Category Archives: Science and Nature

Mustard Seed: A Collage of Science, Art and Love Poems by Lalita Noronha

I am thrilled to introduce you to my new poetry book  entitled “The Mustard Seed:  A Collage  of Science, Art and Love Poems” published by Apprentice House Press, Loyola University. The book is dedicated to  my not-quite- three year old grand daughter, Emerson Barlow Blob and my baby grandson Andrew Noronha Blob.

mustard

 

“Mustard Seed” is the name of a poem I wrote for my little sister, Maria, who died of cancer, when she was 5 years old, and I was 11 years old.  I brought her black and white picture in a little silver frame to America forty-some years ago. She lives on my dresser, where I can see her everyday, smiling, and never growing old.

 

Here are two blurbs which appear on the back cover of my book:

“Lalita  Noronha is a rare creature, someone who feels comfortable among the conflicting demands of art and science. In the Mustard Seed she fulfills the promise of her earlier poems on scientific themes, ekphrastic poems on art and artists, and the post-colonial background of her family in India. In her new work, the biological sciences remain powerful sources of metaphors, especially in poems like “Specimen Child,”  “Apoptosis,” “Passive Diffusion,and the astonishing “Beyond the Cenozoic Era.” “The Python,” one of the most amazing poems in this collection, beautifully demonstrates the power of biological description and begs to be compared to animalistic poems by Ted Hughes and Rainer Maria Rilke. It contains the extraordinary line “sorrow swallowed me like a python takes a rat, head first” and the section in which it’s found culminates in a powerful political poem, “Bird of Paradise.”  Finally, something should be said about the tender love poems like “The Shirt” and the ekphrastic poem “The Widow.” I have many other favorites but then this note would turn into an essay. In this sophisticated collection, enlightenment is but a page away.”

–Michael Salcman, M.D., editor of Poetry in Medicine, An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness, and Healing, and author of A Prague Spring, Before & After.

 Whether discussing the process of passive diffusion (“moving from high to low concentration,/down its gradient,/the way honey swirls, thick in the center”) or the pleasure of going to museums (“your oval gold frame,/a pendant on my heart”), Lalita Noronha writes with the precision of a trained scientist. Mustard Seed travels, from Goa to Baltimore, from Bethlehem to Rome, from past to present—always with a finely attended hand to guide the reader. It is a delight.”

 Kim Roberts, Editor, Beltway Poetry Quarterly.

 

 

 

Poetry, Science, Art

In the winter of this year, I was honored to serve as the guest editor for the Science issue of Little Patuxent Review.  Until I became a poet and writer, I hadn’t thought much about how similar the process of writing is to conducting scientific research.

Below is an excerpt of prose and poetry I wrote for this remarkable journal.

The poet is to the human condition as the telescope and the microscope are to the scientist.
-V.V. Raman

To this day, I remember the elation on my botany professor’s face when he peered into the microscope at my double stained section of a dicot stem and burst out saying– “Look, here is where art lies. No painter can paint something so beautiful. No words can describe it.” I was fifteen, a freshman in college. What did I know of science or art? I’ve forgotten my professor’s name and his exact words, but never that one moment we shared.

Science has always been an integral part of my life, not only because I love it, but because it was my financial gateway to America.  Without scholarships and grants, the little V-shaped Indian peninsula on which I was born was as far from America as the furthest planet. At home, however, science and literature were, as Thomas Huxley says, two sides of the same coin.

My father was a botany professor; my mother was a geography and social studies teacher. As educators, they simply insisted that my siblings and I “learn” —at first, anything, and later, preferably something that would earn us a living. Asked to choose between science and arts, I chose science, of course, and botany as my major. No surprise there!

Since then, I have worked with viruses, bacteria, cells, tissues, and animals in academic research institutions and in the biopharmaceutical industry, and with young women as a high school science teacher. It was only then, when my summers were free, that I began writing. And that felt natural and complete.

