Diffractions: Soil, Water, and Pure Air

By Vandana Singh

We had trekked all day, climbing steadily higher through massive plantations of chir pine, passing the occasional small village of wood and straw, and sad little terraced fields with the stubble of last season's crops. Our local guide, a young and enthusiastic fellow by the name of Sahebsingh, kept insisting that his village, our destination, was "just over there." It had been "just over there" for much of the day, and we were exhausted. So when we stopped at the base of an enormous cliff, studded with giant boulders, under a sky already lit by the rising moon, and asked our cheerful and apparently unweary guide "Which way, now?" we could hardly believe it when he pointed upward. "It's just over there," he said unnecessarily.

So there I was, at the age of seventeen, climbing a cliff in the Himalayas in the middle of the night.

The village was, in fact, not far from the top of the cliff. There were people with lanterns at the top, who pulled us up to temporarily flat ground and led us to the village of Lasial. Although we were mostly scruffy and travel-weary young teens from New Delhi, we were treated like honored guests, hosted in the village headman's house. We were given a room with two beds for the girls and blankets on the floor for the boys. Having set down our rucksacks, we staggered to a long, low wooden hut where we sat on the floor and ate an enormous meal of some kind of local, aromatic rice, an unfamiliar lentil dish and a vegetable I'd never seen or tasted before. Our hosts went around generously ladling more food. This was the time-honoured hospitality of the rural poor, a humbling experience.

We were in Lasial to hear a remarkable story and to see its results for ourselves.

Some two years ago, the villagers told us, the village nearly lost its forest. The forest cover of the hills around us had given way to clear-cutting and pine plantations to feed the timber-hungry cities that lay in the plains to the south. To the villagers the forest was their neighborhood department store, giving them wood for their stoves, fodder for their cattle, foodstuffs of various kinds, and water from its numerous streams. At the height of 9000 feet, in an area so remote that the local development officials had never even visited, there really wasn't anything else that would provide those services. So what little remained of the native forest of broad-leaved oak and conifers was inevitably over-cut by the villagers.

Two years ago this last remaining local forest had dwindled and the streams had started to dry up. Realizing the gravity of the situation, the villagers got together and agreed to forage only for deadwood, and to appoint a guard from among themselves who would protect the forest from pilfering. A collection was taken up to pay the guard. Now, when we went to visit the forest next morning with our proud hosts, we saw a rich green tangle—under the leafy canopy, luxuriant undergrowth, and a broad, pebbly stream flowing with a bubbly enthusiasm that reminded me of Sahebsingh.

I didn't know it at the time, but the people of Lasial were showing us one important way out of our world-wide, human-made ecological crisis.

That trip so many decades ago was a turning point in my life. The now famous Chipko movement of the Himalayas, led primarily by illiterate village women who hugged their trees rather than let them be cut down by contractors, spread like wildfire through the hills in the 1970s and 1980's, and ultimately inspired similar movements in other parts of India and the world. Starting as a movement to protect the lives and livelihoods of the local people, it became not only an environmental uprising but a sociological-feminist one, breaking down caste barriers in many places and overturning traditional gender constraints. I still remember attending meetings of Mahila Mandals (Women's Councils) high on the mountainside, in the open air, where women young and old raised their fists in the air and took control of their lives and resources. I lost my semi-Westernized, city-bred pretensions fairly quickly in the 20-odd days that we spent wandering through the mountains. And all this fervor and ferment ended up forcing the Indian government to declare a ban on tree felling in the Himalayan states in 1981.

So why does the simple action of the villagers of Lasial—and indeed, the villagers of the Chipko movement—have a continued and weighty significance?

Even without global warming, loss of biodiversity due to the destruction of habitat is enough to doom us to extinction. The science is clear: among other things functioning ecosystems provide us with clean air, water and food, and sequester carbon. A 2010 report commissioned by the European Union calculates that the loss of these free services due to the destruction of forests is equivalent to throwing 2-5 trillion dollars down the drain every year. (See also this BBC article, "Nature's Loss Dwarf's Bank Crisis.") And forests don't just disappear due to tree cutting. Forests, after all, aren't just trees, they are systems consisting of many interacting parts. Despite the much-touted individualism of Western culture, we are none of us really alone. We are not closed systems. We are linked to polar bears and wolves, trees and bats. The myth by which urban societies around the world choose to live—that they can go on with their lives disconnected from everything—not knowing where their food or clothing or medicines come from, being unaware of and uninterested in the real costs of the things they take for granted—is probably the single most dangerous illusion of our times. Wipe out wolves from an area, and you lose a forest, or trout from a stream. Wipe out a rainforest and you lose oxygen and rainfall, and temperature control, and a carbon sink—not to mention food plants and medicinal plants. Wipe out alligators, and the incidence of malaria in the region skyrockets. We—human, animal, plant—are linked in the great interdependent web of life. Tearing up the web threatens the possibility of our own continued existence. And it is not only in terms of services essential to survival that we must view Nature. Biologist E. O. Wilson hypothesizes that humans possess biophilia, a term first coined by the psychologist Erich Fromm, which Wilson interprets as an instinctive bond that we have with all living things. This bond, if it does exist as part of the human makeup, is, I imagine, a delicate thing, prone to the influence of culture. It is perhaps why even city-bred humans recovering from surgery in a hospital have a higher rate of recovery if their window overlooks a wooded area instead of a brick wall.

