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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Down in jungleland: This Living Planet

Why the earth is still our best shot at living a full life.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Updated: October 8, 2017 12:18:42 am
The greatest explorers documented a teeming planet where every creature had only one credo: get on with life.

I’ve always had a great admiration for those explorers of yore who set sail in gigantic, creaking, wooden ships for unknown destinations across the oceans, not knowing what awaited them at the other end or whether they would ever get back home again. It was the sheer spirit of discovery and adventure, financed often by kings and governments, who had a shrewd eye on the exploitative potential such discoveries might yield (gold, jewels, spices, silks, slaves and empires).

These hard men (and sometimes, women) challenged the muscling ocean waves for months at a time, using the sun and stars to guide them, and, when they landed, for example, on some fecund tropical shore, they hacked their way through impenetrable jungles, awed (and often horrified and bitten to bits) by the teeming flora and fauna they encountered. Many of them were naturalists who collected specimens of flora and fauna by the thousands to bring them back and classify them: people like Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace and Henry Walter Bates. Needless to say, their tenacity and never-say-die spirit
was monumental.

Wallace returned with a ship full of specimens after years in south and central America, only to see it go down in flames on the high seas. It would have been enough to send a lesser man to a psychiatric ward for the rest of his life with multiple post-traumatic stress disorders, but not Wallace. He went off to the Malay Archipelago — and while lying sick as a dog in his hammock on the island of Gilolo, figured out natural selection in exactly the same way Darwin had (and was sitting tight on his theory, fearing backlash). Alexander von Humboldt, who was the first to suggest that human beings could be responsible for climate change, climbed mountains and peered down volcanoes in Latin America, and, as if that wasn’t enough, took off across the steppes of Siberia at the age of 60!

Remember: there were no direct flights then, no flights at all!

By and by, nearly every square inch of the earth’s landmass was checked out, often trampled upon, documented and mapped. (True, most of the ocean floor has still to be looked at and god knows what wonders they might reveal.) But what made these explorations bewilderingly wonderful was the diversity of life and landscapes that was discovered everywhere: strange plants that stank of rotting meat, trees as lofty and grand as cathedrals, maybe 1,000 years old, weird birds and beasties, rainforests the size of half a continent, dazzling coral reefs crammed with kaleidoscopic tropical fish, searing red and saffron deserts where scorpions scuttled and sidewinders danced; regal mountain ranges, silver and white with their heads in the clouds, platinum blonde beaches that went on forever… Great natural wonders were discovered: the Victoria Falls, the Himalayas and the Everest, the Sahara, the Amazonian rainforests, great rivers like the Nile, the Brahmaputra and Yangtse Kiang.

These men and women discovered and documented a teeming, bristling, dancing, singing, screaming, fighting, clawing, biting, love-making, living planet where every creature had only one credo: get on with life. And to do that, they embarked on the greatest battle of all in order to outdo their predators. Some took refuge in cunning camouflage and mimicry, others learned to run just that little bit faster than their predators, who also did their damnedest best to keep up. Some used venom as a weapon of offence, others as a weapon of defence — wearing it on their skins and inviting you to paw them! Claws and teeth sharpened and strengthened as did eyesight and hearing and the sense of smell.

And then, of course, we entered the picture and crapped on the whole vibrant party. We sullied the seas, gassed up the air, strewed filth on the land and produced devastating wastelands everywhere. In the 200,000 years we’ve been around (in our current guise), we’ve reached the stage where all of our topmost crystal-ball peering scientists are predicting that the only hope for us, now, is to colonise the planets. Space is the final frontier. Now, we look at the starry heavens with the same sense of wonder and awe as the ancients looked across the oceans. And, to be sure, we’ve already been to space, even to the moon and are now making eyes at Mars, with a view perhaps to settle there one day. Seriously? Sure the Martian landscape may have its own bleak beauty, but would we want to live out our entire lives there? In that arid, desiccated landscape? We would wither and die of a great loneliness of spirit in no time at all. Oh no, we say, we’ll create our own little world over there; perhaps, great domed cities with an atmosphere just like as on earth, so we won’t have to bounce around the Martian landscape dressed like Michelin men, unable to hug or canoodle with each other. We’ll stock it with water and trees and flowering plants and insects, birds, and animals taken from earth… Excuse me? Pray what will prevent us from mucking up that too?

Innumerable astronauts who have gone to space have been duly awed by the beauty of the stars, planets and heavens. Even so, they always say that by far, the most beautiful thing that they saw from up there was our own blue planet. It’s going to be a dirty brown planet before long. But, yes, it might just be a good idea to send all of our powerful and hectoring leaders up in space and make them take a good, hard look at the beautiful living planet they are responsible for, and so hell-bent on plundering. Even better, if we just left them up there.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.  

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