Unfortunately, science seems to be more at odds with poetry than with other literary genres. Sometimes, poems invoke science-based images as metaphors that are incorrect, simplified descriptions of the science itself. Counterclaims that science robs the wonder of the natural world and of life itself, with its cold, formal, scientific methodology are equally rampant. In fact, poetry and science have always had a symbiotic relationship. Consider Erasmus Darwin’s long two-part poem The Botanic Garden (1789) which together total some 3260 lines structured in rhyming couplets with footnotes addressing, among other scientific issues, the beginning of his theory of evolution that his grandson, Charles Darwin, would later amplify.

Ultimately, scientific research and creative writing both seek to understand the mysteries of life (and death) on our own planet and beyond, and certainly in our imagination.

Here is my “science” poem first published in Persimmon Tree, 2012. http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/fall-2012/international-poets/

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A Poet’s Calculations
By Lalita Noronha

Paired in vials of cobalt blue media,
they mate, metamorphose in ten days,
specks of eggs hatch squirming larvae,
rice-grain pupae, adult fruit flies.
My students chart sex ratios and the inheritance of traits,
black, round-bodied males, spiny oblong females,
sepia eyes, vestigial wings.
They record data, analyze, calculate gene frequencies.
It’s all done in a month.
My calculations: Should I live to be, say eighty,
a respectable age in these times,
that month of teaching, a thousandth of my life-span,
flew by before I stopped to count butterflies,
or wrote the last line of this poem.

A NEW STAR

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 On January 28, 2012, I was in Auckland, New Zealand, walking along Manukau Bay (please scroll down to see pictures.) The fiery Pohutakawa Christmas trees, drunk on red wine, were beginning to sober up. A month past Christmas, and they looked dim, cooling down much like stars do. The pied pipers tip toed across jagged black rocks, dipping deep with their slender beaks to fish out delicacies swimming in their orbits. The oyster catchers were standing in formation ready to take off.

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That day in 2012 was ethereal. For almost five months, I’d been writing my novel, the third draft, for many hours a day, sitting like a hermit crab in my sister’s basement.  Rarely, did I emerge to take a nice walk along Manukau Bay. My life as a writer felt much like a black hole eating light and turning blacker with each passing day, ripping from their orbits, the planets of my own sanity . Everything I had to give went into this black hole, deep into the caverns of this  project. Yet at the end of the day apparently nothing came out, or at least nothing that an agent has picked up so far (though in all fairness I’ve only recently begun the arduous task of finding one.)

Fast forward to exactly two years later, January 28, 2014. I was at home in Baltimore, Maryland. There was an arctic front marching toward us, wind chill alerts, temperatures in the low 20s, an “iced inner harbor.” Nothing in anybody’s garden dared to bloom. Even the ever greens were re-thinking their determination to stay forever green. Honestly, they whispered, there’s only so much snow any living thing can endure.

And then, from Stamford, Connecticut, my son called to say he and his wife were at the hospital and they would be first time parents before the day was done. Although it wasn’t the predicted day, it was going to be The Day. And please, could I not expect constant updates? Hmm, I thought, would 10 minute breaks in time constitute constancy? It wasn’t a good time to ask.

Whenever I feel helpless, I light candles. It begins with a tea light before the six inch Pieta on my mantel piece and then I move to some block candles around the house. The scent drops my high blood pressure and softens the what-if-what-if voices that send me spiraling toward a black hole. This day in 2014, most certainly, was violating the laws governing the rotation of the earth, as it had thirty-some years ago, when I brought a baby boy, now about to become a Dad, into my own orbit.  Imagining this whole scene from Maryland was traumatic. Being in labor myself would have been preferable, I thought, foolishly. (And no, I couldn’t hop on a train and just show up in Connecticut, lest I be blasted off into space.)

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And then, finally, a tiny new star spiraled into orbit. She was  nineteen inches long and weighed 6lb.11oz. She was heartbreakingly delicate.  In the last almost-four months, she’s been gaining speed, mass and volume. She now emits dazzling white light that breaks into colors of the rainbow, and sounds so sweet, she could be a song bird, or a New Zealand tui. But when the sounds change register, the roof of the house almost sails away as Dorothy’s roof did in Kansas.

It is too soon to show her New Zealand’s fiery Pohutakawa trees in December, too soon for her to chase oyster catchers, too soon to see constellations in the Southern Sky, too soon for so much to come. But one January 28, 20–something–we’re going there to Manukau Bay.

