July 7, 2013

On a high on the High Line

I wrote in my previous post about bees; that I haven't seen them for a long time here. That I miss them during my walks. Not that I step out expectantly; to see the birds, the bees or the butterflies. When I go for a walk, I only want a few moments for myself. To gather my elements together. To set my spirit free, while the elements of nature stand witness. To engage in some meaningful conversation with my self. But after walking for sometime, I start missing the smells of earth, of grass, and the buzzing of bees. That's when my rational self kicks in and announces the presence of chemicals everywhere. 'So, how will you ever find a bee or a beetle?' 'Uhum', I sigh.

Last evening I was in a beautiful backyard in Mahwah, lost in a maze of beautiful hydrangea bushes - purple, blue and white, vines of snow peas, bitter gourd, and long beans, beds of spinach- red and green, a humongous jasmine bush in full bloom- its vines spilling over the brim of the tall, brick-red pot and growing in every possible direction, egg plants, and what not. While we were talking, a deer came along visiting us in the sunny patch, and made a quick exit. I was overjoyed to see the number of bees in that garden. Numerous bees and butterflies. I asked our host about her usage of pesticides. She said, 'none'. I said, 'no wonder.' By then, the sun was retiring for the day, albeit reluctantly. After dinner, we said good bye and while opening their front door to step in to the lemon porch, I was astounded. The air; redolent with the smell of insects in flight, their wings brushing swiftly against each other, their swishing sounds, the swarming wasps trying to stick to the dimly lit lamps in the portico, all lending an aura of naturalness, something that I may not even find in rustic countrysides here. How beautiful, I thought, if we were to let Nature nurture. Weeds may spring up, the wriggly worms may have a whale of a time nibbling from our leaves and buds, but won't Nature have her own mechanisms to give every one their due?

This morning, we were all on High Line, Manhattan. The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. Right from the point where it begins, it amazed me to no small degree. I was really lost in the vibrancy of life on the High Line. Plants, bushes, small trees, vines, shrubs- all in full bloom, in the spring of their lives.

The beautiful backyard in Mahwah served as a prelude to whatever I saw, heard and felt in High Line. Bees abound. Butterflies on a roll. No saddening, thoughtless, chemical-fed lawns. The variety of plant life amazed me. I don't recollect spotting such wild beauty in any garden here. The unpredictability of Nature- that's what touched me the most- every step I took, I was greeted by a different bush, or a different grass head. Yes, there are grass heads in High Line, you will find a million of them, with their heads held high, some of them dancing endlessly in the summer breeze, some as tall as my three year old. Nature is left to her wildest best. And then, the bees; they wouldn't sit on one flower, for they seemed to be overwhelmed. We even found a big beetle, it's green outer pod reflecting a dozen shades, trying to find a new abode inside my mom's hair-bun! During those couple of hours on High Line, I thought I had met up with all the bees in Manhattan or even the state of NY probably, I felt so happy seeing them all together; busy bees making the most of the wild flowers, sipping honey from god knows how many types of flowers. And imagine, all this blooming, buzzing and fluttering happening right in Manhattan, a minute away from the Times Square. 

To say, the least, I was on a high on the High Line. If more than 100,000 plants are planted in a mile of an old rail line right in the middle of a bustling metropolis, what else could happen, eh?

June 30, 2013

Smoke billowing backyards

Since May this year, I haven't been able to find time to visit this blog. But last evening, when I read about an interesting experiment in Apiology (study of bees), I felt compelled to write about it. Didn't find the time or space though. Stepping out, and after walking for an hour through what looked like unending stretches of green, and not getting to see a single bee or a butterfly, I thought about the 'bees on hire' and felt the urge to talk about it here, but again, time and space problems.( I will hire them for my next post :)

This morning, during one of my India calls, I heard about 'burning backyards' and I have to write about it. It's that disturbing. Not that it's a new practice. Not at all. But just the thought of educated people resorting to it, makes me shudder.

