‘Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About It.’

The poet Mary Oliver, known for her deeply observed meditations on nature, in one of her writings told us simply how she did it. She wrote: Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.’

We began an exploration of the emotion of awe with our episode ‘Keeping Quiet’ and continued further down the path in our campaign spaces trying to emulate the lovely advice of the poet. In our resource ‘Exercising AWE’ we shared the research related to the emotion and noted how it holds not only physical but also mental and spiritual benefits for us. In order to actively inculcate the experience of awe in our lives, we shared the exercise of A.W.E. (Attention. Wait. Exhale & expand) outlined by the Greater Good Science Centre (GGSC) with our TCC communities and alongside asked them to share their most profound experiences of awe when in nature. Writing, reading and sharing of experiences of awe, in itself is a powerful exercise, as the GGSC article points out.

We asked our communities these two questions: (a) Share with us an instance when you felt awe because of an experience with nature. (b) Why was that experience significant to you? We had expected short quick responses, instead we were pleasantly surprised with lyrically written meditations by various individuals. These reflections reinforced for us the lesson that pausing and engaging with nature is a powerful exercise. Below you can find their responses listed. 

[If you want to share with us an instance when you felt awe because of an experience with nature and why was that experience significant to you – You can write to us at team@thecuriocitycollective.org.]

Sumaiya, New Delhi

Visiting the Ladakh region, the northern most tip of the country, had been on my mind since I was a child and had started travelling to the mountains for holidays. In contrast to the green, densely forested mountains I was used to seeing in the hill stations of Uttarakhand, the stark, lifeless, cold mountain desert had fascinated me in pictures. I wanted to see if this place really existed. Was the isolation as real as it seemed in an image? How did people live there? How did they go about their business? what happened when someone fell ill? The romantic notion of monks meditating in remote monasteries away from everyday distractions sounds intriguing but surely the bare necessities of life must tug at them too. I have had similar thoughts about the remote regions of Afghanistan and Inner Mongolia, although unlike Ladakh, I have not had the pleasure of solving those mysteries just yet.

With Ladakh being fairly accessible, I had the chance to visit it about eight years ago. On our third day in Leh, we took a trip to the now famous Pangong Lake. Driving through the narrow roads on the edge of staggering mountains, the very might of the Himalayas came into full display about an hour into the drive. These were the tallest mountains in the world. They looked unforgiving, harsh and dangerous and yet one felt protected, as if shielded by some unknown danger that lay beyond them. Apart from the towering snow covered peaks and deep endless valleys, the drive was an incredible mix of meadows with wild ponies, small lakes and narrow streams. 

At Pangong Tso (as it is called in Tibetan), the incredible glass like sheen on the lake extended as far as one could see, surrounded by the naked brown mountains. The natural chiaroscuro played out by the clouds as they came and went was a sight that is hard to forget. One moment the water glistened, reflecting the brilliant hues of the blue skies above and in the very next, the passing cloud cover made it colourless, gloomy and grey. I have perhaps never experienced such stark contrasts within moments of each other. As the hues changed every few minutes, feeling small amidst the jagged mountains, I wondered about how much of our lives are centred around the idea of control and how little of nature’s influence on it do we take into account. The people who live in these parts align their lives with the natural world as they understand that the balance of power tilts away from them. We may have ‘tempered’ a landscape to suit our routines but nature does not forget to remind us, just like with the current pandemic, that it ultimately, is the one in control.

Deepika, Mumbai

To the Moss Rose 

Every morning, I wake up and go straight to the window in the next room. On the little ledge are two pots of moss rose which also go by the more pompous sounding name, Portulaca Grandiflora. 

A few weeks before the lockdown began, my mother gave me two cuttings from her generously flowering balcony garden in Bangalore, whispering to them that they’d find a good home. Thus far, my ledge-garden in Bombay has been home to a variety of crotons, a hot-pink bougainvillaea, jasmine, ixora, a peace lily and herbs. The more delicate varieties of flowers (and their fussing), I’ve steered clear of. The moss rose, however, is a hardy one. Within a week of being transported to a new city and a small blue-and-white ceramic pot, she burst into white bloom. Turning towards the sun, her five heart-shaped, papery thin petals fluttered gently in the wind that was coming in from the sea. Opening with the early rays of the sun, the bloom faded away as the evening set in. 

