River Talk from the School in the Forest

Suprabha Seshan

Cool water, spilling over black stone. I stand still, watching vapors rise from your skin. Kingfisher, owl and cormorant flap along your curving edges. Reeds rustle: add their speech to yours. Crayfish and snake lurk in dark corners. Spoor of elephant, warm and pungent, spices this moment with excitement, nervous tension. A crimson kaara leaf whirls in a slow eddy, then floats downriver to a pool where forest leaves gather this season to dissolve and sink into your silted side.

We step into your flesh. Skins meet, tingle and ripple, then receive one another. Awareness shoots down spines, into limbs, out through toes, and back up again. Rounded rocks: hard, cold and slippery to our searching feet, teach us as we touch. We stumble upon your ground, arms flailing. Ouch!

Clumsy as we feel, clumsy as we are, our bodies learn quickly. Balance, grip and tread change with the arch and angle of our tender soles as we negotiate your current, your slick and stony depth. The ancient art of river-walking, a forgotten nuance of engaged movement, held deep in our collective bodily memories, unfurls into our bones as we splash noisily through you.

I know I change each time we meet. I know these children, these packrats from the big cities further downstream, alter in their very cells every time we plunge them into your fresh, clear waters. I know you change too with every being that swoops and whirrs by your winding form, with every fish that swims your swirl and flow. I know for sure you change with every human person you encounter. And so it is with us.

Allow me to give voice to our intertwined lives: river, buttressed tree, cloud, rain, stone, serpent eagle, mountain, cicada, fern, forest, garden, gardener, child, dog, teacher, giant squirrel, elephant. My friends and I have lived uponyour banks for many years now—in the garden in the forest up there on the hill whose crest is crowned by aTower. AWaterTower. We have sipped from you likeyou do now from us: from the sweet water that trickles out of this hill, fromunder the trees and herbs and lianas that grow and wildly multiply as we gardenthrough the days, the months, the years, the decades.

A braiding of two worlds

In the time that we have lived here, in this sanctuary for vanishing plants, two parallel narratives spin out, to which our bodies, hearts and minds become slowly attuned. First: of the sentient world, the web of life, the miracle of creation. More specifically, the heaving and thrumming wooded world, the rich and resonant landscapes bearing us. The landscapes that give life to us: air, food, water, wood, medicine, fibre, resin, incense and honey. That give us beauty and joy. In whose sensuous and animate depths lie our own awareness and well being.

Second: of the worded, imaged life, and the internal thrumming in the mind of man. Its own richness and beauty, its astonishing powers. Its orchestration with the cosmos. And then its bizarre runaway side. We learn about its propensity to shut out the rest of creation, and further to divide and splinter within itself. And how by turning so sharply inwards, harm and havoc are inflicted upon the earth, upon all.

The School in the Forest* is a braiding of these two worlds, these two narratives. Through the body and the senses, a space is sometimes discovered, where mind re-joins wildness, even if only briefly. It happens, it seems, through an inhabiting of the present moment, and a simultaneous inversion into the wild expanse. It happens quite simply by pouring oneself out through all of one’s senses.

For it is possible to enter dimensions not made by man, spontaneously, without a motive to use or abuse, conquer or control, where energies can flow unhindered. By calling our attention to the wild and to ourselves as creatures in the wild, we allow the possibility of a different, more vital strength to emerge. By immersing ourselves attentively in the sentient world, our own sensibilities and sensitivities shift, effortlessly.

By stopping long enough to listen to sounded beings and forces deep in the heart of the woods or by engaging with the startling yellow stare of a brown fish owl, we release our inherently synaesthetic intelligence. By allowing our bodies to move in this rich and textured terrain, in clambering, slipping, sliding and swimming, our nimbleness unfurls once more. And then by further attending to this through meaningful speech and activity, by re-rooting our cognitive and linguistic capabilities in the living matrix, we entertain new relationships, new vistas into our own existence. Our points of reference lose their anchor in what have come to be standard or entrenched moorings.

In this mindful attunement to the wild, our psyches turn inside out, for a brief moment or two. For it is simply impossible to be completely alert while whirling within our own crowded mental spheres. We are able at least to return our bodies to their rightful state, and to acknowledge momentarily, that they are wild.

This re-engagement with the wild is perceived by few as necessary or even as particularly interesting. Neither is the colossal tragedy in the loss of the wild understood. Nor is anyone perturbed by the confounding fact that our own intelligence is threatened, our own bodily and mental health, let alone the fabric of our biosphere.

Not only are our wildernesses in danger but also our eyes, our ears, our noses, our sensitive skins, our expansive lungs, our elegant and upright bodies, our wiry and supple strengths—the profoundly carnal intelligence which gives rise to an awakeness and a beauty that is uniquely ours.

These are in peril, as are the rainforests, the coral reefs and the fresh mountain water.

