Spiders, beetles, millipedes, for sure. Moths? Maybe. Butterflies, like the lemon pansy (Junonia lemonias) in the photo above? A stretch. Crabs and lobsters. Certainly not; that’s food! Have we reached the limits of the folk classification of visible bugs? Consider. Spiders are perhaps more closely related to horseshoe crabs than to beetles. And if you think sea lice are bugs, then their close relatives, the shrimps shouldn’t be exempted. So let me go with arthropods instead: those invertebrates with an exoskeleton and jointed legs and segmented bodies. (Ands are powerful things, easily lifting fifty times their weight in sentences. After all we have jointed limbs, and segmented vertebrae. But we are not arthropods, because we are not invertebrates.) I’ll go with this, because it gives me a reason to finally read two papers (this and this) that I’d been meaning to for a while.

When did arthropods come into being? Darwin noted an uncertainty: “For instance, I cannot doubt that all the Silurian trilobites have descended from some one crustacean, which must have lived long before the Silurian age, and which probably differed greatly from any known animal.” Darwin’s intuition has been vindicated by the discovery of new fossils which pushed the origins of arthropods beyond the Silurian period (445-420 million years ago) into the Cambrian (535-490 million years ago). I took this photo of a fossil arthropod, a trilobite, in Shanghai’s Museum of Natural History. That bug was the size of my hand! The species, Sinoptychoparia tuberculata, is known from this single specimen from 515 million years ago, preserved in a sheet of stone from China’s Guizhao province. The oldest fossils of arthropods that we know of are not more than about 550 million years old, embedded in the proliferation of animal forms that is called the Cambrian explosion. This roughly agrees with genetic information.

Of all the forms of living beings known and recorded, arthropods are the most varied. But the living species of arthropods are just a small fraction of all their extinct cousins. All of today’s arthropods are either crustaceans, insects, myriapods (millipedes, centipedes and their relatives), or chelicerates (spiders, hermit crabs, and related species). But there are many groups of animals which seem to be closely related: tardigrades (which recently failed to colonize the moon) and velvet worms certainly, but also roundworms. In Darwin’s time it was expected that arthropods must have evolved from the much older group of roundworms, the annelids. The biggest discovery since Darwin’s days is that genome analysis shows that arthropods do not come from annelids. I think that is my biggest take-away from the first paper. These genomic studies have completely rearranged the branches of the tree of life around arthropods into a form that Darwin would not have suspected.

Insects evolved from cave-dwelling crustaceans about 480 million years ago, late in the Cambrian period (that’s the headline of the second paper). Beetles began to develop about a 130 million years later. They have had time to evolve into a variety of shapes. So many, in fact, that J.B.S. Haldane remarked that “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.” All insects have a pair of antennae to smell with, but the one I saw on the beetle on the wall outside my flat was really spectacular. This photo was taken in October 2019, and I saw another specimen in November 2022. So, whatever it is (help me if you can, as the Beatles implored), it is not uncommon. There are many ideas, but no certainty yet, about how antennae developed.

If you wander through the fossil section of a museum, you are likely to see insect fossils similar to today’s lacewings and dragonflies. All have two pairs of wings like modern insects. The earliest known fossils of winged insects are a little more than 300 million years old, but genomic studies now show that insect flight arose about 400 million years ago. So, one should expect fossil hunters to discover even older specimens. I’ve written earlier about how a butterfly is grounded by a predator taking a bite from its forewings, but it can continue to fly with reduced manoeuvrability even after losing large parts of its hindwings. Flies seem to have only one pair of wings, because the hindwings are reduced to small appendages called halteres. They lose control over their flight paths if the halteres are lost. Beetles have converted one pair of wings into a hard cover, and still retain an ability to fly. I wonder whether dragonflies and damselflies can also keep aloft without using their hindwings.

Ants are fascinating. With the wonderful cameras that many of us carry in our pockets, I’ve been looking at ants in detail for some years now, without being able to identify them. These have elegant striped bodies which were quite hard to see at first because of the lack of contrast with the flower they are clambering over. When we think of pollinators, ants are not the first to pop into our heads. We think first of bees and butterflies. Interestingly, both these families have their origins before the rise of the flowering plants. Their spectacular diversity, however, comes with the explosion of flowers about a 140 million years ago. Ants also date from that time.

