From the Notebooks of a Bird Watcher

Even in a bustling city like Chennai (south India) one can come across small pockets of greenery. Among the less noted ones is the Madras Christian College Campus in East Tambaram. I recall with a tremendous sense of nostalgia the days and nights I used to wander along the many footpaths that criss-cross this amazing piece of green land in the late seventies and early eighties. I am also now amazed at the amount of bird and insect life I have recorded in the small pocket diaries I used to carry during those days. I have among my old papers a short write-up – among the many such–of those days that I presented as a record of natural history activities at one of our monthly get-togethers in Trivandrum–that small town tucked away deep down in south India .  We had a small group of enthusiastic naturalists and amateur birdwatchers and our society was registered as the Kerala Natural History Society, presided over by none other than the pioneer of bird study in our part of the world—Prof K.K. Neelakantan (@ Induchoodan). Among the many field activities of our society was this monthly meeting at every last Saturdays of each month when we shared notes and reports. As a youngster I used to look forward eagerly to these evenings. I have now before me one of my early papers where in I had waxed eloquent about the Madras Christian College Campus. These days when we celebrate Wild Life Week and World Bird Watch Day, it is in the scheme of things that we also cast a backward glance at our past.

This beautiful campus situated about 15 kilometers south of Madras is an interesting place for the bird watcher.   Indeed he can spend days on end wandering through the many forest footpaths or tracks that run through the 300 acre scrub and thorny jungle.  Continuous with the Vandalur reserve forest, this wonderful piece of wilderness was once mostly undisturbed except for occasional clearings for the college buildings, hostels, playground etc. In fact it is in and around the clearings that the amateur bird watcher spots his heart’s desire.

Large flocks of white browed Bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus) occur near the footpaths or among adjacent bushes searching for food, frequently bursting forth into loud rattling calls. The Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicata) with its conspicuous wing-patch and rusty red under-tail coverts frequents the fringe of the jungle and open grassy patches. It is a more quiet bird. By far the most widely distributed and fairly commonly seen bird of the campus is the Indian Spotted Dove.  Apart from these the more vociferous and vocal birds of the early dawns and late evenings are the Ioras, the Coppersmith Barbets, the Red Vented and Red Whiskered Bulbuls, and the White headed Babblers.

Hoopoe and the Black Drongos are found around the tennis courts and the cricket grounds. I have come across many a cup-shaped nest on a forking branch often about 20 feet off the ground, with the Drongo parent bird sitting on its eggs, tail hanging limply over the edge!

I did frequently meet with the shy and silent Green Billed Malkoha (Rhopodytes viridirostris) in the thick scrub bordering the cricket grounds.  It was seldom seen in the open, always skulking in the bushes, much a Crow Pheasant, but never once descending to the ground. One hot summer midday, seeing a long, graduated, white tail disappearing into a bush, I moved closer quietly to investigate.  And the bird froze. The heavy bright and green bill and the sky blue eye patch confirmed its identity. The bird is really good and adept at disappearing rapidly through the bushes.

Another bird of the thorny bush was the Common Hawk Cuckoo (Cuculus varius). One day hearing its loud screams rising in crescendo I hastened to the spot.  The bird the size of a pigeon, but more slender and with broadly barred tail was perching on an exposed branch.  Its cry rose: brainfever…brainfever…brainfever….Suddenly on catching sight of me the scream stopped halfway. The bird watched me for some time and then with heavy wing beats flew off in to the next bush.

The pied crested Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) is a local migrant in these parts.  I usually met with this beautiful black and white bird that haunted the open thorny patch on the western edge of the campus.  It is not normally a shy bird and is really quite a handsome sight with its black crest.  I have often listened to its metallic call peepipiu…ringing across the fields. Once or twice I have recorded the Grey Patridge and Blackbreasted Rain Quail.

Further west in the campus there was a great Baya Colony on palm trees. This was a centre of great activity.  The entire palm was covered with quaint hanging nests—a remarkable sign of instinct and craftsmanship. Unfortunately I was never able to record a whole day’s activity under the bustling colony. However I could observe some interesting factors in their community life. I remember having collected a number of half completed and discarded nests. In those days I did not understand the significance of these thrown away nests.  Much later I came to understand how the males first began the nest-building activity; when it was half completed the female would join him and together they would complete it. However, if by any chance there were no female takers the male abandoned the half done nest and moves on to the next.

There are no records of the Common or Jungle Crows or the otherwise ubiquitous Small Green Barbet anywhere in my notes of those days. They are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps that would go a long way to establish the pristine quality of the campus of those day—with little debris or garbage!  Among the other birds I have recorded are the following–

Small Minivet

Pariah kite

Blackwinged kite


Magpie robin

Golden backed woodpecker

Tailor bird

Rose ringed parakeet

Wren warbler

Black headed Oriole

Shikra hawk

Brahminy or Black headed myna

from the notebooks of a birdwatcher
Brainfever photo by S Murali

I have recorded that on 14th June 1979 early dawn while I was just entering the campus from its eastern gate I heard a harsh croak of a Night Heron to my right.  The bird was apparently sitting on a low branch of a thorny tree spreading over the path from the left and disturbed by my sudden appearance had taken off to my right where there was a big patch of thick undergrowth and thorn. (Much later when I published my first volume of poetry I titled it Night Heron) Cautious, watching my steps, I tried to follow the bird, but then found it wasn’t necessary.  Even from where I stood I could spy the swaying tops of the trees that were virtually covered with roosting birds.  There were Pond Herons (Ardeola grayii) Little Egrets(Egretta garzetta) Night Herons(Nycticorax nycticorax) and to my pleasant surprise the Indian Reef Herons(Egretta gularis).  I cannot find any records of having sighted any Bitterns among them.  However I recall that the entire place was reeking of the heavy stench from their smelly white droppings!

On the 29th of June 79 evening at around 6 pm I saw a large flock of Night Herons flying over Tambaram in the direction of Chengalpet lake.  So it appeared that as the diurnal birds like the Pond herons and egrets return by evening to roost the Night Herons take off from their roosting place inside the campus, and they settle down for their rest only during the day.