                                     ( image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonathan_brandt/8496072172/)

In some municipalities in Kerala, there are waste disposal mechanisms, funded by local housing colonies. Apparently, in Aluva there used to be one, but they no longer collect plastic and related materials. The reason? The last time they tried to burn all the plastic collected thus, it caused a helluva smoke and neighbors, unable to breathe, complained, and that was the end of their 'plastic disposal.' Seeing the waste collection agency workers come in color-coordinated uniforms to collect the garbage and plastic-related waste from our doorsteps, I used to feel happy that there are finally some thoughtful disposal methods implemented. How could I be so ignorant? Instead of individuals burning plastic in their own compounds, a group of workers were paid a paltry sum to burn it all together under the cover of the night sky, in some god forsaken government land.

So, what do households do now? Though some of them are aware of the harmful effects of burning plastic, to have clean courtyards and clean storage spaces, they are all burning it 'safely' - away from fruit bearing trees and houses, in the safety of their own backyards. When did that become the notion of 'safe burning'?

Majority of plastics when burnt release Dioxin which is a known human carcinogen and the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested in laboratory animals. Dioxin is evaluated to be over 10,000 times more potent in causing cancer than the next highest chemical (diethanol amine), half a million times more than arsenic and a million or more times greater than all others.“Once dioxins have entered the environment or body, they are there to stay due to their uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to their rock-solid chemical stability.” (WHO).

The solutions for some of our problems are within our knowledge and reach. Crying hoarse for banning plastic, or wishing for high-tech incinerators in every town or city may not be the wisest thing to do. We may not be able to target the very root of the problem either, but we can certainly lessen it's impact on us and the environment. By trying to reduce our usage of plastic, by trying to stay away from buying stuff packed in plastic, by resolving not to gift a plastic toy, by trying to remember to carry our own shopping bags. All the plastic in our homes are brought in by us. Can we be thoughtful enough? I am definitely going to remind myself more often.

Please help spread the word. Every little helps.

May 15, 2013

Brevity of seasons, of life


Whenever I step out for a walk, I am claimed by someone else. With each and every fresh walk that I take, this feeling only gets deeper. Like how last evening, I was possessed by the brevity of seasons. By the brevity of beauty in one form, but which nevertheless gets transformed in no time. Look at the trees outside. They are in an ambitious burst of green. They celebrate green like there are no tomorrows. The trees; at least the ones unaffected by strong winds and erosion make it a point to stand upright and salute the sun, everyday, irrespective of the measurable impact of sunshine, whether the rising sun tinges the sky crimson or not, or it leaves the crestfallen sky in bleeding hues as it bids farewell to the day. They don’t fret over the ever changing expressions of the sun or sky. Like, I wonder why yesterday the horizon looked very different from today, when the sun decided to come up the horizon. But, the trees don’t bother. Today, they are a jubilant lot as they know in no time; the sun will scorch them all with its radiance. So, until they can take it, they will, and they have.

Just a couple of weeks ago, stepping out felt like being in a floral paradise. This year, for some reason unknown to me, all the trees, bushes and wines decided to bloom like never before. Not just bloom, but explode into an extravagant celebrant status. All the trees in full bloom, flowers of all colors, shapes and sizes. For most of the flowers, their shape or pattern simply didn’t matter, as their sheer volume outshone their individuality. I couldn’t look at one single flower, but only get lost looking at the entire tree with its thickets drooping under the weight of the countless floral bunches. Walking under the trees was a surreal experience. Well, allergies are on the rise, with red-eyed children and adults complaining about the spring nuisance. Pollens, they say are the biggest ill of the season. A necessary evil, they mean. Is it because I felt one with their need to bloom that the flowers/ pollens left me scot-free, I wonder. Anyway, the flowers are no longer there. See, but I continue to go back to them, as if those days were never enough. But, the trees, after taking me to that far end of joy, left me there, and have moved on deftly, with their display of green. Brevity of blooms, I tell you.

Now the birds are out. Sparrows are everywhere. They are like the touch-me-nots back home. Very ubiquitous. Then, there are the Robins. The orange-breasted ones. Cardinals, the powerful, beautiful birds flaunting their capped heads visit once in a while, but like the most expensive brand ambassadors, they ensure they top the charts, by retaining their exclusivity. I know not whether or not its nature’s prank, or their actionable insight that has led to this phenomenon. But I haven’t seen a single Blue Jay this season. Nature playing mischief again, I suspect. Ground Hogs, for sure are still in their winter hide-out wondering why April and May are longer this year. But, a couple of them do come out once in a while. And, then, the goslings that I spotted last evening, sipping from the brook, the muddy one that follows its same old winding route, in spite of all the fallen trees and branches. To my eye, a lot of things are still intact this spring. I know a lot are not in line, but I am happy, at least, certain things are aligned with the ebb and flow of the season.

