Category Archives: books

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Why quit Twitter

If you google it you will find all the right reasons and then some. It is distraction. It is a waste of time. It is the trumpet of demagogues, and there’s a pun in there somewhere. It is a space where you radiate cheap chatter and narcissistic signals of your own virtue, in 140 characters, emojis, smileys, GIFs. It makes you more social and more anti-social #online, more asocial #offline. It is a feed, only it feeds on you.

It shelters trolls and slaughters nuance. It eschews depth and embraces facade. It is where the new Nazis, the white supremacists, the racists, the misogynists, the fascists, the journalist-haters, the others-haters, all hang out and send their bluster and bile, their innuendo and threats, send it all your way, under the willful, watchful, closed eyes of the doubtless wonderful folks at Twitter, or with the blessings of political puppet masters twiddling their thumbs behind the blue screen. It is company you would rather not keep.

Yet, trolled or not, threatened or not, isn’t Twitter still worth it? If you google this, you will find the best reasons, the best, really, and then some. It is free. It is your voice, the voice of democracy, the microblog as the great leveler. It is outreach, it is #scicomm, it is one-on-one and one-to-all. It builds your readership, pushes up your #altmetric, it fosters connections you never would have imagined.

There’s all of that. And, as I said, then some.

Still, I have seen, read, and had enough. I am pulling out of Twitter—with a h/t and a thank you and farewell to all those folks who chose to or suffered to read me on their timeline (‘followed’ seems too grand a word for a relationship channeled via Twitter). Two and half years and 6610 tweets is a reasonable time to realise that this social media whatsit ain’t for me. Yes, I’ve been on Facebook, too, and left after a spell, with great relief, no sense of having lost anything of value whatsoever, and never a regret or a look back. Now, too, I leave with a feeling that I can do better. Maybe, just maybe, I will.

What will I fill the absence of Twitter with—an absence that I already scarcely feel now that I know I am calling it quits? At this point, almost anything else I care to do seems more interesting, meaningful, restful, fun. After all, what have I spent most time on Twitter doing but reading? And there remains plenty to read out there, and better ways to read it. I have taken a subscription to a good newspaper, in hard copy; I will read others online, perhaps taking new subscriptions to those that have not faltered into the post-truth world of unworthy demagogues. I will shore up my list of blogs to read, pull in their feeds regularly, comfortably, on a reader, and read authors in the original in the places they publish. I will continue to seek out books and magazines, particularly ad-free magazines and websites carrying the finest writing on the natural world like Orion and Terrain.org, to name a couple. Maybe I will spend more time with family and friends, or listen to sparrow chirp and whistlingthrush song in my backyard. Maybe I will treat myself to some good music and programs that my short-wave radio pulls from the skies, or hook up my speakers and computer to the best music and podcasts on the internet. Maybe I will write, or go for more long walks. Or perhaps, maybe best of all, in the time gained off Twitter, I will do nothing. Nothing.

And there’s no harm in that, is there? If you Google that… but wait…

Fieldwork: In clouded leopard country with Peter Matthiessen

Emerging from the rainforests, near Teirei village in a remote corner of Mizoram in northeast India, my phone comes alive, beeps a message as if from another world.

Peter Matthiessen is no more.

It brings me to a halt. Head bowed, I read the message again. At the end of a long trek, my shoulders slump with heavy backpack. A tiredness changes to an ache, the forest rest house in the village two kilometres away is forgotten.

Divya, my wife, had sent the message from our home in the Anamalai hills in the other corner of India. Peter Matthiessen, exceptional observer, witness, versatile writer of nonfiction including The Tree where Man was Born, African Silences, The Cloud Forest, and Wildlife in America, fiction such as Shadow Country and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, has long been one of our favourite authors. A cherished collection of his books fills a row in our wooden bookshelf at home. The previous day, on 5 April 2014, at the age of 86, Matthiessen, at his home in Sagaponack halfway around the world, had died of leukaemia.

Matthiessen_books_low

Bookshelf (Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan)

How does one respond to news about the death of one of the finest writers about the natural world? And, too, in a text message? I find my fingers moving over the keypad writing something to Divya that I know would be inadequate, mean nothing.

Oh damn. So sad. I guess his books won’t die so soon.

Weeks earlier, when I set out for Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram for a spell of fieldwork on birds in the rainforest landscape, I had no doubt about the one book I would surely carry. The first book I tucked into my backpack was Matthiessen’s masterpiece, The Snow Leopard. The book, a lyrical chronicle of journey and quest in the high mountains of the Himalaya, itself rang with his searing attempt to reconcile life and death.

And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.

I carried the book in my bag and Matthiessen’s words in my head as I moved between camps over many weeks spent in Dampa. I was here at the invitation of the Mizoram State Forest Department to carry out a comprehensive bird survey, revisiting the same mountains and forests where I had lived and worked twenty years earlier. At that time, I had come to carry out field research on the tribal system of farming in the region called shifting agriculture or jhum and its effects on forest recovery and birds. Why had I returned now? Was I here only for the bird survey? Or was there more? A reliving of experience unearthed from the ashes of memory? A search for something forgotten, or missed for long?

But why was I going? What did I hope to find? … And so I admitted that I did not know. How could I say that I wished to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching?

And so, along with my fieldwork, I read Matthiessen. I read him with a headlamp on cold nights in the watchtower camp on Dampatlang peak. I read him under fierce sun in the muggy afternoons at the other bamboo forest watchtower on Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang ridge. I read him by candlelight and firefly flicker in the Tuichar Cave deep in the valley below.

Dampatlang watchtower, 2014

Dampatlang watchtower (2013)

Dampatlang Watchtower, 1 March 2014

At nearly a thousand metres elevation, the Dampatlang watchtower overlooks a grand, wild landscape. On one side, to the north and east, the forest canopy of rainforest trees and Rawnal (Dendrocalamus longispathus) bamboo steps away from the ridgeline in a panoply of green. On the other, just metres away, the land plunges several hundred feet past grey cliffs of serow and bear into the valley of Tuichar Lui (river). Beyond the river, dark primary forests climb the slopes of Chawrpialtlang from valley to summit at 1,100 metres. Across the valley of Tuichar, the steep sleeping cliffs of the Assamese macaques face the rainforest from where the hoolock gibbons sing.

ChawrpialtlangForests

At 4:40 a.m., a dark, starlit sky, the silence of mountains, the susurrus of leaves in the wind, the yawing creak of bamboo culms. Soon, I would have to head out to survey two transects, lying about four kilometres away, down a narrow and steep trail. Two decades ago, I walked the same transects with little trouble, but today my legs are killing me. My knees are swollen, I cannot fold my legs, and squatting or standing is agony. Still, unless my legs give way completely, I resolve to see the fieldwork through, walk the transects as many times as I can.

It takes over an hour and a quarter to reach the transects in bamboo and mature evergreen forests. The forests throb with morning bird sounds, sweet songs of babblers and shama, the loud cries of barbets and hornbills. Walking, listening, looking, I pass a stately Khiang (Schima wallichii) tree where a black and white Malayan giant squirrel and a coal-black Pallas’ squirrel with red belly are chewing at fruits for seeds. Clasping fruit to mouth and hanging by their hind legs or stretched along the branch, long furry tails hanging, the squirrels gnaw and chew, unaffected by my presence directly below. A light rain of bitten fruit showers on me and patters softly on the earth as I pass.

Malayan giant squirrel in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Malayan giant squirrel in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

It takes over two hours to finish the transect surveys before it is time to return. Plodding back uphill, I consider what it is about fieldwork that draws one out, beyond the call of duty or discomfort, into the wild. Beneath the scientific quest, lies something that is far more personal. Behind the aura of exploration, lurks the ego of achievement, the arrogance of conquest.

Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.

Suddenly, a scurrying rustle sounds from the path ahead. A pair of grey shapes darts from the trail, a dozen pairs of iridescent green eyes glint from long feathers: Grey Peacock-Pheasants. One bird crosses the trail, another follows, cagily circles a fallen log before vanishing into the forest. From deep in the forest sounds the guttural laugh of another peacock-pheasant, the ‘Varihaw’ singing to attract his mate. Ahead, on the trail itself, I find a small space, about five feet by two, cleared of twigs and litter, perhaps for the Varihaw to tilt and dance, fanning wing and tail to dazzle his inamorata with his profusion of glinting ocelli.