This enmeshing of earth and sentient life, this intertwining of skin and air and water and stone, is part of who we, human beings, are. We seem to have forgotten that for a greater part of our species existence we were as animate, as awake and aware, as bodily embedded, as the tiger and the snake and the hooting owl. We forget that our lives were, and continue to be, because of theirs and likewise, they exist (or don’t) because of us. We forget how well we can feel when we are fully ourselves, sentient beings in a sentient world, full of myriad intelligences.

The folly is this: we fail to see the fortresses we are shutting ourselves in, and that we are allowing, complacently, our lives to be held as ransom to the gnomic workings of our own minds. We thereby permit the distortion of our every sensuous and perceptive power, to the point of utter confusion. Furthermore, we fail to see we are addicted to this incarceration within our own heads. Our environmental crisis, and perhaps all other crises of humankind, spew forth from this thralldom, on the one hand so innocent, and on the other, dreadfully and frighteningly grotesque.

Children at the sanctuary

Children walk in this forest from all corners of the country. Every single one of them, urban or rural, comes as a warm bundle of mixed energies, odd habits and tendencies, the fruit of the specific psychological, social and physical landscapes that have grown them. They come often in the shape of creatures who have been confined early. They are strange hybrid organisms. Some are over-bred, without poise, loud and misshapen. Others are subdued, wide-eyed and fearful. Some are brash and careless, trapped into an early insouciance. Some are easier in their bodies but weighed by their traditions. A few, and this is a handful, are swift and responsive to the landscapes without and within.

It takes little to bring out their spontaneity, their natural energies and liveliness. All kids are able somehow to enter more directly into the present moment and to move out of their heads. Wildness still bubbles in the young and bravely perseveres in a few as they grow into adulthood.

We take them to the rippling water, and mingle with the fish. We squelch our way to the strangler fig deep in the dappled forest and climb into its latticed column to sway high upon its towering form. We walk barefoot in the river, so we may realign, through the stone and the gravel and the alga and the sticky mud, with our own wildness, in the grip and anchor of our own two feet. We speak often of the other creatures who share this wondrous space with us and open ourselves to their speech. As we begin to hear them we find our world complexifying magically.

In the act of looking into the shadowed and leafy rainforest interior to spot a swooping drongo, we learn to see detail, and to be swift. We learn peculiar things, without words. For instance that to see better, we need to focus less, and relax more. By panning our vision, and splattering it, we bring more of the world into ourselves.

By dropping our habitual ways behind us as we leave on a forest walk, and forgetting momentarily who and what we are: we slip into the wild expanse effortlessly. Most surprisingly we find ourselves fully entertained. We find delight in the things that surround us. There is no resistance in this, only total engagement. When this happens, one’s wildness cascades into the other.

We do this naturally, without thinking, when we are happy and well, fearless and full of energy. These, in turn perhaps, come from simple things: good food; running, swinging, playing, carrying; sleeping under the stars; singing; effortless learning; being together and communicating without judgement; pushing our physical and psychological limits; taking risks and facing real challenges; doing relevant work.

To be well, and in our bodies, engaged and alive, in a sparkling and sensuous world: to find joy and meaning in this is the heart of the School in the Forest programmes, held at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary.

The programmes have been crafted over 10 years by all the youngsters and adults who have come together in this place. They have been initiated by regular and sustained visits from Centre for Learning, Bangalore, the first to send its children so wholeheartedly and completely to the Sanctuary, in order that they may learn their lessons from the wild woods, directly.

In addition, the following schools have warmly supported these programmes by sending their students again and again. The TVS Schools in Tumkur and Hosur; The School, Chennai; Brockwood Park, England; Vikasana, Bangalore; and Sahyadri School, Pune have all come more than once. RishiValley, Sita School and Ananya have also participated. The Oakgrove School from California has sent its students several times all this way.

Kanavu, school and neighbour in this mountain region, supports these encounters, by sharing other ways of being rooted and of being physically attuned. And, by growing on the edge of another wild and wonderful forest.4

The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary is a forest garden in Wayanad, a mountainous district in Kerala, South India. The central focus of the work is conservation of native plants, habitat restoration, education and organic agriculture. A few thousand people visit the garden every year, of which more than threefourths are from the rural areas of northern Kerala. Residential programmes are offered for interested schools. They range in duration from four days to three months. They include a range of activities from the close study of nature, to community work, forest walks, swimming, music, art and writing, outdoor games and exercises. We recommend 7 days as a minimum period for any programme and that the group size be limited to 12. The ideal period for visiting is between November and April. If anyone wishes to experience a monsoon in the rainforest then June-September is good! Please get in touch with the address given below if you are interested in visiting us or if you wish to bring a group of students. We also request that schools arrange their visit to us at least three months in advance

* Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Alattil P O, N. Wayanad, Kerala 670644;Tel: 04935-260426; Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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