I live across a small stream from an ancient rainforest in Wayanad, Kerala. It has a constancy that’s baffling, appearing more or less the same to me for all the years I’ve been here. The forest sustains. As do you and I. Tangled beings brought together by strange and bewildering feats of alchemy. No matter what we name this tangle, it is before and beyond all words, all naming. Walk in the forest and abandon your notion of a separate self and embrace instead the communal mind, this pullulating dance between beings.
The forest renews itself. It does this every moment. As do our bodies, yours and mine. It holds together. As do you and I, an astonishing thing. That I stand here today is nothing short of a miracle, a similar tangle of mysteries, the life work of multitudinous beings called cells, cooperating over decades, a human lifetime.
The forest begets stories. Like a single wood spider laying a clutch of thousands of eggs, the forest is gravid with stories. Humans and non-humans have lived here for scores of years, leading to intermingling clutches of cultural history, epic in every sense. Paniya people have lived here since time immemorial – they don’t know how long. If we believe anthropologists, they are the original humans of this subcontinent. The Paniyas have their own origin stories, how they came here. They say their stories are given to them by their ancestors, and these stories help them sustain their culture, which includes the non-humans. For me, the stories are given by the land itself, and the creatures I share this place with.
There are as many stories as there are beings in this forest. Worms, ants, spiders, trees, epiphyllous liverworts, laterite nodules interpenetrated with alga, maggots, eggs, seeds, filaments of fungi; waters bearing beings, beings bearing water; lung cells, and skin cells talking to the air, and air talking to the leaves; multiplicitous symbionts forming composite entities, the whole forest is alive. There is nothing that is not part of life: where do the elements end and organisms begin?
The longer I live here, the harder I search for a non-living space, I cannot find one! Even if you and I disagree about the consciousness of rocks (willful beings operating on different time scales, with a rock-mind vastly different from ours), we will agree that without rocks certain lichens wouldn’t thrive. The rock offers its minerals to the lichens, the lichens are grazed by the snails, the snails are picked by the cormorant, who is hunted by the eagle.
Around me are crowds of beings but there is no waste. Everybody is food for somebody else. The innumerable myriad beings transform their world, the forest. They create it and eat it, make love in it and die in it. Their bodies are worlds for other beings. Individual presences are palpable, even though there are so many. They are all apparently independent, and carrying on with their individual lives. They are also interdependent. This creates a whole. And a constancy.
The forest goes on through aeons. It breaks down, and it goes on. It dies, and it lives. It, too, was born, but a very long time ago, and it too will die. Because its end is brutally hastened by modern men and their supermachines, we will never know what the natural life span of this forest is. Indigenous people just say it was always like this. On closer look, birth, growth and death are happening simultaneously. This fecundity is a hundred million years old, according to science. The rainforest endures. It’s the work of these creatures, primarily these plants and their prolific enjoyment of each other, and their event-making and storytelling that sustains this fullness, this rainforest biome. They certainly sustain large mammal, biped, story-teller me.
Is there a fundamental principle of the natural world that we can perceive directly through our senses, that does not require an education in biology or environmental studies or ecology? Do we see connections? Do we experience interdependency? Do we recognize diversity? Do we dwell in interbeing? Do we feel our embeddedness in the weave of life? Do we know our very own capacity for renewal? Do we hear the surround symphony we are immersed in?
Call out to the plants if you want to learn the secret of renewal. You must follow the green ones, and find out how they live; for they are the clever alchemists who keep the world going. You must visit an ancient rainforest, like the one where I live – Old Mother Forest I call her – and sit under the trees. If you want to know what’s eternal, and beyond forever, ask them.
Perhaps other questions arise. How old is ancient? Is everyone here ancient? Who sustains whom? What is life and death in a place that is aeonic in its imagination, yet wholly present, so utterly in-the-now? What is time to such an entity? Are there many senses of time, one for each one who lives here, for every type of being? Who begets whom? Is the forest the mother of the trees (and all their companion beings, plant, animal, fungal, elemental and other), or is it the other way around, that each of these impassioned beings begets the forest, through every action, and in every place they inhabit?
Even under extreme assault, plants are able to regenerate and revitalize a place. Their desire to live is fierce, tenacious and inspirational. They are masters of strategies; full spectrum, I’d say. If you want to survive the holocaust of planetary proportions that is upon us all, you must defend the plants, and help them, or you must get out of the way, so they can get on with their planet-healing work. You must ally with them against the machines. You must observe their rules. Geniuses that they are, and wizards at transforming matter and energy, they cannot combat hubris if you are messing around with them; telling them what to do, and choosing one over the other, playing games with their bodies, as if they are stupid mindless things.
If you want to create cultures of sustainability, then again, listen to the green ones, and visit an ancient forest. Here, the mighty trees with their swirls of tender plants, and interweaving fungal allies, and flashes of colorful animals can show you how community, fecundity and diversity lead to immortality. Relearn the old ways here, how to relate with other beings, how to sustain each other and the whole culture indefinitely. Who created the biosphere? And who knows best how to keep it going?
Old Mother Forest.
This essay first appeared in The Indian Express, and was republished by the Economics of Happiness Blog.
Suprabha Seshan lives at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, a small plant conservation centre, at the edge of a forest in the hills of Kerala, India. She is an environmental educator and restoration ecologist, an Ashoka Fellow, and winner of the 2006 Whitley Fund for Nature award.