(And just between us, her Dad and Mom better not expect constant updates.)

Manukau Harbor–A stone’s throw away!

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The problem with going to New Zealand to write a novel, my goal for 2012, was that I had to mentally go where my characters were, think like they think, and submerge myself in their fictitious drama, of my own making! My characters were in India and in the US, countries that are approximately equidistant from each other and from New Zealand. Little wonder I was in a state of permanent disorientation.

I asked myself why I write, what was the lure, why not walk along the esplanade, or sit on a bench and watch the birds, instead of gaping at a computer screen, doing something that might never see the light of day. Such are the questions that writers ask, and to which I have no sane answer, other than to say I’d go insane if I didn’t write. But did it have to be a novel?

Well, I didn’t go to Manukau Harbor in 2012. But I did go in the summer of 2008, New Zealand’s winter, and here is a glimpse of the many walks I took. (Note: In all my blogs, the pictures are mine.)

Mangrove and tussock grasses, kowhai and pohutakawa trees (see earlier blogs) flax plants and all manner of beautiful foliage line the walkways.  When the tide comes in, those magnificent black boulders and rocks are submerged, but as the tide goes out Manukau Harbor turns into a feast for birds and bird lovers.  The land curves gently along the bay culminating in a bird sanctuary and the Ambury Regional Park.

The Pokeko

Pressed to choose a favorite avian, I’d have to pick the Pied Oyster Catchers, even though they aren’t the prettiest girls in town. Their plumage is all black with a splash of white, but they have strong, orange-red bills to—well catch oysters—of course, (and other mouth-watering molluscs) and pry them open.  At dusk, I’d watch them fill the sky and blow in like scarves of  black silk as they came on shore, and descended in perfect order.Hundreds of them. Each wave settled on the lawn at the rear, row by row, never colliding or arguing, until the lawn itself was a black and orange blanket. And when they took off, they did so in the same order patiently inching forward as if there was an invisible “go” line. I found that fascinating. No one rear ended, or broke rank, or took the back roads. And I read that oyster catchers are monogamous; they have a no-frills nest on land; they share the job of incubating eggs, and in general, are model citizens worth emulating.

But to be fair, I admit they engage in “egg-dumping.” Much like the cuckoo, they sometimes misbehave, lay their eggs in other nests, especially the unsuspecting sea gulls, and expect someone else to raise their young. But that doesn’t happen often, I’m sure. I know because I asked them.

There are other beautiful visitors too— Pied Stilts, Sandpipers, Pokekos, Kingfishers and others. The mottled brown Bar-tailed Godwits and the Red Knots (with their short, green legs) fascinated me because they nest in the Tundras and migrate some 12,000 Km to this beautiful island when their homes freeze. I almost asked them why they’d ever return home to such an unforgiving land.  But then—don’t we all?

http://www.teara.gov.nz

Kerosene Creek: A little piece of Heaven

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I’ve been home in the U.S. for five months caught up in the pace of life and have missed  writing about this little island I call my second home–a blip on the world map.

One of New Zealand’s best kept secrets is a shallow thermal river that runs over an old lava flow just south of Rotorua. Unfairly named Kerosene Creek, the water has a mild sulfur smell, but so does all of this volcanic region.

Tucked off the main highway, on a dirt road marked only by a wooden marker, and barely mentioned in tourist guides, this little river gurgles and steams through an easily accessible pine forest, forming little water falls and natural “hot tubs” along the way. The biggest tub is surrounded by ferns and pines. The temperature ranges depending on the time of year, of course, but having been there both in summer and winter, I’ve always found it deliciously addicting.

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The water gushes with considerable force so you have to cling to the sides for stability. Underfoot, there’s thermal mud to dig your toes into, or scrub your arms with–something that enchanted me more than scooping the same mud from a perfectly labeled jar. (Okay, so to be fair, the packaged mud packs are more muddy and softer.) I even found a little grotto with a flat ledge in the rock, barely enough to sit on. Holding on to the sides, behind a curtain of water, it was a sweet spot in which to meditate in and pray.

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My family, whose tolerance for heat was far less than mine took frequent breaks, drying off, dipping back in, being uncharacteristically patient, and eventually ordering me out of the creek.

