Yuvan Aves, author, Intertidal – “Sometimes I write to think” - Hindustan Times

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

Apr 19, 2024 09:56 PM IST

Intertidal, a diary on Chennai's coast, wetlands, and climate, evolved from personal observation to a public resource. It explores the interplay of nature, activism, and self, offering meditative reflections for all readers.

Intertidal is based on a diary you wrote in Chennai between 2020 and 2022. What made you record your “observations of coast, wetland, climate and self” in such detail? Did this start out as something personal, or was it always meant to be public?

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

There were multiple entry points into this book. Deep observation, note-making and writing has been my practice when I’ve had any close engagement with a local landscape or the natural world or an environmental campaign. This (between 2020 to 2022) was a time when I was getting deeply involved with multiple coast-related campaigns; for instance, the Save Pulicat campaign against the Adani mega port; then there was the Kaliveli harbour issue for which I filed a case in court as the public campaign didn’t work; we were also looking at issues in the Adyar Urur Kuppam area — where a bridge project and different things were coming up — and the Odiyur lagoon.

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Along the entire 200 kilometres of coast, I was engaged in multiple issues. In the process of advocacy, travel, campaigning, conversation and ground work, I also wanted to create a literary work that would evoke these landscapes powerfully in people’s minds in such a way that would be able to appreciate how our identity is indelibly interlinked with these spaces that are so important for us and all manner of life. Sometimes I write to think; sometimes I write to express and put things out in the world. It resulted in a detailed documentation of a large stretch of coast, local biodiversity and local communities, threads connecting to them, and a constant effort to create material like citizen science data and educational resources.

Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary published by Bloomsbury, is one such resource. Shorewalk, published by Tulika, was another. A field guide to the coastal fauna of Chennai, on the Palluyir website, is another. Then we have Seashells, a small activity book on oceans and coasts. With this, any teacher can use the coastal space as a rich living learning space beyond the classroom. We have released a field guide to marine fishes of Chennai. Intertidal is a deep convergence and culmination of many things. It is perhaps the most salient of all.

How do you explain what “intertidal” means to people unfamiliar with this word?

When you go to the beach, you find that the waves, the ocean, the water level... t goes in and comes out at six-hour intervals because of the combined pull of the sun and the moon. The space, which is uncovered during low tide, and covered during high tide, is called the intertidal. That, of course, is the physical or oceanographic definition. But the intertidal is also a very rich metaphor in terms of metaphysical space — a space where land and ocean meet, merge and blur boundaries. This space is ecologically vulnerable but also very rich in life. Any intertidal space can help you think about other intertidal spaces; for instance, the intertidal space between self and other. What is the blurring boundary between that? When you stand on the coast, you wonder: Where does the ocean start? Where does the land begin? As such, the binary between land and water is broken. Similarly, we can think about the intertidal space between inner and outer; the intertidal space between human and non-human. All these clean binaries, these broad strokes of categorization, influence so much of our thinking and limit it in a way. The intertidal helps us perceive in a richer, deeper way.

286pp, ₹699; Bloomsbury
286pp, ₹699; Bloomsbury

For whom did you write this book?

For whoever picks up the book and reads it! One of the things that I have followed in this book is to make action — either a campaign, direct observation, conservation, or work in nature education and self-enquiry — my fuel for the writing process. In hindsight, I can say that a high-school child or an adult can read this book and make meaning out of it. But while writing the diary, I wasn’t thinking about the target audience or who would read. I was trying to get at the essence of what I wanted to say, the feelings that were coming up while writing.

I was struck by this beautiful sentence from your book Intertidal: “A bee, a river, a gecko and a human have equally valid and valuable perceptual fields, none of them more special than the other.” How did you come to this understanding?

A lot of what I have put into this book is insight from direct experience. Some of these things cannot be explained intellectually. But one trope in this book is that the world we live in is a magical place. In the common imagination of all human cultures, with respect to magic, we find that everything is alive and everything is speaking. Take the Biblical stories, or the great epics of Hinduism, or stories from indigenous cultures, or even the Harry Potter universe and The Lord of the Rings, we see that the trees are speaking, water has agency, the planets have agency, other creatures have extraordinary potencies and ways of speaking and foretelling and holding wisdom. We live in such a magical place too. The insight that a gecko has a perception of the world that is totally unique and a perspective that is entirely unknowable to me, and therefore holds a wisdom that I can go to and learn from, comes from a place of deep humility and wonder and being a student to the living world. As author John Steinbeck said, “Let’s learn at the feet of living things.” Insight comes from living like this.

Often, magic and science are presented as polar opposites. But, in your book, one sees them flowing unobtrusively into each other. How did this happen for you?

The process of writing this book often came from spaces of insight and direct experience. When I was on the coast interacting with children from the fisher community and taking a class for them, or I was counting the eggs of a turtle because they needed to be transferred to a hatchery, or I was involved in figuring out how to not let a road expansion extend into a coastal wetland… those were all spaces of direct experience and therefore direct insight.

When one writes from such a space, the intellectualizing process is quieter. The analysing, thinking mind works in binaries, and I have explored in the book how nature allows us to transcend these binaries that are often sources of conflict in our lives. Nature shows us that binaries are approximations to make our perceptual process easier but there comes a time when it is erroneous and not useful. I could merge the binary between living and non-living, between I and other. These are mental constructs. When you analyse them, you find that you had created mental patterns to make perception easier but they were culturally conditioned or contrived by yourself. Insight comes when one is able to go beyond that process of thinking.

