokes, as a mark of respect for the unprecedented Covid situation that the entire world had been plunged into. And Stop Press! It has decided not to do so this year also.

Once upon a time, hoaxes were a once-a-year bit of fun and games, with the guileless gowks running around to carry so-called news. Today with social media flooded 24/7 with news, views, gossip and rumours, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sieve the fake news from the real. We no longer need to wait for April 1, to fool and be fooled. The joke is on gullible us, the always-in-a-rush consumers, who unquestioningly lap it all up, and spread it far and wide. That is not funny; that is foolish. More fool me and more fool you!

–Mamata

Fire in the Forest

As the Indian winter winds to a close, forests in many parts of India burst into flames. Nondescript trees that are hardly conspicuous for most of the year, come ablaze with crimson-orange flowers that lend them the name Flame of the Forest.  It is a forest fire that announces the arrival of spring.

It is the Palash tree that sets the forest on fire. It gets its name from the Sanskrit word Palasha which means both ‘leaf’ and ‘beauty’. The tree was earlier known as Parna tree, which also means ‘leaf’. Another Sanskrit name for it is Kimsuka which means ‘like a parrot’. This is the root of the other common name for it—Parrot tree.

The tree has many popular common names including Bastard teak, Bengal kino, Flame of the forest, Kino tree, and Sacred tree It is also called Battle of Plassey tree.as it is believed that the village near where this battle was fought was called Palash due to the abundance of these trees there. The British mispronounced this as Plassey, and so that is how the battle is remembered in history.

The tree is known by different names in different parts of the country: Palash, Dhak and Tesu in Hindi, Palas in Marathi and Bengali, Kesudo and Khakra in Gujarati, Moduga in Telugu, Purasu Maram in Tamil, and Pangong in Manipuri.

Its botanical name is Butea monosperma. The genus Butea is named after the Earl of Bute, who was a patron of Botany; monosperma, means ‘having one seed’. It is a medium-sized deciduous tree with a crooked trunk and branches. The bark is rough and greyish but the branches are velvety and dark olive green in colour. The large trifoliate, pale bronze green leaves are initially velvety but later turn leathery. The flowers appear when the tree sheds all its leaves. The orange-scarlet flowers grow in stiff clusters of three. Each blossom has five soft petals covered with fine hair. The orange petals curve backwards, with one of them in the form that resembles a parrot’s beak, giving it the name Parrot tree.

The curious formation of the flowers is often referred to in folklore. One riddle in Bihar asks

“What has: An elephant tusk, But not a tusk;

The body of a monk, But not a monk;

The head of a crow, But not a crow;

But a parakeet?”

Curiously, for all their beauty, the blossoms are scentless. This led to the analogy, in some old writings, describing a person with beauty, but without moral or intellectual qualities as a human Palash!

The Palash tree has strong cultural and religious associations. References can be found to this tree in mythology, legends, classical, and popular literature.

According to one legend, a falcon dipped its feathers in Somarasa, the drink of the Gods which was believed to be made on the moon. One of its feathers floated down to Earth and became the Palash tree.

The tree is frequently mentioned in the Vedas and its trifoliate leaves represent the Hindu triad with Brahma on the left, Vishnu in the middle and Shiva on the right. The plant is used in many Hindu religious ceremonies. In earlier days when a Brahmin boy was initiated into monkhood, his head was shaved and he was given a Palash leaf to eat; his staff was made of Palash wood. During the sacred thread ceremony the leaves are used as platters when a particular part of a ceremony is performed; the dry twigs are used for the havan or sacred fire of the Navagraha Pooja to pacify the nine planets on the occasion of Vastu shanti. Many religious songs have mention of the fruits and flowers of Palash being offered to Gods to invoke their blessings. A Buddhist legend has it that the Queen Mahamaya grasped a branch of the Palash tree at the moment of the birth of her son Gautama Buddha.

Poets and writers have been inspired by the form and colour of the Dhak or Tesu flowers. Jayadeva in Gitagovindam compares the flowers with nails of Kamadev or Cupid with which he would wound the hearts of lovers. Rabindranath Tagore in his poems described them as a celebration of life…”the flames of the forest have lit up in smiles”. The forests of Madhya Pradesh where the Palash is found in abundance are the setting of many a Rudyard Kipling tale. 

