A lesson from the coast

Chintan Girish Modi

Yuvan Aves is a Chennai-based naturalist, writer, and educator who conducts “shorewalks” to get children acquainted with creatures they share coasts and oceans with. He wants them to appreciate how human lives are connected to the lives of these creatures, understand why their habitats are under threat, and participate in conservation. To fulfil these objectives, he has written a book called Shorewalk, which is recommended for ages eight and above.

In keeping with this target audience, the book has a strong visual component in addition to the writing. It contains photographs by the author as well as Ketki Jog and Dipani Nitin Sutaria. Naomi Antia Hemmadi has illustrated it and Niveditha Subramaniam has designed the cover. The book is published by Tulika Publishers, an indie publishing house in Chennai.

In this book, he writes, “Most of us go to beaches for fun. But if we can learn how to observe more closely, they can become extraordinarily alive spaces with endless mystery. Multiple stories are always unfolding here, numerous beings and voices are speaking together – converging and weaving into one another in ways we are only beginning to notice”.

The author introduces readers to various kinds of living organisms such as the oxygen-producing phytoplankton found in oceans, olive sea snails that look like long smooth pebbles, scavenging ghost crabs threatened by microplastic left on beaches, oysters that filter about 200 litres of water a day, hermit crabs that befriend sea anemones, Olive Ridley sea turtles that dig pits to lay about 100-200 eggs, and humpback dolphins that speak different dialects.

What is most impressive about this book is the effortless mingling of science, poetry, storytelling, and advocacy. This is possible because these threads connect organically in the author’s life. He writes thoughtfully about the traditional knowledge of Chennai fisherfolk that cannot be picked up from a book, and argues passionately for the need to take care of coastal ecosystems like mangroves, oyster reefs, salt marshes, sand dunes, and seagrass beds.

This book appeals to reason and emotion. It gives readers a wake-up call, alerting them to the adverse impacts of climate change, but it does not leave them with fear and disappointment. The author encourages readers to learn about and participate in citizen science “where concerned citizens observe, learn about different species, record and share their data on platforms, to help with scientific research”. He strikes a much-needed note of hope.

We interviewed the author about Shorewalk, and other projects that he has worked on.

What got you interested in coastal biodiversity? Could you recall a moment or an experience that catalyzed this intimate relationship you now have with seas and coasts?
In January 2019, there was a mass beaching of blue-buttons in Chennai. These are small coin-sized creatures that look like jellyfish. They are made up of polyps. Thousands of them washed up on the shore. I got deeply interested in coastal biodiversity around that time, so I started documenting it seriously. In 2018-2019, I also got involved with the “Save Pulicat” campaign in Tamil Nadu and that made me think deeply about the impact of coastal infrastructure on living beings, coastal communities, hydrology and the climate.

How did you end up writing this book? Did Tulika Publishers approach you or was it the other way round? Did you write it hoping to inspire children to become naturalists?
Radhika Menon, who is the Publishing Director at Tulika, called me and said, “Let’s do a book”. We discussed many ideas. During this period, I was already neck-deep in conducting shorewalks for different kinds of people – children, youth, teachers, parents, and so on. I was excited to work on a book that would feel like walking along the coast and seeing things unfold. She said, “Okay, fine, you strongly feel about this. Go ahead and write it!”

Are Kadalamma and Palayam Anna fictional characters or people you personally know? What made you choose these protagonists to tell your story?
Elders from fisher communities are among my greatest teachers when it comes to the coast and the ocean. I have learnt a great deal from them – stories about different forms or life, ocean currents, how to read weather, and so on. Perhaps most notable among them is Palayam Anna who is from Urur Kuppam in Besant Nagar, Chennai. He is very much a real person, not just a character in a book. Along with him, I wanted another protagonist who would be a young girl; someone who is curious about nature, about all forms of life. I chose the name Kadalamma because she is the goddess or the ocean mother whom fisherfolk pray to. She is a formless spirit with great agency, often represented with three dots on a stone.

