The landscape slowly settled on us. Children flowered, and opened up. The forests we visited started unfurling for us. The twenty-one days we spent amongst the ancient mountains and forests of the Western Ghats was an intense journey of learning, unlearning, and discovery for us at various levels. Within oneself, and of the natural world. 

Forest walks

Every other day we visited the forests with Saji anna, Pradeep anna, Balaji anna, and Suresh anna. The decision of the day’s visit would be the first question Saji anna would ask us, beyond the initial exchanges of cordiality. And we put the question back to them, asking them what would be the best route or plan for the day. Saji anna would then consult with the others, and they’d explain to us their ideas, and we’d come to a consensus. 

As we did more of the walks, and the group got the sense of what suited us the best, we realized that exploring the forests, slowly, and revisiting similar spaces made more sense. We communicated this to Saji anna, and the group, and they were happy to do it for us. It meant becoming familiar with the trees enroute, and observing and getting to know them better. It also meant watching out for changes in observations we had already made. On one particular route we took, one of the students saw four moths camouflaging on a creeper that was overhanging. So, the next time we took the same route to get into the forests, we stopped to see if the moths were still there, and they were! It was thrilling to know that even after a few days, they were there. Maybe their resting spot!

The forest walks were a learning frenzy for each one of us at our own pace. For some it was revisiting their old learning, from their previous visit. And for some a peek into the world of the trees of the Western Ghats. For some getting to know the trees at a much deeper level, at their various stages of life. And there were some exploring the forests looking through the binocular the wrong way to magnify the fungi, moss, lichen, and all the less visible beings that made up the forests. Saji anna would ask us to identify them, we would ask him which one a particular tree or plant was. If he couldn’t recognize, we took photographs to look them up, or check them with Navendu Page. We used drawings, binoculars for tall trees, internet, books, people and all available ways to consolidate the learning. Saji anna would tell us the name of the trees in Malayalam, and a few of us dedicatedly pored through books to figure out their scientific names. It seemed almost like solving a puzzle, and when things fell in place, it was euphoric!

The flow of learning was like the forests themselves, diverse and intricate. It defied any one particular method of learning. Like our walks into the forest which to us felt pathless, so was the learning. The children helped each other quizzing themselves, quizzing the adults, and the same happening vice versa. Some of them who were able to identify the trees very well, would help the others by sharing with them how they look at a particular tree to identify them. It could vary from the bark texture to the tiny details of the curves of a leaf shape, leaf formation and much more. Observation skills of some of them were mind blowing. 

The walks into the forest were more than just learning about the trees. Being present in a space like that, in a world where forests are disappearing at alarming rates was an enormous privilege for all of us. We moved through them mostly in a scattered single file, groups forming according to the interests, or learning that brought them together. On most of our walks, during our breaks, we sang a few songs that we learnt. Played pranks on each other to keep ourselves alert, and check on our balance. We also did some silent time by the stream. 

There were times when the chatter was a lot amongst the group, and times of silence. But the silent times by the stream felt invaluable to me. It was a quietening of the outside and the inside. Sounds and beings that could’ve been unnoticed, came into being. Thoughts and feelings surfaced. Some sketched, some photographed, some walked around, some sat quietly on rocks in the middle of the stream, some were bird watching and much more. And then we gathered, and left.

As the nature of our forest walks changed and evolved, so did the energy of the group. There were initial days of heightened play as we familiarised ourselves with being in the forests. It then slowed down to accommodate more space for observation and learning, interspersed with a few pranks here and there. But there was always a religious ritual of play on the path before entering the forests, or towards the end of the walk. A sliding in and out of the day. Piggy backing, tripping each other, some light chatter, some consolidation of learning, some bird watching, etc. Whatever was there on the mind or not, many of us had it at the back of our minds, the cold chilly waters that we would eventually be stepping into for our bath at the end of the walk.

The Stream baths

Nervous excitement. We looked forward to it as much as we dreaded the cold of the water. There were a few getting in at snail’s pace, always the targets for people to splash them in, or to be dragged in. Some who jumped right in, and got out as soon as they got in. Even that drama was welcomed and looked forward to. 

Many of them pushed themselves to do as many laps as they could, some breaking their previous records. Some of them just happy to do half a lap and get out. One of them, shivered through his laps, but tried to steadily increase one lap a day. And there were even some who bunked bathing at the stream for lame reasons.

We were noisy in the water, with the water and with each other. Some days we spent longer, and some shorter, rushing and running for tea time after that. 

The non-forest days

The non-forest days were packed and relaxed in their own ways. A little bit of trail clearing, wood carrying, stream cleaning. Some wandering around, some consolidating. And then the usual stream time, which was usually longer on these days. And the mornings before breakfast except for the cooking group, the others went around on walks by themselves or with others, or sat somewhere. Most of the bird watching happened on these days, on the various trails. In all the group recorded of having observed around 120 species of birds!