This decorative tree thrives well on a wide variety of soils including shallow, stony sites, black cotton soil, clay loams, and even in salt lands and water-logged places. The tree is very drought resistant and frost hardy, and is resistant to browsing. It grows back even when it is cut down to ground level; and grows rapidly in full sunlight. The tree attracts birds and squirrels, and can be propagated by seeds

The different parts of the tree have numerous uses. The young leaves are used for fodder, eaten mainly by buffaloes. The fibre obtained from the tree is made into ropes and cordage. The gum from the tree, called Kamarkas in Hindi, is used in certain food dishes. The flowers are used to prepare traditional Holi colour. A bright yellow to deep orange-red dye is also prepared, used especially for dyeing silk and cotton.

The leaves have traditionally been stitched together to make plates and bowls, and even umbrellas. In some tribal communities a prospective son-in-law was tested for his dexterity in making these plates and bowls. He was accepted if his father-in-law approved of the product! Today these leaf dishes are being popularised as eco-friendly alternatives to paper and plastic.

One of the commercially important products yielded by this tree is lac. Palash is an important host for the tiny lac insect whose resinous secretion was traditionally used to make purple-red dyes used to colour silk, leather and for cosmetics. Today this is refined to make shellac. Shellac has high commercial value; it used for many products including wood sealers and finishers; floor polishes, inks, grinding wheels, electrical insulations, and leather dressings.

The Palash has numerous medicinal values in Ayurveda. Different parts of the tree are used to treat a wide range of health issues from eye ailments to liver, urinary and gynaecological disorders.

The sturdy tree also has a valuable role in soil conservation. Farmers frequently use Palash with its binding fibrous roots to stabilize field bunds and for erosion control.

When we were children we used to play a game called ‘Fire in the Forest, Run, Run, Run’. This is one forest fire that invites one to run towards it, intoxicating the viewers with its colourful flamboyance.

–Mamata

A March to Remember

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Last week there were a flurry of events to commemorate a significant March. It was on 12 March 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi embarked on the march that was to become a milestone in India’s non-violent struggle for Independence from British rule. The 241-mile walk from Sabarmati Ashram to the coast at Dandi in Gujarat was a symbolic protest against the prohibitive provisions of the Salt Tax imposed by the British. The Dandi March was the spark that ignited the flames of a non-violent resistance and protest movement, and caused the idea of mass civil disobedience to spread like wildfire across the nation. The movement culminated in India gaining Independence on 15 August 1947.

This year, the run up to the 75th anniversary of our Independence, was marked by the symbolic re-enactment of the 24-day Dandi March, following the original route that Gandhi and his band of 79 marchers took in 1930. According to newspaper reports all sorts of “events” have been planned around this, including ‘patriotic’ entertainment programmes where the marchers halt every evening; competitions and contests, and even a “virtual ultra challenge” to walk, run or cycle as per one’s convenience at any place and any time between the challenge dates.

In an age where histrionics make headlines, and memories are as fleeting as Instagram images and tweets, perhaps not many today would know the historical facts about the original Dandi March 91 years ago. This is a good week to remind ourselves.

On 2 March 1930 Gandhiji had written a letter to the Viceroy giving notice of his intention to launch a civil disobedience movement by symbolically breaking the Salt Law which in his opinion was “the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint.” He was snubbed in return; which strengthened his resolve. He selected Dandi, a seaside village in Gujarat as the site for his symbolic gesture, and planned to walk the distance of 241 miles from his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, along with a select band of co-workers. The date for setting off on the march was fixed for 12 March and 6 April was the date set for the ‘breaking of the salt law” at Dandi.

Gandhiji vowed not to return to the Ashram till his mission was accomplished; he was also sure that he would be arrested before he could complete his journey. On 11th March Gandhi addressed a gathering of over 10,000 people at the end of the evening prayers on the banks of the Sabarmati saying “In all probability, this will be my last speech to you. Even if the Government allow me to march tomorrow morning, this will be my last speech on the sacred banks of the Sabarmati. Possibly, these may be the last words of my life here.”

