Tag Archives: environment

Earth, sky, and symphony.

It’s a wonder, all the fascinating things I get to discuss and learn about, inspired by reading books to boys who range in age from two to six years old. Before they’d even shed their pajamas this morning they brought me a book found on the shelf here at the temporary house, a worn 1966 school discard by Isaac Asimov titled The Moon.

What instantly got my attention was the picture on the first page, a closeup of the moon showing its topography, with many names of craters, valleys and mountains. Where did these names come from? When were they given? Who is Piccolomini? Astronomy has never exactly sparked my interest; maybe because of my inability to grasp the spatial arrangement of bodies and trajectories in the Universe. But show me a map, and names that carry historic or literary or philosophical meanings as these seem to, and I’m intrigued.

Mr. Asimov doesn’t get into all that. He goes right to theories of ages and descriptions of orbits. Liam was happy to stay with me a while on the names — remember, we both love words — and pointed out that Piccolomini has two words in it: piccolo and mini. This name is significant to our other “studies” as I will come back to later.

Before we could turn the page of this book, we had to sit down and eat the breakfast I’d made, and then the rest of the household who weren’t at work went to visit another new friend, and as I was simultaneously working on some oatmeal muffins for lunch I read about lunar topography. The man who came up with the first nomenclature for the moon, much of which is still used, was a Jesuit priest of the early 17th century, Giovanni Battista Riccioli. Riccioli considered himself first a theologian, but spent the vast majority of his long life researching and teaching about astronomy, as well as logic and physics, especially pendulums. What a learned and productive human, who lived in a challenging time for a natural philosopher. People debate about his possible secret beliefs, based on how he chose and arranged names of lunar features.

“He said that once the enthusiasm for astronomy arose within him he could never extinguish it, and so he became more committed to astronomy than theology. Eventually his superiors in the Jesuit order officially assigned him to the task of astronomical research. However, he also continued to write on theology…”

Will I integrate these evocative moon names into the tangled web of my mind’s musings? Perhaps the only thing I will have gained is another name for what’s in my head: “Sea of Vapors.” That name is from this newer map, featuring the waters of the moon, which I will leave at closing of this subject. Oh, and Piccolomini was an Italian poet and astronomer.

Soldier and Joy did bring along a big bag of their own books for the children, including several titles I wasn’t familiar with before, like this one about orchestral instruments. It made me think of the song I used to sing with my children, “Nous Sommes à la Musicale.” (“We are at the musical,” in French.) I couldn’t remember much of it, but Pippin came to my rescue and sent me a cute video of herself singing it. It’s ultra simple and catchy — there are no other French lines other than the names of the instruments — and you can hear a clip of it on this Folkways recording. Perhaps I borrowed the LP from the library once in the distant past.

More singing: here is Liam sweeping while singing “I love the mountains, I love the rolling hills,” etc.

I wanted the children to be able to hear the sounds of all the instruments pictured in the book above, and  I found quite a few good videos on YouTube, including a half-hour performance without any lecturing, from Benjamin Britten’s Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra. I loved it because it showed nearly every instrument and closeups of the musicians playing, and the conductor was fun to watch as well. There were many shots of the piccolo player!

The boys had heard “Peter and the Wolf” many times, but never seen it played. I found a charming ensemble of seven musicians from Qatar performing to a backdrop of a sort of shadow puppet show of the story, and that was a hit.

Browsing the library shelves last week with Laddie, I came across this beautiful book, Behold the Trees, by Sue Alexander, illustrated by Leonid Gore. It is a simple telling of the story of “living, life-giving trees” in the Holy Land, from ancient times when they were plentiful, to the 20th century when Jews all over the world contributed funds for planting trees to replace those that had been over the centuries and for various reasons cut down.

 

“They grew in stands and groves and great forests. They held back the sea, cooled the air, and protected the earth for the people and animals who lived there… So it was, for hundreds and hundreds of years….”

But then, people needed cleared land for farms and doors for shops; armies “cut down trees to build fortresses and palaces, shrines to their gods, cities and towns.” Whole forests were burned to remove hiding places for enemies. Eventually “the land became salt marsh and sand,” and animals disappeared.