We are in the thick of spring, and, by the end of June, summer will start knocking at the door. Then, there will be several 100F and above days. We will start lamenting about the harsh sun, the ruthless sun, the burning heat, the scorching sun that leaves the earth thirsty and parched. The green grass starts to brown in just a couple of days, but put up an act of resilience by turning green in a fortnight. That’s when the rains come down. That’s yet another marvel beyond words. Then, with the sun and the rain alternating, and taking turns, sharing the earth, green and brown play hide and seek, one hiding while the other takes shape and form, basking in the glory of its short lived existence. Life around me rejoices, its elements up their ante, there is a sudden energy outburst from all quarters. Everyone seems to be moving then, walking here and there, taking long steps, short strolls, pushing prismatic perambulators with a lot of paraphernalia attached.

 For another couple of months the sun continues its angry young man image, and then, gets too tired of it. Like all things don’t last forever, he mellows down, and as if struck by a wisdom wand or so, it withdraws to its imaginary shell, for months altogether, trying to listen to his inner voice perhaps. For when one looks outside during fall, sun to me looks like an aging philosopher, going through a mid-life crisis, who probably goes through an extended enlightenment in his fall hideout. It refuses to come out in time, and when it comes out, it does so with increasing reluctance. In spite of the sun’s withdrawal from centre stage, trees and the leaves celebrate again. The leaves change their colors, borrowing flaming, fiery hues. Looking afar at the trees that lined the Poconos Mountains, across a river, for once I thought I was looking at several tongues of fire, trying to outsmart one another.

Even as I muse over the impatient transition from spring’s green wizardry to summer’s roguish russet and then to fall’s fiery shades, winter arrives with an October snow storm. For a few days, we fall in love with the likes of tall, white and handsome Mont Blanc, the white blankets warming our hearts. Our cameras capture them in earnest, as if we were all seeing snow the first time. Like eager children, we step out to make our snow men, some making men that look like dogs sans tails. And then, soon, we hear stories of hatred, how a particular person who once thought snow pellets paved their white brick road to heaven, was instead paving an icy, slithery, slippery, perilous road to hell. Leaves; how can we even look at them? For they are not on trees anymore, they had fallen for the earth, much in advance, to warm it and keep it alive from within. The ones that were allowed to stay with the earth gave themselves unconditionally to the earth, became one with it, very soon, becoming a part of its very fabric itself.

The seasons have come a full circle. Each one moving on with life, with change, with élan. Spring is here and now, I know I got to make the most of it, summer will soon be on my face and hands and feet, I got to take it in as my Vitamin D levels are abysmally low, and then even before I could complain a bit about the harsh summer, sun will retreat to its cloudy autumn out-house, and the green will make way to red, and crimson, tangerine and brown, yellow and sunshine, and as soon as I make a customary visit to one of the sought after fall locations, snow will begin to fall in a captivating cadence at first and then, in a melancholy trance.

When I look at my children, I see in their sudden spurts of growth, in their unexpected display of maturity, the transition from one stage to another. I only wish to live in the moment, to take in all I can, for my tomorrow won't be my today.

