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On Leeches, Jungle, Bliss and Beauty: things we have lost

I had the privilege of spending a week in a pristine rain forest in the northern Western Ghats with a handful of people best described as practitioners of deep ecology. Which means we moved about in the jungle in the least invasive manner humanly possible, on foot, leaving no footprints behind. On the contrary, it was the forest that left deep footprints in our memories. Here was a small segment of the planet that has been allowed to retain its wildness and its purity. It is still possible to drink water from these streams; pure, unfiltered, sweet; and we did, the whole week. Yes, there are leeches in paradise and my companions taught me to scrape them off with a fingernail from their tail end to dislodge them. “They have a right to live too, and we are the invaders in their habitat.” So-called primitive societies knew how to live in symbiosis with Nature, without the need to ‘conquer‘ it. Our modern civilization, with all its immense achievements, has ‘conquered‘ Nature and with climate change, we are currently witnessing the Pyrrhic depths of our victory.

In the forest, we bathed in rock pools and under waterfalls, luxuriating in Nature’s bounty. Birds, butterflies, trees, and insects were identified and added to lists in notebooks. Latin names of species and botanical names were bandied about freely among the group. “We use the Latin names as definitive identifiers, since local names vary widely, sometimes from one village to the next.” We tasted button-sized jamun fruit (Syzygium Jambulanum, a.k.a.Java Plum, Jambul, black plum, faux pistachier, jambolāo… see what I mean about variations in local and regional names?), mini jackfruits, a variety of Kokum (Garcinia Indica), a cousin of the cashew fruit from a young tree with cashew-like leaves, and the leaves of a tree that left a mildly sweet taste on our tongues when chewed (apparently used as an ingredient for weight loss by the health food industry). I was told about, but did not see, a tree, the underside of its leaves as rough as sandpaper, and used as such by forest tribes to smooth wooden implements and furniture.

We stood at dawn under the eaves of a hut and listened to the Malabar Whistling Thrush sing its daily morning ode to joy. As it sang, I was told that they love the rain and welcome the monsoon with redoubled full-throated vigor.

Malabar Whistling Thrush (also known as the naughty schoolboy)

I learned that, of the many species of colorful butterflies that flitted through the forests, the ones that flew fast and rarely sat still were usually a favored food of birds and insects that preyed on lepidoptera. Some beautiful specimens, on the other hand, hardly bothered to conceal themselves and were often seen lazily gliding down from the treetops to eye level, knowing they were toxic to most predators. Most spectacular among them was the Malabar Tree Nymph, Idea Malabarica. I had never before seen a butterfly glide so far with hardly a flutter of its wings.

Malabar Tree Nymph – Idea Malabarica

The herpetologist in the group, a snake lover from childhood, thrust a hand into the undergrowth and brought it out to reveal a foot-long, slender green snake curled around his arm; a non-venomous vine snake. “Touch only its underbelly,” he cautioned. “Only predators touch a snake on its back and this causes them stress.” he gave us time to admire it for a few moments before allowing it to slide back into the undergrowth where it immediately became invisible again. A few moments later a metallic blue-black centipede wriggled across our path, looking for all the world like a shiny finished industrial product from Apple rather than a denizen of the wild. We respectfully watched it cross our path before continuing our walk.

While shy langurs leapt about among the topmost branches of the forest canopy, our guide showed us pale gray chalk-like lumps on the ground among the bushes. “Leopard scat,” he said. “There are several in this area, but they’re noctural and shy away from humans. I’ve not seen one in my two years here. There are sloth bears as well, but they too are very reclusive and we never see them” Just as well, since sloth bears, despite their name are very fast and can easily outrun humans.

In the evenings, there were more walks to look at the endless varieties of birds and trees, and we invariably ended up at woodland streams to bathe under a waterfall or soak in rocky pools, taking care not to pollute the water with soaps, creams or lotions. For cosmetic use, the woods provided us with wild aloe vera and a plethora of other medicinal plants I knew nothing about. On the way back to the hut that was our sleeping quarters, a few bits of sambrani were carefully scraped off the bark of a tree. Also known as benzoin resin, gum benzoin or gum Benjamin, it is used in perfumes, incense and medicines. Sambrani usage has a long tradition in India, and its sweet smelling smoke is used during pujas (religious ceremonies) and also in Christian churches to sanctify the communion service.

Nature’s bathtubs and showers: rocky pools and waterfalls

Standing 1 meter tall, this flower exudes a smell of rotting flesh when mature, thereby attracting insects that help pollinate it.

The week spent here was mind-expanding and humbling at the same time. How much knowledge have we lost in the race to industrial progress? How much intrinsic knowledge and wisdom of “uneducated peasants” have we ignored, simply because they had no diplomas on paper, no degrees from institutions of higher learning. After this week, I can’t help thinking, it is we urbanites who have lost out.

