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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!

The journeys of the elephants

It is just bad behaviour on my part, I must admit, when I, as a wildlife scientist, point fingers at other people’s ignorance about wildlife, issue unsolicited comments and corrections at errors they make, poke fun even. Still, it is hard to resist at times, especially when it concerns animals as wonderful and legendary, and, yes, as large as elephants. It is particularly hard to stay quiet when someone is talking or writing about Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, but uses a painting or photograph or example of the African species, Loxodonta africana. How can one mistake the Asian elephants, with their arching convex backs and smaller ears, their two-humped foreheads and trunk tips ending in a single finger-like lobe, a grand animal that looks like this,

Row of elephants

A herd of Asian elephants (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

for African elephants, with their saddle-like concave backs and much larger ears, their females carrying tusks like males, their sloping foreheads and corrugated skin, trunk tips ending in a pair of pincer-like lobes?

African elephant

African elephant

Still, it happens all the time. A website or newspaper reports on a serious issue involving elephants and people in the fragmented landscape of forests and fields and cities in southern India, but uses a photograph of a large herd of African elephants marching through open savanna. A tea producer in Assam brands its tea packet with an image, not of Asian elephants walking old migratory routes where huge tea plantations now exist, but that of a herd of African elephants, adding gratuitous insult: these are ‘raging elephants’. A reputed Indian scientist suggests making fences with disused railway tracks to separate people from elephants here in India because it has worked in Addo National Park in Africa, and the authorities take the suggestion and run to install another barrier in an already sundered landscape. To sell news or products or opinions, the African is pulled in place of the Asian, again and again and again. One baulks at the indifference, at the injustice and ignorance on display.

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
~ Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

One good thing about ignorance, however, which no one understands, or so wrote José Saramago in his novel The Elephant’s Journey, is that “it protects us from false knowledge”. The Elephant’s Journey is Saramago’s fictional retelling of the historical journey made by an Asian elephant, Solomon, gifted in 1551 by King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of  Austria. Saramago writes of Solomon’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna, through the Iberian peninsula and northern Italy and across the alps, with a “masterfully light hand” and tender humour. His words in this delightful novel came to my mind in the last few days, oddly enough, after reading about the results of a recent scientific study on elephants. A study probing more than three centuries into the past, pulling specimens out of museums, flipping open the pages of an historic book of the eighteenth century, in which Carl von Linné or Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy, formally classified the elephant, bestowing the scientific name Elephas maximus, for the very first time. In Saramago’s strangely appropriate words:

The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it’s not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear…

And when the elephant does appear before you for the first time, after the initial wonderment and fascination fades away, you might be tempted to conclude, like the European peasants do when the elephant appears in their village, that:

There’s not much to an elephant, really, when you’ve walked round him once, you’ve seen all there is to see.

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtest: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtesy: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

Sure, until someone looks even closer, like the scientists did in the recent study. The study in question, by Enrico Capellini of the University of Copenhagen and an international team of scientists, found that something long believed to be true about Asian elephants, their very identity as Elephas maximus established by Linnaeus in his historic work Systema Naturae, was the result of an error. Linnaeus described the Asian elephant from a ‘type’ specimen, an elephant foetus preserved in an alcohol-filled jar (a somewhat large jar, one presumes). The specimen—long considered as the first taxonomic specimen and permanent benchmark for Asian elephant—turns out to be (you guessed it!) that of an African elephant. Published in November 2013, the study weaves brilliant scientific and archival detective work, delving into ancient DNA and protein molecules, into museum records, artwork, and archives, to conclude that Linnaeus had it wrong. And Saramago says:

as elephant philosophy would have it, what cannot be cannot be,

Which means that Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758, as the species is named, fully and formally, refers at the first instance to the African elephant. Which means that I might now have to suppress my smug, superior erudition on telling Asian from African elephants and instead eat my own words. Which goes to show that you never know where you will be led when you dig into the past. Into history.

It is the idea of history itself, that Saramago examines from his fictional vantage point, using the lens of literature.

…but that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

Perhaps Linnaeus, in his enthusiasm to describe the elephant, paid insufficient attention to history. The elephant foetus that Linnaeus labelled was obtained at his behest by the Swedish royalty from the collection of Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist interested in natural history and trader in animals collected from various parts of the world. Seba obtained the elephant foetus from the Dutch West India Company, which traded in Africa and regions west across the Atlantic. Linnaeus, however, believed and declared the locality of origin of the elephant as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which may have been the case if the source had been the Dutch East India Company. If Linnaeus had paid more attention to history, as to biology, one would perhaps have not had to wait 250 years for an analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA to establish that the elephant originated in a part of Africa where Dutch traders were active in the 17th century. Linnaeus had, unwittingly, been looking Lanka instead of talking Togo.

As I said to you once before, the elephant is a different matter altogether, every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he’s taught and another who insists on ignoring it all, … I realised that I’m just like the elephant, that a part of me learns and the other part ignores everything I’ve learned, and the longer I live, the more I ignore,

Fortunately for us ignorant retrospective liars about elephants, Asian and African, the taxonomists are still on our side. Waving their bewildering box of rules about names and naming of animals, called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, they have provided a face-saving way out. Out of the other specimens (‘syntypes’) of elephants that Linnaeus had seen, known, or used while describing the elephant, one can designate another specimen (a ‘lectotype’) to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the species’s name. To find and pin down the new name-torch carrier, the scientists have pulled out, not a rabbit from a hat, for that is not hip in science, but what is perfectly de rigueur: a skeleton out of a closet. A genuine Asian elephant skeleton, confirmed by anatomical and DNA analysis, which Linnaeus himself had referred to, will now be the specimen-designate for Asian elephants. The Asian elephant, thanks be to The Code, will remain Elephas maximus. It is as Saramago ordained,

because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.

