How I Wonder
What - here, refers to stars, galaxies, mountains, rocks, clouds, rains…
Who - here, refers to all Life on our earth, human and non-human with the use of he/she; they/them/their pronouns.
How - here, refers to a deeper enquiry of both who, and what.
This space is an invitation to all of us. To behold, wonder, and listen to LIFE, in all its abundant forms –what stories do the natural world wish to share with us; what do we learn when we pay attention to the Indigenous world inhabiting the edges with reverence; what are the ancient stories (folks/myths) that have been orally alive for thousands of years asking of us now; and how do some parts of our modern human culture bring that wisdom into creating beautiful and elegant life-friendly designs that enrich all Life?
I invite us to sit together in-between these spaces with curiosity, openness and wonder, so we can learn and bring into our fold, ways to once again tread the earth lightly, a lot wildly, certainly more playfully, and yet a touch deeply with responsibility.
NOTE: Please read the story or listen to the audio narration above, before you watch the video snippet to see the beautiful non-humans you meet in the story
Video edit : Priyal Shah ; Photo credit : Keshav Prakash; Video credit : Parag Rangnekar & Keshav Prakash
AND NONE TURNED INTO A PRINCE, THANKFULLY
Round and round the pond we went, round and round the small shrubs growing around the pond. Peering into the pond, shining our torch on its side walls, on the leaves floating inside the water, bending so much to look down, that I even came short of falling into it. Parag Rangnekar, the naturalist, had just thrown open a challenge asking my husband and me to spot a creature, actually two of them, in the location we were standing. ‘I will give you another clue, it’s a frog’, he said with a teasing smile on his face. We were on an overnight trip to the hill station of Amboli, that lies in one of the eco-hot spots of the world, the Western Ghats, which is a two hour drive from Goa, located in the state of Maharashtra. We were keen to explore the rich crepuscular and nocturnal beings at the tail end of the monsoons, those life forms that are active in the dusk, in the night, or in the early morning hours.
Couple more minutes passed, and Parag, taking pity on us, offered another clue, `don’t look in the pond, more the shrubs’. Alright. Now our torches were shining on the leaves and branches of all the plants and shrubs growing around the pond. I was now laughing to myself, I couldn’t believe the clever creatures, how well camouflaged they were, sitting without any movement at all. `What we don’t know, we don’t see’, declared Parag who saw the two of us making zero progress. That’s an interesting thought, `what we don’t know, we don’t see’.
Much of what happens at night stays at night.
We humans are naturally diurnal species, active in the day and sleep at night. And a whole set of life forms, begin their so-called day, as we enter the twilight zone, or as the sun sets, or in the early hours of dawn, even before we wake up. To step out during these hours, means, moving out of our comfort zone into the comfort zone of other beings. If we don’t know the life forms of the night – where they live, how they live, how they look, how they behave, how they communicate, then the chances we can spot them are pretty slim.
Parag, brought us closer to a green leaf, and using the pointy end of his umbrella pointed to a leaf and said `there, there’s the Malabar Gliding Frog’.
And the two of us whispered to him rather loudly, `where, where?’, till I began paying total attention to the textures, and slowly the separation between the green leaf, and the green-coloured Malabar Gliding Frog began to reveal itself. The frog was fast asleep. The closed beady eyes that looked white in colour became my reference point to spot her again.
`No way, this has just blown my mind, my trip is so made, just seeing this one beautiful creature, finding such an excellent camouflage to spend the night’, I said, totally wonder struck. We then moved to see the other one, which was sleeping on the leaf of another plant, just as peacefully, just as smartly. Slightly bigger in size, I am guessing the second one was a male.
The Malabar Gliding frog is green with a slender body, their underside white, living in vegetation found around ponds and water bodies. They have extensive red-coloured webbing between their toes, which helps them make gliding jumps from tree tops to the base, about 10-12 feet, said to be almost 115 times their length. Their camouflage is called `cryptic coloration’ which helps them to disguise, which is what made it nearly impossible for us to spot them.
