We’re all prisoners, who dream being free! Dedicated to Ray Wijewardene

Are they really free - or prisoners of elements like all of us?

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” – Robert Browning

Show me a ‘free man’
And I’ll show you a prisoner:
Of time and space,
Of elements and gravity,
Firmly and forever
In the grips of
Forces of Nature
And Laws of Physics,
With no prospect
Of any release,
Or any escape.

Gravity holds us captive,
Time holds us in its grip,
We are prisoners of oxygen,
And confined to bits of land
On this Blue Planet Ocean.

We may breathe the air
But can never fly through it
On our own power:
We’ve dreamed of it
Before and since Icarus
But we’re truly stuck
On the thin, crowded crust
Of our Home Planet
Between air and water.
Between past and future.

So who can still claim
To be a free man or woman?

We are prisoners
One and all,
Of time and space,
Of elements and gravity,
Firmly and forever
In the grips of
Forces of Nature
And Laws of Physics,
With no prospect
Of any release,
Or any escape.

Except, that is —
In our imagination:
May we forever
Dream of being free!

– Nalaka Gunawardene
Colombo, 25 August 2010

Dedicated to Ray Wijewardene: high flyer, dreamer and imagineer.
Ad astra per ardua!

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Ray Wijewardene: Passionate voice for small farmers and earthworms

Ray Wijewardene on the set of 'Sri Lanka 2048' TV show, June 2008: Cautiously optimistic about the future...

The small farmers, buffaloes and earthworms all over the world lost a true friend and spokesman this week when Lankan scientist Ray Wijewardene passed away.

Ray packed multiple interests and pursuits into his 86 years of life – including engineering, building and flying light aircraft, and Olympic-level competitive sailing. But he was happiest being a farmer and mechanic, and had strong opinions on the subject. He was vocal about misguided priorities in tropical farming his native Sri Lanka – and across the developing world.

He was especially passionate when speaking about small farmers in the developing world, with whom he worked many years of his international career as an expert on tropical farming systems.

Educated at Cambridge and Harvard universities, and with impeccable technical credentials, he was no stranger to the ways of academia. But he remained a sceptic about the efficacy and benefits of agricultural research — on which hundreds of millions of development funding is invested every year.

The main problem with agricultural research, he used to say, is that those who engaged in such studies and experimentation didn’t have to rely on farming for their sustenance. There was not enough self interest. In contrast, the small farmer had to eke out a meagre existence from whatever land, water and seeds or livestock she had. In her case — and a majority of small farmers around the world today are indeed women — it’s a stark choice of innovate or perish.

Thai researchers and farmers looking for field solutions (from Living Labs TV series)

The heroic efforts of small farmers were rarely recognised by the rest of humanity who consume their produce — and the farmers themselves are too busy planting crops or raising animals to speak on their own behalf. This is where Ray Wijewardene came in: with his education, exposure and talent, he made an outstanding spokesman for small farmers all over the tropics.

In the 1960s, as the inventor and promoter of the world’s first two-wheeled (Land Master) tractor, Ray travelled all over Asia, Africa and Latin America working with tropical farmers.

For half a century, Ray has championed the lot of the small farmer at national, regional and global levels with UN agencies, academic and research groups, corporate sector and governments. But in later years, he questioned the wisdom of trying to mechanise tropical farming, and considered that phase of his career a ‘big mistake’. He dedicated the rest of his life to researching and promoting ecologically sustainable agriculture, on which he co-wrote an authoritative book in 1984.

Ray had the rare ability to ask piercing questions without antagonizing his audiences. He was an activist in the true sense of the word, but one whose opinions were well informed and grounded in reality, not rhetoric.

This comes through very powerfully in an extensive media interview I did with Ray in 1995, which I released online this week as a tribute to Ray — who has been my mentor and friend for almost 25 years.

At the outset, Ray points out where the Green Revolutionists went astray: “All along in the Green Revolution, its promoters focused on maximizing yields through massive inputs. But they forgot that what the farmer wants is to maximize profits, not necessarily yields!”

We then talked about the particular challenges faced in tropical farming, and the mismatch of temperate farming systems promoted widely in the tropics where climatic and soil conditions are different. One of Ray’s main concerns was agriculture’s profligate use of water – more for weed control than to meet the strict biological needs of crop plants themselves!

Ray, a grandmaster in summing up complex technical issues in colourful terms, said at the time: “Water is rapidly becoming the most expensive herbicide in the world — and freshwater is increasingly scarce!” [A decade later, I would go on to script and executive produce a global TV series called Living Labs on just this issue: how to grow more food with less water, or get more crop per drop.]

