Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

401. More Than Enough

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Nature, places, Stories on July 24, 2017 at 2:23 am

Hampstead No. 1 Pond (photo: J. Rege)

I ought to have known as soon as the ATM at the Hampstead branch of Barclays Bank swallowed up my debit card on the morning of my return flight; when the taxi driver who drove me to St. Pancras to catch the train to Gatwick took me to the wrong station; when the airline found my painstakingly-packed suitcase 5 kg. overweight; when the price of an overflow carry-on bag rivaled the excess baggage charges; when, after my rush to the airport, the plane was delayed by nearly an hour; and when, to add the ultimate insult to injury, I was told that my two precious jars of Marmite would now have to be confiscated because I had transferred them from the overweight suitcase into my carry-on bag. As I fought back the tears of fury, frustration, and self-pity that sprang to my eyes, I told myself that I ought to have known the universe would conspire to make my last day in England a disaster.

But all along the way, felicity had trumped misfortune. The Hampstead walk that last morning was an experience that no bank or ATM could possibly take away from me; the guide who led me astray was set straight by another one who knew the way; at the airport, those who would exploit hapless travelers were rendered powerless by an open-hearted stranger; the delay was rendered delightful by tea and an M&S custard tart, sprinkled liberally with nutmeg; and even the loss of the Marmite, tragic to be sure, was not total: while two were confiscated, a third made it through, with a lot more besides.

It was a compressed trip, as highly charged as it was fleeting. In just over a week I had travelled up to the West Midlands to see my dear Uncle Ted, back down to London to see regal Auntie Bette, the matriarch of the clan, and Auntie Angy, who had not let marriage into the Sharp family (Sharp by name and sharp by nature) rob her of her sweet disposition. Time had not permitted me to travel up to Norfolk to see my cousin Susan and her brood (including a new grandbaby), or to Bristol to see my old friend Cylla (who had become a double grandmother since my last visit), or to Hoddesdon to see Barbara, or to visit Robin, who had become a widower since the last time and Savita, my old schoolmate from India, who were based in London itself; and I had missed two cousins altogether. But, to quote my sister’s favorite Rolling Stones song, “You get what you need.” I had got plenty.

When they told me, at the airport check-in, that I could either incur 45 pounds in excess-baggage charges or, at the conveniently adjacent luggage store, that the smallest bag I could contemplate buying would coincidentally also cost me 45 pounds, I almost gave way to despair; but this Kafkaesque double-bind was to give way to a singular sweetness. At the airport outpost of Boots the chemists, where I attempted to buy their largest plastic carrier bag, the young cashier asked me if I would prefer a cloth bag. “Yes,” I breathed, “yes please. Do you sell them?”

No, they didn’t, but if I could wait a few moments, she had one that she could give me.
“Don’t look so surprised,” she said, as I stood open-mouthed at her generosity, “it’s nothing.” And sure enough, the sweet young angel stepped out and returned with a bag whose capacity rivaled the £45 offering at the price-gouging luggage shop. I was overcome by gratitude, but my heartfelt thanks only embarrassed her, so I left to find a set of scales where I could off-load some of the heaviest items in my suitcase (including, sadly, the large and ill-fated jars of Marmite).

Earlier that day, the sinking feeling in my stomach when the Barclay’s ATM on Hampstead High Street swallowed my debit card threatened to plunge me into the Slough of Despond, as I wrangled in vain with the bank clerk, all the while watching my last free hour in London ticking away. But as I continued my walk down Hampstead High Street, the feeling of well-being returned from my walk across the Heath earlier that morning. I walked past the Oxfam shop at the top of Gayton Road,  where Andrew, Nikhil, and I had lived for six weeks in 1997, while I was participating in an NEH Summer Seminar on postcolonial literature and theory, and where I now picked up a pair of bone china mugs and paid 5p for a recycled-plastic carrier bag that bore the heartwarming slogan, “Be Humankind.” Hurrying down Downshire Hill, into Keats Grove, past the poet’s house and gardens, I reached the 24 bus terminus at South End Green at last, in good time.

Well Passage, Hampstead

All that morning a feeling of homecoming had accompanied me every step of the way, as I strode confidently and alone down Mansfield Road, where my cousin Lesley had once lived, and up the steps to the Heath, where morning dogs and dog-walkers mingled and meandered at their leisure. This was where my mother and her brothers had rambled in their youth, where my parents met and courted, and where I had been born. There was a moment, walking down the narrow Well Passage, when I might have been my mother in a sepia photo c. 1952, in which she walks, swinging her arms, with her brother Ted and his best friend Curly, in a circular gypsy skirt with a wide cinched-waist belt and a dimpled smile on her face as if the world was new and she and her mates owned it. No bank nonsense could dislodge that feeling.

