Meeting Life: A landscapes and life skills course

Steffi Barna

This article is a description of a Landscapes course offered in 2006 and 2007, from December/January to April/May, to a group of young adults. The first three months were spent in Kerala, at and around the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. The final month of the course was held in Munsiari, in the high Himalayas. The descriptions below are in the different voices of the people involved in the course.

- Editors

Introduction

Each of us is part of a landscape, wherever we happen to live on Earth. Not merely a landscape of shapes, colours and textures, but a living landscape, with its web of countless creatures interacting passionately with each other and with the physical environment. Nothing ever happens in isolation. There is the mineral substratum we walk on and out of which our very bodies are made. There are geological processes driven by the energy inside the earth; there are local and global climates, resulting from the interactions of earth and sun; there are the myriad creatures that, like us, grew out of star dust, and were fashioned by climate and interdependence, into those intricate, wonderful adaptations of form and function. And there is mind, omnipresent and ever elusive. All these come together to form what we call a landscape, with all its beauty, its complexity and its problems.

Each one of us has an impact on our landscape, whether we sense it or not. In our civilization we prefer to remain blind and deaf to this role, and are irresponsible in its disregard. Yet it becomes obvious, by taking a careful look at the world, that what we are creating are landscapes of sorrow. This is certainly not a result of a lack of knowledge, but a lack of relationship and care. We are a society ready to disregard life in so many ways, for mundane achievements well beyond the legitimacy of survival.

For a few years there had been talk of it between friends: of creating a field-based course in skills relating to nature and the land, developed around a hands-on study of the intertwined dimensions of the big picture and the detail in two different environments. Suprabha Seshan and the crew at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary were involved with plant conservation, habitat restoration and education in the Western Ghats of Kerala. Malika Virdi’s team was concerned with rural development and nature conservation in the high Himalayas of Uttaranchal. Over the years both groups had come to embrace their environments and communities wholeheartedly, and to feel the inescapable responsibility for a common welfare. The Landscapes course was thus intended as an apprenticeship for young adults who have decided to steer their work and lives towards a healthier relationship with nature, and to take on a more constructive role in our living planet.

What should the course offer? It should include essential tools for understanding a landscape in its local and global aspects and for working wisely with it—tools developed by engaging thoroughly in specific landscapes, but also universally valid. While knowledge content is important, the crucial challenge remains to nurture the aptitude to be open to the living landscape that we are a part of; to engage with it and learn about it. Learning should come as an act of relationship. One attribute of the course is that all learning will happen in direct contact and participation with the creatures and things we learn with and about, and those we live with and around. In such interactions you discover facts about them, and vividly so. However, you also establish a deeper connection that sooner or later may reveal a beauty that is not reducible to knowledge and memory, yet seems to hold a deep meaning for life and action.

The places

Wayanad: The Wayanad plateau is a shoulder off the great serried ranks of the Western Ghats of southern India. With its high rainfall and varied topography ranging from 700 metres to 2100 metres, the plateau supports forest types ranging from dry deciduous bamboo brakes to tropical evergreen rainforests and the unique and endangered shola grassland system at higher elevations. Seventeen tribes have lived in these forests for millennia. The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, a 55-acre forest garden, is located in the wettest corner of the district, receiving over 500 centimetres of rainfall annually. The sanctuary is a working laboratory in plant conservation and habitat restoration, bordered by a young river and the Periyar Reserve Forest. More than 2000 native plant species can be found in and around the sanctuary lands, along with an extraordinary array of animal forms. A team of gardeners and naturalists live and work here, whose central concern is to bring diversity and health back to the fragile and rapidly eroding tropical mountain environment of the Western Ghats. Life at the sanctuary introduces participants to a way of life and environmental action intimately connected to the plants, animals, people and ecosystems of this region.

Munsiari: The Gori river basin, at the junction of the Western Himalayas with the Nepal (Central) Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, offers altitude gradients from 560 metres above the sea to over 7400 metres, 32 glaciers, forests and grasslands that range from sub-tropical to Alpine, and an astounding diversity of plants and animals. Human habitations spread across this landscape—shared as it is with other life forms—and the land-use of the local communities form interesting mosaics that constantly set the ‘timer’ back on succession of species, revealing interesting inter-linkages. This is an opportunity to see and experience the elements and dynamics of mountain ecology at a landscape scale, to learn wilderness skills, and to live with local families.

