Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Nature

From the Humble to the Tall

The Grass
Plastic under numbers of feet
Rises up immediately
Hearty and healthy
Ever happy ever fit
Silvery or rufous, mostly green
Under all weather young and serene
Hardy and tenacious
Born to help others
Without any fuss
The tall and humble grass.
It is time for the ego to go
To bloom silently and flow.

Just a few leaves, one or two stems and a seed-head, a very light body, that
is grass, very humble under the feet of any moving creature. But the tallest bamboo, which raises its head to the sky, is also a grass.
Wheat, rice, maize, sugar- all are grasses. Herbivores live on grasses and carnivores live on herbivores. Almost all lives depend on grass, directly or indirectly. The milk we drink is given by cattle or goat, the herbivores. This human life would be intolerable without grass. From the equator to the arctic snow, different types of grasses ensure better life for others, maintain ecological balance. The grasses serve even after death. Decayed grass root network beneath the soil is converted into humus, a power-pack of life. The primary level of anything is grass root. Fact is, we would not be able to live without grass.
Let us see how literature flourished in the background of grass and grassland. Savitri’s life was the growth of a flame. She was an immortal spirit in mortal frame. Attaining her youth, she found no earthly mate around her.
‘No equal heart came close to join her heart,
No transient earthly love assailed her calm,
No hero passion had the strength to seize;
No eyes demanded her replying eyes.’
(Sri Aurobindo. Savitri. SABCL; Vol-29. p.367)

‘Midst those encircling lives her spirit dwelt
Apart in herself until her hour of fate.’ (ibid. p.368)
She went out in quest of her mate, as if impelled by heart and soul. As her chariot halted in the fated spot, she felt deeply attracted to it.
‘As if a wicket-gate to joy were there
‘And slowly a supine inconstant breeze
Ran like a fleeting sigh of happiness
Over slumberous grasses pranked with green and gold.’
(ibid. p.392)
As she cast her glance-
‘It saw the green gold of the slumbrous sward,
The grasses quivering with the slow wind’s tread,
The branches haunted by the wild bird’s call.’ (ibid. p.394)
Satyavan ‘…appeared against the forest verge
Inset twixt green relief and golden ray.’ (ibid. p. 393)
‘Marvelling he came across the golden sward:
Gaze met close gaze and cling in sight’s embrace.’(ibid.p.396)
Then ‘Amazed by a joy for which they had waited long,
The lovers met upon their different paths,
Travellers across the limitless plains of Time.’
. . . .
‘A moment passed that was eternity’s ray,
An hour began, the matrix of new Time.’ (ibid. p.399
In Sri Aurobindo’s immortal epic Savitri the fated meeting between the two immortal lovers took place over a vast and dazzling grassland in the bosom of the wood.
Nature lovers and poets, particularly Nature-Poets and writers, having deep affinity with nature, ever loved grass and grassland. We remember Wordsworth, who rambled years after years on dales and fells of the Lakeland. Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay moved on horse back through forest and grassland of Lobtulia under the moonlit sky. Poet Jibanananda Das loved nature in all its aspects. His poems are replete with love for grass and trees, in seasons like autumn in particular. In a mood of reverie he wrote,
‘Some time this life will become grass in the fields
Under the blue sky, in an autumn morning.’ (A free translation from Aei Shanti; Dhusar Pandulipi)
In another poem (Niralok; Mahaprithivi) he wrote-
‘The evening sky is full of stars- this night sky;
Here I am lying in this shadow-mixed grass of the spring;
Death is better now- this grass caresses my body.
Vaishnavites considered that to be more patient than tree, to lie lower than the grass, is a particular trait of human character.
When we go to the Nobel laureate Russian writer Mikhail Sholokov, we see how he loved his native grassland, the steppe.
‘The feather-grass has ripened. For verst upon verst the steppe is clad in its shimmering silver. The wind treads springily across it, rustling and lifting its plumes, driving the bluish-grey opaline waves now south, now west. Where the air flows in a shady stream, the grass bows penitently and a darkening trail lingers long on its grizzled humps….
‘The moon is a dry salt marsh and in the steppe there is nothing but dryness and withered grass, vibrant with the ceaseless frenzied piping of the quails and metallic twang of the grass hopers.
‘The days are all heat….In the steppe the feather-grass shines blindingly, overpoweringly bright and the hot camel-brown turf smokes in the heat; the kite dips a wing as it glides amid the blue and its huge shadow sweeps silently across the withered grass beneath.