These notes bespeak of those wonderful days of bird-watching I did in what appeared to be an unending campus of delight for me then. Even in the midst of a fast developing city and an equally fast depleting wilderness one could find solace at the thought of such small green pockets. They survive as memory. But just imagine the plight of its feathered denizens.  Perhaps they are forced to seek out other dwellings or quietly succumb to the pressures of urbanization and perish. When we celebrate these wildlife weeks and bird-watch days it is time for us to remember what we did, have done, and are doing. As the Upanishad says: krato smara, krtam smara—remember what has been done. And finally perhaps, what we can do is to take measures to protect and preserve what we are left with— and to give it a personal responsibility let’s call it my beloved wilderness!



Murali barbet
Coppersmith Barbet photo by S Murali

All afternoon the Coppersmith Barbet on the fig tree beside the river had been tonking away: tonk…tonk…tonk…, his call reverberated over the steely-still waters of the Mahanadi, while like a skillful ventriloquist the bird hid behind the large green leaves far from the inquisitive eyes of humans. Only the sound floated about. From where I sit I can see miles and miles of water; little wonder this is Mahanadi, the great river, the lifeblood of Orissa! A few miles off the trees I can see the rising concrete structure of the Hirakud dam in the district of Burla. The waters are stopped by the massive structure and canalized for purposes of generating electricity and to irrigate large areas of otherwise dry terrain. Now the river flows into the evening as darkness starts to descend slowly. One by one an array of lights come alive piercing the sky and water like arrows. Only the lapping of the strange silent waters as they caress the shore. And now the sounds of night begin—the chuk…chuk…chuk…chukkoor of the nightjar announces the settling in of the night. The cicadas and frogs take it up. Suddenly all nature is once again up and alive, the transference of light into life. Of course, what we see, what we feel, and what we hear, is only a tiny, tiny slice of nature. Life around us is so abundant, so very varied. And we are immersed in its being— our being is no different. And yet we see so little, feel so little and hear far little.

Now, from over the waters I can hear bits and pieces of bhajans from some temple somewhere upstream where the devotees have gathered for puja and arathi. The voices and instruments are so soft, so very like the rise and fall of the waters of the Mahanadi. Like the deft fingers of the maestro moving over the tiny holes cut into the bamboo stem, the waters of the Mahanadi lap and lave over the sand shore. Everything blends so well. I am at peace.  I could sit for hours like this while the bhajans die out and the lamps are put out. The devotees would troupe back to their homes and their home lights would come on. Life is so perfect!

In nature all sounds have meanings. We have also learned to mean much through our own production of sounds; in fact we have created a parallel acoustic world through our sounds and voices. There are hardly any human communities without speech or music. Of course, we have come so far away from the primitive noise making process and our super technologies have helped us constitute complex structures of the likes of Hirakud in terms of sounds and voices. Perhaps humans have almost forfeited their ability to listen to silence. We need to recourse to voice and sound to analyze, interpret, and mean. The worst part is what technology has done to our voices: we can record and replay and resort to a thousand ways of delivering the sound through a million modes and means. We can make it sound a thousand times over. An ordinary whisper can be magnified to resound like thunder. While the Hindu displays his religion’s magnificence through the loud notes played all mornings and evenings over the temple loud-speakers, the muezzin in the Islamic tower casts out louder verses from the Koran at the very top of his voice! Of course he needs to wake up the ardent devotee and remind him of his religious duties of worship. The Christians are not far behind: they have their own ways of keeping the spirit of religion alive and sparkling through the loudest of notes. Religion in the present depends so very much on the world of sight and sound. Sing aloud and thou shalt be heard! The Christians were missionaries before anybody else; they carried the word of god to all and sundry.  Now the television has afforded them another way of televangelism! Indeed all religions have their own special channels for dispensing their version of truth! After all we need to tell the other how to live better and reach god faster, whether we need it ourselves or not! All sounds and notes of religions apparently are meant only for the other. One does not pause to consider whether the other needs it or not ever. Songs and sermons are blasted from over a million loudspeakers everyday and every minute, from all corners of India, tearing any remaining silence into shreds of disconnected dots and dashes. Religions are so loud these days, and they get louder by the minute. The word of god is to be treasured and meditated up on in our silent hearts and never to be violated like this.  But who cares!

There are rules and regulations in our civil societies about personal space and private space.  There are rules that one cannot hurt the other; neither should one trespass on what is termed private property. However there is almost nothing to stop one from screaming aloud one’s religion right into the other’s delicate apparatus of hearing!  What violence, what aggression, when one considers the songs and slogans renting the sacred air of morning and evening in our towns and villages! This is sheer desecration of human acoustic space; no one seems to care!  The genuine searchers of religious and spiritual truths have always left the marketplaces of the world to seek for silence elsewhere. Nietzsche wrote: solitude ends where the market place begins. The entire civilized world has become a market place of meaningless sounds and screeches. And yet the Mahanadi flows with majestic peace and silence.  There is a genuine silence in the heart of any river, provided one can sense the same. This cannot be dislocated by the aural-oral discourses of the vociferous culture of our religions. All rivers are compassionate and they proffer their hearts to the listening ear.

Somehow we have come to believe that it is through a culture of sound we reach the other shore of communication and meaning. Bhartrhari, the Sanskrit linguist of ancient India, speaks of the Nada Brahmam, the Sound Absolute of the Eternal Spirit.  Tyagaraja, the Saint Singer, writes of Nada Brahma as well, to where the song eternal would lead the singer ultimately.  There is also the Sabda Brahmam, the articulate universe of sound. Between Nada and Sabda there is a world of difference. Sabda is definitely of the lower order in the scale, where the presence of articulated meaning and interpretation dwells. Sabdartha sahitam kavyam, says Bhamaha one of the Sanskrit aestheticians— poetry is the perfect union of sound and sense. But sound and sense do not often go together. Most of our everyday life is replete with the former devoid of any sense. And many people mistake mere sound as meaning.

Sound is so often a corruption of silence. Sound can also be seen as defiance and disturbance. Perhaps sound is one way man defies god in the face of the absurdity of his existence. It could be that sound issues forth from his disordered mind or brain. Often enough mere sound could also substitute the sense and spirit. However, the louder we make out sounds the farther we move from the logic of meaning; the maha satta, or the ultimate meaning remains seated so far deep in silence, one cannot wean it through the disturbances in the acoustic space, neither can one defy the might of the silent spirit that is both immanent and transcendental at the same time. Those who know this, move away from the cacophonic conglomeration of our absurd world of sounds, the repertoire of our weak minds, the noise of our perturbed souls. The Mahanadi moves and yet moves so still in time.