(from michaelhaag.blogspot.com)

On the long summer evening before, Cousin Lesley and I had taken the 24 bus to South End Green, walked onto the Heath from South End Green, and stood overlooking the pond and the row of houses beyond. It was in one of those houses, in South Hill Park, where we had stayed for three months in 1963 with Auntie Dorrie and Tamara on our way back from Greece to India, where I had walked to nearby Gospel Oak School every morning with Lesley, where I first saw the Beatles on television, where I first saw television itself (see British TV, Fall of ’63). As we watched children watching the ducks and the swan and its half-grown cygnet, Lesley asked their mother to take our picture. We walked on, to the bathing ponds where Mum and her brothers and their friends had passed many long, happy hours in their teens and twenties. I passed and photographed a fallen horse chestnut branch, with the not-yet-ripe fruit still in its prickly skin. Come September, children would prise the glossy nuts out of their burst casings and play conkers, if children still played conkers today. But now was now. I was here, and on my last day in England, it was more than enough; it was plenty.

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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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378. Xýpna / Ξύπνα

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 29, 2016 at 10:43 am
[from amyapplebaumsalbums.com]

[from amyapplebaumsalbums.com]

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XDuring the nearly-three years my family lived in Athens, we memorized part of a story in a Greek children’s reader we had. Whether it was because it was one of the few Greek passages he had learned by heart or, more likely, because it was one of those inside family jokes (see TMA#162 Heuch, Heuch! (and other family lingo), I remember my Dad repeatedly reciting the first few lines of the piece, about a mother waking up her daughter to get ready for the first day of school. Here’s the Greek (apologies in advance for any errors) with transliteration and translation:

«Ξύπνα!», μου είπε, «παιδαkι μου. Σήμερα το σχολείο ανοίγει. Πρέπει να ετοιμαστούμε, για να πάμε. »

« Xýpna ! » , mou eípe, «paidakí mou . Símera to scholeío anoígei. Prépei na etoimastoúme , yia na páme . »

“Wake up!” she said, “my child.  Today school opens. We need to get ready to go.”

[from huffingtonpost.ca]

[from huffingtonpost.ca]

Since then, I’ve always remembered the Greek word for Wake Up!: Xýpna! And perhaps because, not being a morning person, I struggle to leap up and embrace the day, I am drawn to songs and poems that call upon us to do so:

Bob Marley’s always-inspiring Wake Up and Live.

The lovely Greek folk singer Nana Mouscouri’s Xypna Agapi Mou (Wake Up My Love). (By the way, here’s Nana and a very young Donovan singing Donovan’s In the Morning, better known as “Colours.”)

Yusuf Islam (then Cat Stevens) singing the beautiful Morning Has Broken, sung to the equally beautiful words by Eleanor Farjeon.

And perhaps my very favorite crystal-clear wake-up song, Utha Utha, Sakal Jana, sung here by Asha Bhosle.

In several of these songs you’ll see that waking up refers not merely to dispelling one’s morning grogginess with a strong cup of tea, but to nothing less than Enlightenment, living fully and alertly as our best selves and embracing every moment of every new day.

Xýpna!

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369. the Outdoors

In blogs and blogging, Britain, clothing, Family, Food, health, Nature, parenting, Stories on April 18, 2016 at 7:53 pm

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[hertfordshire life.co.uk]

[hertfordshire life.co.uk]

OWhen I was in secondary school in England, age 14-15, the prefects, older students with positions of authority, enforced the rule that we had to spend recess out of doors, in fair weather or foul. They would patrol the hallways, especially in the winters, rooting out any poor soul who might be huddling in a corner, hoping to avoid being thrust out into the cold and wet. I remember ducking into the girls’ lavatories with a friend of mine and hiding in the cubicles, only to hear the prefects’ footsteps loom louder and louder, until finally, they heaved open the door. In a trice we climbed up onto the toilet seats and squatted there, so that our feet could not be seen when they peered under the doors. Fortunately we were lucky, that time, and gloated at our victory over the fresh-air police.