‘The susliks whistle languidly and huskily. The marmots doze on the fresh yellow diggings around their burrows. The steppe is hot but dead, the whole scene translucently still; even the dark-blue burial mound on the horizon is poised on the brink of the visible, as magical and elusive as a dream…
‘Beloved steppe! …. Beloved steppe beneath the low-hanging sky of the Don! The windings of your dry valleys, of your red-clay ravines, the feather-grass expanses, pitted with grass-grown nestlike hoofmarks, the ancient mounds guarding in wise silence the buried Cossack glory… I bow low and, as a son, kiss your fresh sweet earth, steppe of the Don, steeped in untrusting Cossack blood!’ (Quiet Flows the Don. Volume.2. pp.56-57.Moscow; Raduga Publishers.1984)
There is hardly a man on earth, even when he is a thorough Kensington, who has not seen and liked a piece of grassland, either consciously or unconsciously. Years back, when I was hunting for a home in a metropolis, a small patch of grass between the tall houses induced me to immediately settle down there for a flat.
Grass is a very common name under the family poaceae, which has some 10000 species, both annual and perennial. It is one of the four great terrestrial biomes. The others are forest, desert and tundra. From a very ancient time, from the age of dinosaurs, as the scientists say, the grass has been on earth. Tenacious, adaptable, fast-growing, efficient and tough, it is there, covering one fourth of the earth’s surface, despite continuous human activity, which dwindles its existence and dwarfs its growth.
Grass evolves very fast with the changing conditions. Anywhere after rains grows the grass with weeds. The growth of a few centimetres in a few hours is quite common. Its growth and existence depend on its tenacity. A tenacious colonizer, its seeds spread in the air. In its hook form it attaches itself to animal’s hair and body. Some of the seeds survive the digestive juice of the animals and give birth to plants, after excreted.
Let us see how the life of grass has appeared to a discerning poet-
‘Only grass grows on earth, carelessly accepting sun and rain, feeding on the soil’s life-giving juices, and humbly bowing before the storm’s destructive breath. And then, having scattered its seed to the winds, just as carelessly dies, welcoming with the rustle of its withered leaves the death-dealing rays of the autumn sun.’ (Mikhail Solokhov. Quiet Flows the Don. Moscow; Raduga.Vol-2. p.265)
Its production in Kenya and other African grasslands is prolific- 1000 kilos per square km
After the rains Serengeti is full of grasses to sustain other lives.
Every year a breath taking 1.5 million wildebeest, 60000 zebras and antelopes migrate to East African savanna grassland. I had the fortune of beholding the march of thousands of wildebeests from Tanzania to Ambasoli, Kenya, when I was there. Lions roll and loll. They get a prey any time they wish. They too migrate during the festival of grasses, following their preys.
Among the great grasslands of the world, we may mention woody savanna of Africa, Asia’s high steppes, particularly in Russia and China, tall prairie in USA, savanna in Brazil, Patagonia steppe in Argentina, different types of grasses, particularly bamboos in China, Japan and India, South West Australian shrub lands and woodlands. Among the grasslands of Indian subcontinent, mention may be made about sewan in Western Thar Desert, Banni in Saurashtra, Baasoor Kaval in Karnataka, Himalayan and Tibetan plateau. Western Rajasthan has steppe formation and the Deccan has savanna formation. And who will forget, among other things, the undulating white catkins of the tall kash in riverbanks, at the time of Durga Puja in Bengal? Apart from the natural growth of different types of grasses at different regions of the world, men have planted grasses of one area to another.
Apart from grazing, grasses are used for various other purposes. Medicinal purpose is one of them.
It is often observed that domestic carnivores like cats and dogs eat grasses to cure stomach and other diseases. Even tigers and lions in the wild take the help of grasses under the pressure of different ailments.
One such grass with high value medicinal properties, is known in India in various names like durba, doob, khariali, arugum pullu, bahama grass, couch grass, dog grass, bermuda grass, twitch grass, etc. Its botanical name is cynodon dactylon. It is known to the humans and animals from ages, as it is the staple food of some animals like horse, goat, rabbit and deer.
It contains chlorophyll, protein, mineral salt, ash, fibre, potash, calcium phosphorus and other chemicals necessary for bodybuilding. It gives strength to nerve. A regular ingestion of its juice cures many ailments. Even a walk over it gives new life to one’s lungs and strengthens his power of immunity. It is alkaline hence anti-acidic. It is good for teeth, eyes and stomach. Its juice has sweetness.
