Just Another Wake-up Call

Murali Sivaramakrishnan[Professor of English at Pondicherry University, India. He is also a poet and painter. His recent publication includes the poetry book Silversfish.                     E-mail: <smurals@gmail.com>

It had rained so heavily last night. But now the dawn has brought so
much soft light on the wet boughs and silken flowers. Everything appears
fresh and clean. The sky bears an amazing touch of blue. From where
I sit on the low balcony of my house I can see right up to the end of the
street where it turns sharply to the left and right hiding beyond the heavy
laden trees. Now there is a shower of insects. There are termites all over
the place. Crows, mynas, drongos and magpie robins are dashing in and
out of the strange volcano-like eruptions from the ground. Millions and
millions of tiny winged creatures zoom about only to be devoured in hundreds
by these birds and other little lizards and hairy mongooses which
join them. This is certainly a protein rich repast for them. Nature is so
strange. Each one thrives on the other. Life is one long unending chain.
And yet the survival of each species is ensured through different means.
The termites might be food for the birds but their sheer numbers makes
them outlive their predators. It is not the time span or specific niche in the
food chain that ensures this, for after all in nature time means different
stuff for different species.
They say that the Mayfly has the shortest life span of all living creatures.
It lives barely for one day. And within this short life circuit the entire
drama of birth, growing up, reproduction and the ensurance of the species
and death comes full circle. Some moths and butterflies live a little longer
and dragon flies live up to a week. While on the other hand, the longevity
of elephants and tortoises takes them close to a century and beyond
sometimes. All life forms on earth have their own intrinsic space and time,
and one significant point we have to bear in mind is that they are there
for themselves and they play a significant role in the biosphere and ecosphere.
We can say they have intrinsic significance which means they have
essential rights to exist independently of what we humans might consider
their worth. Of course we human beings have the definite capacity to decide
their fate and destiny because of our might and forceful histories. We
have become the dominant species on earth the masters of all our universe
(until we encounter such superior alien creatures in other planets or stars
which is a future possibility). But for the present we humans have absolute
right of control over all of this planet earth, this third rock from the sun.
I once heard someone state over the television that Americans have
such superior weapons nowadays that they can destroy the entire earth
nine times! This immediately made me wonder how such a threat is feasible!
Simply because once the earth is destroyed there would not be another
to destroy a second time let alone till the ninth! But the threat is obviously
a bit exaggerated for the sake of its magnitude! Of course humans do have
the power to annihilate all life forms including ourselves. This is certainly
a potential threat to all nature.
But nature thrives through creation and destruction. Even the giant
reptiles of the Jurassic age had to face extinction through the great ice age.
Nevertheless nature did find a continuity in ensuring the success of life by
permitting new and newer life forms to germinate even after such a massive
catastrophe. It is said that even after a horrendous chemical warfare
cockroaches can survive to live another day! Perhaps they have evolved
their own biological adaptations after encountering repeated attacks from
us humans inventing and reinventing several chemical and biochemical
atomisers and such stuff to eradicate what we hold as pests from our domestic
spheres! Life does find new ways!
We humans are indeed great consumers. We gorge on our planet. And
down the centuries as we read in our history books we have been exploring
and conquering new territories inside our earth as well as on the surface
and even above our earth. We have created cultures and civilizations,
languages and technologies that have helped us spread all over the globe.
There is virtually no place on earth which has not felt the shadow of a
human being! Our great creativity and adaptability has ensured our survival and success. There is little doubt that us humans are the sole owners
of this mass of rock from the sun. We might defend ourselves by saying
that we have every right to ensure our own survival because we are the
dominant species on earth. We can command the fate of all else. And now,
even if we do produce a mass of garbage which might pollute our earth and
water and air around us we can eventually find new scientific means to
get rid of all that. There are many among us who would strongly advocate
for human beings alone as the apex creations of god – after all we are the
direct decedents of god – he or she produced us in their own image (this is
what our religions would teach us).
