Using Fiction to Teach Geology

UC Riverside’s Nigel Hughes, author of “Monisha and the Stone Forest,” reaches out to children in India and Bangladesh with an engaging story

Photo shows Nigel Hughes.

Nigel Hughes is a professor of geology at UC Riverside.Photo credit: I. Pittalwala.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — How best to teach geology to young children in India and Bangladesh?  One option may be to write a novella, centered around geology, for this audience, which is just what a professor of geology at the University of California, Riverside has done.

Nigel C. Hughes conceived “Monisha and the Stone Forest” nearly ten years ago, but, due to other commitments, was able to finish writing the book only in 2011.  The 104-page novella, published by Monfakira Press and the Geological Society of India, was released last year.  Illustrations in the book are by Rati Basu, an art teacher at Santiniketan, India, where Hughes spent a year after completing his undergraduate education in the United Kingdom.

“Monisha and the Stone Forest” illustrates how we can understand what nature is telling us about the past before humans came to Bengal, India.  Monisha uses her sharp eyes and bright mind to interpret the fossil wood she encounters by linking it with natural processes that she sees happening around her today, just as a detective uses the clues left behind to interpret past events.

Photo shows stone trees.

Photo shows ‘gatchpathor’ or ‘wooden stone,’ a common curiosity in many parts of Bengal, India. In appearance and texture gatchpathor looks like wood. It is made, however, of stone.Photo credit: Hughes Lab, UC Riverside.

“Monisha is a young Bengali girl, about ten years old,” said Hughes, whose own geological detective work takes him to India regularly, the high Himalayas in particular. “The first two-thirds of the book depicts how her adventures bring her to a natural understanding of how fossil wood forms.  In the last third of the book, she journeys back to the time when the stone forest was living, and she meets animals in existence at that time.”

Hughes explained that Monisha’s adventure to the living stone forest reflects what we currently understand about conditions in Birbhum some five million years ago, at about the transition between the Miocene and Pliocene intervals of geological time.

“The animals and plants described are mostly known from Indian fossils and we think that they lived in Bengal at that time,” he said.  “The environment was very different back then.  Huge rivers flowed in areas now dry, and thick forests were everywhere.  Almost all the wild animals were different from those living in India today. The point of the novella is that Monisha observes fossils in the stone forest, thinks about them, and comes up with natural explanations for them. She learns, incredulously, in just a few months what it took geologists 150 years to realize!”

An excerpt:

A large white rock lay beneath a huge pakur tree at the edge of Monisha’s village.  By standing on it Monisha could look over the levee and see the men casting their fishing nets into the pond.  Everyone in the village called the big rock “gatchpathor” but that was the only thing about it that they could agree upon.  Monisha’s Ma knew that her daughter had inherited her own restless mind and, shortly before she died of fever, asked Monisha to find out what the gatchpathor really was.

Monisha soon set about fulfilling her Ma’s last request.  The rock was far wider than the biggest branch of the tree above it, but it looked just like the trunk of a living tree, except that it was made of stone and not wood.  It lay half buried in the earth, and part had been worn smooth by children’s feet as they climbed on top of it. 

Listen to Hughes read from the book here.

Available in India for Rs. 150 (less than $3), the book is published in English and Bengali.  Some copies are being sold also in Bangladesh, where Bengali is widely spoken.  The book’s target audience is children aged 10-15.

“After publishing the book, we were able to distribute 4000 free copies in Bengal, some through teachers’ unions,” said Hughes, who speaks conversational  Bengali. “We also ran a series of programs in 16 institutions — schools, madrassas, special daycare centers.  We had plenty of people offering helpful suggestions for where we could go to distribute the book.”

Accompanying Hughes on these visits were two UCR alumnae of Bangladeshi origin, Tani Adhikari and Baby Snigdha Morshed, whose trip to the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) region of India was sponsored by the UCR University Honors Program.

“This summer we did a couple of programs in Kolkata and Dhaka, specifically in the American Centers in these cities, through a State-Department-sponsored program,” Hughes said.  “In Kolkata, we had 140 children in attendance.  For about four hours, we talked with them about the book and its message, and had a lively question-and-answer session.”

The fossils Monisha sets out to understand in the book are five million years old.  People often see these fossils in Bengal.  (In the book, Monisha even uses one as a pillow, as Hughes saw in the villages when he was a student.)  For his research, however, Hughes works on fossils that are typically 500 million years old.

“These fossils, found in the Himalayas, are not easy to find,” Hughes said.  “You have to go search for them, which often is a painstaking process.   Local people don’t stumble upon them easily.”

Research in Hughes’s lab at UC Riverside uses information on fossil morphology to address a variety of evolutionary and geological questions. His research group is interested in how to use fossil shape to learn about the evolutionary process and interesting episodes in Earth’s history.

“We need to understand that we live in a time of global change,” he said.  “This change does not impact simply us in the west even though we contribute spectacularly to that change.  Climate change is happening everywhere.

All the incidents in “Monisha and the Stone Forest” are based on Hughes’s experiences in India.

“I felt that now is an important time to put these experiences down in the form of this book,” he said.  “Monisha’s story presents to children, not just in India and Bangladesh, some understanding of how the environment has changed quite drastically through time — in relatively a short period of time geologically.  Earth has a history written for us to understand.  Nothing quite provides better evidence of how the planet has changed through time than an understanding of Earth’s past.”

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