On March 12, 1930 at 6.30 a.m. Gandhiji, left the Ashram accompanied by 78 satyagrahis. These represented a cross-section of the people from all over the country: Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar, Bombay, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Kutch, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajputana, Sind, Tamil Nadu, U.P. Utkal, and even Nepal. The group included members of all communities. They fell in a broad age spectrum from 16-year-old Vitthal Liladhar Thakkar to 61-year-old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi! The main criteria for the selection, that he personally made, was that the marchers were disciplined, and strictly adhered to the principles of ahimsa and satyagraha. Interestingly, the group did not include any women. One of the later historians attributed this to Gandhi’s concern that the British would taunt the marchers for being cowardly and “hiding behind the women.” He also anticipated that the marchers would have to face the physical aggression of the police, and did not want to women to bear the blows. But he encouraged women to participate and contribute to the struggle by taking up picketing of liquor shops and foreign cloth, and taking up spinning, as well as to make salt locally wherever they lived. 

The route of the 24-day march was meticulously planned; it would pass through 4 districts and 48 villages. An advance party of volunteers from the Gujarat Vidyapith were to go ahead and collect information about each village and its residents so that Gandhijji could plan his evening talks so as to be relevant to the local needs of the village where they halted. He admonished the villagers if their village was not clean and sanitary. In every village the volunteers registered new satyagrahis and received resignations from village officials who chose to end their cooperation with the British rule. The marchers slept in the open and depended on the villagers’ hospitality to provide them with food and water. Gandhi felt that this engagement would bring the poor into the struggle for sovereignty and self-rule. .

The group walked an average of 15 km each day, taking a mid-day halt, and reaching their night halt before dusk. Every sixth or seventh day was a rest day. The entire route was lined with huge crowds and decorated with arches, flags and buntings. Gandhiji led the group, walking with his customary speed and energy; he was indefatigable, spinning or writing letters even at the mid-day rest halts; he did not waste a single minute. He addressed public meetings and gave interviews until he retired at 9 pm. He was up at 4 am, writing letters, even by moonlight. After morning prayers at 6 am he addressed the marchers and answered questions, before setting off for the day.

His satyagrahis were expected to follow an equally exacting routine of prayer, spinning and writing their daily diary.  Even the advance party volunteers were not exempt. In a talk to volunteers on March 17 1930 he said: Ours is a sacred pilgrimage and we should be able to account for every minute of our time. Let those who are not able to finish their quota or do not find time to spin or write up their diaries see me. I shall discuss the thing with them. There must be something wrong with their time table and I should help them to readjust it. We should be resourceful enough to do all our daily duties without the march coming in our way.

Day after day, as the marchers covered mile after mile, of what he considered to be  “nothing less than a holy pilgrimage”.  Gandhiji addressed thousands of people; he urged them to join the civil disobedience movement in large numbers; to boycott foreign cloth, adopt Khadi, and desist from the evil of drinking. Every day, more and more people joined the march, until the procession of marchers was at least 3 km long by the time it neared Dandi.

On April 5 the marchers reached Dandi. Early the next morning, after prayers Gandhiji walked into the waters of the Arabian Sea; he bent down and picked up a lump of salt. The Salt Law was broken, and that simple gesture, triggered a groundswell of protest; across the country local leaders led people to the seaside to do the same; everywhere, in towns and villages, people made salt in pots and pans. The people of India had openly challenged the British Government.

A simple gesture, but one backed by a canny calculation of the tremendous impact that it would have; and a symbolic march that signified not just the determination of a nation to win their birthright, but equally the demonstration of a movement driven by the principles of discipline, ahimsa and satyagraha. As a nation that has, for 75 years, been savouring the fruits of this momentous movement, the best way to commemorate this would be not simply by symbolic events, but by reminding ourselves of, and adherence to, these principles. They are needed now, more than ever before.   

–Mamata

Whistle Away!

Imagine that your school timetable had three periods a week for ‘whistling class!’ What is probably every child’s fantasy is a fact for children who live on La Gomera. No this is not an imaginary land but a real island in the Canary Islands. The island is part of an archipelago in the Atlantic ocean, called The Canaries, located 100 km west of Morocco. The Canary Islands are part of the autonomous communities of Spain. They were originally inhabited by Berbers who were conquered and enslaved by Spanish invaders in the 15th and 16th centuries.  

