Nature Deficit Disorder

Among the many new medical disorders that have entered into our consciousness and everyday vocabulary in the last decade or so, a new one was added in 2005— Nature Deficit Disorder. The term was coined by Richard Louv as a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years.

As we live in our concrete jungles, increasingly cut off from the sight, sound and feel of Nature, these senses are steadily diminishing. Increasingly medical research is now proving that our sedentary lifestyles or “epidemic of inactivity” is the cause of a host of appropriately-called ‘lifestyle diseases.”

Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder expressed his apprehension at the growing phenomenon of alienation from Nature, and built a case for consciously building closer links between young children and Nature, through opportunities to go outside, be in Nature, and learn from Nature.

Times have changed—and not for the better. Almost fifteen years after Louv articulated his concern, the “wave from the West” has reached our homes in India, as it has most parts of the world. Children don’t seem to get as much opportunity to play outdoors and explore and discover independently anymore; meeting friends is usually organised and supervised in “play dates” rather than children spontaneously getting together and simply “mucking and mooching around!” Yes, there are genuine issues—safe spaces, security and time; but this over-protectiveness can actually be detrimental to children’s health, if they don’t get enough outdoor time and experiences. Difficult though it is, while we as parents, leave no stone unturned to give our children the best opportunities that money can buy for their all-round development, are we giving them enough exposure to the outdoors? For children and their development Nature is not “optional”, it is as essential as a healthy diet for growing up.

I do believe that the same formula applies equally to adults. Nature and the outdoors are vital for our physical and emotional development and well-being; it is only here that can we encounter all four non-negotiable sources for self-development: freedom, immediacy, resistance and relatedness (connection). In fact, it is for us to take the lead.

An even more alarming trend has been towards the gradual deficit of Nature, even in our language. Since 2007 the Oxford Children’s Dictionary has been dropping words related to nature to replace them with words that they felt better represented the present day and age. Acorn, Buttercup, Conker gave way to Attachment, Blog, and Cut-and-Paste. In 2015, some of the world’s most prominent authors composed an open letter of protest and alarm at this impoverishment of children’s vocabulary by replacement with words “associated with the increasingly interior, solitary childhoods of today,” and its consequent diminishment of children’s belonging to and with the natural world. A frightening manifestation of Nature Deficit Disorder. The authors expressed their distress that such culling of words would “deny children a store of words that is marvellous for its own sake, but also a vital means of connection and understanding.”

As one of the authors said, “If you can’t name things, how can you love them?”

–Mamata

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A flower by any other name…Crab’s Claw 

Tiger! Tiger!

Gujarat is aIMG_20190221_103219.jpgll agog with the news that a Tiger has been spotted within its political boundaries. Papers are full of speculation about where it came from and where it went. In the meanwhile the state has quickly laid claim to be the only one in the country with three big cats—lion, leopard, and now tiger!

The news led me to relook at a book the Matriarchs had done for teachers over a decade ago. Called Tales of the Tiger it was an attempt to create awareness and excitement about the tiger through providing interesting information and activity ideas for students.

Compiling information for the book was in itself an exciting and educative safari. It was not just looking at this awe-inspiring cat from the zoological point of view, but seeing it as an integral part of the ecosystem, as well as the social and cultural environment.

Beyond the roar to the lore, as it were!  Sharing a few fascinating facts.

Tigers do not simply roar, growl and snarl. They have a wide variety of vocalisations such as chuffing, hissing, grunting, and mewling. A ‘chuff’ or ‘prusten’ is a friendly and non-threatening sound made when two tigers meet. The ‘pook’ sound is a sound similar to the alarm call of the sambar, a favourite prey animal of the tiger. It has been variously interpreted as a way of locating prey, a mating call, or to announce its presence to other tigers. A tigress uses moans to communicate with her cubs. Tigers also use body (especially tail) language to show aggression, affection and curiosity.

Beyond the jungles, tigers have long been a part of folklore and literature in every culture. The tiger is variously feared, respected, admired, and distrusted, depending on the context. According to stories from Indian mythology the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons to creating rain; keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Tribal beliefs, arts and crafts often place the tiger as a central symbol of worship. For example the people of the Warli tribe offer a part of their harvest every season to the worship of the tiger. The people of the Bhil tribe believe that they have descended from tigers. Songs, proverbs and sayings in most Indian languages feature the tiger.