Ray wasn’t fundamentally opposed to external, chemical inputs to boost soil fertility but he advocated a mix of natural and synthetic options. In our interview, he asked: “We have multinational companies supporting — directly or indirectly — the extensive use of chemical fertilizers. But who supports cow-dung? Who extols the virtues of the humble earthworm?”

He then added: “For us in Asia, these elements are far more important. Indians have recognized this, but we still haven’t. As long as our agricultural scientists are trained in the western mould of high external input agriculture, this (mindset) won’t change. Cow-dung and earthworms won’t stand a chance – until some western academic suddenly ‘re-discovers’ them…

It was Indian science writer and environmentalist Anil Agarwal who asked me, sometime in mid 1995, to interview Ray for Down to Earth, the science and environmental fortnightly magazine published by his Centre for Science and Environment. As Anil told me, “In Ray, you have not only one of the topmost agricultural experts in the developing world but one of its most original thinkers.”

By this time, I’d known Ray for almost a decade, and been exposed to several of his multiple facets. But each encounter with Ray was enriching for me, so I immediately seized the opportunity. The usually media-shy Ray already knew of and respected Anil, which helped.

Down to Earth is part of Anil Agarwal's legacy

The interview was audio taped over two long sessions, and I remember spending many hours transcribing it. I had to check some references with Ray, who cooperated wonderfully. I’ve been trained to observe the word limit set by editors, but in this instance, I sent in the full length Q&A, for it was so interesting. Down to Earth issue for 31 October 1995 carried a compact version, skillfully distilling the essence of that long exchange between Ray and myself — one of the most memorable interviews among hundreds I’ve done during 25 years of work in print and broadcast media.

How I wish the exchange was also preserved on audio tape! Indeed, it’s a small miracle that the original transcript survived for 15 years. The soft copy was lost in a hard drive crash of 1998, but fortunately I’d taken a full print-out. I’m grateful to a former colleague, Buddhini Ekanayake, for retyping the entire interview in mid 2008 when I considered releasing it in the wake of the global food crisis. That somehow didn’t work out, but the soft copy was ready at hand for me to rush to the editor of Groundviews on the day of Ray’s funeral. All I added was a new, 500-word introduction which tried to sum up the Ray Wijewardene phenomenon.

Read the full length interview with Ray Wijewardene, published for the first time, on Groundviews.org:
Who Speaks for Small Farmers, Earthworms and Cow Dung?

Ray Wijewardene: Finally free to roam the skies forever…

Ray Wijewardene: Freed from gravity, at last!

I went straight from a paddy field, where I was filming much of the morning, to the funeral of my mentor and friend Ray Wijewardene early afternoon at the General Cemetery Colombo.

Ray would have approved: despite being a high flyer in every sense of that phrase, he had his feet firmly on the ground — and sometimes in the mud. He was fond of saying, “Agriculture is my bread and butter, while aviation is the jam on top of it”.

Dr Philip Revatha (Ray) Wijewardene, who passed away on August 18 aged 86, was an accomplished engineer, aviator, inventor, Olympian and a public intellectual of the highest calibre. He was also one of the most practical and down to earth people I’ve known.

He preferred to introduce himself as a farmer and mechanic ‘who still got his hands dirty’. Perhaps that’s how he wanted to be remembered — but each one of us will carry our own vivid memories of this colourful, jovial and altogether remarkable human being.

I’ve already written a quick introduction about Ray for Groundviews.org, which has published a long interview I did with Ray 15 years ago, originally for an Indian science magazine. That exchange is a reminder of the imaginative thinker, life-long experimenter and outspoken scientist that Ray always was.

Read Who Speaks for Small Farmers, Earthworms and Cow Dung? The late Ray Wijewardene in conversation with Nalaka Gunawardene

Story behind the story explained in later blog post: Ray Wijewardene: Passionate voice for small farmers and earthworms

I’ll be writing more about Ray Wijewardene in the coming weeks, exploring his many different facets. I’ve known and walked alongside him for almost a quarter century. For now, I’ll remember him for one facet that I didn’t share despite many offers and invitations: flying.

per ardua ad astra...

Ray just loved to fly. Most humans share this age old dream, but Ray wasn’t contented just being flown around on commercial jets — which to him were merely large, sealed up cylinders. He far preferred the small, propeller-driven aircraft – single or twin seaters that gave their passengers a true sense flying and a real taste of the sky.

Looking back, it was quite apt that I first met Ray at the Ratmalana Airport, just south of Colombo, from where he took off and landed hundreds of times over the decades. One sunny morning in mid 1986, he took time off from his flying to talk to a group of high school leavers who were participating in the first Science for Youth programme. It exposed us to various (then) modern technologies over six consecutive weekends. Much of the knowledge we gained has long been obsolete, but its inspirational value was timeless….and continues to propel me forward.

