The artist clarifies!

In the winter of 2004, from my abode in BR Hills, where I was dwelling then, I had all the time in the world to philosophize! I was writing about the artist-scientist ‘polarities’ and one of my senior colleagues in BR Hills, responded to my turmoil by throwing some light. Stephen Jay Gould is a wonderful companion through such confusions on lonely nights…….I am myself quite surprised on what I have just said, but if you ever go to a place like Belgium, after living for a few years in a forest in the Western Ghats, you will know what I am saying!

There is some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. I have pasted below the reply of the ‘artist’ I referred to in my earlier mail. The artist here is the doctor I work with, and he has been ‘seeing’ birds for a coupla‘ decades now. I presume his mail will more appropriately confuse Sudhee! As Guru adds, the mind-body problem is what I had in my mind (!) when I penned my reply. The seat of the mind has been quite a mystery for years. The realm of the answer has been classically left to philosophers and artists. However, it is those scientists who have stood at the shores of ‘science’ and looked beyond the oceans of art, that have seen the answer to everything.
I was just pondering on how science is relevant to the ‘artist birdwatcher’? Is it just enough then if we enjoy the whistle of a thrush and the cackle of a bulbul while not wondering on the hows, whys and whithers?

Consider an artist. A 20 year old man with a lot of ambition, and skilled as well (defining ‘skill’ is altogether another discussion!). He wants to take up landscape painting. Having been in Bangalore all his life, he does not get too much of the natural landscapes he likes. He initially wants some ‘mountain with sunset’ kind of subject to paint. A friend suggests BR hills and he goes there. He spends a day there and goes back to Bangalore with a painting. Which painting would be a true work of art (as they say!)…

1) Mountains with trees, and sun setting: Mountains are portrayed with a diffuse growth of trees and a huge expanse of forest is shown. While the painting itself is beautiful showing a vast expanse of forest, a magnifying glass would only show ‘trees with green leaves’!

2) The same mountains and trees and the expanse but, with an attention to detail…the Lianas hanging, the racquet-tailed drongos flying, the spot of the road (a nightjar for a trained eye!), the shadow of the cloud over the canopy, string of trees on the mountains with a plusher green(where the streams flow!), trees with bare bark near the water body (debarked by elephants!), a huge group of swifts overhead (strong monsoon winds are blowing!). This artist may not at all know what I have indicated in brackets, but his ‘work of art’ incorporates it. It is here that science meets art!

The artist here is like the tern we see or the cow that the doctor saw (refer the article below!) Where the cow or the tern never involve themselves in any ‘bheja fry’ like us, the true scientist-artist would. (Like it or not, we have a neo-cortex); And it is here that we see the meaning of birdwatching. Such should be our observations. In trying to see the angered tern or a ‘single racqueteddrongo, all of us have to look for a satisfying explanation. It is only that for some, this explanation lies in art and for others in science! And of course, the tern or the cow never really bothered, because they were the problem itself! (It is not the problem, but the solution that bothers us)

NB: I looked to S J Gould for some clarity. (Art Meets Science in The Heart of the Andes: Church Paints, Humboldt Dies, Darwin writes, and Nature Blinks in the Fateful Year of 1859 Pp 90-109 from “I Have Landed – The End of a Beginning in Natural History”, Stephan Jay Gould, 2002)

Dr. Sridhar’s reply:

Dear Prashanth,

//snip…Now let me add to the confusion. The word emotion is derived from its Latin ancestor ‘emovere‘ which means ‘to be disturbed’. So literally speaking, the bird was disturbed. To be disturbed is one of the essential qualities of “life”. In addition, emotion is the body’s response to life situations, preparing it to be “responsible”! Again, Responsibility literally means Ability to Respond adequately and appropriately from moment to moment. Coming back to emotions, it is a much earlier manifestation in evolutionary scheme, as the chemicals are released from the primitive reptalian brain and not from the much junior neo cortex. What the birds probably don’t do is to name the various emotions as we do . Our neo cortex constantly tries to name, find meaning where there they are probably not needed.We seem to complicate things in trying to find meaning.( philosophical ? uh?) So “life is constant Disturbance” and the beauty lies in constant Responsibility to the never ending Disturbance !!

