STRIKING TIMES

On 15 December 2022 an estimated 100,000 nurses went on strike across hospitals in the UK, marking the first-ever nationwide walkout in the history of the nursing union in the country. This is probably the culmination of a year that has seen a great deal of labour unrest across Britain which has manifested in a series of strikes. From British Rail workers, to postal workers, bus drivers and baggage handlers at airports, and NHS nurses, several essential services have been disrupted and daily activities affected by these.

Labour unions have had a long history in Britain. It is interesting that one of the earliest examples of labour militancy, was in 1888, and was sparked off by young girls who worked in appalling conditions in a match factory. The Match Girls’ Strike as it came to be known was a key moment in British history and a milestone in the labour movement.

This historic development dates back to the late-nineteenth century in London’s East End, an area inhabited by the very poor, with unsanitary living conditions and rife with disease and malnourishment. This area also provided cheap labour for the nearby factories. Among these was the Byrant and May Match Company. The company employed young girls (starting as early as age 13) who worked, standing on their feet, for 14 hours a day, for very meagre wages from which they had to also feed, clothe and house themselves. Their earnings were further cut by fines and deductions for small mistakes such as leaving a match on the work bench. The girls who were forced to work as they came from large and poor families, had hardly anything left to take home. The girls also suffered abuse at the hands of the foremen. Over and above the economic exploitation, was the hazardous work environment.  

The production of match sticks involved dipping the sticks, made from poplar or pine wood, into a solution made up of many ingredients including phosphorus, antimony sulphide and potassium chlorate. Within this mixture, it was the white phosphorus that was extremely hazardous for bones and lungs. Inhaling it would cause toothaches, and in the long run, a condition called “phossy jaw” an extremely painful type of bone cancer leading to horrendous disfiguration of the face.

Matchgirls strike work!

The Company employed around 1400 such women and made huge profits, even as they managed to circumvent some of the basic labour rules of the time. It was fully aware of the impact of phossy jaw but if anyone complained, they simply instructed them to have the tooth extracted. While discontent simmered within the workers, there was little that the girls could do to change the situation; but the glowing embers were getting hotter; until a spark ignited the matches.

Henry Burrows a social activist and Theosophist, and a close friend of Annie Besant, had heard rumours about the work conditions in the match factory. He first made contact with some of the girls who worked in the factory, and Annie Besant met many of them and heard from them about their appalling work conditions. This prompted her to write an article about this titled White Slavery in London. The article was published on 23 June 1888 in a weekly magazine called The Link which was published by Annie Besant.  

The powerful matchstick industry had never been challenged like this before, it was outraged, and promptly denied everything. Bryant and May threatened to sue Annie Besant for libel and demanded that their employees sign a statement claiming that  the article was untrue. They refused. The company retaliated by sacking one of the workers who they accused of being ring leader. This was the final straw for the Match girls. And so it was that on 5th July 1888, 200 girls and women downed their tools walked out. They marched to the office of The Link and their representatives met Annie Besant. Mrs Besant did not agree with the strike action in principle but she agreed to help them. Her leadership helped to give the girls direction and organization. The ripples spread quickly, and soon about 1,400 workers had walked out in sympathy. 50 girls visited Parliament, to describe their grievances to MPs “in their own words”.

Besant and Burrows proved crucial in organising the campaign which led the women through the streets whilst setting out their demands for an increase in pay and better working conditions. Such a display of defiance against a powerful industrial lobby was met with great public sympathy, and donations for the cause started pouring in. The empathy demonstrated for the plight of working women was also a sign of changing times.

The factory management saw that the bad publicity could harm their interests and they had no choice but to offer improvements in wages and working conditions. This agreement represented a resounding success for the Match girls, who returned to work the next day. Although it would not be until 1908 that the House of Commons finally passed an act prohibiting the use of the deadly white phosphorous in matches.

An important outcome of the Match girls’ strike was the creation of a union for the women to join; this was extremely rare as female workers did not tend to be unionised even into the next century. The Union of Women Matchmakers, which lasted until 1903, was extremely significant, considering that even as late as 1914, less than 10 per cent of female workers were unionised. It also meant that the organisation of the workers did not just disappear after the strike, as had been the case previously.


The Match girls’ success gave the working class a new awareness of their power, and unions sprang up in industries where unskilled workers had previously remained unorganized. As The Link wrote on 4 August 1888 the strike “put new heart into all who are struggling for liberty and justice”. The next year saw the Great Dock Strike, where many of the dock workers were male members of the families of the Match girls. Ultimately, these two strikes led to the formation and growth of the labour movement and Labour Party itself. 

–Mamata

Aquarium Alert

Last week, a huge aquarium housed in a Berlin hotel burst. Water, about 1500 fish, and debris flowed across the street causing chaos and slightly injuring two people. It was early in the morning, otherwise the 1 million litres of water pouring out from the aquarium might have led go many more injuries.