The origins of spiders and related groups of animals still remains to be understood fully. Early ancestors of today’s spiders are visible in the fossil record in the middle Cambrian. Animals that we would perhaps recognize as spiders may have lived about 400 million years ago. They have had time to evolve into the many lifestyles we recognize today: the orb weavers, the jumpers, or the ambush hunting crab spiders, like the one in the photo above. Arthropods are an old order of animals, filling a variety of niches across the world. Even insects are much older than flowering plants. So tales of the insect apocalypse are overblown. If we heat our world beyond our limits, we might carry some arthropods into extinction with us (lobster claws could become rare), but far from all.

Hiroshima high-rises

Been there, done that. There are two big sights in Hiroshima: the Peace Museum and associated sites, and Miyajima island with all the sacred spaces there. I couldn’t bring myself to go back to the Peace Museum. It is like concentration camps; you must visit one once so you don’t forget the history, but a second time is unthinkable. I would have liked to visit Miyajima island again, but work left me with no time at all. So, must-do-wise I was free of tensions. I could walk around during breaks in meetings and marvel at how much the city has recovered in seventy five years.

Japan has a long history of pottery. One of the descendants of this old tradition is the ceramic tile. Around the 17th century locally made tiles began to replace the older tiles which were imported from China. (I wonder whether this bit of trade history is fossilized in the language. The Japanese root kara 唐 can mean “Chinese” as well as “ornate”.) The use of porcelain eventually fused with the technology of tiles and led to the development, in the 1950s, of glazed tiles. As a result, many buildings from the immediate post-war years feature exteriors covered in glazed tiles. I stopped to admire the stacked balconies of this high rise. On the streets of Japan you see everyone dressed in shades of gray and brown. This building seemed to follow the same fashion trend.

From a window outside the place where I had my meetings I saw this bright yellow building. Decorative brick facings began to be manufactured in Japan early in the 20th century. This building does not date from then; it was within the blast radius of the atomic bomb. I guess it would have been erected in the 1950s. It might even have been in the first wave of rebuilding, which could be why it uses decorative bricks on the exterior instead of glazed tiles.

Here I give you two contrasting styles: on the left a building from the neighbourhood of the Peace Museum, on the right one from near Hiroshima’s Shuk-keien garden. Going by the materials used they could be from different decades. The brick-faced building has small windows. The other is faced with tiles and has larger windows. I would guess that there is a forty year gap between the two.

Dieser Ort erinnert an unfassbares Leid. (This place evokes incomprehensible suffering.)

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, in the visitor’s book of the Peace Museum (May 19, 2023)

In the imagination of the world, Hiroshima is a tragedy in one word. I cannot let a discussion of the high-rises of Hiroshima slide without showing a photo of the leafy Peace Boulevard which leads to the Peace Museum where the leaders of the G7 wrote their messages in the visitor’s book. In the years after the bombings it was thought that the area will remain barren for centuries. Many works of fiction from those days take this for granted. A plaque on the Peace Boulevard tells of the regeneration of hope when the first plants reappeared about a decade after the bombing. Today, the green boulevard, lined with the 21st century’s high rises, is a space for hope.

Town, sky, river

Some days are perfect for walks. For a week I’d been afraid that our single day in Nikko would be washed out by thunderstorms. But in the last two days the prediction had changed. When the day broke, I looked out at a cloud flecked sky, sunny and with a nip in the air. It was going to be a long day on foot, and it was the perfect weather for that. By the time the thunderstorm hit in the late afternoon, we planned to be on the train to Tokyo.

We were planning to take a bus to the Toshogu shrine, and then walk back in the afternoon through the town. But the wonderful weather changed our minds. We got off at the bus stop to the shrine, and then walked back along the Daiya river to the 17th century Shinkyo (sacred bridge). Thirty years after I’d first seen it, the bridge has been strengthened and you can buy a ticket to walk across it. We didn’t bother to do that. Standing on the bank of the river I look a photo of the tall grass next to us, the rushing stream, and the beautiful spring growth on the trees across from us.