In India the earliest visual representations of the tiger are found on the seals and terracotta figurines on the Indus Valley Civilisation. A seal found at Mohenjo Daro, believed to date back about 5000 years shows a man sitting in a tree angrily addressing a tiger waiting below for him.

Even as scientists have studied and tracked tigers in an effort to understand them better, tigers all over the world are threatened and endangered. In India Project Tiger, launched in 1973, has been an important milestone in the history of tiger conservation in India. 

While the new sighting of the tiger may possibly turn into a contest of “Mine, Mine!” it may be wise to remember and respect that this magnificent cat knows no political boundaries. May it always walk in majesty, wherever it may roam.

–Mamata

 

 

The Coucals are Calling

 

The Coucals are calling at the break of day,P1020594.JPG

Wooing and courting, a-hooping away.

 

The starlings have arrived from far far away,

They chirp and they chatter in a chorus all day.

 

Sometimes balmy, often chilly, that capricious breeze,

Raising billows of dust, and rustling through the leaves.

 

The sun plays hide and seek with wispy clouds,

The koels stridently shriek out loud.

 

Fresh blossoms bloom on some trees

While leaves are shed from other trees.

 

It’s Spring!

Celebrating Basant Panchami

 

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–Mamata

 

 

Colour and Cheer

 

 

P1130289 (1).JPGRight through the long and dusty summer months when all the other plants drooped and dried, it was the riot of pink and white bougainvillae in my little garden that bestowed colour and cheer to the sweltering days.

I have always enjoyed the sight of the colourful mass, and took it pretty much for granted until I read an interesting story about how the plant was discovered. In 1766 the French government had commissioned French Navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville to sail around the world, to find new territories for France. Accompanying him on this voyage of circumnavigation was Philibert Commerson a botanist, whose brief was to collect hitherto unknown plants from the different continents and countries during the voyage. It is Commerson who is thought to be the first European to describe the plant we know of as bougainvillae.

Recently, the story of the discovery of bougainvillea has been revised. It turns out that Commerson did go on the voyage and was the botanist. But he was accompanied by his housekeeper and lover, Jeanne Baret. The French navy absolutely and explicitly prohibited women on naval vessels. Nevertheless, Baret disguised herself as a man and not only sailed with Commerson, she was with him while he was exploring plants in the new lands where the ship docked. As Commerson was frequently unwell, it was Baret who did most of the plant collecting, and she is believed to have discovered many of the plants which are attributed as being Commerson’s discoveries.

It is now believed that it was probably Baret who found bougainvillea at the very beginning of the trip, in Rio de Janiero. Impressed by the bright blossoms, Commerson named them Bougainvillea after the admiral. Baret also thus became the first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe. Interestingly the surviving journals of the expedition barely mention her, probably due to the fear of the consequences of admitting that the “no women!” rule had been broken.

Since the introduction of the first two species to Europe in the late 1700s, Bougainvillea have made their home all around the tropical world. They are drought-, salt- and wind-resistant, but require hot climate and hours of full sun. They will grow as shrubs, or vines, or even low ground covers and are found in many colours. Currently, there are over 300 varieties of bougainvillea around the world, and since many of the hybrids have been crossed over several generations, it is now difficult to identify their respective origins. Botanists, however, have traced back most of today’s rich variety of bougainvillea back to only three of the original eighteen South American species identified.

While the Bougainvillea is popularly known as an ornamental plant, the people of the Amazon region had long used bougainvillea as a medicinal herb, and it is only more recently that it medicinal values are being recognised by other schools of medicine.

There is definitely more to the bougainvillea than colour and cheer!

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 It’s not the flowers that make this plant so colourful, it’s actually the bracts or modified leaves that surround the tiny white flowers. 

–Mamata

 

Bananadrama

Guess what is making cricketing news these days? Runs and wickets? Tantrums and tampering? No, it is none other than the good old Banana! It is reported that the Indian team has requested an ample supply of bananas for the team during their 2019 World Cup tour to England. The banana has been designated the “fruit of their choice!”

