Honeyland – A documentary that explores the bitter-sweet dilemmas of bee-ing human

Rarely does a documentary capture a story and its settings in such breathtaking detail. From the sweeping, stark Balkan landscape to the palpable buzz of a bee trying to cling to a floating leaf, Honeyland is as much a visual treat, as it is a narrative masterpiece. Set in a remote Macedonian village, the documentary revolves around the life of Hatidže Muratova, one of the last remaining keepers of wild bees in the remote mountain village of Bekirlija. Much like a solitary bee herself, it would seem as if she is following some invisible trail across the steep, rocky slopes in her mustard blouse and printed black skirt. Her callused fingers gently pry open a slab of rock that nestles several bee combs in its cavity. What follows is a practice enmeshed in ecological wisdom, “Half for you, half for me…” murmurs Hatidže, gently smoking the hives with burnt dry dung. The simplicity and profundity of this statement lingers throughout the film, as are the repercussions of the actions by her neighbours, who fail to value this advice.

Hatidže walking across hilly ridges to reach the beehives

In a testament to the patience and integrity required to create anything of value, directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov spent over three years filming Hatidže’s activities, as well those of her nomadic, cattle-rearing neighbours who camped next to her home for a while. Hussein’s family of seven boisterous children and his wife are a sharp contrast to Hatidže’s quiet life spent in tending to the bees, and her ailing, paralytic mother. The directors commitment towards portraying their lives in as authentic a manner as possible led them to document every aspect of these complex relationships. What is even more interesting is that both directors don’t speak the local language, Turkish, and had no translators working with them while shooting. They instead relied on careful observation of the gestures and body language to shoot scenes they felt were important. What emerges therefore are the detailed particularities of individual existence that are instantly recognised as more universal expressions of the human condition. For instance, intimate moments between Hatidže’s and her mother can be easily recognised, despite Hatidže’s rough countenance and interactions. The sparse dialogues in between invite further reflection, as when her mother wryly remarks of her condition, “I have become a tree…”.

Hatidže’s mother declining her daughter’s offer to take her outside

Hatidže’s life is ruptured with the arrival of her neighbours, though she welcomes the company at first. She is especially warm towards the children and willingly helps Hussein set up some bee boxes because he is looking for ways to increase his income. However, things soon go south when he fails to adhere to her dictum of “leave half for them (the bees)”. Kotevska and Stefanov resist the temptation of taking sides, or reducing the complexity of choices involved, as Hussein is seen struggling to provide for the family. He gives in to the pressure of a dealer, despite his initial reluctance due to the promise of a steady income if he is able to harvest the entire honey in one go. The actions prove fatal for his bee colony, for they are unable to survive the loss, and also end up killing most of Hatidže’s bees in order to get honey from the hive. Hatidže’s loss and frustration isn’t so much expressed in words, as they are shown in her eyes and in the long walks away from home to find another suitable home for her remaining bees. Pushed into further desperation after the collapse of the bee colony, Hussein ends up burning trees nearby to grow fodder and grass for his cattle. Hatidže’s glowers at the fury of the flames when she asks him, “Where will the bees go?”.

Hatidže instructing Hussein on how to take care of the beehives
A dealer pressurising Hussein to collect all the hives together
Hatidže rebuking Hussein for burning the Juniper trees

Hussein’s son is sees the wisdom of her words, in part because of the oppressive working conditions at times. He lashes out at his father, and joins Hatidže’s on her day-long journey to the secluded mountain side to get some wild honey. Throughout, the directors remain faithful to the landscape and the subjects. The frigid winters, the pain of losing cattle to some illness, mourning the death of a mother; their unflinching gaze holds a mirror to our collective psyche and shows the deep fissures of ecological loss meeting the fragile veneer of a civilised society. There is no closure in the documentary, as there is none in life. There is only the search for meaning. If one is lucky, the bees might show the way.

Hatidže and Hussein’s son walk through the hills after collecting some wild honey

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honeyland

https://filmmakermagazine.com/106712-living-and-working-with-each-other-for-those-three-years-in-almost-unbearable-life-conditions-directors-ljubo-stefanov-and-tamara-kotevska-honeyland/#.Xw2Y9TczY8o
https://www.indiewire.com/2019/09/honeyland-documentary-hatidze-muratova-ida-1202176686/

https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/honeyland-review-1203124547/

Reclaiming a ‘breathing-space’: The subversive power of attention autonomy

Choked on emotions

It has been the month of mourning. From the cold-hearted murder of George Floyd, to the miserable plight of labourers trying to make their way home, to the millions losing their job as companies try to stay ‘afloat’, to the millions of hectares of forests being cut to make way for more mining, to the frontline healthworkers dying to lack of basic PPEs, to the increasing inter-nation tensions and military confrontations, to the neglected victims of climate-change distasters, to the stranded refugees left with nowhere to go. Where does this misery end? What do we need to do in order to survive such rampant assault on our lives, interconnected as they are with other humans and the ecology? There are obvious degrees of suffering, and saying ‘our’ is not intended to reduce the wide range of inequities and differences to some homogeneous feeling of distress. However, it is clear that we all to stand to lose, unless we find the courage to defend and stand up for what we love.