I love the illustrations in this book showing these events and the people planting trees. And the names of the trees listed simply, and as elegant as a poem. I wanted to know more about the history of this re-greening effort, and I learned a few things online that were fascinating and encouraging.

As recently as the 1960’s the project was begun to plant Yatir Forest on the edge of the Negev Desert. A long Wikipedia article tells much about this “living laboratory” that is the largest forest in Israel, and on another site I found a succinct explanation of one way that the trees survive the climate that they are not suited to:

“Partial results of the research by Professor Yakir and his team show that the forest’s trees have adapted themselves to arid environmental conditions by naturally smart use of the high level of carbon dioxide in the air.  Professor Yakir explains that because of the rise in the level of carbon dioxide in the air, the trees absorb all the carbon dioxide they require without needing to fully open all the stomas (apertures) in their leaves’ membranes. Partial opening of the stomas reduces the evaporation of the water on the leaves and so a tree uses less water without any damage to its development.”

The last of the recent book discoveries was one I found at a used bookstore just yesterday. I was headed straight toward Target, but when my eyes saw a sign declaring “BOOKS,” my feet veered that way. When I finally escaped I had bought several used books for me and for the children. The illustrations in Once There Was a Tree are rich, and do justice to the beauty of the forest, where the main character is a tree stump, and the questions are philosophical.

It might have been titled “Whose Tree is It?” or “Who owns the earth?” The fundamental message is gently told, of how countless numbers of us creatures benefit from as humble a piece of earth as nurtures a stump in the woods, and we should share. I intend to write on the end page Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.”

Because truly He is the beginning and end, the source of all the wealth of gifts and resources that surround us, and of which I have been partaking by means of the sharing of so many of His creatures, from tree-planters to musicians, from a scientist-priest to a children’s book illustrator.

The world — my world — His world — is full of delights.
And I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s offering.

The high and the low.

Kate took me to South Mumbai last week to visit some Must See sites, which I’m sure I could write a book about if I only had enough lives to live. I tell you truly, this exciting life with its realms of experience and knowledge that I can only manage to dip my little toe into is wearing me out. My understanding of many things I present here is slight, and my photos are not as good as you can find other places online. But they are what I’ve seen with my own eyes, and we had good reason for going to these spots, and I was so glad we did.

I’ll start my report with one of the High things, the Gateway of India, which is hard for someone as unskilled as I to photograph, looming as it does so huge at the edge of the sea. The British built this monument to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911, and it was completed in 1924. When the last British troops departed India, they passed through the arch, ceremoniously relinquishing power.

Kate and I walked all around, and she took my picture in front of this icon of Mumbai, under which one is no longer permitted to walk. We also had our picture taken with various groups of Indian tourists. But then we sped away, because there was so much to see…

The next High thing on our agenda, which often appears in photos with the Gateway, was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This five-star hotel opened twenty years before the Gateway was completed, having been commissioned by the Tata group, a conglomerate founded in 1868 by the man considered “The Father of Indian Industry,” Jamsetji Tata. A staircase leads up to a bust of this patriarchal figure.

I didn’t notice when I took my picture of the exterior that I was including a row of men posing for someone else, but I was happy to have them come along! That picture shows the original building and the tall addition, which between them have more than 600 rooms and suites. “The Taj” is the place where John Lennon, Oprah, and Queen Elizabeth stay when they are in town.

In 2008 a terrorist attack on Mumbai focused on the Taj, where the attackers holed up for days, and where many staff were killed. This garden, which has a waterfall not in the picture, memorializes those who lost their lives:

We wandered around for a little while, appreciating the artful opulence. In the restroom each patron has a clean and folded cloth napkin with which to dry her hands. Everything was elegant and serene and orderly.

I could imagine the lovely dresses in the clothing shop, but I was concerned that Kate not get worn out, so we left The Taj pretty soon and went to lunch at a famous Parsi café called Britannia & Company. “Parsi” refers to the Zoroastrian Persians who emigrated to India centuries ago to escape persecution. There is a large Parsi community in the Mumbai area, from which the Tatas are descended, by the way, and much good Parsi food available. Pilau is probably the center of a good Parsi lunch:

In the rankings of high to low, our lunch was not high cuisine, but it was a high point of the day, and Parsi food ranks high on my list. The next places I’ll tell you about, though, are both low in different ways, which I dare not begin to muse on philosophically. It’s another book to be written.