`In about an hour, they will open their eyes, and move to the top of the branch’ Parag shared, and I thought, how wonderful it would be to say `good morning dear Malabar Gliding Frogs, we could see you had a sound sleep despite us poking our noses every inch around your home’. And so we returned an hour later, to find them both wide awake, sitting on top of their respective branches, their beautiful large round eyes now open, their red-webbed toes clearly visible, and we did greet them a very good morning, shared a few words, and clicked a few more pictures. They had indeed woken up to become overnight celebrities.
Attuning our human senses to the night, takes a hell of a lot of time. It is equally interesting to observe, how the animal in me, automatically stepped into survival mode as I am not a nocturnal being, amplifying those senses that are most essential to fight, flight or freeze, which is, my sight and sound. Any slight movement, rustling of leaves, an unfamiliar sound, became known to my body much faster than smell, or touch. I also understand from this very perspective why when self-help books, or mentors, nudge us to walk the unknown, to explore what our heart’s calling is even if we don’t know where it will take us, the first response of the whole body is to fight, flight or freeze. To our ancient human body, not knowing where we are going, physically or emotionally, sounds like a big risk. Maybe the only two qualities we can tap into in such a situation is curiosity and courage. Curiosity to explore and understand as the unknown reveals itself, and the courage to take that first step, and then one step at a time, thereafter. Just like we were doing on this night trail.
Soon our eyes began to also notice that this small pond was filled with a diversity of life – Ornate narrow-mouthed frog laying eggs almost in a trance-like state; the water surface alive with several tadpoles, among which some through metamorphosis would become adult Bush Frogs; water striders darting around; dead beetles floating; some damselfly nymphs at the bottom who would one day develop wings and fly out. And like Parag mentioned, what we don’t know, we might not see, but if we do wish to explore, and step out to do so, then slowly but surely over time, things do begin to reveal themselves, like this pond.
We continued our exploration. `Oh that’s another set of mushrooms, let me photograph’ I said, as I had spent the previous week in Goa, observing different types of fruiting bodies of the mushrooms, photographing a few. Right then, Parag shone the beam of the torchlight underneath the mushrooms, revealing thin wafts of smoke emanating out of the mushrooms. ‘That’s the mushrooms releasing spores’, he said, and just watching a row of mushrooms on a tree bark, dispersing hundreds and hundreds of spores against the pitch darkness of the night, so the wind can carry it afar, and to know that very few will survive and grow its network of hyphae to find food, was nothing short of mesmerizing. The impact of the raindrops, might have burst open the sac ejecting these spores out. To observe yet another beauty in motion, had so filled me up, I was overflowing with wonder and delight.
My dear friend, Kavita, has many beautiful ways of bringing my attention to surrender and its true meaning. She shares, `You surrender the results of what you do, not the effort you put in. The effort is your responsibility’. In other words, surrender is not giving up or letting go, by doing nothing. It is doing what I need to do, and then dispersing it into the world. What survives, what thrives, is led by a larger Universal energy. That’s what the mushrooms seems to be showing me. Each of the sporangium can release up to 50,000 spores, and only very few survive eventually, but that doesn’t shift the work or the effort the mushrooms put in each season to spore. When we observe the whole carefully, we realize what finally survives and thrives from that large number seems to be sufficient to create the underground wood-wide web connecting all the trees, even keeping large forests together, across the earth. This teaches me that my joy is in the effort, in the practice, in showing up to do what I am born to do, and releasing it sincerely into the world. The surrender is in me wholeheartedly knowing the outcome belongs to a vast energy field that governs all Life, the whole. Thank you Kavita, thank you mushrooms, for showing me what ‘surrender’ is.
The calls of the bush frogs had become louder, so loud, that clearly it was their peak working hours. So we left them to do their work, planning to explore a different area now.
