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Friday, June 25, 2021

Float like a Butterfly

Power, precision, speed — there’s a lot to the inherent grace of animals

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
November 15, 2020 6:30:05 am
Amazing grace: Watching birds in flight is to marvel at their symmetry. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

It’s a quality I’ve always admired and envied, and it’s found right across the species spectrum in the animal kingdom: the natural ease and grace with which creatures move in their ordinary lives. It doesn’t matter if they live in the darkest depths of the oceans, or inhabit the highest and most frigid mountain ridges and peaks. Not all animals possess this quality, but many do and are worth looking at closely.
Most creatures living in water are graceful. Ethereal jellyfish, trailing their silvery, deadly tendrils, float languidly in the depths, spreading their diaphanous skirts. Fish have a natural grace, as they swirl and dart, their fins blurring; whales and sharks move with a lazy ease that belies speed and lethal intent. Yes, they lose their composure when they pounce on and shred a seal, thrashing about in an unbecoming way. But, soon, they’re back into their serene mode, slipping through the water at the rate of knots. Goldfish in a bowl, too, display a natural ease of movement, even if it is only to swim in circles. Sea snakes swim sinuously, their bodies twisting, coiling and uncoiling as they zip through the depths.
Other reptiles and amphibians, too, move beautifully. Sea turtles, so clumsy on land, are transformed under water, and the crocodiles, which also seem to lose their heads after they’ve grabbed a victim, move as silently as submarines when they sneak up on their victims. Frogs and toads do a pleasing, relaxing breaststroke, reminding us that all need not be hustle and bustle.
Insects, you may argue, don’t really have the smooth moves; again, some do and some don’t. Whirligig beetles dart about in spurts and jerks and cockroaches scuttle helter-skelter into corners when you switch on the lights. Butterflies come down to land precisely on a flower, displaying amazing grace and control. Moths blur and hover and hoverflies dart suddenly from side to side, back and forth or up and down before coming to a stop in midair in an enviable display of the mastery of flight.
Watching birds in flight, particularly the larger ones, with long, narrow wings or big, broad ones, can be another eye-opener. Albatrosses are famous for the lazy manner in which they tack to and fro over the ocean waves, catching the currents of air generated just above the waves. They can fly seemingly forever like this, covering enormous distances, with the occasional languid wing beat. Even scrappy seagulls, unseemly and hawkish as they fight for scraps, are transformed into the epitome of grace as they wing their way over the waves. I’ve spent hours photographing them in flight. Big fellows like the large herons, too, fly with an ease that one can only envy.
High above landmasses, the vultures and raptors are masters of graceful movement. They catch the hot chimneys of thermal updrafts, and travel hundreds of kilometres, gliding with an enviable ease. A twist of the tail, a flick of the wing and they can change direction, bank, lose or gain height as they wish, and may touch down with such deceptive ease that it leaves you gobsmacked. One minute they’re swooping down, only to suddenly slow down inches above the ground and land with nary a hop, skip or jump.
Amongst the mammals, the felines take the prize for the sheer fluidity and grace of movement. Watch a cat leap up or down a wall — it’s a liquid movement of sheer beauty. Big cats, chasing prey, too, display a sinuous grace as their muscles coil and bunch and then let go. Racehorses are gorgeous to watch as they gallop over the tracks. Even the clumsy heavies — the hippos and rhinos — canter with smooth, silken movements. Rhinos, with their horse-like hooves, can do U-turns on a coin as delicately as any ballerina and can put on quite a turn of speed. Camels pad softly across the sands with a natural relaxing rhythm. But it’s the elephants that are the epitome of gigantic grace.They sway as if to some internal music, their huge ears flapping in time and when they move, it’s like they have all the time in the world.
And, then, there’s us! Lean, long-legged marathon runners display a natural grace in their strides, but most of us, while jogging or power-walking, look like we’re being tortured! Trained dancers have graceful movements, too, but this comes after a lifetime of rigid discipline. With so many labour-saving gadgets available, we’re losing the ability to move, let alone move gracefully. Perhaps, we need to watch a clip of hoolock gibbons as they brachiate their way through the canopy. Parkour practitioners display a fluid grace (perhaps they’ve watched the gibbons!) but only after years of training and falling. But all is not lost! I can still watch a jumbo jet take off and land all day, marvelling at how such an enormous weight can get off the ground or touch down with such delicacy!

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