Man withdrew from the picture and turned to look at it.
–Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape
The river Truckee is perhaps like a crucial blood vessel in the heart of the small city of Reno. It empties in to the huge lake Tahoe after a long journey. One Saturday afternoon I took a long walk down the riverside–there is a concrete road down town that runs fairly close to the meandering river bed, and it makes one feel close enough to the river. We can feel the rush of waters and we can also feel the roundness of the stones and huge rocks that border the riverbed. The air was crisp and cold, because it was late December and the trees were leafless and silent. The road was practically deserted. Soon I came across a group of young people making themselves merrier for the onset of Christmas no doubt, but obviously in inebriate state, almost delirious and over excited. One of them screamed something at me waving a beer bottle and it was answered by a scream of alarmed river birds–some ducks and geese flapped out of the waters. The angry man screamed back at them shouting: I wasn’t speaking to you guys! Another fellow accosted me and shouted: hey mister, got any dollars? I didn’t answer either of them but kept on as if nothing happened. I passed the guys by and went my way. They tried all the languages they knew on me and I could hear their laughter even after I passed into the trees and closer to the rushing waters. The river appeared to be uncaring and nonchalant. It just flowed. The water birds swam down stream occasionally ducking in and popping out with some writhing thing. My thoughts were full of nature and human nature.
There are these deep ecologists who make a religion of ecology–human beings, they believe have no business to interfere with the cycle of nature. We need to rethink with nature, they believe, for we are, after all, integrally and in no uncertain terms interlinked to nature. Deep ecologists trust in the inherent and intrinsic value of all being–living and non living irrespective of whether they are useful to human life or not. Like the river all life is a flow and the human’s being is not independent from the flow. Of course not too far off are the Preservationists who argue for the continued preservation and cherishing of all nature, fighting for the right of all living and nonliving things, for nature to be maintained in its purity and pristine ness. Not much different are the Conservationists in their thinking–only that they give preference to the human being as the most evolved living thing on the earth. While both the deep ecologists and the preservationists think in a bio-centric or eco-centric manner, the conservationists think in an anthropocentric way, with human beings as the center of all and everything, nevertheless responsible for the continued conservation of the rest of the earth, for their own safety, security and life. Life is so complex when one considers the present with its equally complex postmodern logic and post-industrial market economy and the massive overgrowth of capitalist politics and ideologies. One hears about the end of history, the end of capitalism, even about the inevitable end of all life on this planet not only in eschatological terms but also in rational scientific terms. Nevertheless there are a million voices raised against the blind march of the human being monitoring or apparently, monitored by, a vast medley of scientific and technological outpourings. Where does all this fit in? What is nature and what is human nature? Aren’t human beings an integral part of nature, and if so doesn’t it make all that they do produce as essentially part of their nature and therefore there is nothing unnatural about human actions and human (mis)creations? Even nuclear debris is also a natural outcome of the human interaction in nature! There is nothing that is possibly unnatural in all this! The young fellows drunk and reeling beside the river on a winter evening are attempting to work into their essential human nature in order to find some sort of meaning (or perhaps out of an essential detest, racial or otherwise, of a brown alien like me, comfortably sauntering by their river contemplating nature!) Nothing is out-of-order; everything fits perfectly into the natural scheme! Just like the birds floating in the current down stream, all of us are floating in time and space. Me, a brown Indian from south India, they, young white males from this rich land of possibilities and liberty, and the water birds floating down river in the cold winter waters.
But of course there is apparently some flaw in such reasoning! I grew up in a community that is now so alien to these environs in a tiny village so far away from this great land of America. There was a river not so far from our street. And during monsoons it usually flooded and the brown murky waters swirled all around the banks, frightening and mysterious. My thoughts could never stray beyond the familiar bend in the river. I recall how many a time I sat there wondering what lay beyond it! Our school was beside the river and the temple bells regulated our days and nights. There was nothing special about growing up in a laid back Tamil-Brahmin-street tucked away in a far corner of the big world in far-south India. There were birds and small animals, there were petty thieves and murderers, there were upright scholars and pundits, there were also poetasters and swindlers, there were many marvels and mysteries of growing up like anywhere else. The almost well-stacked library on the far side of the street laid a whole world of learning and knowledge open to those who desired it–in all languages of India including English. Many trees were cut, many houses torn down, streets were tarred and new cars and trucks and buses plunged in and out of our days and nights. Change was as usual in the air and modernity sprouted into our midst like a newly sprung lotus flower to be wondered at from a distance, under the electric light. I knew I was growing up when many things began to disappear, and newer things poured in. I had taken the world too much for granted just like any child would have done. Before my father died he told me to stay back and live comfortably in the small town of Trivandrum, in Kerala. There was no point in wandering, he said, because he had done that too. Didn’t we have everything? But I had already fallen in love with long distances and the lure of strange experiences. I took my family with me wherever I thought life might lead me. My wife and two children have always been quite understanding, I guess. I now begin to understand how much they must have suffered just because of my fancies and dubious dissatisfactions about one place or other. Was I chasing mere phantoms? Where was I to find comfort and happiness? No place appeared to treat me well; no land appeared to accept me in total. Nothing pleased me. I was always moving as if hounded by dissatisfaction. Where did I find roots? Were there any roots at all for the likes of me? Hindu Tamil Brahmins as a community have always been movers–they migrated fairly frequently and seemed so well to adapt to and adopt any alien surroundings–on the whole they had good language abilities and could absorb a plethora of languages. They were flexible. What about me? I had chosen to exile myself and my small family from a community of easy adapters, from a land that could have perhaps yielded me a life of complete happiness and satisfaction. Did I really make any attempt to learn from my nature or the nature of my community life? Why did I always feel at odds with my fellow human beings? Why did I always fancy I had deeper ties with nature—a relationship that went deeper than with other human beings? Why did I start intellectualizing and theorizing? Why did I choose to wander in the mountain jungles of the Western Ghats and later in the lower Himalayas? Did I really find an inner balance and a true harmonious relationship while alone in the deep forests and was listening to the plaintive song of the Blue Rock Thrush, or idly sitting beside the village stream where the common Iora sang? Did I fancy that I had struck a wonderful companionship with those great poets of the western world whom I read and by-hearted in English right from my school days? Or even those masterpieces of western modernist period, which apparently seemed to reach out to me intimately—were they really communicating with me? Did I establish a contact with nature and the human nature while I myself painted and wrote poetry? Or theorized in the many lecture halls across India and sometimes in other places abroad recoursing to the postmodernist and postcolonial jargons and discourses!
