Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Gould in Secunderabad Club

On 9 June 2013 I gave a short presentation to members of the Secunderabad Club, on the fantastic John Gould folios of The Birds of Asia that the club holds. Asif Arastu, a dear friend, has now uploaded this presentation on YouTube. There are a few gaffes in there, for which I beg the viewer's indulgence.

The talk is almost 45 minutes long, and you can view it here: The Gould in our Club.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A new review of my Birds in Books!

(Pittie, 886)… A brief nomenclature that remains one of the last vestiges of a long history of book collector/dealer jargon rapidly being lost in the book trade’s mad rush to communicate with the general public… the non-initiates, though the money spenders. A bibliophiles pride, often sighting bibliographies ad nauseam, and boasting of the long developed and hand-picked references lining the cataloguers walls. Despite the over 400 bibliographies in my own library (he casually suggests with more than a hint of bravado), the fact remains that 90% of these, and any other such collection, are little more than lists… And until yesterday, I could count on one hand the ones that really stand out as exceptional tools of the trade. Now, I will need my other hand.

Following a brief series of email exchanges with Aasheesh Pittie, it became very clear that he was a bibliographer extraordinaire and that his book, “Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology. A Bibliography (Permanent Black, 2000, Ranikhet, India)” would be helpful in my work at the very least. I also had the feeling that it would be an enticing volume of exemplary bibliography… My expectations, though high, were far from being dashed.

Arriving from New Delhi only five days after being ordered, the volume is smaller than most exhaustive bibliographies and non-assuming in appearance. But from opening the first page, it clearly becomes a giant among such works. Following the usual prelims, though with deeper detail and background than most, Pittie dives into the core of the matter. The following 739 pages document in painstaking detail 1715 titles arranged in alphabetical order. Each title begins with the bibliographic details of the publication… the total publication report of many bibliographies. But the best of this reference work is the succinct and exact text that follows. Pittie goes on to discuss content, variations of publication, and the significance of each work… matters that are so important to the collector, the researcher, and the book seller. Following this exhaustive inventory, Pittie wraps up with 57 pages of brief biographies of the authors. Throughout, the content is highly referenced, and the end of the volume finds a general index, as well as index’s of new names; and acronyms, co-authors, & co-editors.

Although I love the ornithological works of the 18th and 19th century, this is not my area of specialty. But with a reference like this one in hand, I will likely find myself moving just a little more in that direction.

Lloyd Zimmer

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Improvements in the park!