But we were in grey school uniforms (emmahennessey.blogspot.com)

But in 1968 we were in grey school uniforms (emmahennessey.blogspot.com)

1024px-Traditional.Sunday.Roast-01We weren’t getting off so easily. During that year, my mother, sister, and I were living with our Uncle Ted and our two cousins, Jacky and Carol, while waiting for the arrival of our green cards so that we could emigrate to the States with our father, who was still in India. Uncle Ted, it turned out, was a fresh-air fiend, one of those parents who believed that children should spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. So when, on the weekend, just as we were leaning back lazily, loosening our belts after a massive English Sunday roast with all the trimmings, Uncle Ted would invariably say, in hearty tones, “Who’s for a brisk country walk?” we would all groan, because we knew that it was a rhetorical question—we had no choice. We would turn appealingly to my mother, who wouldn’t let us off the hook, but sweetened the deal with the promise of tea and cakes when we returned; and so there was nothing for it but to put on our heaviest boots and plunge into the country lanes and byways with Uncle Ted.

It was always an adventure. Our sulks would be forgotten before we’d rounded the first bend and one of us had spotted our first artefact for the shelf back at home. We argued and speculated about everything we found, and eventually determined it to be an ancient Roman arrowhead, a nail from a hob-nailed boot, the tiny skull of a shrew, or an as-yet-undiscovered species of fern or fungus. We bore them proudly back home, covered in mud, like the rest of our persons, to be displayed on the special shelf, duly washed and labeled. And then we had tea and cakes.

Britain is famous for its footpaths, and one can still ramble the length and breadth of the island on both short-and long-distance national trails. Much as I detest the self-important officiousness of school prefects, and root for the rebels who refuse to catch their deaths out in the rain simply because it’s supposed to be good for the character, I can’t help but applaud the parents who instill a love of the outdoors in their children.

country_1507294c
I just read a sad story in a British newspaper, reporting that some middle-class parents are refusing to let their children ramble around the countryside because they (the parents) can no longer read maps and, besides, their offspring might come home covered in mud.

Long live map-reading, and muddy boots, and the glorious Outdoors!

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368. Night

In blogs and blogging, Music, Nature, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 17, 2016 at 8:56 am

422408-night-sky

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N

As a girl at boarding school, I loved singing in morning chapel. We often sang hymns welcoming the new day, and our dear headmaster Mr. Murray’s favorite, Lord of All Hopefulness, Lord of All Joy, was one of mine as well. There was one morning hymn, though, whose tune I liked but some of whose words never failed to annoy me. The first verse went:

New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.

I supposed it was okay to be thankful that one hadn’t died in one’s sleep, but wondered why the daytime was privileged over the night in this way. Why wasn’t one also considered alive and conscious while sleeping? Later, at university, I made a little study of the waking and sleeping states of consciousness as explored in the Upanishads, and found that, as in modern sleep and dream research, they had considered the sleeping states to be both conscious and necessary, fulfilling essential functions.

I love the night. It’s a peaceful time when the chatter of the world is stilled, and a measure of calm restored. I do not fear darkness or associate it with evil or death. After all, half the day is dark; why on earth should we dismiss half our lives? When the sun sets, a precious peace descends, cloaking the world in darkness. Only in darkness is the night sky illuminated, the heavenly bodies that are invisible by day emerging in all their glory. Also by night, thoughts that are dispelled by day emerge, demanding to be examined and resolved. These processes are carried out in blessèd sleep, balm of hurt minds. . .that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, as Shakespeare put it in Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2.

For good measure, I leave you with a handful of songs celebrating the night.

Night Shift (Bob Marley & the Wailers)
Whatever Gets You Through the Night (John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band)
Because the Night (Patti Smith Group)
In the Midnight Hour (Wilson Pickett)
All Through the Night (Welsh Folk Song, Ar hyd y nos)

Night-time brings me joy.

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367. Movement

In blogs and blogging, health, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, Stories, Work on April 16, 2016 at 8:17 pm

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The Awá tribe, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil (survivalinternational.org)

The Awá tribe, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil (survivalinternational.org)

MYesterday Andrew and I had made a date to sit down to file our taxes; well, not quite the taxes themselves, the deferral forms for the taxes. Deferring the start of the work on the deferral, I took a little walk out to the mailbox to pick up the mail from the day before.

It was a glorious day. The sun warmed my back and a gentle breeze played through the trees. The daffodils were out and everything was alive. As I walked, a delightful ache streaked through my limbs and quickened my step. Far from walking to the mailbox and back, I felt that I could go on walking forever. I was made to move.

