One of the greatest needs today is for us, human beings, to get back in touch with nature. It is not our evil intent but our indifference, ignorance and disconnect that is the root cause behind global warming, environmental destruction, wildlife extinction, pollution of rivers and oceans and the consequent backlash to our own existence. If not altruism, then at least selfishness and the instinct for self-preservation should galvanize us to stop doing the things which will invariably and inexorably result in our own extinction. If we were to ask the animals, birds and insects; if we were to ask the fish in the ocean; they would all unanimously say that they are waiting for that day of extinction of the one species which had the greatest knowledge, gifts, material wealth and power, but which it used not to help others or even itself but to commit suicide while destroying the only home it will ever have. I sometimes imagine archeologists digging up the mounds of earth covering our cities with their great libraries, universities and laboratories and wonder how people who knew so much ignored that knowledge and did their best to destroy themselves, successfully.
That is why I believe that it is essential for us to get back in touch with nature, with the wild places on the earth; precious few that we have left; and with nature in every little way that is still with us in our own dwelling places. We need to learn the value of silence, of listening, of breathing fresh air and savoring the aromas it wafts to us and recognize them as the signatures of those who share this planet with us. I use the word, ‘Share’, very consciously because it is that attitude which must result from our encounter with nature. Sharing is the understanding that the other is co-owner with me. That I don’t own it and the other doesn’t enjoy it at my pleasure. Sharing is the true essence of citizenship; not of some nation state created by drawing lines on a map but of the earth, which we share with everyone else on it. To experience sharing is to experience respect for our fellow beings, human or otherwise.
Sadly, we have learnt to live as conquerors, despoilers, looters and exploiters of the earth. That is why we call climbing to the top of a great mountain, ‘conquering’ that mountain. If you could hear, you’d hear the mountain laugh its guts out at the audacity of mankind which pretends to conquer something that existed aeons before humans came into being and will continue aeons after the last of them has walked the plank. We carry this same attitude with respect to the rest of our fellow citizens, who we kill for commercial gain, for sport, or simply to sight our weapons; who we hook on a line and call their desperate death struggles – a good fight. [email protected]! Enough of that. Enough of lamenting. Let us see what we can do about it. How can we inculcate a love for nature, respect for it, appreciation of it, awareness of our own role; not as some conqueror; but as a small but important cog in the wheel of life. It is this love which leads me to the forest. It is this love that I want to transfer from my heart into yours. To love the forest, you must learn to become a part of it. To feel, sense, listen, see and breathe like the wild things do. Buzzing around in 4X4 vehicles chasing animals, disturbing their peace, talking loudly, throwing out plastic litter, hanging out of the widows or over the sides taking pictures; all this despicable behavior must stop. To love the forest, you must walk in it. You must sit by a stream or waterhole, your outline broken by a bush and sit so still that even your breathing becomes invisible. Then the magic happens.
It was 1970. I was 15 years old, sitting in a blind that had been cut into the middle of a wild Ber thorn bush on the bank of a nameless tributary of Dotti Vaagu which in its turn is a tributary of River Kadam. Very cramped space, a log to sit on and a small space opened in the front of the bush to stick the barrel of the gun through to give me a clear shot, if some animal came to drink water. The bush itself was about 50 yards up the slope that borders the water hole. On this very hot summer day, this is the only source of water for miles around, left over dregs from the monsoon when this little trickle flowed bank to bank. It is summer, temperatures in the high 40’s Celsius. In this part of the Sahyadri Range, it is so dry that you don’t sweat. Or rather, the sweat dries so fast that you only see its white encrusted salt deposits in the armpits of your shirt when you take it off.
The breeze, when it blows, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the stillness is stifling, but on the other, when the breeze blows, it is like the blowback from a furnace. Well, not quite that bad but almost. However, what is wonderful and the reason I am waiting for it, is the smells it brings. If you spend enough time in the forest and have a good teacher to teach you to recognize sights, smells and sounds, it is like reading a book. You sniff the air and it tells you its own story.
