Blender-Composting for the Lazy Gardener

Compost as we all know, is decomposed organic matter. Rich in nutrients, it is also known as ‘black gold’ for the vigour and fortification it brings to soil. Compost is the end-result of the natural degradation of biomaterials like garden waste and kitchen waste. Everything in nature will degrade in the natural course. But left to itself, it may take years or even decades. Composting is a way to nudge the process along. Win-win, because it reduces the amount of green and brown waste entering the garbage management system, and because the end-product enriches soil.

During composting, microorganisms—bacteria, fungi etc.–decompose the bio-materials. Among these, bacteria play a large part—they secrete a variety of enzymes which chemically break down organic materials. Worms, bugs, nematodes, and other critters in the soil contribute by physically breaking down those materials, which makes it easier for the bacteria, fungi and others to do their work.

The resultant compost provides the soil nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, along with a host of micronutrients and trace minerals.

Fundamentally, there are two types of composting processes which can go to work. The first is aerobic composting, in which the kind of bacteria at work use air to help speed up the breakdown of materials. The other is anaerobic composting, where the bacteria do not need oxygen to carry out the process.

There are several types of composting methods which can be used, basically classified as:

* Hot Composting: This quickly turns organic material into usable compost, but requires a lot of time and effort. Hot composting involves keeping the temperature at the center of the compost pile elevated, ideally to somewhere between 43-60o Celsius. The pile needs to be kept turned once a week or so to move colder material from the outside of the pile to the inside where it is heated and so breaks down into rich humus more quickly

* Cold Composting: Cold composting essentially means creating a compost pile and leaving nature to do its job. It requires less input from the gardener, but does mean that useable compost can take up to a year to be ready.

* Vermicomposting: Here worms are added to hasten the process of composting.

Popular domestic composting methods include open air composting, bin composting, tumbler composting and vermi-composting.

On and off, I have tried my hand at composting my kitchen waste. But being both lazy and inept, it was a mess each time!

Then I came across a method called trench-composting, which basically involves digging up the area around your plants in a shallow ditch, spreading the cut-up kitchen waste in the ditch, and covering it back with soil. I liked this method. Kind of no-fuss, no-muss; possible even for the ten-thumbed like me; and can be done on a daily basis. But then I ran into a problem. This was possible in the kitchen patch or even in the flower-beds. But what about the lawn? I could obviously not dig trenches there.

Then an idea struck. Why not blend up the kitchen waste and just pour it on the lawn? I reasoned that it would return nutrients to the soil, and would also results in a huge reduction of the kitchen waste going out into the waste management system. I started doing this.

And also decided to check if this idea had struck anyone else. Well, yes. Looks it has! The internet has accounts of what is called Blender-Composting. Several gardeners use it, though I could find no scientific papers on it. As some of the participants in the debates point out, this is not composting at all, since one is only physically crushing the pieces. But since that is the starting point of the composting process, I suppose it will help the bacteria and other micro-organisms do their work faster. Gardening experts say that addition of reasonable amount of bio-waste in this form can only have positive effects on the soil, even though it is not clear how much. However, they do caution against adding too much of this, as the early stages of the composting process could deplete nitrogen from the soil.

I can vouch that there is no smell and the goop, properly diluted and spread, attracts no flies or other insects. But depending on what goes into it, the goop can sometimes be yucky-looking, in fact referred to by some as ‘dragon-vomit’. I can vouch for this also—the day the goop is papaya-based, I definitely have to hide it in the soil in the hedges and bushes!

I am sold—it is either trench composting or blender composting for me!

–Meena

Beauty and the Bees

If last week was about boring bees, this week it is about beautiful bees—bees in art, bees and art.

Bees have been depicted in art through the ages, the oldest known been a Spanish cave painting dating back 15,000 years. These insects also have great symbolic value—variously standing for peaceful coexistence, teamwork, industriousness. In some cultures, they are symbols for fertility and healing. In Hindu mythology, Kamadev’s sugarcane bow is strung with a row of bees, thus symbolizing the sting of love.

One of the most popular works depicting bees has to be the Fontana delle Api, or Fountain of Bees in Rome. In a city replete with fountains, this one stands out for its elegance and creativity. Built in 1644, it prominently features bees because it was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, who belonged to the Barberini family, whose symbol was the bee. The 3-bee symbol of the family was also immortalized with St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, in the Baldacchino sculpture.

Fountain of Bees
Fountain of Bees, Rome

Napoleon did his part for bees—they were one of his imperial symbols. His red coronation robes were embroidered with gold bees. It was not just the beauty of bees which captured Napoleon’s imagination. He consciously used this symbol as a rejection of the fleur-de-lis, which was the symbol of the previous regime of the Bourbons. His use of bees started a rage, and they were used as decorative symbols on everything, from porcelain to textiles.

Coming to contemporary arts, in something called bee sculpture, artist Tomas Libertiny collaborates with bees and bee keepers, to re-create famous sculptures in beeswax. He makes 3-D replicas of the originals—from the Nefertiti bust to Micaheangelo’s sculptures—and creates a wire frame of the same shape. He gives these frames to beekeepers, who encourage bees to build their hives on these. In a matter of months (or years if it is a large and complex structure), the bees build in the desired shape. Not a simple process though—Libertiny compares it to doing bonsai, with the constant need for adjusting, trimming and building the growth in the desired shape. The result is a beautiful and very durable piece of art made of beeswax.

The Hive is a huge immersive exhibit at the Kew Gardens. It is a huge structure made of metal. It reflects the activity of a real bee hive in the Kew. An accelerometer (a device which detects vibrations) is placed in the real hive. It picks up the vibrations of the bees and transmits them to the metal hive in real time. There are 1000 LED lights in the structure, which light up in tandem with these vibrations. There are also recorded sounds from hives to add an audio dimension. It is the closet a human can safely get to being in a beehive!

Then there are artists for bees. The Good of the Hive initiative of artist Mathew Willey has made it a mission to depict 50,000 bees in murals and installations across the world, towards raising awareness of the role of bees in our lives, and the threats they face. The number 50,000 is chosen because that that is the number of bees which can sustain a healthy colony. Louis Masai Michel is another artist with a similar mission.

On the one hand there are humans celebrating bees in art. On the other, there are bees exhibiting a developed sense of art recognition! There is a fascinating experiment concerning bees and art conducted by scientists in Australia. Bees were shown 8 paintings, four by the French artist Claude Monet, and four by Australian Indigenous artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili. The scientists placed a small blue dot at the centre of each painting. The ones on the painting by Monet had a bitter quinine drop in it. The ones by Marawili had a drop of sugar solution. After letting the bees interact with these paintings for some time, the scientists replaced the paintings with two new paintings which the bees had not seen, one by Monet and one by Marawili. The bees made a beeline for the painting by Marawili! In other words, they were able to distinguish the styles of the two artists, and knew which painting would yield the sugar!

Long live bees!

–Meena

Boring Buzzers: Carpenter Bees

Every few months when we step out onto our little sit-out deck in the morning, we find pockets of sawdust strewn on the floor. Initially we thought that it was termites that had started eating away at the old wooden pergolas over the deck. But a general check could not reveal any other tell-tale signs of termites. So we continued to be baffled about what was responsible for this.

One morning as we sat there we saw a large black bumble bee flying about the pergolas, and then quite mysteriously disappearing somewhere into the wooden beam. A closer examination revealed a hole in the wood, and it seemed to be the one into which the bee had vanished. So now we had a possible suspect, but as yet no confirmation of the link between the sawdust and the bee. The next time there was sawdust, we checked the wood just above it and sure enough we found a neat hole. The next step was to find out if a bumble bee could also be a boring bee!

Some preliminary research confirmed one suspicion—that the drilling in the wood was indeed the work of a bee. But it also refuted the supposition that this was a bumble bee. What we discovered was that this was a bee called the Carpenter Bee, and also many interesting facts. 

To start with, of course, the name. Carpenter bees are aptly named for their habits of drilling into wooden surfaces such as logs and tree branches, or in urban areas, wood used for construction. They drill a neat hole in the wood and tunnel into the wood in order to make their nest and lay their eggs. In a couple of hours the carpenter bee can drill a hole a few inches deep, leaving beneath the debris of sawdust.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa latipes) are one of the largest bees we have here in India. They are big and black with an intimidating appearance. Their wings shine in the sunlight with metallic blue, green and purple colours. The male and the female are more or less similar, but the male has hairier legs.   

Carpenter bees do indeed resemble bumblebees, but while bumblebees usually have a hairy abdomen with black and yellow stripes, carpenter bees typically have a shiny, hairless abdomen. The two bees also have different nesting habits–bumblebees nest in an existing cavity often underground (e.g., in abandoned rodent burrows), whereas carpenter bees tunnel into wood to lay their eggs.

Another distinguishing feature of Carpenter bees is that they are solitary bees, unlike most other honeybees and bumblebees that live in colonies and are known as social insects. The honeybees make hives, while carpenter bees excavate and make well structured tunnels in wood. They vibrate their bodies as they rasp their mandibles against the wood.

After boring a short distance, the bee makes a right angle turn and continues to make a tunnel extending about 30-45 centimetres, parallel to the wood surface. Inside the tunnel, five or six cells are constructed. Each cell houses a single egg, and each one is provided with a wad of pollen collected from flowers, which could serve as nourishment for the larva when the egg hatches. Each cell is then sealed with regurgitated wood pulp and saliva. The larvae feed on the high protein and calorie pollen beebread, and enter hibernation, before they turn into adult bees and emerge from the tunnel. Adult females can live up to three years and can produce two generations of offspring per year, though they never see their offspring!

What an amazing feat of insect architecture was going on, hidden from us, in the single beam of wood right over our head, as we sipped our morning tea!

Equally impressive is the contribution of these bees to the cycle of nature. Carpenter bees typically visit large open-faced flowers which have a lot of pollen as well as nectar. They use vibrations to release the pollen from the flower’s anthers, and are described as buzz pollinators. As they feed on nectar from many flowers, the pollen from the flowers sticks to the underside of the abdomen and the legs, which is transported from flower to flower as they flit and settle to feed, playing a vital role in pollination.

Curiously while I have seen the bee hovering around the wooden beams, I have yet to see one buzzing around the flowers. So the next step in my tracking the bee’s journey still remains incomplete. Even the drilling seems to happen after dusk, as the saw dust appears only in the morning, when the bee appears to be rather ominously hovering around, guarding the entrance to its nesting tunnel, and then flying off into the sunlight.

Interestingly, despite their intimidating appearance, it seems that the males are harmless and do not sting. Female carpenter bees can inflict a painful sting but will seldom do so — unless they are handled or bothered by people– another difference between these solitary bees and other bees and wasps that inflict dangerous stings.

While carpenter bees are have their own place in nature, when they start their drilling activities in wood in houses and gardens, they can become pests. As they hollow out the wood, this can lead to the deterioration or collapse of wooden structures. With our already old and weather-worn wooden beams starting to become favoured nesting sites for Carpenter bees, we had to look for ways to stop these boring buzzers. Research indicated that one option was to inject chemical insecticides or pesticides into the holes. We could not bring ourselves to do this.

We then read that these quiet-loving bees do not like vibration or noise around their nests, but seeing as they were happily drilling right next to our large and loud wind chime, this was obviously not bothering them.

Another thing that these bees are said to be very sensitive to is citrus scents near their nest, and spraying citrus oil into the holes was a recommended way to foist them off. We have arrived at our version of this by plugging the new holes with wedges of lemon. We think that this is playing some part in preventing their access, so one battle at a time is won. But this has certainly not deterred their efforts at drilling new holes; so if the hollowed-out beam collapses on our heads one fine morning, the bees would have won the war! 

–Mamata

Snail Alert

As I was walking along in my colony the other day, on a patch of grass I saw a gory sight. Someone had stepped on a snail. It was crushed. And beside it, I saw a yellow outgrowth. I couldn’t figure out what that was: for a moment I thought that the snail had been dead for a few days maybe, and some kind of mushrooms or fungi had grown there, thanks to the nutrients available. That didn’t seem too plausible. So my next idea was that in fact the accident was very recent, and these were the snails innards. But a closer look revealed that small yellow balls made up the outgrowth.  So the final conclusion (borne out by web-searches) was that the crushed snail had been pregnant, and the eggs had come out and lay beside the dead father/mother.

Father/mother? What does that mean? Well, if you remember your high-school biology, most snails are hermaphrodites–which means that they have the reproductive organs of both males and females. In theory therefore, they have the ability to self-fertilize. However, they don’t usually do that. They mate in the “traditional way.” As a result, both of the partners lay eggs.  Each clutch has about 200 eggs on average, and each snail may lay 5-6 clutches per year.

And this high reproductive ability is a cause of great concern. Because the crushed specimen was a Giant African Land Snail, one of the most invasive species ever. A native of East Africa (mainly Kenya and Tanzania), today the snail has spread across almost the whole world, an active and aggressive pest. Given the rate of its reproduction the snail spreads like a wildfire. It is extremely adaptable, and eats about 500 species of plants, and hence poses a threat to both agricultural crops and native plants wherever it goes. Not only does it eat the plants but it is also a vector for plant pathogens, thus causing further damage to agricultural crops and native plants. It carries the rat lungworm parasite and can transfer it to humans, causing meningitis. And once entrenched, the snails are almost impossible to get rid of. Some states of the US have spent millions of dollars to eradicate the creatures, but with limited success.

But coming back to snails in general. Well, snails are gastropod mollusks, which means they are related to both octopuses and slugs.  There are some species adapted to living on land—the land snails, and there are aquatic snails, which live in either fresh water or the sea. All snails carry shells into which they retreat when threatened by predators, or in unfavorable weather. They hatch out of the eggs with small shells, which grow as they grow. The shells are made of calcium carbonate, and they keep adding more of it to the edges of the shells till they are adults. They don’t have legs, but move thanks to the muscular movement of their bodies, and aided along by the mucous they secrete which helps them to reduce friction and slide along. And moving along at snail’s pace means maintaining an average speed of about half-an-inch per second. They can’t hear, but their sight is good and sense of smell even better. They live for 3-7 years. While most species are hermaphrodite, there are some which are not and have distinct males and females.

Well, we do know that snails are a delicacy in some parts of the world. But lesser known is that in places in the UK, snail-racing is a sport! Snail shells are also sometimes incorporated in jewelry. Certain varieties of snails, especially the Muricidae family, produce a secretion that is a natural dye. In ancient times, purple and blue dyes were made from these snails, and were very expensive and prized. There was also belief that snails had medicinal properties, especially for bronchial problems, tuberculosis, etc., and some of these uses are still being investigated. And not to forget, snail slime may well be a part of that anti-aging cream or moisturizer you just bought!

Coming back to my crushed snail.

I know the person who stepped on him/her did so unknowingly.

And that if that clutch of eggs had hatched, we would have hundreds of more pests to ruin our gardens.

But still I cannot but feel a little sad, at the memory of the crushed body and the doomed eggs.

–Meena

Indicator Tea

Those who have gone through high school science will remember lab-experiments involving indicators. Adding a drop of phenolphthalein and noting that critical point at which the colourless liquid in the flask turned a bright pink. Or when the litmus paper turned red or blue. Remember how critical it was for our grades to observe these colour changes correctly? As a B.Sc Chemistry student, indicators played a pretty large part in my life!

Those colour changes are what my experiences with butterfly-pea tea took me back to. This tea has been much in vogue for some time now. But keeping in character, I am of course about two years behind the trend.

This in spite of having the creeper literally at my doorstep. Planted there to supply flowers for my mother’s puja– the shankpushpi flower is specially a favorite of Lord Shiva–it has proven itself a hardy survivor of my spurts of inept gardening. It grows and flowers and flourishes. The indigo-blue flowers are equally beautiful on the plant and in the puja.

Clitoria ternatea commonly known as Asian pigeonwings, bluebellvine, blue pea, butterfly pea or  Darwin pea, is known for its blue flowers, though there is a less common white variant. In India, it is called shankpusham, girikarnika or aprajita.

Here it is used mainly for worship and to some extent in Ayurveda, mainly for de-stressing, and to boost memory and brain function.

The use in Southeast Asia is more varied. It is an integral part of many Thai, Malaysian and Burmese recipes as an ingredient and as a colouring agent, and is very widely used in Chinese medicines.

Which brings me to the visually-stunning butterfly-pea tea, which is a wildly popular drink in those countries (and now the world). Made by steeping a handful of flowers (fresh or dry) in hot water, the resulting tea is a lovely blue. Squeeze a lemon into it, and it turns pink or even violet—taking you right back to your school lab! It is basically the same phenomenon—a change in pH resulting in a change in colour.

Research on the use of Butterfly Pea in managing Alzheimer’s has been ongoing for some time now. The latest is a research study from National Centre for Biological Sciences, India, published in Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which takes forward the hypothesis that extracts from this plant ‘can help in neuroprotection and prevent progressions that cause the ailment’.

So go ahead and plant a shankpushi in your garden or a pot—only making sure that it gets enough sun. It is not at all difficult to grow—my creeper sheds seeds all around, and each week, I find tens of little plants wanting to curl around the nearest support and climb. It will do well in most soils, even enriching them, as it is leguminous and will fix nitrogen. Apart from watering it once in a while, you don’t need to do much.

And in return, it will add beauty to your garden, adorn your puja room, help you make conversation-piece teas, salad additions and coloured rice. And hopefully also boost your brain-power. A winning proposition all around!

–Meena

Did I See What I Saw?

8.15 pm, June the 9th, 2021. Bangalore.

I was looking out at the madhu-malti (Combretum indicum; English names: Chinese Honeysuckle or Rangoon Creeper) in my garden.

And I saw an amazing sight. An aerial creature hovering and sucking nectar from the flowers. It darted away and was back for another 10-15 second go at the flowers. And again and again and again. And the movements were accompanied by a whirring sound.

Smaller than any bird I have seen, and with gauzy wings, it was much larger than any bee or wasp. To me, at first sight it looked like a giant wasp. But a wasp that was behaving like a sunbird or a humming bird. So then I wondered whether it was some sort of sunbird. But I didn’t feel comfortable with either explanation.

I rushed to get my phone. The creature was a fast-darting type; my phone does not have a great camera; the light was bad; last but not the least, I am a terrible photographer. I clicked away, knowing full-well that there would be nothing out of the exercise other than some dark blurs. And I was right.

I called Raghu. He came a few minutes later. Just caught a few glimpses of the creature. Not enough for him to make any conjectures apart from that it was a larger-than-ordinary flying creature. It did not hover when he came. The saga ended when it vanished into the dark. Raghu said it was just a moth and it was my hyperactive imagination which had seen it hovering and sucking.

I could not let this insult pass. I went to good old Google. And have concluded that what I saw was a Hummingbird Moth, probably a Hummingbird Hawkmoth (genus Macroglossum). But which one, I cannot tell.

Kitching, Kendrick and Smetacek in their enumeration ‘ A List Of Hawkmoth Species (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) Of India, Nepal, Bhutan And Sri Lanka, Including Their Common Names’ list about 20 Hummingbird Hawkmoths which may be sighted across this area. The common names run an interesting gamut, from Black-Based Hummingbird Hawkmoth to Burnt-Spot Hummingbird Hawkmoth to Obscure Hummingbird Hawkmoth.

Obviously not the pic I took!

What is this creature which looks like a bird and acts like a bird, but is an insect? An evolutionary phenomenon called convergent evolution or homoplasy explains this resemblance. In homoplasy, two creatures from different families and orders develop similar forms which serve the same functions. Basically, Hummingbird Moths mimic hummingbirds because it gives them some advantages. What could these advantages be? Scientists opine that looking like a bird may help them for two major reasons: first, these moths are diurnal, and this makes them more vulnerable to predators. They are also pretty colourful, which adds to the vulnerability. So looking like a bird may fool predators, and give them an edge.

These moths, like hummingbirds, have extremely strong wings to enable them to hover and sip. Hummingbirds beat their wing over 80 times a second. While the moths are not quite as fast, the speed is enough to keep them suspended over the flower for several seconds at a time. They have very long proboscis, which enable to suck the nectar.

Good to know. But can I be sure that what I saw was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth?

No. While Hummingbird Hawkmoths have been sighted in Bangalore, they are supposed to be seen in South India in the winter. But this sighting was in June.

And emphatically, all HHs unlike most other moths, are diurnal creatures. They are supposed to be active in the daytime, especially when it is sunny and bright. But this sighting was at 8.15 p.m.

These moths are supposed to come back at the same time to the same place, day after day. But alas, not in my case. I have been watching the madhu-malti for the last few days not only between 8 and 8.30 p.m., but on and off through the day, with nary a sight.

So did I see what I saw?

–Meena

Carle’s Creatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Mamata

Froglore

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

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

Source: Frog artefact collection of Seema Bhatt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Mamata

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

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