The village of Nikko grew up next to an area considered sacred in the old Shinto belief, especially Mt. Nantai. Some day we will go back to visit the 8th century Futarasan jinja and hike its god, the mountain. The Toshogu shrine was built with some thought in this spot in the 17th century, thereby associating the godhood of Tokugawa Iyeasu with the other gods of the region. Standing by the rushing stream, in the narrow valley between hills, it was not hard to understand why the whole area must have seemed sacred to the people who live here.

So much of the mood of a scene depends on the light which you see it by. I pointed my phone to one side and caught the sunny sky, with the bright growth of spring. When I turned to take a view on the other side, clouds had slid across the sun, and a dark atmosphere had fallen across the same hills. After looking at the Shinkyo, we walked back up the slope to the Toshogu shrine. The sky remained wonderful throughout the morning.

A bit of mid-morning dango, and grilled fish on a skewer kept us going through the long walk inside the shrine. When we emerged, the storm clouds were peeping over the surrounding mountains. We walked to the neighbouring Rinno-ji, and the play of sunlight and clouds gave us a wonderful view of the main hall. The weather eventually broke with a crack of thunder and instant downpour, immediately after we’d boarded the train on our way out of Nikko. The sky and the gods of the mountain had been good to us.

The art of gardening

Akira Kurosawa’s three earliest movies are almost impossible to find. As a result, my closest approach to them came two weeks ago, when I visited the gardens of Denjirō Okōchi, his lead actor on all three. The Ōkōchi Sansō was laid out in the 1930s on the slopes of Mt Ogura in the Arashiyama mountains, but incorporates many of the aesthetic values that developed in the construction of Japanese gardens since Tachibana Toshitsuna wrote the world’s first treatise on the art of gardens, the Sakuteiki, at about the same time that Murasaki Shikibu wrote what is possibly the world’s first novel.

We arrived in Kyoto early in the afternoon. While checking the weather forecast as our shinkansen from Tokyo ate the kilometers, we realized that the afternoon could well be the only day on which we would see a blue sky over Kyoto. It was our best opportunity to walk through Arashiyama. So when we arrived at 4 PM, we were among the last people that day to buy tickets to enter the garden. The ticket entitles you to a cup of matcha and a sweet at the end of your walk. The tea house would be shut by the time we finished our walk, so we were firmly escorted to the tea before our walk. I wish we had reached a half hour earlier, so that we could have enjoyed the tea in the correct relaxed frame of mind, after our walk through the garden.

With our habits of always seeking our own path, changing plans spontaneously, and seeking out the novel, we have to work at reminding ourselves that formal Japanese gardens do not work like that. They are planned to lead you to specific views, where you can stop and be as informal and spontaneous as you want: dash off a piece of poetry for Whatsapp, do a Bollywood dance for Tiktok, or post photos of the view on Instagram. We stepped through the middle gate, the Chūmon. In Japanese culture passing through a gate takes you from one realm to another. So, I collected my thoughts and prepared my mind to follow the prepared path.

In the short break we took for tea, clouds had swept in from the south, and they would not lift until the day we had to leave Kyoto. Our first stop was Daijōkaku, the main house, which is said to merge the exceedingly formal shoin style of architecture with the contrasting sukiya style. I am too much of an architectural novice to tell the difference purely from the exterior, but my guess would be that the front room is in the shoin style. The Chūmon, the Daijōkaku, the Jibutsudō (the temple in the featured photo), and the Tekisuian (the teahouse) are treasured national cultural properties.

After Daijōkaku, high hedges constrained our views, and we should have walked quickly on to the next viewpoint. We were stopped in our tracks by the calls of several birds. I recorded them, and later could only identify the Japanese bush warbler (Horornis diphone), known as uguisu locally, and also called the Japanese nightingale. We walked on to the first viewpoint over Kyoto from the garden (click on the first photo in the gallery below). We studied the plaque which showed the main peaks visible from here, and localed Mt. Jizo. We wouldn’t have time to visit it, I told The Family, as she walked on to the Jibutsudō. My photo of the Meiji era temple which was transported here, leaves out two important aspects of the main view: one is the expanse of gravel in front of it, and the second is the little stream that winds past on one side.