It saddened me the first day, this brief bursting into life, merriment so short lived. As the weeks have passed, however, I’ve fallen into a rhythm-of-sorts with her. In the afternoon, when the light of the sun falls on her, I find myself quietening as I sit with a cup of saffron-and-rose tea, looking out onto the ledge and the sky beyond. Looking into the yellow centre, I find myself smiling back. At different times of the day as I go about conducting the daily business of keeping home—washing, drying, organising the tupperware cabinet—my feet find their way to the ledge in the room where she lives. I look at the spindly leaves, the new buds emerging, and I’m filled with promise. Of this moment and the anticipation of when she will again bloom.

Rebecca, Raipur

This is an incident from more than 10 years back. I had a house on the roof of a three floor building in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. So I would sit and have a cup of team in the huge verandah every evening after work. One evening I remember a beautiful goldenish glow on everything  which was coming from the setting sun: the building, the trees, everything was lit up with this lovely light.. It was both soothing and mesmerizing at the same time.  In part it was quite a spiritual experience for me and I remember thinking that heaven would be something like this 🙂

Arpita, Bangalore

The day had gone by in anticipation of rain. Hot, dark and still it had been till the evening sky became a telltale shade of pewter and sent forth a gush of wind that lifted, all at once, the leaves and flowers off the very trees and the sky was full of dancing – a celebration of all those set free of their bonds! Leaves, the lilac petals from the crape myrtle, the twirling long seeds of copper pod trees; and, joining them shortly were dragonflies, so many of them! Stillness transformed to this dynamic drama, vibrant and thrumming just before the rains pelted down in full force. 

It wrote itself in my memory, that moment, for it made me forget myself and my petty worries. For a while, I was erased. All there was, was an absolute and utter joy in the sheer beauty of the world. And like the leaves and the seeds twirling in the winds, I felt free.

Sharada, New Delhi

I was perhaps aged 19 or 20 when I went for a birding trip to the Kolleru wetlands in Andhra Pradesh. On one winter evening, we went to a spot where it was known that several migratory wetland birds would settle in to roost for the night. As the sun began sinking into the horizon and golds grew to pinks and finally greys, we found a few whiskered terns hovering and circling over a small ditch of water. A few other birds settled into mud patches in the distance. The mud expanse was still mostly empty.  The hovering terns were charming, and some of us even photographed ourselves against them as they spiraled, darting and shimmering. And then someone yelled and pointed to the distance. Glossy Ibises arrived in a stream, wave upon wave as they passed this roosting site for another. The sun was setting right behind us, so the light was magnificent and fell right on what we were watching. Technicolor, cinemascope, every term one can think of when the world puts on a show came to one’s mind.  More terns, pratincoles, and other species began arriving and swarming overhead before settling in. Flocks of various duck species speeding by. Another yell, “raise your binoculars into infinity!” We did. And we were shocked. There must have been millions of terns swarming and dotting the sky that evening. Like microbes when you aim the lens into pond water. We stood there, mouths agape and stared and stared till dusk fell and our eyes hurt trying to focus and search for movement. We came home that night gasping for words, silent, grinning at each other yet. We all had shared something that lit up our hearts like a thousand blooms. An experience that shall never reoccur in the same combination given the probabilities of life. Someone rightly called it, “the dance of life,” because if there was ever a day when I felt overwhelmed by the sheer scale of natural beauty, it was that day. This was still in the 21st century, when bird populations were and continue to be on heavy decline. I think it stunned me to think what this landscape must have been like a mere 30 years ago, or even 100 years ago when the Empire stretched across these parts hunting for riches and resources.  

The other experience I would like to share is from the time I went on a waterfowl census near Kolleru, Andhra again, years later. This one was special as we drove out early in the morning in thick fog beside canals, lush backwater landscapes and arrived at a river side. This was the mighty Krishna river, that had watered the fortunes of the landscape for millenia. The Forest Department had aided us with a boat so we could start counting along the river as we inched to the sea. I had my smartphone on me with only the GPS functioning. So every half hour moving down the river, I’d look up the GPS to see where we had reached. And there it was, the wide open Bay of Bengal; gulls, scuttling crabs, and driftwood everywhere. At last we had reached the coast. The entire landscape, ecology, geology had changed in the course of a few hours. I felt like a tiny inconsequential piece in the much larger scale of the planet, particularly because the satellite map kept plotting my device along the massive river on which millions depend. Should I ever feel self important, I will take a journey down a river again to the sea to remind myself of how small I am.

Suravi, Bangalore

I grew up in a sleepy little town, at the foothills of the Himalayas. One of those picture- postcard places, with two storied houses complete with attic and dog, pretty flowers gracing windows and balconies, and green hills rolling on top of each other, as far as the eye could see. 