I have to mention that it was in this busiest part of the city that I saw the most cows, three strolling through one intersection alone.

Dhobi Ghat… In Hindi, ghat means “steps leading down to a body of water.” (It also means “mountain,” as in my last post.) Dhobi is the name of a caste of washermen. Dhobi ghat can refer to any laundromat, but in Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the giant open-air laundry that Kate and I visited. My first picture above was part of the view as seen from the road on one side; after, we walked down into the area of washing pens and flogging stones, where drying laundry hung in close rows above us.

Our tour was very informal: we entered what in essence is a little village, started looking around, and a young man asked if we wanted a tour for 200 rupees, about $3, each. We said okay, and paid, and then he walked us through very fast and told us some things about the laundry. I missed much of what he said because I was hanging behind taking pictures, and just generally being overwhelmed and spacey from barely believing that I was in this place. I love doing laundry, but it seems ludicrous for me to say that in the context of Dhobi Ghat. These people take the task of washing clothes to a level that is outer space. But the whole affair lies so low as to be hardly noticeable as your gaze is carried upward by the skyscrapers all around.

Our guide told us that 400-500 people live here, and that he had been born at the “laundromat” himself. Internet articles say that their clients are “neighborhood laundries, wedding decorators, garment dealers, mid-sized hotels, clubs, and caterers.” I believe those things. But so much else that you can read, or even hear residents of Dhobi Ghat say in YouTube interviews, is contradictory or contrary to recorded history, so my questions only multiply and are unlikely to be answered to my satisfaction.

Some of my pictures are dark, because it was dark, especially in a passageway under tarps or some kind of roof, where in the space of five yards motorcycles and a bicycle were parked, a young man was cooking a big pan of potatoes, and an old man was pressing jeans with a vintage iron.

I came upon a man flogging a large wet item on a stone, his back to me, and when he lifted it each time to slap it down again, washwater fell in a shower behind him and on my path. So I timed my crossing, and managed to scoot past between slaps. In places there were little puddles or ditches to hop over, but we got through the busy laundry without getting wet.

It was noon, a clock in my photos tells me, and this man with one hand on the door of a big washer has a small glass of masala chai in the other hand. As we walked the lanes and streets we saw little apartments where the workers and their families live; some of them had a curtain pulled across, but in one doorway a woman was sitting on the floor preparing a salad. In the work area we walked past the occasional man stretched out sleeping on a wide shelf.

Dhobi Ghat was built by the British in 1890. Washermen own their wash pens and hand them down through the generations; some of them have installed modern washing machines and dryers. How they manage to keep track of the 10,000 items they collectively process every day is completely beyond me.

I thought the little girls I saw headed to school must be going off-site, but I learned in my research that the residents started their own school after one of their children was in an accident traveling to school elsewhere, and now they also have families from neighboring areas sending their children to the Dhobi Ghat school.

I count it a privilege to have had fifteen minutes in the presence of these hard-working people. When I am home again where I can hang my garments on the clothesline after letting my machines do almost all of the hard work, I will continue to think of them with admiration.

The last stop on our touristy outing was the lowest of all relative to sea level, because it was sea level, Girgaum Chowpatty or Chaupati Beach, a famous beach in Mumbai, but not for swimming. Festivities surrounding the favorite Hindu god Ganesh are held here, and at the end of the yearly celebrations effigies of Ganesh are plunged into the Arabian Sea, unfortunately adding to the trash problem. I found this photo online showing the event:

If I didn’t have a growing sand collection, I would not have taken the time to go to a beach in Mumbai, because a beach where the water is toxic is so disheartening. It’s not just trash, but sewage that pollutes these waters. And did I even want to collect sand from it? We had been trying to fit in a trip to an Indian beach ever since I arrived, and I was grateful to Kate that she insisted I not miss the opportunity.

We didn’t go on to the wet area of the wide beach. I theorized that the dry sand far away from the shore would have been washed by the last monsoons and not be the dirtiest. Nonetheless, when I got a sample home I washed and disinfected the sand with bleach, and then baked and dried it in the oven before filling my little bottle. 🙂

When you read here or elsewhere about all of the air pollution, water pollution, trash, you might think, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” The problems are complex, but sometimes simple baby steps can improve the situation.