After almost a year I bought a ticket at the gate and entered Kasu Brahmananda Reddy National Park (KBR) for my morning constitutional. The ticket permits me to walk along identified paths in a part of KBR that is an unofficially designated visitor’s zone for recreational walking. Otherwise, I walk daily in the beautifully landscaped KBR walkway owned by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation’s (GHMC), which acts as a buffer zone outside the park, and runs around its circumference.
KBR has always drawn me like a thirsty camel to an oasis. It is a miraculous lung space of typical deccani greenery, in the midst of a burgeoning city. As a natural sponge it soaks up rainwater, sequestering subterranean aquifers and is the catchment for rills that recharge Banjara lake. As a natural asset it is unparalleled by anything that the GHMC’s extended real estate can boast of. A worthy rival would have been Hussain Sagar, but that has been myopically compromised. It’s once sparkling waters, teeming with fish and bird fauna have degenerated into a malodorously inert mega-cesspool that the corporation still proclaims amongst the city’s jewels.
As I warmed into my stride, the quiddity of the landscape began to sink in, for such areas allow you to unselfconsciously meld into their naturalness. There is a becalming ambience intrinsic to wilderness that enfolds you so preternaturally that you do not realize the sense of wellbeing that begins to assuage you with each passing moment. To my mind the sole reason for this is the absence of human despoliation, wherein lies the ageless strength of such landscapes, and their ability to impart solace seamlessly to the troubled.
Dozens of energetic walkers mill around me, absorbing this therapeutic atmosphere. The pros and cons of the rightness or otherwise of this pastime within KBR have been seesawed threadbare by a strong lobby of petitioning walkers and a quasi-sympathetic defendant administration, both having agreed to disagree—the law is an ass.
The contrapuntal logic of declaring a national park, with all its legal restrictions, in the center of Hyderabad is augmented by the APFD institutionalizing walker’s permits by selling annual passes and daily entry tickets. People inundate the park and the concept of carrying capacity goes for a toss. Everyone seems happy for all are ignoring the issue of over-use. There’s always space till the surface tension implodes and the forces that be fire-fight either to increase the number of paths, or physically restrict the number of walkers—lest their enthusiasm trod the park into a parade ground.
In the inevitable fallout of a wilderness area being thrown open to public access, basic civic amenities like paths, to prevent haphazard movement, and convenience areas, to avoid public nuisance and misuse, are provided—so far, so good. The trouble starts when the worthy citizenry wishes to see their surroundings improved. How can there be a path but no parallel hedgerow of foliage or flowering plants? Why not create a small lawn in front of the public convenience? What harm will some exotic flowering trees do? Who can tolerate insipid open scrubland?
While I walk, a sense of uneasiness begins to weigh down my footsteps. Something about my surroundings is out of sync and I am unable to pin it down. I stop mid-stride when the culprit suddenly hits me squarely between the eyes.
Flowering and foliage shrubs have been planted as neat hedgerows all along the sides of the walkways, a sore sight, no different from those hideous hoardings silently screaming their merchandise at commuters of the city’s roads. These saplings have been planted along all the walking trails in KBR. The icing on the cake, the grid of pipes drip-irrigating these exotics! Patches of lawn are spread here and there, and exotic flowering trees proliferate in studied sparseness. Change begins with the first deviation, after which there is no controlling the snowball.
If these ‘improvements’ enhance the beauty of the place, and consequently the pleasure of the perambulator, why am I complaining? Why am I creating a mountain out of a molehill? Because I know that no self-respecting forester, worth his roots, would have committed this sacrilege, unless his hands were forced. And worse, because a perfect environment, adapted to the vagaries of wind and water, is being stealthily modified into one that will demand copious watering and extensive horticultural maintenance, all of which require inputs from the state’s exchequer. And I am not even talking about breaking the law that this abuse of the iconic KBR landscape entails. Have we lost the concept of a sense of place, which ultimately flags our cultural maturity?
Exotics have no place inside a national park, neither in the eyes of the law, nor in the tenets of good science. Those who encourage their proliferation in our ecosystems carelessly sow the wind and depart, leaving future generations to reap the whirlwind. The rampant spread of this virus that desires to change surroundings per whim and fancy, can never be checked, for no single antibody strong enough to resist the infection exists. Do we ever stop to ponder our commitment to the land? On the one hand we uproot entire villages from our protected areas, and on the other, surreptitiously introduce the silent scourge of invasive exotics and allow them to proliferate inside.  How can we, on the one hand, ‘educate’ the translocated villager about the sanctity of an inviolable wilderness protected by national decree, but on the other, unhesitatingly agree to the uneducated whim of every interfering babu?
The genie of government machinery serves all its masters—political, judicial, administrative—with alacrity and with disdain, for the genie fears the righteous act, lest it be viewed as rebellious insubordination, and result in pecuniary and socially humiliating repercussions.
When will we sit up and notice that our mythical cycle of rebirth pales in the face of the daily tantric tango between legal-loophole and law-breaker’s lout, allowing the potential of this nation to be sucked into the drain of chalta-hai mediocrity?
There is a stealthy anarchy that stalks our streets, seeping under every door, leaching into every spirit, breaking down every bastion of integrity and righteousness, fanned by those who spawn it in the corridors of power, systematically planting seeds of that miasmic alliance into the psyche of every Indian—who has begun to think he / she is a law unto himself / herself.
Societies and nations succeed either through the use of force, or through the implementation of public will: not through lawlessness, not through fishing at legal-loopholes, not through loutish behaviour. The maladies India faces can only be remedied by public will that flowers at our threshold—the will to uproot lawlessness, to batten down legal loopholes, and to resist loutish lawbreakers.
I so wish that the forester in charge of KBR puts into practice what he knows best, persuading the ignorant do-gooders to let well enough alone, and allow him to do his job.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

When you finally decide to publish your birding notes!