Male Grey Peacock-Pheasant in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department)

Male Grey Peacock-Pheasant in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department)

Further ahead, just off the trail, a dumpy bird—mud brown below, green above, a swatch of blue on his nape—hops away on long legs into the undergrowth, from where he issues a loud two-note whistle. The Blue-naped Pitta carries the touch of earth, forest, and sky on his plumage. And a bit further, a cluster of black feathers, some tipped white, is all that remains of a male Kalij Pheasant killed by a wild cat: a leopard cat perhaps, or that more elusive, shadowy creature, photographed on a field camera placed along the same trail, a clouded leopard.

Clouded leopard on the trail (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma and Mizoram Forest Department)

Clouded leopard on the trail (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma and Mizoram Forest Department)

Stave in hand, I walk favouring my hurting right knee, wonder if I will be able to repeat the survey tomorrow. Or should I move camp, instead, to the new bamboo forest watchtower, find a water source nearby, and stay closer to the transects?

Despite the hard day that has ended in defeat … and the very doubtful prospects for tomorrow, I feel at peace among these looming rocks, the cloud swirl and wind-whirled snow, as if the earth had opened up to take me in.

I lean against a Schima tree, my hand on the deeply-ridged, tough layer of bark. In the driest of weather, the tree is yet felted by cool moss, soft to the touch. Now, in the forest of peacock-pheasant and clouded leopard, my pain disappears: I am still beneath the Schima tree.

Only one question remains. With all the earth underfoot in the forest, why does the Varihaw dance on the trail that I, too, must walk?

Bamboo watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang (2014)

Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang (2014)

Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang, 12 March 2014

Stultifying, sweat-sticky heat by day, worrying, whispering wind by night. The bamboo forest watchtower, perched on this high ridge in Dampa, eases my strain of walking to distant transects over rugged terrain, but is otherwise most ill-suited for camping. It lies open to lashing rain and scorching sun, becomes intolerable in the furnace heat after ten in the morning till three in the afternoon. The only water, a mere trickle, seeps out of dank rocks and litter in a dark ravine almost half a kilometre down a steep, pathless slope. It is a place that stokes the furnaces of the mind, flames through eye to brain, reduces ideas to ashes.

The bamboos on the ridgeline, facing west and south over steep cliffs, are crisping in the sun. The green culms are clothed in leafy clusters of drooping green and papery browns and yellows, as if hung with a grizzled pelt the colour of summer. The forest floor is a slippery slithery mat rustling with dry bamboo leaves. The bamboo forest around the watchtower is rimmed by tall trees of evergreen rainforest over a hundred years old.

Pathlawi_forest

Returning from the transects, I stretch out my blue carry mat in the drifting shadow of the watchtower, Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard at my side. Too tired to read, I lie down, cover my face from searing sky with my hat. The ants and flies find me instantly. A black ant, indignant, bites me on my neck. I spring up and swat her away, spend the next minutes flicking ants from mat, hat, book, foot, hair, sleeve, collar, and wrist, until I realise that, but for the first, none are out to get me. They scatter distraught because the grass had been cut, the litter pushed aside, burnt even, to make a small space for my mat, for me to sit on or stretch out. Now they run about to reorient to the changed contours of their own space. So, I sit still, let them figure it out. After a while, the bustle quietens, we readjust to each other.

Then the flies buzz in. A duller one, dripped in grey, like a drab honeybee, and a little gold-and-black hoverfly, a torpedo winging back and forth like a shimmering jewel. I wave, I swat, I blow, I twitch, until I stop to see what they want. The flies come only to sponge a little sweat-salt off exposed arm or leg with their tiny, tickly, tongues. If I stay still, they dab away for a while, lap up a little from elbow-crook or leg, make a short survey of ankle and shin, give a glancing touch to my cheek, a skimming look from the air over my nose. Then they disappear, resume their busy lives, perhaps visiting flowers, transmitting pollen from plant to plant.

Why should I grudge the flies this much? What am I but a little ephemeral fly myself, scanning and surveying, gathering my own little crumbs of learning off the rugged skin of Dampa? What can I aspire for in my fieldwork but to leave carrying a pollen-grain of perception to share with others, when the moment arrives of my own vanishing?

The stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence.

Tuichar cave (2014)

Tuichar cave (Photo: Bhagyashree Ingle)

Tuichar cave, 27 March 2014

After morning transects in the valley, I return to the camp at the Puk, the cave in deep rainforest beside Tuichar Lui. Rending the morning quietude, a family of gibbons howls from the far forests on Chawrpialtlang. Almost in retort, another gibbon family, closer, louder, begins to whoop and hoot in morning abandon. The latter, I notice, are calling not from the primary rainforests to the south and east. Their calls—urgent, clarion, challenging—come from the old bamboo forests of Tuichar, downriver; the gibbons perhaps swing and sing from high trees in the patches of mature rainforest closer to the river, perhaps from the great Tatkawng (Artocarpus chaplasha), Lawngthing (Dipterocarpus turbinatus), Thingdawl (Tetrameles nudiflora), and Ficus trees that tower over the bamboo, or, who knows, perhaps from the bamboo itself.

Male Hoolock gibbon (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Male Hoolock gibbon (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Past a whinnying Great Slaty Woodpecker, who dips and darts from the broken fig tree above the cave, we turn off the forest trail, down to the Puk, where I am enveloped by grey rocks, great trees, soft voice of stream. How much this place has given me! Not by asking, just by being here, living, watching, recording: water, food, fire, shelter, experience, data, learning, and unlearning. All steamed in tropical heat, washed in thunderstorm, wafted by winds, lit by starlight and firefly. And yet, how much, really, have I perceived, have I been ready to perceive? How much remains?

The Puk stands on a threshold, a line stretching from river to ridge where dark forest gives way to light bamboo greens. Standing on that threshold, I wonder: have I been wrong about shifting cultivation or jhum all along? My study on shifting cultivation had concluded that many bird and mammal species of deep rainforest will survive in the landscape only if mature or primary forests are retained, that young bamboo forests resulting from short cycles of cultivation of five years or less are insufficient to conserve the full spectrum of rainforest wildlife.

Some conclusions may stand for a while: attested by birds and squirrels and primates persisting in mature rainforest and bamboo forests, in much the same places and manner as two decades ago. (And yet, did the hoolock gibbons not call, just this morning, not from the primary forests where they were expected to be, but from the old bamboo forests?) But my work, like other studies of jhum, was also being selectively cited and quoted as having drastic effects on wildlife. In the landscape around Dampa Tiger Reserve, decrying jhum as destructive, other land uses were being ushered in—monoculture plantations of teak, oil palm, rubber. The part where I had written that the landscape mix of bamboo and secondary forests, resulting from jhum cultivation, was more diverse and preferable to monocultures: that part had gone unread, unquoted, unheeded. Tangentially, I was implicated in the assault on jhum, the picture I had drawn, within the circumscribed ambit of science, was flawed, incomplete.

The Char tree (Terminalia myriocarpa)

The Char tree (Terminalia myriocarpa)

Perhaps my field study, seen closely, resembles the great Char (Terminalia myriocarpa) tree that stands by the trail to the Puk: an apparently strong framework outside, hiding a hollow inside, home of dark beings that fly by night. One day, the tree will come crashing down, return to the soil from where it sprang. And just as the canopy gap opened by the fall of the Char would stream again with sunlight, crowd with seedlings clamouring towards the sky, so, in the space illuminated anew, other studies will follow mine.

At the Puk, I cannot shake myself out of the self-questioning. Was it all worth it? The studies, the surveys, the travails of fieldwork, camping, the money raised, spent, the energy expended, the ligaments torn and knees pounded, the shoes shredded tromping sharp bamboo and hard rock? The hour upon hour spent walking, looking, listening, binoculars clutched in my hands.

Already the not-looking forward, the without-hope-ness takes on a subtle attraction, as if I had glimpsed the secret of these mountains, still half-understood. With the past evaporated, the future pointless, and all expectation worn away, I begin to experience that now that is spoken of by the great teachers.