Below are the other voices:

The experiences

The origin and evolution of everything

I was with the Landscapes course for the initial six weeks. The ‘apprentices’ arrived together on the first day to enter the sanctuary’s family. They shacked up somewhere—a tent, a tree platform, a shed—and took on their share of daily work for the place. One of the course intentions was to get our bodies more fit and awake, and so we began straight away with a daily, early routine that included yoga, jogging or strength exercises. Classes started with lying down on top of the water tower to allow us to take a comfortable look at the universe and begin figuring out our place in it. Over the following five weeks we took a big sweep at the global picture of our planet. Its origins from cosmic dust, the formation of the continents, the origin and evolution of life on earth, the evolution of homo sapiens and the human mind, the spread of humans on the globe, the beginnings of civilization and the role of climate in all of this. We could only scratch the surface, but we made many connections and opened our eyes to the large issues affecting the natural scene. On and off in the evenings, we studied and discussed current issues affecting the global and the local, keeping an eye on our own role in the changing landscapes.

[Lorenzo Castellari]

A short history of human-environment relations

Over the space of a week, the students and I explored some aspects of the relationship between humans and the environment over the past millennia in the Indian subcontinent. The course emerged as a ‘patchwork history’ based on primary material from particular periods in Indian history. As we proceeded, jumping from one period to the next, we created a rough, collective understanding of themes and issues and questions that arose. For the pre-historic period we reviewed how the subcontinent became populated and looked at early archaeological evidence of tools and rock shelter paintings. We studied the stories the Indus seals tell us about the pre-Harappan and Harappan times. For the Epic and Mauryan periods we read excerpts from ancient texts and pondered over how a variety of characters positioned themselves in their surroundings. We also looked at the relations between groups of people and accounts of attempts to settle different groups of people and tame and appropriate the landscape. Then we tried to derive an understanding of the extent of forests, of description of terrains, profiles of forest-dwellers, pastoral tribes and agriculturists of the Mughal period from memoirs and travellers’ accounts. We also looked at the continuing theme of tension between cultivators and forests. In the colonial period we looked at the contexts of early exploitation of forests as well as the genesis of the Indian Forest Department and the early Indian Forest Acts. We viewed the structure, working and concerns of the forest departments through the writings of early foresters. Our discussion touched on multiple aspects of the colonial enterprise: sedenterisation, forestry, irrigation, control of big game and varying contexts in which the landscape was understood and controlled.

Finally, having dwelt on forestry issues, I introduced the theme of the politics of water. I presented a short account of colonial irrigation to place big dams and irrigation networks in a historical perspective. The ensuing discussion was lively, placing concerns in the wider context of notions of ownership, international aid, functioning of the bureaucracy, planning and decision-making processes, and consumption. I greatly enjoyed the spirit of collective engagement that unfolded in the five days of these sessions. Students played an active role in culling themes, posing questions and giving shape to a joint understanding.

[Diba Siddiqi]

The forest and fauna

I had a wide and varied involvement with the Landscapes group. It included exploration of the forest, classes in natural history, independent projects, and community work.

Every week we went for walks in the forest that I have grown up in. My question to the students was: how do they relate to this earth, to nature, and is it possible to look together at how we engage with, or perceive our surroundings? There is a need to question our relationship with nature because we, as people, have lost touch with the earth and this leads to all the destruction that we see today. I wanted us to work together, find a way to get in touch with nature again and feel that we are indeed part of it, to bring about a sense of affection—to feel comfortable in the wilderness. It was likely that a sense of responsibility could arise out of this.

We started by talking about ways in which we engage with our surroundings, using the example of a birdwatcher, a hunter, or a farmer, all of whom relate to the land in different ways. Is there something basic or common to all these different ways of engaging?

Then we came to the senses. Can we use our senses to perceive our surroundings in a non-judgmental way, to question and watch our responses and patterns? For example, when we look at a bird there is a series of ideas, information and responses, which seem to place our relationship with the bird mostly in our head. Is it possible to look at the bird without thinking that it is ‘beautiful’ or giving it a name? This is a very difficult thing to do. Our listening is very shallow because of all the thoughts that go through our minds. The same is true for looking, or any other kind of perception. To watch this pattern and to give our full attention outward is the beginning of a space or a chance for us to have a deeper understanding of ourselves and the earth.