What sets the island of La Gomera apart is its unique ‘whistling language’ called Silbo Gomero. This is a traditional language which was probably used by the original Berber inhabitants, and then by the indigenous herders for communication among themselves; it was later adopted by local communities who used it as a secret language when threatened by the Spanish invaders. Accounts of 15th century explorers include mention of indigenous people who communicated by whistling. It is believed that these people passed on the language to the first Spanish settlers in the 16th century. Over time the language began to transpose Spanish words from speech into whistling.

Whistling is a perfect way to communicate on the island which is made up of deep valleys and steep ravines, and where houses are located far from each other. When people cannot easily meet face to face, and where written communication is not used, whistling is a way to send the community invitations for feasts, inform of births and deaths, and warn of danger. With favourable wind conditions its sounds could travel up to 3 km. As one of the island’s old whistlers explained “The thing is that here, learning to whistle wasn’t a matter of pleasure. It was an obligation, a necessity. If you didn’t know how to do it, you would have to walk to give a message. And as the houses are far from each other, and there were no roads or phones, whistling was easier than walking.”

Thus evolved a whistling language, officially known as Silbo Gomero, which substitutes whistled sounds that vary by pitch and length for written letters. It is basically the Spanish language in which words are replaced by 2 whistled vowels and 4 consonants. The whistle goes high and low to distinguish one sound from another. The whistle can also be broken to indicate the end of a sentence. In order to amplify the volume as well as to create the necessary distinction the finger is placed in the mouth. Whistling veterans each had their own favoured way to use the finger in the mouth technique—some used only the tip of one or two fingers, some used a finger from each hand, some inserted one bent knuckle into the mouth. But they all knew the language which the whistles produced.

Interestingly Silbo Gomero was a commonly used language on the island until the 1950s. It was used at home and children grew up with it. As with many indigenous languages the use of the language began to decline as native speakers grew old and died, and younger generations began to emigrate; educational institutions gave precedence to the modern Spanish which became the lingua franca of the island. By the 1970s and 80s, there were only a few whistlers remaining. By the end of 1990 there were only about 50 island dwellers who were fluent whistlers, and one entire generation, educated in Spanish, had missed being familiarised of the language.

But linguists and scholars continued to be fascinated by this language. There are a few other whistling languages in the world, among which are the language on the Greek island of Evia, in the town of Kuskoy, eastern Turkey, and in a town of the French Pyrenees. But Silbo Gomera is the one that is still used by the largest community of speakers, and the first one that has been studied in depth.

At end of the 90s there was renewed interest in Silbo. One of the reasons was the initiative to introduce it as a subject at primary school. Since 1999, it has constituted a required subject in the primary and secondary school curriculum. Today children learn it as a second language, where once it may have been the first language they used at home. But the initiative is noteworthy for its attempt at keeping alive a unique  tradition, especially in an age when technology has transformed communication in unimaginable ways.

An important international recognition and step towards its conservation came in 2009, when the Silbo Gomero language was described by UNESCO as “the only whistled language in the world that is fully developed and practiced by a large community,” and added to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

For the few remaining guardians of Silbo Gomera, the whistling language is like the poetry of their island, even though it may not have as much practical use as it used to. They feel “like poetry, whistling does not need to be useful in order to be special and beautiful.”

The island’s initiative to include it in the curriculum is important in that it creates for children a living link to their heritage and history. As one school girl said “It is a way to honour the people that lived here in the past. And to remember where everything came from, that we didn’t start with technology, but from simple beginnings.”

For others it is the fun of learning a “secret” language through which they can communicate. In an age when mobile phones and electronic communication have reached even the remotest parts of the world, the young people of La Gomera are happily adapting to both kinds of communication—Tootle and Tweet!

