Waves and Whalesong

Ecological Wonderment in Yuvan Aves’ Intertidal

Areeb Ahmad

(India)

‘Intertidal is the part of the shoreline that appears during low tide and is hidden during high tide. In some places it is thin, in others it is vast.’ So identifies Yuvan Aves the theme and rhythm of his book, also titled Intertidal, which is a diary of his astute observations over two years (and three monsoons) in and around the coastal city of Chennai, the capital of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It begins in November of 2020 and ends in November of 2022. Divided across six chapters called meditations, each having a broad thematic focus that is aligned with the shift of seasons, the book is as much an exploration of physical time and place as it is of ‘a metaphorical and metaphysical space’. It is a deeply reflective work which privileges attention and contemplation as affirmed by the useful, sensorial, guided meditations that appear in each chapter ‘like a tide somewhere during its length’. 

Aves relates how, like most humans, he had an innate curiosity for nature as a toddler. He credits his mother for nurturing this connection with the ‘more-than-human’. Family was always a tumultuous place for him growing up, first with a negligent and abusive biological father and then with an even more cruel and vicious stepfather before he finally ran away and found a space for himself at Pathashaala, a residential school on the banks of the Palar River, at the age of sixteen. The traumas of his early life were many but this environment proved to be therapeutic on his journey of recovery. He reminisces: ‘Paying deep attention to nature as a daily practice helped me get out of my head and let light into my wounded mind… [Deep seeing] has been foundational in recasting my suffering into life-driving energy.’ Nature has incredibly rejuvenating properties. It possesses the power to de-centre; one moves outside of one’s body and understands one’s place in the larger scheme of things.

He states: ‘My place in the food web and the purview of my senses limits and frames my seeing of the world, especially when seeing across species… There are only complex, inscrutable and ambivalent relationships in the universe.’ Early on, Aves asks us: ‘Do our own boundaries of sentience limit the definition of it?’ He explains that as an ocular-centric species that prioritises vision, we have let our other senses atrophy. We bring this lack to how we comprehend the planet. He responds to his own question later: ‘What we often unwarily mean in our queries about thought, intelligence, and consciousness of other life is how much of it is confined in a small space in the body, in the moment of time we choose to look, and how much of it resembles our own. Often what we mean by intelligence is similarity to ourselves.’ He advocates for openness when we think of the other. He asks us to ‘abstract, extend perception and see the entanglement of the living world’.

This breathtaking ecological wonderment is the beating heart of this book. Aves’ awe as a naturalist in the wild is truly infectious. He is not the Anthropocene Man, master at the centre of the universe with nature under his feet. He is merely a pupil, cradled in the lap of nature and perpetually learning from it. The coast and the ocean are teachers. So are the birds and the bees, the arthropods and the cetaceans, the fish in the seas. While the isiXhosa word ubuntu can mean ‘I am, because we are’, signalling the oneness of humanity, the word for ocean in the same language is uLwandle, as in ‘we are, because the ocean is’. It joins us in a cohesive group larger than humanity, as equal denizens of this Earth who can partake in its bounties but must also uphold its continuance. After the ocean, it is the fisher community and its seasoned members who assume the role of mentors and educators in Aves’ life. Using the qualifier ‘artisanal’ before ‘fisherman’, he pays respect to traditional ways of being and the importance of cultural knowledge that is passed down in communities.

In the face of the seemingly eternal ocean, rivers and seas, transient human life may appear inconsequential. But, it is this very accretion of humanity and increasing interference in the workings of the planet, generation after generation, that threatens to end it. Exploitative practices and rampant overdevelopment are visibly accelerating climate change. According to government data, Chennai as a coastal city is projected to face a lot of it in the next five to ten years. The effects have been palpable for some time and the ones who will be the most affected are the precarious fishing communities and tribal groups who rely on nature for their sustenance and livelihood. There are changes in mating and habitation patterns, as well as mass die-offs and a general lack of abundance of what was once assumed boundless. Human intervention is easy to notice in terms of pollution. Nets that catch human debris, beaches littered with trash, and organisms that have learned to somehow survive within this system.