If I were young again, I’d come here for a hot candle-lit, moon-lit dip. No, not alone.

Constellations: Of Glow Worms?

 March 23, 2012

I have been rolling the words, Arachnocampa luminosa, a lyrical mouthful, on my tongue all week— ever since I returned from a visit to the Kawiti Caves.  Several million years old, the caves were discovered in the 17th century and are still owned by the descendants of the original Maori family. The walls of these caves contain massive pillars of sandstone and pure white limestone— stalactites and stalagmites growing at the rate of an inch every one hundred years, sometimes into recognizable shapes—the fronts and rears of elephant herds, a polar bear, a bearded man, and more, if you use your imagination.

As if that wasn’t awe inspiring enough, the ceiling of this pitch black cave was magical because it has been home to constellations of slender worm-like larvae that glow like stars in the Milky Way. Walking by dim lantern light, the ceiling was, at times, low enough for me to almost touch a star.

Even at the highest points the “stars” were a mere 22 yards away. Deep in the inky black cold interior, with the lantern extinguished, I stood wrapped in a shawl, conversing with Orion. Some of the larvae-stars were as bright as the North Star; others less so, although they were all lodged on the ceiling equidistant from my eyes. Why? “Because,” said our guide—a sweet 12-year-old Maori boy—“the hungrier the larvae, the brighter the light, and when they’re full, they turn off the light and sleep.”

And then, he gave us a little science lesson which just warmed the cockles of my heart! I had smiled at him when he pronounced the glow worm’s multisyllabic name correctly in his beautiful Maori accent. Now, like the glow worms, I beamed when he said the larvae glow because a waste substance produced in their bodies, luciferin, is converted to a biofluorescent  blue-green substance in the presence of oxygen and energy (ATP).

Andwhere do they get their energy from? From food, just like us, the boy said, which is why they have to catch insects. And so, like fishermen, the larvae sit on the ceiling and cast their nets—vertical, silvery sticky strings that dangle down like a pearl necklace, to which unsuspecting insects cling, and are reeled in for supper. Thin as sewing needles with blue-green tail lights, the larvae grow from a speck (one hundredth of an inch) to a whopping inch and a half. That’s a lot of glowing!

By this time, I decided I’d like to be a larva-star. Glow, eat, and sleep—what’s not to love? But then, my little Maori friend said, Arachnocampa luminosa’s  life span from egg to adult was just 10-12 months! I didn’t like that at all. And the glow worms weren’t even worms. The eggs would hatch to be these voracious larvae-stars that would live for some 9 months, metamorphose to pupae and then on to unattractive flies that would live for a mere 3-5 days because they have no mouths to eat.  That was really discouraging. In fact, their sole purpose was to mate and lay fertilized eggs, or worse, just lay unfertilized sterile eggs, if no males were around.

No, I thought, no—this was much too bleak. No stardom for me. I would just go back home and settle for being a writer on a shoe string.

(Photography is not allowed inside the caves. All pics are taken from the internet.)

http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/glow-worms/1

http://davidwallphoto.com/searchresults.asp?tx=&ts=&c=&g=43&Lids=&Gids=&p=17&n=6748&phrase=

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The Monarch and The Swan

While my neighbor was visiting family in Thailand, she asked me if I would water and weed her garden in exchange for a couple of traditional Thai to-die-for body massages. I happily agreed, forgetting that my body is a grouchy, old, creaky machine with hinges that incessantly squawk and squeak, but is a magnet for fickle-headed mosquitoes, bees, wasps and all manner of biting insects that keep falling in love with me.  Scented with some “new and improved” Bug Guard—(notice how all products are reborn new and improved, yet never attain Nirvana?) I did a fairly decent job except for one patch in the corner of my friend’s vegetable garden.

That’s where a 5 ft. Swan Plant was weighted down with innumerable Monarch caterpillars voraciously feeding on its leaves, stalks, seeds, and seed pods.

They quite literally were stripping the plants clean. Fatter and plumper by the hour, I watched and worried they would fall, nest and metamorphose in my hair as I weeded under the Swan plant.  I have never seen such greed, not even when I binge on ice cream.

