“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and fought and gobbled until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.”
―Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
“the landscape tells – or rather is – a story. It enfolds the lives and times of predecessors who, over the generations, have moved around in it and played their part in its formation. To perceive the landscape is therefore to carry out an act of remembrance, and remembering is not so much a matter of calling up an internal image, stored in the mind, as of engaging perpetually with the environment that is itself pregnant with the past”
― Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment
Geeta Maiti lives a recurring nightmare, when she explains how heavy rains have ripped their home. “We were so terrified with the water coming into the house and the sound of the storm. In front of my eyes, the walls of our house collapsed… But where do we go? This is our home.” Her fear and helplessness echoes in the drowning voices of a majority of the residents living in the Sundarbans – A 4000 square-mile archipelago straddling India and Bangladesh. This delta region supports the world’s largest mangrove forest, and several highly endemic species including the royal Bengal tiger. Almost 13 million people call it home. But, this might soon be history. The sea has been steadily claiming territory over these areas, but the crises has exacerbated due to climate change and widespread logging of the Mangroves that protected its inhabitants from rampages of cyclones, literally keeping islands intact. The geographical fragmentation of the place reflects the physical and emotional fragmentation of the people forced to evacuate their homes. Similar narratives can be seen across the planet, each of them rooted in some form of alienation brought about by a damaged ecosystem. When clumped under the rather vague and abstract category of “Climate refugees”, it easy to forget the particularities and personal histories driving a person to risk the great unknown.
While such examples illustrate the more obvious impacts of ecological crises, we are closer to their plight than we would like to imagine. Somewhere, Amitav Ghosh asserts that, “In the era of global warming, nothing is really far away”. The anxieties of forced migration seem strangely personal to me. I have never been able to come up with a convincing answer to the seemingly innocuous question, “Where are you from?”. My parents migrated from their hometown in search of ‘better opportunities’ , and spent the next 20 years of their life searching for it across rented apartments all over New Delhi. Education, job and social security remain primary reasons to keep moving, as I have had to do over multiple states for the past 15 years of my life. ‘Native place’ is but a romantic memory conjured from rare vacations spent at my grandparents’ home, now demolished and turned into an impersonal apartment complex. Living in a similar shelter across another corner of the country myself, I wonder who were the older inhabitants of this place. Crocodiles lazing under the Sun? Otters swimming along fishermen’s boats? Crabs spending an idle day in the muddy waters below Mangrove forests? They have lost the place they knew, while creatures like me are lost in places we’ll never know, for we don’t dwell in them. To belong, we need to attend to the particularities of a place, and that kind of attention can only culminate from a sustained, loving relationship with the landscape. Calling out the apathy enveloping people on myriad issues, Wendell Berry astutely wrote, “People exploit what they merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love…”. How can one love something one doesn’t know enough? City life can rarely offer such relationships, for its existence relies on severing multiple connections with the land. Ironically though, economic pressures make sure that such unliveable habitats remain the only viable options for the dispossessed.
In the wake of ecological disasters, as more creatures are finding their relationships with their homes being rapidly eroded, the issues are no longer just environmental (they never were, to begin with). Turtles swim thousands of miles to find their nesting spot turned into an airplane runway. Indigenous tribes are being forcibly evicted as their forest homes are burnt or felled. Decades of drought precipitated the civil wars in the Middle East. Elephants and whales find ancient migration routes checkered with high-voltage barriers and busy shipping lanes. Racial and ethnic intolerance has reared its head in ugly ways. We don’t need space explorations to discover alien lands. We alienated ourselves right at home.
When losing ground, it is easy to be influenced by false promises, and short-sighted solutions promised by those in power. As Robert McFarlane notes, influence has aquatic connotations: The action or fact of flowing in; It then doesn’t take much effort to get carried away; by fear, insecurity and a mounting sense of loss. Tools of suppression and greed continue to splinter our roots, leaving us adrift in bizarre ways. We may not be able to find our native home, but it is critical to dwell where we are. In growing roots of reciprocal relationships, care and trust towards other human and more-than-human species we may, after all, be able to claim a place of belonging. This is where we stand our ground, and fight.