Time with Nature in Wayanad 2021

V. Arun


Being a school, which spends a lot of time in nature, during the restricted movement of corona times, the time spent in nature gained special significance. It became more precious and healing. As interactions through Zoom and such media were becoming the norm across the world, we in our corner realised ever more the value of being in a tangible space in real time and experiencing the world around us through all our senses. We spent almost a whole day every week in nature as we had always done but the day grew in importance.  

We have the tradition of going to the Gurukula botanical sanctuary every year on our annual outing. Starting from a few days duration when the students are 11/12 years of age, the stay gradually increases in numbers of days. The students of my class had gone there for the past two years and I have been going for nearly two decades. Both the students and I individually began to yearn to be there again. Given all the travel restrictions it was impossible to conceive travelling so far. But as great as the odds were against us being able to travel, we continued to dream of it becoming a reality. Then as some train services resumed and borders opened it began to emerge as a technical possibility. 

Our friends in the sanctuary were kind enough to be open to the possibility of us coming. I made a personal visit there to (amongst other things) check out the issues with travelling as a group and the local conditions there. The 4 days I was there were heady for me and I became determined to bring the students there. This article is about our trip there.

The difference between earlier trips and this one

Unlike the past trips this was not a class trip. The group consisted of 12 students and 3 adults. While most of the students were of one class we left out some of the ones who harboured doubts about coming and included others who were very keen to be in nature. Those who didn’t come chose not to come on their own as they had doubts of being able to be focussed on a nature-only trip.

As a teacher, I had made it clear that this was an extraordinary trip in an extraordinary time and that it needed to be treated as such. And that it was a privilege to have an opportunity to visit and be in a forest and only those who really wanted this opportunity should avail of it. 

In earlier trips to this place, we used to split the days into many activities. We would start the day with bird watching together and then split up in to groups, some to do the cooking, some to collect fire wood, some to go work in the garden and others to collect leaf mulch for the potting shed etc. There would also be circle times together to talk about various things. Most of the day was packed with some structured activity. Of course, this would include things like solo time, silent hour, drawing etc. 

While over the years students would come to love the place and engage deeply, this process would be gradual. For young people just being together on an outing would be a great source of excitement. There would be a lot of chatter, sometimes too loud for the space. Sometimes the enforced slowing down would either create surplus physical energy or a need for some conventional fun and they would start playing some organized games like playing with a ball or badminton. At times this would get obsessive with it becoming something to do every possible break. 

With earlier groups, by the time they reached their final years in school, they would be ready for deep engagement with the space. This would mean spending hours alone and/or making some detailed observations. These students also negotiated with the school and the sanctuary to make individual trips to spend time in nature during their holidays.

With this current group of children, though they were much younger, we decided to attempt the same and raise the bar. We decided that we should make the best possible use of time given how much we wanted to be there and how long we had been yearning for the same. 

Two weeks of blissfully unstructured time

The students completely understood the spirit of the trip. From the moment we landed there, they just embraced the magic of being there. That they had been waiting to be in such surroundings for months was obvious. Almost no one slept in the train the previous night. The excitement was so palpable. 

So, we as teachers, made no plans at all. We sort of had common eating times and a common time for bathing in the stream during the day. Otherwise, they were free to do whatever they wanted.

The students really thrived in this setting. Some went alone to a sit in a spot to observe, listen and just be. Over time they favoured certain spots more and kept frequenting them. Others went in small groups. There were three cameras which were available for anyone to use and they happily shared it among themselves. It was really sweet to see Partha, the owner of one of the cameras asking another student having it whether he could borrow it for a few minutes.

They spent a lot of time drawing what they found interesting. Often it was birds. They also drew flowers, plants of various kinds and insects. The noise levels were pretty low. Some who were endowed with loud voices needed to be reminded to keep it down in the first few days but they quietened down soon.

There was an attempt to bring in some activity at one stage but the students felt that while they didn’t mind doing the activity, they would be happier to be allowed to do their own thing given that the time they had there was short. 

Given that it was winter and the air was pretty cold, many of the students were up early to go about their day’s exploration. Often, they would come back with flushed faces to share some joyful, thrilling observation. The energy was infectious and everyone was out doing their own thing. No one needed any prompting. 

Most importantly, there was no chatter about things that were not in that context. All their exchanges were regarding things around them, their observations and such like.