The resistance of disengagement

Disparate, as the above incidents may seem, a common thread of displacement runs through all off them. From the histories of slavery and colonisation, to the pitifully short-sighted economic decisions driving the flight of migrants, to the irreversible loss of forests and rivers, displacement has been the foremost choice of violence. However, this doesn’t happen in isolation. Another insidious process at play is what artist and writer, Jenny Odell refers to as the ‘attention-economy’. In her timely book, “How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy”, Odell provides a detailed argument of how capitalistic interests, interwoven with technological inventions (and interventions), now lay claim to our time in destructive, and draining ways. These moves are made under garb of productivity and efficiency, as if these are self-evident universal values to pursue. Productive for whom? Efficiency for what?

These thoughts are worth reflecting upon, especially given the extraordinary circumstances created by the pandemic. Most educational institutions, for example, have been asked to switch into an online mode and prepare for forthcoming semesters as if the physical, social and psychological issues created by the pandemic shouldn’t have any bearing on teaching/ learning processes. In an insightful article by Cara Hagan, she offers creative ways in which academic experiences can be made much more meaningful by turning it into a ‘gap year’ that allows students and faculty members to pick up useful skills, work in their immediate neighbourhoods and tune in to support the local community. None of these would be comfortable fit into categories of industrial productivity, and yet it is exactly what is needed. Thinking of alternatives takes time. It takes support. It needs a place in a community that can incorporate such practices. Yet, all of these have been stripped away from us.

Social media platforms add another dimension of cruel irony, because they feed on the very emotions that we ought to be able share with each other physically. Instead, every ‘share’ of outrage, or guilt, or ‘Like’ converts into profit algorithms. By now, my social media wall has had enough data points to figure out what will catch my attention, and the results are nothing short of emotional distress. The toxic mix of feeling enraged and helpless can lead to loss of agency or just a facile belief in the same because some online petitions have been signed. This is not to say that such acts are unimportant, or such media platforms shouldn’t be used. The point is, they shouldn’t be allowed to abuse us. Odell writes, “I am suggesting that we protect our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, non-commercial activity and thought, for maintainance, for care, for conviviviality. And I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.” Social platforms are a view from everywhere, and hence a perspective from nowhere. It thus becomes crucial that we resist getting swept by its infinite capacity to suck us into situations that are dead-ends in terms of actual meaning-making. We need to reclaim our attention, and thereby open the possibility of discovering alternate ways of being. Seen this way, the more radical outcome of a Universal Basic Income wouldn’t just be financial stability, but also the much needed time to attend to activities that refuse to participate in the commercial exploitation of productivity.

Bringing it all together: The politics of dwelling

If displacement marks the beginning of exploitation, the act of dwelling may offer a way to live differently. Anthropologist Tim Ingold refers to dwelling as acts that build relational contexts based on practical engagement with one’s surroundings. It is no coincidence that some of the most sustained political counter-movements have emerged from places of belonging, and rootedness. Anger will spark a revolt, but sustaining it is a matter of long-term commitments that can’t arise without acts of care, trust and attention. In a time marked with increased migration (in search of safety, refuge, education, employment etc), the need to find common ground is a matter of necessary and mindful intentionality. The right to literal and metaphorical breathing-space is not a matter of luxury. It is one in need of urgent attention.

In the years spent growing edible plants in urban community farms, my attention is naturally caught by the wild plants, trees and birds that that contribute to the unique personality of a place. Visit them enough number of times, and relationships are bound to grow. Anything that diminishes the quality of the place, human or more-than-human, is then felt as a personal loss. Not just a random person. Not just an anonymous tree. When places are co-created, connections become sacred. These are the spaces where roots of empathy can be nourished. Let them grow.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson (Image source: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/17/sidewalk-flowers/)

A humble new world

It was the third store to have run out of the ingredient I was looking for – yeast. I wasn’t surprised though. Almost a third of the world population has been under some form of lock-down for the past few months in a bid to contain a pandemic that may become a part and parcel of daily existence, at least till the year-end. The fortunate ones, with new found time at home have begun discovering new hobbies, skills and relationships that barely existed in the past. Social media is awash with pictures, posts and recipes of various baked foods, and even people new to culinary sensibilities have mastered the dark art of making sourdough. There has been a surge in online courses and webinars (many of them for free) as people suddenly find themselves free to pursue any topic that might interest them. With long-distance supply/ consumption chains broken everywhere, spontaneous local distribution patterns are emerging. People are trying to explore aspects of self-reliance through encountering ideas of inter-dependency. Compost-making is in full swing, edibles are being grown at home, bio-enzymes are being made for use as cleaners, recipes are being freely exchanged, and much more is afoot. Unprecedented number of people have come forward to help those affected in generous and ingenious ways. The sparrows are back. The air is clear. But, most would hesitate to take a deep breath.