–Mamata

Zizzer-zazzer-zuzz Dr Seuss

A small news item caught my eye yesterday because it had the name of one of my favourite children’s author–Dr Seuss; and it reminded me that 2 March is his birth anniversary. The news however was somewhat unsettling. It reported that after being in print for almost half a century, six Dr Seuss books will no longer be published because the estate of the deceased author consider that “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” 

In an age that it overly sensitive to the portrayal of different cultures and races, and in the effort to be “politically correct” or “woke” as it is now termed, this seems to be the latest item on the list of vetting children’s books for “appropriate content.”

Curiously, Dr Seuss books have always been more about vocabulary than content. Several generations of children have been introduced to words by being read aloud from his books. It was the simple rhymes and rhythm of his verses that opened up the fun of language, and the characteristic zany drawings that accompanied them that attracted young and old.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts to German immigrant parents. He left home at the age of 18 to attend Dartmouth College, where he became the editor-in-chief of its humour magazine. He was kicked off the magazine’s staff when he and his friends were caught drinking in their dorm, in violation of the Prohibition era laws. But he continued to contribute to the magazine under the pseudonym Seuss, which was his mother’s maiden name.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Theodor left for England in 1925 to study at the University of Oxford, with plans to become a Professor someday. But as his notebooks from the period indicate, while he diligently took lecture notes initially, soon the pages were filled only with doodles and drawings. In 1927, he dropped out of Oxford and gave up his idea of becoming an academic. Later when he began to make a name as a writer he added ‘Dr.’ to Seuss, as a sort of joke, because his father had always wanted him to get a doctorate and become a professor. And Dr Seuss he became and remained till the end of his days, and even today.

Theodor had always loved to play with words and it was with words and sketches that he began his professional life. On his return to the United States, Theodor worked for a number of years as a freelance magazine cartoonist, selling cartoons and humorous prose pieces to the major humour magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. One of his best known assignments was the humorous advertisements for the bug spray Flit. He went on to create advertising campaigns for several large companies including the Ford Motor Company.

His new avatar as a children’s writer was born with the publication of his first book in 1937. In 1936, Geisel and his wife were returning from an ocean voyage to Europe when the rhythm of the ship’s engines inspired the poem that became his first children’s book: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But his manuscript was met with rejection from publisher after publisher.

After the 27th publisher rejected his manuscript, Theodor was dejectedly walking on Madison Avenue in New York when he bumped into an old friend from Dartmouth, Mike McClintock, who that very morning had started a job as an editor in the Vanguard Press children’s section. Within hours, the men signed a contract. In 1937 Vanguard Press published And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The book was an instant hit and Dr. Seuss began what was to be an extraordinary literary career.   

The outbreak of World War II forced Theodor to temporarily give up writing for children and to devote his talents to the war effort. Working with the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army, he made documentary and animated films for American soldiers. He also illustrated political cartoons; but his heart was in children’s books.

After the war, Geisel and his wife moved to La Jolla California where he returned to writing children’s books, working hard for hours at juggling words and rhymes and colour palettes to create madcap characters and adventures. He also loved coining playful nonsensical words that were as zany as his characters: Yuzz-a-ma-tuzz, murky-mooshy, gluppity-glup, schloppity shlop—words that children would love to twist their tongue around! It was a few years before his best known book The Cat in the Hat would be written. And this has an interesting background.

In the early 1950s the most widely used early school primers were a series featuring a boy and girl named Dick and Jane who were too neat, clean, and well behaved to be true!. By the mid-fifties some educators began to debate how effective these were in laying the foundation for literacy, and encouraging and exciting early readers.

One of the people who were concerned, and were imagining alternatives was William Spaulding who was then director of the education division at the Houghton Miffin publishing house. In 1955 Spaulding invited Dr Seuss to create a book for six- and seven-year-olds who had already mastered the basic mechanics of reading. He reportedly challenged, “Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!”

The additional challenge was that Theodor was given a limited list of 250 words that he could use for his story. Theodor decided to quash his frustration by deciding to pick the first two rhyming words that he found in the list and create a story based on those. The words were Cat and Hat! The next challenge was to write the story. It took Theodor nine months to complete The Cat in the Hat—a 236 rhyming word book which while doing its traditional job of a reading primer was also entertaining. It was the story of two children, bored and alone at home who were visited by a cat in a top hat and red bow tie, and their mad capers in one afternoon.

