Who wants to wilt in an armchair when there is so much to see and love outdoors?
About mid-April we lie around complaining that we’re hot. Or hot and bothered. Even professional writers get far too hot to come up with variations on the theme. So we quote. Edward Hamilton Aitken, who lived near the northern Karnataka coast, describes himself as simmering just under the crust of a pie baking in an oven. In the plains, he points out, a person is outside the crust, though still in the oven. And the thirst he suffers is the “glutinous thickness such as troubles the throat of the office gum bottle.” An entertaining image. It doesn’t cool us down, of course, but it makes us laugh.
In this heat we especially need books that reconcile us to the assault of the seasons. In A Naturalist On The Prowl, first published in 1905, E.H.A. also describes the rains with humour, especially their effect on his books. Come to think of it, soon I must find a dry place to stash this handsome 2006 hardback edition with an introduction by Ruskin Bond. It’s dark blue and on the cover is a marsh bird pictured in the parenthetical embrace of reeds. There are plentiful illustrations for each of E.H.A.’s intimate explorations of weaver ants, barbets, caterpillars, banyan trees and other outdoor delights. Who wants to wilt in an armchair when there is so much to see and love outdoors?
E.H.A. merrily caught butterflies in a net and stuck a pin through them for his collections. Back then, there were plenty more animals, birds and insects in the forest. By the time Ruskin Bond played among the beehives and snake holes, even the sahibs had become reluctant to hunt. In his essays collected in The Book Of Nature, Bond also writes of weaver ants, barbets, caterpillars and banyans, but he seems to yearn for what might someday be lost.
For decades, M. Krishnan in his columns connected animals and plants to our cultural traditions and epics and pleaded that we leave the land alone to recuperate from our heavy sins. In one of the essays in Nature’s Spokesman: M. Krishnan and Indian Wildlife, edited by Ramachandra Guha, the naturalist jokes about the adventurous shikari style of writing versus the sedate conservator’s tone he must adopt, but, in fact, his essays are just as entertaining.
I too scribble in a diary about the snake holes along the fence, the barbets splashing in the bird bath, and the dawning realisation that I have been standing on a nest of weaver ants. I cannot possibly write as cheerily as E.H.A. did. In less than 10 years in this green neighbourhood I have seen critters disappear, and my tone would be one of downright sorrow and loss.
In their essays, all of these writers revisit the usual suspects. Weaver ants, check. Barbets, check. Caterpillars, check. Banyan trees, check. Cobras, check. No harm in checking, though. After all, someone up there was supposed to watch every sparrow that fell to earth, and now where are the sparrows?