All sounds in nature apart from those made by us humans sometimes have an intrinsic balance. We too can sing, we too can whistle, we too can make a million other ways of expressing delight and pain. However, the moment we resort to the complex technological modes of delivery and broadcasting, we begin the de-sacralization of nature and spirit.  The human ear has a fine delicate sensibility to sounds and voices to noises and notes. We have the great ability to distinguish the slapdash from the harmonious—or at least some of us have.

The human ear can receive and respond to sounds of a certain decibel range, below or beyond which the audibility ceases to be. Many animals and bats have inbuilt sensitivity to sound waves of amazingly lower and higher range.  The vibrations our sounds make in the air can either be sensed as audible or even inaudible. Even if a large tree falls in a deep jungle where no human ear is available to receive it as audible sound, the vibrations it causes ranges through the entire cosmos.  Even the closing and unclosing of butterfly wings can travel miles and miles of apparently silent space. There is a sense of sound as we humans  make it out and there is a sound of sense which we often times ignore. The Mahanadi’s lapping waters speak to me of the age old wisdom of the saints and seers, in a language of silence, where the gaps and crests hold equal sense, an uncanny balance.

The calls of the Coppersmith Barbet has left this shore so long ago and yet they will be traveling for all eternity.

Nature and Human Nature

Literature Ecology MeaningNature and Human Nature:

Contextualising Literature, Ecology, and Meaning

—Murali Sivaramakrishnan

Any critical engagement with fundamental concepts like Nature and Human Nature and the attempts to contextualise literature, ecology and meaning, in the present day, certainly is bound to lead one toward problematising the very ways of human living, thinking, and being, primarily because such a debate would necessarily involve the planet on which we live and our essential existence as human beings. It is common knowledge today that human beings have evolved to such a calamitous level so much so that we as a species pose severe threats to the entire non-human nature, and of course, to ourselves. Our contemporary culture grounded on science and technology (for the most, urban and urban-centred) has brought things to such a pass that we can play with all life-forms to our liking. Thus the meaning that the interface of literature and ecology would make available would be one of immediate consequence: literature and art are essentially human, and the knowledge they produce no less significant than science and technology. Further, any debate on this issue would call for an interface of the hard sciences and the human sciences—for the coming together of academics, intellectuals and hard-core activists, because, thinking and being, theory and praxis, need always and should, go together.

This whole project[1] was a sort of outcome of the long felt need for bringing together experts working in various disciplines equally committed and concerned with nature and human nature.  The Humanities and Social Sciences in the academy have necessarily followed their own path and development, while the sciences—mathematical, physical, chemical, and biological– have traced out their own paths. Seldom do they appear to get together for a meaningful dialogue of human and non-human possibilities. And where else could they interact meaningfully but in the academic atmosphere of the university?  This might sound at the outset in line with the well-known two cultures debate. Nevertheless the growth and development of Environmental Studies have brought the focus of attention on the intersection of these two diverse streams of human inquiry. The history of Environmental studies has been the history of the interface of these two cultures!  Now, where do the literary and the aesthetic come in? Let me here briefly provide an account of this aspect of the intersection that might make this confluence less cumbersome as it looks from the outside, and more meaningful and relevant.

In the late seventies, when the dispute over the Silent Valley in Kerala was rampant and the great debate over the whole philosophy of Nature Conservation and preservation of biodiversity was in its incipient stages, a senior friend of mine who later was to become a naturalist of considerable national renown, accosted me one day and opined: “you are more of an aesthete than a naturalist!”  His dismissive tone was on account of the significance that I had advocated for the idea of beauty and value in nature.  Nature conservation, I had then argued, in our small collective of natural history enthusiasts—the Kerala Natural History Society– began with the love and devotion to nature and the natural.  Much later I was happy to find solace in the views of kindred spirits the world over: the ultimate founts of nature conservation and preservation, one critic has argued, are linked to the aesthetic.[2] However, the seventies in Kerala, in south India, were quite unsuitable times for the aesthete and idealist!  And by then, the Sastra Sahitya Parishad– the advocates for peoples’ science movement– who radicalized the idea of science and technology, and who were development-oriented and forward-looking, had taken over the entire struggle towards the popularization of the idea of conservation and preservation.  Ecology had by then become almost a household term and the idea of conservation of biodiversity was indisputably fore-grounded as an integrated part of the agenda of Development Studies. Equating development with the progressive adaptation of science and technology was as always held to be logical and therefore unquestionable. And science in the popular eye dismissed any subjective responses as of little consequence.

Of course, the arguments for and against conservation have far from subsided. However, strangely enough, even now there are many who believe that the entire idea of nature conservation is only suited for the developed countries, while the poor and needy in our part of the world cannot afford such a measure! Economically such proceedings are not quite feasible at all.  Ecology, we need to remember, is a comparatively recent science and it has been necessitated by the inadvertent march of human (read Western) civilization! Because we overexploit our natural resources and remorselessly indulge in species annihilation, lethally poison our rivers and seas over and above damming and polluting them, smoke out holes in our atmosphere, and engage in a hundred different ways of self-destruction, we need to sit up and take stock before things go out of our hands. Now, if only we had listened to our poets and artists! If only we had heeded our now over-interpreted spiritual texts and good old religious seers!  If only we had recognized the ancient wisdom embodied in spiritual reasoning. It is not as if everything about the past and those days of yore is to seen as ecologically wise and conservation-oriented. And it is not to generalise that all religious texts are wisdom texts too. But then there had been one too many voices of dissent and disapproval raised in the past against the mad march of development at the cost of nature.  And the point is that they had perhaps resorted to the heart rather than the head.  And that is where it all leads us. West or East, North or South, ecological wisdom [or rather environmental wisdom, because ecological prior to its inception would be a misnomer!] had always been there, but then it was buried under the rubble of destructive and exploitative philosophies, overlaid by the march of much powerful dominating cultures and their discourses. Further, it was for the most an affair of the heart rather than the head as such. Feeling, of course, would later spill into thought and action. But there was no space for the heart in the dominant cultural discourses.[3]

The argument that my scientist-friend disapproved of was that, nature conservation, or the very idea of preservation, was primarily and largely a matter of the heart than the head.  I had cited many green poets and environmental thinkers and pointed out that the ultimate historical foundations of nature preservation are aesthetic (which I much later came to realize was the basis of the environmental ethics as formulated by the deep ecologists, and even some eco-feminists). We start by loving nature and the natural, and begin to care for what we love and cherish. The deep blue sky, the wide expanse of the green earth, the slow unfolding of the meandering river, the songs and flutter of the birds and butterflies, the gamboling animals—all these begin to crystallize in our hearts a deep fondness of indistinguishable delight, a sense of nature. This crystallization is not without its cultural and historical contexts. Nevertheless it is what binds us the great wide world. The hard data of the like that today a significant portion of the 15000 plant species and 75000 animal species found in India are threatened by the pressure of human activity on land and forests, and so many hectares of forest land are ransacked per the hour in the rain forests of the world, are only supplementary and they could only later add to our agony. Fundamentally, the fragility and the resilience of the earth is first borne into our hearts through the wonder, amazement and empathetic identity that our hearts accord. Perhaps this is the experience of the intangible behind the tangible that the spiritual masters have spoken of. This would bring us to the brink of metaphysics and religion. Perhaps, this is the right place to begin.