I look at my hands, my thin brown arms. In the humid heat, my skin beads with tiny droplets of sweat, small as the pores, in every crinkle and crevice on the skin along my arms. In slanting shafts of afternoon sun, the little droplets glint and twinkle, like flecks of gold on soil. The glimmer shifts and slides as I flex my arms: even sweat is beautiful. In its winking lights, I see the flicker of fireflies in the dark rainforest, the pinprick gleam of spider eyes in the crevices of rocks, the eye-shine of nocturnal civets on leafy trees. I see starlight sprinkled between branches of towering Thingdawl trees, the spangles on the plumage of drongos, the eyes dancing on the feathers of peacock-pheasants. I see the bamboo erupting in flames in distant fields, the flicker of our evening camp fires, and sun flecks and sparks and the eternal shimmer of star and moon and sun in the flowing waters of Tuichar Lui.

The enduring relevance of Rachel Carson

It is tough for a single publication or its author to have an impact across nations, cultures, genres, and disciplines. It is tougher still for their appearance on the world stage to spark a social movement, rekindle human values and awareness, and create new mandates for action. And toughest of all is when the author is a woman, a scientist, who must overcome the prejudices of her time−of gender, of notions of progress, of the omnipotence of untrammelled industry−to articulate a clear-eyed, renewed vision of a better world, a cleaner environment, where people do not merely live, but flourish.

If I had to pick one exemplary work from the environmental canon that does this and does it well, it would be the one that burst on the scene on this day, 16 June, all of 52 years ago, in the United States of America and then swiftly encompassed, in its scope and sweep, the rest of the world. The book, Silent Spring, and its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson, are widely credited to be the sparks that lit the fire of the global environmental movement. Carson, whose 107th birth anniversary came and passed quietly on May 27, with little fanfare other than a commemorative Google Doodle, died fifty years ago after a battle with breast cancer. Why should we bother to remember Rachel Carson and Silent Spring? What could a woman, a book, from over five decades ago have to do with the enormously changed world we live in today? Yet, over the last few weeks, during fieldwork and travels in India’s northeast and the Western Ghats mountains, I thought frequently of Rachel Carson and her prescient words in Silent Spring.

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson's birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson’s birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)

27 February 2014, Chawrpialtlang peak, Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. Slicing through the air over crackling-dry grass on the peak, a black-tipped arrow streaks past, plunges down the sheer cliffs, swerves around the mountain, and is gone. For one rushing moment, the ripped air appears to shimmer, as if in sudden clarity, then closes in the fleeting wake of the bird. A Peregrine Falcon. Windswept and breathless, I stand on the peak and think of Rachel Carson. For it was in Silent Spring that she described and I learned how the chemical pesticide, DDT, sprayed or dusted into the environment, entered water and soil and animal tissue as a persistent organic pollutant, and travelled up the food chain, accumulating from pest to predator to top predator, into birds like Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles, thinning their egg shells, making the brood crumble instead of hatch in the nest, bringing down populations, endangering the species itself. Only when awareness of this issue soared after the publication of Silent Spring and concerted efforts including a DDT ban were made did raptor populations recover, so that the birds could wing and scythe through the air again.

20 March 2014, Mamit District, Mizoram. On the outer wall of bamboo hut after hut, in village after village, in one of the most remote and malaria-prone corners of India, I see inscribed in chalk: “DDT 15/03/14“. The date varied a little from village to village, but it took me only a moment to realise that this was just a marker that each of those huts, the homes of Mizo and Riang tribal peoples of the state, had just been sprayed with DDT. And DDT is the one chemical for which Rachel Carson’s work is most known for and most frequently and unjustly vilified. Carson, using a growing body of research, highlighted the environmental and human health consequences of excessive DDT use in Silent Spring. The book along with the growing tide of awareness led ultimately to a ban on DDT and consequently, or so the accusation goes, it became unavailable for use in malaria control and led to the death of millions. In reality, DDT was banned for use only in agriculture and unrestricted aerial spraying, while it is readily available and continues to be used for malaria control across the world. And here was evidence, decades later in Mizoram, that this accusation is untrue: DDT continues to be used for malaria control as a public health measure. In Mizoram, as in other states in India, the government has an Indoor Residual Spray (IRS) programme of DDT, usually twice a year, coupled with distribution of deltamethrin insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets. DDT was banned for agricultural use in India in 1989, but even this was not a complete ban, as it carried a rider allowing the use of DDT under ‘very special circumstances’ for plant protection from pests, under the supervision of the State or Central government. In 2006, an Indian government order permitted the use of up to 10,000 tons of DDT annually for public health and vector control measures. In Mizoram, where I knew malaria was still frequent (it knocked me down for two weeks during my fieldwork here in 1994), there were more pertinent issues than these false debates and vilification of Rachel Carson. Loss of effectiveness of DDT due to overuse and dependence on the chemical, the need for better public healthcare facilities, and the fact that more than 90% of the local people prefer insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets over indoor DDT sprays, all seem more important issues to be discussing.

23 May 2014, coffee and tea estates near Sakleshpur, Western Ghats. As our car speeds past the gate of the coffee estate, I cannot help recalling the troubling moment inside in 2011, while doing a diagnostic audit for a company that was planning to go for Rainforest Alliance certification of their coffee production. There, beside a small pond, a group of workers had been preparing a pesticide concoction for spraying on the coffee bushes. In the group, helping mix and spray the chemical on coffee bushes, without any protective equipment to cover her face or exposed hands, was a 12-year-old girl. Even as the child was exposed to the chemical, the pesticide tub overflowed and spilled into the pond. Decades after Silent Spring, after knowing the effects of pesticide pollution on the natural environment and learning more and more about how pesticide exposure affects human health, it is a pity that in many of our plantations and agricultural fields, so little is done to reduce or prevent pollution, to minimise or avoid exposure to agrochemicals.

A young girl mixing chemicals without protective equipment beside a pond in a coffee estate, Western Ghats

A young girl mixing chemicals without protective equipment beside a pond in a coffee estate, Western Ghats

Later, in a tea estate, I listen to a manager describe how their chemical sprays had failed to control a pest, the red spider mite, because, he said, the chemical sprays killed the natural predators of the mite such as ladybird beetles. Again, I recall how in Silent Spring Rachel Carson had explained how insecticides had the counterproductive effect of increasing spider mite infestation: by not affecting them directly, by killing instead mite predators like ‘ladybugs’, and by scattering mite colonies that now focused on increasing their reproductive output as they had no need to invest in defence against predators because the people with the chemicals were inadvertently doing this job on behalf of the mites. I suggest to the manager, like Carson did to her readers, that perhaps the best way ahead is to change cultivation practices, foster more biological diversity in the farm landscape, and reduce their reliance on agrochemicals. He nods, but I am not sure he is ready, as yet, to agree.

26 May 2014, Highway to Valparai, Anamalai hills. All along the highway, the vegetation on the sides of the road lie slashed. Beautiful ferns, orchids, wild balsams, and a number of wildflowers that added grace and beauty to the road, now lay withering on the tarmac, crushed under the spinning wheels of speeding vehicles. The Highways Department had been ‘cleaning’ the roadside again and scraping the soil, leaving brown strips beside grey tarmac and concrete. Soon, the exposed earth would be taken up by invasive alien weeds, changing the roadside aesthetic from the lush green of small native plants and wildflowers to dour greys and browns and weeds. Seeing this, Rachel Carson’s words in Silent Spring again came to mind, for she wrote also about the beauty of wildflowers along the roads, criticizing “the disfigurement of once beautiful roadsides by chemical sprays” and “the senseless destruction that is going on in the name of roadside brush control throughout the nation.”

Whether it was wildfowl or wildflowers, Rachel Carson’s insistence in Silent Spring that scientific understanding of the environment should integrate ethical and aesthetic values struck a chord with readers. The book did not merely inform them, it affected them, and spurred them to act, thus catalysing the birth of a movement.

* * * * *

The environmental movement, as philosopher Arne Naess once remarked, was one of the three great movements that marked the twentieth century; the others being the movements for world peace and social justice. Among the three, the ecological or environmental movement is relatively nascent. One can trace roots of environmentalism, at least in its modern form, to early concerns over nature conservation and vanishing species, but it was really in the latter half of the last century that the movement really took off.