After admiring this view the path doubled back to lead us to the moss garden. Somewhere there the nightingale was still singing. As we climbed past the tea house, Tekisuian, we stopped to see the view of the Hozu river gorge and the distant temple of Sankaku Senkoji. There was a road down to a view point. But before we could turn into it a lady appeared behind us to tell us that the garden would close in five minutes and we needed to make our way to the gate. On our way out we briefly stopped to see the view of the city from the moonlight pavilion (second photo in the clickable gallery above).

The garden has been laid out to show off each of the seasons. We passed through it late in spring: after the flowering of the cherries and azaleas. A few azalea flowers were still wilting on the bushes. I hope we will be back one autumn to see the garden again. If we do, we will take care to come earlier in the day, so that we can spend more time here. Gardens are works of art which need to be seen again and again, in different seasons. Japan has perfected gardens which remain unchanged for centuries although the individual plants are replaced. One cannot fail to remember also the unbroken lines of gardeners who make sure that the garden stays true to the vision of the artists who first laid it out.

The nine moods

Classical aesthetic theory talks of navarasa, the nine moods. Whether it was poetry or drama, music or painting, you had to identify the primary rasa, mood, of the work. Of course, the best works would be subtle, playing on your moods continually, moving you from here to there, and back again. I wondered whether I could identify the rasa in Nikko’s Toshogu shrine, the place which contains the remains of Tokugawa Iyesasu, the founder of the shogunate of Japan. The painting of the elephants that you see in the featured photo is clearly hasyarasa. It evokes joyful laughter. They are sometimes called the imaginary elephants because the artist clearly had never seen the beasts.

There’s no dearth of virarasa, courage, in the artistry of this world heritage monument. The shrine to the founder of the shogunate abounds in the imagery of the animal most closely associated with bravery: the lion. Here I show you a photo of a bronze lion rampant, sculpted at the base of one of the many ceremonial lanterns on the site.

Surprisingly, sringar rasa is also evoked in this shrine. Traditionally the mandarin duck with its striped head is taken as a symbol of familial love in the Japanese language of birds. Since I did not have a photo of the many depictions of these ducks, I decided that this pair could stand in for that rasa. To my eyes, the pair seems bonded.

This pair of dwārpālas, the nio in Japanese, illustrate two more of the rasa. I think they are each in rudra rasa, the angry mood. The one on the left has his mouth open to make the sound ā; the one on the right has his mouth closed to make the sound n. These are the syllables of the beginning and the end. Even in these times when the proprieties of visiting the shrine are forgotten by the numerous tourists, passing between the beginning and the end must bring the sense of passing time to anyone who cares to live an examined life. To many the sense of time passing brings a sense of fear, which is the mood of the bhayanaka rasa.

The Omeimon, the entrance gate to the shrine, is perhaps the most elaborately carved gate of all in Japan. This is clearly in adbhuta rasa, due to the sense of amazement it produced in me although it wasn’t the first time I’d seen it. I enjoyed seeing the details again through the eyes of The Family, who was now seeing it for the first time.

I was sure that I could find all nine rasas in the shrine. But perhaps the meanings of two of them become clearer if I take you to Hiroshima. There are wars and atrocities all the time, but when you take a walk around the circle of hell, the area of Hiroshima which was vaporised at the instant when humanity became a world-killing species you realize how terrible that instant was. Perhaps all the atrocities since then are just echoes of this. You circle hell and your steps come back near the center to find a statue of Kannon bearing paper cranes surrounded by azaleas. That is the mood of sadness, karuna rasa.

But this is a sadness streaked with disgust, vibhatsya rasa. In your circuit you may have seen many things which you would like to put a stop to. For me it was the incident behind this memorial which stands where a group of school girls was clearing flammable wooden debris of houses when they were annihilated by a surge of energy which proceeded from a point 580 meters above them. Their bodies, and those of about six hundred of their schoolmates, instantly separated into the elements they were made of and mingled with the air. Still, eighty years after that we have no treaty banning nuclear weapons. Instead we have a system of aparheid called the nuclear non-proliferation regime which means that only a few can make costly mistakes on our behalf.

We take a few deep breaths and we come back to Nikko Toshogu. This is the core of the shrine, where the body of Tokugawa Iyeasu was interred in the cask you see at the back. The chatter and buzz of human voices stills as the river of tourists rounds this square. This is the mood of calmness, shanti.