 

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Finding the Right Words

I read a review of a new book called “Translating Happiness” that describes the emotional privileges enjoyed by people who speak more than one language. The idea of multi-lingual people leading richer lives has been expressed in many different ways by thinkers through the ages. A Chinese proverb (there’s a good Chinese proverb for every occasion!) says that Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere. A Spanish proverb puts it more strongly and says One who knows two languages is worth two. Roger Bacon calls knowing more than one language the gateway to wisdom.

Greenland Image: courtesy npr.org

In Smilla’s Sense of Snow, author Peter Hoeg has the main character explain in the book that the Inuit and most other Greenlanders have a much more nuanced and deeply intuitive feeling for the varied facets of snow and ice than the rest of the world. To prove this, Smilla says there are 28 different words in Greenlandic languages to describe snow in all its moods and varieties. Although the book is a very readable thriller, a scholarly article I found actually lists 128 words for snow in Greenlandic languages. This is surpassed by a BBC news report of a University of Glasgow study that claims the Scots have 421 different words for snow. Picturesque examples include feefle, “to swirl” and snaw-pouther, “fine, driving snow.” Here I see rich pickings for an academic study of differences between Greenlandic and Scottish use of wintry language.

People who live in island nations and speak only one language are often the quickest to admit how culturally impoverished they are. By that measure, the United States is a linguistic island, with the vast majority of its populace militantly indignant when they encounter people who don’t speak English. An otherwise intelligent and sensitive American acquaintance of mine who travelled abroad for the first time recently made so many derogatory remarks about European customs she encountered. What made her so indignant was that certain customs were different from what she was used to at home. Such people, however decent and well-meaning, are like snails carrying their houses on their backs. They need to ditch their shells and learn to travel light.

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A Georgian ode to Austria

In June last year I wrote a blog entitled “Living in Limbo–A Streetside Portait” about a man who stands outside the local supermarket and sells the Augustin newspaper. He’s a refugee from Georgia and used to teach philology back home. I cannot communicate well enough with him to know why he had to leave his home. Perhaps he’s a political refugee and is reluctant to talk about it. Today he handed me a story, photocopied from an old edition of the Augustin. Since his German is very halting, I presume someone translated it for him. Whatever the case, the writer comes across as intelligent, well-read and sensitive, and the story deserves a wider audience. Hence I’ve translated it into English and posted it here. I hope you enjoy his story. I’ll simply call the writer Wassili.

Georgian Mountains. Image: courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Man and the Mountain

I’m no longer a stranger here now. I feel I’m in familiar surroundings. I have many acquaintances who call me by name when they talk to me, which pleases me no end. No one knew me in those days, when an elderly man, Herr F., invited me to his villa. He was eighty years old, but still active and full of joie de vivre. His energy would have put many a younger man to shame. His villa was near Neustadt. He called the Augustin office one day to ask for ‘permission’ to take me to Neustadt. He arrived at the Augustin office in his car to pick me up at the appointed time. This was a great honour to me; such a great honour that it was embarrassing.

I remember another occasion when I felt such embarrassment; it was a very cold day. I had no gloves and I was selling newspapers. I noticed someone staring, and then approach me holding out a pair of gloves, obviously intending to give them to me. I refused, pretending I was not cold, but that was wrong. It’s normal for Austrians to look at strangers, but I only understood much later that it’s even more embarrassing to refuse warmth and gestures of goodwill.

Herr F and I drove in his car. It was an old Ford, but very well maintained. He was in high spirits. We joked and laughed a lot. He showed me his villa. Then he took me out to lunch at a restaurant in the mountains. We ate well and drank a little. Herr F was the first person in Austria who reminded me of the words of the 12th century Georgian poet Schota Rustaweli who said: Never forget the duty of friendship to a friend who shows you his heart, for all paths are open to him.

Several days passed before Herr F. came to see me again. “Wasil,” he said, laughing. “You’re Stalin. And I’m Hitler.”
“No Herr F. That’s impossible. The two of them didn’t like each other. They were enemies. We, however, like and respect each other.” Herr F. smilingly agreed. He knew who Stalin was. I’d spoken about him that day at lunch in the mountains. Stalin was Georgian, from Gori. This place is known for its delicious apples and its Stalin Museum. Many foreigners think Stalin was Russian and when they learn he was Georgian, they come to visit the museum.

I haven’t seen Herr F. for several months now. I’m now selling the Augustin at another location. I have neither his telephone number nor his address in Vienna. What do I know about this man who gave me, a stranger arrived in Vienna, such a memorable day? Who knows if he is in trouble, and if so, how I can help him? Who knows where he is now? Perhaps he’s busy and no longer remembers this simple newspaper seller.

