Josna Rege

392. Pecking Order

In Family, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on November 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

b943939cc38c7a4c769c401ab271f47cIn the past couple of years I’ve taken over the job of keeping my parents’ bird feeder filled. They always did so religiously, observing the birds’ behavior intently, keeping track of all the different species that paid them a visit, watching over the eggs and fledglings in the spring (see TMA #301, Babysitting), and worrying about their well-being as winter approached. I watch through the kitchen window as I do the washing up, trying not to anthropomorphize, though it’s well-nigh impossible for me not to do so.

At first I couldn’t help but notice the large birds taking up too much space, scaring off the smaller ones, and trying to scarf up all the seed. I also noticed little birds of many species perching on a nearby tree, like so many Christmas-tree decorations, and coming forward one by one to take their turn at the feeder. The term “pecking order” immediately came to mind, and it struck me how apt it was; here were the birds lining up hierarchically by size, taking it in turns to peck at the birdseed. But I was wrong, wrong on the origins of the term, and wrong in my knee-jerk interpretation of what was happening at the feeder.

It turns out that pecking order was coined by Norwegian zoologist and psychologist  Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, whose 1921 PhD dissertation presented his observations and interpretations of  social dominance among cooped-up chickens who, apparently, punished transgressors with a “painful peck” that taught them their place in the hierarchy. He claimed that this hierarchy was not learned, but inherent in the birds’ nature. Other scholars seized on this notion, and applied it to human social hierarchies as well, arguing that we are competitive creatures who naturally establish social pecking orders.

This line of thinking reached back to the 19th century, when Darwin’s theory of natural selection was seized upon by social Darwinists who extended it to persons, groups, and races, arguing for Herbert Spencer’s theory of the “survival of the fittest.”  According to them, human society naturally followed the law of the jungle, and those who came out on top were evolutionarily superior to the rest. In his 1949 elegy, In Memoriam, Tennyson entered what was to become a long-running debate with his now-famous phrase, Nature, red in tooth and claw, in a section of the poem where he contrasted the seeming heartlessness of Nature with the religious belief that Love was the ultimate force in the universe. And ever since, the work of politicians, artists, social scientists, and natural scientists has been shaped—or skewed— by the assumption that cutthroat competitiveness is hard-wired in human beings, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

How many Nature documentaries have you watched where a powerful predator stalks, kills, and devours its hapless prey? Take note of the narrative thrust of the storyline and tone of the commentary. More often than not, it seems, the narrator focuses almost obsessively on the gory details, delighting in the bloodthirsty order of things, as if to naturalize, even valorize, similarly violent behavior in human beings.

Back to my kitchen window. Viewing the birds at the feeder without my pecking-order lenses, I still saw the blue jay crowding out the smaller songbirds or the red-bellied woodpecker drilling far into the feeder with its long, rapier-sharp beak, which other birds wisely gave a wide berth. But I also noticed other kinds of behavior. First of all, there was very little actual fighting, aside from the occasional wing-beating flap when two birds descended on the feeder at the same time, and one made sure it got in first. But there was no further fussing and fighting, and certainly no pecking. The other bird simply waited in line, as customers do at a crowded restaurant, until there was space for it at the bar, and then took its place, first-come, first-served. I also observed that while big birds were dominating one side of the feeder, the smaller birds simply lined up on the other side, and there seemed to be little conflict either between the big and the small or among the small ones.

In addition to competition, I observed an interesting symbiosis among different species. While most of the birds perched on either side of the feeder, others who were no good at perching, like the mourning doves, picked up the fallen seed, as did the squirrels. One morning, I even saw a flock of free-ranging hens from next-door cleaning up on the ground—amicably, I might add: no sign whatsoever of a pecking order.

There have been some exceptional scientists who have been free enough from the prevailing social-Darwinist bias to pioneer other approaches, both at the cellular level and at the level of relationships between different organisms.  One was the late evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, who focused on symbiosis and  cooperation rather than competition as the driver of evolution. Her perspective brought her into vigorous debate with neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene), but while her ideas were initially ridiculed, many of them were eventually accepted.

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My father felt so strongly about keeping the bird feeder well stocked with seed that he was reluctant to leave home for any length of time lest it run out. As for the larger predators, he was a particular lover of the Big Cats. He never tired of watching documentaries of lions and tigers, neither reveling in or recoiling from their carnivorous natures. “They have to eat,” he would simply say, “What magnificent creatures they are!” But his favorites were the videos showing the close relationships that developed between Big Cats and humans, and he never tired of watching a YouTube video of the joyful response of a lion raised by humans, released to the wild, and then reunited with them when they returned to visit after many years. He was deeply touched by the scene every time. “We under-estimate these animals,” he would always say, shaking his head in wonder and sadness, for I think he was remembering having to leave behind our beloved dog when we left India for the United States (see TMA #54, Flash).

So what a person sees at the bird feeder depends on how that person sees the world. While one cannot  eradicate one’s own biases altogether, one can at least attempt to be aware of them. Pecking order—pshaw! More like pecking disorder.