Where that skeleton came from is another remarkable story. One that takes the tale another hundred years into the past, into the mid 17th century. In 1664, John Ray, an English academic who quit Cambridge to pursue natural history and travel through Europe, saw and wrote about “…the skin and skeleton of an elephant which was shown in Florence some 8 or 10 years ago and died there”, a specimen that Linnaeus, too, was aware of. The skeleton remains today, much as Ray described it, in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence. The scientists have verified from anatomical and molecular analysis that the skeleton is that of an Asian elephant. I applaud their patience, their achievement, but it is Saramago’s subtle humour that rings in my ear.

If your highness knew elephants as I believe I do, you would know that india exists wherever an indian elephant happens to be, and I am not speaking here of african elephants, of whom I have no experience, and that same india will, whatever happens, always remain intact inside him,

The skeleton was that of an elephant named Hansken. Hansken was a female Asian elephant, brought to Europe courtesy the right company this time, the Dutch East India Company, from Sri Lanka, with the fortuitous result that the type locality mentioned by Linnaeus for Elephas maximus can now remain the same. Arriving in Europe in the 1630s, she was taken as a travelling curiosity through varies cities, including Amsterdam, where in 1637, she was sketched by a person no less than Rembrandt!

This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy British Museum)

This is Hansken. This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy: British Museum via Wikimedia Commons).

Now, I cannot help wondering if Rembrandt and Linnaeus were aware of the other elephant that had journeyed from Sri Lanka through Europe, a century earlier in the 1550s: the Suleiman of history, the Solomon of Saramago’s story. (Is history and his story really all that different, for an animal with culture and memory like the elephant, for people like us? In Saramago’s part of the world, in Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan, is not the word for story and history the same? Historia! So it is.).

Still, after the conundrum posed by Linnaeus’s error, what a distinguished and artful conclusion to arrive at, for Asian elephants! A newly-designated specimen, the skeleton of Hansken, whose fleshed-and-blooded portrait was made by Rembrandt himself! Destiny, Saramago writes,

when it chooses, is as good or even better than god at writing straight on crooked lines.

Of Solomon, we know that he entered Vienna in early 1552 and died in less than two years. What we know little about is of the people who attended to him, particularly his mahout. Not so, of course, in Saramago’s story, wherein “to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost”, he invents a mahout with a peculiar eastern Indian sounding name, Subhro. As Solomon enters Austria, Subhro, too, is passed on with the elephant to Maximilian, who with a sort of Germanic disdain, renames the elephant Suleiman and rechristens his mahout, Fritz. What do we know of the life of Subhro-Fritz? Or of Hansken’s mahout? There are inscriptions and woodcuts, coins and frescoes, depicting Solomon in Europe, and Hansken is immortalised by Linnaeus and Rembrandt, but clearly the elephant is the centre of attention, not the mahout on its back.

The elephant 'Soliman' (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

The elephant ‘Soliman’  in Vienna, 1552 (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

One wonders. What is the fate of the keeper when it is the kept that garners all the attention? As Subhro himself says:

but, one way or another, dear friend, while your future is guaranteed, mine isn’t, I’m a mahout, a parasite, a mere appendage.

And what, one wonders, too, will happen now, to the poor African elephant foetus in the jar? Does it become a footnote to history, a museum relic, an anecdote, an aside? Now, to paraphrase E. E. Cummings, after the doting fingers of prurient philosophers have pinched and poked, and the naughty thumb of science prodded the elephant-that-never-was, now: will it rest encased in its alcoholic tomb? Will it be quietly mourned, yet spurned, like a miscarriage, spawned by Linnaeus, of an anonymous mother? Or will fade to obscurity again, for centuries, forever, like a misbegotten afterbirth? Will we conclude, as Saramago suggests, of this elephant’s journey, as we might of the life of the mahouts:

and that was that, we will not see them in this theatre again, but such is life, the actors appear, then leave the stage, as is only fitting, it’s what usually and always will happen sooner or later, they say their part, then disappear through the door at the back, the one that opens onto the garden.

Still, worse things could happen. The foetus could become a museum celebrity, to be probed and pinched and peered at further. It could become a case study: required reading in taxonomic textbooks.

Or perhaps, it will remain a mute witness, as the elephants do on their own journeys through landscapes of Asia and Africa, when we subject them to our scrutiny, amusement, benevolence, entertainment, affection, harassment, and exploitation. As they will continue to do while we struggle to come to terms with elephants with whom we have lived for thousands of years. Struggling to understand the elephants for who they are, to respect their identities and individuality, and to give them the admiration that they deserve, we continue to seek answers on our own terms. Perhaps we will find those answers yet, from patient science or great literature, or perhaps from wise Solomon himself, in The Elephant’s Journey:

For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our codes of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.

Further reading:

Callaway, E. 2013. Linnaeus's Asian elephant was wrong species. 
Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2013.14063

Cappellini, E., Gentry, A., Palkopoulou, E., Ishida, Y., Cram, D., Roos, A.-M., 
Watson, M., Johansson, U. S., Fernholm, B., Agnelli, P., Barbagli, F., Littlewood, 
D. T. J., Kelstrup, C. D., Olsen, J. V., Lister, A. M., Roca, A. L., Dalén, L. and 
Gilbert, M. T. P. 2013. Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, 
Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae). Zoological Journal of 
the Linnean Society. doi: 10.1111/zoj.12084

Medina, R. 2013. Ceci n’est pas un éléphant.
http://mappingignorance.org/2013/11/20/ceci-nest-pas-un-elephant/

Saramago, J. 2011. The elephant's journey. (Translated from the Portuguese by
Margaret Jull Costa.) Mariner Books.