My strongest, most permanent relationship has been with nature. While the companionship of an indoor plant in the lifelessness of an apartment space may be comforting, the orderly patches of green in our urban spaces can never really be a substitute for the magnanimity of forests. Within forests is ancient wisdom that connects to our souls. The connect with forests, with the natural world, is ingrained in the neuronal circuitry of our minds – a connect we deny as we set out to conquer newer materialistic frontiers.
Science has helped us unravel and access many of the mysteries of this universe, but the mind will always remain an enigma. Science has helped us conquer illness of the body, but not illness of the mind. The mind is the most abstract, most fluid, most dynamic creation ever. The paths it takes are infinite. Unlike the physical matter of the brain that houses it, the mind does not make itself visible. It can only be felt, perceived. One can only infer. It sits somewhere on the thin line that separates fact from fantasy, mocking human pride. It is only when we lose ourselves to the natural world – to the magnanimity of mountain peaks or the wilderness of forests, that we perceive it. In the heart of a forest, is the seat of the soul. In our moments of deepest despair – in the moments we believe we have lost ourselves; it is only in nature that we can truly find ourselves.
The forest is nature’s antidote to illness of the mind. Its voices are comforting – its silence, interrupted only by the musical chorus of the crickets that hide beneath the thick undergrowth, by the distant orchestra of birds in the canopy of trees tall enough to kiss the sky, by the rhythmic deep hoots of owls, by the soft rustle of leaves, and by the gurgling sound of a creek. All the sounds are soft and gentle, as if in reverence to an unspoken rule that the silence of the forest is to be respected. Its cover of darkness is comforting; crooked beams of sunlight stream in through this darkness and play games with the shadows. The branches of the trees sway gently and the leaves quiver. One is lulled by the silence and the stillness. Time stops and the soul awakens.
I quote the experience of a cancer patient who found the garden and natural world a source of support and comfort and enabled her to put up with the chemotherapy and other stresses:
“The garden is always welcoming; no plants fall over or trees drop their leaves in disgust or empathy when I took my hat off, exposing my baldness. The garden accepts where your body and emotions are at that moment in time.
The pond’s waterfall is a lullaby to my ears. One day, I noticed that there were ripples in the pond. In the garden, there is change. Sometimes, when you are ill, you don’t see changes fast enough.
The garden was an abundant feast to my eyes, to which I could never take all of it in within a visit.
The feeling of the wind and warmth of summer brought me back to the basics of staying in my skin- of keeping me from disassociating myself from my body.
I was attracted to the birds in the pond – their hysterical antics while taking a bath would bring laughter, even when I was in a lot of pain.
The different paths allow your mind to wander in different ways. Paths always symbolize a journey, and that is encouraging. Even just seeing the paths would help – I would walk them with my eyes, too tired to venture on foot.
Each visit and encounter is distinctly different. In all of the times I have sought the shelter of the garden, the experience is never duplicated. In the garden, I come to see life, growth, and predictable gentle deaths. In its fullness, the garden is a happy place.”
It was in 2016 that I had first visited this little hillside town. It was an unforgettable experience, and I owe it to my student Sangeetha.
Sangeetha had invited me over; she had planned our trip to the finest detail. We hired a jeep and it made our journey through the winding curves of the Ghats very exciting. The hills were in full view and they seemed to stretch out infinitely, until one could only see their shadowy silhouette embracing the monsoon clouds that hung low. We had briefly stopped over at the tea plantation in Periya that overlooked the highway. There was a continuous stream of buses and cars winding through the curves, and from our pedestal up on the hill, they looked like miniature toys. It was a cloudy day and there were frequent drizzles. A family of goats was out grazing, but there was no goat herd in sight. In the distance, some stray dogs gazed at us defensively, their ears cocked up. We stayed a safe distance away, taking care not to alarm them. I remember feeling so happy that I sprinted through the plantation like a little child who had been set free, lifting a bleating kid in my arms and hugging a tree in glee. I remember feeling very much like Heidi, the child in Johanna Spyri’s book.