Not everything is abloom. Health-care workers are struggling as hospitals overflow with patients. Prolonged social isolation has led to spikes in depression, domestic violence and substance abuse as existing vulnerabilities have worsened in absence of help. Marginalised sections have been pushed into further poverty, and unemployment rates are rising by the day. Economies are scrambling to keep businesses afloat, with many nations lifting the lockdown by arguing that it is damaging the economy beyond repair. It doesn’t matter if it is the very same economy that makes it possible for enormous food scarcity and food waste to occur simultaneously. Or, bemoan the loss of wealth because of oil prices crashing and millions of cancelled flights during this period. To maintain status quo, oil needs to rule and planes need to fly. If the demigod of industrial growth demands human sacrifice, so be it. That has always been the case, except that now every shred of the masquerade is gone. Sand castles of socio-economic narratives are eroding with the onslaught of waves. Beaches lie empty. Turtles peacefully bask under the sun. Clearly, there is something in the air apart from the virus.

The pause, and the potential transformation

COVID-19 has enabled what numerous global conventions could not achieve – a pause long enough for people to consider alternate narratives. The juggernaut of market forces and techno-managerial approach to building societies, have reinforced ideas of naïve agency that suggest humans to be the sole authors of unfolding events. Even well-intentioned calls for environmental action are based on views of causal potency – “Be the change”. We name a geological epoch signalling the power and evidence of our presence on this planet. Ramsey Affifi calls it a form of “anthropoholicism”; an addiction to a conception of our unique and linear agency in this world. It is this hubris and addiction that the virus has damaged the most. Now, we find ourselves participating in probably the largest social experiment ever, and it is not one of our making. Like an alcoholic’s road to recovery, ours may begin with this simple but profound realisation. Affifi writes,

In both cases, various interlocking historical, material, conceptual and emotional factors conspire to show the impossibility of simple willpower to be a sufficient catlayst for change… Admitting that one is not strong enough is not necessarily to admit defeat. For Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recognising that one is part of a field of processes that one cannot control is seen as the beginning of health. It marks the beginning of a correction of a pathological epistemology, pathological because the very belief in one’s ‘power’ fed into a broader positive feedback loop that exacerbated the very conditions one was attempting to resist.

What kind of transformation routes may open up to us, if we were to act on this realisation?

The audacity of change

Believing in one thing. Acting on it is another. It is especially distressing when the dominant cultural narrative has demanded that our needs be met by material wants, economic positions even as it has taken a toll on the ecological and social relationships that sustain us. Going along with this narrative till now makes us complicit in its making, thereby creating a strange species-level Stockholm Syndrome. We still want to protect a known monster rather than step into an uncertain, unknown tomorrow. Yet, there are cracks in the hull, and numerous lifeboats await. The diversity of experiences taking place right now can form the basis for a more reciprocal and enriching relationship with one’s community, human and more-than-human. Illich uses the term ‘conviviality’ to describe the thresholds of wellbeing that can act as a goal as well as a constraint. Farming can happen in cities, and dignified livelihood opportunities can exist in rural areas. Automobiles won’t be required along bike-friendly roads, and dolphins can swim along with humans if huge harbours (for shipping and transportation) are dismantled. Gift economies can take root, and people can give each other time, instead of money. We can spend less, and enjoy more. Forests can regrow, and corals can self-heal. In recognising our vulnerabilities, and lack of control in shaping the environment around us, we might actually find the strength to recover from the abuse meted onto ourselves. If we are audacious enough to let go, a new world awaits us. One that is filled with humility and care.

‘Water’ by Subhash Singh Vyam

The ecological aesthetics of Hayao Miyazaki

Miyazaki’s films are deceptively simple. Author Maria Popova, once commented on how good children’s books speak “a language of absolute sincerity, so deliciously countercultural in our age of cynicism.” Miyazaki’s films are imbued with a similar quality of tenderness, without compromising on the complexity of the moral landscape. Their universal appeal is perhaps a testimony of how meaningful content designed for children effortlessly slice through the cumbersome baggage of adulthood narratives. Indeed, Tolkein once remarked that there is no such thing as writing for children.

I, for one, have found ecological themes more eloquently described in Miyazaki’s films, than many academic books on the subject. Miyazaki’s world is animated in the true sense of word. Trees talk, forests rebel, a river can be angry and spirits need to be understood as unique individuals. The vivid, fantastical and detailed scenes depicted in his films foreground Nature and attune the viewers to its eclectic character. Ecological sensitivity looms large as a theme without ever taking on a preachy or dull tone. Rather than painting simplistic dichotomies of good/bad or right/ wrong, his characters need to work through the consequences of their actions, and the trade-offs it would entail. Nature is seen as an active co-participant rather than a passive backdrop of human actions, and as a result remain in constant dialogue with the characters of the films.

Animacy of the world

A particular scene from Princess Mononoke stayed with me for this reason. Here, a female leader (Lady Eboshi) has been building an industrial village through the mining of iron ore, which has brought prosperity to the locals but greatly harmed the forest. Eboshi has angered the forest gods with her guns and destruction of the forest. Yet, at the same time, she shows great compassion to the lepers and former prostitutes who work in her factory-fortress.A few forest gods such as giant boars and wolves have tried to retaliate in anger. A young prince (Ashitaka) from a far-away land gets unwittingly involved (and injured) in this fight due to a series of events and travels to this town to in order to find a cure. While spending a night in the town, he sees Lady Eboshi firing at some forest creatures:

Lady Eboshi: They keep coming back. Every night they’re out there planting trees trying to turn the mountain into a forest again. Stay here, help me kill the forest spirit, Ashitaka.