One bright Sunday morning when I was nineteen, I had set out for a little stroll in the park and ended up walking some 23 miles (see TMA #39, Two at a Time). Now the weekly extent of my movement was the sum of distance from the house to the car, the car to my office, the car to the supermarket, and back again, the trips up and down the flights of stairs at home and at work; oh, and the trips down the driveway to pick up the mail and take out the trash and recycling bins. Pretty pathetic. That’s why the ache I feel in my limbs most of the time is the ache of disuse rather than the welcome ache of dormant muscles waking up after a long hibernation. For we humans suffer when we stop moving.

Think of our lives when we were hunter-gatherers. We are still at optimum health when we adhere as closely as possible to that lifestyle: continually on the move—on foot, of course—just to gain the minimum number of calories necessary for our basic subsistence. And now, I think of how many hours a day I spend sitting in the car, just driving back and forth to work; hunched over a desk; sprawling on the couch; lying in bed.

Recent research in the news has found that people who spend too much time sitting are at greater risk of dying from heart disease and cancer. They recommend that all of us, especially office workers and others with sedentary jobs, spend more time standing and moving:

  • Stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch.
  • If you work at a desk for long periods of time, try a standing desk — or improvise with a high table or counter.
  • Walk laps with your colleagues rather than gathering in a conference room for meetings.
  • Position your work surface above a treadmill — with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk — so that you can be in motion throughout the day (Levine)

418cFeVoQuLDozens of contraptions are now available that allow one to stand, or even exercise, while working on one’s laptop computer. Colleagues of mine are now routinely grading while standing up. No longer can I collapse on the couch and watch my favorite soap, EastEnders, guilt-free (not that I ever could); I am keenly aware that I ought to be pedaling furiously at the same time.

There is another kind of movement that gives one the same delightful feeling of exhilaration as a long walk, and that is a social movement toward shared goals. These times of cuts and austerity measures are alienating and enervating in the extreme, and neoliberalism turns us into lonely, isolated individuals. But there is an antidote: collective action. This song by Bob Marley, from a live performance in Boston (1978), is guaranteed to restore a spring to your step.

In the end, of course, we all gotta move, right out of this life. Mississippi Fred McDowell says it best. So while you’re here, shake a leg. I guarantee that it will bring you joy. I know that movement brings me joy, only somehow I keep forgetting.

(Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)

(Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)

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363. India

In blogs and blogging, India, Nature, places, Stories on April 13, 2016 at 4:16 am

1024px-India_78.40398E_20.74980N

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IOver the centuries, India has gone by many names; and these, like most names, differ according to the speaker, the language, and the context. The Greeks called it India, back in the fourth century B.C., a name that comes from the Sindhu, or Indus river. Today, India officially calls itself both India and Bharat, and a third name, Hindustan, has also been in use since the days of British colonial rule.

The British like to say that India was not an entity until they came along to unite a motley collection of kingdoms and chieftaincies. That is, they make the arrogant and ridiculous claim that they created India. But they are wrong; Indians have known their land for millennia, criss-crossed by life-giving rivers and mapped by pilgrimage sites. Lifelong scholar of India, Diana Eck, puts it beautifully in her new book. India: A Sacred Geography:

Considering its long history, India has had but a few hours of political and administrative unity. Its unity as a nation, however, has been firmly constituted by the sacred geography it has held in common and revered: its mountains, forests, rivers, hilltop shrines.

This geography has not just been held holy by Hindus—or the wide range of beliefs and practices now called Hinduism—but by many Indian Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.

HI_246037

I, who have lived so much of my life outside India, still hold it dear. When I try to catch hold of what India means to me, it is the land itself that returns again and again to my mind’s eye, until I am awash with it. The paddy fields, coconut palms, rivers and forests, fast disappearing; the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the coasts lined by the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal; I traverse them in my dreams as if on a steam train rushing through the night. It is, always and forever, the Indian people—their energy, curiosity, diversity, resilience and zest for life, despite tremendous hardships and poverty. The flora and fauna—banyan trees, the luxuriant growth of flowers, fruits, and vegetables through every climate zone. The animals: the emblematic and endangered Indian elephant, first and foremost; tigers, monkeys, jackals, cobras, scorpions, ants, mosquitoes. It is the Indian climate—the building heat in March-April, the deadly drought that drives deep cracks and crevices into the parched earth, the blessed return of the drenching monsoon rains. And the full-spectrum, heady smells of India: flower garlands, incense, ripe fruit, raw sewage. Every time I set my feet down on its soil again, I feel tremendous relief and joy. Yes, India brings me joy.