But that was not the end. The most appealing sight was yet to unfold. We stopped by a country lane and hopped off. I could hear the gurgling sound of a stream. We abandoned the lane at some point and took to forest trails. It was without warning that the waterfall revealed itself. I found myself speechless and frozen in my steps as I caught the first glimpse of the waterfall. I felt I had travelled back in time through hundreds of centuries. The waterfall stood in the midst of dense forest, wild and untouched. There was no human in sight; there were no human imprints. The waterfall was a secret that the forest had guarded through the years. The indigenous people and the locals had not given away this secret that the forest guarded. Thankfully, the waterfall does not have a name. Tourists are not aware of its existence and it is my prayer that it remains wild, beautiful and undiscovered to the commercial world. Sangeetha’s uncle insisted that we follow the course of the waterfall. He helped us navigate the moss-laden slippery rocks and narrow forest paths. It was during this trek that I met the old couple who lived by themselves in a house in the forest, their only company being a dog, a goat and a cat.
When I returned home that day, I was aware that I had experienced something phenomenal. Something that was likely to engrave itself as a powerful and fragrant memory for a lifetime. I had experienced the power of creation; I had experienced its divinity.
As days passed by, I found myself preoccupied with life. Or rather, what I thought was life. I moved to Bangalore and though I became more light-hearted as I moved into an environment of familiarity and ease, there was something that constantly tugged at me. I wasn’t quite sure of what it was.
I was burnt out from work and feeling fatigued beyond measure. There was also an emptiness that was slowly creeping into my life and that I was unable to understand. Work had encroached too much into my life and it was beginning to define my life. I did not enjoy this feeling because I felt distant from life. Socializing with friends over the weekends did not help. Gallivanting around the city did not help either. I felt that the city had moved too far away from life. It was an illusion that took us away from everything that was real. The city was a place where hardship and sorrow had been replaced by stress, life skills had been replaced by market driven skills and life had been replaced by a lifestyle. I had stopped feeling alive in the city. The only occasions I felt alive was when I avidly absorbed medical literature in the course of my job, but I couldn’t bear to see my life being reduced to a job – a life so empty, so devoid of the flavours and essence that characterize life.
So empty was I that when I was returning to Kerala, I had no plans for my days at home. I felt soulless. I was briefly invigorated by the sight of rain-washed forests and mountains as I made my way to Kerala, but that was all.
However, I slowly found myself awakening from the numbness. It rained the next two days and I found myself awakening to the sound of the rain, to the memories it evoked, to the ripples it created in the puddles, to the birds that splashed about in these puddles as the rain receded, to the multicoloured guppies that darted about in the clear waters of the lily pond, and to the lush greenery that the rains had seeded. How alive the tropics are!
I had perhaps never needed a vacation as badly as I needed it now. The yearning for the forests returned. The plan was very abrupt. I decided overnight that I would visit the waterfall with Sangeetha over the weekend.
I travelled by bus, and the humidity made me wish I had driven down instead. It was a long journey and when I finally reached the place, it was noon. Sangeetha had come to pick me up and her uncle had accompanied her. We headed to the waterfall.
Sangeetha’s uncle has lived here all his life. When I asked her what he does for a living, her reply was ‘everything’. I raised my brow. It was only towards the end of the day that I understood what she meant. Their community is a self-sufficient community. They are not dependent on markets and external sources for their living. They build their own house – most of the men here are acquainted with basic masonry and carpentry. Every house has its livestock, and therefore their own supply of milk and eggs. The village is fed by the waterfall – the villagers have tapped the water using pipes. They fetch fodder, firewood, timber, herbs, honey and other valuable resources from the forest. They grow gourds, banana, tapioca, amaranth, yam and coffee on their land. They grow mangoes of every variety – mangoes that have attracted monkeys from the forest. I ate some, and a mental imagery of the over-hyped organic store in Bangalore, with its heavily priced mangoes that were no match for these ones, came floating into my mind. I felt rather ashamed and embarrassed at the level of self-sufficiency that a city-dweller like me can brag about.
Sangeetha’s uncle walked through narrow and slippery paths with the ease of an acrobat. He could walk where there was no path to walk on. He balanced himself and simultaneously helped us navigate the most slippery rocks and hedges. He insisted that we climb up the rocks through which the waterfall made its way.
When we finally reached the flat, smooth tops of the huge rocks, we decided to rest for a while. The water did not submerge the rocks in this season as the rains had been scanty. That made it possible for us to sit on the rocks, surrounded by water that cascaded down, spilling out into every crevice, every hollow. The water was determined to flow. And as it flowed through diverse contours, it created patterns. In places, it just seemed to fill to the brim of the rocks and overflow, cascading down the steep descent of the rocks. Elsewhere, it foamed as it fell from a great height, raising a cool mist. Where it filled crevices and hollows, it was calmer, creating tiny ripples. What was striking was its uncharted course – its wild unpredictable flow, spilling all over, creating magic.
