Archive for February 2010

The Ibex of Sha-Ping

28 February 2010

Memorial to a young subaltern.

(Announcing the online library page of The Butterfly Diaries blog! Explore nature-writing online for free.)

Part of a green book cover with an embossed gold ibex head shown on it.

Click the image to reach the free download page from http://www.archive.org.

Being a “fauji” of the Indian Army who loves the Himalayas, it is most appropriate for me to begin my free online nature writing   ‘collection’ with :

The ibex of Sha-ping, and other Himalayan studies” by Lt L.A. Rundall. 1915 (with numerous pen and ink sketches and coloured plates by the author).

An opened book standing with its outer cover facing us. The dustjacket is on and is fawn coloured. The spine bears the names of the book and author, a caricature of a bear cub, the cost (ten shillings and sixpence) and the logo for McMillan who published the book. The front jacket has the name written along the top edge and the head of an ibex in the centre.

Lt Lionel Bickersteth Rundall (1890-1914) was a young British army officer who perished in one of the battles of the First World War. Commissioned into  the British Indian Army,  Rundall  joined the “1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Malaun Regiment)” . The First Gurkhas were located at Dharmsala in those days and it is from here that Rundall must have ventured forth into the mountains and vales of today’s Himachal Pradesh. He fell in love with the mountains and planned to return over and over again.

Returning to England more than once in a few years was financially difficult for subalterns in those days. The commanding officers who would have lived most of their life in strait-laced Victorian society would not grant leave to a young officer to visit the towns and cities calling such visits to where white memsahibs could be found as “poodle-faking”.

There was an old saw that goes as follows:

“A subaltern may not marry,
captains might marry,
majors should marry,
and lieutenant-colonels must marry.”

Young officers were prevented from marrying as it was felt that it could ruin them financially when the cost was added to the initial outlay for commission, uniforms, equipment, subscriptions and the mess. The purity of the mess was disturbed by marriage, as it took the officer out of the all-male warrior clique. An officer who married without getting permission from his commanding officer severely jeopardized his chances of promotion. Custom, economics and peer pressure combined to postpone marriage until quite late in life.

Instead, they were encouraged to go to hunting, shooting, pig-sticking or any other activity which would sublimate their normal sex drive. So it was in the case of Rundall. He wandered far and wide in the hills nearby. Captivated by the hgh mountains, the wild life, the cold spring water, the fresh air and the variety of Himalayan fauna not to be found anywhere today. His keen observation and talent as an artist led him to write a number of stories which he illustrated himself.  In the book, a preface contains excerpts of his last letter to his mother wherein he made plans for many more trips including a trip to Tibet. At this point of time, hardly a decade would have passed since Younghusband’s expedition had opened Tibet up to the British and such a thought would have great romantic appeal to a young man.

Alas it was not to be,  Rundall died on 19 Dec 1914.  This fact leads us to conclude that he was part of the First Battalion of the First Gurkha Rifles which went to France with the Third Lahore Division in 1914.  The first battalion was the only battalion of the First Gurkha Rifles which went to Europe during World War I. With them went my own field company, 20 Field Company of the Third Bombay Sappers and Miners, which marched down the streets of Marseilles, the very first Indian troops to set foot in France. The Indians soon found themselves in the front-lines of one of the most vicious wars ever known to mankind. In Dec 1914, the Indians were ordered to capture the village of Givenchy. The Indians fought courageously capturing two lies of enemy trenches but were forced to retreat by a strong German counter-attack  with heavy losses, including amongst the officers. It is surmised that Rundall died in this battle which raged from 18 to 22 Dec.

A few excerpts from Rundall are in order.  Illustrated with beautiful sketches and paintings by Rundall himself, his preface indicates that he had worked towards writing the book which his family published posthumously.

There is an attraction about the log fire, made up of a hundred things...

From the Preface

You who are wearied with the day’s work, and would hear of the wonders of the Himalaya, let yourself float in your imagination, out across the seas, over the parched sand of the desert, across the arid plains of India, and up into the everlasting snows where the chill night winds are sighing. There, below you, lies my camp ; in the clearing midst the dark pine forests, where the log fire blazes and crackles, and where the silver stream murmurs of the thousand mysteries of the mountains…

Come down with me to my camp. Seat yourself comfortably in my deck chair, and draw it closer to the blaze. Help yourself to whisky—I have nothing better for you, except the ice-cold water from the spring — light your pipe, and listen awhile to the stories which I will tell you, mainly of what I myself have seen, partly of what I have heard from the lips of other shikaris.

