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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

How nature unpacks her bounty

Ever watched a chrysalis turn into a butterfly or moms unbox babies?

Written by Ranjit Lal |
Updated: October 21, 2021 1:28:11 pm
Ranjit lal, sunday eyeChrysalis to butterfly (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Vloggers nowadays, all over the world, seem to be consumed by YouTube videos on “unboxing”. They order some gadget online and spend a loving 90 minutes opening the box, taking out the parts one by one — and recording it on smartphones. At the end, they are surrounded by a pile of bulletproof-moulded plastic, enough bubble-wrap and Thermocol to fill a dumpster, and smug smiles on their faces.

In India, it’s different. Here, it means declaring a full-scale war on the item: No imported weapons-grade can opener is up to opening our specially-armoured tin cans without causing considerable blood loss to the home side. Have you tried opening a bottle of Indian-made foreign liquor without wanting to smash it to smithereens? This is all a part of our National Killjoy Policy.

Ranjit Lal, sunday eye The petals of flowers unbox themselves with slow beauty. (Source: Ranjit Lal)

Now look at Mother Nature. Every time I peel a banana, I’m wonderstruck. The packaging is perfect, tough (raw banana), waterproof, recyclable and opening/“unboxing” it gives you a certain tactile pleasure. In fleshy fruits like mangoes and chikoo, the sweet flesh separates from the skin and seed easily. You are usually warned not to consume the seed because it is hard, bitter and often poisonous. Even if you are a messy eater — like parakeets — you’ll spit the seed out, letting it fall to earth — and germinate. Here, we have an unboxing-cum-courier-service rolled into one! Seed-eating birds (munias and finches) go just for the seeds, but Mother Nature ensures there’s more than enough for future generations to prosper.

Take insects and other creepy-crawlies. Have you ever watched a butterfly hatch (unbox) itself from its chrysalis? I’ve waited for hours to do so, and it’s been worth it every time.

Ranjit Lal Nature has perfected unboxing (Source: Ranjit Lal)

First, the chrysalis will give you intimation, probably unbox by early next morning: you can often see the rolled-up butterfly inside the now-transparent husk of the chrysalis. Sure, you might have to wait a while, but after a series of convulsive heaves, the chrysalis breaks open and this freshly-minted gorgeous creature climbs out and crawls to the nearest convenient perch so that it can hang down its wings to dry and stiffen. Most insects that metamorphose from larvae to adult perform this miracle — a result of mind-boggling hormonal technology. The hideous yellow grub of the spider-wasp will embrace the anesthetised little spider it was laid on as an egg and carefully suck out all the nutrients (vital parts last) before moving to the next and, eventually, morph into a pupa, inside which a shiny new midnight-blue-and-emerald wasp forms and “unboxes” at the right time.

The hatching of every bird’s egg is an unboxing miracle. In many cases, what’s “unboxed” is a scrawny pink little horror, all gape, gut and pimply skin and hair — but each nestling has a special temporary “egg-tooth” at the tip of its beak, with which it unboxes itself.

ranjit lal, sunday eye Mare giving birth (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The ultimate in “unboxing” is, of course, the “unboxing” of babies from their moms! Again, messy and noisy (only in our species) but usually the end result — even if scrawny and screaming — is well worth it! Animal moms have their babies quietly and without fuss (bellowing, bleating or roaring during “unboxing” would draw predators hotfoot) and clean them up pronto so that the little thing is springing around on all fours at the earliest. Some need considerable amounts of TLC and are very wobbly on their pins initially.

A tree “unboxes” its leaves when the weather changes, with gentleness: it senses what’s coming and stops the supply of nutrients. The leaf, too, cooperates by sending its nutrients down to the roots to be stored for the winter and no longer makes its own food. It starves, even if it’s at its most beautiful now. This sounds cruel, but shriveling up with frostbite could be worse. The mothership lets go, and the brilliant gold/scarlet leaf wafts gently to earth. The petals of flowers unbox themselves with slow beauty.

ranjit lal, sunday eye Navy bean seed to seedling germination (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Seeds “unbox” themselves in myriad ways: some explode from their pods like little bombs, scattering far and wide; some actually need fire to set them off! Others use lacy parachutes or drone-like propellers; many are simply swallowed and dropped in more nutrient-rich surroundings or hooked on furry bodies. Every child must have at some time, placed black-eyed beans (rongi) on a plate of wet cotton-wool and watched with wondrous eyes the first pale leaves unbox from a seed as hard as an air-gun pellet.

ranjit lal, sunday eye Flower pavement (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nature has perfected unboxing. As we struggle to open a tuna can without lacerating ourselves, or stab ourselves with box-cutters, we need to take a hard look at how she goes about it. Those bhakts of our National Killjoy Policy, responsible for this armour-plated, sadistic packaging, say, it’s to make the items vandal- and child-proof. Both vandals and kids, however, get through the hermetically-sealed defences easily. It’s you and I, who are left cursing, sucking our bleeding thumbs and spliced hand-webbing.

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.)

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