Religious thought, the world over, in more ways than one, dovetails with that of the nature lover, because religion in its beginnings and ends has a bearing on nature. Almost all religions, sociologists would agree, have their roots in the worship of nature. The adoration of trees, birds and animals, the worship of sacred groves, and the attribution of sacredness to all life forms are true to the spirit of ancient religions (and even later religions during their inception). It may be that the reasons for their being so sacred might be slightly different from the ecological angle that we are seeking for, but however, in spirit, they come quite close to that.  Of course, we are saddled with the virtues and hindrances of hindsight and therefore can see in history the reverence attributed to all life forms in the sacred texts of almost all religions. The finer aspects of differences may be a matter of significance only for the specialist-scholar: while most “pagan” religions identified the immutable with the divine, the Hebraic, especially the Christian religion, maintained the natural superiority of the human being over all other life forms, and insisted on his (His?) superior ability to break the immutability of natural laws.  As many perspective scholars have noted it might be this underlying patriarchal power that laid the foundations for classical science and its strains are still visible despite the claims to universality and understanding of contemporary science. However, pre-scientific societies cherished a celebratory attitude to nature. (See Lyn White’s seminal paper)

In the march of Western history of ideas, the Enlightenment is often looked upon as the age of reason. Whatever else this might have entailed, the most significant aspect is that this age gave rise to a belief in scientism—a dangerous attitude indeed with disastrous consequences—a deep faith in the order of scientific thinking. Human emotion, feeling, and the entire “irrational” sphere of mankind were delegated a secondary insignificant position in the understanding of life. The intellect superseded the heart and analytical thought sought precedence over the intuitive. Values came to be challenged, reinterpreted, and recast (sometimes even obliterated); religion was relegated to being mere superstition, and science acquired the supreme role as the interpreter of truth. In our own times even to speak of one’s beliefs or faith is to rake up the ghost of pre-renaissance nescience! How could one even speak of being moved by nature and the natural forms? Poetry and imagination are things of the past. It would be like looking for truth in mere fancy! These are days of rationality and intelligence. Religion breeds only superstition and nonsense; it works as opium!  My intention here is not to demean rationality and intelligence per se but only to challenge their claims to being the only valid means of approaching the truth. While this being so, truth, in the logic of the postmodern, is multi-dimensional and multifaceted. Let us reorient ourselves to this fact that is not a fact!  If fiction differentiates itself by not being fact let us create the faction of the present!  In the search for alter/native truths we need to heed and understand the other logic that may not resemble the logic we are used to. If the post-enlightenment logic declaims the validity of religion and metaphysics, then we need to reorient ourselves with regard to these two as well.

To believe Theodore Adorno, it is barbaric to write poetry after Auswitz.  And to believe Michael Foucault and Edward Said, it would be impossible to think of any social situation without relating it to the politics of power and oppression. And of course, after the great movements in Feminist thinking it is virtually impossible to understand any situation without relating it to the ideas of gender and politics.  Likewise race, class, and ideology—these concepts have all altered our ways of understanding the present. [Cite Foucault]  In such a situation how could we relegate the very idea of nature, to the background?  What we understand by nature most certainly has a bearing on what we make of ourselves. And our understanding needs necessarily be holistic and not discriminative. The efforts of environmental philosophers, historians and cultural geographers would enable us to understand the profound implications of the natural environment and our ways of responding to it.

Environment , Aesthetics, and Ecocriticism:

Thus in our understanding of the world we live in we need to reorient ourselves with regard to the values and our ways of response. It is my strong contention that aesthetics belongs to the order of values of which ecological value too forms a significant part.  In fact the value which we attribute to the environment cannot be seen distinct from our general aesthetico-ethical frame of reference. The value which we attribute to the environment is holistic and complete and not peripheral or derivative.  Aesthetic value cannot be and should not be dismissed as subjective (in a Cartesian sense) when considering the value of environment and issues pertaining to conservation and preservation.[4] The ecological activism that globally politicized these issues has come to be known as the Green Movement.  There is a green politics and even a green speak! And over the last couple of decades a whole aesthetics of the green has also emerged under the name of ecological criticism or eco-criticism[5]. In the great welter of socio-political theorizing that had held sway over the last half of the twentieth century the concerns of the human individual and nature were virtually submerged. After the death of the author the individual artist/poet ceased to have any space to speak afterwards, and after the closure of the text, history ceased to exist at all. If one were to take the pains of going over the warp and woof of socio-political theorizing carefully, one can perceive the struggles of the author and the text in the light of meaning production. When we reinstate class, race and gender along with the voice of nature we regain the fuller meaning of human’s being. When Henri David Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” and when Aldo Leopold spoke of the land ethic, writing in his foreword to A Sand County Almanac (1948): “[t] here are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot…”, no doubt, they were giving voice to an aesthetics of commitment and engagement.

Eco criticism: Contexts and Relevance

This brings us to the immediate contexts of ecological criticism or ecocriticism. Literature and art have always shown deep affinities with nature, however, the academic critical pursuit of this interdisciplinary field of enquiry has developed fairly recently.  It has come to be known as ecological criticism, or ecocriticism in short.  Among the many factors that led to this recognition of environmental art and literature—finer distinctions have also been drawn between nature writing and environmental writing, etc—are the growing public awareness of profound ecological crisis consequent to many conservation and Green movements the world over, as well as the historical development of contemporary social and critical theory. It is in this context that the work and critical practice of most ecocritics who endeavour to direct public attention to the ecological values embedded in literary texts become contemporary and relevant. Scott Slovic (2004) has drawn attention to the fact that despite traditional interactions between humans and the land that figure prominently in the literatures of the world, literary scholars and other specialists in the arts and humanities (the visual and performing arts, history, philosophy and related disciplines) have almost solely concentrated their studies on human experience and expression, seldom considering the ramifications of human behaviour for the planet and the impact of nature on human experience.  Ecocriticism is an attempt to organize and understand the human and non-human interactions and interrelationships.