May 13, 2013

The morning after, my latest post at Whims and Fancies

The morning after

The whole of yesterday, it poured. Little drops of rain kept trickling down the roof tops and the barks of trees. I woke up this morning to find the rain continuing to come down, in a contented, spirited fashion; inviting me to be a part of it.
After the rain subsided, I took a quick walk to the park where my daughter plays often. She couldn’t step in as the entire park was one big ‘muddy puddle’ according to her. And she added, ‘ if you want to step in the muddy puddles, you need to wear boots.’ Rain had deterred other fellow apartment folks from stepping out, and we had the entire stretch of green for ourselves. The beauty of these lonely moments is the time and space it gives me, for listening to the inner voice, for the easy calm that prevails even when the birds chatter and twitter their way to glory. My daughter embraced silence after expressing her fine sentiments about the park and the puddles, and decided to sharpen her ears to capture all the bird sounds coming from the thick thickets in the adjoining wild land.
Imagine, just the two of us, juxtaposed against the untended green. We walked up to the fence that separates our vast meadow, as green as ever, from the greener terrain beyond; trees of all sizes, bushes of all shapes, tufts of grass heads, small and tall, host to a great many birds. The birds, happy after the showers, were singing about the resplendent beauty around, about the oodles of positive energy that pervaded the atmosphere. Their songs oozed so much happiness and cheerfulness, that it made me smile. When a bird called from what seemed like the left, in tandem, we looked to the left and repeated this to songs from the right. It was a moment of bliss in all its truthfulness.
We walked up to the brook that flows in through the condo complex. From a distance we heard, it rumble, mumble. Just a few days ago, when I had walked by this brook, the trees were still largely barren, their leaves only beginning to make their presence felt. But today, the trees looked mighty and powerful, spreading their ornate branches far and wide, giving us a great sense of security. Their leaves, a display of green, in its most luxuriant hues. The brook flowed by without expecting many compliments as it was one big ‘muddy river’. But, its energies were passed on to me dutifully. I can’t put my finger on that feeling that ensconces me during such moments. I am definitely happier than my usual self, I feel blissful, but it’s something beyond all that. I wish I could stay there forever, listening to the brook murmur, the woods hum, the birds sing, without expecting anything in return. They, I know for sure acknowledge my presence, for, they come up to my heart, and touch it in more ways than one, in such depths that I cannot fathom my own contentedness.
I am a daughter of the wild, and I will continue to be one.

May 1, 2013

Where are the butterflies?

No, its not just the sound that disturbs me, rather, the reasons for the sound that disturb me perpetually. Its like a stain that simply won't fade into oblivion. It has been going on for days together now, and once it starts mid-day, it lingers well after the sun fades away. That is what Spring has brought forth in tandem with the sporadic spills; there is much life and energy in the air, and in the moist earth; much more than what we can take. Is that why we try to thwart their energies, and nip those buds right when they lift their heads up?

Weeds, grass heads that refuse to stay put. Well, why should they? They were created with a purpose, and grow they must. But how could they when toxic weed killers are sprinkled on them with robotic accuracy and when the gas guzzling lawn mowers ply on them, day after day? I love to look at well mowed lawns, those sprawling green acres that soothe the eye, but on weighing the opportunity costs for a sickened planet, and on comprehending the ill- effects of such superficial degrees of sophistication, of being carried away by what is seen on the outside, at times, they become sore spots. For the eyes that take me beyond sights and sounds.

Lawn mowers, weed whackers, leaf blowers, and edgers are mostly two stroke engines, notorious for their energy expenditure. Every other day, during the most beautiful Spring and Summer, I see one of these put to use right in front of my eyes. That sound stays on, making itself heard above all domestic din, reminding me of the peril which is just around the corner.

The turf grass has shallow roots, which forms a cluster at the very topsoil, preventing rain water from seeping to the underground, rather, they are redirected artificially. On the other hand, many native varieties of prairie grasses have deep roots that run very deep, they work hand in hand with the rains; helping her carry those innumerable water channels back to the depths of a thirsty Earth.

American culture is obsessed with lawns, to say the least. This lawn culture is meaningless, except that it looks neat, and orderly, but if you look closer, you can see the cacophony of a faulty system. Lawns are rightly called biological deserts, they are naive as ecosystems, sustaining little life along. Look at the folly of the system! The grass is mowed, all the clippings are removed, and then, to retain the fertility of the soil, for the grass to stay green and healthy, tons of chemicals are added to it, in stringently adhered to periodicity.  And then, not a single weed head should sprout; so spray the weed killers, the most infamous being Monsanto's Roundup, which is now suspected to lead to increased occurrence of cancers and diseases like Parkinson's. Huffinton Post recently carried a story about it. Read it here. Alarming indeed. Won't the weed killers affect the good crop, then? That has been given much thought; that's how the genetically modified crops come to the picture; they are made to resist the chemicals sprayed on them. How thoughtful!

Lawns in America put together is three times the size of the garden state of New Jersey. Imagine the amount of water needed to irrigate this vast stretch of land! As such, we are dependent on our depleting resources for sustenance, but how can we continue to be myopic about these bad practices?