While the mango always lays claim to being the king of fruits, the solid trustworthy banana is taken much for granted, as it does not make a dashing seasonal appearance and compete for awards of the most varieties and the best of them all!

But, there’s more to a banana…

Bananas are both a fruit and not a fruit. While the banana plant is colloquially called a banana tree, it’s actually an herb distantly related to ginger, since the plant has a succulent tree stem, instead of a wood one.

Bananas grow in what are known as “hands,” so-called because of their appearance, which make up the larger stalk, known as a “bunch.”

The banana skin that we peel and throw is, in fact, a fruit because it contains the seeds of the plant. Although since bananas have been commercially grown, the plants are sterile, and the seeds have gradually been reduced to little specs.

The banana plant evolved in the humid tropical regions of S.E. Asia with India as one of its centres of origin. During the seventh century AD its cultivation spread to Egypt and Africa.  Carl Linnaeus an 18th century Swedish botanist whose work led to the creation of modern-day biological nomenclature for classifying organisms was the first person to successfully grow a fully flowered banana tree in the Netherlands.

Today banana is grown in more than 150 countries, and it is widely believed there are more than 1,000 types of bananas in the world, which are subdivided into 50 groups. There are at least 300 varieties of banana in India.

Even then, Linnaeus speculated about other uses for the versatile banana such as boiling bananas with sugar to cure anger, mashing bananas with honey to soothe eye inflammation and crushing banana root soaked in milk to alleviate dizziness. Today the banana is an acknowledged as a Superfood by all schools of health from Ayurveda to the trendy Diet and Nutrition experts. From digestive issues to depression…the banana is the panacea for all ills!

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source: Google

And there is an International Banana Museum in California, which they claim is “the most aPEELing destination” with over 20,000 (and still adding) banana related items…the world’s largest collection devoted to any one fruit!

I do know that the Banana was my father’s favourite fruit. He always used to say “sabse achha kela!” “Banana is the best”. So true…The scientific name for banana is musa sapientum, which means “fruit of the wise men.”

–Mamata

 

 

Haiku…Then and Now

The Haiku is a 17 syllable poetic form that has been written in Japan for three hundred years. Haiku poets have, over generations, celebrated the changing seasons, and also the mystical relationship between non-related subjects. Most of the poets reflected the Zen Buddhists doctrine that all things and creatures in this world are part of the universal and interconnected brotherhood of creation.

Today the cycle of seasons is not what it used to be.  The world is apprehending, rather than celebrating Climate Change. Reports predict the dire consequences of the 1.5 degree rise in temperature, for all living things, interconnected as they are in the intricate web of life.

Among the scientists too there are poets! Some of them have tried to interpret the consequences of Climate Change in Haiku!

Interesting indeed to compare the Haikus from then and now.

 

Then Now
Snow is melting…

Far in the misted

Mountains

A caw cawing crow

 

Big, fast carbon surge

Ice melts

Oceans heat and rise

Air warms by decades

 

Icicles and water

Old differences

Dissolved…

Drip down together

 

Seas rise as they warm

Rates quicken

Last century

Melting ice joins in

 

Even the ocean

Rising and falling

All day

Sighing green like trees.

 

 

More warming,

Higher seas.

Maybe much higher.

Could wake sleeping giants.

 

 

 

Ultra-pink peony…

Silver Siamese

Soft cat…

Gold-dust butterfly…

 

Warming is bad news

For many species.

Once gone…

We can’t bring them back

   

The Then Haikus are from compilations of haiku by some of the best loved Japanese poets—Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.

The Now haikus are from the compilation by oceanographer Gregory Johnson (https://www.sightline.org/2013/12/16/the-entire-ipcc-report-in-19-illustrated-haiku/and  Andy Reisinger one of the contributing authors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5 °C (https://cicero.oslo.no/no/15-graders-haiku)

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

 

Snakes Alive!