The AquaDom which burst was a star attraction of a complex with hotels, cafes and shops. It is supposed to have been the biggest cylindrical tank in the world. It is still not clear why the aquarium cracked when it did. It is speculated that the sudden overnight fall in temperature—it went down to -10c that night—may have caused in the acrylic glass tank to crack, which then led to its exploding under the weight of the water.

There were about 1500 fish of 80 species housed in the tank, of which most died. Just a few fish which were at the bottom survived.

Aquaria have never been easy to construct or maintain. Quite apart from managing the engineering challenges of building a structure that can hold the huge weight of water,, the design of these structures must take into account the requirements of the different types of creatures they house, since modern aquariums include all types of aquatic organisms: mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates as well as fishes in one exhibit. And what the tank is made of also requires thought–many substances, especially plastics and adhesives which are nontoxic to humans, are toxic to water-breathing animals.

Maintenance issues include problems such as water clarity, dissolved wastes, temperature, tank decor, disease treatment, and nutrition. And then of course, the glass has to be such that it does not reflect, so that visitors can see the creatures. Further, the structure has to be acoustically properly designed.

Maintaining water quality is critical of course—first and foremost, the inlet water must be free of pollutants including sewage and industrial wastes.  In fact, chlorine and other additives have been removed from water before it can be used for this purpose. The gaseous equilibrium of the water with the atmosphere has to be maintained to ensure adequate oxygen and to avoid super-saturation with nitrogen. Provision for  purification of metabolic wastes is of course critical.

Even addition of plants to an aquarium has to be done with care. Since aquaria are usually kept in bright light for many hours, the plants there photosynthesize much more, and the balance of carbon di oxide and oxygen and water in the water goes awry unless carefully balanced.

India never did have an AquaDom equivalent, but the Taraporewala Aquarium in Mumbai has a hoary history. It is the oldest aquarium in the country, and was opened by Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India in 1951.

taraporewala-aquarium
Taraporewala Aquarium

The cost of building at that time was about ₹8 lakhs, of which ₹2 lakhs came from a Parsi philanthropist D. B. Taraporewala. So the government graciously named this aquarium after him.

It has over 100 species of fish and other aquatic animals like sharks, seahorses and turtles. The collection consists of freshwater, marine and tropical fishes brought from across the world.

It was a major tourist attraction for locals and tourists. And to keep up with the times and modernize the exhibits, it went through a major renovation less than 10 years ago.

However, construction work undertaken for the Mumbai Coastal Road project may likely have weakened the 70-year-old building and it was feared to be structurally unsafe. An audit was carried out in March 2022. Based on this, the government was to decide whether to repair the structure, re-construct it, or shift the aquarium from its location on Marine Drive to another location at Worli.

As of now, sadly the Aquarium is closed, and it is not clear what the government has decided.

Fish are probably low down on the priority list of policy-makers and decision-makers.

–Meena

Hoopoe Who?

This is the time of year when I look at my little patch of lawn in the mild December sunshine and miss the winter visitors who used to add little dabs of colour and movement on the grass. Alas, in the last few years, with the erstwhile fields now transformed into towering concrete jungles, these feathered friends have forsaken us. Among these was one of my favourites—the hoopoe.

The Eurasian hoopoe (Upupa epops) is a striking bird distinguished by its appearance. A fawn-coloured bird, about the size of a myna, it has zebra-like black and white markings on its back, wings and tail; and the head is topped by a conspicuous fan-shaped crest. It has a long, slender, gently curved beak.

The bird has a soft, musical hoo-po or hoo-po-po call which may go on intermittently for ten minutes at a stretch. It may be this call that has given rise to its name. Another possible root of its common English name is that it is a derivation of the French name for the bird huppee which means crested.

Hoopoes have two basic habitat requirements: bare or sparsely vegetated ground and vertical surfaces with cavities for nesting. Hence they are found in a wide range of habitats including lawns, gardens, and groves. They are usually found singly, but sometimes in pairs, striding over the ground and periodically pausing to probe the ground to forage for food. They eat mainly a variety of insects, small reptiles, frogs, plant matter, seeds and berries. The beak is also used as a lever to move stones and flake from tree bark. The strong musculature of the head allows the beak to be open like forceps when probing the soil. While probing, the crest is folded back into a neat point behind the head.

While mainly a ground-walking bird with a quail-like waddling gait, the hoopoe has broad, rounded wings capable of strong flight. Due to the wings half closing at the end of each beat or short sequence of beats, hoopoes have a characteristic undulating flight like a giant butterfly. As it lands, the crest opens out fully, as it does when the bird is agitated or frightened. The hoopoe likes to sunbathe by spreading its wings and tail close to the ground and raising its head. Hoopoes also enjoy dust and sand baths.