Fish Owl Encounter

We took another route to head back to the camp after our bath at the stream. Looking out for movements in the thickets, and flashes of colour above and near canopies. Ears open to the multitude of bird sounds that we could hear. Trying to identify them or track them through their sounds. And we hear this low murmur like humming. I wondered who was humming, and what song it was. I checked with the others and one of them said that it was the Fish owl calling. So, we moved quickly towards the sound so we may able to see them. For a long time, we could hear it, but as we neared the sound, it stopped calling. But we felt a sense of, from where it might have come, and we eagerly checked the tree, but couldn’t find it. We decided to come back later and check out the spot.

A few many days later, we again took the same route. Our senses again left open to the various sights and sounds. We neared the bend where we thought we heard the Fish owl from. This tree stood right at the edge of the path, and very close to the stream, and offered a very good view of the opposite bank, and hill. It was a sort of clearing amongst the densely grown space. We stopped there and looked hard at the tree. I put together my imagination, and knowledge of where an owl might want to be, and searched for secretive holes or spaces on the tree where one might want to hide. I slowly glazed my eyes over the tree towards the canopy. Started following the branches. And at one place, the branch looked odd and puffed up. Looked like a bird, but I wasn’t sure. I called out to the others in a whisper and we looked through the binoculars. And voila! There was our singer.

The fish owl sat there from high above on the canopy, looking down at us, as we looked up. The yellow eyes looked so intently, it felt to me as though it was piercing its way into me. After a while, disturbed by all our attention, it took off with such a quiet flight towards another tree on the opposite hill. And right after that, another one flew! We never even realized the presence of the second. 

And so, we decided to come back a few days later to check on them. And we did, and we found one of them in the same area twice. Now we know one of their favourite spots. But it didn’t feel good to be disturbing them. Our first encounter was the longest, and every time after that, as soon as they realized that we saw them, they took flight immediately. 

I would want to go and see them on the next trip, but maybe differently, without startling them, and allowing myself be noticed by them, and be revealed for them.

Circle Times on the trip

Every night during dinner, we had circle time. To me it felt, the more we stayed together, and as the trip progressed, the more open we became with each other. It became richer, and more organic. It created a space for extremely vulnerable sharing, where it would be held with care by each and everyone. Of course, there were people who went off to sleep sitting right there too. But it was magical, and it was a consolidation time for the learnings about oneself. By the end of the trip, it was very evident how each one of us had opened up and changed as people.  

Though most of our topics were about oneself, there were on few days where we spoke about what was happening in the outside world. Our responses to them. For example, we spoke about where we saw injustice in our immediate surrounding. These helped us realize how many of us lived in our own bubbles, not aware of the political situation in India or anywhere else. Almost everyone was able to see the injustice happening towards nature with great clarity, but when it came to human societies, and things became complex, there were confusions. 

The ebb and flow of conversations became more organic, vivid, and easy. I remember a few days where we began with such seriousness, but eventually, we were giggling at each other, pulling each other’s legs. And then again there would be a sudden shift in the energy, and it would once more become serious. I feel the freedom of this space was explored and exploited to its extremes, but completely anchored in a sense of well-being, which I experienced, and I hope the others did too.

There were moments of goosebumps when people shared. Some very moving. The children eventually started challenging each other, but conveyed with a sense of respect. The holding and communicating of such questions and observations was done beautifully.

The Group

We could call this a GROUP. As one unit. They all functioned with an overall sense of care, except for some goof ups. From the day we reached, organizing and setting up the camp, everyone pitched in with such energy. Bringing things, filling water, setting up the stove etc. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well organized the group could be, and equally surprised to see how messy we could get, eventually, that is. 

Every day people volunteered to help with daily chores required. There was a balance we could maintain with doing the required and doing the exploring. And it seemed, it was all done in good cheer. The overall energy of the group was always quite high. A bubbling group, that Supi said was like the chattery hill mynas. 

Though there was an underlying sense of age that we all sensed, it didn’t seem to create such a rigid structure amongst us. Across ages we were able to be playful and pull pranks on. There was a feeling of liquidity in being. As playful as they were, so came naturally the seriousness, and responsibility. There was a healthy quantity of silliness to keep the spirits high, and an equal amount of quiet for reflection. It was unbearably joyful to be part of this cackling group.

The trip as a way memory creation

Being in the forest over and over again. Slowly, casually. Going on similar routes, getting to know the trees and the stream.