There is an attraction about the log fire, made up of a hundred things. Among these, the sweet scent of the burning pine, the sharp tongues of flame which leap and dart, the merry crackle of the dry wood, the hissing of the sap, and the myriad sparks which whirl upwards and soar floating on the wings of the blue smoke. Each but a small matter in itself but contributing to the cheery glow, and
without which it would not be complete.

So it is with the mountain, and its thousand streams, its forests and its lakes, its animals and its birds, its flowers and ferns. Without any one of them it would not be complete.

Sunset on snowy peak

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Culture

25 February 2010

– a poem by Ashok Mahajan

Two purple-white rose blossoms shown one above the other amongst mint-green leaves.

I missed the chance to nose... a pure damask rose

A pile of brown manure to front and right in a meadow with a chestnut coloured horse in the background slightly out of focus

..merely with animal or human waste.

Bred among odours of ordure
I missed the chance to nose
A pure damask rose.
Now fully grown I realize
We were only taught to use
Green fields as lavatories,
And therefore I have come to associate
All kinds of hues
Merely with animal or human waste.

Pericrocotus flammeus

A tinge of minivet-scarlet
Is no reminiscence of that bird,
But of betel-spittle stains
Left by movie fans
On walls of cinema halls,
And by pimps and harlots
In red-light lanes.

Red betel nut spit stains on a tarmac road.

....but of betel-spittle stains left by...pimps and harlots in red-light lanes.

Siris leaves possess
An autumn flavescence immeasurably less

Than expectorations of asthmatic old men
Coughing doubled-up on loose
Squeaky string cots whose
Rans of twine
Are bro-
Ken as their thoughts.

A golden yellow bovine with blue-grey horns curved back and head lowered to eat grass. The fence of a zoo enclosure is seen in the background.

A takin-gold evokes... memories of some rare beast.

A takin-gold evokes
Not in the least
Memories of dawn or some rare beast,

But scats of stray dogs
Like pagoda heaps

Among scattered slippers
Of scores of worshippers
At a Vashnoi temple-feast.

Tourists note
Fresco-amber
in Ajanta art
I know this pigment from
pools of bovine piss
at any vegetable mart.

Fresco-amber from Ajanta art...

...than pools of bovine piss in a vegetable mart.

Ashok Mahajan, is an Indian poet whose “Goan Vignettes and other poems” provide a peep into the quaint, idyllic and sometimes  anachronistic Goan life-style. This poem, the first poem of the first section – ‘Eclectic sketches” – is one of the ‘other poems’.

Though the compilation is considered light-hearted by some critics, Mahajan’s poems are of more value to the common man who would better appreciate his short true-to-life vignettes of life in Goa as well as in other parts of India. May I add that I am biased towards him as he is a retired army officer, my father’s good friend and he fueled my interest in poetry, though I’m sure that he thought it was to no avail.

In ‘Culture’, he shows us how colours associated conventionally with poetic and literary motifs are equally well served by less salubrious examples in human life. Though the poet chooses his words carefully to avoid repugnance, his craftsmanship and choice of examples evokes graphic images.

The poet attempts to show us colours through Alice’s  looking glass – a new way of imagining colour. At the same time he gives us many ways to interpret this poem.

Is he indicating that  ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are two sides of the same coin as in Kipling’s infamous line :

“For the colonel’s lady an’ Judy O’Grady, Are sisters under their skins”?

Or that good and evil are interlinked as in old English proverb:

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

Perhaps he mocks the futility of objects that people desire and upon which they bestow high epithets, echoing Daniel Webster’s words:

“One may live as a conqueror, a king, or a magistrate; but he must die as a man.”

I prefer to look at it from the earthy viewpoint of nature-watching. That the commonplace and unremarkable things in nature are as valuable or fascinating or worthwhile to watch as the rare, the unusual and bizarre.

The poem also obliquely draws my thought to a dialogue between the protagonist(s) in “The Last Samurai” – Tom Cruise (as Nathan Allgren a  disenchanted ex-United States Army captain) and Ken Watanabe, the samurai warlord Katsumoto. They talk about finding perfection in life and its virtues, symbolised by the cherry blossom : –

Katsumoto: The perfect (cherry) blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.
….
Katsumoto: I also. It happens to men who have seen what we have seen. But then I come to this place of my ancestors, and I remember. Like these blossoms, we are all dying. To know life in every breath, every cup of tea, every life we take. The way of the warrior….
Nathan Algren: Life in every breath…
Katsumoto: That is Bushido.