I had moved from one big city to another bigger city, seeking newer contexts for intellectual development and material pleasures. I had recently, a few years back, moved my family albeit with great reluctance on their part to the small town of Pondicherry on the south east coast of India by the great Bay of Bengal. And here I am in Reno Nevada, a visiting scholar in the UNR under a Fulbright. Now when I read and discuss bioregionalism and ecofeminism, here in the small western city in the United States of America, do I really hear the sounds of my far away childhood, the familiar smell and heat and dust of those eighteen streets, do I see the colors and forms of my little village, do I receive the bounteous wisdom of my bioregion that I left with pure disdain and contempt, several years ago? There is a river that runs through it, connecting two muddy banks, disappearing beyond that mysterious bend. The mystery of things, as the philosopher said, is the true truth of things. And it is perhaps still in here or out there waiting for me. I do not think this is mere nostalgia for the past, for a childhood paradise that is forfeited forever in a romantic past in an equally remote village country. “To explore memory,” writes Mitchell Thomashow,
you have to be a good archeologist, knowing where and how to dig. The purpose of revisiting the special places of childhood is to gain awareness of the connections we make with earth, awakening and holding those memories in our consciousness of the present. Not to nostalgically pine for a lost, innocent childhood, but to recover the qualities of wonder, the open mindedness regarding nature, the ability to look at what lies right in front of us. The purpose of witnessing the transformation of those places is to appreciate the magnitude of environmental change, to understand and feel the impact of the changes. (Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist.)
The ecological wisdom that my native land liberally and unashamedly provided me is within me still (or without!)–I need to sit still and quieten my self and meditate in order for it to rise up to the surface. I have been a coward and a prospector, searching for gold in far away lands. But then it has made me the richer, and wiser. Had I stayed by the river in my native village for this long I would have never heard the ripples in the deep because of my loud empty chanting of the Rig Veda. Had I stayed on in my own bioregion I would have been conceited with the wealth of my own land and its wisdom, so much so that I would never have recognized it for what it is or even perceived it. The great murmuring of the Vedic rishi reaches me here by the Truckee, where the waters of my own village river merge softly and curl into one another. I murmur to myself–gangaicha yamunaichaiva godavari saraswati narmadai sindu kaveri . . . The resounding calls of the river terns and gulls swell into the clanging of the temple bells–and once again I am running down the warm stone steps eager to reach my own river. The secret is still hiding beyond the mysterious bend. The benign goddess is still the presiding deity of the forests and rivers. The eternal feminine with one arm raised in perpetual, benevolent grace, and the other in an ever assurance of everything beyond all good and evil! The rising notes of the temple sounds bring me closer to the essential being of all nature and human’s being. I recall the words of Paul Shepard: Man withdrew from the picture and turned to look at it! Yes, human beings have withdrawn from the world of their essential selves and now turn to look at the beauty and mystery of natural forms seeking to go back! Some get drunk while others seek other psychedelic drugs for a biochemical transformation. All are in search of that essential harmony–that being within and without. I also remember the words of Sri Aurobindo: all problems of existence are problems of harmony. The mysterious veil covering all and everything is slowly beginning to lift.
The river glideth at its own sweet will! A soft evening darkness descends. Overhead there is a cackling of geese. The air has become colder, and I decide to turn back. When I come to the place where the youngsters were lurking I find it empty. Instead, on a lone bench there is an old man and a little girl all swaddled in woolens. I look into their eyes. There is so much calm: there is so much peace in both pair of eyes. Perhaps they are bioregionalists, quite unknowing what they know! The old man might have passed on his wisdom –not gained in school, but from lived experience–silently to his grand daughter. Of course, who knows, someday soon enough she is going to be deschooled in some college or university. There is the Spirit of Sierra free bus for me to catch, back to the University. I am learning to think like myself.