Tag Archives: wonder

Winter song

I love these wintry days in the Central Valley when its dirty brown air has been washed out by the infrequent (but not this winter, gracias El Niño) rain and wrung out to dry with cottonball clouds hanging as if on invisible clotheslines across an impossibly blue sky. Days like this I can even see snow on the mountains of the Sierra Nevada from my office window, pulling my gaze away from the computer screen to wander off daydreaming…

View from my office window, drawing me away from my screen to the snow-frosted mountaintops of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. This iPhone's camera doesn't do justice to what my eye sees...you may have to squint into the middle distance to glimpse the mountains underneath the floating clouds.

View from my office window, drawing me away from my screen to the snow-frosted mountaintops of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. This iPhone’s camera doesn’t do justice to what my eye sees…you may have to squint into the middle distance to glimpse the mountains underneath the floating clouds.

Such days I imagine were the norm in this valley a century ago, before our vehicles and agricultural industry started filling up the air with so many of our effluents as to turn this beautiful air into some of the least breathable in the nation, a murky brown veil hiding the mountains on most days of the year. Yet the people keep coming to fill up this valley, remaking it in our own industrial image, flattening the topography and bending the natural and ancient rhythms of this land and atmosphere to our will. Days like this remind me of those rhythms, of what once was, what might have been, and what could be again in this beautiful place, even as the vision of those mountains seems to melt away the grimy sealed glass pane on my office window out of which I goggle at that impossibly blue sky like a goldfish trapped in a bowl.

Urban conifers against that impossibly blue winter sky. There be Great Horned Owls in some of these trees...

Urban conifers against that impossibly blue winter sky. There be Great Horned Owls in some of these trees…

That window glass is not thick enough to keep out the occasional soft hooting of the young Great Horned Owls hidden in the branches of those conifers, where they were raised a summer ago. And this morning, as I stepped out onto the external staircase, I was startled by the liquid burbling notes of a song that is common throughout the spring and summer around here, but shouldn’t be so loud so early in the year. A House Finch was sitting high up in one of the trees singing his heart out against a background humming with the urban noises of building atmospheric devices and traffic in the distance, and roaring with an occasional airplane flying over.

Looking out east from his high perch, I wonder if the House Finch noticed the snow on the mountains, or heard the chirping of the winter migrants in the trees nearby, but even if he did, these weren’t enough to dissuade him from following whatever internal hormonal clock was telling him it was time to start singing to attract a mate. Already, and it isn’t even the middle of January yet. Global warming, is it, or just the local warming effect from the urban heat island? No matter, this boy is already serenading the ladies about the bountiful spring to come.

Meanwhile, the chipping sounds you hear at the end of the sound clip above might well be the mild panic setting into the heart of the migrant Yellow-Rumped Warbler foraging in the branches nearby, perhaps wondering if it was time to leave its winter ground already even though the air felt cold and the clouds spoke of more rain to come.

Its been a topsy turvy winter (or a few) in California, and living in these disconnected urban landscapes beneath the gaze of those parched snow-covered mountains must be discombobulating even to the wild creatures trying to make this ever stranger land their home. I know the feeling well.

What keeps you awake all night?

What an improbable thing, of all improbable thing...

What an improbable thing, of all improbable things…                  (image via io9, I think, via their Fb page…)

“Do you ever wonder how the universe will end?” Asks Salon on their Facebook page while sharing this article about 5 questions that keeps physicists awake at night.

Wanna know what keeps (or ought to) biologists awake all night?

How much of life currently on this planet will end. Not wondering, but knowing that we, humans, who can wonder about the beginning and the end of the entire universe, are causing another mass extinction of life. Right here. Right now.

On this very pale blue dot where the most improbable of things in the universe (question 3 keeping those physicists awake all night; really, guys?!) happened: life evolved. To the point where it could begin to wonder about the universe. To keep itself awake all night wondering about the universe.

Then kill itself?

What keeps you up at night?

How Bilbo Baggins saw the world, clinging on to Gwaihir’s back?

Well… maybe… not quite, because this doesn’t exactly looks like Middle Earth this bird is soaring over:

[youtube G3QrhdfLCO8]

No, this is not an excerpt of a CGI scene from The Hobbit movie. Nor does the bird look quite like the greatest Eagle who ever lived in the annals of human mythology.

Better still – this is a clip from a real video camera mounted on the back of a real eagle, almost literally giving us the bird’s eye view of the Alpine landscape of the Mer De Glace area of Chamonix, France.

Pretty damn cool, eh?

Breathe, Gaia, Breathe!

Back in December 2012, I found myself mesmerized (and alarmed) by an animated visualization of the breathing of Earth’s biosphere. Mesmerized by the regular rhythm of the biosphere’s breath, and alarmed by what has been happening with rising CO2 levels from our activities. Now John Nelson has created a couple of new animated GIF visualizations of the annual rhythm of seasons on Earth, another mesmerizing vision that brings to mind the regular breathing or heartbeat of a child.

