by Rahul Hasija
If I would be asked thirty years down the line, a memory from my life that I hold dear the most, I would speak of the week I spent volunteering in Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, India doing Tiger census. It involved walking long miles each day in search of evidence for the presence of tigers and other large mammals. Additionally, living on a tree platform called Machaan, bathing in a cold stream of water, watching deer and wild-boars pass-by and breathing the jungle wind helped me connect to nature in a way I had never thought or experienced before. It was 11 years ago and I still have an enchanting visual memory of the jungle spread across hundreds of kilometres, undisturbed and unoccupied by humans. A sheer remembrance of time spent there, fuses vibrancy in my life even today. The same tiger reserve is threatened by a government-proposed railway line (1) that is supposed to pass through the core area of the reserve. The adjacent Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, also known as TATR (2) is also under threat as the Indian Central Government has recently decided to auction some of the adjacent lands to big Indian corporates for coal mining.
A lawyer friend when asked for a legal recourse for stopping this and similar juggernauts of modern-day industrial development said “Public Interest Litigations or filing lawsuits helps the cause only to an extent. This is moreover limited by the limited-conscience and limited Earth-connection of the law-makers and those who exercise it. If their connection with mother Earth is missing, they or the law would hardly bring about considerable change in any way. It can only delay, not stop the damage”.
This got me thinking again of my experiences at tiger census that taught me humility and helped me recognize the vastness of life systems and establish connections back with Earth. I also realized if my fellow beings, mountains, rivers and forests, are to be preserved, saved and fought for, it is possible only when there is a deep connection with them, a relationship that is acknowledged and revered. These realizations and connections with Earth have shaped my life-choices considerably, that includes deciding to live a simple and close-to-nature-life, join Swaraj University (3) as a learner to find a supportive community and discover ways to live a simple life. Further, I have experimented in my native town to build a community of ecological practitioners, written stories of my rendezvous with spiders and snake friends, and tried my hands at farming. Last seven years, I have continued this endeavour at Swaraj University as a facilitator, trying to live life attuned to nature, curate workshops and experiences for others to forge Earth-connections and challenge the scarcity-inducing economic model at personal and community level.
These life choices I took and saw others around me embrace have given me hope of slowly and collectively shifting from consumer-consciousness to Earth-consciousness. Earth-consciousness is an embodied and relational understanding of Earth as a sentient being (4) or force vis-à-vis ourselves. I was propelled to interview some conscious souls from Ecoversities (5) (learning collectives and communities across the world that are re-imagining, re-claiming and re-generating learning ecologies for higher education) to learn about more possibilities practiced in different places, and compile ways of engaging and reconnecting with Earth-spirit.
Through this essay, I intend to describe small, simple, and effective ways of honing the ecological sensitivity of learners, establishing and strengthening the Earth-connection with the hope of disrupting the destructive-developmental paradigm we live in, seeding love for all the beings so that learners can, later on, spread it exponentially in their communities.
Infusing change at the basics.
(Transforming food, shelter and clothing).
The two most basic yet important physical interface learners interact with at the onset of their engagement at any learning collective are food that is served and buildings they live and study in. Any change or transformation introduced precisely in these fields, explicit yet subtle, hold a lot of possibilities as most of the cities and towns across the world currently dwell on mono-cultural models of food and architecture. Diversity and earthly-aesthetics are hard to find.
Bhoomi College (6) in India has got this very well from the onset of its engagement with young learners. People there have actively engaged with food they grow, cook and serve on their campus. It is less processed, raw sometimes, locally sourced, vegan, and constitutes a variety of millets. It allows a subtle shift towards a totally different kind of food philosophy to a generation that was born to a monocultural platter. Bhoomi college offers year-long courses on sustainability and holistic education in addition to many short programs on food, food politics, health and farming and undoubtedly, food and agriculture are central to all of its programs.