Prince Ashitaka: Why would you do that? Kill the very heart of the forest?

Lady Eboshi: Without that ancient God, the animals here would be nothing but dumb beasts once more.

There is a literal sense in which the creatures of the forest are rendered dumb and voiceless. The other protagonist of the film is a young girl (San) who has grown up in the forest along with the wolves, and actively (but unsuccessfully) tries to stop Lady Eboshi. There is no easy resolution for the mounting tension, and the complexity of the situation is laid bare (read: tension between conservationists and political ecologists). In fact, Ashitaka’s wish for some respect and understanding between the mining village and the forest requires an incredible level of sacrifice and patience from him. Here in lies the philosophical commitment of Miyazaki. Pacifism is not for the weak-hearted. Middle-ground is a hard path to tread. Yet, there is hope.

Tales of transformation

Miyazaki’s works are replete with themes of transformation, both inward and outward. Spirited Away, perhaps one of Miyazaki’s most famous movies portrays the journey of Chihiro, from a spoilt, self-absorbed girl to into someone willing to face challenges bravely, and compassionately. When faced with the seemingly impossible task of bathing a monster, Chihiro sincerely applies herself to the task. As a result, after being sucessfully cleaned with Chihiro’s help, the spirit turns out to be that of a mighty river that had been polluted with trash. She is blessed and given an important gift by the river spirit for her work. The cleansing of the body, mind and the environment are co-dependent in simple yet profound ways. In another poignant scene, Chihiro is able to free another river spirit (Haku) from Yubaba’s enslavement by remembering his name (Yubaba ensalves people and spirits by ‘taking away their name’).

Chihiro: It finally came back to me. The river’s name was Kohaku river. I think that river is you, and your real name is the Kohaku river.

Haku: You did it Chihiro. I remember! I was the spirit of the Kohaku river.

Chihiro: They filled in that river. It is all apartments now.

Haku: That must be why I can’t find my way home, Chihiro.

The scene reminded me of biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s brilliant meditation on the act of naming. She wrote, “In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other, but also with plants…” In a world riddled with collective amnesia and disenchantment, perhaps the simple act of attending to the particularities of our environment through their names is an important start. It certainly forms a crucial plot point in Miyazaki’s works.

Another movie titled, ‘Only Yesterday’ is almost a form of visual poetry, depicting the thoughts of a young urban woman, as she contemplates transitioning to a life in the rural farm side. Though beautiful and sincere, the film is not naïve in its musings. In one scene, the film’s protagonist, Taeko narrates the hardships of the farmers cultivating safflower,

How could this yellow flower produce such bright red? They told me a sad tale from old days. The girls didn’t have gloves, and their bare hands would get pricked by the thorns. It was their blood that made the red so deep. I could imagine the resentment they must’ve felt toward the fancy city girls. To make a handful of rouge took nearly sixty basket of petals … Once picked, as the petals oxidise, they gradually turn red. After a few days fermentation turns them bright red, they become sticky. Pounded, wrung into balls and sun-dried, they finally become the base material of rouge.

Over the course of the film, she gains the courage to act on her wish of moving to the rural side, without shying away from the difficulties she may face.

Reciprocity and care as a political act

One may be tempted to call Miyazaki a Romantic, but his works resist clear categorisation. “Nature” is not seen as being unconditionally benign. Rather they can succumb to evil forces, and cause harm as well. For example, in Nausicäa, The world has mostly become uninhabitable due to large scale wars (alluding to radioactive weapons) and humans live in constant danger from a poisonous jungle and easily-angered giant insects. The film’s protagonist Nausicäa, however tries to understand the behaviour of the insects and care for the forest rather than seeing them as a danger that needs to be destroyed. Her act of caring for these creatures becomes an act of political rebellion, and she needs to go through enormous pain to stay true to her beliefs. Her belief in reciprocity of Nature saves humankind from the wrath of the insects in the end. Miyazaki’s idea of environmental stewardship rests on changing the perspectives and thoughts of the characters rather than ‘saving Nature’. A notion of respect, and care is woven deep into the fabric of the stories, enabling even the most casual audience to become reflective for a while. These stories don’t always make for an entertaining watch, and directing them required a kind of stubborn hope. For instance, while making Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki knew he was taking a big risk since the theme was deemed too dark for children. His comment was as follows, “How could we pretend to them that we’re happy? I think I really exhausted the animation staff with this film… At first I decided, ‘This is something children shouldn’t see,’ but in the end I realised, ‘No, this is something that children must see’, because adults, they didn’t get it — children understood it’.” Children always do. Perhaps, his films could be way of reminding us of our childhood wisdom and lost awe for the world. There is always a susuwatari lurking under our bed or a forest sprite sitting under a tree. We just need to see them again.