In the aftermath of World War II, with the development and testing of atomic weapons, concerns over the perils of nuclear war and radioactive fallout was widespread. Still, there remained unbridled optimism over the promise of new and powerful technologies in the post-war industrial world. At the same time, rising pollution of air and water following industrialisation and consequent effects on human health spurred early efforts to curb pollution beginning in the 1950s, culminating in laws enacted over the ensuing years and decades in various countries. In the 1960s, the great phase of dam-building was also in full steam. As the environmental historian J. R. McNeill recounts, on average one dam was built per day around the world during that decade. Construction of dams and the displacement of thousands of people by reservoirs was also bringing growing awareness of the alteration of entire landscapes by human action, and about harmful impacts on the environment and livelihoods of people living in the catchment area and downstream.

Still, this was a period when the industrial juggernaut rolled on, backed by a specific vision of development based on technology and large, so-called infrastructure projects. It was a period, in India and elsewhere, when impacts on environment or the lives, lands, and livelihoods of local peoples could be brushed aside on the basis of a grandiose, little-questioned development trajectory. Besides, India and other countries stood at the cusp of a major transformation of agriculture into intensive cultivation dependent on a slew of chemical fertilizers and pesticides: the Green Revolution.

It is in this context that one must view the publication of Silent Spring, first serialised in The New Yorker magazine beginning on 16 June 1962, and then published as a book by Houghton Mifflin on September 27 of that year. The book burst on the scene with a telling and convincing account, based on scientific evidence, of the perils that the chemicals used as pesticides and fertilizers brought to human health and the environment. Carson, a skilled writer, explained in clear but compelling detail the various kinds of chemical poisons used in agriculture and pest control, such as DDT, chlordane, and lindane, organophosphates, and carbamates. With care and clarity, she collated research findings published in scientific papers and recorded personal experiences of people around the US, and described the effects of the chemicals on human health, their persistence in the environment, and build-up (bio-accumulation) over time in the bodies of people and wildlife. She explained concepts such as how pests developed resistance to the chemicals, how that ultimately led to resurgence of pests, and to a vicious cycle of more potent poisons being created.

As Carson wrote,

The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account these most fundamental considerations. As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways.

By ignoring ecology, the agro-chemical industry appeared poised to fail in finding long-term solutions. Carson did not stop with careful explanation and evocative descriptions of the problem of increasing dependence on chemicals. She went further and described a way forward to sustain productive agriculture without recourse to the ‘chemical barrage’. In her words:

A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available…. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on an understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are already contributing—entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists—all pouring their knowledge and their creative aspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.

There were several reasons why Silent Spring was so effective upon its publication. Carson drew upon her earlier experience as a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service where she served as an editor in the Division of Information, reading scientific publications and transmuting them into readable and informative articles for citizens. Today, she would be called a leading science communicator in biology and the environmental sciences. What was remarkable about her writing was that even as she explained science to the citizen, she did not flinch from simultaneously interlacing into her writing moral values and the ethical consequences of environmental harm, which she was convinced was equally significant to her readers.

Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?’

Carson was a dedicated writer. She had always wanted to be a writer since her early childhood. When she joined the Pennsylvania College for Women (later Chatham College) in 1925 as an 18-year old, she enrolled for an English major, until a biology course in her junior year reawakened her “sense of wonder” for nature, another fascination since childhood. Later, she obtained her Master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, following which she taught zoology in Maryland and worked at the famous Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, Massachusetts. Her biological knowledge as a trained scientist, her field experience as a naturalist and keen observer of nature, and her literary talent came together as a potent combination in her books.

Although Rachel Carson is perhaps most known for Silent Spring, she wrote other books including a trilogy on the sea and marine life, a book for children titled The Sense of Wonder, and a number of magazine articles. Of the three books in the sea trilogy, Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea, Carson won the National Book Award in 1952 for The Sea Around Us. That book remained on the New York Times best sellers list for 86 weeks.

The success of Carson’s books such as The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring was at least partly due to the way Carson managed to meld scholarship and literary talent. As Carson said in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award:

The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.

… If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.

Still, there was more to Silent Spring than just scientific rectitude or literary flair. Carson recorded and used in the book many case studies and personal experiences of people who had witnessed the effects of aerial spraying and pesticide overuse. The Silent Spring metaphor itself, referring to a spring that goes silent as songbirds decline and disappear due to pesticide use, was inspired by a letter from a friend who noted dead birds lying around her house after an aerial pesticide spraying bout in her area, and who now wanted the spraying to stop. Taken as a synecdoche, it suggested that people were sensitive to environmental destruction and it had reached a point where they had had enough.

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (Photo courtesy: Environment and Society Portal)

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (Photo courtesy: Environment and Society Portal)

Silent Spring and its author were (as one would expect even today) attacked by Government agricultural scientists and companies with high stakes in the agrochemical industry such as Velsicol, a major manufacturer of DDT, and Monsanto. Velsicol threatened to sue the the publisher Houghton Mifflin and The New Yorker. Detractors and vested interests made personal attacks on Carson, asking why “a spinster was so worried by genetics”, and disparaged her as hysterical, emotional, unfair, one-sided, and as given to inaccurate outbursts. But, ultimately, the science behind Silent Spring withstood public scrutiny, including a congressional hearing, the author herself stood calm and dignified with her research, credentials, and explications, and the book, instead of being pulped as her opponents may have wished, went on to become a bestseller, sell millions of copies, and make history. The reactions and desire for change that the book triggered influenced environmental legislation and policies worldwide. The years that followed the book’s publication saw the first Earth Day celebration and the formation of US Environment Protection Agency in 1970, the gathering of representatives from 113 countries at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972, the enforcement of a ban on DDT in 1972, and other efforts around the world overtly inspired or tangentially influenced by Silent Spring. In that period, India, too, made several legislative and policy efforts, as the country enacted the Insecticide Act in 1973, laws to prevent water and air pollution and protect forests and wildlife in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Environment Protection Act in 1980 that also created the State and Central Pollution Control Boards and other authorities with environmental mandates.

The appearance of Silent Spring was one of the defining moments in the history of environmentalism, one that would irrevocably shake the complacency and complicity of state and industry in environmental harm. Today, one may quibble over the details of Silent Spring, over what the author chose to write about, or over how she wrote about it. But what one must acknowledge is that much of what Rachel Carson wrote about and the scientific and moral clarity she brought to it remains relevant over five decades later. From Maryland to Mizoram, then as now, the problems she described and the solutions she offered remain valid, apposite, and vital. In that respect, Rachel Carson and Silent Spring remain of enduring relevance.

Bingeing on books and the 3QD Arts and Literature Prize

My blog post here on the Coyotes Network on my books and bookstores binge of 2013 is on a list of 50 nominees for the Arts and Literature Prize 2014 at 3 Quarks Daily, a great place on the internet to find good stuff worth reading. Check out the list of posts on the 3QD website here. Over the next week (till June 9), the posts will remain open for public voting from this page. My post is a ways down in the alphabetical list (#46. View from Elephant Hills: Trophies 101: a year of books and bookstores).

Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is the judge for the prize. I don’t know if my post is going to make the shortlist, but if it does, how nice to think that Mohsin Hamid would be reading it, too. I had read The Reluctant Fundamentalist on my previous book-reading binge during 2011. It was one of the 100 books I read that year, and was a strangely appropriate and compelling read because I read it just a week before the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I did not read any books by Mohsin Hamid in 2013, but one of the books I bought at The English Bookshop, carried a double recommendation: one from the proprietor, Liesl Olivier, and one from Mohsin Hamid, who wrote the foreword. The book, Sostiene Pereira, which I read in English translation, Pereira Maintains, is sheer pleasure to read anytime.

Anyway, do check out the 3QD page for there is a bunch of nice posts there. Happy reading!

Bird by bird in the rainforest

Stop bouncing around like a ping-pong ball you tailless piece of shit!’ I said.

And it worked! The tiny, truncated bird, smaller than a sparrow, hopped onto a thin twig, and paused. Paused for just a couple of seconds, but after fifteen futile and frustrating minutes trying to glimpse the bird in the dense rainforest undergrowth on a misty morning, this was enough to get one clear view. If you can call staring through a pair of Swarovski 8.5 × 42 binoculars—my breath held to avoid fogging the eyepiece, my cold fingers clenched around both barrels, my shoulders and elbows locked, my torso twisted like a snake curling up an imaginary tree, my knees bent so that I could look lower in the undergrowth, past ferns and herbs and leafy tangles and fallen branches, through a tiny gap—at the briefly motionless bird twenty feet away, one clear view. A lot of effort, for one little bird.