At Swaraj University in India, the central theme is self-designed learning and the program offers support to learners to reclaim their life and life-choices within a community of learners. An essential part consists in reclaiming our connections with food and Earth. It begins with opening our kitchen for learners to experiment and play with. Platter is pretty much similar to Bhoomi college, however there are exceptions that we offer so as to allow learners to be proactive in their connection with food, also inviting them to try their grandmothers’ recipes and remedies for their personal beauty-care. It is generally followed by introducing critical lenses to look at food-geography and politics that includes factory farming, junk food, dairy, agricultural crisis, and politics associated with all of it. Foraging local, wild and edible leaves, flowers, roots and stems on wild food walks has been a hit as a lot of learners have consequently hosted wild food cafés and some continue to engage with it actively.
This proactive engagement with food simply facilitates observation and connection to our bodies, to farmers and to elements of nature. It brings along a different kind of slowness usually beginning with a painful physical, emotional and mental detoxification, gradually realigning rhythms of our bodies with Earth’s. It also broadens our vision to look at the missing pieces of the food cycle, right from growing food to politics that affects it at every stage and wastage that follows.
When people walk in at the Social Innovation Academy, also known as SINA (7), in Uganda, they are shocked, mesmerized and inspired all at the same time. The first thing that meets their eyes is a house made of plastic bottles. Seven such houses on SINA campus are constructed from plastic bottles, polythene bags, egg shells, with roofs of car tyres. Henry, the scholar project manager at SINA, says it disrupts the idea of a ‘normal residence or housing’, especially of a generation that has lived their lives in concrete jungles. SINA engages with learners that are refugees, orphans, street children, former inmates, former prostitutes, or young people from other marginalized and poor backgrounds, supporting processes of transformation of their personal and socio-economic tragedies into social enterprises.
Some of the buildings at Bhoomi College and Swaraj University are made of locally available resources like bamboo, empty glass bottles, mud, cow dung and adobe bricks. I have lived in a partial mud house for the last four years on Swaraj University campus and visited many such Earth buildings and I have often wondered what made people shift to cement and glass houses. Why have we continued to suffocate ourselves in unbreathable structures? Is it ants or lizards? Is it water leakage? Is it the structural stability? Or a combination of all of these? My lived experience in various cement buildings for two decades suggests there isn’t much difference on these matters. Rather, Earth-friendly constructions are much more breathable, they adhere to local climate, are skin-friendly and they not just disrupt the modern-day notion of a ‘proper residence’ or ‘house’, they challenge our illusion of control and certainty that comes with cement structures.
Third of the basics, clothing is another potential to turn tables. If buildings can be more breathable and skin-friendly, clothes definitely have a good chance at it too. I remember watching my facilitators at Swaraj often wearing cotton hand-woven kurtas and I was particularly impressed to the extent that I made a shift moving away from synthetic. Understanding politics of textile, cotton farming, toxic dyes and farmer suicides of course played a part in this shift. Bhoomi college has an in-house weaving centre run by a traditional weaver and is accessible to everyone on the campus. At Swaraj, we often host pass-it-on-free-stores to share used good-conditioned clothes for others to use and avoid unnecessary buying.
The basics, however, are no longer restricted to these three entities. Internet, consumer goods, healthcare and beauty-care products have made their way long-back to the basic necessities. The efforts of learning communities can be around:
a) Greening the commodified needs: this means simply providing the learners with options for consumer goods and services that are earth-friendly, less toxic, local and fair traded. It includes more sustainable options for medicines, beauty-care, menstrual and contraceptive products.
b) Ceasing or cracking the commodified needs: at Swaraj, we were blessed to not receive high speed internet from the beginning. Slow internet connection & phone receptivity on campus has been a great healer for a lot of us as it gave us more time to connect to ourselves, our close ones, mother nature and to the present moment. With passage of some time, it was indeed possible to turn our campus wi-fi friendly. However, we realized faster the technology, the scarcer is notion of time and relationships and thus we intentionally didn’t invest much in that possibility. Rather, we have devised ways to reclaim our modes of entertainment and connection. Digital fasting is another practice we have tried in order to disrupt phone addictions and dependency. Another fascinating experiment has been taking learners on a cycle pilgrimage without money, food, medicine and gadgets. These intentional experiments do their bit to allow learners to realize the futility and overrated-ness of these wants-turned-needs.
