Science is a way of knowing. This is an attempt by Nityanand Jayaraman, together with The Wire Science, to learn, explore and communicate a different way of knowing. Mainstream education has valourised only one form of knowing – namely, the ways of institutional western science that have dominated knowledge discourses since the industrial revolution. Traditional sciences, if at all considered, are viewed patronisingly.
‘Science of the Seas’ is a deep dive into the knowledge systems of the seas as seen from the perspective of artisanal fishers. Marine biologists may be experts on the living beings of the sea; ocean hydrographers may be adept at mapping ocean currents and upwellings; meteorologists study atmospheric phenomena to make sense of the weather.
Not one of these experts needs to be able to venture out to sea, know enough of fish, their habits and habitat, read the weather and ocean conditions with sufficient accuracy to decide on whether a fishing trip would be worth it in terms of physical and financial risk, and return home with fish in their boats and life and limb intact. Artisanal fishers do this every day. For this, they use not just science but also a fair measure of faith and spirituality.
The manner in which fishers make sense of the seas, or the hill tribes of their home grounds, is a hand-me-down science refined over years of intimate observation of natural phenomena and the behaviour of native life-forms. Agencies as lofty as the United Nations-supported Intergovernmental Science Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services have emphasised in no uncertain terms that humanity’s emergence from the natural crises that is imminent is not possible without inspiration from the traditional systems of knowledge.
The everyday science of artisanal fishers is democratic, freely available and has its own pedagogy of embedded apprenticeship. The essays in this series are by and large snippets from conversations between Nityanand Jayaraman, a writer, social activist and citizen science enthusiast, and S. Palayam, a.k.a. Palayam anna. ‘Anna’ is a casual but respectful endearment meaning ‘elder brother’ in Tamil. Palayam anna is an experienced marathukaarar (hook-and-line fisher) from the south Chennai fishing village of Urur Kuppam.
Unlike the exalted institutional sciences that produce predominantly elite and upper-caste experts, and whose expertise are accessible only to the powerful, Palayam’s expertise is subaltern, and an essential qualification for any fisher that ventures out to sea and returns home safely – with or without fish.
The stories are presented in reverse chronological order, to be read from top to bottom. Each story, or update if you prefer, is open-ended, eschewing the beginning-middle-end structure in favour of beginning and ending in media res, like a vignette from a larger, evolving picture.
Updates will be neither regular nor periodic, and won’t necessarily follow a chronological order – both in terms of Palayam anna’s experiences and of the seasons that his conservations with Nityanand will deal with. Instead, they will be composed more like notes from a conversation with a friend.
The ‘Science of the Seas’ page hopes to chronicle a different way of engaging with the natural universe, communicated in the language of the fishers, even as Nityanand takes a closer look at his own role as a middle-man between this knowledge and the readers of The Wire Science.
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