We now came to a small waterfall, to be received by a performance, an orchestra of whistles. Intrigued what this creature could be, as it was such a melodious tone, and from the look on Parag’s face, guessing it wasn’t a bird, we followed him, wading through the water, the sticky mud, walking on and between rocks capped with slippery moss, bending around bushes and foliage, and as we reached a particular spot, he instructed us to move very softly and quietly. He searched for a couple of minutes, and then tapped on my shoulder whispering, `do you see that long tree stump touch the stream at our 12 o clock?’. `Yes’. ‘Now move to 10.30, do you see a flat stone?’. `Yes’. `Behind that is a curved stone’. `Yes’. Observe closely, there is a really tiny frog sitting on it. And let’s not cause jerky movements’. `Yes’. Less than 2 metres away from where we were standing, outstandingly camouflaged for our eyes, was the Wrinkled Night Frog. The whistling orchestra going on indicated there are several, maybe one even next to my leg. Zooming in on my camera lens to use it like a pair of binoculars, I could see how they were filling up their stomach and lungs with air, and one could almost predict when they would whistle, as their two vocal sacs ballooned up while a melodious whistle escaped into the air. The more our eyes adjusted to this new habitat, we spotted two more of them. Oh, what an experience. Endemic to the Western Ghats, which means they aren’t found anywhere else, these freshwater streams birthing from such waterfalls, is the habitat of the Wrinkled Night Frogs. Every element of nature we made our way through – water, rocks, sticky mud, the thick bushes, is their specialized micro-ecosystem of survival and growth. They sit on those rocks to be seen and heard by the females, they lay eggs on the sides of the rocks, or on the branches of trees that grow over the stream, and the tadpoles that develop within these clutches fall straight into the water stream below after hatching, and become adults in that stream, and continue this cycle.
Quoting David Abram from the book `Becoming Animal’, he says: ‘It’s weird, you know, the way so many people accept the notion that stone is inanimate, that rock doesn’t move. I mean, really, this here cliff moves me every time that I see it.’
How well said. How true.
The several rocks that lined the stream inside and along, big and small, had Wrinkled Night Frogs perched on them, whistling. The rain, the water, weather, rock, air, were each breathing life into them, offering life to life. None of these looked inert or inanimate. I sensed their aliveness through the frogs, and sensed the aliveness of the frogs through them. Without them, the frogs aren’t. Without them, we aren’t. How then are they inanimate, inert, I wonder. In this tiny microhabitat, they seem to be in one big dance, together. Ancient texts, sacred chants and prayers by our ancestors, the rituals of the many Indigenous Peoples still celebrate mountains, rocks, rain, weather, air, as Life, and as I stood amidst them all, soaking up this mega orchestra, I felt my heart dancing and in deep worship too.
`The trail for the night shall only conclude, once I have seen the Malabar Pit Viper. If it means the whole night, so shall it be’, I had long declared. I love snakes, and sense them to be my main guardian totem. The Malabar Pit Viper is a venomous pit viper species, also endemic to the Western Ghats. Known to live in riparian forest habitats, the chances of spotting them during monsoons in Amboli was much higher, said the internet, creating that desire. As it was pretty late into the trail, Parag decided that we start the search for this, and our torch lights got working on branches of trees growing above the streams, along water bodies that lined the trails, as the Malabar Pit Viper is known to inhabit such spaces to prey upon frogs, who visit the water bodies. How strange it felt to move from admiring the frogs, to now searching for its predator. Strange beings, us humans.
