Moments in the sands of time

Published : May 16, 2024 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

The book features a treatise on meditation and mindfulness, a note on environmental existentialism, a chronicle of myopic polices, and a cry for action. 

The book features a treatise on meditation and mindfulness, a note on environmental existentialism, a chronicle of myopic polices, and a cry for action.  | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Yuvan Aves’ book is a blend of a naturalist’s journal, a coming-of-age memoir, a treatise on meditation and mindfulness, and much more.

Traversing the world on foot, the American journalist Paul Salopek often describes finding the music of nature and rediscovering a “Pleistocene state of mind” where time in the rural wilderness slows down to a “human scale” compared with the sped-up time of the cities.

Salopek’s experience was shaped by his 15,000 km journey that started at the “cradle of life”, in Africa, nearly a decade ago (he will end his journey retracing the migration of ancient humans at the southern tip of South America in the unforeseen future). He describes the process as often being in a trance, a waking dream that is a “strange sort of tangency between hyper-awakeness and deep inwardness”; the rhythmicity of his steps becoming a metronome that resonated with nature’s music.

Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary
By Yuvan Aves
Bloomsbury India
Pages: 286
Price: Rs.699

In a lot of ways, the naturalist Yuvan Aves’ book, Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary, seeks to find this music of life as vocalised by the creatures that live in the chaotic, urban setting of Chennai. Instead of footsteps on gravel, Intertidal’s meditative prose is set to the croaks of frogs and chirps of crickets or attuned to the whispered conversations of sea creatures. And much like Salopek’s experience, Aves does seem to also find a space that is both hyper-awake and deeply inward.

Intertidal refers to the area where the ocean meets the land between high and low tides. It exists in the intermediate, neither marsh nor ocean. Aves’ Intertidal is similar in that it exists in a space that amalgamates a naturalist’s journal, a coming-of-age memoir of a boy fighting off physical and mental abuse, a treatise on meditation and mindfulness, a stream-of-consciousness note on environmental existentialism, and a chronicle of myopic policies and a cry for action.

Aves’ voice is deeply inquisitive. It is both innocent in observation and emotionally mature. There is a sense of all-pervasive love and wonder.

The canvas for his musings shifts from the beaches and sandbars of Tamil Nadu’s coasts, to the urban forests of Chennai, creeks and estuaries, thermal or nuclear power plants, marshes quickly transforming into IT parks and residential complexes, and fishermen’s hamlets where traditions are still preserved. But Intertidal’s ideas and philosophy are not limited by geography; for, the underlying recurrent message is to pause, observe non-human denizens that share our space, and understand and reflect on our connection with them.

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In a powerful prologue, Aves evocatively describes his interest in nature as stemming from the violent abuse he faced from his stepfather. It is violence that often left him limping, temporarily blinded, bleeding, and bruised. The violence inside the house and the urbanisation of the marsh outside their home in Chennai echoed each other, says Aves. The intertidal spaces of the marshy exterior and the battered interior of his mind meld. There is a moving passage where he refuses to kill a wandering wolf snake on the commands of his stepfather. Aves gets punished violently for his disobedience, and the snake is let off unharmed. Aves is but a child, but he finds kinship with small, forgotten creatures that face their own forms of violence and trauma from declining habitats in the city.

Equal victims

During the Chennai floods in 2015, Aves talks of seeking refuge on higher ground with his colleagues, along with barred wolf snakes, common sand boas, colonies of black ants and procession ants, mud dauber wasps, field crickets, and earthworms. They become equal victims of a city whose rapid growth and destructive design displace the poor and voiceless.

These creatures become his constant companions as he attempts to reconcile and reform his childhood trauma. Later in the book, he talks about the death of his younger sister to cancer. Woven in this tragedy are moths that appear close to her deathbed and inexplicably come to her funeral too.

Intertidal is an impassioned ballad written over two years in the form of journal entries during the COVID-19 pandemic—a period of great upheaval and disruption where Aves again finds rooting in the marshes and beaches of Chennai.

I am not sure I can recall memories of intense beauty in my brief time in Chennai. This is not specific to Chennai but rather a consequence of the ills that plague the modern Indian city: cities that are designed neither for humans nor animals but instead as monuments of a cult-like worship of concrete and asphalt. On the beaches, I remember refuse jutting out of sand or floating in from the sea, and by the estuaries, the stench of the Adyar and the Cooum overwhelmed any sense of calm.

But Aves’ perceptive eye finds beauty in chaos. If most people see only crowds, touts, garbage, and murky waters on Chennai’s beaches, Aves sees honeymooning carpenter bees setting off into the horizon. Or, three-spotted crabs that grab plastic cups and chips packets with both pincers or the decorator worm repurposing discarded packaging as its flamboyant tube. On empty railway lands, he finds the holographic web of the tent-web spider and parental bonding of drongos on neem trees.

The book is not a blind love song to the city: with as much lyrical ferocity, he writes about marshlands housing garbage mounds and those displaced by a shamelessly inequal city, the unnecessary beautification of rivers and coasts, the disappearance of intertidal zones for fishing harbours and ports, the death of sand bars and lakes.

Beyond the lyrical waxings and meditative prose, his musings are peppered with important ideas, particularly on education. Somewhere along the way, he realises that vocabulary learnt on land is woefully inadequate to learn the language of the sea, a language perfected by fishermen who spend hours on its fickle currents. Or, the corrosive influence of the colonial administration that introduced the concept of “wastelands”—in contrast to Tamil’s rich literary history that evokes land in at least 140 terms, each evoking its ecological significance, cultural value, and poetic context.

Of all the settings he takes the reader to, my favourite is perhaps the cement cattle-feed tank, which is one-fourth filled with rainwater. I can only imagine putrid, stagnating water, part of the garbage-scape of the area. But he sees an ecosystem of the fruit flies, pygmy frogs, an aquatic algal jungle, cricket frogs, water skaters, the blue-tailed damselfly, and checkered keelback snakes. Frog eggs become tadpoles and then into little frogs, and nymphs gloriously transform into dragonflies under his inquisitive gaze.

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Throughout the pandemic, he spends hours lost near the tank, where the only other visitors are perhaps drunks looking to dilute their alcohol with the undrinkable water. Here, he ponders the questions of swarm intelligence, the alien-like qualities of insects, the inquisitive minds of children who are perhaps more capable of empathy for small creatures than jaded, adult minds. He finds similarities in his own upbringing: beauty amid horror. It is hard not to feel a certain loss when the tank dries up in the approaching summer and its ecosystem vanishes.

Intertidal has a compelling way of constantly reminding the ignorant and the cynic—including me: I rolled my eyes and skipped the sections prepared as a nature mindfulness guide—to rediscover our Pleistocene state of mind, slow down to our “human time”, and listen to the orchestral music of the tiny creatures we share our home with.

Mohit M. Rao is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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