Intertidal: A Coast And Marsh Diary by Yuvan Aves

Yuvan Aves
12 Jun 2024 6 min read  Share

Imagine if, by the age of ten or twelve, each child could recognize a hundred plants and trees of their city. Imagine how that would change the culture and politics of urban living.

British writer Robert Macfarlane says about Yuvan Aves’s Intertidal: A Coast And Marsh Diary, “This is at once a work of detailed, shimmering natural history by an exceptional field naturalist, and a profound meditation on what it means to be human—and more-than-human—in this damaged, astonishing world of ours.”

Yuvan, a writer, educator, naturalist and activist, is the founder-trustee of the Palluyir Trust for Nature Education and Research, in Velachery, Chennai.

Intertidal, based on a diary he wrote between 2020 and 2022, reflects a lot of the work that the trust, established in 2021, supports—creating nature education resources, making the joy of outdoor learning accessible to everybody, ecological advocacy and documentation, and fostering solidarity with environmental campaigns, conservation work, etc.  

Naturally, the book then addresses many issues related to ‘development’ in India—indiscriminate construction work, the cost of  such development borne by the land and its people, the impact of road expansions and ports on delicate coastal life, “industrial violence, eviction and community resistance”. 

The book takes you through urban landscapes and their hidden microcosms of living things. So there are hermit crabs, oysters, phytoplankton, coral reefs, storks, sardine, Brahminy kites, glider dragonflies, flower wasps, sand wasps, honeybees, pollen,  pygmy frog tadpoles, and estuaries, creeks, lakes, marshes, backwaters, beaches and islands. Equally, there are urban walking tours, student visits to contested landscapes, fisherfolk coping with mechanised fishing harbours, and more, each tale illuminating a new facet of human interaction with nature.


When I go to Urur Kuppam Beach, I go up till the shore in the mornings, watch what the fisherfolk have brought in, ask them how the seas are, how the winds are, then walk north till the Adyar River’s estuary to see its life and flow. The residents and the Chennai City Corporation have gotten used to car-free Sundays on the beach’s promenade. If you visit on Sunday mornings between 6 and 9 a.m., the road is used by dog walkers, joggers, Zumba dancers, skaters, placard-holding campaigners, balloon sellers, yoga doers, frisbee and badminton players, tender-coconut sellers. This promenade on a Sunday morning is a beautiful example of a tiny ‘open city’, as theorized by sociologist and planner Richard Sennett. The density of people is high and diverse. The street transforms into a social space—because it ensures slow movement. There are many kinds of social mixing and face-to-face interaction between people who otherwise might never meet in ‘class’ified urban society. Class confinements are visibly shaken up. There is talking, laughing, arguing, debating, gossiping and making. A richness of life which dissipates once the vehicle barricades are removed after 9 a.m.

I asked the interns about how a walking culture, like on Elliot’s, might impact society. Some of the responses I got were—improved mental and physical health, lesser depression and loneliness, lesser carbon emissions, lesser roadkills and more thoughtful resource consumption. Elliot’s promenade is a small example of a ‘walking culture’ or a culture of slow movement. In such a place, neighbourhoods are designed for people, not vehicles, in contrast to how modern urban spaces are planned. 

Urur Kuppam Beach helps me imagine how and if walking and other forms of non-motorized slow movement could be a predominant social behaviour. How might that influence city planning? There would be more trees for shade, more parks and benches. Would cities then be socially and ecologically more inclusive spaces? Yes, I think so. There would be cleaner public toilets at more frequent intervals. More small and diverse kinds of shops and economies would thrive, rather than a few massive mega malls. In places like Kullu and Amritsar one gets a glimpse of what this might be like, where several of their roads are permanently barricaded to cars. Of her country, urbanist Jane Jacobs says, ‘Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.’

In places of slow movement, we would know the names of more of our neighbours. Public spaces would be spaces of creation. More leaf litter would fall on the ground. Grass and brush would grow more densely on the waysides—bringing bees, butterflies, sunbirds and skinks into our daily speech and imagination. Trees would live longer. Frogs will be heard. It is at the pace of walking that our body immerses itself in the many levels of connection to the living world. Human interaction has evolved to happen on the horizontal plane. Our experiences occur primarily on the x-axis. Which throws a question to the other strange fallacy of urban planning—verticalization. Stacking us on top of each other has the effect of increasing density while reducing relatedness and relationships.

I watched Siddharth Agarwal’s extraordinary documentary earlier this year, Moving Upstream: Ganga. Siddharth walked 3,000 kilometres between June 2016 and April 2017, starting from Ganga Sagar in West Bengal and finishing at Gangotri in Uttarakhand. As he journeyed, he interacted and recorded his conversations with the riparian communities. He stayed in people’s riverside huts and documented the challenges they face due to ‘development’— which, on a river, means building barrages, bridges, canals for larger vessels, and river-linking projects. His film made me think about how many campaigns demanding and possibly achieving sociopolitical change happen on foot. Siddharth often says walking ‘disarms’ the walker. I know that my own feeling of belonging to Chennai and deciding to put roots here came from walking through its landscapes and streetscapes. 

I think an active citizenry is always, or at least mostly, pedestrian.


Last year a Class 8 child from Abacus Montessori School did a citizen science project. She wanted to find out how many of Chennai’s common urban trees could be identified by children of her age. In the group of about fifty children, most could identify only four to five species.

Imagine if, by the age of ten or twelve, each child could recognize a hundred plants and trees of their city. Imagine how that would change the culture and politics of urban living. This is not a large number. Psychologist Allen Kanner’s studies show that an average three-year-old American child can recognize a 100 brands, and almost 300–400 brands by the time they are ten years old. These numbers may be a bit lesser in India but are probably comparable.

Amnesia about trees is ironic in a region like Tamil Nadu. It is difficult to navigate 10 kilometres on its map without encountering a place named after a tree or a plant. Take the names of localities in Chennai, for instance: Alandur (alam: banyan), Veppery (vepam: neem), Perambur (perambu: cane), Panaiyur (panai: palmyra), Purasaiwakkam (purasu: palash), Teynampet (thennam + pettai; thennai: coconut) and so on and on.

Even a casual study of Tamil place names shows how trees and local vegetation are deeply rooted in people’s collective imagination across this wide landscape. I posted this on Instagram, and my comments were filled with names of similar places from across the world that have names inspired by trees. Bengaluru, somebody said, is named after the benga tree: Pterocarpus marsupium. Palakkad in Kerala from the paala tree: Alstonia scholaris. Pranay, a friend from Telangana, told me that his native village is Vasalamarri, vasala being beams of wood and marri being banyan. A person from Maharashtra began listing names of villages from his state: Pimpalgaon (sacred fig), Vadgaon (banyan), Ambegaon (mango), Bordara (bor or ber), Palasdari (palash valley), Umbre (fig) and so on.

Similarly, it is difficult to move in any direction on the map of Tamil Nadu—or maybe, as the trees example brought out, any map—without crossing places named after waterbodies. If you are from Tamil Nadu, think of all the place names which have the suffixes -eri, -thangal, -kulam, -odai and so on.

(Excerpted with permission from Intertidal: A Coast And Marsh Diary by Yuvan Aves published by Bloomsbury.) 

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