Archive for January 2010

A child said, What is the grass?

13 January 2010

In Indian schoolbooks, one often comes across poems by the British masters such as Keats, Wordsworth, Yeats and Hopkins. The American poets such as Robert Frost and Walt Whitman are rarely to be found. This is due to our colonial legacy.

The very first nature poem that was featured on this blog was Robert Frost’s “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening“.

Here now is one by Walt Whitman, who writes about a very common motif of nature, often overlooked,  over-trod and discounted – Grass.

Grass & wild flowers on a Russian river bank

Grass & wild flowers on a Russian river bank.

A child said, What is the grass?

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
children?

A US Postage Stamp of 1948 commemorating Walt Whitman.

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
luckier.

Walt Whitman

A nature poem?  Not quite!

One could say that Whitman used grass to expound about the human condition much as Sylvia Plath used Mushrooms for her purpose. However Whitman goes much further. He uses motifs from nature and man’s experience of it through the senses to exalt the human body and materialism. This was in stark contrast to the allegory and spiritualism that had been the tone of poetry before him.

Whitman’s magnum opus, is of course “Leaves of Grass“,  an anthology of poems he first published in 1855 and kept revising right till his death. Incidentally, though this poem is from this anthology and is about the common plant we know about, the name of the book ‘Leaves of grass’ is not about that vegetation but, instead, is a play on words.

In the forgotten lingo of nineteenth century book-publishers, ‘grass’ is used to denote works of minor value. ‘Leaves’ referes to pages. The whole name is a mocking apellation for his principal thesis.

Read Whitman’s poem on grass, look for connections with nature, with experiencing nature and for allegories with the human condition. It was a bit strange to me as I am still not used to prose-like poems very much.

It may seem of little value to read about grass. But grass is one of the bases of the food chain.

Algae, grasses and other leaves and branches of other plants are the broad base of autotrophs who support all life in the world. Grasses such as wheat and rice feed mankind directly. Bamboo, a most useful plant, too is a grass of sorts.

All the same, thinking about grass in any way gives us greater insight to this common-place and under-rated vegtation than not thinking about it at all.

Read more about :-

Image credits – Click on the image to reach the source page on Wikimedia Commons.

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Insect talk shows!

11 January 2010

If  you would like to listen to interesting, light-hearted talks about hexapods – those fascinating six-legged creatures you and I commonly refer to as  ‘insects’, then…

……Insectapod is for you.

You can rest your pods, put on your iPod and listen to insect podcasts.

Now, if I were you a few months ago, I would have said ‘waszat’ to the term ‘podcast’.

Well Wikipedia (almost) says …

podcast is a series of  audio or video files that are released episodically and downloaded through web syndication

So, a insectapodcast would therefore mean a series of interesting talks about insects, recorded as mp3 files in this case, and available as a series from Insectapod.

The insectapodcast is brought to you courtesy the Entomology Deptt, Michigan State University.

Each podcast, there are nine available as of date, talks on a folksy subject. The very first one (find it here) should find you right at home with its subject.  It is titled…

There’s no place like home

and has the byline…

“We share our homes with bedbugs, we manipulate the home lives of honey bees.”

Some other titles are :-

Insectapodcasts are well presented – they are nice to listen to (despite the American accents 😉 ). They permit you to listen, download, read the transcript and have a iTunes and RSS feed buttons.

They recently featured in the Spring 2009 volume of American Entomologist. You can find their article on Insectapod here.

So many of us own iPods or other mp3 players today. Most cellphones have this facility to. In addition to our music,  it is easy to listen to something different such as an educational talk or two.

The master list for all podcasts is of course found at  SpokenWord.org.

And if you would like to hear something very interesting about insects, check out the Insectapod talk list here.

Happy podcasting!

Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints!

10 January 2010

Chief Seattle, whose letter warns us of the need to hold nature dear in our hearts.

At a time when the people of the world cannot agree what to do about climate change and when England is completely covered with snow as if replaying the events of the 2004 film  “The Day After Tomorrow“, it is pertinent to remember the words of a very famous Native American, Chief Si’ahl (anglicised as Seattle).

Chief Si’ahl (c. 1780 – June 7, 1866) , the leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes in what is now the American state of Washington, allegedly wrote the letter in the 1800s to the United States Government.

It is less important to know whether he wrote it or not, than to know what is said in it.

Chief Seattle’s Letter

“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.

But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land?

The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.

The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.

If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

A minimal footprint on nature – Native American girls gathering berries.

One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.

Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.

When the last red man has vanished with this wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?

We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us.

As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.

One thing we know – there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.”

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.

This letter, a famous speech and many quotations (including the title of this post) are alleged to have been quoted by Chief Si’ahl.

Read more about Chief Si’ahl here and his quotations here.

Credits Clouds over hills image (author : vsz/Victor Szalvay, CC-BY-SA 2.0), Palouse fields (author : Dsdugan, public domain)- all these images are of Washington State where Chief Si’ahl lived with his tribe. The image Native American girls picking berries (author : Edward S. Curtis, 1868-1952, public domain) as well as the other images, are from Wikimedia Commons. Chief Seattle’s image though public domain and available in Wikimedia Commons was selected from a website using Google Images.