Living in nature

I had (or should that be have?) a great-grand-uncle … No. I woke up very relaxed today, but as I wrote this I got tenser and tensor. Tenses and grammar will be the death of me. So let’s start again. I have had (That’s certainly not right. Yes, but people get the idea by now) a great-grand-uncle who became notorious for building a little hut for himself around an Alstonia scholaris tree. He is quite forgotten, but his hut and tree are still associated with the history of a place more famous for his superstar of a friend and prophet. He and some others of his time were much influenced by that polymath who decided to move away from The City and live in nature. Their children were to be taught in the open, in nature. That experiment became a movement, and was an important cultural moment. Now the place is a crowded little town, and a slogan whose spirit is lost.

Nevertheless, the experiment has a lesson for us today. We may think we are living in an artificial and constructed world, but it is part of the nature we think we have separated ourselves from. Consequences? When we forget that, we are in trouble. The scooters that you see in the photo above pump CO2 into the atmosphere. That tree is part of nature’s balancing mechanism, and soaks up that carbon to build its trunk. If we cut it down, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and heats the planet. Growing and maintaining large tracts of forests is one way to mitigate the coming disaster. Whales are another great carbon fixer, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere into their massive bodies, excreting carbon into the upper ocean where it fertilizes the growth of phytoplankton and starts the oceanic food chain, and finally carrying the fixed carbon to the bottom of the ocean after their deaths, there to feed new life for decades.

Such large re-wilding measures are bound to be effective in their own ways, but perhaps we can help too. My great-grand-uncle’s folly, Vienna’s Hundertwasserhaus, and the hotel you see in the photo above, all express a desire to live in balance with nature. But perhaps that is no longer enough to save ourselves. Maybe organic farming with green manure, or neighbourhoods with Miyawaki forests are what we need. Electric cars and scooters create a different pollution, but they could be useful stopgap measures until better transport solutions can be made. Perhaps the pandemic has catalyzed a change. Work-from-home (WFH) allows us to move away from cities; and a distributed population does not need the hugely polluting chains of supply and transport that make up today’s world. Perhaps WFH is another way we can retool a greener world.

Rally on Republic Day

There are several things that happen around now in most years: many classical music concerts, the Mumbai Marathon, and (my favourite spectator sport) the vintage car rally. Unfortunately none of them are happening this year. So here are some photos from a past rally, ten years ago.

Have a fun republic day.

Crowds

Do you remember 2019? People used to hang around in crowds, and look happy.

Mumbai
Goreme
Nairobi
Istanbul
Bharatpur

In retrospect the featured photo is specially poignant. It was taken in Wuhan, at a time when the virus had already begun to circulate, but no one recognized it for what it would go on to do.

On that note I take a blogging break of around two weeks.

On a clearer day

A couple of warmer days cleared the haze a little. I can now see a smudge above the trees which is the horizon. With the relatively mild amount of pollution the sunrises and sunsets are glorious. I sipped my second cup of tea and looked at the enchanting yellow morning light on the mango tree. The tree is still in bloom, but if you look at the inflorescence carefully, you can already see the green spheres which are the new fruit. A year has rolled around. Last year this time everyone was busy not paying attention to dark clouds. This year everyone is looking at that little bright patch in the clouds, the vaccine, and telling each other that the storm is over.

But one can still make the best of the day. The Family breezed in and announced excitedly “Grey hornbills.” As I searched for my spectacles, she impatiently handed me my camera, knowing that it would be the next thing I would look for. There they were, on a gulmohar tree far away. Indian grey hornbill (Ocycoros birostris). Two of them. Probably juveniles, judging by the orange coloured bare skin around the eyes, and the incompletely developed horn above the bill, the casque. So the nesting pair which had lost its usual nesting hole when last year’s storm blew down the tree did manage to find another tree in the garden.

This pair afforded us a good view of what hornbills do when they are not building nests or looking for food. One sat and preened its chest feathers, the other scratched behind its ears with one claw. They looked content. I watched for a while, clicked off a couple of dozen action photos of birds doing self-care, and wandered off. Half an hour later, when I came back, they had gone. I guess the young eventually leave the vicinity, find a mate and a nesting site, and settle down to produce brood year after year. Our garden has had a single breeding pair for year. The young do not seem to come back here to nest. Perhaps that is for the best. Since they can survive in trees that humans grow in gardens and cities, they will keep finding new nesting spots. At least one of this group of magnificent large birds has thrived in an urbanized world.

