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How I got hooked on to nature

Stare long and hard enough at a tree, the sense of wonder will beginning to stir, or, perhaps, a coppersmith barbet might remind you of a clown with hiccups.

Ranjit-lal-eyeAwestruck brand new leaves. (Source: Ranjit Lal)

It’s a question I get asked rather a lot: “how did you get interested in nature?” Usually followed by, “how can I get interested in nature and help save the environment?” Those asking, happily, usually are schoolchildren and those just heading for the heady days at college.

There is a very simple answer: be observant and be very, very curious and get outdoors. Use your senses to the utmost — touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste, and most of all, your sense of wonder. To be observant you need tons of patience — which is a scarce commodity these days — but then, without it you will live a life that just skates over every wonder that await uncovering. I’m not much clued into things like meditation or mindfulness (whatever that is) but I know one thing: stare long and hard enough at a tree, for example, and you (hopefully) will feel the wonder beginning to stir. How the heck did this thing manage to become such a monument, starting off from something the size of a grain of sand, using nothing more than soil, air, sunlight and water as its raw materials? Why are brand new leaves orange and bronze before turning green and then turn back to yellow and brown before they fall? How and why do they fall? Of course, you will get distracted. A butterfly flip-flops by, yet lands with perfect precision on a flower: how the heck did it carry that off given its completely drunken landing approach?

Often, once you start asking yourself questions, a chain reaction starts. How does a spider spin its web? (You’ll need over half an hour to observe the whole process.) And why doesn’t it get stuck in it itself? How does it produce those fine silken threads in the first place? Every living creature harbours a treasure trove of secrets — many of which we have uncovered and many not. All the great naturalists in the world — Darwin and Wallace, for example, started off by asking themselves questions following observations they had made — and voila, they discovered the theory of evolution!

Most visitors to national parks and sanctuaries just want to tick off the “big five” — the tiger, lion, rhino, buffalo, and elephant. Once ticked off, they shut down their senses — to everything. Do they ever pause to wonder why the tiger is, say, so different from the elephant — and how the hell that difference arose? One is an all-out carnivore, the other a giant vegetarian that can be more dangerous!

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Often, it’s the smaller creatures — micro-fauna — that are the most astonishing. Imagine the awe on the face of naturalists when it was discovered that the giant banyan tree had one minuscule “bespoke” species of wasp that pollinated it? No other species would do. And that giant banyan tree, along with other similar fig trees, supported all life in the forest and so was a “keystone” species. Somebody, at some point of time must have been curious enough to open up a fig and discover the “secret garden” of flowers that lay within. And then the male and female wasps inside — as, gradually, the epic soap opera that was going on inside was unravelled (it is a hugely complicated affair and I don’t think we still know everything about what goes on there!) With each discovery, more questions arose — and more discoveries were made: for example, the fig tree knows when its flowers have been overexploited by egg-laying wasps, figs that have wasp eggs laid in all of their flowers, are dropped by the tree — because they are now useless to it for its own reproduction purposes.

Thankfully, there have been many such curious souls investigating nearly every facet of life on earth and the body of knowledge they have accumulated (much of it easily available thanks to the internet) is colossal. But with the bewildering variety of life on earth, we’re still nibbling at the tip of the iceberg!

These days, environment and the environmental sciences has become an academic subject which is a good thing overall but with caveats. Anything that is formally taught in school and college often kills one’s interest in that subject. But yes, an inspiring teacher can do wonders: and those teachers are inspiring because they were themselves curious, observant and fascinated by their subjects.

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The media, too — especially television — has brought the wild into our living rooms. Zoos might have sparked the interest in animals among children. Unfortunately, the media’s focus these days seems more on showing us how dangerous, unpredictable and gory wild denizens can be (as if we are not!) But yes, again there have been documentaries (such as by the evergreen David Attenborough) that must have inspired youngsters to pick up their knapsacks and head to the nearest wilderness.

The bottom line remains the same: even if you live in a sterile multistorey apartment, in a concrete jungle, nature will still find its way in and it is up to you to get curious about it. An ant circled the rim of my soap dish in the bathroom one morning and I wondered why till I remembered: army ants sometimes marched in endless loops till they died of exhaustion; following their own scent trail thinking it would lead back to their bivouac! My solitary ant was doing exactly the same thing!

My own interest in birds was triggered by something ludicrous: a coppersmith barbet that reminded me of a clown with hiccups! What did the other 1,200 odd species in our country get up to? A curious me is still trying to find out.

First published on: 23-02-2022 at 10:00 IST
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