I believe we do have a need to interact with other species and to surround ourselves with green, growing things. The women of the Chipko movement, whose tree-hugging arises not from romantic notions but from the desperate need to survive, are not ashamed of being emotional about their forests. They have been known to refer to the forests as their mother's home, a term redolent with emotional significance. When we were wandering the Himalayas that summer, we got to spend some time going from village to village with a local poet and singer Ghanshyam Sailani, whose songs celebrate the beauty of the mountains. "Uttarakhand," he sings, referring to the region of the Himalayas where he's from, "is heaven; it is the land of the gods. Don't cut the green jungle." In the offices of governments and corporations, in the confabulations of power brokers, these sentiments are considered impractical and dreamy and anti-progress. The forest department had a slogan that said:

What do the forests bear?

Resin, Wood and Commerce!

The Chipko movement's answer reminds us that nothing is more practical than preserving the basis for life itself.

What do the forests bear?

Soil, water and pure air!

According to a National Geographic article, in the time it takes to read a 2,500 word essay—only a little longer than this column—an area of Brazilian rain forest equivalent to 200 football fields has been destroyed. In the last 40 years about 20 per cent of the Amazon rainforest has been cut down, cleared for pasture, soybean cultivation, and development, primarily to feed the insatiable appetites of the privileged Western hemisphere. Today the Amazon teeters on the brink of a tipping point. Below a certain degree of abuse the system that is the rainforest—so massive that it produces half its own rainfall—will unravel. There have already been droughts—droughts, in the Amazon. In India economic liberalization policies begun in the 1990s saw the enormous growth of an urban middle class keen to adopt Western lifestyles and eating habits. A formerly simple way of life gave way to a rapacious hunger for material goods, and changed food preferences toward the meat-dominated Western norm. The country's leaders talked glibly about India Shining while millions of the rural poor starved, and protected forests were given away wholesale to local and foreign companies to mine and pillage. The amount of forest cover lost in the two decades since economic liberalization far exceeds what was lost through exploitative British colonial policies in a couple of hundred years. The case of POSCO in Orissa (the movie Avatar in yet another incarnation) is only one of many.

So where's the hope?

The hope lies in a dream so audacious, so imaginatively out-there, so far removed from what the "practical" men of corporations and governments consider worth doing, that it seems positively science-fictional. What the people of Lasial—indeed, the people of the Chipko movement—did to stand up to power and use their collective strength to protect their lives, livelihood, and natural heritage is an important component of the dream. The dream is to rewild the world: to restore barren and impoverished forests, wetlands and other ecosystems through preserving core natural habitats, providing connectivity between core regions by reopening migration corridors, and reintroducing keystone species on whose presence the ecosystem's health depends. The dream is not about going "back to Nature," but about redefining and mending our relationship with her. And it is being dreamed by people around the world, from conservation biologists to impoverished communities threatened by the failure of their ecosystems. This dream, despite its fantastical qualities, is no pipe dream, but is informed by the most practical considerations you can imagine. As a group of young teens from Delhi learned so many decades ago, you cannot begin to achieve something of this scale "from the top." What it needs is a grassroots level involvement of the local people, whose rights and dignity cannot be trampled over in the name of "conservation." Sometimes they initiate change—on other occasions they need economic incentives to begin to be the stewards of their wildlands.

Ultimately the dichotomies that are presented to us—economics versus ecology for instance, or development versus conservation—are all false dichotomies. In a very real, down to earth sense, we humans can only survive in this world if its other components are whole and healthy. So the dream is not only about seeing elephants set free from overcrowding and culling in the confines of national parks—and seeing them march once more in great herds across the vast African landscape—but it is also about human rights and social justice. It is about engaging one's imagination to conjure up a world that is whole in all senses of the word.

Rewilding. How are we going to do it? What has already been done? What kinds of changes will it take—in our economics, our attitudes, our literatures, the way we live our lives? We will explore this in a subsequent column.


Vandana Singh's recent short fiction includes work in Clockwork Phoenix and Year's Best SF 14, as well as a novella, Distances (Aqueduct Press), which was included on the 2009 Tiptree Award Honor List and won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award or 2008. Her first short story collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, was published in India by Zubaan/Penguin in fall 2008. For more about her and her work, see her website.