Some questions might help disrupt the status quo of basics at our learning collectives:
What are the interfaces that learners experience during the course of their stay and program they are part of? What potential do you see in these interfaces for seeding connections with Earth? What are the wants-turned-needs of your learning community that you can do away with? What are some experiments to disrupt wants-turned-needs? Are there possibilities for the learner to experience and engage in the art of making food, buildings and clothing? If complete transformation from scratch isn’t possible, is there a possibility of partial Earth-scaping of food, clothes and building? It could be as simple as little reconstruction to make the building more open to natural light or setting-up a small-scale waste management unit. A friend from Delhi, Deepa (8) has done some incredible work of turning her city-based home into a beautiful experimental ground. She has turned her terrace and balconies to gardens, all her biodegradable waste to compost, and she has even set up a dry compost toilet.
Scheduling meet-ups with demons of disconnect.
(Acknowledging and owning up our shit.)
Dr. Alejandra Ortiz Medrano, Director of socio-environmental projects at Universidad del Medio Ambiente (UMA) (9), Mexico, feels the potential change is deeply seeded within a learner’s sadness and anger. UMA offers a variety of programs to learners like sustainable tourism, green MBA, Regenerative agro-ecology, and Sustainable architecture, meeting and addressing socio-environmental challenges. Alejandra tells about an architecture student from UMA who wanted to reignite the connections people had in the past with the rivers. He built a lineal park around the riverfront to bring people close to the rivers and closer to each other. He did so by asking the adjacent-to-river land-owners to give away parts of their property for this lineal park and people accepted to collaborate.
I believe this pain, or sadness and anger as Alejandra calls it, is also a microcosm reality of a macro-level disconnect with Earth, thus it is also important for the learners to meet this disconnect fully. Some of the manifestations of this disconnect are high-rise dumping yards, water-bodies turned to sewage nullahs, noise and air-polluted cities as well as forests turned into mines turned into wastelands, toxic industrial waste, forced evacuation of natives and our continued parasitic relationship to villages and forests.
At Swaraj, we take learners to a dumping yard pilgrimage and walk its length and breadth; we stay for a few hours looking at the kinds of materials that end up there, meet rag-pickers and transporters who get the waste from the city to the dump. This visit helps immediately establish our connections with the waste we generate. Another impactful learning experience was the journey we took to a village in coastal Orissa, India, that traditionally thrived prosperously on betel nut plantations. All hell turned loose when the Government signed a MoU with steel-giant POSCO ( 10) that meant forceful grabbing of the native land. Despite taking rubber bullets, being accused of false criminal cases and receiving life-threats each day, the villagers put up a resilient show to protest against the nexus. It was shocking yet a touching experience for learners to stay with these villagers listening and witnessing stories of dastardly acts of development.
We call these “meet-ups with disconnects”, which can become a source of inspiration to connect.
Henry points out the demon of disconnect in Uganda isn’t hard to find. It is blatantly visible and affecting more than 50% of the Ugandan population: the acute shortage and difficulty to access safe drinking water (11). Henry mentions a distorted relationship with water and Earth, as disconnects to be worked on. At SINA they are working on low-cost water filters not dependent on fire-wood. To meet the water challenges, they have created a system of low-cost water filters called Tusa Fishe that filter water without using fire wood and gas. The project is committed to also plant 10 moringa trees every time they construct a filter.
It is important thus, to help learners to meet these disconnects in their society as well as to make them aware of the impact their disconnected lives have on invisible cultures. Some guiding questions could be What are symptoms of disconnect prevalent in your local neighbourhood or society? What are some shallow beliefs, feeding into the disconnect, you need to disrupt? What are the ways you can bridge the personal and political disconnect? What are areas missing or intentionally hidden from our perspectives that you could facilitate a connection back with?
Tying the sacred thread and honouring interconnections
(Designing and practicing rituals to hone Earth-connections).
