There is something alive in a feather. The power of it is perhaps in its dream of sky, currents of air, and the silence of its creation. It knows the insides of clouds. It carries our needs and desires, the stories of our brokenness. It rises and falls down elemental space, one part of the elaborate world of life where fish swim against gravity, where eels turn silver as moon to breed.
–Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World
Late last evening we were driving over one of the long seemingly unending dykes of the huge Hirakud dam spanning across the Mahanadi in the Burla district of Orissa. The night was very quiet and the moon was so very full hanging just above the horizon as a silvery orange balloon and painting the slow moving ripples below in all casualness. Everything was so very beautiful. Only sound of the tyres ripping over the asphalt floors. We were there due to the courtesy of the Department of Forests and Wildlife of the Orissa state, and we had on board a fully trained tracker and forest ranger with us to guide us. And we were on our way back after a long day in the reserve forests of Debrigarh. The headlights of the Jeep picked up occasional nightjars perched so closely in the middle of the road. They would sit there apparently blinded by the headlights of the vehicle until we are almost over their tiny bodies and then take off on their spread wings in a tangent of fright and indignation. Comfortably perched on the passenger seat next to the driver with eager open eyes, I could count nearly thirty odd birds like that all along the dyke. Each one had a different flight plan. And they were spaced almost equally, perhaps having a special personal-distance chart of their own. The Mahanadi was full and silent below, compassionate to the birds and also to us mortals who had attempted to strangulate her free flow and diverted her energies for other purposes. Earlier in the evening we had been fortunate enough to have close sightings of many wild animals and birds, including a full grown specimen of a Sambhar deer, an exquisite male, who jumped across our road and turning a mighty glance of defiance at us sprinted away.
The day had very nearly come to a close and I was heading back to my guest house in the Sambalpur University, where I had come as a short-term Visiting Professor. The visit was so nearly over, and it had been sufficiently fruitful in terms of experiences. The dyke still stretched unending before us under the moon. The nightjars took off one by one on their padded wings, their dark and light patterns clearly visible against the headlights. How very peaceful and how very majestic the coming night!
Life has a habit of becoming terribly habitual. It becomes repetitive and monotonous. But such rare opportunities like this tear it apart into moments of sheer amazement and delight. I think of the million others in their homes and offices now, leading a humdrum existence and engaging with the trivialities of everyday life! How very different and indefinite it all appears to be! This is not to state that a mere stroll in a wildlife park has made me a great, exceptional, superhuman being, or anything, but only that it gives me a space for beginning to think like myself—perhaps all over again! And that’s what usually matters.
The Mahanadi has been straddled and caught under the huge span of the Hirakud dam. The free run of the river to the sea has been diverted to produce electricity, run machines and maneuver many things, irrigate a thousand acres through controlled channels and several thousand villages and forested land have also been inundated in the bargain–many people made homeless. We do not yet fully know the damage we would have caused to the environment while we were doing it–the amount of wildlife, insects, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, and a host of innumerable unseen creatures, we have wiped out in the process. Just like the casual plastic covers we fling out of our moving vehicles, we simply did not care! After all it is only a small act, an insignificant one for us. Consider the great results. Did we ever consider the million tiny forces of energy that were at work so deep under the dam, the profundity of the force of thousands of kilolitres of waters, that were even now slowly edging their way in and out? Perhaps one day the river would finally free itself from the clutches of the mortar and cement and steel girders! We would then call it calamitous and blame it all on the river. But then these are inevitable facts. As the poet writes: all things fall and are built again! We humans are great builders. We build structures visible and tangible, as well as invisible like our social norms, our culture, and our history. We cannot cease from exploration and perhaps the end of all our exploration would be to arrive where we started from and see the place for the first time! Every act requires a distance in time and space to reveal its significance. Every nano-second requires its own inevitable other to comprehend its being! The human mind reflecting on itself is replete with amazing moments like these. As we slip on over the dyke in the Hirakud dam across the Mahanadi, there is this vast expansion of seconds and nano-seconds into eons and eras, into history and ultimate timelessness! Into the awful space of the cosmos! The nightjars are there to remind us of our own mortality, spaced so very well among themselves. The headlights of the moving vehicle are our reflective ego, the dyke the point of awareness, the night our infinite being, the moon our destiny, and the water our conscience. The night and the moon are never merely given. The uniqueness of the moment is in its slow unwinding. Everything is so good. Even the human atrocities in building the dam and extinguishing life is forgiven, for a great compassion spreads over the earth! One by one the nightjars swing free of the circle of light. The moon moves behind a clump of trees. The tyres move. We are heading toward the other shore.