Much of that inspiration came from Ray Wijewardene, who talked to us – with lots of practical demonstrations – about problem solving and innovations in three areas close to his heart: energy, agriculture and transport. I remember how he was experimenting with improvements to the humble bicycle at the time, so that riders could optimise performance with modest efforts.

He also talked about growing our food and energy. But it was his flying experience that most fascinated us starry-eyed youngsters. As a pilot, Ray was licensed to fly three kinds of flying machines: fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and autogyros. But this pilot was flying not only factory-fitted, mass-manufactured units. He also experimented with building and flying his own ultra-light aircraft and helicopters – he was particularly interested in building amphibious small planes that could land on, and take off from, Sri Lanka’s numerous inland lakes and reservoirs.

All this and more made Ray a journalist’s dream, but as I soon found out, he wasn’t an easy subject to cover! In 1988, The Island newspaper asked me to interview Ray and write an article about the dream and reality of flying. He happily talked with me for two hours — yet, in the end, didn’t want his name mentioned in print. For all his accomplishments and outspoken views, Ray was completely publicity shy. He didn’t mind his views being reported, but with little or no mention of the source.

It’s the song that matters, not the singer, he said — and I heartily disagreed. I pointed out that we journalists needed to attribute wherever possible for greater credibility of what we write (I didn’t tell him that we also love good news-makers: the more informed and opinionated they are, the better!). This became a running argument that Ray and I had for two decades. Within a few years, he trusted me enough to talk to me on the record. But what he said off the record was always more interesting…

When he was approaching 75, Ray told me how nervous he was when he had to go for renewals of his pilot’s license. In the end, it wasn’t age that ended his flying career: along with everyone else, he was ‘grounded’ when private flying was first restricted and then banned during the latter years of Sri Lanka’s long-drawn war.

During the 1990s, Ray had repeatedly invited me to share a flight on one of his home-built light planes. He assured me they were perfectly safe — among satisfied customers was Prof Cyril Ponnamperuma, one time science advisor to the President of Sri Lanka and an internationally renowned biochemist. (Ray did acknowledge that he’d crash landed his various planes thrice — and each time, he lived to tell the tale. He believed that test flying one’s own aircraft designs quickly eliminated bad designers!)

I kept deferring my own tryst with the open skies and was too preoccupied with earthly matters — and suddenly, it was too late. By the time Sri Lanka’s war ended in May 2009, Ray’s flying days were over (and our skies are not yet fully free for private domestic aviation).

Gravity, bureaucracy and age may have conspired to keep Ray confined to the ground in the last few years of his life — but only just. His spirit soared even when the body wasn’t allowed to: in all my years and encounters with him, I’ve never seen him ‘down’ (concerned and reflective, yes; depressed, no).

A lone spirit, on a long journey....

That passion, enthusiasm and spirit of adventure characterised Ray and influenced everything he did, on the ground and in the air. Born in the 1920s and raised as part of the first generation of humans for whom private flying was available, he was infected with the ‘flying bug’ in the same way that American author and aviator Richard Bach was. In fact, Ray knew Bach and was a devoted fan of the latter’s books, especially Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Perhaps Ray saw himself in Jonathan: a seagull tired of the monotonous life in his clan. He rather experiments with new – always more daring – flying techniques…which means he must fly solo most of the time, and confront the travails of life on his own.

Ray wasn’t a loner (to the contrary, he was very much a team player in everything he did). But sometimes he was racing ahead of us – or just flying at a higher altitude. Although I’ve never heard him say it, perhaps this unattributed quote partly explains the phenomenon: “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

What Ray did quote, frequently, were these words of Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

It was entirely fitting that a grand daughter would recite the poem ‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a favourite verse among aviators and, more recently, astronauts.

High Flight
by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

On returning from the simple yet moving funeral, I tweeted:
No longer a prisoner of gravity: sky-lover, pilot & light aircraft builder Ray Wijewardene blasted off heavenwards. Farewell, high flyer!


20 Aug 2010: A Lankan pilot’s tribute to his mentor: Happy Landings, Sir! by Suren Ratwatte

Calvin’s timeless wisdom: Why allow facts to get in the way of a good fantasy?

Information society, anyone?

I’m once again taking refuge in the make-believe world of cartoons. Dominating (and illuminating) my cartoon universe is Calvin and Hobbes, that inimitable character created by American cartoonist Bill Watterson.

Why do Calvin’s words remind me of some artistes, intellectuals even a few journalists?