I am particularly fond of the movie Avatar (12) that shows humanoid creatures called Na’vi living on planet Pandora. The populations of the Na’vi and other species are in sync with a sentient intelligence they worship called Eywa. Na’vi use their extended nervous system in the form of a tail to sync with Eywa and other co-beings. Humans no longer have tails to forge their connection directly. However, rituals and stories play this role for them. It allows humans to harness faith, reverence and trust between two and many co-living entities.
On the very first day of their program at Swaraj, we ask the learners to walk barefoot and roll over land. We introduce elements of nature into our circles as centerpieces. These exercises help establish a relation with these elements as co-beings, and not dead or non-living forces occupying space. While we engage with farm work, we often sing and dance to cultural songs of harvest. Work of Joanna Macy (13) also inspires some of our processes. Joanna is an activist, a practitioner of deep ecology and systems thinking philosopher. She has designed and hosted several experiences for people to acknowledge the separation with the world and, honour and strengthen our interconnectedness
At UMA, the learners practice an interesting ritual. The elder cohort presents the younger one a gift-it-forward good-vibe ritual. They secretly pass on a green trouser. Each one of them choses a younger learner to pass the gift to be passed on to the third-generation learners the next year. Learners who receive the gift are asked to wear the trouser with care and respectIt acts as a symbol of commitment to sustainability.
Stories and rituals act as sacred containers, just like a devotional thread tied around a sacred grove. However, it is important for us to redefine, recreate and reimagine new threads of devotion keeping in mind the sensibilities of the current generation and also the failures and loopholes of earlier threads.
What are culturally-apt rituals that we can practice to invoke love and connection for Earth and her elements? What are the anecdotes or stories, mythical or real, that establish interconnectedness and disrupt the status quo with consumer-consciousness? What are some daily routine activities learners engage in, that can be tied into simple practices or rituals to connect or be centred?
Seeking sea-shells to be the soothsayer to the soul
(Invoking & establishing nature’s connection with learners’ interests and passion).
Various mythologies and cultures across the world convey the idea that we are a tiny part of the Universe and at the same time the whole universe resides within us. The modern education system not only explicitly neglects this connection, but it further systematically compartmentalizes, fragments and demeans the holistic circumference of Earth-consciousness into narrow and isolated disciplines such as Environmental studies, Physical education, Geography, etc. It is thus important for us now to reclaim the understanding of the interconnectedness, to revive the role of nature as an elder as well as a subtle energy present in us that can simply help us connect to our passions, interest, purpose and actions in the world.
In this regard, Bhoomi College hosts two different intensive programs: ‘Inner and Outer Ecology’ and ‘Deep Ecology’ to connect and realign the inner world with outer one and to deeply connect with nature. The program involves processes like mapping one’s past to look at interesting patterns and strengths, a wandering solo time in the forest to observe and sense, and an evening dance movement on a field to connect to the power of the Universe. When a person is allowed a gentle space to pause, reflect and go through their own past, and be highly observant in the present, they become empowered to draw insights and connections that are unparalleled in their previous endeavours.
At Swaraj, one of the processes we have tried is Nature quest (14), also called Vision quest. Inspired by some shamanic cultures and spiritual journeys undertaken in various indigenous cultures, it supports participants to practice fasting and go on a pilgrimage, alone in wilderness, ceasing all contact with the outside world in order to receive sacred knowledge and strength from the spirit world. The purpose of this journey is to discover one’s authentic purpose, gift or voice.
At UMA, there is an experiential workshop on social-environmental sensibility that involves learners spending time in the forest and around a river in an endeavour to connect to ecology emotionally and intuitively rather than just rationally.
Through practices and processes like these, learners build the connection with Earth and develop clarity in their purpose, transforming learners into potential seed-balls. We have witnessed their endeavours and actions furthering in the form of projects, enterprises and communities, propagating this newly reclaimed earth-connection exponentially in others.