There are perhaps many people who think like me. Perhaps the mountain also thinks so; the mountain that rises five hundred meters in front of me, and spends its time thinking. When no one comes to me to buy a newspaper for a long time, the mountain and I look at each other. I think of the time I worked in a school, with a book in one hand, und taught children Georgian language and literature. Now I’m learning to live, or rather, learning how not to be a stranger in a land where I must live.

Sometimes in autumn the mountain is covered in fog– and it seems to be thinking. Just as I do. A big mountain can think more than the small one can. People are like that. The more they think, the more the fog bothers them. I’m talking about the mountain that stands before me. There are vineyards on its flanks, but I see no one there. I wonder how anyone can produce wine on such steep slopes. Georgia too is a land of mountainous vineyards. Grapes grow there too; grapes that are nurtured like children.

In the country where I was born and grew up, one can see mountains, precursors of the Caucasus. I visited these mountains often in my childhood. I went alone, sat down somewhere under a bush, and looked down fondly at my village, loving every single settlement as far as I could see. You small Austrian alpine mountain, I think. It’s your fault that I’m homesick at the sight of you. I love you too. Even though I’ve not known you so well, I love you from a distance. There will come a time when I’m closer to you. For then, if you allow me, I’ll look on your fields and meadows from above, just as I did as a child, silently and wordlessly turning to the land I used to say: I love you, Georgia! With the greatest respect then, I would then humbly say: I love you, Austria.

 

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Life After IIASA 1975-2013: Five Years On

February 2018 will mark five years after my retirement from IIASA. These five years have been full of new experiences, travel and writing. My wife and I have also attempted during this time to modify our lifestyle to be as carbon neutral as possible. Measures include living without a car, using a bicycle for shopping and public transport for travel where possible. Trips by air are unavoidable in the lifestyle we’ve chosen, and we’ve attempted to offset this carbon by buying solar panels for a farm school in India and a solar farm in Austria, 8 KW in all. These panels will apparently offset around 8 tons annually, but there’s still more to be done.

I first heard about sea level rise in a talk by paleo-climatologist Herbert Flohn at IIASA sometime in the late 1970s. At that time, many of the information requests that the IIASA library received were about global effects of a nuclear winter in the aftermath of nuclear war. Research themes changed quickly; interest moving to carbon dioxide emissions from fossils fuels, global warming, acid rain and stratospheric ozone.

In the intervening years, the reality of human-induced global warming has been accepted by all but the most ideologically blinkered societies worldwide. Travelling through parts of rural India soon after retirement in 2013, I saw repeated instances of people taking actions to adapt to climate change; water harvesting to compensate for unprecedented droughts, reforestation efforts; introduction of organic farming methods and drought resistant crops. I’d like to think that much of the credit for these adaptation and mitigation actions goes to studies by IIASA and other research institutions worldwide; scientific studies whose results filtered down over decades through the media and drew attention to these problems early on. There’s no way to prove this, and some of the water harvesting systems I saw were really ancient structures brought back into use. See more about that here

Efforts in 2015 and 2016 to help establish a rural education and vocation center failed for a very positive reason. The five acres of land (2 hectares) that had been donated to us for school use by a well-wisher is worth approximately € 300,000 (€65,000 per acre at today’s prices). The donated property was fertile agricultural land and classified as such. The local administrative authorities refused permission to reclassify the plot for use as a school and insisted that the land remain in use for agriculture. This was a positive outcome, because one of our reasons for this choice of location of a school was to prevent displacement of the rural population by expensive housing projects that would only benefit urbanites.

However the effort was not wasted. Since then our local partners have decided to build an organic farm on the land and use the experience gained to encourage the farming practices of communities in neighbouring villages. One function of this farm would be to develop markets for organic produce. We discovered several small companies in the area that offer free midday meals to their workers. They were happy to find a local supply of good vegetables. One enterprising factory owner offered his workers three free meals a day, sourcing all the vegetables from his own backyard. The vegetables he showed us were grown in plastic tubs lined with mats made of nutrient-rich hemp fibers. In fact, the method is so successful that he gives away growing kits free to any of his workers who want one for their own families’ use.

An encounter in early 2017 with a conservationist who runs a hatchery for Olive Ridley turtles on the sea coast near Chennai city led me to Tiruvannamalai, a town 200 km to the south-west. Here is an organic farm school where text-book sustainable living is practiced in the most lively and joyous manner possible. There are around 100 children in the school, ranging in age from 8 to 18. The links below will give an idea of activities at the school.

http://www.marudamfarmschool.org/

https://yourstory.com/2017/12/2-lakh-trees-ngo-regenerating-forest-tamil-nadu/

http://www.theforestway.org/greening/planting.html

In addition to organic farming, environmental conservation and education, the school also works with villagers in the surrounding countryside, reforesting the hill that dominates the temple town, planting around 15,000 trees a year. The school’s efforts inspired us (myself and a few friends in India) to help them become energy self-sufficient, adding 5 KW of solar panels to the three they already had. Together with battery backup, the school is now completely independent of the grid. (photo attached).

