Lessons my Dad taught me about life and conservation
Sriyanie Miththapala’s tribute to her father P.A. Miththapala who passed away on May 23.
Woosh, the wind tears past as the train speeds towards Jaffna. Four years old, I sit on my father’s lap as he sits on the steps of the train, in an open doorway, holding me with one arm, while he anchors us to the train with his other.
My nine-year-old brother stands in the open doorway behind us. “Drongo!”, “Chestnut-headed bee eater!”, “Pied Kingfisher!”, we shriek, trying to name the birds perched on electricity cables. The ‘game’ was to spot birds and identify them as the train went past.
|P.A. Miththapala: A teacher of nature and much more. Pic by Ranjit Galappathi
At that time I saw nothing strange about sitting in an open doorway of a moving train or that aged four, I could identify with ease more birds than an average person would as an adult. At that time I saw nothing out of the ordinary that our family would have dinner table conversations about Shakespeare and Shakeer Falcons, Dendrobiums and drongos and that at a very young age, I could distinguish between scarlet and vermilion.
I do now.
Currently working in the field of conservation education, I realise with clarity that my father lived his life maintaining an exquisite balance of conservation and education. Long before ‘conservation education’ became a catch phrase, Dad effortlessly practised it, although he was a cartographer by profession.
He was trained to make maps that were not only precise and accurate, but also pleasing to the eye. His talent for painting gave him an eye that could spot subtle differences in colour and make detailed observations effortlessly. His training allowed him to be meticulous in recording what he saw. His love for natural history provided a driving force. His belief in practising what he believed meant that he automatically disseminated information. His zest for life and huge enjoyment of it made learning from him not only effortless but also fun.
It was a mosaic of personality, talent and skills made in heaven.
As far back as my memory goes, I remember that Dad painted. We hung round him while he painted, watched and mimicked him. While doing so, without knowing that we did, we learnt to observe and record our observations meticulously. As a zoologist returning to Sri Lanka after completing my tertiary education, I watched with awe when he designed the stamps for the centenary celebrations of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society and the Orchid Circle. At 78, his background research would have put most graduate students to shame. Initially, he had to see real specimens of the animals or flowers he painted. After making detailed sketches, he would carefully read all that was written about each species and check each drawing for accuracy – often going back to the specimen.
I accompanied him when he went to look at specimens and his enthusiasm and energy would sometimes leave me panting to catch up with him, both physically and mentally. Next, he would supplement each sketch with several photographs. Finally, he would sit in his study with the photographs, sketches and annotations on his table. He would then fill several pages of yet another sketch book with detailed drawings of various poses of each species, going back again and again to the information on his desk. When he had several pages of sketches, he would choose one, transfer it onto the final plate and proceed with the final painting, paying as much attention to details as before - feather after feather or scale after scale painted on with accuracy and precision.
Watching him, I learned, without knowing I did, that when one accepted an assignment, one did it thoroughly. His attention to detail not only taught us to be thorough but also taught us always to strive for perfection and give of one’s very best. I remember when he made topographical models of the dams and tanks of Mahaweli schemes. I sat cross-legged on the floor, assisting him as he placed one dab of plaster of Paris at a time on a model of the Victoria dam, leaned back looked at the effect, and then added another dab, repeating the process. Meanwhile, the Mahaweli engineers smoked nervously and paced our verandah as the hands of the clock raced towards the ultimate deadline for the completion of the model: when Queen Elizabeth would ceremoniously lay the foundation for the dam. What gave the engineers peptic ulcers and what my father was supremely unconcerned about was that the Queen was already in a motorcade to Kandy while the model was still being finished in Colombo.
Finally, Dad picked up his brush, added a few judicious strokes and the model - already alive with the energy it was supposed to produce - was finished. The harried engineers loaded their precious cargo onto a van that would take them to the Ratmalana airport from whence they would be flown to the site. They expected Dad to join them so that he could be introduced to the Queen, but Dad yawned hugely, declined, and slept through the nationally televised opening ceremony.
That day I learned a lesson that I would carry with me for the rest of my life: that not only did I always need to give the very best of myself in whatever I did, but after that, I only needed to step back and let my work speak for itself. I also learned not to hanker after the influence that power brings.