It all felt like the forest starting to get embedded in us. In our memories. Of a fallen tree on the path where somebody was playfully tripped. The marsh where we saw the elephant foot steps, and climbed the tree. The open marsh in the middle of the forest like a haven, and so many more such experiences that last. I wonder now, having been part of a group that experienced these days together, and very intimately too, how much of the memory is mine, and how much is the group’s. For me, the familiarity of a few spots that we crossed was like passing a friend.

A feeling of, ‘hey! I know you!’. And there was a lot of that in the sanctuary. The routes, the ponds the plants, the people from my previous visit. So many memories, now layered with more experiences, more people, more learning, and stories. 

While on the bus to Wayanad, there was a lot of anticipation of what we were looking forward to on the trip.  Some had a very good idea of what they were going to do. I’m not sure if things turned out the way any of us expected, but I know for sure that a new dimension has been added to our memory of the place.

Things that touched me

My first few walks in the forests, I experienced constant bouts of intense feeling of gratitude for being in a space like that. Waking up to the dawn chorus of the birds, or sleeping with the call of a wood owl. Being present in a space with an orange headed thrush, and to realize that we both were aware of each other’s presence, but that the thrush didn’t get alarmed, and carried on with their foraging, flipping and turning dried leaves. The morning sun light through the foliage streaming down and colouring the air yellow. The dusk sky tinting the air with orange pink. Watching the moon rise, and stream in through our camp at night. 

On one of the days, when I was feeling a little disturbed and preoccupied, I was first awakened by the resident pit viper around a corner. As I walked further, I came into a small clearing in view, where the opposite hill was visible. Some trees were swinging and swaying in the wind, accompanied by a few more, lower down in almost complete sync, like dancers. And the rest, stood very still. From there I walked and met with the orange headed thrush. After our brief encounter, I went down to the stream near the old pump house. It was quite unrecognizable from my previous visit to the spot with its over grown thickets. As I sat by the stream on the root of the tree there, something stirred. The sound of the stream, the curve of the lighted branch on the opposite hill, and that moment felt so palpable. Beauty of that place was almost palpable. And my mind started rushing with thought and memories of everything beautiful that had happened in the recent time. And one of them was Diba akka’s sharing.

I met Diba akka for the first time. She had a demeanour of tentativeness. We had a few sessions of song with her. It was magical when she sang with the guitar. Her face intense, carefully uttering the words. On one of our tea time interactions she told us about how she chanced upon the song ‘Alla Hoo’ on one of her walks in Delhi. Her description was visually so rich, and vivid. And any or most of the things she spoke about had that quality, a sense of realness expressed with such beauty and rawness, that I inevitably felt moved.

During one of our circle times, Arun anna told us about his interaction with Diba akka. And he had recalled something that she said of how when people don’t get in touch with their pain, they won’t be able to see the pain in the world outside. It was touching, and has stayed with me since.

On one of the sessions with Valli aunty, few of the students who hesitated to speak in larger groups were challenged to speak first. One of them almost broke down, but eventually went on to sharing how she felt that she wouldn’t share because she felt whatever she had to share was not valuable. This was echoed by two others too. And towards the end of the session, Arun anna pitched in wondering if fragility was as human as feeling strong. If we have space for allowing ourselves to feel fragile, and not feel confident about something at all. Can we be easy on ourselves instead of pushing ourselves to always emerge strong, or feel strong? Do we as a group of people allow for this space? Can we? 

On another of our circle times, we stepped into a space of the struggles the children faced within their homes. Their home situations and circumstances that they had to deal with, and be burdened by. To see them in a space like this, thriving and exploring themselves and learning with joy, and to think that they had to go back to burdensome home situations was/is extremely saddening. When you hear them talk about how they cherish this freedom they felt on the trip, it was heart rending. Will they be able to feel this freedom and new dimensions they’ve discovered within themselves and within relationships, and the group? It was a question for them, and for me too.

The Freedom

The trip weaved into the group a sense of ease and freedom within each of us. It engulfed us in all possible ways. Some said they shed their masks, and felt so naked, that it was terrifying. For some it was more organic. Many discovered for themselves a lot within. This freedom we felt was too precious to lose. And that too not at the cost of home situations. It brought the group closer, it helped build relationships, within and without.  And once we realized how precious it was, all that mattered to me was how to not lose this, and how to create or allow for spaces for children and adults to come in touch with it. What could possibly be the process for any of us to feel that sense of freedom within oneself, and keep it untouched by the societal structures that have been imposed on us for time unknown, just to curb the human spirit? Have we not imposed this on almost all of the free-living beings? Like the pits that were dug to trap the elephants, break them down, and make them into mere transport machines for humans? What could be more cruel than to snatch and break the spirit of a free living being, be it a human or an elephant?

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