One of the learners from Swaraj who had keen interest in ecology is now designing and growing forests using Miyawaki (15) and other techniques. Many learners have independently started initiatives bringing upcycled and natural products to the world. Another one initiates gatherings and learning journeys of families, artists, activists and environmentalists to bring people together and foster deep connections that helps transcending our limited sense of a family, our own self and the world. A Bhoomi College, alumnus initiated a project called Eco-Singlz (16), a matrimony service for people who are in environmentally-conscious careers.
SINA has an interesting list of projects that are reshaping Uganda’s connection with nature. One of them is Kimuli Fashionability (17) that creates upcycled clothing and accessories by blending African fabrics with waste materials through training and employing persons with disabilities. Gifted Hands (18) employs blind women who travel across with their heightened sense of touch to detect breast cancer.
For an effective wondering and shifting to more Earth-orientated ways at a collective level, it is good to contemplate customs that can flourish nature’s abundance in people’s livelihoods, interests and passion, to look out or design culturally-apt ways to seek this connection, and, to connect with inspiring organizations, individuals and communities that are passionately working on ecological sustainability. Henry recalls his visit to Sadhana Forest (19) in India as one of his inspirations to connect more deeply with nature, not just at a personal, but also at a professional level. Sadhana Forest is a community of environmental practitioners working to transform wastelands to forests and introducing sustainable living to people.
Listening to the calls from the tree hollow.
(Acknowledging the missing efforts and blind spots).
In many stories and cultures, tree hollow or holes are often referred to as a secret passage to hidden treasure and arsenal. In this context, I refer to them as corners that hold some of the most difficult, challenging, intriguing questions and dilemmas we live with. Like a tree hollow or probably a deep wound, this is exactly where light can enter and penetrate the most. These are the areas that we, as learning communities, are probably missing, ignoring, or finding difficult to seed Earth-connections, yet these are centres of potential change and transformation.
At Swaraj University and in the Ecoversities I explored these issues with, there is considerable work happening on the front of ecological sensitivity and action-manifestation. It means that there are substantial shifts that occur in the microcosm of a learner’s lifestyle and in their life-choices, like in their consumption patterns, choice of livelihoods, and relationship with money. While there is emphasis in sharing information and exposure of the socio-political impacts of our personal lives, and vice-versa, there is still a lot untapped on the level of policy-making and decision-making. The bridging between personal and political, and the micro and macro political fronts, needs a closer look.
Farah, who currently anchors the Holistic Education program at Bhoomi College, feels the programs they offer attract only a certain population that is already converted to some ideas and practices of Earth-consciousness. It might be wise, she reflects, to find better ways to reach out to people who are alien to this whole culture of Earth-centric life and lifestyles.
A risk and a trap of many learning initiatives wishing to create alternatives is to use the very same tools they have been resisting. There is commendable work happening around learning methodologies however if we were to closely look at the ends it is meeting, we will find it merging with standards and measuring scales of industrial-economic models. For example, encouraging more and more green and Earth-friendly enterprises and yet keeping profitability and scalability as measures of success. Is it possible to encourage these enterprises to have contentment as one of their criterias for success? Another example is propagating marketing & advertising gimmicks similar to mainstream businesses. The criteria for success, growth and development at personal, societal and political levels thus need to be challenged, done away with and redefined.
Alejandra particularly speaks of UMA’s strained relationship with the local community living around the campus. The local community, she feels, perceives UMA and its staff as resourceful equipped to support them logistically and financially. This perception feeds further into their feeling of class and culture-alienation. She believes these relationships are fundamental to ecological interconnectedness and sees them as a prospect to be worked upon. At Swaraj, we have built good relationships with local communities by intentionally centering on processes that foster connections in our program design. These include sending the learners to walk with the goats and cow-herders, hosting cooperative games with children in adjacent villages, finding local mentors as well as inviting villagers to share their skills and hosting music-jam together. Despite these small efforts, these connections are limited and there’s a larger scope for collaborative spirit to emerge.