Hoopoes are territorial and the males call out to proclaim the ownership of their territory. The male and female pair for a single mating season. The nest is in a natural hollow in a tree or wall lined untidily with straw, rags and rubbish; which usually make the nest stink. The female alone is responsible for incubating the eggs. It is the stink which act as the defence against predators. The stink is not just from the rotting rubbish but also from a foul-smelling liquid generated by the incubating female. The secretion is rubbed into the plumage of the mother and chicks to deter not just predators but also parasites and harmful bacteria.  The secretions stop when the nestlings are about the leave the nest.

These distinctive birds have made a cultural impact over much of their range. Considered sacred in Ancient Egypt, they were depicted on the walls of tombs and temples. The Egyptian considered the hoopoe as symbolical of gratitude because it repays the early kindness of its parents in their old age by trimming their wings and bringing them food when they are acquiring new plumage.

The Arabs call it the doctor, believing it to possess marvellous medicinal qualities. The hoopoe is also considered a waterfinder. It can see through the earth and can point out hidden springs, a virtue which is much appreciated by desert dwellers.

In contrast, hoopoes were thought of as thieves across much of Europe and as harbingers of war in Scandinavia. In Estonian tradition, they are strongly connected with death and the underworld. Their song is believed to foreshadow the death of people or livestock. But in many parts of the world they are seen as harbingers of good things.

In the Middle East, there is an interesting legend about how the hoopoe got its crown. Solomon the wise king was once journeying across the desert, and was fainting with heat, when a large flock of hoopoes came to his assistance, and by flying between the sun and the King, thus protecting him from the strong sun.

Grateful Solomon asked the birds how he could reward them. After some consultation among themselves the hoopoes answered that they would like each bird to be decorated with a golden crown. Solomon cautioned them that this would not be in their own interests, but as the birds persisted, he gave each Hoopoe crown of gold. For some days the Hoopoes preened in self-admiration and showed off their gift to all the other birds. Then a bird-catcher discovered the prize on their head, and as the word spread, every hunter in the land started pursuing and catching hoopoes. The hoopoes’ very existence was in danger. They begged for forgiveness for their greed and requested Solomon to take away their crowns of gold. Solomon granted their request, and removed the golden crown from their heads; but, being unwilling that the birds should be left without a mark by which they might be distinguished from their fellows, he substituted a crown of feathers for that of gold. And thus the Hoopoe still wears its distinguishing crown of feathers.

It must be that Solomon also gave the hoopoes the gift of wisdom. A classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem titled The Conference of the Birds tells the allegorical story of thirty birds who set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh. The birds are led through the journey by the Hoopoe who the birds recognize as their spiritual leader thus:

Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide:
It was on you King Solomon relied
He knew your language and you knew his heart.

Nevertheless each bird is afraid to undertake the journey, and comes up with its excuses. The poem is made up of one-to-one stories in which the Hoopoe addresses each bird’s concern and excuse. What makes the Hoopoe’s responses even more insightful are the anecdotes and stories that follow each piece of advice. The Hoopoe is full of words of encouragement and wisdom reminding the birds to look at the bigger picture and aspire for the higher goals; explaining that the quest for ultimate wisdom must not be limited by oneself or the system! These words are as relevant to every one of us too.

The ocean can be yours; why should you stop  
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in beams.”

–Mamata

Guts and Gore

Last week we looked at the millions of microscopic life-forms which live within us and which help not just our digestive processes, but contribute overall to our health and well-being.

This week, here is a bizarre story of how we started to get insights into our digestive system (quite literally, as you will see).

The year was 1822, the place Mackinac Island, near the Canada-US border. A young fur-trader called Alexis St. Martin got shot in the stomach—how and why and by whom is not clear, but probably an accident.

He was treated by Dr. William Beaumont, a US Army surgeon who was stationed at a nearby army post. St Martin had a hole in his stomach where he was shot. The treatment seemed to work and he recovered, but the hole did not close. For the first two weeks or so, whatever he ate, came out through the. But after that, though the hole was still open, the food did not come out and his digestive system seemed to be working normally. And though the stomach-wound healed, there was still a hole there—a window to his innards. Since sstomach acids are very strong, they essentially disinfected the wound from the inside out, and so it was safe to not sew it up.

Dr. Beaumont saw this as a miraculous opportunity to study the digestive system—he could literally look into the stomach as it worked. He paid St Martin to work in his house doing domestic chores with the understanding that he would allow the doctor to carry out experiments. St Martin was not happy, but did not have much choice.

Dr. Beaumont carried out a variety of experiments. For instance, he often watched the digestion happening in St Martin’s stomach after he ate. Sometimes, he let him eat and then retrieved the contents of the stomach later through the hole to see how much digestion had taken place. He would put food in a mesh bag and then dip it into St Martin’s stomach and take it out after some time. He even licked the inside of St. Martin’s stomach and found that the acid taste manifested only when the stomach started to digest food.

Over the next several years, Beaumont observed and recorded everything that went into St. Martin’s stomach. He took samples of gastric secretions and sent them to chemists for analysis.

Gory though it sounds, and medical ethics of today would probably never allow these kind of experiments, it has to be said that Dr. Beaumont’s work laid the foundation for modern ways of studying and understanding physiology. His work helped us to understand how the basic process of digestion actually occurs.

Weirdly enough, even today, in the US and some other parts of the world, the study of the digestion in cows is undertaken by deliberately making a hole or cannula in a cow’s stomach. The hole is fitted with a cannula which acts as a porthole-like device that allows access to the stomach of the cow, to perform research and analysis of the digestive system. These are called cannulated or fistulated cows. Apart from research, this also helps sick cows by allowing vets to insert healthy microbes into the sick cow’s gut. But I wonder if there can’t be ways just to give the sick cow medicines orally. Making a permanent hole in a cow’s stomach doesn’t seem a very nice thing to do! In fact, any animal rights groups find the practice objectionable, and are campaigning against it.

Here is to the spirit of science, of exploration and discovery. But strongly rooted in ethics!

–Meena

A Pied Piper for New York

Rats!
They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

This verse from a poem written in 1842 by Robert Browning describes the plight of a town called Hamelin. The tale of the rats and what happened to them has been told through the ages in what is a classic children’s story called the Pied Piper of Hamelin. 

The story continues in another version by the famous Brothers Grimm.

Once upon a time, in the year 1284 a mysterious man appeared in Hamelin. He was wearing a coat of many-coloured bright cloth, for which reason he was called the Pied Piper. He claimed to be a rat catcher, and he promised that for a certain sum of money he would rid the city of all mice and rats. The citizens struck a deal, promising him a certain price. The rat catcher then took a small fife from his pocket and began to blow on it. Rats and mice immediately came from every house and gathered around him. When he thought that he had them all he led them to the River Weser where he pulled up his clothes and walked into the water. The animals all followed him, fell in, and drowned.

The tale which originated as medieval folklore, which is believed to be based in fact, (there is really a town called Hamelin in Germany) has been retold in many forms through the ages. And it continues to a somewhat grim ending–when the townspeople are unwilling to pay the piper for his services, he lures their children away by the same means.

Fast forward to 2022. Once again here is a city, no less than New York itself, which is looking for the services of a real life Pied Piper who will entice away the millions of rats that are crawling through the city’s streets and subways.

New York is infested with rats. It is estimated that there is one rat for every four New Yorkers!

Interestingly these rats also arrived in New York just as the thousands of immigrants did over the centuries. New York City rats are of the Norway Rat, or “brown” rat, variety that first arrived in North America sometime around 1776 on boats from Europe with the Germans who arrived in America. They quickly spread across the country. The large rats (7-9 inch body with a 7-9 inch tail) and weighing about 500 grams, have superhuman abilities to squeeze through small openings, falling from great heights without injury, and chewing through pipes and cinder blocks. They are also notoriously difficult to capture and eliminate.

As a result rat infestation is a serious and widespread issue in the New York metro area. Rats have become not only a huge menace but also a health and environmental threat. They devour food supplies and contaminate what they don’t eat with faeces and urine. They carry pathogens that spread a range of harmful viruses and bacteria that cause serious illness. Their gnawing and burrowing can cause damage that can be a problem for residents, property owners, businesses and entire neighbourhoods.

Rats seek out places to live that provide them with everything they need to survive: food, water, shelter, and safe ways for them to get around. Areas around restaurants provided these easily for the rats. But during the Covid lockdown of public eating places, and more work, and eat, from home meant that the garbage accumulation shifted to residential areas, and the rats were quick to follow. The rat issue has exacerbated in residential areas since the Covid lockdown was lifted.

The residents are almost held to ransom by the rat brigands. New York’s Sanitation Department reported a roughly 71% increase in rat complaints since October 2020. There is even a Rat Information Portal on the city government’s website which offers information and tips to battle the menace such as: -Clean up. Garbage and clutter give rats a place to hide. -Rats eat your garbage, so store all garbage in hard plastic rat-resistant containers with tight fitting lids. Provide enough trash containers for all of the occupants of your property. Any exposed garbage will attract rats. -Keep landscaped areas around your property free of tall weeds and trim shrubs that are close to the ground. -Check for cracks or holes in the foundation of your building, sidewalk and under doors and repair them by filling and sealing them.

There is a new epidemic in New York that calls for emergency measures.

Hence the recent post by the New York Mayor Eric Adams inviting candidates for a position of a “citywide director of rodent mitigation,” or “a rat czar.”  “If you have the drive, determination, and killer instinct needed to fight New York City’s relentless rat population — then your dream job awaits.”

The qualifications for the post? “The ideal candidate is highly motivated and somewhat bloodthirsty, determined to look at all solutions from various angles, including improving operational efficiency, data collection, technology innovation, trash management, and wholesale slaughter.”

The role’s more serious qualifications include an ability to “self-manage and conduct rigorous research and outreach,” a “desire to be entrepreneurial with an interest in social impact” and either experience in local government or a background in a “relevant” field.

The city government is also putting in place more stringent measures with respect to garbage disposal. As of April 1 2023, New Yorkers will be fined for putting put their trash on the curb before 8 p.m.; currently the rule allows them to put out the trash at 4 p.m. (The rats will have to wait four extra hours before their sidewalk buffets are open!)

In the meanwhile, it would be most interesting to get a sneak peek into the CVs of the applicants for Rat Czar, and to know who will be the new age Pied Piper of New York!

–Mamata

It Takes Guts!

‘Gut Ecology’ is the name of a book brought out by the St. Marks Academic Institute which is dedicated to ‘advancing scientific knowledge of colorectal disorders’. I think the book, which features topics like ‘The gut microflora: traditional and molecular identification techniques’, and ‘The ‘unculturables’’ deserves to be a bestseller. Not that I would understand the contents, but I have to admire the dedication and scientific spirit it takes to spend a lifetime researching and writing on such topics! Guts indeed!

But what exactly would the book be about? Let’s break it down. Ecology is the study of organisms and how they interact with the environment around them. An ecologist studies the relationship between living things and their habitats. ‘Gut’ is commonly used to refer to the stomach, entrails, parts or the whole of the digestive tract. So a ‘gut ecologist’ would study the insides of our digestive tract to understand the micro-organisms (collectively referred to as gut microbiota) that live there, and how they interact in our digestive system.

For very long, the presence and role of micro-organisms in our body was not known. It was in the 1670s and ‘80s when Antoine van Leeuwenhoek started using his newly developed handcrafted microscopes that scientists started studying them. Leeuwenhoek described and illustrated five different kinds of bacteria present in his own mouth and that of others, in a letter he wrote to the Royal Society of London in 1683. He later also compared his own oral and faecal microbiota, and proved that there are differences in micro-organisms in body sites. (See why I say it takes guts to be in this field!)

Gut bacteria
Gut bacteria

Now we know that the human gastrointestinal tract—from mouth to anus– is divided into sections, and each provides a different environment and different kinds of micro-organisms thrive in each section. In all, about 100 trillion micro-organisms (most of them bacteria, but also viruses, fungi, and protozoa) exist in the human gastrointestinal tract. In fact, the colon contains the highest microbial density recorded in any habitat on Earth, representing between 300 and 1000 different species. There are actually about as many bacterial cells in our bodies as there are human cells, and they contribute over a kilogram to our weight! So Stewart Brand, the American writer, environmentalist and editor of the highly influential Whole Earth Catalogue was right when he said, ‘If you don’t like bacteria, you’re on the wrong planet.’

These organisms are such an integral part of the functioning of the human body that they are sometimes called ‘the forgotten organ’.

A foetus has no bacteria at all in the system. Through the process of birth, it picks up a good number, and then in the first few years of its life, the child picks up a huge number of different bacteria from its environment. Fascinatingly, like fingerprints, a person’s gut microbiota composition is unique to each individual.

These micro-organisms influence our energy metabolism and many other areas of human health, from immunity and the progress of diseases, to appetite, to nutrition uptake, and even personality! They therefore greatly influence our health, well-being, weight etc.

External factors influence the composition of these micro-biota but by changing our diet or fasting can change the composition of these life-forms in our systems, in a matter of days or weeks, and this is why it is important to pay attention to what we eat. This is also the reason why medical science is increasing focus on  prebiotics and probiotics. If like me, you are confused about the two terms, here are simple definitions:

* Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the “good” bacteria (normal microflora) in the body.

* Prebiotics are foods (typically high-fiber foods) that act as food for human microflora. Prebiotics are used with the intention of improving the balance of these microorganisms.

Kudos to the scientists who work so hard to help us understand our bodies and their functioning, ready to spend their lives poring over microscopes to figure out how we can live healthier and better!

–Meena

Save Our Soils

December 5 is marked as World Soil Day every year as a means to focus attention on the importance of soil as a critical component of the natural system, and as a vital contributor to environmental and human well-being. The day reminds us of the degrading state of this resource, and urges for the sustainable management of soil resources. The date of 5 December was chosen because it corresponds with the official birthday of the late H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand, who was one of the main proponents of this initiative.

At first glance soil seems just like a layer that covers the earth’s land surface. In fact soil is a world in itself, made up of inorganic and organic components, that provides food for humans and animals through plant growth. The inorganic components include air, water, minerals, and masses of tiny particles of rock broken down over millions of years by baking sun, rainwater, atmospheric gases, cracking ice and penetrating roots. It is the living organisms like lichen, algae and fungi, as well as earth-dwelling organisms from earthworms to microscopic bacteria—dying, decomposing and leaving their remains on and in the soil that transform these lifeless particles into a form that initiates and maintains life on earth, and that can support millions of life forms. Hard to believe that there are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil than people on Earth!

Like humans, soils need a balanced and varied supply of nutrients in appropriate amounts to be healthy. When this balance is disturbed soil loses its ability to process nutrients and convert them into a form that enables plants to grow.

Agricultural systems lose nutrients with each harvest, and if soils are not managed sustainably, fertility is progressively lost, and soils will produce nutrient-deficient plants. Soil nutrient loss is a major soil degradation process threatening nutrition. It is recognized as being among the most critical problems at a global level for food security and sustainability all around the globe.

The theme for World Soil Day 2022 is “Soils: Where Food Begins”.  This aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing the growing challenges in soil management, increasing soil awareness and encouraging societies to improve soil health.

Even as humans are using this day to speak up for the health of the soil, I thought that it should also would be a chance for the soil to speak up for itself!

Here is what I imagine the soil would like to share!

THE SOIL’S LAMENT

I am soil, ever thought about me?

Always underfoot, you think I’m here for free.

In your fields and gardens, roads and lawns

On mountains, in deserts, in cities and towns.

I can be living, feeling, strong and healthy like you

But I can also get sick, and sometimes tired too.

I can often get weaker, unable to help life to grow

How can that happen, would you like to know?

Year after year, season after season

You plant me with the same crops with the reason

That the more you put in, the more you will get.

But that’s just where you will lose the bet.

In such a hurry you are to sow and to reap

Have you ever dreamed that I too need time to breathe?

Ever thought that I also need to recuperate

From trying to keep up at such an unnatural rate?

Give me break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

The unending cycle will sap all my strength

Suck the minerals and nutrients right from my depths.

One day quite soon I’ll just run out of steam

Then those bountiful harvests will be only a dream.

Then you will pump me with every artificial aid

Chemicals, fertilizers, all the tricks of the trade.

Imagining that the fruit I bear will be so good,

But could you thrive on just pills, not natural food?

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

You will drug me with pesticides and insecticides

To destroy all “enemies” in just one stride.

You don’t realize that with the deadly dose

My allies too are dying, not only the foes.

You strip me of my protective cover

Rip the grasses, trees, and shrubs that flower.

Those keep me protected in a secure cloak

From the fury of rains and the winds that blow.

You leave me exposed, naked and bare

To be blown, swept or washed away somewhere.

You clad me in an armour of tar and concrete

So I can’t breathe, nor can the creatures beneath.

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Cover me again with a mantle of green

Let my own magic do the job you’re so keen

To assign to factories, labs and vans

And potions from bottles and boxes, sprays and cans.

Let the humus, leaf litter and the biomass

The lichen, the algae, the roots and grass

The bugs and beetles, the worms and snails

Do the job they’ve always done, one that never fails.

It’s these myriad earth dwellers that give me life

That in turn I bestow upon all plant life.

Let my friends and foes all show their might

If I am strong and healthy, it will be all right.

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

–Mamata

Zoos and the Sense of Wonder

Cheetahs at Oakland Zoo. Picture: Oakland Zoo site

Oakland Zoo is celebrating its annual Glowfari Festival through November, December and January. This year, the highlights include ‘a walkabout through the land down under with kangaroos and koalas, icons of the California coastline including whales, otters, and jellies, exotic animals of the tropical rainforest, and a trip to the past with a towering T-Rex and a megalodon shark tunnel!’ Ok, apart from the t-rex and megalodon shark, that’s not very usual for a zoo, right? Well, not till you learn that these are not real animals that the visitors will see but hundreds of huge hand-painted animal lanterns  placed throughout the zoo’s campus, making for a totally unique tour of the zoo by night. The spectacular lanterns are arranged throughout a mile-long pathway. They glow in the dark, turning the zoo into a fairyland. The tag line of the fest is ‘A Wildly Illuminating Lantern Festival’.

Sean Kenney’s Lego Butterfly

Some years ago, a New York based artist Sean Kenney toured several zoos and botanical gardens in the US with over 150 life size and larger-than-life size sculptures of animals and plants made with, hold your breath, Lego blocks! Lego blocks are this artist’s chosen medium. who turned his The largest sculptures took up to nine months to construct. The pieces are set in place as per a master-plan, and glued tother. A lion, for example, took 474 construction hours and Lego 48,248 bricks to build.

Brevard Zoo currently has an exhibition called ‘Life Beneath our Sea’ which displays a dozen giant sand sculptures hand-crafted by world-class artists using over 500 tonnes of sand, which is bringing the beauty of underwater scenes to the viewers.

These are just a few examples of innovative programmes being done by zoos to attract visitors, bring the beauty of wonder of nature to them, and educate them.

It is well recognized that experiences with animals and educational elements can increase zoo visitors’ motivation to take conservation action, and this is why zoos place so much emphasis on educational initiatives.

San Diego Zoo, probably the top-rated zoo in the world, has developed curricula on a number of topics that can be taught through a combination of classroom activities, along with activities to be done during a visit to the zoo. The topics range from the Panda curriculum to the Wildcats curriculum to Animal Adaptations to the Australian Outback curriculum. They also organize field trips with guides for schools, opportunities to get close to small animals, safari park guided field trips, special early morning trips and even sleepovers at the safari park!

The Singapore Zoo has specific programmes for various levels, from pre-school to primary school to secondary school. They also have professional development programmes for teachers. These are very structured experiences. For instance, one of the education programmes offered to secondary students ‘Fragile Forest’ helps them get a multi-dimensional experience of life in a rainforest ecosystem. It includes a walk amidst fascinating flora and coming face to face with lemurs, bats, butterflies, birds, tarantulas, snails, millipedes, etc. This tour also demonstrates the importance of rainforests to our lives, and ways individuals can help to save them.

And it is not just children that zoo education caters to. Many zoos like the Smithsonian offer internships for adults and senior students, and encourage volunteering.  

A number of zoos pivoted during COVID to offer virtual zoo experiences, including pre-recorded virtual Zoo tours, online classes allowing children to personally interact with Zoo educators and virtually meet several animal ambassadors up close. Some Zoos like the Taronga Zoo, run an educational TV channel, with new videos releasing every week. Other zoos offer virtual guided tours through the Zoo Commissary, Vet Hospital, and behind the scenes Aquarium.

Yet other zoos offer educational kits like exhibit design kits, , biological artefacts (i.e. skulls, feathers, shells, etc), and materials to conduct conservation learning games.

India too places emphasis on zoo education. The Central Zoo Authority got Centre for Environment Education to develop a Zoo Education Masterplan—a 330 page document which provides zoos in India a detailed way-forward on the why, what and how of education at such facilities.

Lets hope zoos across the world are able to effectively use education to support conservation.

–Meena

Angela Ruiz Robles: eBook Pioneer

What is it that would help to lighten the weight of school bags, is portable, makes learning more attractive and adapts teaching to the level of each student; can be used in the dark, supports learning with sounds, can be used in multiple languages, can be a useful teaching aid for teachers?

Today most school children can easily answer this as a “Tablet”. But this list, and this vision of such a teaching-learning device was made over 75 years ago, and resulted in an invention called Mechanical Encyclopedia. The inventor was Angela Ruiz Robles–a Spanish school teacher. 

Angela’s story is fascinating and inspirational.

Angela Ruiz Robles was born on 28 March 1895, in Villamanin, a municipality in the province of Leon in Spain. Her father Feiciano Ruiz was a pharmacist and her mother Elena Robles a housewife. Angela completed her higher education at the teacher training college in Leon, and went on to teach shorthand, typing and business at the same college from 1915 to 1916. In 1917 she was a teacher and director at the Gilberto Gordón School in Gordón, a town located near the city of León.

In 1918 she accepted a position as teacher in Santa Eugenia de Mandía, a village near Ferrol in Galicia, and remained there for the next decade. It is here that she found her true calling as a teacher. She was totally dedicated to her students, giving personal attention to each one; noting those who required special attention according to their needs. Her work was not confined to the classroom; she visited the homes of her students to provide additional instruction and support. She understood that every child has unique learning abilities, personalities and insecurities. As her old students recalled: “Doña Angelita, who was known by her first name to all of us, was the perfect teacher. She never treated any student differently and always honoured each individual learner’s needs.” Angela spent ten years in the village school and was greatly loved and respected by all.

Angela lost her husband when she was 40, and in 1928 she moved to Ferrol. She needed to teach, but now also to provide for her family. She founded the Elmaca Academy named after her daughters Elena, Maria Elvira, and Carmen. The Academy located in her own home provided classes for those aspiring to join customs, become mail carriers, or telegraph operators, as well as apply for business management studies. Her academy followed participatory pedagogical methods that were much ahead of their time; and this was reflected in the highest pass rate in the country for her students.

Along with the regular courses Doña Angelita gave free night classes to people with few resources. The Academy also became a social centre. Letters were read to, and written for illiterate immigrants; literary gatherings were held; food distribution was organized, and religious processions could be watched from here.

In 1934, she became manager of the Escuela Nacional de Niñas del Hospicio (National Girls’ School of the Hospice) in Ferrol, which cared for orphaned or abandoned girls. Doña Angelita made sure that the girls got a primary education, musical education and learned a useful trade so that they could earn and integrate with society.

As Doña Angelita continued her teaching and other educational work, she also had to support and bring up her three young girls by herself, but she made time for her own research and writing. Between 1938 and 1946, she wrote, lectured, edited and republished sixteen books. She published three of them: Compendium of Castilian Orthography, Castilian Orthography (abbreviated) and Modern Abbreviated Martinian Shorthand—books addressing the conventional Spanish spelling systems. In 1944, Ángela Ruiz started her Scientific-Grammatical Atlas project. Her goal was to teach Spanish grammar and spelling while making Spain better known through Spanish grammar, syntax, morphology, spelling and phonetics.

Angela Ruiz was also constantly thinking of resources, innovations, and inventions that would help to improve the teaching-learning process, and spent hours after her daily work in exploring and experimenting with such tools. Her aim was simple: “To make teaching easier, to get maximum knowledge with minimum effort.”

It was then that she dreamed of what she described as a “Mechanical Encyclopaedia” which addressed the needs listed in the first paragraph of this piece. This book included a vast range of information which was represented in graphic, sound or textual form. It could be made of waterproof and lightweight materials. It had the possibility of directly incorporating lighting and magnifying glasses.

Her invention consisted of patterned sheets. When you put your finger on them, they lit up and an educational text appeared. For this to happen, she incorporated an electrical circuit that she designed herself.

Angela made a sketch and detailed out her new kind of book which she described as “a mechanical, electrical, and air pressure procedure for reading books“. She was certain that her invention was a valuable educational tool and she went to Madrid to find promoters. Her invention was appreciated, but did not result in any funding for her to develop the patent. Angela was disappointed, but undeterred she continued to work on improving her invention.

On 10 April 1962, ten years after her first attempt, she filed a patent entitled An Apparatus for Various Readings and Writings. That prototype made of zinc and bronze was the Mechanical Encyclopedia. Today this prototype is exhibited at the National Museum of Science and Technology in A Coruña in Spain.

With that physical prototype, she once again undertook the rounds of different ministries in Madrid. Again the previous story was repeated: many pats on the back, but not a single penny. After all she was a woman, and a provincial school teacher, how could her invention be taken seriously? Angela continued her efforts until she was almost 75 years old, but she was unable to develop or distribute her inventions.

Today writer and philanthropist Michael Hart is best known as the inventor of the e-book, and in 1971, he created the Gutenberg Project, the first project to make e-books freely available via the internet. Sadly, forgotten in history books is the name of Angela Ruiz Robles, a passionate and dedicated teacher, and the original pioneer of the electronic book.

–Mamata

Going to the Zoo

As a child in Delhi, one of the major highlights of the year was a visit to the Zoo. And if we were lucky enough to have guests from out of town with children, it was a bonanza year, because the zoo would be on the itinerary for the guests, and we could go along too. The birds visiting the wetlands which are a major part of Delhi Zoo; the lions, tigers, elephants, zebras; the mischievous monkeys, the exotic zebras and giraffes—these were our only encounters with creatures that we otherwise only saw in 2-d in books. And from such visits grew our wonder at the world of nature and our love for it.

And that indeed is one of the stated purposes of zoos—to introduce visitors to nature and to lay the foundation for a conservation ethic. As India’s Central Zoo Authority (CZA) sums up, the objectives of zoos are:

‘CONSERVATION: To be involved in programs which assist the survival of wild populations of animals. This is often done in partnership with other organisations.

EDUCATION: To increase the level of awareness, knowledge and understanding of visitors about animals, the environment and conservation, and to motivate behaviour change which will help the environment.

RESEARCH: To conduct and facilitate research on animals both in captivity and in the wild, with particular emphasis on threatened species.

RECREATION: To provide enjoyment and enrichment for visitors through close contact with living things.’

I spent two decades of my career as an environmental educator, and zoo education was something I was involved in at some stage. I still carried the deep impacts of my childhood zoo experiences and worked with a passion to make zoo visits more educational, striving to sow the seeds of love, respect and care for the environment, nature and animals.

Zoo

But last week, I took a 4-year old to the Bannerghatta Zoo and Safari Park. She liked it. But I saw nothing like the excitement and wonder I remember feeling as a child. She was reasonably excited when she saw lions and tigers and bears close up during the safari. And then during the walk through the zoo, she did like the zebras and monkeys and giraffes, but I could see that she was disappointed that they were just standing there, not ‘doing’ anything. And then when we saw a herd of elephants, she could not see the baby-elephants clearly, which she was not happy about. And as she walked through the zoo, she was tired and hot and cranky. All in all, if my childhood zoo visits were an 11/10, hers was a 7/10.

I got to thinking why. And then I realized that she had the wildest and most remote of habitats and the most exotic of animals at her fingertips. She just had to switch channels in the comfort of home to see lion cubs playing with their mother’s tail; elephants mud-bathing; kingfishers swooping in for a fish catch; tigers chasing a deer. No wonder the physical sights were not so exciting.

I still believe that zoo-visits have a major role to play in nature education. But obviously, it cannot be business as usual. While zoos in India are making some efforts to make onsite education more exciting, there are international zoos which have taken this to new levels of innovation, immersion and interaction. Next week I will share some interesting and really cutting-edge programmes.

India has 145 recognized zoos in India as per CZA. Pre-Covid estimates indicate that zoos are one of the highest visited public spaces, with over 8 crore visitors every year. Zoos are still the most accessible way to see animals for real–national park and sanctuary visits are expensive and time-taking. We cannot lose this opportunity of zoo-visits to set off positive action for the environment.  And to do so effectively means we must understand the challenges that new media poses to traditional visit experience, as well as recognize the exciting opportunities it offers.

–Meena