It is said that Lord Ganesha’s burning stomach was cured by durba. So it is offered to him during Puja. It is widely used in India for holy rituals. It has spiritual connotations.
Many are the everyday-use products made out of grasses. Madur grass in West Bengal and Kora grass in South India are regularly used for making mats. Masland and sitalpati of Midnapur district of West Bengal are finer grasses. Mats made out of them are well received in other parts of the country and abroad. Broom grass (thymolacna maxima) grows in Meghalaya. Brooms are in common use in our country. Savahi grass in Orissa is used to manufacture furniture. Buskets, trays, curios, coasters, dolls, toys and other utility items are produced from munj, sikri and bamboos. Tripura, Assam and other North Eastern provinces in India have specialized in making such items.
Bamboo is a perennial grass, belonging to bamboosoideae sub-family of graminea family. There are some 1200 species of it, of which India has 136 species. India has the largest bamboo forests, mostly concentrated in the North-East; Meghalaya, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur account for some 58 species.
According to Forest Survey of India, 2003, bamboo covers 96 million hecatares or about 12.8 per cent of the total forest area. 10 million people depend on bamboo for a livelihood. Current demand for bamboo has been estimated at 26.69 million tonnes against a supply of 13.47 million tones. It can change the economy of a region, if properly cultivated and used. Of the various uses of bamboo a few are- making furniture, flooring, scaffolding, housing, road and bridge making. Herbivores like elephants eat bamboo leaves and rodents eat its seeds. Many such products are classified under cottage industry. The underground rhizome and secretion of the plant-tabasheer- are used as medicines. Bamboo shoot is a Chinese delicacy.
From the ancient age people have been using bamboo. It is very favourite with the tribal people. Chinese were the first to use bamboo for various purposes. Not only paper, they made books out of it. Bamboo huts and bamboo-bridges over streams are quite common in China and Japan. Bundles of fibres run through the culm, held together by the plant’s pith. Bamboo is the symbol of freedom, strength and resistance. It is the fastest growing grass.
Excepting a few, bamboos exhibit monocarpic flowering behaviour. They die after flowering. Tiny flowers are borne on compound inflorescence, which gives birth to seeds after pollination. With some species the flowering occurs after 40, 50 years. Some of them live 120 to 150 years. Bamboo flowering is a great affair.
Bamboos of the same species, wherever they are, flower at the same time. Entire bamboo forest burst into flower and after seeding they die, as if they commit mass suicide. It is considered to be a bad omen in many places, particularly in North-East India. Experience says that eating the protein-rich seeds, rodent population increases enormously and when the seeds are exhausted, they run to the fields and granaries and eat crops, which results in famine.
Bamboo checks soil erosion. After its death landslide occurs. Mizoram Government declares incentives for killing rats at that time. Such things happened there in 1976, 1978 and 1992. Next bamboo flowering was expected in India in 2003-2004.
Talking about bamboo, we remember some hair-raising common tales circulating in remote villages, where bamboo groves abound. Not only snakes, lizards, thieves and robbers take shelter in it, but also ghosts are often seen, living there or coming out of it. Children are scared to cross such groves in the evening.
There are numbers of very ornamental grasses, reeds and bamboos, which may acquire a place of pride in any garden. But very few are cultivated except the lawn grass. A few such good plants are mentioned below but one should know that overgrowths or hollow-cut stumps of bamboo bushes, like untrimmed hedge and unweeded shrubbery, may become a hiding place for rodents and reptiles, an abode of snakes.
Among the adorable bamboos, the following few may be mentioned. A.chrysantha, A.fortunei, A.japonica, B.pygmaea are Japanese bamboos and B.eutuldoides, B.gracellima, B.ventricosa (Buddha’s Belly bamboo), Phyllostachys aurea (golden bamboo) are natives of China. B.vulgaris originated in India, Africa, Java, Central and South America and West Indies.
P. heterocycla or tortoise shell bamboo and P. nigra or black bamboo (China
And Japan) also may be included in the list.
Agrostis (with about hundred species of flowering grasses), A.elegans, A.nebulosa or cloud grass, Cartaderia argentea or Pampas Grass, papyrus antiquorum or Papyrus or Egyptian paper reed, Briza media or common quaking grass and Tricholaena rosea or natal grass, Andropogon or Lemon Grass are some of the grasses which may adorn a garden.