It might sound quixotic if one were to state that eco criticism is among the many things an attempt to foreground the environmental roots of nature and human nature. What has literature and aesthetics got to do with the discourse of modernity or urban planning or even the quality of development? In fact one learned Vice Chancellor of our University once asked me this directly: what has an English Literature academic got to do with environment and ecology? Isn’t the study of literature confined to imaginative creations like poetry and fiction? There are of course several ways to respond to this query. Apart from the fundamental aspect of sheer ignorance of fields beyond one’s own after one has become too engrossed in the technicalities of academic sophistication and specialization, the other is the inordinate fright of breaking free into dominions of disciplinary discourse that are religiously maintained even today. Hence the subtitle of the book: literature, ecology, meaning, to initiate attention to the interrelationship of imagination and the world out there.

In his recent book, Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature, Patrick Murphy points out that the rapidly increasing number of published aesthetic texts concerned with nature, environmental issues, ecology, place, regionalism, and inhabitation has gained sufficient critical mass to generate an entire field of ecologically influenced literary studies—ecocriticism.  Perhaps this could be looked upon as being more of a movement than a method. The emergence of ecocriticism has been compared to that of the feminist movement by one of its pioneers in the U.S., Cheryl Glotfelty (1996), in its practice of rediscovering early writers, rereading the classics from a ‘green’ perspective and the attempts to conceptualize the subject in a theoretical way. Ecocriticism thus has as much links with the feminist movement and thinking as with the development of (or critical engagement with) theory per se. It runs deep roots in culture and history. Like New Criticism necessitated by the European Modernist movement ecocriticism has multiple roots.

In her lengthy essay Theorizing Ecocriticism: Toward a Postmodern Ecocritical Practice, Serpil Oppermann has contented that the roots of ecocriticism and postmodernism are at their deepest interconnected. ISLE, 13.2.(Summer 2006): 103-128)

The postmodern ecocritical theory fosters not only ecological perceptions of our connection with the natural world, and perceives nature as a process of unfolding and dynamic flow, but also contests the dominant ideological discourses behind various representations of nature.  This is a model of reality which has an integrative, participatory, and a non dualistic framework.  In this respect, this “transformed postmodernism”… shares the same ecocentric vision of environmental discourses..

Further, on the connection of multiple points of view and pluralistic vision of postmodernism and ecology, Laurence Coupe has phrased the argument brilliantly in his general introduction to The Green Studies Reader:

…it is precisely because green studies addresses the consequences of the technological project of modernity, with its accompanying intellectual arrogance, that it finds hope in postmodernism’s provisionality and pluralism, given ecology’s emphasis on the creativity of organic life and on the need for biodiversity. At the same time, it is committed to resisting the global theme park which we call “postmodernity,” and so must be especially careful to distinguish this condition from that complex body of ideas, potentially more favourable to ecology than to consumerist capitalism, which we call ”postmodernism”. Ofcourse,we should bear in mind Charlene Spretnak’s distinction between “deconstructive postmodernism” which fosters “a nihilistic disintegration of all values” and “ecological or reconstructive postmodernism,” which seeks opportunities for creativity and growth.(General Introduction,p.7)

Primarily, ecocriticism could be seen as a product of the rising environmental concerns—this is not to reduce this movement to being but an offshoot of something else, but, on the other hand it would reveal its global significance and current relevance. Then of course, there is this deep-felt post-deconstructivist crisis in the human science academia, a sense of being deprived of direction and momentum. Ecocriticism reintegrates the text and the world, history and narrative, meaning and value. While it poses challenges to any universal value system, it attempts to reinstate the living experience of reality and multidimensionality of experience. Ecocriticism calls for a paradigm shift from the human-centric to the bio-centric, which transcends the mutually exclusive categories of centre and periphery. As Robert Kern puts it:

­…ecocriticism… depends upon our willingness as readers to marginalize, if not completely overlook, precisely those aspects and meanings of texts that are traditionally privileged or valorized …. What ecocriticism calls for, then, is a fundamental shift from one context of reading to another—more specifically, a movement from the human to the environmental….from the exclusively human to the biocentric or ecocentric…a humanism informed by an awareness of the more than-human.

­Robert Kern, Ecocriticism—What is it Good For? ISLE,7.1.Winter 2000, 9-32

Finer distinctions have to be drawn between literature and writing: while the literary kind includes the imaginative and fictional, writing of a broader nature goes beyond the fictional into non-fictional narrative. Further distinctions have already been drawn between nature writing and writing for nature. While nature writing could be either natural history information or personal responses to nature, writing for nature would be something more self-reflexive and self-aware, philosophically as well as scientifically–like philosophical interpretations of nature and the human-nonhuman integration. Environmental texts tend to interrogate the human/nature divide and focus on the human accountability to the environment.

Much has happened in the wake of the controversial essay by Lynn White[6] that drew attention to the interrelationship of nature, science, technology and Christianity. The patriarchal Christian world-view, according to White has been instrumental in fostering a utility-oriented and exploitative view of nature, while science and technology have become its handmaidens. Ecofeminism has been another major intellectual challenge to this patriarchal world-view. Many feminist intellectuals the world over have drawn attention to wide spread environmental domination and damage as another effect of androcentricism.

The following are some significant aspects of Ecocritical studies:

1.         Environment and ecology— towards a basic awareness of nature and             environment

2        Writing about nature and nature writing—poetry, fictional/non         fictional narratives about nature
3.         Rereading history— exploring critically the contexts of European          Romanticism , Colonialism, postcolonialism etc

4.         Women and nature—ecofeminism

5.         Reclaiming the past—tracing roots of environmental writing and           awareness–   Especially in non-Anglo-American situation—traces of          environmental culture, environmental wisdom
6.         Religion and society and nature
7.         Environmental philosophy and environmental ethics
8.         Environmental geography and landscape studies
9.         Landscape, culture and memory—mythical and spiritual connections of the human and the non-human world

What is to be done?

