Why books on nature is essential art in the time of global warming

Flora, fauna, urban, rural — a host of writers from Salim Ali to Neha Sinha, Stephen Alter to Bulbul Sharma to Ruskin Bond, chronicle India’s diversity in their quest for ‘ecological truths’, especially when ‘nature’, as we know it, is at risk

Published - June 10, 2024 08:30 am IST

Painted storks in search of food at a pond near Gannvaram, Krishna District in Andhra Pradesh in April 20.

Painted storks in search of food at a pond near Gannvaram, Krishna District in Andhra Pradesh in April 20. | Photo Credit: RAO G.N.

Look back at childhood and one memory would be common to most. Drawing mountains, a sun rising past those tall sentinels, a river snaking around, throw in some coconut trees and may be a thatched hut too. This is all about nature leaving a deep imprint. Some would have drawn well, others may have struggled but irrespective of the outcome, parents would have gushed as if Vincent Van Gogh himself was in town. Now recall the first poem learnt when we were a crying mess. Yes, it was ‘Jack and Jill’, and what did they do? They went up the hill.

That perhaps remains every generation’s maiden exposure to writing about nature, even if it was just one word ‘hill’ but it made many imagine. There are all manners of putting pen to paper, or fingertips cruising on laptops, and the result could be formal prose, lines invested with poetry’s allure, words bristling with satire or coated with angst’s moisture, and in all this, writing about nature remains a magical skill.

Call of the wild

Be it fiction or non-fiction, nature has a distinctive role to play. It sets the mood, makes the reader curious, raises awareness, especially in this age of global warming. If bees turn extinct, we will die — this may sound morbid, but it is true.

Literature centred around nature is essential art. It reveals the threads that bind humanity with the flora and fauna around. Stephen Alter’s latest book, The Cobra’s Gaze, delves into nature’s myriad hues. “Every naturalist is a pilgrim in search of ecological truths,” Alter writes while registering his impressions from the rainforests in Agumbe, the hills of Kumaon and the valleys of Chambal.

The author explores the aura of the wild and its inherent vulnerabilities, while India hurtles towards rapid development and trees get axed. This has been a good season for nature-writing in India even while across the world, the genre is well evolved.

You could stumble upon a memoir like Peter Kerr’s Snowball Oranges and chance upon this passage: “An ancient well, the source of all the water on which our fruit trees depended, stood in the corner of our torrente field, almost hidden behind a particularly lush mandarin orange tree whose branches were laden with ripe, juicy fruit. I didn’t know why, but it was certainly the healthiest-looking tree on the whole farm.”

The description has a languid air, and if you want a touch of lyricism then lean on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, the 1997 Booker Prize winner, and savour these lines: “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.”

In urban spaces

To know about nature, long distances need not be traversed, because even in urban landscapes there will be slivers of verdant green supporting an ecosystem we tend to overlook. Neha Sinha’s Wild and Wilful, one of the finest expositions of nature writing by an Indian in recent times, takes the reader up close with monkeys and crows in the cities and the falcons hovering far away. “The wildness of the Leopard is a sheath, an armour and a curse,” Neha writes. These are words that make us understand nuance and ponder. Janaki Lenin too does a similar act in her collated book of columns, My Husband and other Animals.

You do have the primers too like Salim Ali’s expansive The Book of Indian Birds or Vivek Menon’s A Field Guide to Indian Mammals. These help in identifying the rich diversity around us. There is Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, that broadens perspective because often in nature-writing we obsess over living beings that move and tend to overlook our static friends offering shade, fruit and respite.

In this vast array of books, we get nuggets like Bulbul Sharma’s Grey Hornbills at Dusk that highlights nature’s delights around Delhi. Fancy the monsoon? Then dig into Alexander Frater’s Chasing a Monsoon. Closer home, sample Allan Sealy’s ode to the heavens opening up in his The Everest Hotel or Binoo K. John’s evocative book on Cherrapunji titled Under a Cloud. These are books that offer knowledge and some delightful lines.

Of forests and dragonflies

Yearning for an old town’s rustic vibe? Then look no further than R.K. Narayan’s observations about his fictional town Malgudi. Nature-writing isn’t entirely about forests, it could be just about a dragonfly traipsing under a sodium-vapour lamp in an old locality. The key is to look around. Like how Ruskin Bond does in his vast offering of prose, fiction and poems, and presciently lets a lone fox to dance in the jungle while he seeks an alternate path.

The most pithy components of nature writing offer enough food for thought, be it Khushwant Singh’s The Mark of Vishnu, that defines the gaps between faith and science, or Rikki Tikki Tavi by Rudyard Kipling.

Next time you leaf through books, remember this, nature could be lurking inside, perhaps through the entire tome or in parts, and that should make you forget the WhatsApp blue-tick and look out of the window. There is a larger world out there and the finest of nature writing reiterates this point and helps empathy seep into us.

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