In the process of teaching us how to observe nature and record it meticulously, Dad also taught us to understand and appreciate its beauty, as well as to protect it. A butterfly with a damaged wing, for example, provided fodder for teaching. We would look at the butterfly with a magnifying glass and then pore over encyclopaedias. We learned that stripped of the many layers of scales - which gave butterflies their iridescent colours - butterfly wings would be as transparent and as uninteresting as the wings of flies.
Any animal that could not be rehabilitated was adopted as a pet, and I learnt very early in my childhood to come home from school with a half blind kitten or magpie robin with a broken wing. Those that we were not able to save with TLC were given a ceremonious burial with Dad draped in a tablecloth in his role as the priest and our cook carrying an upended broom as a banner. Dad would solemnly bury each dead animal while my mother muttered about blasphemy.
I realise now that these elaborate burials, efforts to nurture injured animals and Dad’s determination to rehabilitate animals instilled in me, at a very early age, the fundamentals of conservation biology.
Without realising it, we also learned the principles of ecology. After we’d moved into our own home, Dad decided that we needed a pond and so, with great verve, we dug and built one. By trial and error, we found the delicate balance that was needed to maintain a healthy pond: submerged and floating water plants, herbivorous and detritivorous fish as well as the correct mix of water, oxygen and nutrients. We learned first hand that each organism had its place in nature and that we not only had to protect them but also had to maintain the delicate balance of nature.
Dad also taught us the fundamentals of restorative ecology. When he built our house, Dad had to cut down 19 coconut trees. When we moved in, the garden was a barren slash of kabok earth, and my parents set about planting trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Instinctively, they mixed the tall with the short, flowering plants among ferns, caladiums with coffee. Fifteen years later, our garden was a verdant haven for birds, butterflies and other creatures. It still is. Experiential learning was something in which Dad totally believed. When a favourite aunt emigrated to Australia, we sat round the dining table with a globe and spun it this way and that and learned about relative velocity and the earth’s rotation round the sun.
Through experiential learning, Dad taught us always to question and investigate. He never hesitated to open up a machine (a tape recorder, a camera) and look inside it to figure out how it worked. He taught us the process of deducing what was wrong based on what we saw, and thus, taught us analytical and logical thinking. The major lesson that I learned through this process was never to fear the unknown as long as I had the ability to think things through.
Dad’s enthusiasm for learning was infectious though not always at 2 a.m. Once, when he woke me at 3 a.m., I stumbled out of bed, complaining, and was jolted rudely awake to find several neighbours seated on the verandah – in their nightclothes like me - drinking coffee and enjoying a clear view and discourse on Halley ’s Comet.
Dad always made learning fun. I am reminded of a simple game that my parents developed for my brother and me, which we all played with my niece and nephew when they were children. One person would start off the game by naming an animal. The next would name another animal starting with the last letter of the previous animal’s name. It was simple but it tested not only our zoological knowledge (“Pigeon”, my mother would say and my then nine-year-old nephew would yell “Numbat,”) but also our spelling capabilities (“Antelope” I would say and my then six-year-old niece would pipe up “Pig”).
Dad taught us that one of the best ways of overcoming the vicissitudes of life was to laugh at them. He taught us that a little lunacy went a long way towards making life easier. Never one who was hemmed in by inhibitions, he would suddenly become spastic while walking down a public road, or develop a serious stutter in a shop while we giggled haplessly. Often, when our friends stayed to dinner, he would look at a roti, rear up with an air splitting shriek and break it in two with a karate chop.
Dad taught us that the best way to overcome trouble was to realise that life, with all its evils and pitfalls, was really okay and for the most part, fun, particularly if one accepted that the joke was on oneself.
As I remember Dad not only with love and respect, but also with awe, I know that if I can accumulate half his encyclopaedic knowledge or practise one third of his commitment to anything he undertook by the time I am 60, I can truly make a difference to the lives of others, as he indubitably has.
I am reminded of what Ralph Waldo Emerson said and paraphrase it here:“[He had] much more experience than I have written here, much more than I will, much more than I can write. In silence we must wrap much of our lives, because it is too fine for speech.”
First published in The Sunday Times
October 5, 2003.