Just a note to say I have revived my sabbatical blog, which has to do with my other life (inextricable from this one). I took a sabbatical last year to learn something about Arctic climate change. Since then climate change has only got worse, carbon dioxide emissions are increasing, and as the world burns, the powers-that-be are focusing their energies on finding more fossil fuels to burn, such as in the until-now pristine Arctic. (See the breaking news about Shell’s drilling, which has just commenced). I can’t just stand on the sidelines and wring my hands in despair. I continue to learn, and investigate creative ways to communicate on the issue and to act in ways that make meaningful change. The revived and updated blog is one small step in that direction. It is a repository of thoughts, comments and updates on climate, and also includes my scientific-travelogue-style account of my Arctic trip in April 2014.
Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category
Note: I wrote this little essay about a month ago, when New England was still under a thick shawl of snow. I lost the essay, and just found it again. So here it is.
The day after New England’s first blizzard of the season, I saw tracks on the snow. The snow was 2-3 feet thick, and except where I’d ploughed a canyon through it, was smooth as a blanket. Looking carefully, though, I saw a single line gouged in the smoothness, from the elm tree all the way to the covered porch. There is a space under the porch that is home to a mysterious animal, which may be a possum. (When my dog was alive I always knew, from his excited sniffing, when our tenant was home). There were rabbit tracks all the way to the front door, and a more delicate tracery of bird footprints. These spoke to me of recent histories almost as explicitly as if each track, each footprint, was a letter or pictogram of a language inscribed on the featureless white page of snow.
That Nature speaks – that animate beings and inanimate things communicate – is perhaps no mystery to the scientist or artist. The world is full of stories, although we humans seem to be disproportionately tuned to the exclusively human ones. But animals, trees, protons and stars are always telling stories, and it is our loss that our selective deafness shuts out these other tales. To the naturalist, the nibbled tips of a wild plant, or the change in flow of a stream, hint of certain animal presences. To a geologist walking through a canyon, the colors, striations and textures of rocks tell a story of the earth’s past. To a particle physicist looking at particle tracks, the intangible mysteries of the sub-atomic world are, for that moment and context, revealed. There is an aesthetics of science that is missed by most non-scientists, and sometimes by scientists as well. Ultimately what pure scientists do is to listen to, and interpret through mathematics and conceptual structure-building, the stories Nature tells us.
The stories told by inanimate things is truly fascinating, and is part of my work on creative new ways of teaching physics, but that is a whole other post. Today, while snowbound during yet another storm too soon after the last one, I want to think about communication and language in the context of our non-human fellow earthlings.
I’ve seen cartoons about the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, on the “Are We Alone?” theme. A human looks through a telescope at the stars, wondering if our species is an anomaly in the universe. What I’ve always found ironic about this trope is that we are surrounded by other beings that are constantly communicating. I am a fan of the search for life beyond Earth, don’t get me wrong — I think that the huge numbers of exoplanets discovered on a near-daily basis indicate that life, (‘intelligent’ or otherwise according to our standards), may be rather common outside of our little rock – but my point is that we are so arrogantly or ignorantly unaware of all that is being spoken around us that it would be laughable if it wasn’t also sad.
Living in modern urban culture, it is easy to forget, sometimes, that there is a world beyond one’s ‘narrow domestic walls’ (to use Rabindranath Tagore’s pithy phrase). I am intensely interested in the world, but the daily circumlocutions of work and home, the breathless rush from one deadline to another, at times distances me from the wider reality we inhabit. I know full well that the lives we live perpetuate the illusion that the tiny pocket universe of our daily existence is all there is, and all that matters. We read of school shootings, police brutality, war, oil spills, and the heart clenches for a moment, and for that moment we are lifted out of that illusion. We are helpless before the horrors of the world. What’s the point of expending emotional energy on something we can’t change? When there are jobs to do, and children to raise, and bills to pay? It is so much easier to run back into the hidey-holes of our lives, especially if we are privileged enough to be far from the scenes of violence and destruction. Privilege, after all, means we can afford to not think about it.
But I am a writer. And I like to think of a writer – at least the kind I aspire to be – as a student of the world, immersed in the world. I know there are writers who believe in cutting themselves off from the world so they can work on their art. But the writers who have had the greatest impact on me have, in some form or another, been full participant-observers in this world of ours. So when I am tempted to look away from various external horrors to my own concerns, I remember this — and I remember also what I’ve learned through orbiting the sun for over a half-century: that avoiding or denying painful truths has terrible consequences, personal and otherwise.