There will invariably come a juncture in the life of a birdwatcher when the desire to record, for posterity, what has been seen and experienced in the field becomes almost overpowering, and that enthusiastic moment, when the observation gets transformed into the black and white cement of print, is vital for ornithology, for the note will now join the library that forms the rank and file of recorded bird study.
But when this journey of the observation, from the mind’s eye to the pen hovers over a blank sheet of paper, it does pay to pause and ponder the very process. What should comprise the framework of the note?
You would have some written notes about the encounter in your field notebook—these should form the very backbone of your paper. If you did not commit to paper or to pixel what you thought was unique and worthy of reporting, then you are on slightly shaky ground, for memory is truly a flighty bird in the bush. So always jot down as many details as you possibly can on the spot. Try and sketch the bird, if a photographic record is not possible. Do not bother about it being pretty, but always aim for accuracy of description. These are your primary data and therefore the very bedrock of your tryst with the printed page.
Once you are convinced that you have something novel to share with fellow ornithologists, you need to bolster that conviction with historical support, for science is indeed the process of building upon earlier blocks, with the inviolable premise of general integrity being the primary ethic of the ornithologist. Search published literature for more information on your theory or observation. Assess the past objectively, logically, dispassionately, and weigh in the balance of fact versus ‘flight of fancy’ whether what you thought was new is truly so. Ponder if what you observed substantially adds to the sum of knowledge. Does it provide any fresh insight? These are the points you will have to ruminate over. Perish the thought of publishing, if it is not so, treating the exercise not as one in futility, but educative.
But if it is true, then zoom out and observe the entire overall picture, to re-assess how your unique observation fits in the larger jigsaw puzzle. Once you are convinced, plunge in and try to go to the source of every available and relevant past record. If this entails delay and tribulations, so be it. For the fruit always tastes best when ripe. Summarize clearly and cogently what you have researched, for you must cite references in appropriate places to support your marshalled data. [The citations should correspond to an alphabetically, chronologically arranged bibliography listed under a references section at the end of your paper.] Do not fear if you plough up more of the field than required, for at least you will have the satisfaction of not leaving any stone unturned. Now separate the cheese from the chalk and prudently select only the most relevant references for your paper.
Conclude with a succinct discussion, about your theory or observation, to arrive at what you have deduced. This is your framework, a foundation based on fact, supported with historical documentation, and a discussion that positively clinches your point of view.
Your work is done, or so you presume. But it is only half the battle won. You need to study the ‘house-style’ of your target journal. By this I mean, begging the indulgence and presumption of the wizened, the way the journal crosses its ‘t’s and dots its ‘i’s; the way it uses capitalization; the lay of geographical terms; the style how citations are inserted; the precise method of the reference section; the taxonomic style; the English and scientific nomenclature it subscribes to, and so forth.
The best way of doing this is to look up any guidelines to authors that the journal might carry within its pages or on its website. You must also try and get a previously printed issue of the journal to help you to study the style of articles published within its covers.
When you have legitimate facts, have completed your homework, and have fully understood the house style, you are finally ready to put pen to paper. When it’s done, sleep over what you’ve written. Review it afresh. Show it to your peers and professors. Encourage constructive criticism with a view to improvement. Badger them to assess the scientific rigour and to comment on language—for your aim is to write in a way that conveys a primarily scientific or semi-scientific subject to a lay, non-scientific readership with both simplicity and accuracy. Trust me, when I say, that your harshest critic at this stage is your best friend, compared to the talons that will inevitably slash your note in the peer review, or worse, the beaks of sharp readers that will slice you like a thrush dispatching a worm.
A paper that is authentic, that has veracity, that has followed the house style of the journal, and whose language is clear and simple, immediately attracts the attention of the perpetually harassed editor, who picks it from the morass of misguided manuscripts littering the desk, joyously recognizing your efforts in making it what it is, and sending it off to one or more peer reviewers—that tribe of gurus who can be either the bane or the benediction of a manuscript, relegating it to the dreaded TO DO pile, if it is tardy, or fervently pouncing on it with zealous red-inked pens if it is not.
Revere the bloodstained shreds of your manuscript when they finally return from their dreaded baptism by editorial fire. Dress all the wounds carefully, meticulously, and lovingly—snipping, stitching and applying salve. Leave no wound unattended for it will surely fester till you are forced to nurse it back to health.
After the mandatory period of convalescence, when you sleep over your handiwork, revisit it once again, calmly and dispassionately, before marching it off once again to the editor.
When finally the printed journal is in your hands, and you see only one name in its many pages, the trauma of labour is instantly forgotten and you, once again, take up your mighty pen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: Of birds and birdsong

