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

If I were to trace the outline of the horizon where I live now, it would be a few distant ridges that break the flat plains – except for a single, large, majestic and ancient hill, in close range, that rises to the sky. The Arunachala hill with its granite boulders is part of the Archean, or first, rock formations from the initial cooling of the Earth. It stands, embodying the oldest evidence of studied geology and a tapestry of cultural stories of origin and worship.

The literature of the language of this land, from over two thousand years ago, created beautiful poems describing the inner landscape of the emotions of two lovers reflected in the outer scape of the land. The names of the thinais or landscapes were given from the most characteristic flower of that landscape. They are kurunji, mullai, marudam, neithal and paalai or mountain, forest, grassland, coast, and parched wasteland respectively; the emotions being of love and union, a time of waiting, the quarrelling of lovers’ differences, the pining of distance and the hurt of separation.

An elegant exercise is to imagine how interwoven a language and culture would have been to the land that birthed its people.

Every grain coaxed from its fertile earth, each fruit from the generosity of its season, each home, medicine, fibres of cloth, dye, tool, adornment being a request from the alive landscape that they are within. Is it not presumptuous then, to think that such an epic work of poetry would be speaking merely of just humans?

I ask then, what if the lovers embodied in the poems are the sky and the earth? Making the mountains where clouds birth rain for the thick groves and high grassland to pour down as streams and rivers, a description of true union. Forests, where with the wisdom of lovers who know themselves to be soulmates, does water stored deep in the soil reach out to meet the abundant seasonal rains. Grasslands, a naturally sensitive balance where people, through cultivation and grazing of their cattle, inevitably change the relationship between the rain and the land that its drops merge into; as an aggressive third wheel could wobble a lover’s balance. The furrowing line drawn between the coastal land and the sea, where clouds gather over the water and are quickly swept inland; of intermittent, brief and fleeting moments of meeting that can leave one pining for the other’s presence. And lastly, desert land as a severing all life of the land, life that was a messenger of this love between the sky and earth; a severing caused not by the lovers themselves but by another force that traumatically separates them.

Consider this: each continuous landscape holds within it multiple events in geological time that 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.

If we restrict ourselves at only looking to the last century for alternative narratives to draw from, it would be a myopic mistake. A transformation of consciousness and awareness can begin with people beginning to read and understand their livingscape together, to begin to ask questions based in experiential truth.

So, what do you inhabit as living space, 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? And what are ways that we can embody and express what is well-being for us, 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.