Clear the air

It is time to say this. The epidemic and the enforced lockdown continues to show what a strange universe we had locked ourselves into. The walls we had built around our complicated social and economic world have collapsed and through these gaps we can see new possibilities. When we build up again, there will be a push to instantly return to what we had earlier, but it will be good for us to see how flimsy the supporting arguments were.

The air is so clear ten days after the beginning of the lockdown that from the rooftops of Jalandhar one can see the high Himalayas. We’d driven through this city almost two years ago, when we spent a week in the lower Himalayas. Passing through the traffic snarled up in the city I never realized that we were only 450 Km from Srinagar in Kashmir. This air can be kept clear. Change from oil to electric. Electric scooter technology is cheap and widely available. Just the will to change the tax structure to favour a new industry is lacking. Autos on the road are another major polluter, but changing their two-stroke engines to battery would be another step towards clean air. It can be done at a cost much smaller than the lockdown.

Dolphins on Marine Drive in Mumbai! Whales visiting the oil rig at Bombay High! These are not fake videos. We saw different dolphin videos taken by a lot of people, from a lot of different angles. So this we can be take as verified. Just one day of reduced noise pollution in the sea brought dolphins into Backbay. That’s not something I’ve seen written about even in the literature from a century ago. The incidental conversation in the whale video indicates that this is probably not fake. We will not be able to recover this perhaps, because the world’s supply chain moves through the seas. On the other hand, I know some extremely good engineers, and they should be able to put their minds to lowering the noise made by ships, if they can make a living doing it. After all, energy lost to noise is produced by burning fuel, so less noise is an incremental increase in efficiency. In any case, it is good to see how quickly nature can begin to reclaim the earth.

Peacocks dancing through the streets of Mumbai! Who would have thought! I didn’t even know there were peacocks left withing the city. That’s hope for the future. We do have small green lungs in the city. I hope videos such as this give people a reason to hope that planning for more patches of greenery will help preserve these wonders right here, next to our homes. I think a lot of small patches with trees will help.

Away from the big bad city, one has seen videos of elephants roaming through the streets of small towns. That may not be to everyone’s liking. There is a growing body of scientific thought that says that the increasing instances of new diseases, SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, and COVID-19, is due to human activity encroaching on parts of the world which were the natural range of other species. It sounds reasonable, because the new diseases are not coming from the already-dead lands of Europe and the US. They are arising in parts of the world where there are ancient ecosystems newly destroyed. We have known for years that human-elephant conflict is due to us taking over their land. Now perhaps we are facing bigger threats as we take over new ecologies.

Enough of a Sunday sermon. Let me end with this wonderful video of a fawn of the spotted deer, Cheetal, galloping in the waves of the Bay of Bengal. The video is verified to come from Puri, that famous temple town and beach resort. What a wonderful sight! I cannot go out to see wildlife right now, but it is coming in to see us today.

A better light

I looked out of the window early in the morning. That sentence could not have been written before COVID-19 forced us into a more measured lifestyle. Working from home gives us more time, a clearer understanding of what are priorities, and what we can postpone. So The Family and I have mostly managed to sleep by midnight, and wake while birds are still active in the morning. We never thought that we were being disturbed by traffic, but the clear harmonies of birds in the trees remind us how much of the city’s background noise has died out.

At the horizon a ship was waiting its turn to enter the harbour. That’s another sentence that could not have been written a week ago. The haze had been so bad that I could not see beyond the trees. The sky and sea used to be a glare of white. In a week the pollution has cleared out, and I can see the horizon and the ships waiting there. Later in the day there was a haze, but the air quality remained unchanged. So this was due to water evaporating in the warmth of the sun. I could still look out across the bay and see the bungalows on the headland opposite to us.

Life is not going to be simple in the coming weeks, but some background problems have resolved themselves. Perhaps the world will muddle through.

Sunset glow

For a few evenings there was a beautiful yellow light which would bathe the world around us after sunset. As the red glow on the clouds faded, moments before it turned dark, the world would become a magical yellow. If you mentioned this to someone on the streets of Mumbai, they would smile and agree. The featured photo was taken quite a while after sunset; you can see that the camera, while trying to compensate for the light, makes a blur of the birds.

Land beneath the trees

This is not a light we see every year. After the monsoon the skies are generally clear of dust. If there is the normal pollution of the city, it just creates a haze and reddens the sunset. This colour came with a clear view of the horizon. It wasn’t even as humid as it could have been. It was a mystery until people started mentioning a raging fire on Butcher Island, off the coast. The fuel that is stored for ships on this outer island had caught fire and it took days to bring the blaze under control.

Light effects at sunrise and sunset depend so much on what the air contains. Moisture, dust and smoke are all things that produced beautiful sunsets. What was this due to?

A Beach in the Anthropocene

Walking on the beach, looking for odd sea creatures, I found that I was constantly shifting my angle of view so that I could take photos without including a lot of garbage. After some time I wondered why I was doing that. Wasn’t there an equally interesting story in the things I was trying to avoid? Take the featured photo: the tracks in the sand belong to molluscs and crabs, but the largest object there is a piece of long-lasting plastic garbage which has washed up from the ocean. It looked like a container of machine oil to me.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

You have probably read the same articles about garbage that I have, so you know about the continent sized floating islands of garbage in the middle of the world’s large oceans. The Andaman islands lie a little west of Myanmar, Thailand, Malayasia and Indonesia. As a result, garbage from these countries lands on the beaches of Andamans on their way to the Indian Ocean gyre. This is not a guess: it is the result of looking at innumerable labels on plastic garbage through a morning. You can verify it from the photos here.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman
Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

Garbage from India does not wash up in the Andamans. I guess that lands up either directly in the Indian Ocean garbage patch, or on the beaches of Lakshadeep and Sri Lanka. I grew up with romantic stories of messages in bottles found on beaches. Today the romance is gone; bottles are the most common man-made objects on a beach, as you can see from the photos above. The message that these bottles bring us are of the incredible waste that all couintries produce today.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

If the can of machine oil had an ambiguous origin, this gizmo almost certainly has come from a boat. Was it tossed overboard, or did it fall off because it was stowed carelessly? It does not really matter. It has come to rest on a bed of broken corals. By the time the corals weather down to the white sands of these beaches, they will have incorporated bits of this plastic. Even now, when we go for a swim we probably come out the water with bits of plastic clinging to us along with the sand.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

The kind of garbage you see in this photo is everywhere: bits of thermocol, little plastic containers. Industrial civilization produces them with such abandon that a little inattention on our parts can cause it to turn into a pollutant. Think of this for the moment: how often do you handle plastic packaging of any kind? Once every twenty minutes? Is it possible for you to be mindful of where every bit of the packaging you handled in one day has gone? Even with the best will in the world, you will not be able to answer "yes". That is the tragedy of the anthropocene.

Pollution alert

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These are three successive attempts to take close ups of architectural details in Beijing’s Lama Temple. I never thought that the amount of incense burnt in a temple could possibly drive me out choking and coughing, but eventually it did. Before that I did get a few decent shots when occasionally the smoke would let off.