We looked

and we saw him

the cat in the hat!

and he said to us

‘why do you sit there like that?

i know it is wet

and the sun is not sunny

but we can have

lots of good fun that is funny!

When it was published in 1957, the book was met with immediate critical and commercial success. Reviewers saw it as an exciting alternative to traditional primers. Three years after its debut, the book had already sold over a million copies.

The enthusiastic reception of The Cat in the Hat led Geisel to found Beginner Books, a publishing company specializing in easy-to-read books for children.

If 236 words was a challenge he took on successfully, one of his most popular books, Green Eggs and Ham, was the result of a bet that he could not write a book using only 50 words. But he did!

Dr Seuss never began his stories with a moral in mind. He felt that this was the one thing that immediately put children off. He believed in talking to kids not at them. He also cautioned other writers not to patronize children. As he said, “They can smell a phony a mile away. They are the toughest audience to write for.”

However his writing was not just word play; all his stories have an inherent moral, subtly permeating the rollicking words and the insouciant illustrations. With their plot twists and rebellious heroes who do the unexpected, the books cover a wide range of social and environmental issues. The Lorax at one time became a much-quoted environmental fable. His art work had a unique style, generally devoid of straight lines, and characteristic droopy figures.

Dr Seuss became a household name. Between 1937 and 1991, when he died aged 87, he published more than 60 books, which have sold half a billion copies between them–more even than J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books! The books have been translated into many languages. Some of his books were also adapted and made into animated films, TV shows and theatre productions.

I have spent as many hours reading Dr Seuss to my children as they were growing, as I have spent in perusing his books again and again, even when the children had outgrown them. I am sure that similar members of the Seuss fan club have not been unduly tarnished by what today is being perceived as writing and images promoting racial stereotypes, or being culturally insensitive. With six Seuss classics, including his first book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street ceasing publication and sale, it would be a pity if we were to return to the sanitized versions of children’s books like Dick and Jane.

You’ll come to a place where streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.

A place where you could sprain both your elbow and chin!

Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?

How much can you lose? How much can you win?

(Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)

–Mamata

The Pied Piper of Young Naturalists

Photo source: deshgujarat.com

It was the interview that was to start my journey as an environmental educator. I had walked in with no formal academic or professional credentials to support my application, except for a great love for trekking and a passion for education. Among the distinguished naturalists that made up the interview panel was an avuncular gentleman who probed gently with questions that were probably meant to test what made me tick. I have no recollection of the exact questions, nor my answers, but I must have passed muster because I did get the job!

That was my first encounter with Luvkumar Khachar as he was later introduced. In the few years that followed I had the privilege of having Luvbha as a senior colleague, mentor, and continuing inspiration. Over the years I realised that Luvbha was all this, and much more, to thousands of young people, leading them like the Pied Piper on a lifelong journey of becoming naturalists. 

Luvkumar Khachar was one of the architects of the nature conservation movement in India. A renowned naturalist and accomplished ornithologist, he was also a passionate nature educator who made it his mission to instil the love for the outdoors in every young person. He conceived and launched the massive Nature Club movement for WWF India, and guided the Bombay Natural History Society for decades, just as he did the Centre for Environment Education after that. His own nature camps—in the desert, in the mountains, and on islands– were legendary, and perhaps every ‘not so young’ renowned naturalist today would remember being at one of those camps.

Luvkumar was born in the erstwhile princely family of Jasdan in Gujarat on 24 February 1931. His early days were spent in the great open spaces in close touch with the natural environment, planting a lifelong love for the outdoors. He always bemoaned the lack of such opportunities for later generations of youngsters. This was one of the prime factors that motivated his Nature Camps mission in the early 1970s. As he recalled, “I contemplated the  apparent lack of excitement among our youth for going out into the great open spaces. Comparing their upbringing with mine, I realized that I had had the great good fortune of  having spent my childhood at Hingolgadh with its wide views of the Saurashtra countryside, across which played the seasons, responded to by plants and animals. A majority of children, especially in urban situations, seldom see a sunrise! What struck me was the immense gulf developing between a city child and a tribal child. Were we not creating a schizophrenic society? The thought was disturbing.”