Kodama or forest spirits depicted in Princess Mononoke

Culture first

“One of the most prized and difficult things to smuggle past the security was that small container of curd…” my aunt said with a chuckle. Then she grew serious, “No, really, it was my only connection to Amma back then. The taste of that slightly sour, and runny curd was the sole reminder of home. I was elated when made my first batch of curd using it as a starter. The lineage still continues, 15 years later! Often, so many Indian families living nearby come and ask me for some curd to use as a starter. That thick, tasteless thing they sell here in the name of Yogurt is no comparison! I think my variety should be called New Jersey dahi, now…”. I didn’t expect microbial cultures to figure so prominently in the various immigration narratives I heard, but they were everywhere. Numerous stories preserved and pickled through family recipes and food involving some form of a fermentation process. Fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz, fondly called Sandorkraut, has pointed out that eating bacteria is one of life’s most pleasurable experience. Almost all known forms of gourmet food such as cheese, coffee, chocolate, cured meat, bread, wine and beer are fermented. Our microbial kin are responsible for turning the bitter, inedible, bland or fibrous raw materials into food bursting with life, literally.

‘You exist, therefore I am’

Where does my body end, and the world begin? This is not a question confined to the realm of philosophy anymore. There are more bacteria in the gut of an average human than there are stars in our galaxy. Our first brush with our lifelong companions begins at birth, when we pass through the vaginal canal or the skin incision from our mothers’ bodies. Studies now show that there could be long-effects based on the difference in this primal contact, since different bacterial colonies populate these areas (Mueller et al, 2015). While our cells carry 20-25 thousand genes, our resident microbes might carry over 500 times more. They are said to outnumber our own cells nine to one. Many responses in our bodies ranging from immunity, sleep cycles and digestion to ‘higher-order’ phenomena such as mood disorders and personality traits have been linked to microbial interactions in the body or environment. So much for the notion of enlightened individuality and rationality. Ed Yong recognises the anxiety and implications of this thought as he writes, “we put such a premium on free will that the prospect of losing independence to unseen forces informs many of our deepest societal fears.” It is indeed easy to create narratives of autonomy and individuality when much of the modern economy relies on obscuring the interdependence of processes, ecosystems and lifeforms involved in creating every material we depend on. Yet, in ignoring these relationships, we live in an impoverished world, and inhabit an equally sick body. The resulting narrative is a spectrum of xenophobia, forced control, and military ‘othering’ that extends all the way from biology to the larger socio-cultural and technological norms.

A dangerous war

The food we eat is a perfect embodiment of the tensions playing out in the ecosystem, as large agri-business corporations continue to monopolise and exploit the land, water and forests for monetary profit. Food grown in large monocultures through force-feeding of fertilisers and pesticides, irradiated, sterilised, stripped of matter that could impede its “shelf life”; all in the name of production and distribution efficiency is as much an assault on the planet as it is on our bodies and mind. The collateral damage manifests in food devoid of nutrition, taste and character. The average chicken consumed today has lived for less than seven weeks on a diet of a single grain feed, and heavy doses of antibiotics to fatten it up and ensure that it survives the pitiable conditions without succumbing to disease. A chicken left to fend for itself in contrast is known to be a picky and diverse eater, consuming a varied diet that keeps it healthy without any medication. Given a choice, which chicken would you eat? We desperately need to subvert our food system.

My first ‘aha’ moment occurred at community farm when I saw nutrient rich compost being made in ways that mimic the formation of forest soil. After months of decomposition aided by animal excreta (cow dung and urine), the crumbly, black soil was teeming with life and saturated with white threads of mycelium (fungal and bacterial populations), intricately weaving into the roots of the plants. One volunteer pulled out a sapling to show the vigorous roots of a sapling grown in that soil, and compared it to one grown in the soil brought from a nursery (consisting of mainly sterile, red soil). There was no comparison. Ecologist David Wolfe once argued that we are “subterranean-impaired”. We can’t see, let alone understand the complexity of the land underneath us. Plants are then reliable messengers, if we could learn to listen. Edible plants even more so, by the virtue of the taste offered. The micro-nutrients absorbed by the plants are made available in the soil through symbiotic associations with microbes. These lend more complex flavours to the fruit, interpreted by our senses as delicious. The food thus is a reification of the relationships existing in the soil. Doesn’t the same story then extend to us? In our increasingly sterile, temperature-controlled bubbles, we are the wimpy equivalent of the plant grown in poor soil. War metaphors of immune-systems defending our body from evil pathogens are a gross misrepresentation of the complex relationships that need monitoring rather aggression. Gardening as a metaphor could more appropriately describe the relationship we should aspire to. Weeds may need gentle clearing, but it is far more important to simply tend to the plants by enriching the soil.

Healthy seedlings growing in nutrient rich soil. Adequate mulching with dried leaves ensures that the soil is never exposed, and microbes don’t die under harsh sunlight.