A swathe of white cherry blossoms with carmine stamens hang from a branxch highlighted agaist a blue sky.

The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.

Credits

  • All files from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise specified.
  • Click images to reach source page on Commons or elsewhere.
  • Cherry Blossoms – Sakura CC3.0.
  • Takin – ‘stevehdc’ ( on Flickr) CC2.0.
  • Chestnut horse & manure – Malene Thyssen, CC2.5SA.
  • Rose – Ulf Eliasson, CC 2.5.
  • Cow & vegetable mart – ‘brotherscarface’ in webshots (unlicensed).
  • Ajanta fresco – Jonathan A. White (public domain).
  • Betelnut spit – Scott Zona on Flickr (CC 2.0).
  • Scarlet Minivet – JM Garg, CC 3.0.

Epic splendour

13 February 2010

The nature writing of James Michener

One does not often associate James Michener with nature-writing.  He writes epics, sometimes likened to fictional documentaries, with wide strokes on broad canvases. Yet in most of his epic stories,   it is difficult not to find a a chapter or more about the land, its formation, the animals, the plants and the people who live amongst them.

Like another of my favourite authors, Louis L’Amour, Michener is one with the panorama that he writes about, be it desolate and strange, or familiar and unremarkable.

A pine-clad valley ringed with buttes and a snow-clad mountain, King's Peak above which white clouds cover most of a rich blue sky.

King's Peak seen across Henry's Fork basin. This scenic vista, the essence of his books about continental USA, corresponds to the broad and diverse subject matter of Michener's epics, considered by some to be fictional documentaries. (Image : Hyram K. Wright. GFDL)

Somerset Maugham once stated about writing that :

The best style is the style you don’t notice.

So it is with Michener, he researches his biology, his geology and writes.  When he does so, he transports us back into time. In our mind, a movie runs, initiated by his simple, eloquent yet powerful style.

Drawing of a large heard of bison and other animals with outline in charcoal and yellow/brown colours presumably by use of ochre and haematite dies. This is a prehistoric work of art found in Altamira cave in Spain.

Prehistoric Bison painted by paleolithic man in Altamira cave (Spain). (Image: Reconstruction by Emille de Cartailhac, 1906. Public domain).

Take for example this passage from “Portrait of Rufous” from his novel ‘Centennial‘ :

..the wolves that hung about the edges of a herd, hoping for a bit of luck, spotted the little calf.  They had a good chance of picking him off, since the older bull was endeavouring to kick him to one side. So they closed in on the running pair, trying to insert themselves between the baby bull and the mature one.

They failed. Once Rufous recognised their strategy, he became a changed animal. It was his responsibility to protect calves, no matter how bothersome, no matter how distant the retreating heard. Accordingly he scanned the terrain as he ran and spotted a small embankment that may provide protection.

Twisting his head abruptly to the right, he headed for the rocky bank. As if the young calf had been physically attached to him, he turned at the same time and the two galloped to the refuge. There Rufous turned to confront his enemies, keeping the calf beside him and well protected by his large flank.

The wolves closed in, eleven of them, but they were powerless against his horns and massive head, nor could they slip behind him to attack his tendons because he kept his rear tight against the rock. If he had not been hampered by this irritating calf, he could have been beaten back the wolves and returned to the herd, but with that encumbrance, he could do no more than protect himself.

He did manage one other defense.  He bellowed several times – the low guttural cry seemed to roll vainly across the vast pririe.  But he was heard.  The bison having outrun their fright, had stopped and were aimlessly milling around when the master fighter of the herd to whch Rufous belonged, the large black bull, heard the cry of distress and doubled back to investigate. With him came the bull with the slanting left horn, and the closer they approached the intermittent bellow, the faster they ran.

A brightly coloured bison with head down charging to the left. Coloured in rufous, black,  burnt umber,  wheat and white. Colour names from 'List of colours' in Wikipedia where each colour is shown with associated name.

Rufous - painted by a paleolithic artist half a world away. (Image: Public domain photograph.)