My mom arrived from India couple of weeks ago, and she was perplexed to observe the sheer paucity of butterflies and bees in our backyard, even when there was green as far as the eye could see!

(image: http://bargainez.com)

March 30, 2013

An eager spring, an earnest walk

                                              (image courtesy: www.thewritinglifetoo.com)

The day before, I walked to the library with my eight year old. At the end of the walk, as we were returning with a small collection of books and a bunch of vegetables from the farmer's market, my son proudly said; 'We should do more of these walks, Amma, instead of always taking the car and polluting the environment.' Though he made that statement at the lark of the moment, upon unexpected discoveries that gave him great joy and a whole lot of fresh air, I think he meant it.

During our short walk, we stopped by the bramble bushes and trees, the ones lining the busy roads, witness to all the city cacophony, all seemingly barren from a distance, but eager to burst out into yet another season, one of life and iridescent colors. Upon prying them with our eager eyes, we spotted millions of pointed buds, hard, but throbbing with life, dark on the outside, but a reservoir of shades. We looked closer and spied a shade or two on them; some green, some a passionate hue of pink, and still some others purplish.We bent a bit to look at a lowly twig, and stood on our toes to touch a bud on a higher branch. It was an unparalleled experience. We resisted the idea of clicking pictures, just so that we could live in the moment to the fullest.

As we entered the road that lead to our apartment, we also spotted a bird's nest, nestled on a naked tree. Even from a distance, the nest looked vulnerable with absolute dearth of foliage to offer it any comfort or shade. In the frosty winter winds that just went by, agonizingly for months on end, the nest would have shuddered. Was it then, an abandoned one; we wondered. Other than a squirrel nibbling on crumbs on bread thrown off the patio by a resident eager to feed, we didn't spot any action in the vicinity. No fluttering of wings, no twittering of songs. Of course, we know birds don't always stay by their nests, the way we do :) We then looked for feathers under the tree, at least one that would give us an idea of the bird house owner or tenant, but we found none.

We chatted our way home, about the sights and sounds, and promised to ourselves that we must do more walks soon.

March 25, 2013

Long winter

                                                  (image courtesy: blossomshopblog.com)

It has been a really long winter. Today, the 25th of March, 2013. Morning is here. The Sun is increasingly shy at this hour. Hiding behind thick clouds. Clouds; hoarders of snow. It's going to snow today. Again? Yes. That's what the weather-channel says.

The grass is simply brown. Many of us miss it being green. When will it turn to its true colours?

The trees are bare. The branches seem brittle. But the roots continue to hold them together. Skeletal structures against a clandestine sky?

Birds. They have started returning. To still-bare trees, empty branches, browned grass, brooks that don't exist. Flowers that don't bloom. Buds that haven't yet appeared.

Squirrels. Their winter sojourn has ended. Their winter supplies run out. They run hither thither for petty morsels. For daily existence. The oaks are silent, still and secretive. No sign of leaves. Then, when will they start their acorn shower?

January 6, 2013

Blissful by bus

I wasn’t in double minds when it came to traveling by bus during my recent India trip. To the sheer delight of my mind, I traveled by bus; from Aluva to Ernakulum, and from Alappuzha to Palai. The return trips too were made via bus without an iota of doubt lingering; whether a taxi would have been a better choice or not. Bitten by the wander bug, I traveled within the country; mostly alone. But somehow after going the family way and moving into the US, I realized what I have been missing here in this country (US) where, if not for the electric trains, we are always zipping by in our cars on multi-lane super efficient highways.

Right from the point in time where my memory allows me to go back to, I remember longing for travel; and enjoying every bit of solitude it offered. I didn’t have to step into foreign soil or stay elsewhere to appreciate the beauty and depth of my country. Even as I say so, I realize that these feelings are highly subjective. For someone like me, a long trip in an overcrowded bus that stops at every 500 meters of a 15 kilometer journey through a jammed two lane road can be blissful, the extended hours can add to the pensiveness of the mind, at times even insightful and illuminating. 