Intertidal especially describes the latter at length. Decorator worms, for example, use plastics from single-use bags or tarpaulins, Amazon packaging, shampoo sachets, and nylon strands as hip accessories on their tubular cases. Crabs examine disposed pill bottles. Barnacles grow on discarded footwear. Coral reefs thrive around a sunken aeroplane. Clearly, some species seem to be adapting, even if detrimentally, while others perish. Aves writes: ‘That is the bittersweet beauty of Chennai’s wetlands. They host astounding life even after decades of abuse.’ Still, it is far from ideal, and not worth celebrating. There are more human-made catastrophes in the making: ‘The colonial vision of land completely disregarded ecological truths and the living communities which depend on them. Woefully, this vision is being carried forward by our governance systems and policies to date.’ It does not escape notice that all of these so-called developments and debilitating industrial growth happens away from affluent centres.

Among all of this, Adani is a name that crops up repeatedly in Aves’ book. The Adani Group, an Indian multinational conglomerate founded and headed by Gautam Adani, is at the nexus of numerous controversies stemming from reckless capitalist undertakings around the world in the name of profit and at the cost of whole ecosystems and countless lives. Ranging from destructive coal mining in Australia to the sale of military equipment to Israel, the group has also been lobbying for the expansion of the Kattupalli port near Chennai since 2019. It would irrevocably harm the fragile ecosystem of the region, destabilise the already sensitive biodiversity, increase oceanic erosion, and make Chennai even more susceptible to ecological disasters such as cyclones and floods. Thankfully, led by at-risk disadvantaged communities and environmentalists, the public opinion is overwhelmingly against it and the expansion has not been greenlit so far. One wonders how long this stalemate will last.

While Aves is worried about increasing anthropocentric threats to these areas, he does not become despondent or let it grind him down. He knows that the good fight must go on. In these pages, he shines the most as a nature educator. He works with schools and with other children who live in or near these precious habitats to strengthen their capacities and broaden their perspectives in terms of how they view and interact with nature. It is a new pedagogy – following in the footsteps of Maria Montessori and Jiddu Krishnamurti – that stresses on hand-on, practical learning outside the walls of a classroom. Aves writes: ‘What they can understand through exploration and discovery, children’s intrinsic motivation to learn and to feel wonder comes alive.’ As a result, he conducts a lot of shore walks and marsh tours in a bid to ignite curiosity and nourish children’s connection to the wild.

Reinforcing this connection positively affects the inquisitiveness of children. He goes on to write: ‘Children learn implicitly that there is never just one voice, one narrative, one story in a profoundly non-binary multispecies world… Direct observation makes us active foragers of deeper meanings and purposes—which itself is politically countercurrent… To wonder, to question as a daily practice of living is a radical political act.’ 

As a result, Aves began the Palluyir Trust for Nature Education and Research. Palluyir is the Tamil term for ‘biodiversity’ or ‘all of life’. He explains: ‘[The goal is] to shift the city’s culture towards that of deep eco-literacy and belonging; to get the public enmeshed in the care for this unique landscape and bioregion… [in order to make cities] socially and ecologically more inclusive spaces.’ Through Palluyir and projects, he is documenting the native biodiversity, increasing general awareness, recording local practices, and constructing a scientific database to argue against destruction, be it through public campaigns or court cases.

In Diary of a Young Naturalist, the Irish activist and conservationist Dara McAnulty writes: ‘In a fast-paced and competitive world, we need to feel grounded. We need to feel the earth and hear birdsong. We need to use our senses to be in the world.’ Yuvan Aves brings a similar energy and enthusiasm as he urges us to tap into our inner naturalist and begin keenly observing the world around us, ‘to observe beyond the threshold of one’s comfort’ as much as possible. The age-old binaries of nature/civilisation, land/water, human/animal, mind/body, male/female, self/other exist only in name. The world thrives in multitudes and polyphony, in the liminal spaces of the intertidal, beyond every limitation. As Aves states: ‘A different depth of consciousness is required to meet and comprehend the sheer queerness of reality, of life… Our work as nature educators is perhaps similar to that of termites – to bring down old, rigid structures of learning and reimagine new ways.’ Intertidal is an open invitation to abandon hierarchies, pay attention to our surroundings, and dream the world anew.

Areeb Ahmad

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Areeb is an Editor-at-Large at Asymptote and a Books Editor at Inklette Magazine. He likes to look at the intersections of gender and sexuality across texts. They enjoy exploring how the personal and the political as well as form and content interact in art. Most of his writing can be found on his bookstagram, a true labour of love. While they mostly do literary criticism and (some) reportage, they are known to dabble in poetry. His work has appeared in Gaysi, Gulmohur Quarterly, Scroll, The Federal, Hindustan Times, and elsewhere. A night owl, Areeb currently lives and longs in New Delhi, India.

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