Review of Yuvan Aves’ Intertidal — A Coast and Marsh Diary: Hungry tides

Yuvan Aves on the need to hold on to the fraying wealth of connections between humans and the natural world

March 29, 2024 09:02 am | Updated 09:02 am IST

On one side lies Yuvan Aves’ Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary; on the other is an advertisement for a township proclaimed to be “Chennai’s Switzerland”. The words that catch my eye are “100% Flood Free Area”.

Since the floods of 2015, the citizens of Chennai keep a wary eye on the sky every time clouds gather. Often, when talking about heavy rains, local weather bloggers will add a “will not cause flooding” clause. But the intertidal is an area that undergoes periodic flooding during high tides. Aves compares this with the flooding of the human mind, as he combines his explorations of the coastal and marshy areas of the city he calls home with his growth as a teacher, nature educator, activist and author.

Period of healing

I am almost reduced to tears by his opening passages describing the Urur Kuppam beach, where I spent quite a bit of my childhood. The Prologue is hard to read; the account of the physical and mental abuse Aves endured as a child is stomach churning. When he turns 16, Aves decides to run away. Fortunately, he makes his way to his school director, who offers him a way out. The next five years, which he spent at Pathashaala School, were “a period of healing but also of recasting the meaning of my own suffering and changing its architecture within me.”

Interestingly, the chapters all have the word ‘meditation’ in the title: Ocean Meditation, Tree Meditation and so on. As you read, you can see why. While recording his observations, Aves also offers readers a way to engage not just with the book but also with the world around them. Even as you enter a world you have probably never seen before through his words, you can also recognise the impact of your own actions on that world.

Take, for example, this passage about decorator worms: “I find another worm in Velan’s boat with a different sense of style. It has used a bit of green plastic from a single-use bag; blue plastic from a tarpaulin sheet; thick clear packaging from an Amazon parcel; black plastic from a meat bag; a piece of betel-nut sachet and a Sunsilk shampoo sachet; then some shell fragments, sea-fan bits and nylon strands. It wears what it has found and liked in its corner of the seabed. The fashion sensibilities of the decorator worm are changing.” A telling statement on plastic pollution in the marine environment.

‘Rain meditation’

An evocative passage takes me back to my early days in Anaikatti, when the power would go off during the rains and I would practise what Aves calls “rain meditation”. I make a mental note to try it again and then it strikes me: I don’t have to wait for the rain. This is a form of meditation that can be practised any time. What it involves is to slow down your thoughts and enter the world around by opening your senses.

Despite the impact of urbanisation and industrialisation on Chennai’s landscape, Aves’ accounts show us the wealth of connections between humans and the natural world. Connections we are letting go off. This book is a reminder to hold fast to those fraying threads and to strengthen them so that we preserve not just the earth but also our own sanity.

Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary; Yuvan Aves, Bloomsbury, ₹699.

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