Of birds and birdsong. 2012. New Delhi, India: Aleph Book Company. Hardback (15 x 23 cm), pp., [1–10], 11–328. Editors: Shanthi & Ashish Chandola. 

It was my friend, Shiva, who introduced me to the writing of M. Krishnan, pointing me to his iconic fortnightly column, ‘Nature Notebook,’ in The Statesman. We were starved for nature writing in the early 1980s, and though, frankly, a wait of fifteen days between each hungrily-devoured column was surviving on starvation rations, it brought inexplicable succor to those who yearned for a glimpse into the familiar-unfamiliar world of urban and suburban wildlife; into the entirely unknown universe of forest life; into the mysterious realms of animal behaviour; into the elemental earthiness of natural history—all of which existed at a pace that defied the clock, but communicated by Krishnan in a style of writing that has endured tick-tock’s inexorable march through the decades of our lives.
There was no other naturalist of his day, as ‘compleat’ in his m├ętier as Krishnan—writer, photographer, artist, conservationist, visionary, critic, and litterateur.
I was left dumbstruck one Wildlife week, when I entered the celebratory hall and was confronted by a life-sized monochrome enlargement of a gaur, gazing at all those who entered with the still deep eyes of a creature not chained to the concept of time. Only Krishnan’s consummate skill in jungle craft could have allowed him to take that picture.
Krishnan’s pen-and-ink sketches had the character of rustic woodcuts that encapsulated the essence of the creature he depicted. He had the knack of using surroundings to enhance the grain of that essence to great effect.
Krishnan’s dry humour was legendary. When the candid Krishnan met the redoubtable Sidney Dillon Ripley Jr., he purportedly confessed, “Mr Ripley, frankly I do not know whether to believe you or not,” punning with telling effect on the syndicated column.
What is it about his writing that it has endured the fickle vagaries of time, endearing itself over the years, to a larger, hungrier readership? Krishnan’s quill was steeped in an inkpot of “quiddity”; it spoke from the leaf-littered jungle floor, it wafted from the mango-blossom scented recesses of deep shaded groves, it thrummed from the toad-croak-rippled reedy swamp margin, it swayed from the wind-swept grasslands of the Deccan Plateau, with the conviction of first-hand knowledge gained from hours spent with his wild subjects, wherever they chose to reveal themselves, be they animal, plant, bird, insect, amphibian, reptile; or be they commensals—endemic canine breeds, or cattle, or poultry.
He absorbed the living non-human world, through senses sharpened during jungle forays, when he entered realms where the only skill that mattered was alert stillness. He honed that essentiality and used it with telling effect in his art.
The editors of this delightful anthology, Shanthi & Ashish Chandola, no newcomers to Krishnan’s work, have here compiled 87 essays on birds, and summed up the collection with two biographical reminiscences on Krishnan. They deserve the birding brigade’s gratitude for resurrecting this fascinating array of Krishnan’s avian wrenditions.
To quote him, to paraphrase him, to try and improve him, are all foolish pursuits deserving MK’s caustic reprimands. All you have to do is to sit down, and read this wonderful collection of his essays on birds, where every page shines with joyous insight! To me, this beautiful volume, caped in scarlet endpapers, is as essential on my birding bookshelf, as are the field guides.

[Published in Indian BIRDS]