This is the month when many parts of India celebrate Nag Panchami or festival of snakes, by worshipping the Snake God for protection. The many rituals and myths associated with this perpetuate many false perceptions about snakes. This takes me back to my own snake story.IMG_20180830_100525311.jpg

When I started my career as an environmental educator, one of my first close encounters of the wild kind was when we were asked to touch a snake! This was in Sundarvan, a small snake park. The snake was a Red Sand Boa—a non-venomous snake. For someone who was, at that time, far from being a passionate wild-lifer, this was indeed an experience that served to dispel the many myths that one had grown up with. One of these were that snakes were “slimy”, and to be avoided at all costs. The skin of the sand boa felt dry and smooth, and we learnt that most snakes are in fact non-venomous.

And there began my long and fascinating journey in the natural world. A journey along which I had the most wonderful encounters with some of India’s best known naturalists and educators.

One of these was the Snakeman of India Romulus Whitaker.

Not so long after my induction by snakes, Romulus himself came to CEE and fascinated us with snake tales and the importance of breaking the myths that associated snakes with all things creepy and vile, and communicating the vital role of snakes in the ecosystem, especially as friends of farmers because they eat the rats that destroy crops.

A little later, Romulus graciously accepted to write a piece for a book that Meena and I were editing. In this he recounted how he first came to India from New York city when he was 8 years old, and returned a few years later  to make India his home, and herpetology his career. He recalled how “the snake charmers at Juhu Beach in Bombay were my first tutors but it wasn’t long before I outgrew their mixture of magic and nonsense.”

Romulus’s passion for setting the record straight about reptiles has manifested itself in a long and close association with the Irulas, an indigenous tribe of snake catchers of Tamil Nadu who became his friends and mentors; setting up of India’s first Snake Park in 1970 and the Madras Crocodile Bank in 1975 and, in 2005 the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka. These Parks continue to attract and educate millions of visitors every year, and they have also become the base of conservation research projects in many parts of India including the Andaman islands.

His never-ending impulse to show and tell people about reptiles led Romulus to start making documentary films, many of which have won international awards. One of his first films Snakebite tells about how to avoid and treat snakebite. While studying incidents of snakebites in India, Whitaker discovered that numerous lives were lost due to inadequate production and distribution of anti-venom serum. That is when he mobilised the Irula community to form a snake catchers’ cooperative, who under licenses from the Wildlife Department, extract and freeze-dry venom from snakes and sell it to anti-venom producing laboratories before releasing the snakes back into the wild.

In 2018 Romulus was awarded the Padma Shri for nature conservation. In one of the interviews following the award Romulus said “I believe that touching a snake opens people’s minds and changes it forever.” I can totally vouch for that!

Thank you Rom for helping to open a new world, and for being a continuing inspiration!

–Mamata

The Great Babbler Mystery

I call them Angry Birds! They are continually at war with the world, making their views heard with an incessant grating cacophony of sounds. Their beady eyes glint as they stare angrily at you, and their dusty khakhi-brown feathers are always dishevelled, as if they have just emerged from battle!

They are ubiquitous, making their bedraggled group appearance in the garden, on the sun deck, in the wash area and on the window ledges. They make their presence felt with their incessant quibbling and squabbling. In the morning they are busy poking at the lawn before our first cup of tea. In the afternoon they hop around in the verandah and outside the windows, peering through the glass and rapping sharply with their beaks as if to reprimand us for some misdeed. They are the band of vigilantes—sounding a harsh and strident chorus that makes the intruding cat slink away to safety. They fight like fishwives! Screeching, pecking, pulling, merging into a heaving mass of untidy feathers; and emerging with scrawny bare necks that reveal the wounds of war.

They are the Jungle Babblers or the Seven Sisters as they are called in English, and for some reason, Seven Brothers in some Indian languages.

And I wake up with the comfort of starting the day with them.

Until last week….

My angry birds have disappeared en masse!

At first I thought it may be the grey drizzly weather that we have been having after a long, blazing hot and dry summer that was deterring their forays. Then I thought that maybe they had decided to put in a late appearance; I watched for them morning, noon and evening. Not a straggly feather to be seen! I looked at all their haunts, their favourite foraging patches; the bare branches of the tree at the gate and the wires running overhead, but nary a glint of an eye could I see. I thought maybe they have taken off on vacation, but my bird book tells me that they like their home turf and are not likely to wander far.

How can they all vanish? I haven’t a clue!

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Missing from action!

Will they reappear soon? I do hope so!

Till then, the great babbler mystery continues!

–Mamata