The night I landed at the Cochin International Airport, I came to know that a dear uncle of mine was hospitalized in Ernakulum. Though tired after a 48 hour ordeal of traveling with two children and missing a connection flight in between, I decided to start soon after day break. The month was July, the day 25th, supposedly a day of monsoon showers. I walked to the bus stop in Kadungalloor, Aluva. The rain gods couldn't wait any further. The moment I stepped out, it started pouring heavily. All the pent up clouds came down. The no-drain road started swelling up with muddy puddles almost instantly; filling up my shoes with water. I wobbled on slippery leather and struggled to find my balance, which was enjoyable though.

While waiting for the bus, I stepped into a small ‘pettikada’ run by an elderly woman resourceful enough to offer the names of the buses that would take me to my destination. I enjoyed this bit of human interaction; happy I didn’t have to visit a travel website to get the information. I couldn’t take my eyes off the ‘chenkadali kula’ amongst the other green and yellow bunches; dangling in the air, with an  air of pride. Unable to resist anymore, I bought a few and shoved them into my shoulder bag.

                                                                   (image courtesy: arunbackhome.blogspot.com)

In the bus, I took a window seat and even after it started pouring, I tried to keep the shutters open much to the displeasure of my fellow passengers. With a gentle smile I sought their approval; but am quite sure they took me for a strange maniac. Other buses tried to overtake us, and as the window panes brushed against each other, I shuddered. At times, the buses were forced to stop at signals and the drivers exchanged pleasantries or abuses according to the equation between them.

Rain gained volume. I had no option but to bring the shutters down. I looked around for faces. For people. I tried to strike a conversation with a middle aged purda clad woman who was seated next to me. Without realizing that it was ‘noyambu’ time, I tried to engage her in a conversation which seemed futile. As the bus plied through the Elite bread facility in Edapally, I couldn’t but make a comment about it to her and that served as a fitting tribute to punctuate that conversation with the power of a bold period.

The return trip was by the low-floor Volvo buses which was less fascinating. There was less drama, variety and action. In an ordinary bus, the faces that crowd in arouse curiosity and to the seeking mind, multiple stories come alive just by looking at them.

The trip from Alappuzha to Palai was much awaited. The first lap was to Kottayam and then the second one from there to Palai. This time around, I traveled with two of my children and my mother as well. My eight year old boy who would sacrifice anything for a car trip was disappointed and much to my agony, refused to board the bus. Finally, I cajoled him and offered him a seat diagonally opposite the driver’s from where he could see him drive. He was awed by the sheer size of the gear box and sat there glued to his seat watching the driver maneuver narrow roads and sharp turns.

My two and a half year old; though small to understand the dynamics of traveling in a transport bus resisted as all the space available in the seat for three was taken by five pushing us to the extreme right where we jostled for space every time the bus took a turn. And much to her irritation, the baby who was in my neighbor's lap started to play with my daughter by pulling her hair and dress; all at the same time. My neighbour showed signs of bliss seeing the harmony and friendship. The weather seemed to be the best with the coming together of smatterings of rain clouds in delicate patterns in the vast expanse of the open skies. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of the paddy fields, the horizon bearing a forlorn look filled my mind with a strange longing, and a strong positive feeling that I am unable to express.

The flock of herons that took off from the paddy fields sprightly but unexpectedly came as the saving grace to my daughter. The part of the trip that I looked forward to the most was from Kottayam to Palai.

Upon the bus entering the narrow roads through the rubber estates on both sides, I sat by my window seat deeply engrossed in its beauty and mystery. The distance between the houses started to widen. Startled by the number of new mansions and sprawling bungalows, I eagerly looked for old houses. But there were getting fewer and fewer. My eyes caught an old house far away from the road nestled in the rubber trees. The road to the house was marked by stone-laid steps, several in succession. Before I could take in any more, I was at a turn, looking at an old man, a very old man trying to pluck fruits from a huge Guava tree in the frontyard of a house. The long pole that he was trying to balance seemed to be very heavy for him. Just as he started to retract from my sight, in a slow motion I saw the soiled piece of faded white muslin cloth fall off his shoulders as he lunged forward with the stick unable to balance the heavy pole.

The bus reached Palai and moved alongside the Meenachil River. I couldn’t take in its beauty and all my longing seemed to vanish as I continued to think about the helpless old man. That left me pondering over the spontaneity of life in Kerala. It throws unexpected googlies at you and even as you wonder how to react, you are at the next encounter. And just like a short bus trip that is capable of offering a variety of episodes, life in Kerala promises diversity at its best.