Returning home

Fermentation is one of the processes that celebrates the ecological opportunities waiting in our environment. In order to be true to the term ‘culture’ we need to reaffirm the relationships that sustain us. Sandorkraut writes, “The word culture comes from Latin cultura which is derived from colere, “to cultivate”. Our cultivation of the land and its creatures – plants, animals, fungi and bacteria – is essential to culture. Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators.” In a small, but meaningful way I feel gratified to sow seeds, harvest fruits, ferment peels, make pickles, and participate in numerous other ways to celebrate the the circle of life. May such cultures flourish. May the tribe grow.

Bottles of bioenzymes and a fermented carrot drink (Kanji) bubble away merrily at the window sill.

References:

Barber, D. (2015). The third plate: field notes on the future of food. Penguin.

Yong, E. (2016). I contain multitudes: The microbes within us and a grander view of life. Random House.

Katz, S. E. (2012). The art of fermentation: an in-depth exploration of essential concepts and processes from around the world. Chelsea green publishing.

Mueller, N. T., Bakacs, E., Combellick, J., Grigoryan, Z., & Dominguez-Bello, M. G. (2015). The infant microbiome development: mom matters. Trends in molecular medicine21(2), 109-117.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/11/22/natures-spoils

Burial and Revival: Lessons from an Ash Gourd

The site was desecrated and beyond the point of salvage when I first saw it. A small portion of the campus land had been ‘given’ to a bunch of us to experiment with growing of edible plants and vegetable. ‘Giving’ simply meant the permission to use the space, minus any rights over it. So, we were aghast to find our precious saplings trampled over by contract workers repairing and painting the campus fence. I was particularly grieved to see the limp vine of an Ash Gourd sapling planted recently, as it had started climbing the very fence that had been ripped off, effectively breaking the plant stem as well. The remaining leaves on the surviving part of the plant were badly bruised and flecked with the green paint used for the fence (even in moments of grief, the irony didn’t escape me).

I buried the uprooted parts of the plant, and added some compost and wood ash, while prayers escaped my lips since this was an act of faith in the resilience of Nature. As I covered the mound, I was reminded of Robert Mac Farlane’s commentary on burial sites, where he notes, “We are more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness the most.” Here, the act of burial entailed a hope for its revival.

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later I saw fragile tendrils clasping the fence for support. Over time, the delicate vine had turned into a thick stem, as its shoots enmeshed the canopy of a tree. The flowers gave way to fruits and they grew to astounding sizes (some reaching 17 kgs); a testimony to the abundance and generosity of Nature in exchange for the paltry, yet heartfelt care. Each fruit contained hundreds of seeds, that were saved for the next season. The economics of Nature is far more complex, and relational for our primitive, uprooted minds to fathom. No wonder, ‘understanding’ something connotes being beneath it, grounding the view in order to grasp the meaning. For now, I feel grateful to have witnessed the Ash Gourd’s journey, and enriched my own in the process.

Bees hovering near the ash gourd flower
An unripe ash gourd; fuzzy and green
Gourd bounty! A few sponge gourds tucked in between the giants

Lost and never found: Dispatches from the dispossessed

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.

Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan

Second Nature?

In her early years as a researcher, Ming Kuo came across a seemingly puzzling phenomena – The alarming rates of animal deaths in zoos. Researchers had found that most of the captured animals were unable to thrive despite being given basic food, safety and shelter. It turned out that these provisions did not matter significantly unless the animals were placed in their natural habitats (or at least a simulation of it). The finding led to major redesign of zoos, to provide what is known as ‘enriched environments’, and studies show that such environments seem fundamental to the physical and psychological well-being of the animal.

Now, considering our migration from savannas to cities being just an evolutionary blink of time, how has the transition impacted us? By the year 2050, more than 70% of the world’s population are expected to live in cities. However, are we going to feel as trapped as a chimp in a cage? Or, has our culture transcended the notion of a habitat?

We need greener pastures

As usual, the story is complicated. Another strand of Kuo’s research was investigating negative impacts of urban environment in people. For this study, she came across a row of 10 storey apartments in Chicago, called the Robert Taylor Homes. These were originally designed to have greenery around the apartments, but the cost of maintaining the grass led most builders to pave up the area using asphalt. Only a few apartments still had some patch of green surrounding them. Kuo thus had naturally available contrast cases. Long story short, she found social breakdown more prevalent among people who did not have access to green spaces.* They were more likely to engage in aggressive behaviours, and be irritable. In other words, mere exposure to greenery seemed to affect people in positive ways, even if they were not consciously attending to their surroundings. One explanation of this phenomena comes from what is known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART). The theory, developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s posits that exposure to Nature can reduce mental fatigue, since natural environments are full of ‘soft fascinations’ (floating clouds, rustling leaves, textured bark and so on). These encounters help restore attentive resources, thereby allowing people to pay more attention (and therefore more empathy) towards their social surroundings.

Interesting evidence comes from other quarters as well. A group of researchers from Stanford found that spending time in natural surroundings reduces a “maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.” In simpler terms, it can shrink our egos, which usually puts us in the centre of the universe (thereby amplifying negative emotions associated with us). Awe or fascination in the face of large banyan tree can rightly displace that ego (mostly running on social media steroids), and allow for healthier emotions to form. This is also the reason that some people prone to depression might even find immersive experiences in Nature as disorienting, since it can instantly shift focus of one’s attention (from inward to outward). Yet, astonishingly even if they feel anxious during the encounter, they report feeling less depressed after the experience.