I had not said the words out loud, of course, but this was no time to wonder at the power of silent abuse to pinion birds to their perch. I had details to note. A sprightly, dumpy bird, smaller than a sparrow. Underparts ashy grey; a rather big head coloured a dull olive green that continued onto his wings and back. A dark-tipped, pointed beak, like an elongated and sharpened pencil lead. Black eyestripe stretching through the eye, topped by a lighter yellowish supercilium to the side of his almost non-existent neck. Long legs, for a tiny bird, gripping the twig firmly, as he perched and gave me a slightly indignant eye over his shoulder. No tail. At least none that I could see. I would have been grateful for a few more seconds, but he had had enough. ‘Chirririt!’ he exclaimed, loud for such a little bird. ‘Chirririp!’, he let rip, again, before he bounced onto another twig, and plunged into the undergrowth. But I had seen enough. With a smug smile, I wrote his name down in my notebook: Grey-bellied Tesia. A touch darker grey below, a flash brighter yellow on crown and supercilium, and I would have had to put him down as a different species, Slaty-bellied Tesia. Satisfied, I pocketed my notebook, left him to sulk and skulk in peace.

Tesia_Ramki

Grey-bellied Tesia (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

The morning had not begun this way, with me casting silent abuse and expletives at unsuspecting birds. I had started on a far more polite note. I had walked into the regenerating rainforest with spindly bamboos and tall trees, at the edge of Dampa Tiger Reserve near Teirei in Mizoram. On a sober, serious note, I began birding, conscious that I was here to carry out a comprehensive survey of birds at the behest of the enthusiastic Field Director of the Reserve, Mr Lalthanhlua Zathang, on behalf of the Mizoram Forest Department. The December dawn had just broken beyond the hills and the sun was yet to crest the ridge.

DampaDawn

In the chill morning, the dark forest stood cloaked in a grey mist. From the canopy, dew fell like rain on the shrubs and onto the leaf litter covering the earth. Through the soft patter of falling dew, all around, I heard the calls of waking birds. The excited tweets of a canary-flycatcher perched on some distant branch, the chatter of bulbuls flitting around some unseen tree, the piercing screech of hill mynas flying across invisible sky, and soft churrs, and metallic clicks, and nasal notes, all punctuated the quiet morning air even as I struggled to pin-point their locations. And not a single bird showed.

Still, I was hopeful. And polite.

‘Hey guys,’ I said, ‘I dropped by last evening, but it was all very quiet out here. I figured you were busy or tired and I shouldn’t disturb you. Well, it is morning now, and here I am! Please come out. Say hello!’

Nyeaahh,‘ said the White-throated Bulbul, in a nasty, nasal drawl. Like all the others, he refused to show. The coward.

I tried again. ‘Where are you guys?’

More patter of falling dew.

Minutes passed. I heard soft rasping notes alternating with a loud, continuous chaunk chaunk chaunk as a pin-striped tit babbler called from low branches. Elusive and ventriloquial, she frustrated my efforts to spot her, the soft notes seeming to come from nearer and the loud notes from farther away than where she really was. Further ahead, I stopped near a Bischofia javanica tree fruiting copiously: there were birds busy feasting on the high branches. It was perhaps just a tad hasty, a little too jerky, the way I raised my binoculars to my eyes; before I could focus, a large flock flared off the canopy in a great flurry of wings. Green pigeons, but which species? Pin-tailed, or Thick-billed, or Ashy-headed? No telling now, however crisply I focused on the still-quivering twigs. Later still, a little spiderhunter went, ‘Which? Which?‘, flying at top speed through the understorey. My eyes alighted only at the empty spots, in mid-air, from where each call was emitted, by which time the bird had already zipped past to the next, eluding me. From the skies high above, an unseen Crested Serpent Eagle laughed loud and shrilly: ‘Heeeee heee hee‘.

I began to get worried, impatient. I had limited time on this trip, less than two weeks in the field, and only one morning to explore this trail, which snaked along the forested slope above Teirei river. For the bird survey to be comprehensive, I needed to explore different trails and habitats and identify accurately all species seen. By preparing a complete checklist, documenting changes in bird communities across habitats, the survey could add to the knowledge on biological diversity in Dampa and potentially contribute to the conservation plans for birds in the Reserve. I knew that cold, misty mornings were not ideal for birding, as bird activity tended to be low. Notorious skulkers like the tesias and wren-babblers were hard enough to see on brighter days, leave alone the prospect of finding, identifying, and counting them on murky mornings. Such times are best avoided if one was out for a systematic census of birds, on point counts or transects. But now, I was not constrained by rigid survey methods, I was willing to wait for the bird activity to pick up as the sun rose higher, and watch quietly till the bird showed itself. For this to work well, the birds needed to cooperate, too; it was not just a matter of my skill. Or was it?

Qu-ick,’ said a bird from the shrubs. ‘Qu-ick!’

An unknown call, yet strangely familiar, like the voice of a long-forgotten friend who calls you out of the blue asking, ‘Do you recognise who this is?’ I scanned the undergrowth even as I racked my brains trying to recall if this was a bird I once knew. I had studied birds for many months in Dampa Tiger Reserve earlier, but all that was nearly two decades ago. At that time, I had learned to identify by sight and sound over two hundred species in a matter of weeks, while strictly adhering to a policy that ‘no record at all is better than an erroneous one’. When I finished that study in the summer of 1995, my list held over 210 bird species, and I prided myself in knowing the calls of virtually all the birds I encountered on my birding walks. ‘Here sings a Black-naped Monarch,’ or ‘There calls a Red-headed Trogon!’ I would note, or merely pause to listen to the soft, subtle notes of a Snowy-browed Flycatcher in deep rainforest. But now, I felt like I was back at square one, more neophyte than past-master at birding. I felt compelled to reaffirm my acquaintance with these birds again, as if I were transforming faded friendships into comfortable familiarity or flourishing relationships once more. But perhaps, in the return, there was opportunity, too: like when rotational jhum farmers returned to cultivate a fallow, after it had regenerated a full twenty years, finding soil rested and replenished by age.

‘Come on… come on! I can see the leaves shaking there near the ground where you are flitting around. Come out where I can see you.’

A five-minute wait and he refuses to show. I imagine the bird saying, ‘Sorry! Can’t come out now.’ More likely, he didn’t care a whit for my plight. His voice had triggered a cloudy memory, and a name had been forming in my head: Buff-breasted Babbler. But before I could confirm, he just left. Vanished.

‘Bastard!’

This is when things started to get hairy. Here I was, after travelling thousands of kilometres to do this work, birding ostensibly to benefit the birds of Dampa, and they were simply failing me. Or, and the thought came close on its heels, I was here on my own work and failing, myself. In two decades, I wondered, had my field skills declined with age? Did I need to struggle that much more, strain my ears a little harder, to do the same things that I had managed to do earlier, apparently with élan? Had I forgotten the habits of the birds, their individual quirks and mannerisms, which had earlier guided my eyes and ears? Was I a fool to walk into a rainforest again, without the tape recorders and playback equipment that others use to lure birds out, without the mist-nets to snare the birds and securely identify them in-hand, without cameras and long lenses that snapped photographs in a trice to comfortably identify the bird on a computer screen, later? Was I just being a stubborn, old-fashioned geezer, a snob who believed, as I still did, that all one needed to do for a good bout of birding was arm oneself with a choice pair of binoculars, field notebook, and pen? I had no time to reflect on the answers—it was easier to deflect self-doubt and self-loathing onto the birds. Instead of naming the birds I found, I began calling them names.