I did various exercises in using our senses intensely. We always started with guided sessions of listening or looking, as a kind of initiation, or preparation, to going into the forest. This was important as a lot of quietening down happens in this process. Later we walked together trying to be open and aware of our bodies and mind. Once in the forest we would separate for about an hour for different activities. These included walking, touching, smelling, crawling, sleeping, sitting, running —to see if one can respond to the ‘place’ through movement, art, or sounds—to act without preconceived ideas.

It was difficult at first for me to get my ideas across and I had to ensure that we did not spend too much time talking, or too little. There was a flow after the initial days and it became a process—of working, talking together and taking things deeper. There was a sense of joy and playfulness during this time but also seriousness.

In our natural history sessions we took a more knowledge-based approach to field studies of the vertebrates and invertebrates living in our area. Together with Shyamal Lakshminarayanan we spent several weeks getting a feeling for their evolutionary path, life cycles and morphology. We then went out to look at them in a range of habitats and learned how to identify various species.

[Sandilya T.]

Excursions: Introduction to landscape ecology and the world of plants

Ecology is a discipline that demands direct engagement with the great outdoors. Landscape ecology involves taking the ‘big picture’ into account. Each area, each community of creatures, each braided bundle of biotic and abiotic processes is better understood when you place it in the context of its larger setting. The latter consists in itself of two strands: first, the surprising intricacies of the natural world and second, human connections to those intricacies. Our excursions into the wider landscape are a fusion of the above. They are founded on a few simple principles:

  1. To perceive the connections you have to traverse the land and come alive to it. There is nothing like getting out for several days, wandering around a special place, looking at it from many angles: from cliff tops, valley bottoms, sandstone caves, granite massifs, through thick trees, over the meadows, from the cool creek within as it slices a chasm though the plateau, from the perspective of a mountain goat, or a bison or a vulture wheeling high above.
  2. Observations and questions spontaneously arise during this traverse. Talk about it, reflect upon it, create your own science, your own unique awareness.
  3. Walking long distances together, engaging with the outdoors in communion creates a meta-awareness. You teach me about birds of prey. I show you the rocks. He reveals to us the trees. She asks: why is this all like this? The nomadic instinct reawakens in us. We wander, taste, swim, climb and explore. And then together we discover big patterns that conjoin the terrain with the wind and the ooze of water and the cloak of green. We discover that it is all ineluctably connected. And in this expanding awareness we become one being, with many sets of eyes, with multiple sensibilities, with a shared understanding. By the end it is hard to tell us all apart.

Excursions collapse the distance between theory and observation. An excursion is an intense experience, twenty-four hours together every day for several days: exploring wilderness, ecosystem ecology; watersheds and geology, climate, weather, the work of the monsoon; vegetation, flora and fauna, anthropology, forestry, conservation biology. A compendium of information is harnessed in a very short period of time. And simultaneously, unknowingly, you are fitter, more nimble; fleet of foot and sharp of ear. Even your nose becomes an indispensable guide in this new terrain. Like bears, you feast on sweet ripening berries. In fact you are led from one cornucopia to another. Landscape ecology yields edible treats like no other.

You also gather new vistas into each other, each individual rich with nuance and pattern, now hidden, now exposed. We learn much from each others’ tread and speech, the things we spontaneously respond to, the things we fear.

Every place is alive with the story of human beings who have been there before you. Their values talk to you today. You follow the spoor of by gone societies as you do the spoor of porcupine and tiger. Their actions continue to unravel their impact on the terrain and on the vegetation, on the water courses, on the things that live here. Your story today is shaped by theirs then.

And thus, walking creates its own environmental ethic. You realize your story today will undeniably shape the future to come—of humanity and wilderness. Of all life.