The Swan Plant belongs to the Milkweed family(and gets its name from the shape of its seed pods. There is even a dark spot that looks like a beak. The seeds ripen from green to brown and then burst open releasing a cloud of wispy seeds that sail on the wind

to new homes. Originally from Africa and Arabia, it has colonized many parts of the world including Australia and New Zealand. Sadly, in America (and perhaps in other places) Monarchs have been declining due to a lack of Milkweed food plants, insecticides and the pollen of genetically-engineered crops that apparently poison the caterpillars.

(Okay, now let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water—genetic engineering is much too complex a topic for me to insert into this blog)

Let’s just say that the science truly is getting newer and improving beyond labeling and repackaging (unlike my bug spray!)

(Pictures taken by my brother-in-law, Larry Smith)

http://www.monarch.org.nz/monarch/monarchs/monarch-host-plants/milkweed/

What’s In A Name?

The word “weed” conjures up immortal tough grasses with long tap roots that grow down into the belly of the earth and scar your hands when you try to dig them out, and then stubbornly reappear the following year with more vigor. Or the hairy crabgrass that grows wherever the sun hits the ground, along sidewalks, between and in between flower beds, and every nook and cranny of garden space.

When I learned that the agapanthus is considered a weed in New Zealand, I was flabbergasted. This is plant that seems contained, growing in clumps as day lilies do, sending thick, strong stems, 2-4 feet long, at the end of which some 50 – 60 star-shaped purple flowers, each with six dainty petal are arranged in pompom-like clusters.  To me, the agapanthus is a magnificent, stately flower, adaptable to tall, graceful flower arrangements. My sister floats the pompoms like candles in bowls of clear water.

My father, who taught me to love plants and genetically lent me his green thumb, used to define weeds as plants that grow where we’ve decided they shouldn’t. He was particularly fond of the dandelion,those yellow bursts of sunny petals that sprinkle unmowed lawns, or suddenly pop up on manicured ones, and then have the audacity to turn into feathery wisps that children love to blow and make a wish on. Not to mention dandelion wine and salad if you’re so inclined.

Here are some pics of the lovely agapanthus taken near where I live in New Zealand and my poem below.

Immigrant Dandelion

By

Lalita Noronha

Deep within the mud-brown ground                                                                   

of muscle and bone,

pith of water and cell,

a long tap root

sprouts fine fibrous hairs

and runs deep down

into the belly of the earth.

Sunflower yellow blooms

and feathery seeds,

dare to live

anywhere,

between cracks in pavements,

sidewalks,

within gated walls,

between blades of pristine grass

in sculptured lawns.

Undaunted by perennial labels—

(damned nuisance, common weed,)

they grow quietly, striving to succeed.

Ever heard a Tui sing?

Tui in a flax plant

Yesterday, I heard a Tui sing—and that was just one song of her repertoire. It was a beautiful pulsing beat, the sound of a flute, one note, mesmerizing and almost hypnotic. Like us, tuis sing different tunes—joyous, plaintive, flirtatious melodies, and sometimes, they click, cackle, wheeze and grunt. I assume that’s when they’re in a bad mood (like I am now; how could my Ravens not fly to the Super Bowl?) I’m glad I don’t have two voice boxes as tuis do; I’d have a double bout of laryngitis from yelling and cheering. Oh well!

I’ve learned to recognize tuis from their greenish-blue iridescent feathers and the white tufts on their throats, which turn into white shoulder pads when they fly. It’s beautiful to watch a flock in flight. Or even just a solitary little one flitting and flirting about in my sister and brother-in-law’s garden. Next year, there will be many more because the young kowhai (pronounced kofai) tree they’ve planted will burst into bloom—long, yellow, pendulous blossoms, so commonly seen everywhere in Auckland. Tuis feed on their nectar and fruit.

What they love equally well, perhaps even more, is the New Zealand flax plant, whose nectar ferments, causing them to totter a bit, and fly somewhat ungracefully. But hey, they don’t drive, so why begrudge them a little good cheer? Or a night cap?

Here are some pictures taken in Rotorua, about a three hour drive from Auckland, where I presently live.

Kowhai tree not yet in bloom
Tui drinking nectar from flax plant