These are some areas that the Ecoversities network can take a leap in and new learning initiatives and communities can look at as an opportunity to focus their energies and activities on. Some of these ways include transforming the platter we eat from and cocoon we thrive under; shocking and disrupting the narrow dimension of our current ways of seeing; tying threads between dreams, passion and Earth-consciousness to experience and soak in the existing abundance; choosing wisely the threading material of rituals, stories, listening, journeying and immersing ourselves in the whole, surrendering to the interconnected life force and igniting hope within oneself. I am reminded of the intriguing paradox of the ship of Theseus (20). It raises the question of whether a ship that has had all of its components replaced one by one remains fundamentally the same ship. I feel we all are sailing on this ship and the ship is a large system that is allowing us to survive and thrive. To sync with the evolutionary nature of life, parts of the ship are bound to be replaced, yet at this moment the ship is toxic, separating humans from the life-forces outside of the ship, deadening the sea and people on-board. Is it then possible, for us as learning communities, to heal and transform the ship, part by part, so that it evolves into an interconnected and synergized system of surviving and thriving?
A lot definitely depends on our ability and practice to remind ourselves of the interconnections with the Earth, and on the humility to honour such a relationship.
This article was written after a series of interviews with Henry Othieno, the scholar project manager at Social Innovation Academy, Uganda; Farah Khan, Director-in-charge of Holistic Education in Bhoomi College, India; Madhavi Rane and Riya Rachel Simon, alumnae of Bhoomi College, India; and Dr. Alejandra Ortiz Medrano, Director of socio-environmental projects at UMA, Mexico.
Rahul Hasija is a co-learner & facilitator at Swaraj University, India. He is passionate about stories and loves to create safe spaces and processes for learners to connect to their own stories and stories of others. He has been hosting modules on self-awareness, listening, self-designed learning, unlearning, team-building, cooperative games, circular dances, reconnecting with the ancestral roots, rethinking development and connecting with nature. a Story-seeker and Gardener at heart. He is also the Creator of Swa-cardz, a game of conversations and a learner-practitioner of economics of abundance, dance movement, simple life, bird-watching, gardening, nature cure and medicine free lifestyle. To read more of his writings, expressions and explorations, read his blog: http://thefreedomwalker.wordpress.com
(1) Melghat Tiger reserve railway line conflict: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/uddhav-seeks-alternative-routes-for-melghat-rail-line-conversion/article32094818.ece
(2) TATR coal mining – https://frontline.thehindu.com/the-nation/article31921985.ece
(3) For more details on Swaraj University, visit www.swarajuniversity.org
(4) Earth as a sentient being: https://www.kosmosjournal.org/news/the-earth-is-a-sentient-living-organism/
(5) For more information on Ecoversities, visit http://ecoversities.org
(6) For more information on Bhoomi College – https://bhoomicollege.org/
(7) For more information on Social Innovation Academy, visit: https://socialinnovationacademy.org/
(8) Deepa’s city endeavours – https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?vanity=deepadeepa&set=a.10157135205882048
(9) For more details on UMA, visit https://umamexico.com/
(10) POSCO steel plant in Orissa and movement of resistance: https://scroll.in/article/832463/as-posco-exits-steel-project-odisha-is-left-with-thousands-of-felled-trees-and-broken-job-promises
(11) Uganda’s water crisis: https://water.org/our-impact/where-we-work/uganda/
(12) Avatar the movie: https://james-camerons-avatar.fandom.com/wiki/Pandora
(13) Joana Macy: https://www.joannamacy.net/
(14) Nature quest / Vision quest: http://www.sparrowhart.com/what-is-a-vision-quest/
(15) Miyawaki projects and Forest-growing in India: https://www.afforestt.com
(16) Eco-Singlz project by Bhoomi college alumnus: https://www.ecosinglz.com/
(17) Kimuli Fashionability by SINA’s alumnus: www.kimulifashionability.org
(18) Gifted Hands Network by SINA’s alumnus: https://www.facebook.com/giftedhandsnetwork/
(19) Sadhana Forest: https://sadhanaforest.org
(20) Ship of Theseus paradox: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus