I can easily recall summer and winter vacations during school days, vacations fully focussed on cricket with countless other kids in the grain fields amidst nature in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand.
As the school opening days approached, a sudden realization of loads of homework, a burden for a 9th class kid, used to torment me. The writing part was easy but what used to irritate us was the meaningless Herbarium File. For which, we were given instructions to use black file pages (which we had never heard of) and sparkle pens (thought of using which excited each one of us).
As the school days drew near, we got down to making the Herbarium. Going to the garden, plucking the leaves of flowers and vegetables and keeping them inside a heavy book, so the leaves dried up faster. Now the wait started. Meanwhile the family keeps reminding me how careless I was during the entire vacation as the leaves need at least a few days to dry so that they can be glued to these black pages.
Only two days left and the leaves are not drying and I am trying to glue these green leaves to the page using glue, but it won’t stick. So, on the last day to escape humiliation from the teacher, I used transparent tape to hold these specimens to the page and wrote the names of the flowers and vegetables in English and local ones in Kumauni. Not surprisingly, similar situations were experienced by most of my friends and classmates. I somehow managed to pull through with the herbarium.
But, why am I recalling this assignment now? Looking at the neighbouring kids doing the exact same thing, I recall my school days. But I also recall something that happened inside me when I went into the garden for the assignment. I had been there so many times before, but when I visited the garden this time and touched the leaves and flowers with a certain purpose, a sense of curiosity flowed in me for a millisecond. Similar feeling I can feel nowadays also on many occasions. But that is the only feeling left of that uneventful vacation of 2008-2009, a time of no android phones and no internet in Pithoragarh.
I always thought, why did our teachers give this particular assignment for vacations? Probably to inculcate a skill, the habit of preserving and documenting a life form and in the process realising the biodiversity present around us, which is seen daily but never realised. The motive was good and should be appreciated but was any kid aware of the motive, of the things he/she was going to learn or should have learnt? No! Nobody was told of any such thing.
This activity which required field visits, talking to people about crops diversity and life forms, why so many forms exist, the need to understand the importance of documentation, neither of us was aware, just like our education about which we never knew what it sought to achieve. This activity could have been a door opener for a kid like me into the nature, that flow of curiosity which lasted millisecond could have been sustained for a longer time only if we knew what we were doing in the garden holding heavy books as per the guidance of our teacher. This activity which should have made us question multiple things never achieved that purpose because the activity was given to us in the form of homework. This hasn’t changed a bit as I see these unguided kids taking shortcuts just to escape the humiliation they will face if they don’t get this work done.
Botanists, explorers like Linneaus, Bentham, Hooker, etc. did this herbarium activity and came up with classification and nomenclature for plants and animals being used worldwide. We are given the same thing to do in vacations but the process is hollow. Kids should be thoroughly made to understand the scientific activity they are given, the assignments should be talked thoroughly and discussed, the background should be made clear, their doubts be cleared in the process, only then we can hope to find a Linneaus, Bentham or Hooker or even a Panchanan Maheshwari from these kids. These little activities should not be taken lightly, these activities hold the key to a whole new world for the kids if used aptly.
I was lucky enough to get to live this experience to its fullest in the 2nd year of my B.Sc. when I had taxonomy of flowering plants as one of the papers, but what about those who never got this second chance? Their potential gateway to nature was shut forever...!
Mahendra Singh Rawat (M.Sc. Zoology), New Colony Aincholi, Pithoragarh-262530, Uttarakhand
(The views of the author in the blog are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of Science Reporter)