* * * * *

After failing to find birds on the trail the previous evening, I had returned to my room at the Teirei Forest rest house to find solace, as I often do, in reading. As darkness fell and the temperature dropped below 10°C, I tucked into my sleeping bag and opened the book I had carried along—a book on writing by Anne Lamott which, oddly enough, was titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

In the book’s second chapter titled ‘Short Assignments’, Lamott explains the book’s title. She recalls a story of how her elder brother, when he was ten years old, was struggling to finish a report on birds, which he’d had three months to write and which was due the next day. Close to tears, he sat at the table, ringed by binder paper and pencils and bird books that lay unopened, frustrated by the huge task ahead of him. Then, his father sat beside him, placed a reassuring arm on his shoulder, and said:

Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

Well, there I was the next morning, on my own short assignment, ready to put aside my failures and take it bird by bird. But the damn birds refused to show. I don’t know what you would have done in this situation. I screamed, mutely, at every mysterious bird call. I let fly, motionless, at every fleeting glimpse. In complete silence, I cursed.

With that, my luck turned. The tesia was just an early victim. My patience exhausted in fifteen minutes, I pinned him to the twig with one cutting comment.

A little later, briskly turning a bend, I spooked a bird that exploded from virtually at my feet.

Freeze! Asshole!‘ I said, behind gritted teeth, which applied, I guess, to both of us. I stood binoculars glued to my eyes. The bird alighted on a slanting bamboo culm thirty metres away and glared back. Feather for feather, he was one of the most beautiful Emerald Dove males I had ever seen: coral-red beak and silver-capped head on wine-lilac neck, zebra-patterned rump immodestly flaunted under emerald wings. I could have stood rooted there for ever. Only, the feeling was clearly not mutual and the bird hustled away in a clapping flutter.

Emerald Dove (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Emerald Dove (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

‘And what are you fussing and churring and whistling about? Yes, you with the nervous tic, with your bunch of buddies on the branches. Show yourself clearly or shut your frigging mouth!’

It seemed rather extreme, even to me, to thus lambast what turned out to be a coterie of shy Brown-cheeked Fulvettas winding its way away through the bamboo. They were nondescript and dull birds, brown with a touch of grey on their heads, foraging in the shadow of bigger and more colourful peers.

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

The fulvettas made a dignified exit after their brief showing at my unuttered words. Only, after they left, other words—far greater than mine—came to mind and refused to leave.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.

~from ‘A Minor Bird‘, by Robert Frost

The fault was partly in me. A many-layered fault, of finding excuses when I failed at finding birds, of being stubborn, snobbish, or merely impatient. It was like blaming friends—who I had forgotten for years, not seeing them, not casting a thought in their direction—for failing to show up when I wanted them to. Like them, the birds lived neither for my convenience nor my disposal: they had lives of their own, free to roam and do unexpected things. It was I who needed to make more effort to see them to understand, once again if need be, who they were or weren’t. They were like characters in a book, and as Anne Lamott writes:

…if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t. You may try to get them to do something because it would be convenient plotwise, or you might want to pigeonhole them so you can maintain the illusion of control. But with luck… you will finally have to admit that who they are isn’t who you thought they were.

And what if, like the birds, the knowledge that I sought was not something to be chased after or coerced into revealing itself? If the best I could hope for was to remain receptive and observant, and let the story show, gradually, as a reward for attentive and repeated effort?

Finding the bird, identifying the species, knowing their calls and habits: these were just the first but crucial steps of a long chain of things I needed to do to translate a confirmed sighting to something of larger substance. I still needed to systematically cover various habitats from streams and rivers to fallows and forests, resurvey transects I had walked two decades ago, measure vegetation attributes such as tree density and canopy cover to quantify habitat change, then enter, verify, and analyse the collected data, then interpret and write my findings, all in the hope that it would lead to greater scientific understanding and better conservation and management efforts on the ground. Years ago, this had formed the bedrock of my work on the effects of shifting cultivation on rainforest birds in Dampa. Now, while surveying the same areas again after two decades, I had the opportunity to take my earlier work ahead, deepen my understanding of recovery of rainforest vegetation and bird communities. After this short trip in December, I would come again in February for several weeks of work, but I was beginning to wonder if even that much time was enough.

Even during this short visit, I was already becoming concerned about the changes in land-use around Dampa. Monoculture teak and rubber and oil-palm plantations were replacing diverse secondary forests and traditional livelihoods based on shifting cultivation on community lands were being beaten back by government and corporate interests to bring in economies based on cash and private ownership. In such a backdrop, the birds of Dampa seemed inconsequential and irrelevant, but they, too, had a role to play in helping understand the changes. The presence and kinds of birds in various sites serve as revealing titres of transformation in land-use, when habitat alteration reaches its threshold and that little extra drop of disturbance irretrievably changes the colour of the landscape. But, I realised, the birds were not the primary instrument of the assay, they were living measures of change in landscape. I was the blunt instrument making the measurements, scrawling notes and observations into my fraying field notebook. What if I was not up to the task? If all I could achieve was a mismeasure of a pertinent conservation issue, a partial diagnosis stemming from my own limited capacity, my shortcomings? Would I be able to describe my results clearly: after I record the right birds, find the right words, too? Again, I took encouragement from Anne Lamott:

If you don’t believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. … However, if you do care deeply about something—if, for instance, you are conservative in the great sense of the word, if you are someone who is trying to conserve the landscape and the natural world—then this belief will keep you going as you struggle to get your work done.

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care.

The trail that led to the river was overgrown. I could hear the rush of the river over rocks a hundred feet away, but could not see it through the tangle of vegetation. The plants were wet with morning dew sparkling in the sun that now rose over the trees. As mist steamed off the plants, I waded through grass and fern and sedge, wet to my thighs, and squelched along. I dodged swinging banana leaves and shoved bamboo culms and branches out of my way. With all the noise and disturbance of my passage, there was no question of finding birds. The trail almost petered out and so did the morning. I decided to turn back before I started cursing the plants. I would come back, later, begin afresh.

Through a small break in the vegetation, I saw a small segment of Teirei river. On a rock near the middle of the river, a small brown bird sat, flicked out into the air, and returned to its perch: a female Plumbeous Redstart. She kept sallying out, to catch flying insects perhaps, returning each time to the same spot. Out and back, out and back, to me, she looked loopy with life.

Plumbeous Redstart female (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Plumbeous Redstart female (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

* * * * *

Trophies 101: a year of books and bookstores

I went trophy hunting—in the year just past—roughly twice a week, every week, without fail. It was difficult, it was wonderful, it needed the patience of a stalker, the resistance of a gone junkie. On my hunts, I roamed the alleys and mazes of concrete jungles, scoured dark recesses and dusty nooks, scanned thousands before selecting the few, the chosen, the one. I have them all now with me, waiting to be proudly displayed on my shelves. My trophies of 2013, harvested from five countries across three continents, from over two dozen places: books.

It was an unusually good year for book hunting. I had had to travel on work or for taking a break from work to places far from the small hill town of Valparai where I live. The icy grachten of Amsterdam in January, sun-drenched northern California in April and May, verdant Vermont in July, quiet Uppsala in August, the dour streets of London in October, the dense forests of Mizoram in December, passing through Bangalore or New Delhi or Mysore or Coimbatore or Chennai, Indian cities that I visited on other trips on work or to see friends and family, always coming back home to the Anamalai hills, to Valparai. A little too much travel, if you ask me, and with too much time in workshops and meetings, places where there is always too much talk and too little done, so many moments when you itch to leave the room, go home, take a cleansing bath. On the work front, it was a year of moderate and quiet progress in Valparai itself, although the world around appeared to careen towards catastrophe and conflict, whether from extreme climate events around the world, or, closer to home, over disputes on how to conserve the Western Ghats or coexist with wild species like elephants. On the personal front, too, it was not an easy year, with deaths in the family, illness and stress among people close to us, worry and guilt about personal time infringing the ineluctable backlog of work. But wherever I was, there were always books at hand, or else I went looking.