If you’re sad, dig deeper

The link between mental health and Nature rich surroundings has been established through a range of studies. One research group in London found that pharmacies in the tree dense neighbourhoods prescribed significantly less anti-depressants in that area, i.e people tend to have lesser issues of depression when living in close proximity to green areas. Another study showed that prisoners tending to gardens as part of service were more likely to be helpful and high-spirited, and thus had a better chance of parole. Now, one might say this all just feel-good psychology; Sure, it is nice to take a walk in the park, but is there anything beyond that? Turns out, there is. There are measurable physiological responses to Nature exposure in the form of lower blood-pressure, a boost in the immune system through production of natural killer cells, and release of Serotonin (a chemical related to the alleviation of mood). The last effect is intriguing, because the effect seems to stem from interaction with soil bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. Recent research in exploring the human microbiome and its interaction with the environment might find some interesting links here. People who have consumed psilocybin ( the psychedelic drug found in some 200 species of mushrooms) often report a sense of ‘oneness’ with their Natural surroundings. Could such cosmic interplay of chemicals be a form of Nature communication that we have so effectively muted in our urban lives? in that case, there hasn’t been a more urgent time to be a good listener. Could the positive effects associated with Nature exposure simply be a evolutionary reminder of the fact that Nature remains our first home? Biologist E.O Wilson termed the phenomena as Biophilia and argued that we are genetically predisposed to feel affection towards other living beings and natural surroundings, since our lives depended on intimate knowledge of the environment. Experiencing these ancient interconnections maybe the only way to address the culture of apathy and isolation. Now, like an amnesic we can’t quite figure why does the fragrance of moist Earth uplift our senses, or why digging away at a community garden can seem more fulfilling than buying groceries at a supermarket. Yet, the body remembers. Shouldn’t we allow it to lead the way?

Art by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié — an illustrated atlas of the world’s arboreal wonders. (Source: https://www.brainpickings.org)

*There is a socio-economic angle to access of green spaces as well, since these are associated with affluent areas. Going with the argument that exposure to Nature is fundamental for mental well-being (rather than an idle luxury), city planning must account for access to green spaces, especially in poverty prone areas. Such spaces also act as social binders, thus allowing for more community involvement.

References:

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/how-walking-in-nature-prevents-depression/397172/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_restoration_theory

Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001). Environment and crime in the inner city: Does vegetation reduce crime?. Environment and behavior33(3), 343-367.

Saldivar-Tanaka, L., & Krasny, M. E. (2004). Culturing community development, neighborhood open space, and civic agriculture: The case of Latino community gardens in New York City. Agriculture and human values21(4), 399-412.

Taylor, M. S., Wheeler, B. W., White, M. P., Economou, T., & Osborne, N. J. (2015). Research note: Urban street tree density and antidepressant prescription rates—A cross-sectional study in London, UK. Landscape and Urban Planning136, 174-179.

The Greta Question

‘Narcissistic’, ‘Courageous’, ‘Focussed’, ‘Paranoid’, ‘Fear-Monger’, ‘Determined’. These are just some of the words used to describe teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s ‘war’ on climate change deniers and politicians acting like sitting ducks. The wild spectrum of descriptions suggest that she has touched a chord, or a nerve for many (in different ways) thus eliciting reactions that turn her into a climate justice Joan of Arc or an unwitting, exploited child, depending on which side you believe in. Like everything else in the world, I don’t think these characteristics are so easy to tease apart. More pertinently, it can end up diverting attention from the fundamental issue of the message itself: Climate crises stands to affect younger (and future) generations in catastrophic ways unless radical action at global and local level is taken RIGHT NOW.

Before sharing my perspective, let me try and summarise each side of the argument.

Heading a revolution?

Greta started with a school strike, which has turned into a massive movement a year later. Her blunt questions, pin-pointedly asking reasons for political and social apathy regarding climate change created a ripple effect amongst the youth. A poster at a rally asked, “Why should we go to school, when you don’t listen to the educated?” In other words, what is the aim of education? In making connections of climate crises with the inefficacy of education, Greta says,

Why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts in the school system when the most important facts given by the finest science of that same school system clearly means nothing to our politicians and our society.”