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358. Darjeeling

In 1960s, blogs and blogging, Education, India, Nature, places, Stories on April 6, 2016 at 12:19 am

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photo by Karl Hagen

photo by Karl Hagen

DDarjeeling is a hill station in West Bengal, India, set mile-high in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was formerly part of Sikkim and its name derives from Dorje Ling, abode of the thunderbolt, a monastery built for the Chogyal of Sikkim in the mid-nineteenth century. Its diverse population of about 130,000 includes Gorkhas, Lephchas, Bhutias, Bengalis, Marwaris, Anglo-Indians, Chinese, Biharis, and Tibetans. It is justly famous for its flowery, faintly orange-scented tea, its cool climate, its ancient narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that chugs up from the plains, its botanical garden, its Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (founded by Tenzing Norgay), and, when the mists clear, its stunning views of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.

I love Darjeeling because it was my home for two and a half years during my teens, when my parents sent me to boarding school there, to Mount Hermon, where the snows of Kanchenjunga were the view from our dormitory window. Keeping in touch with my MH friends and classmates (Batch of ’69), drinking whole-leaf Darjeeling tea, lifting my voice and my eyes to the mountains as we did every day, and recalling the awe-inspiring beauty of the Himalayan landscape, all continue to bring me joy.

Some 17 years ago the Batch of ’69 celebrated its 30th anniversary in Kathmandu, hosted by Lobsang, our classmate who is settled there. Three of us, Tsognie, Marianne, and I, being based in the U.S., were unable to travel to Nepal at that time, and so we got together at the same time for a mini-reunion at my house. We made a video in which we reminisced, sang MH songs, and sent our greetings to everyone. In it, Marianne, who has the clearest, purest voice I have ever heard, sang To Sir with Love, that she had first learned as a tribute to our class teacher, Mr. Mellor. In short order, we converted the videocassette from the U.S. NTSC format into the Indian PAL, and sent it to Kathmandu by Global Express Mail. (This was before Skype or Youtube were founded (2003 and 2005, respectively) and email, even if some people had access to it, was slow and unreliable.)

Our video got to Kathmandu on time, but on that day it was either a long weekend or the post office was closed due to a strike. Our classmates celebrated without us while it languished in the mailroom. Months later, Mr. Mellor, who was retired back in Australia by then, visited Calcutta (just before it became Kolkata again), where we believe that members of our batch of ’69 showed him the video. We hope it meant half as much to him to receive it as it meant to us to record it for him. Mr. Mellor passed away not long afterwards, and so did dear Santosh, our classmate who had brought us all together on an email list after many years.

I realize that my tone here is nostalgic; but Darjeeling is a place of such sublime natural beauty that, even half a century later, it is still able to cast its mountain mists upon my inward eye, bringing with it that emotion recollected in tranquility so treasured by the Romantic poets.

I had to leave Darjeeling a year before the rest of my class graduated. While it was a wrenching parting for me, Darjeeling itself was devastated almost immediately afterwards by the terrible landslide of 1968. It was not until twenty-five years later that I returned again, and I haven’t been able to return since. How is it that a place lived in for such a short time, and that too so long ago, still means so much to me?

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348. On Tap

In health, Inter/Transnational, Nature, Politics, Stories on November 4, 2015 at 2:10 am
Public drinking fountain in Barcelona, Spain (Matthew Lasar, arstechnica.com)

Public drinking fountain in Barcelona, Spain (Matthew Lasar, arstechnica.com)

481212_622906671069266_400505785_nIn class today we discussed the right to clean drinking water and sanitation, declared a universal human right by the United Nations in 2010 as the availability of water was increasingly under threat from global climate change, pollution, and privatization. Appallingly, it is a matter of debate whether water is in fact a right or whether it is a commodity that can be bought and sold. One student expressed delight at having been given “free” drinking water on a recent trip to Italy, in a town where the water supply had temporarily been contaminated. We talked about the idea of the Commons, and certain ancient and inalienable rights, such as the right to grazing and to water for humans and cattle. Young people in the United States are so used to buying bottled water that the notion of public water fountains in the town square is quaint: delightful, but a little dangerous.