In the landscape ecology excursions students had the chance to explore two areas of the Western Ghats: the first as part of a bird survey organized by the Forest Department in the Siruvani Hills lining the Attapadi plateau, and the second to Mukurthi National Park at 2400 metres to explore the shola grassland ecosystem (high elevation tropical montane). We also had the privilege to be guided by Pradip Krishen, tree specialist and monsoon forest naturalist, to explore the Satpura hills in central India, a window into monsoon forests defined by a seasonal aridity more marked than in our wetter Western Ghat biome.

In addition I introduced students to the world of plants at Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, at Mukurthi National Park, and later in the Satpura hills of Madhya Pradesh. Questions explored were: How does the structure of wet evergreen forest type differ from the montane shola grassland type? What are life forms, and how are different life forms represented in different ecosystems? What are some of the common plant species in each forest type? What is the biogeographic affinity with the Himalayas? What is the effect of altitude on vegetation type? How were the Western Ghats formed? What cycles can we perceive in new growth, maturation and senescence?

Many of these questions found their way into our Satpura excursion with Pradip Krishen. The Satpura landscape is valuable because it provides connections and contiguity over an extensive wilderness area that features dramatic tablelands, clusters of peaks with varied vegetation and wildlife typical of both tropical dry and moist deciduous forests. We were introduced to trees of the region and our knowledge of botany grew by leaps and bounds. We learned a lot more about water, and its profound impact on vegetation type. Water is the single most limiting factor in this region, but topography and altitude conspire to create perennial streams that chart their course in deep shady fern-filled gorges.

Both in Satpura and Mukurthi we had the chance to relate with forest department personnel and to look at policies regarding wildlife, tourism, fire, exotic invasives, poaching, resettlement and encroachment, a slew of forces often in conflict with each other. We learned that the management of wilderness is a whole discipline in itself, reflecting the values of the time, of each shift in our collective understanding and perception of the natural world.

[Suprabha Seshan]

Himalayan Landscapes

Over a period of five weeks we studied many aspects of the Himalayan landscape. To understand the differences between alpine, temperate forest and riverine ecosystems we visited various elevations to see the changes in habitat conditions, flora, fauna, their linkages and the history of succession and climate of each place, and to gain an introduction to the trees, shrubs, herbs, animals, birds, reptiles and fish of these landscapes. We then observed the centrality of forests in the survival and subsistence of mountain communities. To learn about sustainable land use we compared forest ownership and governance by the State (Reserve Forests and Sanctuaries) with ownership by the community (van panchayat), and the pressures on land use and life forms as a result of a rapidly changing global market economy.

Living with local families in a structured home-stay arrangement facilitated an orientation to mountain cultures and livelihoods (tribal and non-tribal). We learned about working on the fields to prepare and plough the land, the seasonal agricultural activity of potato and vegetable sowing, farm animal care, and collecting produce (fuel wood, fodder, medicinal plants) from the forests. We encouraged the students to learn skills such as weaving, wool dyeing, bamboo work, drumming, wood cutting, house building. We also camped in alpine and temperate areas, learning to live off the land, and developing wilderness safety and survival skills.

[Malika Virdi, K. Ramnarayan, Emmanuel Theophilus, Bhavna Kandari, Abhijit Menon Sen]

Reflections on the course—student voices

‘Over the past four months we have been exposed to a different way of looking at, interacting with and relating to nature. We have been living with and learning from people who are not merely talking about sustainability but actually making a serious attempt to live sustainably. For example, we participated in growing the food we eat, carrying the firewood we cook with, collecting the coffee we drink. This has given us the opportunity to recognize the many processes that go into supporting our lifestyles, unlike in the cities where someone else is doing most of this work, unseen by us.’

‘ While learning about plants, reptiles, birds, amphibians, or insects, we began by pooling together what we knew about them and then going out and looking at them in the field, reading about them together and sharing our questions — like friends sharing information that they care about.’

.‘An important aspect of the projects we did was that they were fuelled by our own curiosity and energy and not directed by someone else. Learning this way created new interests and organically developed new skills.’

‘The course got us thinking about how and where we fit into our landscapes. We spent a week in Pachmari to study the local forests, so different from the tropical rainforest we had become familiar with.’

‘The experience made me open up and more willing to try new things and to explore new windows that I and others around me had closed. The surroundings just made you want to try out all the new things, it didn’t matter if you were good at it or not. That really does make you a happier person.’

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