One such occasion was when I was birding two years ago in the grasslands of Nannaj. It was a hot, humid afternoon. After walking around in the beautiful grasslands, savoring its riches, with hosts of larks and sandgrouses keeping company with us, we settled down in a hideout with the hope of sighting one of the most elusive of birds in the subcontinent:the great Indian bustard.
We must have spent several hours sitting in the hideout, fervently hoping for a glimpse of the bird. What unraveled over the course of next few hours will remain deeply entrenched in my memory. A male great Indian bustard gently made its way across the barren land several yards in front of us, where there was a pool of water. Soon it engaged in a display of its finery and to our great amazement and surprise, a petite female walked across! What happened in the next few hours was an experience to cherish. The male stood with its head held back as much as possible, its tail cocked, wings drooping down. It slowly started inflating the gular pouch which was now hanging like a balloon in front of the legs. It produced a deep moaning call to further highlight the effect. But the female did not appear to be too interested and kept a safe distance. As the male wandered off into the grasslands, the female kept pace. We lost sight of the female soon after, as she went deep inside the grasslands. Meanwhile the male continued to engage in elaborate displays. Time was ticking by and the sun was setting in the horizon. In that magical moment in fading light, the female walked out and laid herself down on the ground. The male tapped her on the head a few times and after a brief while mated with her. It was a moment of intense exaltation to watch them as the setting sun caressed the grasslands with golden hues. It was also a moment tinged with sadness about the fragile existence of these majestic birds.
When I went back to Solapur a few weeks ago, I was informed that there are no more great Indian bustards in the Nannaj grasslands. It was a great shock to me that these magnificent birds were no more in their natural habitat…a habitat that is being eroded mercilessly by human avarice and ill conceived plans of industrialization by those in power. Despite their tremendous biodiversity, the grasslands are in throes of grave peril. With their habitat dwindling over time, the great Indian bustard has also vanished from Nannaj.
Soon after my return, by sheer chance I came upon a book by Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. It is a remarkable oeuvre. It focuses on the precarious lives of five bird species, including the Indian vulture. Van Dooren raises many ethical questions about human complicity in their fragile existence. His concepts of the ‘dull age of extinction’ in which their ‘flight ways’ are compromised are useful frameworks to explore the plight of endangered birds. I was particularly moved by his narration of what life is like for those endangered birds who must live on the edge of extinction, balanced between life and oblivion, protecting the young and yet at the same time grieving for their dead. His narration is quite poignant, outlining ways in which we can care for these birds in peril.
Reading Flight Ways also reminded me of another gem of nature writing; The Moth Snowstorm; Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy. He wrote, “The natural world is not separate from us, it is part of us. It is as much a part of us as our capacity for language; we are bonded to it still, however hard it may be to perceive the union in the tumult of modern urban life. Yet the union can be found, the union of ourselves and nature, in the joy which nature can spark and fire in us”.
But often nature is framed as a resource, by viewing forests, trees and the grasslands, in this instance at Nannaj, as economic and marketable entities to satisfy ever-growing human needs….and in the process, the existence and survival of birds like the great Indian bustard is lost sight of.
I was also reminded of Denise Levertov’s poem about our ambivalent relationship with nature, which I quote in full below..
We live our lives of human passions,
cruelties, dreams, concepts,
crimes and the exercise of virtue
in and beside a world devoid
of our preoccupations, free
from apprehension—though affected,
certainly, by our actions. A world
parallel to our own though overlapping.
We call it “Nature”; only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be “Nature” too.
Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
animal voices, mineral hum, wind
conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
of fire to coal—then something tethered
in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.
No one discovers
just where we’ve been, when we’re caught up again
into our own sphere (where we must
return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)
—but we have changed, a little.
It is an evocative reflection of our inability to see ourselves as part of nature, except for those fleeting moments in our sojourns in the wild, when we feel in tune with it.
Wonder whether it will last for long…
Glimpses of an earlier account of the great Indian bustard from an earlier sojourn is at: www.profraguram.com/musings--reflections/at-the-edge-of-extinction1
A few photos from the recent visit at: photos.app.goo.gl/NHi2ZiveLtszwYvK6
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