This I have heard: humans are not the only creatures who leave debris
behind. Large herds of wandering elephants pull down and destroy
innumerable trees, thorny shrubs and bushes. Aren’t they then culprits of
destruction of nature and habitat? With the discovery of fire human tribes
have torched and scorched miles and miles of bush and terrain down the
history. So then, why only blame our present day generation solely for habitat
Having said that, we come to realise that the axe and the fire have laid
waste miles and miles of living land through countless generation. But the
point is simply that now we have reached such a pass that we do not have
any more chance: we have reached a cul de sac in our history and the history
of our planet. We have the first wake up call.
We have built up our civilizations and cultures with us humans as the
centre of it all. When we put our interests in front of everything such a
view is called anthropocentricism – human centred world views. Little do
we recognise as the intrinsic rights of all other non-human stuff to exist.
But nature as we have come to realise through all our learning and pursuit
of science, is something that cherishes what is called biodiversity. There
are innumerable living and non-living things that are besides the human
existence and they too have a need and necessity to exist side by side. In
fact it is through the continued preservation of this vibrant harmonious
web of life that we can also aid in our own survival. Ecology teaches us
that everything in our universe is interlinked with every other thing else.
We break one and it makes a dent in all others as well. When each animal,
each bird, each amphibian, each insect is deprived of its survival space – its
biological habitat – we also are making dents in the other interconnected
chains. We are locked in with everything else that exists. Some we can see
and make out, others are invisible to us but nevertheless exist. We have
so little right to assert our own right over everything else. But yet, this is
exactly what we have been trying to do so far. Our history, or rather our
environmental history is so full of our own footprints and finger prints.
We are the culprits.
Our second wake-up call is one that tells us our earth is not a garbage
dump! All the nations of the world produce waste and they are of several
levels from chemical to bio-chemical to nuclear waste. What do we normally
do when we are left with some waste? We simply dispose of it over
our wall; if it is in our neighbour’s yard it is safe beyond our sight. Now that
we have come to realise that all of this is our home where shall we dump
our waste? Is there space beyond stars? Can we find a distant galaxy where
we can heap all our waste?
These are not mere lists of facts or a fanciful array of fantasies – but
his could be a clarion call to stay awake and recognise our responsibilities.
We should not reach out for the snooze button
There has been no time in our histories as in the present when our
wake-up call has been so persistent. It is screeching. We have so polluted
our earth, our waters – including fresh water lakes, rivers and the seas –
and our air. We have to change our ways of living. Before that we need to
wake ourselves up. Do we need to wait till the last and final call has to go?
Was it indeed Mahatma Gandhi who said that we have not just inherited
the earth from our forefathers but simply borrowed it from our children!
My reverie is rudely broken by the door-bell. Someone is at the door.
I need to go and get the front door. The sunlight outside has become warmer
and shadows have started to shrink. The sun is moving beyond the tree
line up into the blue skies. The termite volcano appears to have subsided.
The crows have already left. Satiated no doubt with their fill of sumptuous
protein-rich meal. Only a couple of stray mynas still hang about pecking
at this and that. A couple of squirrels dash in and out of the bushes. Probably
the late comers. It dawns on me suddenly that I have left the lights on
inside my rooms. It is imperative that I conserve whatever is left, including
our electricity. I definitely do not want that doorbell to be the third and
final wake-up call. I am up and about in no time!

Revista rile, joão pessoa-pb, v. 1, n. 1, p. 289-292, jan – jun 2018 

Learning to Think Like Myself

 Man withdrew from the picture and turned to look at it 
[Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape. NY: Knopf,1967, p 124.]
Truckee, Nevada

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.

Dreaming as the days go by

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 busses 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 pored 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!

The Tree

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. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT press 1995,9-10). 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.

Ever drifting down the stream
Life what is it but a dream

 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.

Murali Sivaramakrishnan
Murali Sivaramakrishnan