Geological happenings such as the formation of the land masses, oceans, archipelagos, glaciers, mountain ranges, great lakes and valleys are all grist for the mill to Michener. A moving hot spot through the Earth’s crust left islands strewn like a string of pearls.  Such things fascinated Michener, for in two books – Hawaii and Centennial – he has included a chapter on how the land was formed, the violent volcanic upheavals in the Pacific in the case of the former and the titanic pushing of the continental plates in continental North America in the case of the latter.  Not only does Michener write on such seemingly dry, dusty topics, he in fact waxes poetically about them.

A sunset scene of an ocean with a distant coastline to the right. The blood-red and black colours of the sunset on the Bering Sea are analogous to the powerful tectonic forces and magma movements which created land in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, millions of years ago.

Black and blood-red sunset reflected in the dark ocean waters of the Bering Strait remind one that islands in the Pacific were borne of fire and lava millions of years ago. (Image: NOAA, public domain).

See how Michener writes about the very first super-ocean in the chapter “From the boundless deep” in Hawaii :

“Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been fixed, there was, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others. It was a mighty ocean, lying to the east of the largest continent, a restless, ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific.

Over its brooding surface immense winds swept back and forth, whipping the waters into towering waves that crashed down upon the world’s seacoasts, tearing away rocks and eroding the land. In its dark bosom, strange life was beginning to form, minute at first, then gradually of a structure now lost even to memory. Upon its farthest reaches birds with enormous wings came to rest, and then flew on.

Agitated by a moon stronger then than now, immense tides ripped across this tremendous ocean, keeping it in a state of torment. Since no great amounts of sand had yet been created, the waters where they reached shore were universally dark, black as night. Scores of millions of years before man rose from the shores of the ocean to perceive its grandeur and to venture forth upon its turbulent waves, this eternal sea existed, larger than any other of the earth’s features, more enormous than the sister oceans combined, wild terrifying in its immensity and imperative in its universal role….

…then one day millions of years ago, a rupture developed in the rocky bed of the ocean. It occurred near the middle of the sea, a bit closer to what would later become the western United States than to the shores of eastern Asia. Some great fracture of the earth’s basic structure had occurred and from it began to ooze a white-hot liquid rock. As it escaped from its internal prison and came into contact with the ocean’s wet and heavy body, the rock instantly exploded, sending aloft through the nineteen thousand feet of ocean that had pressed down upon it columns of released steam.”

In most books, Michener chooses one or more animals, their stories to tell as part of the textual mural. In ‘Chesapeake’, he writes of Onk-or, the wild goose, and of Jimmy, the Blue Crab, which formed part of the delicious New England fare and on whose shell, several fortunes rested. In Texas, he writes of armadilloes whose determined predations left a hapless Texas town helplessly unable to protect their lawns. In Alaska, it is the story of Nerka, the salmon.

A mammoth stridin forth towards and to the left of the observer holding aloft its brace of large curved tusks. The mammoth walks along a shallow draw outlind by forest on undulating slopeds behind it. On the right side of the image, to the right and behind the mammoth, part of its herd can be seen with three adults and two calves proceeding from left to right.

An American Mastodon, the most recent of the genus of extinct probiscideans. While mastodons had a size and appearance similar to elephants and mammoths, they were not particularly closely related. (Image: 1897 portrait by Charles Knight. Public domain.)

In Alaska, we also get to meet two fascinating prehistoric pachyderms – the Mastodon and the Woolly Mammoth.

Whats the difference between a Mastodon and a Woolly Mammoth?  Mastodons lived  from 40 million years ago (mya) to about 10,000 BCE. They were browsers – they fed on leaves, soft shoots, or fruits of high growing, generally woody, plants such as shrubs. They had no hair.

Michener writes in ‘Mastodon’ :

Nowhere else could the subtle relationships be intimately observed. Ice high, oceans low. Bridge open, passageway closed. The ponderous Mastodon lumbering toward North America, the delicate horse moving toward Asia. Mastodon lurching toward inescapable extinction. The horse galloping toward an enlarged life in France and Arabia. Alaska, its extremities girt in ice, served as a way station for all the travelers,    regardless of the direction in which they headed. its broad valleys that were free of ice and its invigorating climate provided a hospitable resting place.

On the other hand, Mammoths had a thick layer of shaggy hair and were  grazers (grass eaters). They  lived from 4.8 million to 4,500 years ago. In Alaska, they existed at different points in time, when the climate was different.

