Featuring the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in the South Western Ghats montane rainforests ecoregion.
The land is not only what lies before our eyes, it is also what we hold of it in our imaginations, our hearts, and our bodies. Two persons, side by side, beholding the same rolling hills, will have two different perspectives; I've noticed this no matter who I walk these Wayanad hills with. We each have our own frame of reference, defined by a perspective based on experience, in turn, based on beliefs and values, and our perceived connection with the land and the wider world. My journey over the last 30 years at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary (GBS) in Wayanad, Kerala, has been one of discovering cultural practices and norms that inform land use, land care, restoration and conservation—in other words, the behaviour of both humans and nonhumans in this region.
Let me share with you my version of a landscape before it disappears. It is already different from what I remember of Wayanad when I first came here.
Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary is a centre for plant conservation, habitat restoration and community-based ecological nurturance. The private and public lands under the Gurukula stewardship, through its ecosystem gardening programmes and the community outreach initiative called Green Phoenix, include streams with riparian vegetation, swampy valley fields and hill slopes of land that have been clear-felled in the past. Only seven of the privately held acres had primary forests, which had already undergone selective removal of large trees. Our collective has taken slow custodianship of these smallholdings, a few acres at a time, and carried out various activities ranging from ex-situ conservation of over 2000 Western Ghats plant species and their rehabilitation, to passive and active measures for recovering degraded forest land. We now care for about 75 acres, of which about 40 are left alone to rewild themselves, and yearly lists are maintained of species presence. On 15 acres, tea has been removed and different types of vegetation surge instead; young forest, rehabilitated grassland, and an orchard. On five acres, left-alone tea plants have shot up 10 feet, forming a dark, cool thicket through which other species nevertheless find a footing. Since there are few opportunities to study what happens to land under different treatments, we believe it is important to document our wide-spectrum approach to ecological nurturance.
Mostly we are interested in asking questions and observing. How do different cultural practices shape the land over long periods and vice versa? We intervene intensively only on about 15 acres, through nurseries and planted habitats. We also have a botanical garden with plants from around the world on a couple of acres, visited by thousands of people from north Kerala and elsewhere. Our concern for water bodies, care not to disturb springs and swamps, and pledge to protect the land from over-extraction have brought about the great diversity of species and richly varying textures of habitat over time. The land has powerful agents of transformation, from the movement of animals to quick-spreading plants, human beings who tend to diversity, and heavy rainfall.
It is a fact that over time the lands at Gurukula and the Kallampuzha river have become more fecund. Here is a rich surging milieu of habitats and microhabitats, with equally rich (and tangling) perspectives and micro perspectives.
Similar tangling perspectives also infuse the relatively new science of political, social and economic action called "restoration ecology". In fact, in recent years, a taxonomy of perception and action is rapidly forming around this science along with a slew of methods, rife with adjectives and moralities about who is good, who is bad, who is a good ecological citizen and who is not.
Of course, the Earth has been busy restoring itself since time immemorial. Rainforests, in particular, have been at it for about 100 million years, thriving, surviving, expanding, shrinking with every challenge from the atmosphere. Even the Gurukula land has been at it for a while, for over 50 years, thriving, surviving, coping with every challenge and overcoming. Many species (plant, animal, fungal, viral and bacterial) too. It's my thesis that the front runners of ecological restoration are quick-spreading plants and animals trying to recover a land from grievous harm by large-scale changes ranging from volcanic eruptions, ice ages and meteor hits to floods and wildfires. In recent times, by industrial scale clearance, burning, chemical assault and heavy machinery. Long before the word restoration flew in on a jet plane and struck deep into our mindsets and local land care norms, we cared for the remnants of an old forest and for the baby forest so eagerly striving to grow up inside fields and plantations. For the land as a whole and the people who dwelled in and around here, for the springs and streams, and all the plants and animals. We even cared for the climate, without knowing about climate science, somehow the link between all the above and the monsoon was always obvious. By we, I simply mean all the life forms working to save each other, the land and the water, the habitats, the peoples, the climate and the planet.
Some of my neighbours have been caring for the land, for the forest, for even longer. Sajji and his peoples are forest dwellers. When shunted around, displaced, and alienated, some of them just grew their own forest, with wild species. It was obvious to them that forest peoples should live in a forest.