Having himself had a stint as a teacher in a conventional school he was aware of, and distressed by the fact that schools were becoming fetters to free growth, rather than liberating experiences. “We like to believe that we are descended of a civilization which nurtured intellectual giants, but fail to realise that these thinkers were leading unfettered lives in a land that was largely wilderness, replete with the bounties of Nature. By contrast, today’s child attending the most sophisticated of school is cramped and provides a constricted vision. The child of yesteryears, while enjoying advantages of limitless horizons, enjoyed the benediction of gurus who encouraged questioning. Today’s child seems sentenced to ten years of a concentration camp governed by a syllabus as tyrannical and circumscribing as any prison code! The system instead of exciting the wonder of growing minds, supresses their flights as effectively as any efficient prison warden following the prison code.”

Such scathing words were a trademark of this life-long educator who was always forthright in expressing his strongly-held opinions. But they also represented a warrior who fought tirelessly and hard for his beliefs, even in the face of hostility.

Like most naturalists of his generation, Luvkumar meticulously recorded his observations. His writing was a rare combination of science, intellect and emotion, ably supported by his natural ability as a writer. When Sanctuary Asia, one of India’s leading and best-loved magazines for wildlife science and conservation, was being planned, he told the editor “If you are going to start a wildlife magazine, please don’t make it a dry-as-dust scientific journal to be read by just 30 colleagues. Make it a popular magazine that thousands will enjoy. Because we need larger numbers to protect our wildlife.”

Luvbha was “old-world” in that he demanded high standards of discipline, integrity, commitment, and work ethic; just as he commanded respect and awe. As his young colleagues we were always a little tense about living up to his expectations, and were often pulled up by him, but there was always a twinkle in his eyes and a gentle smile that told us that we had his support in our efforts. For a while we were also lunch companions when we shared work space in the leafy environs of CEE’s Sundarvan. One of the rituals that he introduced was that one of us was to go to his office every morning with a packet of milk, and set the curd that we would all share with lunch.

Luvbha was always chided me for not going on more camping trips. I do regret that I could not attend one of his nature camps. But I am grateful for having had the privilege of learning much from him that has guided my work in environmental education, as well as life-lessons that are now deeply entrenched in me. Luvbha passed away in 2015 at the age of 84. Remembering him with respect, and many warm memories.

–Mamata

Stargazer to Trailblazer

Photo source: en.wikipedia.org

As we continue to celebrate women and girls in science, here is an inspiring story that goes back two hundred years.

 The common belief in nineteenth-century American society was that too much intellectual education would damage a woman’s health, and that too much thought would fracture or destroy the weaker among them. Women were expected to spend their time in household chores and needlework, in their role as dutiful wives and mothers.

In 1818, a daughter was born to William and Lydia Mitchell. They named her Maria. The Mitchells lived on Nantucket Island, a community of seafarers. The family were Quakers, a community that had somewhat different beliefs and lifestyle than the mainstream population.  One of the tenets of Quaker religion was intellectual equality between the sexes. They valued education and believed that the same quality of education should be given to boys as well as girls. Maria, one of ten children, was encouraged from a young age to exercise the power of her mind.

Maria began attending private elementary schools at the age of four. When she was nine, Maria’s father, who was an amateur astronomer, established a free, private school that Maria joined. Her father was an unconventional teacher who believed in hands-on education and a learning-by-doing curriculum. Students learned about the natural world by being outdoors and direct observation and collection of natural objects. This approach to scientific study had a profound effect on Maria who, throughout her life inculcated the same process of exploration, investigation and persistence.

Maria’s father played an important role in the seafaring community of whalers and fishermen who relied entirely on the stars and the compass for nautical navigation; there were no sophisticated and accurate devices. William Mitchell with his amateur interest in astronomy and daily roof top observations and astronomical recording was the person they all consulted to check the accuracy of their charts, sextants, and chronometers.

From an early age Maria developed a love of astronomy and learnt much from her father’s instruction on astronomy, mathematics, surveying and navigation. When she was twelve years old, the family observed a solar eclipse over the island and Maria counted the seconds of the eclipse to pinpoint the longitude of their house. Two years later, whaling captains entrusted the fourteen-year-old Maria to rate their chronometers on her own. Maria continued to pursue what was becoming a passion, with basic equipment from the small attic of their home.

