By Joss Brooks
A shadow in the canopy as the crested serpent eagle moves to another tree. Bubesh our biologist and his birding friends are again carefully documenting the avifauna in the young Pitchandikulam sanctuary. Standing in the half light of the restored forest, remembering the bare plateau of 45 years ago, I reflect how unscientific we have been so often in our methodology, yet recalling with gratitude the deep intense land ethic we found in ourselves in those early years, the passion that continues today amongst the Auroville land stewards that has resulted in these garden forests.
Travelling through the lands of the Tamils around the year 1290, Marco Polo observed:” They also know what events are portended by meeting certain beasts or birds. More attention is paid by these people to the flight of birds than by any others in the world, and from whence they predict good or bad fortune”.
It’s not difficult these days to see the writing on the wall. These are challenging times for Auroville, for India, for the world. It is so much needed to change the morning news and the bedtime story, to find the sun drenched brilliant narrative that this subcontinent knows in its true being so well.
The Coramandel coast is still the playground for our humble efforts of restoration ecology, with continuous surprises and little miracles as we protect patches from the waves of “development “. Two deer were seen near the Pitchandikulam lake last week. Of course they really should not be there as other big fierce animals are absent.
We plant our small seedlings each year (twenty thousand last year ), marveling at their slow but determined movement pumping from deep down, as well as reaching for the heavens. We protect our young sanctuaries from marauding goats and cows with living fences of spiny plants, cactus and euphorbias that tune into the stars and moon though their thorns. The fantastic is all around us, best experienced on hands and knees in conversations with sundew orchids and ant lions. The miracle of natural laws perceived directly in moments of stillness embedded amongst plants all quietly moving. They just take a longer smoother path than the nearby Indian hare watching perfectly still before its frenzied flight. The almost imperceptible vegetative dance, as wise Colin Tudge mentioned:” Living tissue is constantly replacing itself even when it seems to stay the same. It is not a thing but a performance”.
A few days after the rare summer showers the pink flush appears on the memeycylon miracle bushes, within a week the terminalia bellericas are pushing out orange leaves from what had looked like dead branches. In the extreme summer heat some plants just meditate, go back into themselves to concentrate on inner fragrance and oils. In the tropical night crickets make megaphones out of their burrows, false vampire bats eat frogs and other bats, fireflies flash their codes to each other and jackals laugh in the fields.
Few sporadic rains are falling on south India, water tables are depleted and the village lakes are almost dry, farmers wonder this year whether the needed cyclonic storms will bring in the moisture from the gulf of Bengal. In the cities and towns, water tankers cart the needed liquid from hundreds of kilometers away. Systems collapsing, making life harder for the growing numbers of refugees from the countryside.
It is sobering to remember the words of Aldo Leopold: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on the land is quite invisible to the layman. An ecologist must either harden his shell or make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise”.
The Pitchandikulam team involves itself continuously in learning and teaching about restoration strategies for rural Tamil Nadu. It is a meaningful conversation involving women’s groups, farmers, government officials and policy makers that is manifesting structures and institutions that hopefully will help us all understand and manifest a different and better paradigm for “development “. The challenge of incubating sustainable enterprise models has involved us determinedly during the last years, resulting in well organised production of indigenous plants, spirulina, herbal medicine, wild plant foods and ethno-veterinary medicines.
One holds on to the vision of bringing back the garden to the Coramandel coast, with its restored flora, fauna and watersheds. The plenitude of that garden could sustain again a harmonious Tamil civilization. It is essentially an honouring of wilderness, a remembering of where we come from, but one often encounters the wild side of that vision in a place like Pitchandikulam, when a cobra or Russel’s viper honours us with its presence.
In 1852 the first keeper of the snake enclosure at the new zoological gardens at Regent’s Park, London, drank too much beer, swung a cobra above his head, was promptly bitten and died two hours later. The herpetologists in our team continue to work with the Irula snake catchers of our bioregion, organising them to help with the production of much needed antivenom serum. However, for us the biggest dangers and hindrances are not from the serpents but from the all powerful bureaucrats, the creations of that same 19th century British colonial society. Hopefully goodwill and good sense will prevail and these people who have a land ethic can be given the possibility to express themselves instead of being used as tree cutters and bonded labour.
The deeper Auroville vision burns brightly in spite of the many very different agendas pressing in from all sides. The community now almost 50 years old shares aspirations with hundreds of efforts manifesting through the Global Ecovillage Network.
It is daring and refreshing to talk of hope in these times of bottled bad news being dispensed oh so cheaply with a catch at every street corner…
The Indophile and scholar Alain Danielou’s words echo still:”Lakulisha at the beginning of our era invoked a Shaivaite mysticism which promoted the joy of living in communion with the divine work that the natural world represents … Morality of toil, abstinence, productiveness and civil conformity, tends to become a substitute for a morality of love, ecstasy, happiness and freedom, the return to ancient knowledge and wisdom is considered by followers of Shaivism to be the last effort to check the evolution of a humanity racing towards destruction.”
Today is a public holiday, Agricultural show day in Tasmania, Australia, where I sit on the edge of a cliff next to the wide Derwent River recuperating after some clever intensive surgery on my rather tired heart. The Indian doctor and Sanskrit scholar who did the plumbing work said I should now be able to plant trees for another 20 years in Southern India.
It was Saraswati puja yesterday. In Pitchandikulam the tools were cleaned and honoured with holy marks of turmeric, ash and sandal paste. Old wooden ploughs that we still occasionally use, crowbars and mumpties with which we dig the holes in the hard laterite soil to plant our trees. Here at the Tasmanian showgrounds tools, skills and crafts were also celebrated. Amongst the prize angus bulls and the latest combine harvesters,wood chopping and sheep shearing competitions there are reconstructed pioneers huts with all the memorabilia of our brave colonials. Only two hundred years ago they stole this amazing heart shaped island from groups of aboriginal people who had painted their dreams and sung songs for 30,000 years. They had survived an ice age with no contact with other humans, only to be exterminated within 60 years after men in London thought it a good idea to export civilization in the form of convicts and hoofed animals before Napoleon did. Now sheep dogs herd the best merinos in the world, old steam engines remind us of gentler times and motor cycle daredevils entertain the crowd of fairy floss and hotdog eaters. It’s a good day for tomato sauce…
Here I sit amongst rhododendrons, oak, redwood, apricot and apple trees where the Tasmanian aboriginal tribes only a hundred and fifty years ago picked climbing blueberries, native peppers and collected shellfish. The suburban gardens are colourful but rather static. The wild forests nearby still have giants 300 feet tall, but the last aboriginal died in 1880 and the Thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger a few decades later. Aboriginals and tigers were mostly shot and the heart shaped island still grieves the loss.
This planet is so full of beauty and latent transformation. Here in Tasmania it seems a long way from Alleppo and there are not so many Syrian refugees yet but they will come… They should be here.
It is time to change, the morning paper and the bedtime stories, to find better versions of ourselves.
Let us nurture a rebirth of wonder, a growing sense of place wherever we as refugees find ourselves, a place past nationality, creed and caste. The pictures of Mars are amazing but how far can one go before one comes back home…