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391. buying up the whole store

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, parenting, United States on October 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Birthday haul from the Indian store

Birthday haul from the Indian store

Dad was never one to cocoon himself in the comfort of “his own people,” however one might define one’s own. In his teens he left his small hometown on the Konkan coast of India for the big city of Bombay, where he apprenticed himself to an accomplished watercolorist for a year, then took a diploma in architecture from the Sir J. J. School of Art. Soon afterwards he boarded a steamship for London, where he was to stay for 5 years, studying, working, and befriending and sharing digs with Indians and Britishers alike. He met and married an Englishwoman (soon to become my mother), withstanding and wearing down the opposition from his bewildered family. Back in India, at I.I.T. Kharagpur, my parents’ friends included Indians, some mixed couples like themselves, and a few visiting foreigners. Later, in Athens, their friends included many Greeks and a cosmopolitan crowd including Australians, Austrians, Americans, Britishers, Germans, Indians, and Pakistanis. And when Mum and Dad moved to the United States, at a time when there were still very few Indians in the country, their closest friends here in New England were both American and Indian.

But despite his diverse circle of friends and acquaintances, in the last few years of his life Dad admitted, almost guiltily, that he pined for Indian faces. He looked forward eagerly to the local Indian association’s annual Diwali event, when they laid on a catered Indian feast and everyone took out their gold ornaments and dressed up in the silks that lay folded in boxes all year. Dad would put on his best Indian woolen jacket and Irish tweed hat and pace the front hall for hours in advance, while I fussed anxiously over the draping of my sari. Funnily enough, though, once he was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a lively, multigenerational, multilingual Indian crowd, he wasn’t much interested in interacting with anyone; he was content to eat, take pleasure in the sights and sounds, bask in the warmth of the organized chaos, and just be.

We don’t live in an area with a high concentration of Indian Americans, so the nearest Indian grocery store is in Springfield, about twenty miles away, and we usually managed to get there only a couple of times a year, when Dad had an eye doctor’s appointment. Last year we paid them a special visit on his birthday and came away with a highly satisfying haul that would last us until the next time. Just looking at all the choices made us ravenously hungry, so we always bought a fresh samosa each and ate it in the car on the way home, with Dad pronouncing it “Delicious.”

Our last visit to the Indian store, back in late May or June, had been delayed due to Dad’s second hospitalization of the year. He was now having to be on supplemental oxygen day and night, trundling a small oxygen tank in front of him in a little three-wheeled walker wherever he went.  On this visit, he put the oxygen tank in a shopping cart and pushed that around the store instead. We oohed and aahed at everything we saw: packets of savory snacks of every description (“munchies”, Dad called them); tins of pure ghee; frozen chapatis from Malaysia that tasted almost as good as home-made; heaps of fresh curry leaves, dhaniya-patta (cilantro), and green chillies; sweets of all kinds by the pound, driven up from New York; several varieties of  mangoes, sold by the box; blocks of jaggery made in Kohlapur, right near Dad’s hometown of Ratnagiri; cans of mango pulp made in Ratnagiri itself; and, of course, a myriad varieties of rice, tea, and spices.

As the clerk rang up our order and we began to maneuver our cart out to the car, Dad said wistfully, “one feels like buying up the whole store.”

The next month, the day after his 92nd birthday, we had to call an ambulance for what turned out to be Dad’s final hospitalization. Most of the Kohlapuri jaggery and the pure ghee still sits here at home, looking as lonely and bereft as we feel. Diwali approaches again, but this year it will be a quiet one. We will simply be content to attend the function and to be surrounded by Indians for a while.

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To Dad, with Love

In Notes on October 3, 2016 at 2:24 pm

My father has passed away. It is much too soon for me to write about him; I can’t find the words. But over the years he has figured in many Tell Me Another stories. Taken collectively, I think they convey something of his character, personality, and presence. Here is a hyperlinked list of these stories (with favorites in bold), interspersed with some songs Dad loved and some of mine.

To Dad, with Love

The Yogi of Beals Street

Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam

The Kurta Joke

Hai Apna Dil to Awara

Sucking Lemons and Quoting Shaw

Dhitang Dhitang Bole

So Many Things Have Disappeared

Yeh Raatein Yeh Mausam

Flash

Mandoubala

Jaggery Coconut, Nectar of the Gods

Mexican Home

The Bay of Biscay and the Gully Gully Man

Ichak Dana Bichak Dana 

Dolls I Have Loved (and Lost)

Aa Jao Tadapte Hain Armaan

The Long Journey

Can’t Buy Me Love

From a Railway Carriage

Lady Madonna

Greece in the 60s: Expats and Other Animals

O Ymittos

Learning to Swim

Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam

Cookbooks, Immigrants, and Improvisation

Mera Joota Hai Japani

Avoiding the Plague

Aaj Jyotsna Raate

Untangling

Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki

Lively Up Yourself

Riding Like the Wind

Pre-dawn Adventures

Utha Utha Sakala Jana

Waste Not, Want Not

On Not Knowing the Signs

“Heuch, Heuch!” (and other family lingo)

The Silver Hairpin

What’s in a Name?

An Immigrant’s Reflections on Independence Day

The Mango Room

Across the Miles

The Taste of Home

Doing it Themselves

Inscriptions

Slow Food from Way Back

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