The involvement of young people in climate change activism is a clear call that status quo is no longer an option. Something’s gotta give. The youth are not going to be silenced by pep-talks of a projected future. They are voicing what many of us millenials realised earlier, but willfully ignored in order to keep the development myth going; Our personal anxieties are deeply connected to the loss of ecosystems and social relationships. The trust has been broken. Our lives have been gambled away without our consent. Greta rightfully embodies that anger, urgency and impatience needed to demand radical action. Yet…

Poking holes

Many have been less than enthusiastic in supporting her cause. In June 2019, Conservative and far-right lawmakers urged a boycott of Greta’s appearance in the French parliament, accusing her of being a “guru of the apocalypse” and that she should be awarded a “Nobel prize of fear”. Her rise to fame was attributed to the PR genius Ingmar Rentzhog, who owns a start-up called ‘We Don’t have time’, which aims to “hold leaders and companies accountable for climate change” by leveraging “the power of social media”. (Rentzhog and his CEO David Olsson have backgrounds in finance, not environmental activism). This revelation led many environmentalists to argue that Greta is infact being used as the face of ‘green capitalism’, and is an unwitting pawn to all the nefarious activities apparently underway to ‘greenwash’ the economy without really changing anything. Others have pitied her for being paranoid, attributing it to her condition (she has Asperger’s syndrome) and instead fired her parents and other supporters for being “heartless” and “selfish” by allowing the young girl to panic “unreasonably”. The last word irks me. Unreasonable? Where has ‘reason’ got us till now?

Taking responsibility

None of the above accusations (true or false) invalidate her cause. The fact remains that she is an uncommonly determined teenager, readily owning her privilege, and using it to convey the most urgent message of this century. She presents a narrative which needs critical support in order to push policy decisions. This is not the time for idol worship or dissecting her motives to reduce it into yet another capitalist conspiracy. Her story depends on what we are willing to take from her. We lost the chance back in 1992, when the then 12 year-old Severn Cullis Suzuki addressed the delegates in Rio de Janeiro during the Earth summit’s plenary session. She came to be known as the “the girl who silenced the world for six minutes”, until collective amnesia set in, and business continued as usual. Let’s not allow Greta’s words to become another footnote in our rather short evolutionary history. Monbiot’s words are a call to action,

Who are these people? Another “they”, who might rescue us from our follies? The success of this mobilisation depends on us. It will reach the critical threshold only if enough of us cast aside denial and despair, and join this exuberant, proliferating movement. The time for excuses is over. The struggle to overthrow our life-denying system has begun.”

Will we squander this chance by bickering over futile questions; Or will we take her story forward? That’s the greater question.

Illustration by Kate Anderson (source: https://in.pinterest.com/pin/516014069805674007/?lp=true)

References:

The Manufacturing of Greta Thunberg – for Consent: The Political Economy of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex [ACT I]

https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/04/the-trouble-with-greta-thurnberg/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/15/rebellion-prevent-ecological-apocalypse-civil-disobedience

https://www.livemint.com/opinion/columns/opinion-greta-fication-is-not-going-to-help-us-fight-climate-change-11570984507588.html

https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/09/24/greta-thunberg-and-trouble-changing-world

What’s in a name?

I still remember the decisiveness with which I decided to give up biology in higher education after glancing at the books that seemed to be filled with taxonomic nightmares. “How does memorizing the name of plant count as education?” I remarked to a friend. The teachers made no efforts to make the subject remotely interesting, and so I left in a huff, utterly convinced that I would have nothing to do with botany, zoology or any other discipline that insisted on pouring over directories of plants and animals. Perhaps, my conviction then also bore the quintessential arrogance of modern civilization that lives under the illusion of being above the natural environment. Why bother with names when life seems to hold its course through knowledge of local malls and Google search? However, years later I find myself helplessly staring at plants I have come to admire, yet know nothing about; if only I had a name to search for. Back then, I was staring at seemingly dull words; Now, I am hoping the plant introduces itself, turning one of those words into a name I can call.

Native American biologist Robin Kimmerer writes, “It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other but also with plants.” By guiding my attention to the intricacies of different plants, what was earlier a uniform green backdrop amongst trees begin to exhibit diverse variety, and I am stunned by my earlier blindness. Once seen, I can’t unsee it; still the mute spectator fumbling for a name I don’t know. Words allow a certain intimacy, a chance to remember something not available to one’s senses otherwise, and more importantly imagine what might be.

Most environmental education usually focuses on global scales of destruction, of a looming apocalypse that needs to be avoided. However, it more often than not leads people to tuck themselves into a sheltered existence, secretly hoping they are long gone before calamity strikes. All along it seems, our main worry lies in contemplating about our own survival. If only we were to realize how closely our survival maps onto well-being of other life forms around us. This realization, however, is not the outcome pedantic thought, it is to be found in sharing intimate bonds with the environment we are a part of. A sense of loss requires an act of love, and a feeling of love begins with a sense of familiarity. How can we be expected to act in an environment whose loss was never felt? We hardly even knew that it ever existed. Names are but a humble beginning to a relationship we ought to cherish. The words, however, become salient only in the context of experiences that serve to strengthen a bond. This is a glaring gap in our approach to education, which ends up arming children with words when they need names; they need stories to be told; they need to write one of their own. I was convinced of this when I first saw some children from an urban populace harvesting some Okra, ecstatic to see the fruit and the flowers. They had been eating the vegetable probably all their life without knowing how it grew. Now, for these children, Okra means something much more than the word. It is a name for a joyous experience they look forward to by growing more plants. There are many such names that require calling, may we know them all. After all, as Richard Powers writes, “Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by the forests for longer than we’ve been Homo Sapiens.” Time for rewilding, I say.

At Gurukul Botanical Sanctuary, Wayanad, India