When I was a kid, I used to sometimes sneak out of my classroom at my school in New Delhi, and hide in the library. My school environment was highly disciplined, with a great emphasis on academics and proper behavior. While this was all to the good, sometimes my imagination needed free rein. I still remember hiding behind the stacks, a shaft of sunlight coming in through the window, illuminating the page of the book I held on my lap.
It was during one of these escapades that I came across author Jean Craighead George’s book My Side of the Mountain. I devoured the book, marveling at the adventures of a boy who had run away from home to live in the wilderness. It had been a dream of mine to do something as bold. Many of the books I’d read while growing up involved children who ran away from home with monotonous regularity, usually to camp in the wilderness, and it seemed like the thing to do. My own attempt at it had been some years before my discovery of My Side Of the Mountain, when, as a ten-year-old, I’d run away to the tree outside my grandparents’ house. For the first couple of hours I had enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations of mynahs and jungle babblers, and observing buffaloes pass beneath me, but the tree limb wasn’t the most comfortable perch. To my everlasting chagrin, when I returned to the house in a few hours, bored and hungry, I found that nobody had missed my absence.
But there was something different about this book. It made the animal inhabitants of that mountainside come alive, in a way that I had experienced in my own interactions with non-humans, but had not been able to articulate. Later I would realize that this aliveness was really a way of recognizing that animals had agency – they were actors in their own dramas, with their own agendas and worldviews. Without turning animals into cutesy Disney-style caricatures, without over-sentimentalizing, George had brought forth in her fiction what naturalist Henry Beston had so clearly articulated about animals: They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
Note: Back in 2008, the incredible Jeff VanderMeer invited me to guest-post on his blog. Recently I had occasion to re-read this post, and I decided to post it here on Antariksh Yatra, minimally edited. Unfortunately the post isn’t complete without the discussions in the comments, so here’s the original link.
When I was around ten years old my family moved from New Delhi to the town of Patna, in Bihar, for two years. Patna was a small, untidy, sprawling little town (relative to Delhi) and the area where we lived consisted of large, old-fashioned houses set among enormous gardens. We stayed with my grandparents, and a little way from their house you could see fields. Sometimes my brother and I would wake very early and go on a trek through the fields, pausing to watch a farmer and his bullock drawing water from a well, or looking at pond life in a ditch filled with rainwater. In the evenings there would be kids playing cricket in the big maidan in front of the house, and my brother and I would be there too (it was in those days that I developed my now-lost skill as a fairly fearsome spin bowler). Some of the pariah dogs that lived in packs in our neighbourhood would join in, especially if we were playing football (soccer). Pariah dogs are descended from the earliest domesticated dogs — they are a tribe unto themselves, and live parallel lives with humans in towns and cities in India. They are also beautiful, intelligent animals — you can see some really nice pictures here.
One of these pariah dogs was a brown and white dog of noble bearing whom we called Moti (the word sounds like “more-thee” without the ‘r’, and means “pearl”). As he was a regular on the football field, we became friends. He would come over to our house if he wanted a meal. Sometimes he would walk me home if I was late returning from a friend’s house. There was a boy who lived next door who was friendly with Moti too, but he wanted Moti as a house-dog. So he trapped the dog for three days in his house, spoiling him, feeding him delicacies and playing with him. But at the first opportunity, Moti escaped.
First I want to say that this is not a review, but my personal feelings about some aspects of the novel 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m not going to discuss plot points and language and story arc except where they speak to the points I do want to make. And there are spoilers galore. STOP HERE if you want to read the book first. (more…)
Contrary to what non-academics think, those of the professorial persuasion rarely have the summers off in any but the most mundane sense of the term. Being off from teaching generally means that this is your one chance to a) recover from semester burn-out, b) breathe, c) do research or other scholarly work so that you can keep your brain alive and keep your job, d) read about and think about interesting stuff. The 9-to-5-ers of the world may not understand that those of my ilk cannot draw a clear boundary between work and non-work.
So I’ve been reading, among other things. What I’m reading could affect what and how I teach next semester, the essays and other non-fiction I write, and of course my fiction. No real distinction between work and play for me. Not being one of those whose life can be divided into neat, waterproof compartments, I rejoice in leaping over divisions, boundaries and walls.
Apparently, so do plants.
I am peering out from behind a huge pile of undergraduate papers to see if the world is still there. Looks like it is, for now. So I’d like to take a few minutes to post some links.