Up and down we went, as minutes passed, and suddenly Parag said, `I think I spotted’, and Parag is such a seasoned naturalist that we were already in deep admiration of his ability to see and find what was right on top of our head, below our feet, few inches away, glaring into our face, that I am convinced he is both diurnal and a nocturnal being. This was a splendid sighting yet again. And there she was, (I shall call her `she’ as Parag said it was difficult to ascertain whether this was a male or female). Slender and coiled around a thin branch, maybe about 2 feet in length, with uneven brown and green scales, we could see the triangular shape of her head, facing the opposite side. Since pit vipers also have large heat sensing pits between their nostril and the eyes, and can detect the heat from a warm-blooded prey, we kept our safe distance. Slow to move, and fast to strike, we were told. This ambush predator, can sit for days and weeks together in the same spot, conserving every bit of energy, until a prey comes along. Since they don’t move much, they need less to eat, and what they eat, sustains them for long because they don’t move around unnecessarily. What intelligent evolution!
There are days when so much of my precious energy leaks with unwanted repetitive thought patterns, or a certain restlessness, or being in a haste to finish something, that very less energy remains to do what really fulfills me. Each time I observe members of the reptile family, such as these, I find myself aligning to their stillness, finding clarity to prioritize where my energy is best spent in a nourishing manner, learning to be patient and trust what I need to experience, will come. But when it does come, only if I am alert, aware, present, ready, and have the energy, can I see, smell, sense and use the opportunity. For the Pit Viper, evolution over millions of years has taught them how best to manage their energy, in relation to their needs and what the environment offers. Can I learn to ask myself – How can I use my energy today? How can I spend it in a way that is useful to me, nourishing to me, fulfilling to me? And when I spot a leak, can I plug it soon enough? Can I make this choice, natural to my Reptilian brain?
‘Now,’ said the two human males, Parag and Keshav, rather unanimously, ‘time to wrap for the night’. But Parag added, ‘tomorrow early morning, I have a minimum of two more treats for you both before we head back to Goa’. Ooooh.
You see, I find it very hard to sleep on such nature trips, with all that enthusiasm in my bones. Outdoors is my home, but like the Pit Viper, I had to calm down, and manage my energy, and so agreed to wrap. Already the night trail, had also offered the Leap frog, Skittering frog, Cricket frog, Ornet Narrow-mouthed frog, Tarantula, Hitler’s bug, Blister Beetle, Mayflies, a stunning Orange Awlet butterfly, Common Mormons, Blue Mormons, Banded Lizard, a dazzling black-orange coloured centipede, and we got to meet so many beings of this Earth, we hadn’t before.
Cut back to the three of us, early next morning, at the same waterfall where we had spotted the Wrinkled Night Frog the previous night. My heart was racing – what now, who now, when now, how now? Parag in his signature style, was running his keen eyes at the ground level. During the drive to the waterfall he mentioned that the intention was to spot the Northern Dancing Frog, as this is their mating season. The Northern Dancing Frog was first discovered in Amboli, as recently as in 2014. Again an endemic to the Western Ghats, he explained that due to its weak call, it prefers the early morning hours when most of the other frogs have retired. And since his croaking is rather weak, he also has a signature dance move. The fairly quiet morning hours by the stream are just right for the female to both hear, and to see his display.
Isn’t it a marvel how evolution works, creating time and space for every single species to survive and thrive? Imagine, this frog has evolved to find that time of the day, to be both seen and heard, given the context in which he lives. We continued to hear the faint croaking, and suddenly Parag’s excited voice, `Look, look, right there, on the rock ahead of us’, he pointed, and with our eyes now fairly tuned, we immediately could spot the Dancing Frog. A really tiny frog, we all sat around it, to not miss the chance of its signature dance move, a display called `foot-flagging’. As we caught the step, we were so amused and elated with his very Michael Jackonsique breakdance move, that I now wished to see this again and again. I don’t know about the other females, but he sure had all my attention. After a few seconds of croaking, he pulled one of his hind legs into his body, gave it a sharp twist, and then kicked it at a sort of 45 degree angle, holding it for just a moment in the air, before bringing it down. Then he paused, probably caught his breath, or waited for a female like me to want to see it again, and repeated the croak, and then the move with his other leg. Very soon, we saw another male, perched right on top of a rock in front of him. We were to see two displays, two dance moves, one after another. A double treat.
