Review: Intertidal; A Coast and Marsh Diary by Yuvan Aves - Hindustan Times

Review: Intertidal; A Coast and Marsh Diary by Yuvan Aves

ByYashodhara Sirur
May 24, 2024 10:49 PM IST

A compilation of field notes made around Chennai’s wetlands, Intertidal by Yuvan Aves is also a deeply insightful lesson in how nature mirrors the human consciousness

At its heart, Intertidal is a nature journal. A faithful documentation of the time Yuvan Aves has spent in nature -- sometimes studying, sometimes teaching, always observing. It is a compilation of short field notes and nature observations made around Chennai. From Urur Kuppam beach to Kovalam estuary to Velachery Marshlands, it records a diversity of habitats, flora and fauna. And yet, it is a book that works on many different levels. On a spiritual plane, Intertidal is a deeply insightful lesson in how nature mirrors the human consciousness.

Chennai’s coastline (Shutterstock)
Chennai’s coastline (Shutterstock)

286pp, ₹445; Bloomsbury
286pp, ₹445; Bloomsbury

Through Aves’ trained eye, the analogies between the intertidal spaces of the coast and the non-binaries of the mind reveal themselves. The space between sleep and wakefulness, calm and turmoil, self and other, female and male is but an echo of the space between ocean and land. It is a fertile zone, an overlooked area teeming with life. Yuvan Aves, a naturalist and nature educator, writes about this intertidal space on the coasts and marshlands of Chennai. He writes about the people who subsist on it, their challenges, and the learning – both scientific and philosophical that he has gleaned from them.

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Undoubtedly, Aves’ love for nature is the heart and soul of this book. When he describes “a mercury-slick... silvery-opaque” ocean across which shoot the “humming blue bullets” of carpenter bees, the reader just feels the rightness of his words. He describes a mongoose as “A live wire of a creature, a nerve on the move”. I have never read a more apposite description of a mongoose. Aves’ writing is mellifluous and moving, and reminiscent of stalwarts like Aldo Leopold and Nan Shepherd.

There is much to learn from the book and from nature itself. Aves tells us about the incredible living architecture of coral reefs – how single-celled zooxanthellae form friendships with polyps, sea anemones, clams and other sea life to form magnificent reefs. They flout the rules of competition and “survival of the fittest”. They work as a unit and seem to understand that cooperation is the only way to flourish. “What might a coral society be like in the human world”, Aves muses. He presents many such musings, where he takes into account the lived experience of a creature and applies it to the human experience.

Through the book, the reader learns about many interesting natural phenomena – longshore currents that turtles and fish schools use to migrate, how grey mangroves trap sediment in their root beds and are thus “coast builders” and nurseries for fish, how sweat bees are buzz pollinators who loosen pollen from the anthers by their sonification. There is not a single dull moment in the book.

Read more: Yuvan Aves, author, Intertidal – “Sometimes I write to think”

As a local who has spent a childhood exploring the marshes and beaches of Chennai, Aves highlights the traditional wisdom of artisanal fisherfolk and other coast dwellers. For instance, sand dunes protect the coast from cyclones and even act as a rainwater harvesting system. As dunescapes take centuries to form, coast-dwellers would plant palmyra seeds on nascent sand dunes. As the palmyra grows, it traps windblown sand particles and accelerates the shaping of the dune. This is a practice that is slowly losing out. Sand dunes are being diminished due to their demand in the construction industry. Oftentimes, the villagers themselves mine sand in order to make a quick buck.

Aves also talks about how artisanal fishing communities are in tune with nature and cause minimal damage to the ecosystems around them. While trawling and other mechanized forms of fishing wreak havoc on aquatic life, artisanal fishermen are often more tolerant of the aquatic life around them. In places where the waters are overstressed with illegal fishing practices, humpback dolphins have been known to rip fishing nets apart and steal the fish. While humans and dolphins have become enemies in some areas, they seem to have a tolerant attitude towards each other where artisanal fishing practices are prevalent. The dolphins are called sami sura (god shark) and local fisher elders teach the newer generation that the dolphins are not to be harmed. In return, the dolphins rarely attack their fishing nets!

Author Yuvan Aves (Courtesy Bloomsbury)
Author Yuvan Aves (Courtesy Bloomsbury)

As an activist, Aves sheds light on how the repercussions of pollution are unequally felt by the underprivileged. He speaks to street sweepers the day after Diwali, who say that they are unable to breathe after cleaning the toxic remnants of firecrackers on the street. Since colonial times, North Chennai has been unequally penalized by industrialization. It was called “Black Town” by the British. Power stations and dirty factories were built in the region because it housed the less affluent citizens of Chennai. British rule may have given way to Indian democracy, and yet the oppression of these marginal communities continues in the form of evictions, exposure to toxic chemicals and loss of livelihood.

Intertidal is also a memoir, a record of Aves’ difficult childhood and the camaraderie and healing he found in nature. As William Wordsworth famously wrote – “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her”. For Yuvan Aves, nature has indeed been an escape and a source of strength from the tribulations of life. Aves’ gratitude towards nature is evident in the Acknowledgements section where he first thanks his mother and a banyan tree for giving him a childhood. He further acknowledges numerous other creatures alongside his teachers, fellow naturalists, and friends.

Intertidal is a book to be read over and over again with different purposes – sometimes as a nature guide; sometimes as a meditation; sometimes as an inspiring life story of a gifted naturalist and sometimes like poetry -- simply for the golden beauty of its words.

Yashodhara Sirur is a part-time writer and full-time IT professional based in Mumbai.

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