Speaking of direct experience, I noticed that the word “meditation” appears in the title of every chapter of this book – Ocean Meditation, Tree Meditation, Rain Meditation, Detritivore Meditation, Difference Meditation and Intertidal Meditation. What does meditation mean to you? How has your practice and understanding been shaped by the Krishnamurti schools you’ve studied and taught at?

Often, when people have asked me what my book is about, I have gone silent. Let me collect my thoughts. The natural world is a place that walks us back home — as Mary Oliver says — to an inner dimension that can live, perceive and relate in a much more beautiful and deeper way; powerful portals to that exist through direct observation and engagement with the living world that we are entangled in. Broadly speaking, there are four things that I explore in this book: the multi-species world as a portal into self-enquiry, the nature of our mind and inner patterns; the nature of reality or the fact of non-separation; activism, which is the constant practice of one’s selfhood being entangled with the river and coast and the tree and the bird and the butterfly – so speaking up for them and perhaps as them; taking children and the public and everybody into these spaces, facilitating conversations and discovering collective selfhood. How then does meditation come into the picture?

Meditation is direct perception of something without the filter of thought. You are observing something as it emerges, as it arises. Often, meditation is a collective process. Each chapter in the book has a certain meditation. Each of the messengers in the living world speak to us and help us reach a certain depth of our psyche, which can be reached only through them. In meditation, there is a full immersion. As J Krishnamurti said, “The observer is the observed.” Let’s say that, in the process of meditation, you are looking at a flock of migratory ducks in a lagoon, when there is full immersion in that experience, there is no binary. There is no person observing and creatures being observed. What is there is just observation. There is no me; there is no other. Much of this book is written from that space where boundaries disappear. And, of course, as you noticed, there are direct meditations too in each chapter.

In the book, you mention several people you draw inspiration from. How have three of these — Fritjof Capra, Gary Zukav and Karen Barad — influenced your world view?

The Tao of Physics, written by Fritjof Capra, is beautiful because it looks at parallels between various schools of spirituality and the findings of quantum physics. For instance, the fact that you cannot extricate the observer from what is observed is so prevalent in the quantum realm. Similarly, through meditation, we can see how thoughts create reality. These parallels were powerful for me. My engagements in nature threw up the same findings. I read him when I was in my late teens, going through a turbulent phase, and I was just blown away.

Gary Zukav’s book The Dancing Wu Li Masters is important because it looks at parallels between Eastern traditions, Native American traditions, and findings of modern cosmology. I name Karen Barad because of how they have deepened our sense of what is alive and not alive. Barad writes about the queerness of lightning, which is so non-linear. Before a lightning charge can start, the lead charges next to the ground know where it is going to come. This is so out of our normal conceptions of space and time — constructs built to make sense of the world and not absolute realities. Barad’s extraordinary book Meeting the Universe Halfway is about what modern physics and its very unconventional and troubling findings can offer us to socially, politically and ecologically reimagine the way we live.

You have written about experiencing verbal abuse and physical violence from your father and stepfather while you were growing up. Did the process of writing it all down feel like a weight finally lifting off your shoulders, or were you worried because intimate parts of your life are now out there in the public domain? 

Yes, initially, while writing, there were times when I asked myself: Should I say this or not? But it is an important story to share not because of how I am opening up and being vulnerable — which I am — but because it is an authentic and true story of how deep connection with all of life can recast one’s suffering and fuel meaning and vastness into one’s life. I had severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of five years of intense physical abuse. The psychological wounds stayed with me for the next decade but I learnt the process of converting that into life-giving energy. I broke the cycle of violence. It is important to do that or you pass it on and another person has to hold it. I was able to work with my suffering and crack the shell of different illusions. The natural world, other living species, and the non-human helped. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t gone through suffering. In some sense, I am even grateful that I have suffered. No person who has done something worthwhile in their life has not suffered. I was lucky to find opportunities and pathways to transform my suffering. When it is not transformed, it becomes poisonous.

While reading the book, I felt that it would offer comfort and strength to people who are feeling unloved and alone, struggling with their identity, and having suicidal thoughts. Did you have this in mind while putting the book out into the universe?

That would be amazing. If my book is able to help someone reshape the energy of suffering in their life, and convert it into something fertile and beautiful, it would have really served its purpose. We can heal through connection with our larger family — this universe.

People involved in environmental activism and social justice movements often feel burnt out by their rage against oppressive systems. How have you worked with this at a personal level? Is there space for meditation in the collectives that you are part of?

I look at activism the way Alice Walker did. Like she said, activism is my “rent for living on this planet”. It is a way of living in deep entanglement with all forms of beings and communities. Standing up for them and working towards collective well-being — that is what activism is all about. I am interested in the work of evoking beauty in people, igniting hope, and deepening relationships. This kind of activism is an expression of reciprocity and gratitude. There is no ego associated with it. There is rage and burnout in forms of activism that are about asserting self and frontality.

Terry Tempest Williams talks about sacred rage; for example, when a river is part of your identity and somebody is trying to dam it, you get angry and it is an important form of rage that we need to talk about. It is called sacred because you want to fully feel that rage and act purposefully out of its depths. Something useful comes out of it. It is different from other kinds of rage that come out of a shrunken sense of who we are — wanting to be seen as winning a battle against somebody. In that form of activism, there is conflict, burnout, breaking up. We need to redefine activism as facilitating falling in love with the living world.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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