Thought piece: perceiving the livingscapes we are within

James Morgan / WWF-US

An independent thought piece brought to you by Madhurya Balan, Collaborator at The Forest Way

Consider this: each continuous landscape holds within it multiple events in geological time. These events define the shape of the land, the composition of its rocks, the types of its soils – all of which would change several times over with the folding, rising, crumbling and sinking of the earth’s crust. Consider this: the same continuous land holds within its atmosphere different flows of ocean currents, different cloud formations, types and amounts of precipitation, shifting shapes of stored and flowing water– all of which would have rhythmic patterns over millennia, gradually shifting with different climatic epochs based on deep time cycles of the planet. Consider this: life, which holds infinite possibility genetically, would respond to long periods of stability and also conditions of extreme change through variation. To look for and acknowledge these signatures and imprints in a landscape, to me, is perceiving a livingscape. How much have we rewritten the landscape just in the last several centuries?

When was the last time you saw a grove of trees that were some hundreds of years old? Or vast areas of a livingscape in existence of their own will – wild, where birth, every moment till and even after death, is in an intricate and completely conscious response to the impermanent shifts of the earth and skies. Fundamental notions of our place in the world have tripped and distorted to want to own lands and rob them of their natural generosity with such an insatiable hunger. Why can’t we seem to let a land live for itself?

The definitions created around natural phenomena and life determine and reflect the intention of our thoughts at their core. Naming and claiming land and water as resources, forests as ecosystem-services by sequestering carbon to offset our actions, non-human mammals as a collection of numbers that stand as indicators on a scale, birds as a checklist on a watcher’s website, nomenclature as a memory game where words hold little or no meaning by the person speaking its name – the pursuit of this way of looking at the world is allowing us to destroy it. This pursuit allows us to continue making decisions that dismantle livingscapes because most people believe in the idea of the natural world existing only in the framework of humans’ needs. Dominant culture teaches us that we are in no way implicated in participating and giving back to natural cycles or flows of the Earth through direct means of each individual’s everyday life.

Currently, the laws that exist around the ownership of common lands are flipped upside down by governance that is driven by individualistic economics in the name of common good. It is the reality that exists in reports and bank accounts that drives more decisions than the true living conditions of where these projects take place. The ominous position of the word “development” in relation to people and place has caused enough destruction through the power of too few. The time is presenting itself for the dominant culture to be challenged, though, this can only happen with a large and organised movement of people supported by the strength of the knowledge of their lands, its living beings, its natural systems of abundance and its health in relation to their own. 

 If we restrict ourselves at only looking to the last century for alternative narratives to draw from, it would be too myopic. Seeking understanding from livingscape perspectives invites the leaning into true questions around relationships and ethical ways of living as part of it. Consider that a transformation of consciousness can begin with people beginning to read and understand their livingscape together. If enough individuals ask questions based in truth, there will be a revolution.

So, here are some questions to begin with: what do you inhabit as living space and how much around it can you hold in your peripheral sense of belonging? How much of its natural flows and cycles have you experienced? Have you watched the source of where your water comes from swell and shrink with the seasons? Can you tell if the land is in a state of loss, dis-ease, disruption, rest, recovery, regeneration or balance? Where is the nearest region to you that is least impacted by negative intervention? What species have co-evolved here? Who and what have disappeared from this area? What does it look like to support small and large more-than-human life forms here? Where are stories of intentional custodianship here by people? What are the needs that are in balance with the livingscape? What are the relationships and cyclic systems we would want to make abundant?

Ultimately, what are the ways that we can embody and express what is well-being for ourselves, each other, other living beings and the land?

Madhurya Balan, The Forest Way, India

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.