Michael Branch, another American critic writes quite prophetically of the future of ecocriticism:

The recent acceleration of scholarly activity in the areas of environmental ethics, environmental history, ecofeminism, and ecotheology provides a clear indication that environmental consciousness is increasingly being reflected in both academic discourse and the institutional structures which underwrite that discourse. Environmental scholarship has finally infiltrated the discipline of literary studies, where it variously appears under the rubric of nature writing, environmental literature, nature/culture theory, place studies, ecofeminism, and a number of other subdisciplines which may be constellated around the term ecocriticism. The green writing is now on the wall—or, more precisely, the palimpsest—of literary studies, and today’s burgeoning ecocritical scholarship will be tomorrow’s curricular reform. (ISLE. 2.1 (spring 1994)

Ecocriticism could also be seen as a method (as distinct from what Murphy was uncertain about). If we could reorient our critical and conceptual tools we can rediscover our intimate ties with nature, and towards that end ecocriticism is also a methodolgy.  What is now called for is a shift in our perceptions. Nature is not that something out there that excludes the perceiver, the feeler and the thinker. Nature is not peripheral but holistic and complete. (Perhaps as distinct from feminism or postcolonialism, or subaltern studies, ecocritical frames of reference that directly incorporate or address nature cannot accost the very entity to stand in testimony either for its defense or at variance or counterpoint. Can Nature speak for its own? Or worse still, isn’t the language of nature the language of culture?)

Nevertheless, Ecophilosophy would encourage us to perceive change at every point of time and it would orientate us towards a rediscovery of our long lost ecological wisdom. When we attempt to retrace the historical roots of ecocriticism and ecological wisdom in our spiritual texts, we are not regressing to fundamentalist values, but only consciously reconnecting with our indigenous roots meaningfully. What is now called for is an intensive study of our tribal and folk culture and simultaneously an extensive study of environmental movements in other parts of the world – because both the global and the local are of equal significance for us. After all, we have only one earth and we all share the skies and water and air. And ecocriticism might show us how to go about it.  We need to recognise the urgency of evoking our ecological wisdom. Our constructions of our environment and our lives have become so removed from the organic unity of the poetic and the spiritual and so how could we sense and see the elemental harmony that is so apparent to the poet…? The Upanishadic wisdom of delight in dispossession is there for us to reclaim. It is not through domination and assertion of right and possession that we relish the universe but by an aesthetic distancing. Further, the values that ecocriticism hastens to establish are far from that of the colonial as well as consumer-oriented capitalist culture. At every point ecocritical theories have challenged domination, power, and authority. Thus, the voices of the minorities, the underprivileged, the subaltern and marginalized would be heard distinctly (paradoxically enough!).

Introducing ecocriticism into our hard-core curriculum (in Indian Universities especially) would thus mean a rereading of our intellectual and cultural inheritance. Perhaps we could reintegrate our value systems and regain our sense of balance and harmony.  Not through a strategy of homogenisation and universalisation but through a recognition of difference and an understanding of the many. Passion and compassion, to recall the teachings of Bhagavan Buddha, could be discovered at the core of ecocriticism. One can even speak of eco-dharma, because at the heart of the problem is the issue of pragmatic as well as harmonious existence—to dwell in nature…poetically.

Now that we have come to certain cross roads in human evolution and development we need to reconsider our contemporary paradigms of progress, history and development. We cannot continue in the old ways of wanton living and wasteful thinking. Neither can we call all our present-day ways of living to a complete stop. Nor can we retrace our steps in history and memory. The literature of nature is nevertheless replete with tales of sagacious living by communities of human beings at one time in balance and harmony with nature—rife with ecological wisdom or rather environmental wisdom! Equally plentiful are tales of dislocation and destruction—of non-human habitat and the living world, of species extinction and bioregional mismanagement. We have to become wise to all these. To believe Seyyed Hossein Nasr:

There must be a radical restructuring of the intellectual landscape to enable us to take this type of knowledge of nature seriously, which means to accept the findings of  modern science only within the confines of the limitations that its philosophical suppositions, epistemologies, and historical development have imposed upon it, while rejecting completely its totalitarian claims as the science of the natural order

(Religion and the Order of Nature. NY,Oxford: OUP, 1996.p 287)

The text, as I said earlier, need to spill over on to the globe—it should not remain with in the confines of theory and counter-theory.  After all, the hole in the ozone layer is all too real and not a mere theoretical fantasy however we choose to look upon it.  Speaking of nature, as Laurence Coupe has phrased it, is speaking for nature as well, intellectually as well as ideologically and politically.

All problems of living, to believe Sri Aurobindo, are problems of harmony. And all problems of nature are problems of human nature too.

The essays in this volume seek to explore and problematise this vast field of human experience bordering non-human nature, in a sincere and whole-hearted manner with openness and commitment. Methodological and disciplinary differences notwithstanding, the attempt here is a collective search for the holistic understanding of nature and human nature. Of course, with full realization that there are no final and  incontrovertible answers either!


Beneath the Surface: Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology. Ed. Eric Katz,      Andrew Light, and David Rothenberg. Cambridge,           Massachusetts, 2000.

Branch, Michael, Ecocriticism: Surviving Institutionalisation in the Academic  Environment, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.2.1.        (Spring 1994) 91- 99.

Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Glotfelty, Cheryl and Harold Fromm, ed. The Ecocritical Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Hardy, Friedhelm. The Religious Culture of India: Power, Love and Wisdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kern, ­Robert. Ecocriticism—What is it Good For? ISLE. 7:1.Winter 2000, 9-32.

Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts. Ed. Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell.             Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine Books,1970. (First published in 1949 by OUP)

Murphy, Patrick. Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature.           Charlotttesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Murphy, Patrick, ed. Literature of Nature: An International Source Book. Chicago and  London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Religion and the Order of Nature. New York, Oxford:OUP, 1996.

Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, ed. JBaird Callicott and Roger T Ames. New York: State University of New York,         1989.

Oppermann, Serpil. Theorizing Ecocriticism: Toward a Postmodern Ecocritical Practice, ISLE, 13:2(Summer 2006) 103-128.

Rolston III, Holmes. Aesthetic Experience in Forests. The Journal of Aesthetics and            Art Criticism. 56:2. Spring 1998;157-166.

Shiva, Vandana.  Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. London: Zed, 1988.

Slovic, Scott.H. and Terrell F Dixon, eds.  Being in the World: An Environmental Reader for Writers. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. Ed, Laurence Coupe. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Thoreau, Henri David.  Walden.1854. Boston: Beacon, 1997.