If grass among plants is symbol of freedom, movement and self-reliance, nomads among men are the best representatives of such qualities. In their support one Graham Harvey in his Field of Grasses wrote, ‘Nomadic pastoralism has been described as one of the greatest advances in the evolution of human civilization. It is an adaptation by human groups to grassland areas of the world where extensive livestock production is more supportive of human culture than cultivated agriculture.’ (As quoted in Gobar Times, Down To Earth. June 30, 2003)
The famous Huns were nomads. In India Maldharis of Saurashtra, Rabaris of Kutch, Charans and Ahirs of Western India and Gajjars, Bakarwalas, Gaddis and Lepchas in the Himalayas are the known nomads for centuries. In India six per cent of the population are nomadic in nature. They have a thorough knowledge about the ecology of the arid grassland. They utilize the animals and the grassland in the most economic way. They are one of the very efficient communities in their own area of activity.
The march of civilization has inevitably invaded the grasslands everywhere, as the forests have been dwindled. Pastoralism, once considered the best way to use fragile ecosystem, has now been confined to 41 per cent of the arid and semi arid areas of the world. The age of nomads, mendicants and vagabonds have been much restricted though not ended. Though India supports a seventh of cattle and goat population of the world with a fortieth of its land. It has only five per cent of its land for the production of fodder, as against 60 per cent in USA, it has been reported. But one thing to be remembered in this context is that they harbour and feed such animals to eat them. They eat more animals than cereals and vegetables. The position is still quite different in India.
Grasslands are under tremendous pressure. Humans are encroaching upon them, turning them to croplands or urbanizing them. As a result, more number of animals than before, graze in the same patch of land. Food supply is restricted for them. Wildlife is becoming extinct. Baasoor Kaval in Karnataka is an example. The area of grassland in Rajasthan fell from 11.3 million hectares to 8.7 million hectares in 1977-78. It has been further reduced since then.
Bandipur National Park, with an area of 880 square kilometer is a part of 5500 km Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. It has been reported than 1.5 lac people live in the peripheri of the park, drawing upon the forest resources for their sustenance. They draw 2.50 lac kgs of firewood everyday and 1.5 lac livestock graze on the forestland, reducing the share of the large Asiatic elephants and other wild herbivores.
‘The rate of degradation has reached such astounding poroportions that it has become impossible for the Park to sustain any longer,’ the concerned persons have written. Through an NGO, Namma Sangha, they have planned to donate LPGs to the people who are depleting the jungle resources, to check the cutting of trees. But Can they check grazing?
This is happening everywhere- a fight between the rightful dwellers of the jungle and the men. Marauding humans rove round the world to plunder whatever is available anywhere. This is happening in the North-East of India, in Kerala, in Sunderban of West Bengal and elsewhere. Much has been said in favour of adivasis, the original residents of the forests, but most of those who plunder the forests now are not the originals residents of the woods, who were considerate of their surrounding nature, on which they were dependents. The position is almost the same elsewhere.
75 per cent of the Russian and Chinese grasslands, the Asiatic steppe, has been degraded over the past 50 years due to adoption of sedentary grazing methods, mixed with arable farming. Mongolian grassland is also threatened for over grazing. The steppes support 30 million livestock. Over grazing is turning Patagonia steppe in Argentina to desert.
If we are too complacent as man about our scientific and technological achievements, if we are too eager to turn everything in nature to our benefit, we may one day lose the bounty of nature. Some day it may be that we will be too thirsty to see a verdant patch of land, to sit or walk over it. Some day it may be that we become too sophisticated humans to forget what is verdure. Ere we lose, let us be grass-minded, wood oriented.
The story of grass we have discussed, from the tallest bamboos to the tiniest green grasses, but the story does not end if we do not remember a man, who was always a humble servant of the divine in his heart, who often carried in his hand a bunch of very light grasses with airy panicles of branching spikelets bearing minute flowers, of green hues changing to maroon (Sporobolus capillaries), to be offered at the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. No, there was no restriction to offer such flowers there during his lifetime. He was bent with age, bent-neck, unique with immaculate white attires, including head cover. But he loved to walk and walk with a smiling face, offering that bunch of grass to anyone, whose birthday he happened to attend. Like many other flowers, receiving new-names for them from the Mother, this tiny grass flower received its spiritual significance from her, Humility.
We often found that grass with flower, here and there, unasked for in our garden and sometimes offered a bunch of it complaisantly to him. He became happy to carry it to the Samadhi. He was Birenda, Biren Palit, who came in his early youth from distant Chittagong (Chattagram), now in Bangladesh and settled in Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry forever, though he sometimes remembered his native place with misty eyes.



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