The mountains were a constant backdrop of my childhood- in family albums, in school photos, the first thing I saw when my Mother drew the curtains at an unholy early hour of the morning. Pristine and clear on some days, veiled and mysterious on most, but always constantly present. And as is the nature of things that are constant and present, I stopped actively noticing them without consciously realizing it. I smirked at tourists who oo-ed and aah-ed when they saw the Kanchenjunga for the first time, perched on top of sturdy little mules that staggered under their monkey-cap clad, oversized jumper wearing weight, feeling perversely possessive and somewhat smug at being a ‘mountain girl’ – ownership tinged with arrogance, but faded like my grandmother’s wedding photograph. 

Sometime around my last year of high school, my father decided to torture all of us with a trekking expedition. A 25 kilometer trek where the roads were so steep that only the Land Rovers the British had brought along with orange pekoe tea, could hope to navigate the terrain. And even those hardy machines couldn’t make it up the last 10 kilometers. I remember being miserable and sulking through most of the horrendous uphill climb. Nothing in my book-loving, sports-hating, activity-shunning life so far had prepared me for a tiny little dirt track with an incline so steep at times that you were forced to clamber on all fours just to maintain balance. After about 4 hours of my personal version of Dante’s purgatory, I was ready to disown my family, roll down the hill or just burst into tears and never move.

Every breath of air felt like it was attacking my lungs, drops of sweat rolled down my face and pooled on my spine. At a chilly 2 degree Celsius, I was bundled up like a yeti with fingers and toes that no longer felt attached to the body and a face that was the colour and consistency of a ripe tomato. I spent the time plotting revenge, huffing, puffing, refusing to talk to anyone, bitterly resentful of their joy and excitement. I was determined not to make eye contact with anyone, and stared fixedly at the ground, so wrapped up in my misery I didn’t even realise that we’d stopped climbing. I jerked to a halt, my body instinctively stopping before my brain could make the connection, and for the first time in what seemed like hours, I looked up. 

There it was… the tallest mountain range in the world- the Himalayas. The brain is not equipped to register such immensity at a glance, so I saw it in bite size flashes like little jigsaw pieces. Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga, multiple other mountains surrounding these two monoliths that looked little in comparison and were veritable giants in actuality, the burst of sunlight through a cloud that hit one of the peaks and scattered into sparkles, and a dwarf sized rhododendron tree that still had some flowers stubbornly clinging to bare branches. White peak rolled into white peak, the clarity of air and sparkle of sunlight making my breath catch again, but this time it had nothing to do with the climb. I don’t know how long I stood there in utter stillness- feeling grateful, feeling alive, feeling important and insignificant at the same time. 

It’s been two decades, and no amount of teasing or pleading has convinced me to make the trek again. Though the roads have been repaired, the cars are better equipped and I’m told the trail is not as daunting. The experience that I had was almost sacred, and a part of me doesn’t want to revisit it. I have never felt so connected to and yet so separate from something at the same time. When I close my eyes, I recall it all – the cold, the size of the cliffs, the pale thin sunlight swallowed by the harsher shadows of the craggy peaks and through it all the sheer whiteness of the mountains, towering over everything. Mountains that have never simply faded into the background again. 

Anonymous, Bangalore

It was on a drive through the western ghats many years ago when we were driving from Bangalore to the coast. There were walls on the sides and we couldn’t see anything other than the road. Randomly, there was a wooden ladder and a small lookout. It was so strange. Why was it here in the middle of nowhere? We stopped, climbed up and OH MY GOD! We saw a range of hills, valleys and BLUE water flowing below. It was sooooo beautiful. I couldn’t believe something so beautiful was just there in the middle of nowhere.

Anonymous, Mumbai

Over the weekend, I walked down the road outside my building for the first time in 2 weeks. I’ve walked down this road almost every day for the past 20 odd years, but there was an intimacy this time that I had never felt before. I stopped at each tree and plant, savouring them, looking closely, touching leaves and picking up flowers in a time when every bit of contact sparks a little bit of anxiety. Everything feels uncertain and scary lately, but the certainty with which the Bougainvilleas bloomed, the vibrancy of their colours – shades of pink, purple, yellow and orange – gave me a sense of wonder and comfort that will sustain me till the next time I can go outside.

[If you want to share with us an instance when you felt awe because of an experience with nature and why was that experience significant to you – You can write to us at team@thecuriocitycollective.org.]