White, Lyn.  “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967):1203-07.

[1] The select essays collected in this volume were previously presented at the First International conference of ASLE India (Nature and Human Nature: Land, Landscape and Cultural Constructions of the Environment) during September 2006, in the Pondicherry University, Pondicherry, India. See MURALI SIVARAMAKRISHNAN Edited NATURE AND HUMAN NATURE: LITERATURE, ECOLOGY, MEANING. New Delhi: Prestige Press, 2009.


[2] The direction of this argument is not to pitch science against aesthetics, but to reveal the integrated nature of both in generating deeper dimensions of human experience. Writing of aesthetic experience in forests, the philosopher Holmes Rolston has argued: True, those who can count the needle fascicles and get the species right, if they never experience goose pimples when the wind whips through the pines, fail as much as do the poets in their naïve romanticism. Nevertheless, only when moving through science to the deeper aesthetic experiences that are enriched by science can the forest be most adequately known.  (160)

[3] Environmental damage is certainly not a recent phenomenon. Human culture in its evolution—ever since the invention of the wheel and the plough– has been in close struggle with non-human nature even from prehistoric times, and so was the concern for nature, as evidenced by the occurrence of environmentally cautious narratives and discourses more so in non-western civilizations.  However, large-scale destruction and species annihilation has been made possible only with the advent of science and industrial revolution.

[4] The sublime could be the point of intersection of aesthetics, science and religion. “ the line between aesthetic respect and reverence for nature is often crossed unawares, somewhere in the region of the sublime” (see Rolston, op cit, p.164). Again, Ernst Meyr, one of the celebrated biologists, says: “Virtually all biologists are religious, in the deeper sense of this word…The unknown and may be unknowable instills in us a sense of humility and awe.” (quoted in Rolston, p. 166.)

[5] While in the US this is known as Ecocriticism, in Europe it is better known under the rubric of Green studies. It would be interesting to take note also of the debate whether this concern for the environment and its interception in the literary is or specifically not a mere concern or indulgence of developed countries. See “Ecocriticism at the MLA: A Roundtable,” ASLE News, 11(1), 1999.

[6] White, Lyn.  “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967):1203-07.   This is the most widely quoted and cited text in this context.  For a detailed discussion of Lyn White’s controversial article see also Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, ed. J Baird Callicott and Roger T Ames. New York: State University of New York, 1989.


Late last evening we were driving over one of the long seemingly unending dykes of the huge Hirakud dam spanning across the Mahanadi (literally, the Great River) in the Burla district of Orissa state, in eastern India. The night was very quiet and the moon was so very full hanging just above the horizon as a silvery orange balloon and painting the slow moving ripples below in all casualness. Everything was so very beautiful. Only sound of the tyres ripping over the asphalt floors. We were there due to the courtesy of the Department of Forests and Wildlife of the Orissa state, and we had on board a fully trained tracker and forest ranger with us to guide us. And we were on our way back after a long day in the reserve forests of Debrigarh. The headlights of the Jeep picked up occasional nightjars perched so closely in the middle of the road. They would sit there apparently blinded by the headlights of the vehicle until we are almost over their tiny bodies and then take off on their spread wings in a tangent of fright and indignation. Comfortably perched on the passenger seat next to the driver with eager open eyes, I could count nearly thirty odd birds like that all along the dyke. Each one had a different flight plan. And they were spaced almost equally, perhaps having a special personal-distance chart of their own. The Mahanadi was full and silent below, compassionate to the birds and also to us mortals who had attempted to strangulate her free flow and diverted her energies for other purposes. Earlier in the evening we had been fortunate enough to have close sightings of many wild animals and birds, including a full grown specimen of a Sambhar deer, an exquisite male, who jumped across our road and turning a mighty glance of defiance at us sprinted away.

The day had very nearly come to a close and I was heading back to my guest house in the Sambalpur University, where I had come as a short-term Visiting Professor. The visit was so nearly over, and it had been sufficiently fruitful in terms of experiences. The dyke still stretched unending before us under the moon. The nightjars took off one by one on their padded wings, their dark and light patterns clearly visible against the headlights. How very peaceful and how very majestic the coming night!

Life has a habit of becoming terribly habitual. It becomes repetitive and monotonous. But such rare opportunities like this tear it apart into moments of sheer amazement and delight. I think of the million others in their homes and offices now, leading a humdrum existence and engaging with the trivialities of everyday life! How very different and indefinite it all appears to be! This is not to state that a mere stroll in a wildlife park has made me a great, exceptional, superhuman being, or anything, but only that it gives me a space for beginning to think like myself—perhaps all over again!  And that’s what usually matters.

The Mahanadi has been straddled and caught under the huge span of the Hirakud dam. The free run of the river to the sea has been diverted to produce electricity, run machines and maneuver many things, irrigate a thousand acres through controlled channels and several thousand villages and forested land have also been inundated in the bargain—many people made homeless. We do not yet fully know the damage we would have caused to the environment while we were doing it—the amount of wildlife, insects, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, and a host of innumerable unseen creatures, we have wiped out in the process. Just like the casual plastic covers we fling out of our moving vehicles, we simply did not care! After all it is only a small act, an insignificant one for us. Consider the great results. Did we ever consider the million tiny forces of energy that were at work so deep under the dam, the profundity of the force of thousands of kilolitres of waters, that were even now slowly edging their way in and out? Perhaps one day the river would finally free itself from the clutches of the mortar and cement and steel girders! We would then call it calamitous and blame it all on the river. But then these are inevitable facts. As the poet writes: all things fall and are built again! We humans are great builders. We build structures visible and tangible, as well as invisible like our social norms, our culture, and our history. We cannot cease from exploration and perhaps the end of all our exploration would be to arrive where we started from and see the place for the first time! Every act requires a distance in time and space to reveal its significance. Every nano-second requires its own inevitable other to comprehend its being! The human mind reflecting on itself is replete with amazing moments like these. As we slip on over the dyke in the Hirakud dam across the Mahanadi, there is this vast expansion of seconds and nano-seconds into eons and eras, into history and ultimate timelessness! Into the awful space of the cosmos! The nightjars are there to remind us of our own mortality, spaced so very well among themselves. The headlights of the moving vehicle are our reflective ego, the dyke the point of awareness, the night our infinite being, the moon our destiny, and the water our conscience. The night and the moon are never merely given. The uniqueness of the moment is in its slow unwinding. Everything is so good. Even the human atrocities in building the dam and extinguishing life is forgiven, for a great compassion spreads over the earth! One by one the nightjars swing free of the circle of light. The moon moves behind a clump of trees. The tyres move. We are heading toward the other shore.