Bad days

To the right of the building that you see in the featured photo, above the trees, is my view of the sea. I can often see ships on the horizon, waiting to dock in the Mumbai harbour. Not now. For the last two weeks, I have not seen the horizon because of the pollution. It is specially galling, because we’ve had wonderfully clear air for almost a year, since late March 2020. I took winter pollution in my stride before, hiding behind masks and switching on air purifiers, but this year I reminded myself of the reasons behind this.

Normal sea breeze
Inversion layer

The reason for the annual winter pollution is the formation of an inversion layer in the atmosphere. When the sea is colder than the land, the hot air over the city rises, and cold air from the sea blows in. This happens daily, through the year. In winter, the sea air is colder, and the sun is not high enough in the sky to warm this layer fast enough that the breeze sustains itself through the day. As a result, a cold layer stays put over the city, as human activity pumps more pollutants into it. Since cold air is denser, the layering is stable, and the static dense layer just gets more and more dirty. On a relatively warmer day this layer can get heated enough to rise, and one can suddenly see the air clear up. But then as the air cools again, it gets murky as the temperature inversion sets in. By comparing the maximum and minimum sea water temperature with atmospheric temperature, it seems to me that, as usual, we are in for bouts of bad air right until March.

What bothers me is the source of the pollution. Since businesses are still running in shifts, and people are largely home, the traffic is not as bad as it used to be. Sure, the rush hour has its share of snarls, but travel times are still only half of what they were last January. On the other hand, all the construction and repairs that were postponed by nine or ten months has suddenly started again. I can see roads dug up everywhere, many earth movers at work, and concrete being poured. I guess dust from construction, rather than traffic and industry, is the main component of the bad air now. This is actually worse than normal, and very bad news for respiratory health.

In other years I find that visits to Delhi or Kolkata in this season are likely to give me a bad throat. The reason is that the air pollution in both these cities comes from burning organic matter, which may cause fungal spores and bacteria to become airborne. These are directly responsible for throat infections. Winter pollution in Mumbai usually causes respiratory problems in more indirect ways. However, if dust is now a major component of air pollution in Mumbai, then the bacteria carried in soil have just added to the list of throat infections we can now get. Add this to our worries about COVID-19 and the possible cross over of the bird flu now killing poultry and crows through the country. Consider also that an inversion layer prevents the rapid dilution of pathogens that infected people breathe into the atmosphere. All told, the next couple of months could be bad.

Flying in the pandemic

We heard a lot of different things about flying since May 25, when airports reopened across the country. The early flights were crowded and had unreliable schedules. It was not yet clear how safe airports and aircrafts would be. There was a lot of drama about cleaning surfaces, but not enough was being written about cleaning the air. By October the outlines of the problem and its solution were clear enough that there were media stories about it. The two points about safety I got were this. First, planes usually have very good airflow and filtration systems, and the air is scrubbed clean much faster than in the building where I work. As a result, the main risk is from people around you transmitting viruses in the usual way: breathing, talking, and coughing. The second point is that we already know how to deal with this: masks and shield, and distancing, when possible. I realized that I had lost my fear of flying in the time of the pandemic.

This tree near the check-in counters makes the empty airport look welcoming

We put this to practice a couple of weeks back, when I realized that The Family and I have never had a holiday in Kolkata. There would be no year better than 2020 to see Christmas lights in this city, since most people are still avoiding going out. We knew that we are taking risks, and it would be safer to stay home, as others are doing. But perhaps with good masks, worn as well and as safely as we know how to, and other safetly precautions, we can still travel now and then. As it turned out, Mumbai airport (photos here) was not crowded. It was possible to deposit baggage, check in, pass through security, and wait in the passenger areas while maintaining distance most of the time. The aircrafts we traveled by were far from full. The airlines are not taking care to maintain distance between occupied seats, but when the load is so little, it is possible to move to seats as far from others as you can. Airlines hand out mask, shield, and sanitizer when you board, and we used them all. Arrivals is a little more chaotic, with knots of people around baggage collection areas, and the exits. Nevertheless, we felt very safe because all the passengers behaved sensibly; the pandemic has encouraged civility. I am happy we tried this out, I think flying is a risk we may be able to take now and then as we wait for a vaccine.

Reflection

After nine months of being confined within the immediate neighbourhood of home, watching the garden, the sea, and the sky respond to the changing seasons, I find it distressing to be elsewhere in the middle of the city. I can no longer ignore the expanses of concrete unrelieved by vegetation, the traffic, and the haphazardness of a city by the seas in which the majority of its citizens don’t have even a distant view of the sea. This is what I hear many people grumbling about. If work from home remains the way many of us work, then there will be a slow draining of people away from these congested unlovely parts of the city. There will be new inequalities of course; the people who stay will be people whose work involves being on the spot. Hard to follow the possible lines of the future. Maybe I should put together a panel discussion to talk it out.