Jaimon and his family are settler migrant farmers, who are also displaced peoples, shunted here from other parts of the region by the vagaries of state ideologies. They came to a denuded plateau. The English had already cleared some forests. Other settlers too had cleared forests. In time the settlers here grew little home gardens. Barren lands, deforested and lemon grass hills gave way to jackfruit, coconut and mango orchards, with understories of coffee, cardamom, pepper vines and other plants. Now mosses and ferns and orchids hang from those same trees, while raucous flocks of hornbills swoop over.
At Gurukula, we strive to protect the land, slowly bringing more and more into our collective care. Mostly we step back, respectfully watching what it does with itself, learning from it, allying with it, living from it and occasionally adding to it. In some areas, we do a bit more: plant, weed, make lists of species, rescue those we feel are vulnerable, knock back those we think are overpowering, water those who need watering, and so on. We make little nurseries and design new habitats for those rescued, so that they can proliferate and form their own community. Like at human refugee camps, in time, they put down roots, and mix and mingle with their host society and create their own. My colleague, Laly Joseph, also from this place, is particularly tuned to the needs of plant refugees.
After 30 years in this vocation, I am bemused and befuddled by the plethora of strategies and ideologies (from neo-indigenism and neo-fascism to neo-reform) spilling out over the land and the rest of the world in the area of ecological restoration. An overabundance of solution mongers and saviours, each with their own headlong and often corporate-backed agenda, rush into the fray, into the big business of ecological salvation and denial.
My main question is, what do the nonhumans have to say? And what do land-based peoples have to say? In this journey, I've mostly uncovered my own perspective, how it changes or doesn't change, what happens over time, and what these changes make me do.
Let me be personal.
Where some see weeds covering the land, I see woods being vanguarded by fast-growing plants. Depending on what you see, you will act differently. Weeds need to be pulled out. Woods need to be protected. Neither option is to be treated lightly.
Some weeds are termed invasive. Where comrades see invasive species (the adjective coming out of new notions of who belongs and who doesn't), I scout for egregious new technologies. While my friends attack the soapbush (a quick-moving shrub from the Americas), I might try to attack the bulldozer culture, whose destructive prowess I perceive as far worse.
Where some see coffee gardens as beautiful, ordered, productive and supporting livelihoods, I see arrested succession, a suspended state between past and future forests. These different views will unleash different actions on the same piece of land.
Where adivasi friends see their mother culture, a forest of berries and edible greens, vines, fish, crabs and tubers that have birthed them as a people; new arrivals in the same landscape perceive green fortresses, private possessions to be cordoned off, and their personal wealth driving them as isolate individuals. The free-roaming Paniyas are outcasts on their previous roaming territories, and the newcomers make the forest too outcast on their properties. When the adivasis go, the forest goes. And vice versa. When isolation arrives, so does desolation; destroying both forest and community.
Where the government spurs economic gain through infrastructure projects, a number of us anticipate extermination, loss and apocalypse. The district administration pushes new deals, while we duck or get around these, or sometimes, stop them altogether. We counter capitalist ego, with community eco.
To close this piece, I offer some perspective swapping. It takes a mountain range to grow this forest. Wayanad’s Periya reserve forest is what it is, because of the Western Ghats as a whole. Our work at Gurukula addresses the conservation of the plant species of the forests of this whole range. Moreover, it takes a gigantic wind system to grow all these forests. Without the monsoon, there is no forested biome. And without a fecund and healthy planet, there is no monsoon.
In fact, in these ecologically fraught and turbulent times, it also takes a worldwide web to raise any of these. Committed people serving the protection and recovery of wild nature, for they know that nature is committed to them.
Having zoomed out to a larger perspective, I'd like to end with a local one: it takes a village to raise this rainforest. The people of Aynickal, Periya, have been critical to the sustaining and maturation of this forest (old, adult, adolescent and infant) on the edge of the Western Ghats in Wayanad. And this same forest is critical to sustaining and maturing all of us—elderly, adult, adolescent and infant humans.
For we are held in each other's minds, hearts and bodies. We are community.
Visit the Ecological Restoration Alliance website to learn more.