I would like to tell you about a certain event that happened a few years ago, which has left a deep impression in my mind. When I was in the clinic, a herd of cows came into the campus. Soon they were being driven away. One of them while trying to get out, got entangled in the barbed wire fence and came down with a thud. I wanted to help it extricate its leg . When I went
near it , it started struggling more vigorously and the leg started bleeding. Hence I withdrew. The cow lay there helplessly, frothing from the mouth and the eyes were upturned and pitiable. Soon, another cow on the other side of the fence came near the ‘fallen’ cow, sniffed it and started
licking. Within a few seconds, the cow came alive and got up smoothly extricating its trapped leg and went away. Probably , I noticed a wide cascade of emotional expressions in the cows, raging from fear, helplessness and love and thankfulness. The animals did not take the trouble to name the emotions, nor did they care to thank! Who knows, after a while they might have locked horns over an inviting bull!

I can only marvel at nature and I think I will be a terrible failure to explain everything . I would rather be an artist!

River Terns, Emotions and Confusing answers!

This post is in response to some very ‘hazy’ topics in the ‘grey zone’ between science and philosophy! The following post by my friend Sudheendra about Black-bellied Terns triggered this response, which led to a wonderful discussion on the same.

Sudhee asked “…During my regular birding sessions……i encountered many water birds….encountered 3 River terns and One blackbellied tern…the river terns “tried to attack” me by making harsh screeching calls in flight, coming very close and taking sudden upflight, everytime i tried to go near the water body….the blackbellied tern was attacking the river tern without the river tern was taking rest on the bank..this blackbellied tern tried to attack it from did that several times! later when the river tern also got angry they had a chase where blackbellied tern with enormous speed was able to attack the river tern more fearlessly…..the river tern’s attitude of territory(?)awareness..or breeding resposiblities have not been given in salim ali…i even observed once a red wattled lapwing trying to attack a DOG when it was approaching (? ) its nest..the blackbellied terns’ attitude ignited a question in me …do birds have emotions..very basic caring(love)..Fear..and Anger or those are only reflexes? can anybody enlight me more…NS?”

Your description is more indicative of a nesting colony of River Terns rather than ‘plain territoriality’. However, I wonder if the lake you talk about can accomodate breeding colonies of River Terns. Does it have open sand banks. Is it a perennial lake and was it big enough. The terns prefer sandy ‘river’ banks for nesting and they may be found nesting in colonies with Pratincoles or with other species of terns. Both the River and the Blackbellied being resident terns occupying almost similar niches, conflict over resource(nesting site, feeding site etc) would be a common occurence. Now coming to your Question on emotions and birds…Hmm…I think it is a question most asked and never adequately answered. Not answered adequately, not because of lack of information to answer them, but because of lack of belief. Such is our hobby (profession??) that it comes somewhere in the grey zone between art and science. I would divide birdwatchers into those with predominant artistic traits and those with predominant scientific traits. Where one says “Blessed are we to be able to appreciate natures beauty”, the other would attribute it to his trained eye! Where one experiences wonder and awe at the Peacock’s tail or the Minivet’s scarlet, the other sees Sexual Selection! Where one sees a remarkable plan and purpose in and eagle’s hunt, the other sees survival! Where one sees ‘love’ when two bulbuls cuddle, the other sees ‘breeding record’! Where one sees anger, the other sees ‘territorialiity’ And like you saw passion and aggresssion in the tern’s action, somebody else will see evidence of a nest and “nothing else”! And so, is the scientist better, because he knows so much more about the whys, hows and what nots? Well, that would be like comparing Alexander and Buddha! (There are no common standards for this comparison)
Yesterday evening during a walk, I was asked by somebody who has been watching(seeing!) birds for 11 years, whether, I could just look at them and not name them. It was then that I realised that I had compromised a lot on the artist front in arming myself scientifically. I realised that my mind said “Scarlet Minivet” when I saw one of the most wonderful birds flitting around and whistling. It will probably take some time to reawaken the part of me which does not conclude anything on seeing. So here is a lot of mumbo-jumbo instead of the answer to your question. Trust me, I have been there and have not found any answers. I am sure the above will help you in your journey to find the answer. Science is one route. It will give you all the explanations that perfectly fit your observations. But does that satisfy you. If you are now told that the terns are mere survival machines which are programmed to react the way they did under particular circumstances, would you be happy to take that answer, just because it is scientific?

Art is another. Just read a poem (I am sure somebody has ‘poetried’ on terns) and you will see that the artist is able to attribute numerous purposes and emotions to the tern’s actions. Read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and you will see how there can be a whole world of gulls with their
own beliefs and traditions. But, how can you prove it, you mind will ask! So, the question rings back. Did the tern have emotion? All we can do is only conjecture or write poetry. The truth is with the tern, and it does not want to tell you!