Another student mentioned that her family has their own well which supplies them with fresh drinking water. Her boyfriend’s family, who have an expensive built-in filtration system for their town-supplied water, were shocked to see her drink straight from the tap. This is in the United States, where, with rare exceptions, the public water supply is perfectly safe to drink. But insidiously, ordinary water—unbottled, free—is becoming the exception rather than the norm.

p.txtMany universities in the United States and Canada are locked into 10-year Cold Beverage Agreements with companies like Coca-Cola as the sole providers of all their beverages, including bottled water. When our Global Studies Program organizes a catered event on campus, we ask for tap water in glass jugs instead of bottled water, but one has to know to ask, and it isn’t second-nature to do so anymore. Thankfully, student and community organizations are beginning to seek bans on bottled water and are winning.

Although technically, water is a renewable resource, the world’s water supply is finite and we waste it at our peril. Once used, it can take a very long time to return through the water cycle. Even if we switch to tap water from the bottle, we can’t take for granted that it will always be on tap. Worldwide, 783 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. We must conserve it and we must keep it in the public domain.

(AP photo from dawn.com)

AP photo (dawn.com)

Raising a glass of precious water to us all on this planet.

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344. Tropical Botanicals

In 1970s, Nature, places, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases on September 25, 2015 at 9:36 am
Rhizophora mangle, or Red Mangrove (mangrove.at)

Rhizophora mangle, or red mangrove (mangrove.at)

Forty years ago, in April 1975, a group of us in the co-op house at university decided to go down to Key West, Florida for our Spring Break. We drove non-stop, getting from Boston to the northern border of the state in just 24 hours, and headed first to Miami. Unusually for college students on Spring Break, our first destination was not the beach, but, because we had a budding botanist among us, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Once there, we made a beeline for the area where the Garden maintains a small simulated tropical rainforest; visiting that hot, moisture-drenched paradise alone made our entire trip worthwhile.

Erythoxylum coca

Erythoxylum coca (altoona.psu.edu)

Peter, our resident botanist, had inside knowledge about the Garden; he knew the exact location of plants that were not labeled for fear that they would be stripped and stolen. The plant he took us to visit was Erythroxylum coca (var. coca), or, in common parlance, coca, notorious because it is the basis for the production of HCl, or cocaine, a dangerous, illegal substance, highly lucrative for black-market drug traffickers. However, coca is not illegal in South America, where its leaves have been used medicinally for centuries, and workers chew them for energy and stamina during their long hours of hard manual labor. Being a conservationist, not a Yahoo, Peter carefully, reverently, pinched off a few sprigs, which we slipped into a bag as we slipped away unnoticed, leaving the little bush all the healthier for its expert pruning.

Next on our botanical tour of Florida was the Everglades National Park, when we headed straight for the mangrove swamps along the coastline. The term mangrove refers not to one particular plant, but to a number of species of trees that grow along the coast and are tolerant to salt. Mangroves thrive in the tidal waters of the Everglades, where saltwater and freshwater mix, and the national park protects the largest contiguous stand of protected mangrove forest in the hemisphere.

Rhizophora mangle, or the red mangrove, is a strong and adaptable plant, the most common mangrove on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in both tropical and subtropical zones. Its Latin name, Rhizophora, which means rootbearer, refers to its aerial prop roots, which also give it the common name (one among many) walking tree, because it looks as if it is walking on water. Its propagule (what a terrific word!), or unit of propagation, drops live off the parent plant, and is immediately capable of rooting and creating a new tree.

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

The red mangrove is in no danger of being over-picked—in fact, it has become an invasive menace in Hawai ‘i, where the climate in ideal for it. Still, Peter oversaw the careful removal of a small red mangrove plant to try propagating back home in New England (where it is in no danger of becoming an invasive species).

The rest of our trip, as we continued down through the Florida Keys to Key West and back, though memorable, was probably not very different from the typical Spring Break experience: beach by day, bars by night, camping, companionship, and in my case a chance to relax before the last big exam period of my senior year in college. On the trip home, when it came to my nighttime driving shift, I chewed some of the Erythroxylum coca leaf we had brought back with us. Like a Peruvian worker from the Andes, I was able to drive steadily through the night without a trace of fatigue, my only other symptom being a mild numbing sensation in my mouth and throat.

When we got home, we put our little mangrove in one of the bathtubs of the Co-op House, and tried to make it a home away from home, complete with salty water and simulated tides twice a day. It lived and even thrived until sometime later that summer, when one of us went away and others forgot to refresh its water, as students are wont to do. But that one short trip so many years ago helped to instill in me a lifelong respect for plants, miraculous living beings like ourselves, that share our planet and make our own lives possible.

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