When her father’s school wound up, Maria joined Cyrus Pierce’s School for Young Ladies. Cyrus Pierce was one of the first people outside of Maria’s own family to recognize her sharp mind, facility for mathematics and self-discipline. He encouraged and supported Maria in her intellectual journey. Later she worked for Pierce as his teaching assistant before she opened her own school in 1835. In a bold step at a time when schools were still segregated she opened her school to non-white children. One year later, she was offered a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, where she worked for 20 years while continuing to pursue her astronomy studies.

On 1 October 1847, while the rest of the family was having a party, Maria was scanning the skies on the roof of the Bank where her father then worked. She spotted a blurry object that was not on any of the charts. She told her father that she had discovered a new comet. Her father was keen that the discovery be made public, but Maria was hesitant because she feared that the scientific community would not take seriously a discovery made by a woman. William was determined and wrote to the noted astronomers of the day, but was met with scepticism. Until he came to know that the Frederick VI the King of Denmark, himself an amateur astronomer was offering a gold medal to the first observer to spot a new telescopic comet. After a prolonged effort to get Maria’s discovery recognised, she was awarded the gold medal over a year later. The new comet was given the official name Comet 1847-VI, but commonly known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”.

Maria Mitchell’s discovery was recognised in a largely male-dominated field. In 1848 she was elected as the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and one of the first women members of the American Philosophical Society. She also became one of the first women to work for the US Federal Government as part of the US Nautical Almanac. She continued her post as librarian even as she took on new roles and responsibilities in the world of science.

In 1856, she resigned her post at the Atheneum to travel to Europe as the chaperone of the daughter of a rich businessman. She took the opportunity to meet scientists and visit observatories, but also found that even in Europe biases against women scientists were well entrenched.  For example, she was not allowed to observe the stars through the Pope’s telescope because she was a woman.

In 1865, Mathew Vassar a wealthy and enlightened man started the Vassar College. This was the second women’s college in America, and was unusually progressive in many respects, including being the first to hire women as professors. Mathew Vassar saw Maria as a role model for intelligent and ambitious young women and hired her as the first professor to teach at Vassar, even as he faced a lot of opposition. Maria continued to teach at the college for 23 years. Though she was by far the most popular professor she was initially paid only one-third the salary of the male professors, and she was constantly subjected to the deep-rooted prejudice that women were unsuited to mathematical and scientific pursuits.

As a teacher Maria followed her father’s approach of hands-on learning, taking her students of study trips to observe and record. She infused her students with a sense of excitement, and a hunger for knowledge, while sowing the seeds of respect for the scientific method and temperament. She followed unconventional teaching practices; she slept in the same dormitory as her students and would often wake them to observe the night sky. Then she would invite them to her room to drink coffee and discuss astronomy.

On nights when the sky was too cloudy for observations, she would invite the students to the observatory for a social get together. As they entered, she would personally hand out a scroll to each student, with a poem that she had specially written for that student. Then they would go around the room reading each person’s poem in turn. This tradition of Dome Parties continues to this day at Vassar.

Thus Maria became more than a teacher for her students; she was guardian, mentor and surrogate mother. But she expected much from her students, especially a dedication to accuracy and scientific temper, just as she had been taught by her father. She treated her students as equals; as she told her class that “We are women studying together.” Above all she paved the way for women in science with the words to her first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” 

Maria Mitchell retired from her teaching post in 1888, after a long distinguished career as the first professional female astronomer in America, She died a year later in 1889.

Maria Mitchell was more than just a trailblazer in astronomy. She was deeply involved in the emerging movement for woman’s rights to vote, own property, and receive the same type of education and opportunities offered to men. She was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873. She proved to the world that women, especially nineteenth-century women, could do much more, than just embroider samplers or oversee the household help. As she wrote, “The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery, will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of a micrometer.”

The trail that Maria laid continues to open further every day. Just a week ago, the European Space Agency has put the call out for new astronaut candidates, the first time in 11 years. The agency is strongly encouraging women to apply for a place on the new team. The sky is certainly not the limit!

–Mamata