Category Archives: Science and Spirituality

Where science and spirituality meet and where they diverge, and the limitations of each.

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.

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“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.

 

 

 

How Far Away is Far Away?

Although I was born in Bombay, now renamed Mumbai, the city was never my home. I grew up in small towns along India’s west coast. But it was home to my grandmothers, uncles and aunts, and my parents would take us to India’s Big Apple for holidays.

As a young girl, I would walk past a rain-washed salmon-colored cottage, past the culvert, and past a field where cows grazed on over-grazed grass, and buffaloes stared with big vacant eyes, unperturbed by flies or children running around. Left-over rain water lay in puddles, riddled with mosquito larvae hatching beneath the surface. Occasionally, the government would spray a film of kerosene oil to kill them and prevent malaria outbreaks, but during the monsoons, the mosquitoes won the battle.

Now, when I visit India, nothing is familiar. The stone culvert has been ground down to dust, the streets widened and tarred, the houses, cottages, gardens and trees gone. Instead, tall ten-storied buildings with iron-rimmed balconies, symmetrically spaced and stacked, reach up to the sky. Gardens have been reduced to strips of land with a few coconut trees, flowers and potted plants, bordered with cement bricks. Barking dogs have replaced the silence of napping buffaloes and lolling cows.

But a little ways down the road, there is one thing that doesn’t change—my visit to my mochi, who still mends shoes and sandals by hand, and unapologetically tells his customers to come tomorrow because he will not hurry, not if they want good work, and if they don’t, they should go elsewhere.

My mochi, the cobbler before he moved far away!
My mochi, the cobbler before he moved far away!

I start down Almeida Road where I expect him to be, but he isn’t there. So I walk a little further down the road scanning the pavements on either side, and there he is — in his new digs! It’s a thin plywood board contraption, water proofed with discarded rain coats, strips of gum boot mackintosh, a black umbrella minus the handle, and irregular patches of water proof pliable plastic. It’s very colorful. And there he sits in a space so low that he must bend to enter it, and when he crouches down and crosses his legs to align the soles of his feet, his head almost touches the ceiling. His feet are like a podium for his customer’s shoes; sometimes they are a clamp as he wields a large needle through the leather—-stitch by stitch, as if he has all the time in the world.

“Namaste,” I say, delighted to have found him. “How are you? Do you remember me?”
He nods, joins his hands, smiles a tooth less smile, his deep eyes filled with kindness. But of course, he doesn’t remember. How could he? My hair is short and curly, my face more lined; a few hundred people walk past him everyday. And it has been three years since I came “home.”

“May I take your photo?” I ask him.
He shakes his head, yes, with pure delight. “Can you wait a little?”
“Of course.”
He almost bumps his head against the ceiling as he emerges, and reaches on a tree branch behind him for a blue cotton shirt to cover the vest he wears while working. He uses his palms as if they were an iron, and presses down, on his shirt, over and over, then adjusts his collar, and shakes his head side-to-side to indicate he’s ready.

I take several pictures and show them to him on the LCD display. He smiles, pleased with what he sees. And that seems to trigger a memory, because I’ve taken his picture numerous times—-essentially every time I go home.

“Ah, you don’t live here,” he says. “Where did you go so long?”
I wave my hand toward the sky. “Bahut dhoor,” I say. “Far away.”
“Me, too,” he says. “ Bahut dhoor.”
“Really? Where?” I asked, happy that he could afford to close shop and travel somewhere, perhaps to see the Taj Mahal. It is after all, one of the seven wonders of the world in his (our) country.
He points up the road. “Oodhur,” he says, “There!”
I look to where he points.
“So many years, my shop was there,” he says. “Under a mango tree. Then, they cut down the mango tree. So, now I’m here.”

I feel my eyes filling up with tears. He had travelled far away too, and set down new roots, like I had done when I came to America.

 

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.

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=

http://davidwallphoto.com/searchresults.asp?tx=stalagmite&ts=&c=&Lids=&Gids=&p=1&n=22961&phrase=

When does New Year’s Day Begin?

My sister, whose home is in New Zealand, told me that she spent the first day of the new millennium sitting in a comfy chair watching the sun rise over the rest of the world. By the time that gorgeous, glittering ball at Times Square began its descent, and strains of Auld Lang Syne filled the air, the new year wasn’t a new born baby anymore.  My sister had already turned the first page of her desk calendar.

That’s how it was last week at Christmas too.  Before the sun rose my family in India had already opened presents and had a spicy brunch. But in America, my family and friends had awakened to Christmas Eve, with plenty of time left to do last minute shopping.  It’s disorienting, at the very least– this time warp, this asynchronous life style with people I love. But it does help me reconcile my faith in a Creator and the science of Evolution.  (Anyway, that’s a story for another day.)

Happy New Year Everyone!

Below is a picture of Hicks Point in New Zealand, where the sun rays first touch land.