So, this friday, especially if you’ve had a tough work week, settle down in front of your screen, and focus on these two beautifully pulsating views of our lovely earth, this pale blue pulsing dot:

Click here to see the large version (1.4 MB), and here for the bonkers version (3.7 MB).

Click here to see the large version (3 MB), and here for the irrationally large version (8.9 MB).

On exploring the familiar and not taking nearby places for granted

Yosemite Tree MilkyWay

The Milky Way fights the rising dawn behind an ancient tree in Yosemite National Park. Photo credit: Shawn Reeder.

Nightfall in Yosemite! One of those images I wish I had made, to go with my recent post riffing off of Meera’s post on Asimov’s Nightfall

This image is one of thousands from Yosemite National Park seen through the lens of Shawn Reeder over a 2-year period, which he has stitched together into a remarkable time-lapse video showcasing that iconic national park in a range of light:

[vimeo 40802206]
Yosemite Range of Light from Shawn Reeder on Vimeo.

Watching videos like this one, or even images similar to ones in the video, I am filled with a mixture of wonder and longing and regret. That last for the fact that I’ve been living within a couple of hours’ drive away from Yosemite, but haven’t managed to really see as much of the place as I would like to, as I really should. For we live close enough to Yosemite that on those rare winter/spring days when rain has washed out the valley’s dirty air and strung it up to dry in the clear morning light, I can even see the tops of the park’s mountains right from our campus.

We go there periodically, of course, Kaberi and I with our girls, and often with friends visiting from out of town, because one of the ways to sell Fresno to outsiders is to tell them how close we are to Yosemite (and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks too)! So we visit every once in a while, have even camped out for several days on end, loving every minute of every trip there, and always coming back wondering why we don’t go more often! After all, back in college where I was into rock climbing, I dreamt of climbing in Yosemite while poring over pictures of El Capitan and Half Dome in books borrowed from the American Center Library in Bombay. Yet, now that I live so near the place, rock climbing itself has receded into a distant memory! Alas and alack!

So why don’t we go there more often?

Oh, we have our excuses: the exigencies of life on the tenure track at a teaching heavy institution, with young children, children too young at first for serious outdoor outings, then too busy with school and extra-curricular activities to find the time for even day-trips, and also, sometimes, often, the financial constraints of a single-salaried professorial life. Our weekends never seem free enough when school is in session, and we’re always trying to travel to more distant places during breaks, when we are done recovering from the exhaustion of the school year. Because, there is always that other thing, you know, where we keep thinking we can always go to Yosemite/Sequioa/Kings Canyon because they are right here, so nearby that we can go anytime, and therefore of course we end up not going there much at all. Familiarity / proximity breeding not contempt but a certain taking-for-grantedness of the sort which makes us neglect our loved ones until sometimes it is too late, and we are left with nothing but regret at opportunities lost, moments never enjoyed because we were too busy chasing distant mirages to notice the beauty so close to hand.

But really, how well do these mundane earthly excuses hold up against the transcendental magnificence of the mountains and the trees and the stars and the skies so within our reach, almost outside our doorstep? Can we not cut down / skip out occasionally on the seemingly all-weekend-consuming treadmills of grocery shopping/cleaning house/chores/grading papers/writing exams for us academic grownups, and soccer/waterpolo/dance/music/orchestra for our kids? Even as we share the growing lament for childhoods lost and alienated from nature, the so-called Nature Deficit Disorder, amid the over-scheduling of our children’s lives, and the hours they must spend poring over screens (for schoolwork as much as for edutainment), it is hard to free ourselves from the anxieties of modern parenthood, of the dread over their futures if they don’t have so many lines of extra-curricular activities, and leadership, and initiative, and engagement outside the classroom, to fill their little CVs so they can hope to qualify for the college of our dreams! Oh fuss and bother! Will they be OK if they don’t do all these extra things and fill their weekends and every waking moment with different structured activities to round out their broad educations and nurture all their talents?

But, will they be OK if they miss out on building a connection with nature instead? Will it really do them much harm if they give the old football game or orchestra performance a miss to instead go scramble up a boulder or splash through a stream or hug a giant tree? I daresay they will likely be all the better for having the taken the time to commune with this magnificent nature right here at our doorstep. Just as much as they have been better for missing school for an entire semester this year to travel (during my sabbatical) to the magnificently ruggedly austere landscapes of Spiti in the trans-Himalaya, for instance, among other places in India. They loved being in Spiti so much, despite being outside cellphone and internet range, these kids of the iPad age, that they didn’t even notice or mind when we got stuck in them mountain villages for an extra 10 days when roads got blocked after some heavy rains downstream (I wrote about it here and at The Nature of Cities). They were loath to leave Spiti then, and are now torn about returning to Fresno, to their much-missed friends, and the normal routines of school life there after months of travel and living out of suitcases.