We sat down on the flat surface of a rock (nature’s lap), and I remember thinking that this moment could justify my entire life – my hardships, my struggle, my sorrows. This one moment was worth enduring all of that. Here I was, in a real moment in time, in conversation with nature (God). Isn’t it ironical that in the conventional scheme of things, this moment would be labelled a moment of fantasy, of delusion?
The miracle that stared at me reduced the achievements of the material world into a myth. Nature always strips me of my defences and reduces me to who I truly am – the child who never grew up. We have a silent language between us. I only have to look deep into the heart of nature, and nature hears me. Nature walks into me and leaves a deep imprint that unravels itself slowly – sometimes, over days, before I decipher the meaning in the imprint. In this imprint, I have the answer to all my questions. But when I look up, the moment of revelation has passed. Akin to the story of God appearing in a vision or a dream, making a revelation, and vanishing.
“Deer, peacocks and monkeys are frequent visitors. Elephants visit as well. Last week, a tusker was spotted”, Sangeetha said.
“I hope he decides to visit again!”, I replied.
We held our faces to the mist, feeling its natural air conditioning.
“The water is muddy now. It’s probably raining in the forest”, Sangeetha’s uncle stated.
I had goose bumps, imagining the interior of the forest that was inaccessible. What secrets did it hold? Did it harbour wild animals? I hugged this mental image.
It became dark abruptly. In a few minutes, it started drizzling. But fortunately, it was a very light drizzle. We waded our way through the water and took to the forest trails. I was extremely grateful to Sangeetha’s uncle for showing me around. He was determined to give me an experience of the forest, rather than give me a mere superficial tour.
As we hopped across the barbed wire and stepped into the forest, I realized that there was hardly any path. The trails were very narrow and my choice of slippers was poor. I had two falls. I was weak from starvation and burn-out and I was not comfortable with humidity. Yet, I was eager to soak in the experience of this adventure. I disregarded every physical discomfort I felt and marched on.
My heart was beating fast from the exertion, my body was wet from perspiration, my muscles were sore, my legs were full of abrasions, and the wet slippers had abraded the macerated skin over my toes, but I knew I could endure. I had lost sensitivity to myself; I only seemed to be aware of the beauty of the paths I was walking – the soft, moist earth on which I treaded, the crunching of dried leaves beneath my feet, the infinite number of trees that surrounded me, their trunks thick and tall, as can never be seen in cityscapes. There were wild berries scattered on the earth and there were dried up resins on the barks of the trees.
“This one is probably the Frankincense”, Sangeetha’s uncle pointed to the bark of a tree and remarked.
“The tribes must have dug up the wild tapioca here”, he pointed to a hollow in the earth.
I was in awe of him. That hollow would have made no sense to me.
He knew every tiny detail of the forest. Of where there was bamboo. Of where there was a beehive. Of where the trails were dangerous. Of where the leeches were in abundance. Of how to avoid them from sticking to your body.
We walked through the trails where there were leeches. Sangeetha had carried a solution of oil and Dettol with some salt, and this was to be rubbed on the skin as soon as the worm attached itself to the skin. It would instantly slip and fall off. However, it so happened that I missed a leech that had clung to my skin and noticed it only much later. It has left inflamed patches on my skin that are still red and itchy, with intense scarring. Though my mother feels very upset about the discomfort it gives me, I like to think of it as the imprint of the forests on my body. Nature’s kiss. A lasting memory that I will carry into my death.
Sangeetha’s uncle was a personality worth studying. He came across as a content soul, so much in tune with the natural world.
“Did you never feel the temptation or need to move out? To an easier life, a life of more convenience?”, I asked him.
“No. I grew up here. This is where I will always be relevant”, he replied.
I couldn’t agree more. He was in touch with his instincts. He had all the skills necessary to live off nature. What more could one ask for?
Over the next several days, I revisited the experience a hundred times in my mind. Each time, the forests whispered something anew.
I talked to Sangeetha about how I felt.
“I know that my happiness is rooted in this land. No matter where I go, it is to this land that I will return. I may spend some years working abroad, acquire skills, save some money for the future, but eventually, this is the home I shall return to”, she said to me.
It made me want to start saving money. To buy some land at this place that was home to me in a strange way. Perhaps set up a clinic and serve the tribes and locals. Perhaps educate and engage the community in a way that would help to conserve these forests.
Since then, I have felt a calmness I have not felt in ages. The forests have seeded in me a dream. It motivates me – to work, to earn, to save. For a cause. For my soul.