Decades ago, during an evening walk together, my grandfather plucked a yellow flower from a roadside golden trumpet plant. With his calloused, trembling hands, he peeled back the layers of the petals to reveal the pistil, shaped perfectly like the number seven and chock-full with pollen. He then talked excitedly about bees and pollination. I was twelve, and he was the coolest man I knew. He had not studied beyond fifth grade. He had worked hard on his farm, and then as a priest in his village's temple. He was also a self-taught botanist. He had taken the time to observe nature's little mechanisms in action, while toiling in the rice fields somewhere in rural south India.
A few months ago, my daughter's persistent curiosity led her to wonder about the trees in our neighborhood. What they were, I had no clue. It is not like they had name tags on them or anything, like in a botanical garden. I also realized that, with my smart-phone, I had relegated the answers literally to my fingertips. Why remember it when I can Wikipedia it anytime.
I resolved to do something analog for a change. We plucked leaves and pressed them between the pages of my engineering textbooks. Our bookshelves doubled as a taxonomical library. We could not wait to see how the pressed leaves turned out. A few library books later, we realized that it was the magnolia which shed those gargantuan flowers on the sidewalk, olive trees that flourished by the supermarket, and the tree with the funny-looking leaves was a maiden-hair.
I crushed a eucalyptus leaf and had her smell the delicious medicinal aroma of the released oil. Her eyes lit up like the day 30 years ago, when my grandfather opened my eyes to the hidden world around us.
The other day, she looked up at the lamp-posts along our street and noticed interesting birds peering down. I think I know what our next project might turn out to be.
With a perspective, this is Bhaskar Sompalli.
Bhaskar Sompalli is a scientist. He lives in the East Bay.