This activity led me to a thought. If IIASA’s work ultimately inspired these kinds of sustainability acts, what about IIASA’s own carbon footprint? IIASA’s alumni are scattered all over the world. What if we joined together, wherever we are, and worked to offset IIASA’s carbon emissions? Such actions would benefit our own communities, wherever we may happen to live. To kick-start this effort, I’ve decided to fund the planting of 1000 trees in 2018 through the farm school mentioned above. If each tree sequesters 25 kilos of carbon (as a rule of thumb, regardless of species), this would offset 25 tons of the Institute’s annual carbon emissions.

Should this be a formal organized effort? Readers’ suggestion welcomed here. All we would need is a virtual platform where one can document one’s own efforts and have a running tally. Ultimately the goal is to achieve carbon neutrality, not only for the Institute, but also for the communities in which each one of us lives. But, as for so many initiatives, IIASA could be a starting point.

On a personal note, the years since retirement have been very fulfilling. Thanks to my wife’s job, we were able to spend 2 idyllic years on an island paradise near Hong Kong. This provided background material for a work of fiction, Grace in the South China Sea. There are two sequels in the pipeline (The Trees of Ta Prohm, and Heartwood), to appear in 2018. Look for the earlier books and announcements on the Amazon author page here.

 

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The Power of Place: Why we travel

Hermitage Museum. Image: courtesy travelrussia.com

On a visit to St. Petersburg many years ago (for an idea when, it was called Leningrad then), emerging from the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace, eyes dazed and unfocussed after marvelling for two days at the sheer wealth of the collections, our official tour guide told us something that stayed in my mind ever since. You know, she said, St. Petersburg was always much more than the home of royalty. It was a natural home of the arts and literature. For example, after WWII and the total destruction of the city, with more than three million of its population either dead or displaced, the city was like a living tomb. Within a few years, the city was repopulated by uneducated peasants from the surrounding countryside. These new immigrants succumbed to the magic of the city and within a generation, Leningrad/St. Petersburg became a city of the arts and culture once more.

Sacred grove around an Indian temple

I can’t judge the accuracy of the tour guide’s information, but I understood what she meant. There are points on earth that are imbued with a power of place that are impossible to ignore. For example, I have walked through an ancient grove in southern Sweden and felt a certain reverence in that hushed spot. In India, temples are often perched on top of hills or mountains and exude a sense of spiritual calm. In northern Bali, near the small town of Bubunan, there is a spot near the sea where a a group of Tibetan monks suddenly turned up one day. When asked what they were doing, they said they were simply visiting an important location, where several powerful spiritual meridians intersect. The spot where they stood to meditate was a rock on an escarpment that looked out onto a beach with a curving shoreline. It was undoubtedly a picturesque and peaceful spot.

Perhaps this is why we travel. In search of our place in the greater scheme of things. This, and the unseen pull of far off places, is what has made the tourism industry one of the largest on the planet, with an annual turnover of eight trillion dollars. Food for thought, and a reminder to tread lightly as we travel.

Advice to a Billionaire

Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance calls you one of three Black Swans in the world of energy and transportation this century; the other two being Fracking and Fukushima. You are often compared to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Iron Man, and shades of Einstein. You have advised Presidents. Heads of state visit your factories to see how they could improve the lives of their citizens. You stepped in without fanfare to donate money and provide power to a hospital in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. You issue audacious challenges to yourself and to others and sometimes miss deadlines, but ultimately deliver on your promises. Thousands, perhaps millions of people, speculate against you in the stock markets, hoping to make a quick profit from your failure. So far, they’ve been disappointed. But you put your money where your mouth is, so for every one of these speculative sharks, there are a thousand eager customers for your products and millions of well-wishers who hope you can help save the planet.

And yet you feel alone and unloved. You search for a soul mate and are willing to fly to the ends of the earth to find true love. You must know that love is like a butterfly. Be still and perhaps it will land on you. There are no guarantees, but the chances are infinitely greater if you cultivate stillness. And while you wait, exchange your loneliness for the wealth of solitude. As Hannah Arendt and Plato observed: Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business.

As the father of five children, know also that their childhood is a precious and finite resource that you could use to your benefit and theirs. Childhood ends all too soon, so help them in whatever way you can to make good choices. You seem to have done so for yourself. In the meantime, millions of people around the world wish you well, as I do.

Meals on Wheels

You’ve got to love this. Jamie Olivers cook-mobile, a new category KUV (kitchen utility vehicle), courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover. Now if they only had an electric version…