Last year, you received the Green Teacher Award from Sanctuary Nature Foundation. Could you tell us about your work with Pathashaala and Abacus Montessori School?
I became a nature educator at the age of 16. I was living on a campus called Pathashaala run by Krishnamurti Foundation India on the outskirts of Chengalpet near Chennai, and wanted to conduct nature walks for children from the government schools around us. The teachers from these schools were not very receptive at first but when we were able to convince them that nature walks would improve their students’ performance in mathematics, science, and language classes, they allowed it. I was able to curate a programme that was entirely biodiversity-based and landscape-based. I enjoyed working on it between the ages of 16-18. After that, I got involved with coordinating a programme called “Farm, Environment and Society” at Abacus Montessori School in Chennai. I am still associated with it. We begin with children who are two and a half years old and go right up to Class 12. I was also part of starting Palluyir Trust for Nature Education and Research in Chennai. We do a whole lot of things – workshops, programmes, and material creation around biodiversity and climate.

You have been travelling along the Indian coastline to document stories of coastal communities, biodiversity, conservation efforts, habitat loss and changing coastal geographies. Could you name some of the places in India that you have covered so far?
This work is part of a study with the Madras Naturalists’ Society. I am the Project Lead. We are documenting three aspects – biodiversity, local knowledge, and threats to coastal landscapes across Tamil Nadu. At this point, we have done a thorough study right from Pulicat in the north to Rameswaram in the south. We have travelled along every bit of coast in that space. We have studied and assessed the current status of what have been declared as Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas (ICMBAs) by the Wildlife Institute of India. Besides this, I have been collecting narratives of changing coastal landscapes from Kerala, Goa, and the Andaman Islands. Most of my work is situated in Tamil Nadu.

Are you documenting mainly through photography and writing? What is the purpose of this documentation? Where, in what form, and with whom would you like to share this?
The documentation is taking many forms. We have written a scientific paper on the current status of coastal areas with great biodiversity in north Tamil Nadu. Then there is a coastal field guide for Chennai with 160 species found on our beaches. People are often surprised because they have lived in Chennai for two or three decades and not noticed these species. We make posters. We bring out books. After Shorewalk, I have a bigger book coming out next year. It is called Intertidal. We have an activity book called Seashells, which can be downloaded from the Palluyir Trust website (www.palluyirtrust.org). It is for parents and educators to use coasts and beaches as rich living learning spaces beyond any classroom. It is aligned with Montessori theory, multiple intelligences, academic goals and conservation values.

Do you have any thoughts on how schools can look at climate change in connection with equity and justice, food security, public policy, and living in a capitalist society?
Chennai is among the most vulnerable places in the world when it comes to climate impact. Climate education, understanding the various impacts of climate change, and some form of action-based engagement is essential in all schools. Recently, the Chennai Climate Action Plan released by the Greater Chennai Corporation showed some grave truths about the city’s future and the people’s future with respect to rapid sea level rise, sea incursion, flooding, massive economic and other kinds of losses, heat, and so on. Coastal landscapes are vulnerable to climate change but they can also serve as bulwarks against climate change. I am currently working on an engagement-based climate curriculum that is applicable for Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India in that order of relevance. It is aligned with middle and high school academic goals across subjects. If you look at some of the countries that have made climate change a compulsory part of the curriculum, notice what they are focusing on. Singapore, for example, is focusing on reading comprehension. That does not go far. Young people need to participate to feel part of something constructive that will change their impending reality.

What can schools do to engage with the climate crisis in a way that is solution-oriented?
I would suggest a three-fold approach that schools can use to bring climate education into their curriculum in a meaningful way. 1) Monitoring studies: Children can study the phenology of trees by keeping a calendar throughout the year to note when trees flower, fruit, shed leaves, and so on. One of the first signs of climate change is trees getting confused because of erratic monsoons. Children can also study migration of birds and butterflies, or monitor ocean currents. They can get a first-hand understanding of local landscapes. 2) Collecting local narratives: This involves speaking with different groups of people who have been living there for decades; finding out who is vulnerable, and who is not. These interactions with communities bring complexity to how children learn about climate change. 3) Engagement: Learning about city administration, the right to vote, and tools to advocate for change empower students to move in the direction of creating what they need for themselves and their community. They could write letters to authorities, or run campaigns around issues. Using these ideas, schools can come up with an actionable climate curriculum.

The author is a writer, journalist and educator based in Mumbai who can be reached at chintan.writing@gmail.com or @chintanwriting on Twitter.

Leave a Reply