Evening clouds

A clear view of the western horizon might have shown me Jupiter and Mercury before they set. Venus and Mars would be higher in the sky, on either side of the moon. It would be a spectacular sight.Since I was not in a city I could walk out to a place where the horizon was uncluttered. Unfortunately, the glorious view that I had of the sky was nothing to do with distant planets; it was our atmosphere that set up the fantastic light show that you see here.

March had been unseasonally hot this year, and in the last week of the month it got worse. A constant cloud cover allowed the humidity to build up to levels where the air felt about five degrees warmer than it actually was. On this evening, my last away from Mumbai, a storm set in as I went out for my walk. I didn’t dare to take my camera with me just in case the thunderstorm brought a huge downpour.

But the camera was not needed, since the sky remained overcast.spectacular light show My phone was enough to catch the spectacular light show in the sky that day. I missed the line up of four planets (the fifth, Uranus, was not going to be visible to the naked eye) but I got some photos. Was it a fair trade? Who knows?

This shuffling madness

What surrounds us? Where do we go when we break out of one thing? Thinking about it while looking at my old photos, I saw a few themes. We are constantly surrounded by machinery. If we stop to look at it, most of it is beautiful. It is painful to stop to look at the beauty of a jackhammer as it pulverizes a pavement near us, but that’s a part environment that me, you, and the toddler down the road are immersed in. Why would I not take pleasure in it? A few generations ago people did routinely, as you can tell by the decorative curlicues of cast iron that 19th century machines were made of. But today’s sleek minimal lines, or the organization of bundles of wires are equally deeply thought out.

But looking at a record of my life over a period of a year, almost twenty years ago, what surprised me most was that it was a hodge podge, not at all like my memories. In my mind I had divided it into work and pleasure, travel and home, domestic or foreign travel, nature or artificial. But in the photos they run together: a bit of this, and later in the day something else. Somewhere one day in the week, elsewhere far away for another few days. I’m constantly shuffling between contexts. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. So all this talk of themes is just one way to make the story easier to tell.

But let’s continue with that. Another constant in our life is the commute that we do. No matter where we live, there are hubs where people gather to wait for trains, buses or airplanes. There are clusters of taxis, autos, or rickshaws waiting to be hired. There is the rattle and roar of traffic passing over bridges or down roads somewhere near us. When I have the time I like to take photos of this kind of social environment that we create around us, no matter where we live: Mumbai, Paris, Kolkata, or the village where I spent a month.

But maybe that’s not what we first think of when we think of the world that we are immersed in. Perhaps we think first of all of the life around us: creatures that enter our homes and our neighbourhoods, or those that we have to travel far to see. They are always a pleasure to photograph. But I didn’t remember then that a gecko hiding behind a curtain is as wild as a doe with her calf in a jungle.

Or perhaps we think of something even bigger when we hear the word environment. The world is large enough to contain everything that we do. It will endure even if (when?) we change it so that we, and our familiar environment, can no longer exist. That is something that I hold in my mind as we enter the week that ends with the World Environment Day.

Autumn glow

Bright sunlight brought a juvenile Himalayan rubythroat (Calliope pectoralis) out of hiding and atop a Lantana bush where it let loose a long set of chirps. Its feathers glowed in the morning sun, adding to the autumn brightness around us in the village of Dotiyal in Uttarakhand. Then it looked around at the cameras and preened. It was still too young to fear us. I wonder whether birds have personalities: some timid, some more prone to put themselves in danger. And if so, which survive long enough to breed.

Not very far away I’d seen a Himalayan bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys). They are common across the lower heights, and fill up the slopes briefly with their loud chatter. This one drew my attention to the glow of yellowed leaves, above it, the last of the autumn glory from this particular tree. Behind it were whole copses full of evergreens. It’s a lovely time in the hills.

A week before that I’d stopped at a bright orange glow as I walked through the post-monsoon forest on the Mahabaleshwar plateau in the Sahyadris. A closer look showed that the orange was a cluster of mushrooms growing on a tree. Reds and oranges are common colours for fungi, but I’d never seen this particular fungus before. I wish there were more mushroom enthusiasts: perhaps then a couple of field guides may be written. Without them I’m lost at trying to identify them.