The books were an attempt not so much to escape from it all, but to find solace and space, as they say, in the scheme of things. To make sense of the world around us, to see the world through other eyes, to feel transported, thrilled, or transformed by great art: what does that better, if one pays attention, than books, than literature? So, at the least opportunity, I hauled myself out of whatever I was doing or wherever I was, on quests for books. Books in public libraries, once-used books in curbside shops and on pavements, books in small, independent bookstores and larger, lavish bookshops, books in digital formats online for my Kindle, books borrowed from or gifted by friends (what are friends for, anyway?), books rediscovered in the shelves that Divya and I have lovingly filled and tended over the years, here in Valparai. As Emily Dickinson wrote of these “kinsmen of the shelf”:

Unto my Books—so good to turn—
Far ends of tired Days—
It half endears the Abstinence—
And Pain—is missed—in Praise—

And so, with the books in hand, I read. I read for the sheer joy of reading, for meeting my self-imposed challenge of reading one hundred books in 2013, for filling every empty space in everyday life. I read with a vengeance, read with heart. I read with attention, and read myself to distraction. I read on buses, on trains, on flights, in bus stations and train stations and airports. I read while waiting, secretly exultant at the delayed flight, the slow unpunctual train, the taxi stuck in traffic. I read while the morning coffee brewed in the filter, while the computer booted up, while being driven from somewhere to anywhere, while listening to music, while watching but not really watching the rubbish on television, while the rotis baked and the dal cooked in the kitchen, while waiting for meetings to begin, while waiting for them to end. I read on the couch, in the bed, sitting on chairs, on rocks, on river banks, in cafés, in bookstores, in a watchtower overlooking ranges of hills, in a cave in deep rainforest. I read sitting, standing, reclining, or lying down, in places a few feet below sea level (in The Netherlands) to over thirty thousand feet (on transcontinental flights). I read in sun and shade, under streetlamps and fluorescent tubes, using a LED headlamp or by candlelight. I read under the sharp buzz of caffeine from one-coffee-too-many, with that lightheaded feeling that one gets in the other ‘coffee shops’ of Amsterdam, with a mind mildly muddled by beer or vodka or wine. I read with both eyes flitting left to right and left again, or sometimes, just with one eye, the other drooping closed, moments before melting slowly, deliciously into sleep at night. I read on the shores of Lake Tahoe, on the banks of the Singelgracht, in my cousin’s swanky apartment overlooking Central Park in New York, on BART and Caltrain in California, in the homes of friends and family wherever I went, and most of all in the hills of the elephants here at home in Valparai. I just read and read and read.

The year that began with reading Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, filled up quickly with many books whose authors and voices I will remember and continue to hear, speaking to me as to a confidant or companion, for long. Still, eight books stood out as my best reads of 2013, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which I read on my Kindle, and others that I read as paperbacks. Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, a powerful novel on hunger and the depravity of totalitarian regimes set in the Russian Gulag during World War II, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a stark novella set in the American west of the 1920s, Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, stories remarkable for their imaginative detailing as for narrative technique, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, describing three journeys of a lost young man, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a classic, more like a non-fiction novella than an essay, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a hard-hitting early book about homelessness, poverty, and living on the street, and finally, William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic for all writers, The Elements of Style, a book I re-read for perhaps the third or fourth time.

Best books of 2013

Best books of 2013

On 29 December 2013, as I clicked past the last page on my Kindle of the hundredth book, I found myself dissatisfied with ending a year of reading with Thoreau’s Walking, more a long essay than a book. So I picked up a paperback from a friend’s bookshelf and ended the year reading this fine classic: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Through the year, I had kept track, on my online Goodreads account, of what I read and what Divya and my friends were reading. Among ourselves, we sent and received book recommendations that led to more reading, or helped find new authors to read. It was also interesting to compare impressions about books and authors with Divya and friends who had read the same books, to see what we agreed on and what we felt differently about them.

Still, not everyone takes kindly to such reading. On 2 January, when I wished my mother-in-law for the new year and invited her over to our home in Valparai, she replied: “Yes, I will come, but you must not be reading.”

So at this point, 101 books, 18816 pages, and more than five million words later, a statutory warning: Relentless reading can cause injury to friends and family.

* * *

What is good etiquette for a person who is reading a book? I am not talking about posture or mothers’ reading instructions (“Sit up straight, hold your book at least twelve inches away from your face, read in good light.”) This is about when and where it is appropriate to be reading a book, especially in company. Occasions when one is at a dining table or hosting guests are certainly out there in the forbidden list. I never read at a dining table, unless I was alone or waiting for people to show up. Still, I watched with envy as people at dinner tables, at home or while eating out, whipped out their so-smart phones, caressing their email and twitter feeds on touch screens, or their hands under the table, fingers flitting at the virtual keys, sending that all-important text message. And if the phone rang, of course, it must be picked up, the clangorous urgency of its shrill metallic cries immediately mollified with soft words and conversation. Even guests are forgiving, if you say, “I have to take this call” and step out with your phone for a quick chat, an extended ten minutes, or even longer. Imagine their chagrin if you say, “Can you excuse me for a few minutes? I was just in the middle of this wonderful passage in The Night Country by Loren Eiseley.” Or, their horror at: “Wait! I’m pages away from finishing Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and I cannot rest until I know how it ends.” The tyranny of the mobile phone, I tell you, trumps books any day.

Yet, there are grey areas. Can you read during working hours, for instance? And is it okay if you are reading non-fiction, connected with your work, but not so if you are reading fiction or poetry? As a nature conservationist, would reading Richard Mabey’s The Ash and the Beech or Edward Abbey’s polemical Desert Solitaire be forgiven, but not Patrick White’s extraordinary The Tree of Man or Rabindranath Tagore’s ecstatic poetry in The Gardener? If you have a social conscience, then should you read Michael Sandel’s Justice or Albert Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, say, but not Arun Joshi’s The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, or Mahasweta Devi’s Bitter Soil? And does that mean, by extension, that for working hours, stuff like Anaïs Nin‘s erotica or Ursula K. Le Guin‘s science fiction are a strict no-no?

How much time can one spend reading in a day? I calculate that, from the books I read last year, I read about 50 pages a day, on average. At my reading pace (moderate, not fast), that is about an hour and fifteen minutes of reading time, ranging from a low of a few minutes on some busy days to around five hours on days when I had more time or was travelling by train. This did not include time spent reading newspapers, magazines, stand-alone essays, the occasional scientific paper that I was reading or reviewing, in print or online. All told, it would still be about two hours a day, on average, of reading time. Is that a lot? Compare that with television viewership in Indian metros, which apparently exceeds two hours a day, while it averages around five hours per day in the US. Still, I can’t use these numbers to my advantage, as the hours add up for me because I watch TV, too. But: I sometimes watch TV while reading a book! (Is it really so odd, that while reading about the almost unendurable depravity and deprivation in the concentration camps of The Hunger Angel, one finds a kind of release watching the slaughter of Nazis on TV as portrayed by Quentin ‘The-rant-ino‘ in Inglourious Basterds?)

Excuses, excuses!

* * *

Still, if you find yourself seized this year by the idea of making it your year of books, and you happen to be in or near any of the places I was lucky to visit, here are some pointers to places where you may find something of interest, too.

Public libraries: Check out the great Anna Centenary Library in Chennai, although it is a library with no members and books can be read sitting there, but not borrowed. The small public library in Valparai itself is a good place to find local and regional newspapers and magazines, and titles in Tamil (a bunch of books on nature and wildlife that we donated last year is yet to pass through the bureaucratic channels and appear on its shelves). Still, I wish we had better and bigger public libraries, like the one I enjoyed visiting in San Mateo, California, for instance, or the wonderful Openbare Bibliotheek in Amsterdam. With excellent collections, comfortable and inviting reading spaces, and ancillary facilities including internet, audio-visual materials and public documents, these are truly fantastic public spaces for local people and casual visitors.

CraftsburyLibrary

The public library at Craftsbury Common (Courtesy: Craftsbury Public Library)

Another quiet and enchanting library is the public library at Craftsbury Common in Vermont. In this rustic Vermont community (less than 200 households), the library was housed in a clapboard building along the road on one side of the meadow-like common until about a decade ago. As recalled by David Brown, a long-time resident and Director of the Wildbranch Writing Workshop that is annually held here, when a new building was ready on the west side of the common, members and volunteers from the Craftsbury Common community formed a long human chain to pass the books hand-to-hand to move the entire collection to the new building. I thought almost everyone from Craftsbury Common would have had to gather to make the chain. Imagine that: almost all the books of a public library passing through the hands of almost everyone in the community!