This past week the American Association of University Women came out with a report called Why So Few? http://www.aauw.org/research/whysofew.cfm
“Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics presents in-depth yet accessible profiles of eight key research findings that point to environmental and social barriers – including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities – that continue to block women’s participation and progress in science, technology, engineering, and math. The report also includes up to date statistics on girls’ and women’s achievement and participation in these areas and offers new ideas for what each of us can do to more fully open scientific and engineering fields to girls and women.”
When pondering this question, which is close to my heart, I’ve always felt that we not only need to change how society views girls in relation to science and science careers but we have to address the internal culture of science in research labs and universities and colleges. This internal culture seems to be to be oriented toward certain personality types while putting others at a disadvantage — at its extreme there can be cutthroat competition, a confrontational style of dealing not only with people but with Nature, and a narrow, blind, disconnected approach to the problem at hand. Not everyone thrives under such conditions. I’ll have a lot more to say about all this in a future post.
And in news from our favourite satellite, it appears that the Moon might have more water than we thought. 600 million metric tons distributed over 40 craters near the lunar north pole. What this makes possible is: stations on the moon, and a place from which to launch space exploration vehicles — a stepping stone to Mars and beyond! Water means life resource and rocket fuel.
Somebody needs to write a poem about this. I mean, all that water on the moon!
All of our spacely adventures can only happen if we have the sense to save the planet by slowing and reversing global warming. Tomorrow, Saturday March 27, is Earth Hour, the annual momentum-building, consciousness-raising event that is growing hugely every year. I plan to be one of the millions around the globe participating by turning of my lights for an hour, 8:30 to 9:30 pm. Last year’s participation was around a billion people and hundreds of cities, organizations and institutions.
This reminds me that I started this blog about a year ago, so this is an anniversary of sorts. I’ve posted only sparsely but have somehow managed to maintain the pace, however slow, of inflicting my thoughts upon the world.
In personal news, I am surprised and pleased to note that one of my novellas, Distances, published by the good and brave folks at Aqueduct Press, is a Tiptree honor book for 2009, as announced here. Congratulations to the Tiptree winners (Hi Greer!) and honor list authors, and to L. Timmel Duchamp (Hi Timmi!) who gets special recognition for her tremendous Marq’ssan Cycle.
Also, I have a story coming out soon in Strange Horizons. It is vaguely related to the first story I published there a long time ago, one called Three Tales from Sky River. When I first wrote that story, years ago, I imagined a woman who went from planet to planet in a far future starfaring age collecting stories like the three tales of the title. I wanted to write a story about her, but when I finally managed to write it last year, it turned out that it wasn’t just about her, and she needed a teller as well, and somehow events in 11th century C.E. India became important. In short, it got complicated, hopefully in a good way.
(Note: Post updated/corrected below)
The plotline of James Cameron’s movie Avatar is not new. The question I want to ask of the world is: what do you do when it happens in real life? For the people of a certain part of Orissa state in India, it is happening now.
Here’s the big, hungry corporation, the Korean steel giant, POSCO:
(Photo from this wikipedia site)
And here’s the opposition.
Today one of the most important meetings in the world is going on in Copenhagen: the Climate Conference, where world leaders are supposed to come up with some sort of deal to prevent a heat death of the biosphere.
Despite drowning in tons of papers to correct, I’ve been following the news and it is not good. At last reading there is a stand-off between the rich countries, who are responsible for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, and the poor countries, who are going to suffer the most from global warming. Bill McKibben has an impassioned piece about this on www.350.org. Read it: it is a great piece of writing.
Now it turns out that a top secret UN document was leaked in Copenhagen that predicts that with the deals that are now on the table, carbon dioxide levels will rise to 550 ppm, a truly unsustainable level that will cause a temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees F). For reference the safe upper limit is estimated to be at 350 ppm and we are currently at 387 ppm and rising. Read about the leaked document. Bill McKibben comments on this: “In one sense this is no secret—we’ve been saying it for months. But it is powerful to have the UN confirming its own insincerity.”
So what to do? There seems to be some evidence that public pressure works — so I’ve signed appeals from Avaaz and 350.org and Greenpeace India. I’m hoping world leaders will stretch their brains a bit beyond the ends of their noses and take the action that needs to be taken. Otherwise — you know what? The survival of the biosphere is not negotiable. As the protest banners have said, we don’t have a Planet B. So if the so-called leaders don’t come forth we’d better have a Plan B. We are living in a science fiction novel that is turning into an apocalyptic horror story. Time to brainstorm.