We were only on the beach for a few minutes, during which time we were surprised to see big coppery urns — what could they be for? Kate asked a young man nearby, and he said they were waste bins! Many of the trash cans that have been installed all over the city are bright blue plastic barrels, but these elegant receptacles were both functional and beautiful. I did think of how a child would not be able to use them — oops! I guess that’s a design flaw.

While the government and environmentalists keep working on the source of the problems that humiliate the water and the sand, it makes me happy that someone has honored the beach with these trash urns. When I showed Tom my picture of Kate below he said, “Cute wife looking into the greatest trash can in India!”

We drink and breathe in Mumbai.

Nine of us sat down one day in a very popular restaurant where everything looked clean and spiffy, even the classy uniforms of these waiters who were in abundance to meet our needs. Kate’s (American) Indian friend who was visiting from Saudi Arabia brought us to this place because they had the wonderful South Indian food, different from the Punjabi fare you typically get in the U.S., they say.

While we began to look at the menus, glasses of water arrived on our tables — but were sent back to the kitchen immediately by our host with instructions to bring us bottled water. The glasses were removed, and a couple of liter bottles were brought. The same glasses came back, having been emptied but with drops of water clinging to the insides.

So all our party without comment grabbed paper napkins and began drying the glasses thoroughly, after which we filled them with the good water. Maybe the restaurant water was good, too, but who knows? Water quality is one of the things critical to health that is not reliable in India.

In this household we have a large distiller with a tap from which we take all of our water that is used for cooking, drinking, and teeth brushing. For a month I have been practicing not doing the thing I’ve done once or twice a day my whole life through, to the point where I don’t think about it at all: Turn on the faucet in the bathroom and wet my toothbrush. Now I have to think about it with all my power, and be methodical and slow. So far I don’t think I’ve forgotten, in the bathroom. Then there is the kitchen. Even though the distiller is right there, I have once or twice begun to rinse vegetables in tap water at the sink.

Talking about washing things, we do wash dishes in the sink with that common water, and use them again when they are dry. The kitchen here has one of those handy drying cupboards above the sink.

Breathing is a human activity even more fundamental than drinking, and I have always had a generally healthy respiratory system, and have not stopped breathing without thinking, or comfortably. But if you have asthma, it would be best not to live in Mumbai or Delhi.

For most of my stay the air quality has been typical for wintertime when there are no monsoons to wash the air — that is, the worst. My first week here we took a little trip to the Bandra Fort area where you can look across Mahim Bay to see South Mumbai on the other side of the causeway. Sometimes, but not that day. Tom found an old photo to show the contrast with last June.

Tom and AQI contrast

I got my own view of South Mumbai across the bay last week, and it was middling.

I’d guess the air pollution is the worst thing about living in Mumbai. Heat and humidity are forces to be dealt with, but they are not unhealthy in themselves. The particulates in the air cause respiratory illness and worse. Most days when I see it the Air Quality Index is between 100-200, but a few times it’s been under 100. This site www.aqicn.org starts you in India, but has a search tab that makes it possible to compare various cities of the world that use that particular formula and guide. Here is one of the pages pertaining to Mumbai showing real time information this afternoon when I am writing.

If you haven’t had to be aware of the AQI where you live, you can be thankful! Many Indians who live in Mumbai have their head in the sand about the situation and call the white skies “fog” — because what can they do? In Delhi, where children have been seen throwing up out of school bus windows and schools must close on the worst days, they can’t so easily ignore the realities. I haven’t seen anyone wear a mask, and I haven’t worn the cute one that Kate provided for me as a good expat host must do here. But then, I am not out and about for more than a few hours at a time. When I am, I notice my eyes burning.

In the apartment we have several air purifiers, so we don’t suffer while we’re home. Air conditioners keep the temperature down, and dehumidifiers reduce the moisture  in the air that would cause everything to get moldy during the monsoon especially. Even in this dry season, the one in my bedroom sometimes collects a gallon of water in less than a week. These helpful machines collectively emit plenty of white noise, which people living in cities usually count a good thing.

The difficulties of air and water were some of the stresses I was anticipating coming here, but I have suffered little, for which I am very thankful. Water and air — what simple and delicious blessings they are!