Institutional libraries: If, on reading the above, you are tempted to visit Craftsbury Common in Vermont someday, don’t miss the other library, a short distance down the road, the Brown Library of Sterling College, which is open 24 hours a day. One of the smallest colleges in the US, Sterling College lays strong emphasis on nature, conservation, farming, forestry, and sustainability, and it certainly shows in their library. It has one of the widest collections of environmental periodicals I have seen and an excellent collection of book titles, too. In California, I spent a lot of time in two of the libraries at Stanford, where I was enrolled in a creative non-fiction course (a Stanford Continuing Studies course taught by a superb instructor, a poet and former Wallace Stegner Fellow, Peter Kline). The Green Library was my refuge for many happy hours of reading just about anything from the New Yorker to Earth Island Journal, fiction and reference. Down the road, past the grand main quad and the green oval, is the Falconer biology library, where I spent many hours reading, even sleeping, on their comfortable plush chairs, and writing at the large tables with views of trees through the windows. In India, I did not much enjoy the institutional libraries, perhaps because I felt a bit lost when I was there. The library in the new building of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore was a bit of a disappointment, given that it did not have much on nature and conservation, or literature, that I could find. The Centre for Ecological Sciences library, an old, cozy haunt, in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is also displaced now to a monstrous new building with an elevator and imposing corridors confusingly flaring away in all directions. I confess: during a short visit there, I could not even find the library. The tiny library of our own institution, the Nature Conservation Foundation, is just a few shelves and stacks in the garage of our Mysore office. Still, I found a book or two to pick up there.

Smaller, independent bookstores: Of all the places where I loitered and lingered looking for books, some of the best were the smaller independent bookstores. The English Bookshop in Amsterdam is a fantastic place located near the heart of the world heritage canal district with an eclectic but tasteful choice of books for the book aficionado. Its proprietor, Liesl Olivier, knows her books and gives you superb recommendations. Thanks, Liesl, for James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. In nearby Leliegracht, walk into Architectura & Natura for a selection of titles on architecture, landscapes, gardens, and nature.

Not to be missed in Amsterdam (Photo courtesy: The English Bookshop)

Not to be missed in Amsterdam (Photo courtesy: The English Bookshop)

In California, around San Mateo, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Rockridge near Oakland, there are so many bookstores, and although I tried to visit as many as possible, I managed only a handful. The absolute best and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful bookstores I have ever visited is Mrs Dalloway’s at Rockridge. Named after a famous book by Virginia Woolf, whose book A Room of One’s Own was one of my 2013 top reads, this store also keeps a selection of Woolf titles, on a shelf rather quaintly named ‘A Shelf of Her Own’. As a double bonus, you can walk down the road to Pegasus Books, to whet your appetite even further. In San Francisco, you shouldn’t miss City Lights Bookstore, a large store where the hours spin away so fast that you end up missing your trains, or Green Apple Books, which is just packed with more books than I, unfortunately, had time to see.

Daunt Books's famous gallery

Beautiful interior of Daunt Books (Photo: RachelH, Wikimedia Commons)

If you are in London, I highly recommend a visit to Daunt Books, a short walk down the road from Baker Street or Bond Street tube stations. This store focuses on travel literature and is charmingly organised: the shelves for each region or country contain not just travelogues and guides, but fiction, poetry, and non-fiction titles written by authors from that country or region. On the Argentina shelf, I found Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, which I had searched for in vain in many other places, and from the Canada shelf, I picked up Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s Runaway. While visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, we stopped by the Kew Bookshop, a good place for books on all things green.

Larger bookshops and chains: The smaller bookstores are a greater pleasure to visit, but one is sometimes tempted to go book hunting in the labyrinths of larger stores. Crossword and Landmark in India have stores worth visiting, although their collections are not exceptional and I watch with trepidation as their space gets taken up more and more by ‘lifestyle’ products and toys and gaming consoles and CDs and DVDs. In Bangalore, Gangarams shut shop on M. G. Road and has moved to Church Street. Although the store looks like they have not really settled in, it is worth a visit. In London, there are monster stores, which you would need weeks to see in their entirety: particularly Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road, Waterstones, and Hatchards, the last priding itself as the oldest bookstore in London founded in 1797. Blackwell’s, also on Charing Cross Road, has an impressive array of academic titles. In Amsterdam, the Athenaeum is great for titles in all world languages, while the American Book Center across the road is the place to go for English titles. Another huge place to get lost in among books is the Polare store near the flower market, Bloemenmarkt.

Used Books: Roughly half the books we bought last year were from stores that sold used or second-hand (shouldn’t it be third-hand, assuming the first person may have held the book in both hands?) books. Top of the list is certainly BookBuyers at Mountain View, California, followed by Books Inc, just down Castro Street, and Bell’s Book Store in Palo Alto near Stanford.

BookBuyers, Mountain View, CA (Photo courtesy: Google streetview)

BookBuyers, Mountain View, CA (Photo courtesy: Google streetview)

Although these stores don’t have that new and spacious look that some of the larger bookstores have, they are absolute treasure chests. You can find an incredible diversity of books here, including old Penguin paperback editions, out-of-print titles, almost good-as-new books at less than half the price, or often available for as little as a dollar per book. I had to borrow an extra suitcase from my brother and sister-in-law in California to carry the books I picked up there back to India, leaving yet others behind in another bag for my cousin’s husband (bless his soul) to carry to India a few weeks later. I struck it rich again in Vermont, as the public library was having a dollar sale of old books, finding hardbacks in impeccable condition of Conrad Richter’s Sea of Grass and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. In London, I had little time to visit used book stores, but for a single Oxfam store. In Amsterdam, the Saturday street markets at Noordermarkt and the nearby Lindengracht has stalls with used books that are worth checking out, if you can overcome the temptations of the wonderful selection of local foods and other things also available in the dozens of other stalls down the street. Back in Bangalore, I never got a chance to beat time and traffic to revisit Blossom Book House in Church Street. Fortunately, one of our friends, who practically lives in this massive bookstore when he is not out in the field looking for otters and such, has been mining it for all kinds of interesting books and sharing some of those with us.

Online: Then, of course, were the books downloaded online: e-books from the invaluable Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, or purchased from Amazon for Kindle. From Valparai, we also ordered many printed books online, from Amazon or its Indian wannabe equivalent, Flipkart. Last year will perhaps be the last year of reading books on e-readers for me. In October, while reading Richard Jefferies’ post-apocalyptic novel After London, my e-reader, a Kindle 3 keyboard model, suddenly turned hot in my hands, almost burning my fingertips, forcing me to shut it down. After it cooled, I booted back up to find that images were no longer displayed, but I could still read texts. But not for long. After three years of regular use, on 29 December 2013, minutes after I clicked past the last page of the hundredth book of the year, my Kindle froze, gave up its ghost, and died. Amazon, of course, refused any replacement as it was past warranty, and offered at reduced price newer machines with back-lit or paper-white touch screens and other completely unnecessary embellishments that somehow were not as attractive as the older reader. Besides, they should make things that last, shouldn’t they? Like books.

* * *

So what were these 101 books that I read: the trophies? Why do I call them trophies? Only because I am displaying them here, like the books in our wooden, glass-fronted shelves at home are displayed. In Mizoram, I remember visiting two decades ago, the home of a Mizo tribal, Liando, whose walls were adorned with hundreds of skulls of animals that he had hunted in the past. It was a display that signified prowess, that symbolised his prestige within the community. My trophies signify neither prowess nor prestige, they are merely the documentation of an accomplishment of reading about fifty pages a day, for a year—of these 101 books.

My 2013 bookshelf:
Sridhar's books 2013

Books2013

I could go on about these books, but I am no critic, only a reader, so it is difficult to give you further insight into these books or the kind of incisive comments about them that you might want. All I can tell you is that I wish you a good year of reading ahead and hope you find the time to visit those independent bookstores and libraries and bookshops of your choice. You will find that, if you can put aside those two hours every day for reading, it will be two hours well spent. You will find that something miraculous happens, as if the author who is not there physically is speaking to you, the reader, or through you, by your presence and your reading, to the world, like a bubble that expands from your hand to enfold the universe. In 2013, a hundred years after Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I read his rhapsodic poetry in The Gardener. How strange, then, to discover that the poem ends with this final stanza!

Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.

It is time I wound up this essay. And besides: the new year is already here, the hours rush on, and in the bedroom, J. M. Coetzee is waiting.