A Touch of Snow

Ritual disciplines attention and encourages people to develop their powers of discernment and discrimination. Yi-Fu Tuan, Passing Strange and Wonderful: Aesthetics, Nature, and Culture. P.51.

Last evening while visiting some friends in Reno, Nevada, we were taken to see their newly acquired land—a lovely expanse of sprawling high country stretching mostly into the California side, for around 40 odd acres. There were many craggy hills, rocks overhanging wild forests, and to top it all a beautiful stream gushing from the high lands cutting right across the land, running down to join the Truckee river. And because it was early December the stream had frozen over in many places and in the several pools and lakes the water lay glistening silver under the exquisite blue of the sky, icy cold to the touch. Many trees stood as sentinels and frightened deer crossed our path at many places dashing from amidst the bushes and then melting off into the shadows that were already creeping up on us as the sun went reluctantly over the mountaintops. We walked in one file–all five of us, mostly meditative, silent, as if held spellbound with awe at the bounteous mountain land. Occasionally our host would say something about the land and share his delight at having managed to take possession of such a great place, and discuss the great plans he had in mind about how to maintain it wild and beautiful. All of us marveled at the pristine wildness and beauty of the land. For some of us it was a miraculous experience walking in the high mountains sharing the silence of the bitter cold and snow—especially for my Chinese friend – visiting scholar and eco critic–and myself. I whispered occasional bits of poetry that floated across my mind. Above all, the experience was indeed poetic. At one point Scott Slovic, Professor of English and Environment at UNR turned to me and said: I am sure this experience of snow has altered your perception a great deal. Earlier, perhaps you had looked upon snow with the simple amazement and wonder of a scholar from the tropics, and snow had basically been a romantic experience, something to be thrilled about. But now, I am sure you will look upon it as a different order of reality—something that calls for a great deal of struggle and resistance!     I did not reply immediately, but simply shrugged my shoulders helplessly lost in my own thoughts almost frozen over. The cold was immense and immediate—it crept in through the layers and layers of clothing that I had on me. My hands were cold inside my warm mittens. My earlobes had lost any semblance to being attached at all to a sentient creature. When I tried to run my fingers over the most exposed part of my anatomy—my nose—I could hardly feel it—what was perhaps left there was a mere bundle of cold sense—a blob of icy being!  I kept pace along with the others—I knew that I needed to keep moving in order to be warm inside. Once or twice I couldn’t resist stopping to admire a deep precipice or the distant vision of the rosy hued alpine glow of the mountain’s spine. The experience was remarkable and something that passed all powers of verbal expression. And I could not think and verbalise my thoughts. Nevertheless I knew and felt deep within me that the experience of snow in the Alpine mountains or even in the Arctic could not have been quite much different from this one. I said to Scott: Perhaps, the experience of snow is like the experience of age: it is often what you feel inside that matters. Some people feel cold easily; for others even the Arctic or the Antarctic or the Alaskan cold would mean nothing. It is how you internalize the sensations that count. Mountains, the sea and the desert are all what one has within! They are the extensions of our inner being.

We came back into the pleasurable and most welcome warmth of our friends’ fireplace and peeled off our warm clothing one by one. Usha was already perched near the blazing hearth beaming and brimming over in happiness and beside herself in all joy. She had opted to come off half way through the walk finding the cold and snow combined with the altitude of the place much too much for her—she had hitch-hiked her way back earlier. It was altogether an evening of tremendous beauty.

What is cold? What is the touch of snow? Cold and warmth are the touch of the elements that awaken you to your own senses. Do we forget ourselves? Don’t we awaken in the middle of a deep night’s sleep all of a sudden only to realize that the fire had died out and the blistering cold had nudged us awake? We shiver and sit up. We are awake and alert and alive even if our physical body might be tired and drowsy. The same is true of a warm tropical summer night when the aftermath of the sun’s rays refuse to part from the surface of the earth and don’t allow us to seek the comfort of sleep. In the woods, said Emerson, we return to reason and faith. Yes, the touch of snow too awakens in us reason and faith. Reason tells us to pull our heavy woollens a little closer to our bodies in order to retain the body heat within, and faith lets us realize the touch of the elemental being! Robert Frost has written of fire and ice, relating them to an eschatological vision of either being burned up in passion or shriveled in the coldness of hate. Either way, the extremes of heat or cold could lead us to realize the fragility and evanescence of our human’s being. However, there remains another interesting aspect of such an elemental experience that could be traced in a deeper sense of culture and history. Human beings have responded to extreme heat and extreme cold in their own various ways in different places on earth. There is not only individual variance but also cultural and historical differences in confronting extremes of weather. Snow and cold need not always bespeak of a harsh and antagonistic nature over which the artful individual exerts his or her will and brain in an ultimate struggle for existence; neither does the extreme weather of the desert induce such a human-nature contest. It could also be seen as a coming to grips with one’s own nescience a sort of journey into self-hood. The human being clothed adequately to ward off the extreme weather has come to understand the earth a little better: it is not that he/she has overcome the external element! The touch of snow actually bespeaks of the artful space within and without. Perhaps this is the essential meaning of ritual in the east. Ritual disciplines attention and encourages people to develop their powers of discernment and discrimination, writes Yi-Fu Tuan. How true! A sense of Ritual is a sense of space and a sense of time– a sense of authentic being. Perhaps the origin of ritual can be in a touch of snow or under the extreme heat of the sun in the tropics. Fire and ice are the elemental cornerstones of inner understanding– antaschamatkara (or inner expansion) as the Sanskrit aestheticians have put it.  Ritual is the authentic human experience of inner awareness, and ritual in the broadest sense is the outcome of the elemental touch of the artful universe. One could experience the anguish and trauma of the man struggling to build a fire in Jack London’s story of that name, or one could also wander lost in the Himalayan wilderness in search of the elusive Snow Leopard that Peter Mattheissen writes about. One the one hand it is the struggle to survive and overcome the harshness of the environment, while on the other it is the slow awakening of a clearer understanding of the self. Or is it that the experience of heat and cold are like the experience of one’s age. Some feel it some don’t. Either way a touch of snow tells us a lot—about the self and culture and history.