This video, and others from Yosemite, though, have me thinking, resolving, that it won’t do for us to keep ignoring those mountains when we get back. My mother used to sneak us out of school occasionally, ostensibly for “family functions”, but really because she wanted to take us to a matinee showing of the latest Bollywood flick. Seems to me it would be well worth remembering that tactic, to pull our girls out of some of their weekend structured activities, and take them to Yosemite, and Sequoia, and Kings Canyon, and places in between, so they can get to know these places intimately, and remember them, and cherish them, and make them their own. I have shown them the milky way high up in the Himalaya. I want them to know that it is well within their reach closer to their home too.

Join us if you can, if you need a reason to visit Fresno: we’re right at the doorstep to Yosemite! And for those of you who are unable to make the trip, I hope the above video gives you enough glimpses of beauty.

And if the night seems to get too dark, here are Yosemite’s night skies:

[youtube ZhgR3zVfo-0]

On worshipping the Sun, late at night…

Even though I was brought up steeped in religious traditions—of the orthodox north Karnataka Madhwa Brahmin variety, no less—I grew out of them in college and have never really felt the need to seek any comfort in imagining a supernatural deity of any sort watching over me ever since. Of course, the broad and ambiguous philosophical traditions of Hinduism allow for atheists to remain part of the fold, because it doesn’t require firm belief in any particular (of its thousands of) deities, but rather emphasizes practice, or karma. In this, Hinduism may be closer to being a philosophy and culture more than an organized religion, unlike Bill O’Reilly’s latest delusions about Christianity. In recent years, especially after two decades of mostly living in the US, I have drifted away from much of the cultural practice as well, and find myself nonplussed by Hinduism as much as by any other of the world’s religious traditions. As to the dominant / mainstream (fundamentalist/supremacist) practitioners of these religious traditions… that’s another story.

These late night reflections on religion may seem rather odd on this blog, but they’re triggered in part by a nocturnal viewing of the sun (more on that below), and a recent essay by Indian environmental historian Ramachandra Guha where he tracks the rise of Hindutvawadi trolls on the internet, as part of the overall rise in Hindu supremacist (which may be a better term than fundamentalist, given Hinduism’s lack of singular fundamental texts or beliefs) movements in India. It was interesting to learn that my own upbringing was somewhat similar to Guha’s – except that my father in his later years joined the urban middle class throngs voting for the right-wing parties. I am glad, though, that in raising our own family now in America, we have managed to avoid what appears to be a common trajectory for many immigrant communities: a tracking back to a more rigid form of religious/cultural practices, often coupled with support for more conservative/religious politics in the US, all of which seems driven by the search for identity in a foreign land. I don’t go to the temple, for example, and have given up on attending various “cultural events” organized by local Hindu communities because I cannot stand their politics (which too often refract Indian communal identity politics in strange colors); or the trolls who show up to defend their interpretation of Hindutva in the manner Guha describes.

So how do I deal with that immigrant’s identity void? And how will I deal with questions about our culture and tradition that may come as my daughters grow up and face their own inevitable struggles with identity?

Science and secular humanism have served us well so far, and I hope they will provide strength to my girls when they come into their own as individuals embedded in a society that remains far too beholden to outdated religious ideas worldwide. I’m confident that we will find some ways to figure things our using these frameworks without having to resort to belief in some supernatural divinity.

But if that long-dead religious impulse ever gets resurrected (can’t imagine why, but the faithful keep telling me the day will come!), and I find myself in some spiritual void seeking an emotional crutch, I think I will probably take up Sun Worship. After all, the Sun actually exists, and is largely responsible for powering the evolution of life on Earth, and will keep life going here until it expands and swallows the planet in a distant but inevitable future – long, long, long after we are all gone, recycled back into the stardust that was forged in the interiors of other, older suns.

Here’s my prophet of choice, George Carlin, describing how, overnight, he became a Sun Worshipper (at around the 3:30 mark in this clip):

[youtube gPOfurmrjxo]

Of course, Carlin jokes that his conversion wasn’t actually overnight because you can’t see the Sun at night!

How Carlin would have loved this video, then, which showed up on my computer screen late last night, making me suddenly feel a strong urge to worship the power of the Sun (and triggering this blog post):

[youtube dY69TuaZ0Pk]

Isn’t that truly awe-inspiringly spectacular? And to think that the Sun was tossing off that little flare at the same time as I was sitting in my living room late at night, peering at my laptop screen in my insomniac way, looking for inspiration to finish a bit of writing on a long-overdue research manuscript!

The video comes from the Helioviewer project, which allows one to visualize and explore the surface and inner heliosphere of the Sun from the comfort of one’s living room, using imagery data from NASA and the European Space Agency (the other ESA)! So not only do we not need to build any temples or churches to worship the Sun—who doesn’t give a shit about what we do anyway, because the Sun just IS—we don’t even need to wait until dawn to spend some quality time contemplating the face of this wondrous and powerful deity!

So that’s the other reason why I am up at night now, rambling on about religious impulses in this blog post!

Let me leave you with another awesome little video from just a couple of minutes ago:

[youtube fGA1CDKcCfo]

How can you not worship that?