Sunrise to sunset

Back in the land of the seeing, I’m so happy that I missed the news cycle, full of the elections in Myanmar and Bihar. It gives me a quieter state of mind in which to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets in my neighbourhood. I stretched the definition of sunrise a little when I went off for a walk by the harbour in the morning.

Coffee in hand, I stared at the incredible changes in the harbour. In the two weeks since I’d last walked there, the harbour has filled with boats. Sails furled, these Lightning class boats are ready to make the best of Mumbai’s sailing season. I watched one unfurl its sail and slip off into deeper waters. The air was warming, and a haze of vapour lay over the harbour, but I liked the glint of the sun on the sea. It is sailing season again for the next five months or so.

A small number of professional photographers cluster around the Gateway and the Taj hotel, hoping to find a tourist or two who wants a photo taken. This was never a lucrative profession, but times are harder now. I was wondering whether the lockdown was the last blow to the few left here, but they are back. As the long and hard epidemic begins to wind down, at least for now, more people are back. Almost everyone has a mask, although many continue to use it as a chin guard.

The morning brought back an old familiar, the moth Cydalima laticostalis. Its diaphanous wings with the golden line on its leading edge, the white body partly visible, first made me take up moth identification. Progress has been slow, but steady. This species makes its appearance towards Diwali, as the weather cools. This was my first sighting of the year.

Nights have been cool, but the day was hot today. As I came over the sea link around sunset, the inner bay was heavy with a damp mist. Two young men had parked their motorbikes on the verge and were busy taking photos of the skyline of Parel rising through the mist. It was a lovely sight, and a nice end to a lovely day, meeting family for lunch. It was our first gathering after February. In several conversations during the day, people talked about how much they enjoyed the change in work habits forced on them by the epidemic, how they gained hours of time from not being bogged down in traffic, and not having useless meetings. There is a definite shift in attitudes towards working from home. Individuals and corporations are in agreement here. The latter are happy to stop spending on office space. Perhaps, in the future, people may not have to move into cities like Mumbai any more. There are so many possibilities that branch out from here! Perhaps the sun is really setting on these unfinished high rises in south Mumbai.

Resting red

Dragonflies could be seen in large numbers at the beginning of October, just after the rains. I’ve been meaning to start identifying them, so when I spotted this in Bhandup pumping station, I took photos from two different angles. It was good that I did that, because I found that the colours of the body, wing, and eyes are needed to complete an identification.

Scarlet skimmers (Crocothemis servilia, aka ruddy marsh skimmers) are common across Asia and are found, as its name suggests, in wet lands. Dredging many websites I found the perfect tool: Subramaniam’s field guide published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. This was a perfect fit: blood red face and eyes, shading to purple at the sides, blood red thorax, reddish hue on the legs. The colour of the thorax told me this was a male; females are paler, and shade towards an yellow. In confirmation of the ID, the wings were transparent, with an amber-red base, and the wing-spot was brown.

I’m glad I made a start; reading descriptions in a field guide also tell you what to look for in future. I should have taken a shot from above, to see more clearly the dark stripe which ran along its back. That identifies it as belonging to the subspecies C. servilia servilia. Its lack would have told me that the dragonfly belonged to a different subspecies, identified only forty years ago.

Cabbages and kings

In the evening we walked around the Gateway of India. When I walk here, I sometimes think of the enormous expense of that last hurrah of the British empire, the Delhi Durbar of 1911, in which George V and his consort Mary proclaimed their claim as the emperor of India. The ceremony was held in Delhi, but the king visited Mumbai. The whole seafront was realigned, and the gateway was built to commemorate that visit. Less than half a century later, the last British troops in India left for a voyage home from this point. I got a nice light on the harbour, along with the shadow of the Taj Mahal hotel on the gateway. The rise of Indian traders was the shadow that grew to engulf and expel the empire. Mumbai was the epicenter of that struggle. a fact that is written in its geography, if only one looks. I’m glad I caught those two pigeons right above the gate.

“That’s not what you think about all day,” I’m sure The Family will remind me. No, of course, not. I also take the time to look at tiny moths which I can’t identify. Like this beauty, a little over a centimeter long, hanging from the ceiling. The end of the abdomen seems to end in coremata, a organ involved in excreting male pheromones. They are common across many lepidoptera species, and not of much help in identification. The shape of the snout and the way it holds its antennae back along its abdomen could mean that it belongs to the family Crambidae. Whatever it is, it does look good.