Both these animals were wiped out as part of the great Pleistocene megafauna extinction.

A herd of Wolly Mammoths cross the tundra watched by other animals - cave lions, horses and a woolly rhinoceros. Patches of snow cover the ground. In other places grass shows up. A few trees are also seen. The weather appears overcast with a few clouds. on the horizon.

Matriarch leads her herd across the Alaskan tundra. (Image:Mauricio Anton, License CC - A - 2.5 generic.)

About woolly mammoth, Michener writes:

One day late in winter, twenty-nine thousand years ago, Matriarch, a mammoth grandmother, forty four years old and beginning to show her age, led the little herd of six for which she was responsible down a softly rolling meadow to the banks of a great river later to be known as the Yukon. Lifting her trunk high to sniff the warming air and signaling the others to follow, she entered a grove of willow herbs that lined the river, and when the others had taken their place besides her, she indicated that they might begin feeding on the sprouting tips of willow branches. They did so with delight because they had subsisted on meager rations during the previous winter, and as they gorged, Matriarch gave grunts of encouragement.

It is in the novel Centennial that we see Michener provide a bewildering array of animal stories in a chapter titled ‘The Inhabitants’.

Let the word ‘chapter’ not fool you for Michener provides a complete set of animal stories discussing the appearance and interaction of the earliest creatures. He starts from the dinosaur “Diplodocus” to go on to the fore-runners of the modern horse, the prehistoric bison, the giant beaver, the rattlesnake and more.

A blue crab resting on mud with its arms outstretched towards the right and below. Its orange and blue markings are prominent.

Jimmy, the blue crab of Chesapeake Bay. (Image: NOAA - public domain.)

Michener is careful about his research. An account of his preparation for the novel ‘Covenant’ can be found here. In “Jimmy the crab”, one meets a Blue crab facing the challenge of extensive siltation and excessive fresh water. The story tells of how a hurricane created such a problem for the crab, the crabs efforts to cope and their eventual death due to pollution. It is told simply, the secrets of crab biology informed in a most matter-of-fact way and harsh reality not denied.

Michener loves his animals. His writings bear no sign of anthropomorphism except in the choice of the subjects themselves. He writes of the love he felt for a pet hyena in Spain where he wrestles and plays with a creature whose robust jaws could have crushed a limb or his face but which never did so while holding them gently within its formidable maw. He also tells of a fellow-feeling that he felt for a particular grizzled old bison when he spent time studying a bison herd. He decided to make this bison and the hyena the protagonists of two stories.

To find Michener’s nature stories, one does not need to trawl through his literature, which of course is the best way to read him and understand how he viewed nature in its context. The stories have been collected and during his lifetime itself issued as “The Creatures of the Kingdom”. The book has a foreword by Michener himself and tells of his attitude to nature. Michener writes:

I cannot think of myself as exceptional in any respect. I know that man could never have survived the violent volcanoic upheavals in the Pacific Ocean that created the glorious chain of Hawaiin islands. The first tenants of the newly born Rocky Mountains surely did not walk upright. My kind has lived here on Earth only a few million years; the dinosaurs thrived for a hundred million. And I am not homocentric enough to think that man embodies all that is best in the animal kingdom, in which he plays a dominant path. He cannot slither along his belly like a snake or use his nose to feed himself the way an elephant can. He has not the incredible hearing system of a bat, the sense of smell of a bloodhound, or the capacity to survive underwater like a slug. He cannot cast off his aging skin like a crab or stand motionless for hours on one foot like a blue heron. Man is a wonderful creature, majestic in his mental capabilities, but in many other respects he is either limited or downright deficient.

A postage stamp with Michener's face facing us smiling. Wearing bUsh shirt, spectacles and a  flowery garland.

Great Americans series - 59 cents James Michener 2008 issue

So what is Michener’s reason for including such powerful nature writing into his epics ?

One reason could be that Michener wants to portray a truth he himself has expounded…

If man assesses himself honestly when he compares himself with other animals, he can avoid getting a swollen head…

That then, in my humble opinion,  is Michener’s ultimate purpose of writing about nature – to portray man as just one facet in a long timescape. An important cog admittedly in the machinery of the world today, but a cog nevertheless.

Image credits: All images have a free license and can be found on Wikimedia Commons. Go to the source page with full details of attribution and licensing by clicking on the image. Except for the stamp image which is used here under fair use.