Up in the Himalayas, as another day of bird watching came to an end, we stood at the edge of a road and looked across the meadows at the far ridge, where the sky seemed to catch fire. I’m a bit blasé about fiery skies, but The Family wanted me to catch this moment. This bit of autumn glow is for her.

The last glow of an autumn day came late, long after sunset. Entering dark woods without a light, listening for the call of Mountain Scops Owls (Otus spilocephalus). We were lucky that we didn’t have to crash through the dark woods for long. One called right next to where we parked. Its eyes glowed in the dark. This was a wonderfully lucky shot.

Nothing is real

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The featured image is not a photo of a breakfast table being cleared. It is a portrait of one of my companions in an African safari in a coffee spoon. Why would you linger at a breakfast table while it is being cleared around you? Why would you do it when others are out hunting cheetah? Perhaps because you got back late from a dawn safari with four lions in the bag?

Let me take you down
‘Cause I’m going to strawberry fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry fields forever

John Lennon, Paul McCartney (1967)

Is that an aerial view of a lava field? A dead caldera leading down to a volcanic plug? No, just a close up of a felled tree.

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.

Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation

When a live tree begins to sprout mushrooms you know you are looking at deadwood. A dense mat of the fungus has already spread through the dead corpse of the tree and sending out spores to find and colonize other dead trees.

How agonized we are by how people die. How unconcerned we are by how they live.

P. Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought

A photo of fractured rocks leading down to the sea? Not at all, this is a close up of the cracked mud outside a water deficient village in the Thar desert.

A pretty experienceful month

When we decided to give semi-rural living a try we knew things were going to be different. We flew in and found the hired car which would drop us at the place which was to be home for the next month. The driver was kind enough to stop for us to pick up essentials: toiletries, basic medicines, water, and some food. When we went for a walk in the evening along what we’d thought was a narrow and lonely road, it was filled with autos and motorbikes driving at breakneck speeds. It was hard to cross the road and take a photo of the sun setting over fields.

Were these kiosks going to be our grocery stores for the next month? The Family wondered aloud as we walked for an hour down the road and saw nothing else. Eventually, she found where the town got dense enough to support a bigger store which stocked the kinds of things that our city living had accustomed us to. I found shaving cartridges, for example. The two of us had fun choosing between unfamiliar types of biscuits. And the family found a range of pre-mixed ground masalas to ease everyday cooking.

There was no Uber, and no taxis or autos would run by meter. We wondered whether a two hour walk for groceries was worth it. Eventually we bit the bullet and found a work around: we met auto drivers whom we could call for grocery runs at a negotiated price. One of them showed us a couple of markets. This one under a highway flyover was further off, but more picturesque. The other was closer, and had really fresh veggies, fish, and fresh lobster at throwaway prices. There was a rather good bakery, and wonderful sweet shops.

Our “fully furnished” house had been a shock when we came through the doors. The furnishings were a large dining table with chairs, and a good bed. The kitchen had a gas cylinder and two burners, one kadhai, one huge pot, two steel spatula, and two melamine plates. We managed to find an old sofa, a fridge, some more tables and chairs, and eventually the living room turned into a place where we could sit and work comfortably. We lined the pockets of Bezos and also made a trip to the nearest town to get more things for the kitchen. Cooking here has been the biggest experience, but one that built our skills.

We enjoyed the silence around us. The sound of wind and rain, and the calls of lapwings, babblers, and the brain fever bird were more common than internal combustion machines. There was also company over for dinner a couple of times and we went over to a neighbour’s for dinner one day. We enjoyed walking. I have definitely become more fit and physically agile. But could we give up living in a city? We’d just paused streaming the most recent hit when The Family talked wistfully about going to a restaurant and catching a movie afterwards. A couple of days ago we went into the nearest town for lunch. We felt relaxed and at home when we walked into a fairly full cafe and sat down with our double shots of espresso. “We will definitely need a car if we decide to live in a village”, The Family said. I thought that we could do it as long as both of us were in good health. We could perhaps take a sabbatical from the city, but I can’t see us living a rural life permanently.

Consider this post, like the experience, to be a collaboration between The Family and me. Most of the photos were taken by her. The commentary is mine.