After capturing a few photographs, after my heart fell for the first one, after feeling deeply grateful, I said goodbye to them, jealous of all the females.
To trust, to have faith, that amidst all the sounds, all the senses, amidst all the offerings, amidst all the talents, amidst all the beings, the minute we are on this Earth, it automatically holds a space for each of us. We can be tiny or big, it can be night or day, dusk or dawn, sight or sound, land or mountain, water or tree, sky or ocean, if we believe we have a standing, just like these Northern Dancing Frogs, how would we respond? That humans didn’t discover this Dancing Frog till 2014, that we didn’t name them till 2014, doesn’t mean they didn’t live, that they didn’t dance, that they didn’t mate, that they didn’t enjoy the gifts of their habitat. They still don’t know they have a name, how liberating is that! Do we stop being, if there isn’t a name, if we aren’t discovered? We are a species of this Earth, of this abundance, isn’t that enough, the Dancing Frog seems to be offering me. How utterly insightful, you beautiful one. Thank you.
Though time to make our way back to Goa, we made one more pit stop, to see if we could find the Amboli Toad. Discovered in 2009, and endemic only to the Amboli part of the Western Ghats, it is already critically endangered. Inhabiting just a 10 square kilometer habitat, it continues to face the threat from speeding vehicles, rapidly changing climate, and declination in the extent and quality of the habitat. With their mating season over, Parag wasn’t very sure we would spot them as easily, given our timeframe. But we did, thanks to Mother Earth and Mr. Parag. If we believed we had until then seen some masters or mistresses of camouflage, the Amboli Toads were exceptional. About 1-1.3 inches in size, as soon as they sensed our movement, they crawled and seamlessly merged into the little crevices of the black rocks, staying motionless, and the texture on these dark rocks, matching the dark and rough texture of this toad’s skin, meant, even if we knew they were right there, once hidden, only our luck could spot them again.
The Amboli Toads, like the Dancing Frogs, like many other species, continue to be discovered by naturalists, scientists, researchers, wildlife enthusiasts, in the Western Ghats, month after month, year after year, that what this rich place holds, is both India’s and the world’s gift.
Today, scientists estimate that there are about 8 billion forms of life on our earth. As humans, we have only identified and described about 1.2 million so far. Which means over 80% of Life on earth continues to be a mystery to us, and we might be a mystery to them. And isn’t this also the beauty of life, the not knowing, the mysterious, that the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts we know?
But the 1.2 million we have managed to see, identify and understand, can teach us young human species so much. Dr. Janine Benyus, the Biomimicry expert, offers a very beautiful perspective, `Learning about the natural world is one thing. Learning from the natural world – that’s the switch. That’s the profound switch’.
If the 8 billion we do not know have created space for us all to croak, whistle, sing, display, mate, survive and thrive, can we do our part to hold space for them to also croak, display, whistle, foot-flag, survive and thrive, and through this caring and sharing, learn from one another?
And so ended the journey from dusk to dawn – full of life, full of love, full of sporing mushrooms, full of lessons from the Pit Viper, Dancing Frogs, Wrinkled Night Frogs, and several other creatures, full of aliveness in the rocks, streams, waterfalls, hills, full of learning from my own animal body, full of gratitude for the Amboli’s inexhaustible life and finally, full of gratitude that none of the frogs I fell in love with turned into any Prince.
May together we make the profound switch from `learning about the natural world, to learning from the natural world’.
May we thrive as one big family.
Thank you for listening. Please do share what came up for you as you accompanied me on this overnight exploration. If these beautiful creatures evoked anything for you, it would be lovely to hear about it.
Deep gratitude to Parag, for guiding us with his full heart.
Please don’t forget to watch the little video snippet put together, so you can meet the beautiful non-humans who make this post.