There are many smells in the forest and they vary depending on the time of day and the time of year, the season. In the early morning in summer, it smells like first rain; the smell of dew from the previous night. Despite the heat of the day, night temperature drops 10 degrees or more and so there is often heavy dew fall. That nourishes whatever vegetation escaped being dried off by the sun and is the source of water for the hundreds even thousands of insect, reptile and even some mammal species in the forest. This moisture in the summer smells like first rain. Incidentally, in Hyderabad, our perfumers (Attar) had developed an Atar (perfume) called Gil, which means moist earth, based on the smell of first rain.
Depending on where you are, the breeze can bring to you the smell of the territory markings of a tiger, which urinates on specific trees, rocks and outcrops to warn off potential competitors. The strong smell of bovine urine can mean that there is or has been a Gaur (bison) herd in the vicinity. And depending on the forest, there is the smell of elephant. That is one smell you learn to recognize very early or you reach the point of no return. It is important to remember that animals can smell much more keenly than we can and so wearing after shave, perfume or even bathing with a perfumed soap can ensure that you never see a butterfly all day because animals smelt you a mile away and took another route. Same goes for tobacco, cigarettes, bidis and whatnot. I would bathe after my return from the forest in the night and go back the next morning without bathing. Sweat is natural and doesn’t drive animals away.
When you sit silently, you become a part of the surroundings. Your ears initially buzz with the residual sound of the bustle you have left behind. But after a while, they fall silent and then you begin to hear the sounds of the forest. The buzzing of cicadas, the incessant call of the Brain-fever bird, the distant barking of dogs from the village. Then as your ears get more attuned to the sounds, you start hearing the subtler ones; the rustle of leaves as a rat snake makes his way from one shaded spot to another, the cooing of turtle doves, bark of the Chital sentry when she sees something alarming. You hear the breeze in the dry leaves on the forest floor as they play chase with each other. Teak trees having shed most of their leaves, the dominant color is brown. There is very little shade, except under the Ber and Acacia thorn bushes like the one I am sitting in. There is some bamboo, but most of it is young and does not provide shade. There are no elephants in this forest, but Gaur (bison) browse on what they can reach of the bamboo and so do Chital, Sambar, and Nilgai. As I sit very still, even controlling my breathing, knowing that above all else it is movement that attracts attention and becomes visible, I suddenly see a pair of jackals materialize in front of me. The bitch is more cautious and is lagging behind. The dog is ahead. Both sense that something is perhaps not as it should be. However, the wind is blowing steadily in my face and so I know they can’t smell me. The bitch even looks directly at me; perhaps she knows, maybe she can sense the rise and fall of my chest as I breathe or maybe it is an old memory she is trying to place. The moment passes and she follows her mate into the open. First, they drink, then they sit in the water on the edge and cool off in the intense heat of the day, then they start playing, chasing each other around like little puppies, secure in the knowledge that they are alone. It is a very rare moment for me, to be observing animals doing what they do when they are not afraid. Even if I had a video camera, it could never capture the entire atmosphere; the excitement, the challenge of sitting silent and still like a tree stump, my outline broken by the bush I am sitting inside. The memory of those jackals is still so vivid in my mind that even today, more than 40 years later, I can see them playing in and around the water. Nothing lives that long in the wild. That pair of jackals is long gone. But I will remember them and that day, all my life. After a while I realize that the jackals are a mixed blessing. Their presence will allay the fears of other animals heading to the water, as it is an indication that all is well. But at the same time their presence will keep the smaller game, Chinkara, Chowsinga, and Black-naped Hare away from the water hole. I want to make them leave but without alarming them so much that they warn everyone else of my presence. I gently clear my throat. It is as if an electric shock goes through their bodies. One minute they are carefree playmates. The next instant they go rigid for a split second and then like a flash, they are gone, each in a different direction to confuse the pursuer. I settle once again into the ritual of watching life happen.
This enforced immobility and silence, the attendant boredom, initially; then the flow of thoughts in the mind, while trying to keep aware of the surroundings, is an incredibly powerful exercise for introspection. And waiting for and watching animals on a watering hole is the best way to do it.