Circle time

The one thing we had regularly was circle time either over dinner or after dinner every night. After the first few nights we really didn’t like having on the single solar powered light that we had with us and preferred being in the natural light of the night. 

During circle time we reflected on our day both in terms of what we did and what went on inside ourselves, like our energy levels, joys and disappointments, things we were content about and discontented about. 

There was sharing of what we observed of ourselves and of others. It was shared very gently. 

Senthil, one of the colleagues who visited for a few days to witness the trip, had an interesting observation. He said the self and group reflection of the circle time helped guide and provide direction. This space provided the grounding for everyone to function with responsibility and care during the day, he said. 

An example would be the feeling of disbelief or jealousy that would pop in the mind when one member of the group had the luck of spotting a rare bird or animal. Instead of feeling happy that the bird or animal is there and one of us got a chance to witness that, we reflected on the nature of the mind which throws up such feelings instead. What does one do when such feelings come up? Supress them, deny them for ourselves, show them out or is it possible to watch how and where such feelings come from? 

There were other non-contextual sharing’s too such as the home situation or feelings of anxiety and about relationships etc. 

It is enough to say that no student ever wanted to miss a circle time. On the contrary they were full of ideas of matters and observations to bring up.

In a world of birds

Most of the students are keen bird watchers. I had told them at the outset that our focus is not on how many birds we see but observing them closely and learning more about them. For instance, we tried to see which of the species were found together, what they were eating, observe if they were in pairs or in groups or found individually and many such aspects.

After years of bird watching, I have come to realize that at least in this region, most birds are found in mixed hunting parties. One goes around for a long time without seeing any bird at all and then suddenly around the bend is a large group of birds calling in so many voices and tunes. They can be just a few species or can be many species. We often came across groups of thirty odd birds of ten or twelve species. 

Another observation was the confirmation of a finding that the Greater racket tailed drongo and the Flame back woodpecker are often the founders of these mixed hunting parties. 

So, the students and the teachers kept notes of species found together and where they were feeding – on the ground, in the canopy, in the air or on the trunks of the trees. We found very interesting combinations and they kept changing too. 

We also observed certain trees which were in bloom and attracted many bird species. For instance, on the Erythrina we observed at least 17 species of birds. We found the Persea macrantha in bloom too and the tree attracted many bird species but more than anything else, large flocks of Hill mynas, often up to 40 of them. 

One curious aspect for me was the fact that the students felt, they wouldn’t put down the names of birds they heard and only add them to their list if they saw them. I would ask them why this bias against the sense of hearing. Any bird watcher would know that the Scimitar babbler is a very vocal species which tends to skulk inside bushes. After hearing it several times each day, do we not acknowledge its presence?

In fact, one big new addition this year for us was the addition of bird call recognition to our repertoire. I had downloaded Merlin the bird app which gave details of all the birds in the region with both maps and bird calls and using this we were able to match the calls we heard with the producers of those beautiful tunes.

The special hour

Our most special hour of the day, particularly in such a setting is the changeover from day to night at dusk. Watching the initially frenzied activities of the day birds and the gradual slowing down, the slowing fading lights and the trees turning from shining green to silhouettes, the gradual dawn of night activity in the form of owl calls, crickets and many night creatures. We were delighted to discover the call of the Frogmouth, a bird we had never managed to spot as it is a nocturnal bird. It called through the night and made its presence amply felt. It was great to discover the Malabar pit vipers at their favourite locations at night after disappearing through the day.

I got quite addicted to the haunting call of the Brown fish owl who called from his/her perch every evening for about twenty minutes before leaving on his/her night of hunting. 

A silence fell upon the group automatically during this time. There is something sacred about watching this transition in such a setting free of human produced noises and visual disturbances.

Living together

We stayed in a camp site – a temporary shelter in a thickly wooded patch, and cooked our own meals with fire wood and one gas stove.

While we made groups to take up cooking – one group will do all meals of the day – many enjoyed carrying out certain tasks. Tamilselvan and Nirmal for instance were the fire boys and every morning would step out in the cold to get the wood fire started and kept it going whenever there was a danger of it going out. 

Kanmani loved doing the stirring and doing the finishing touches for every dish whether she was part of the group or not. 

Everyone seemed to love cutting vegetables, with some doing it as they could keep munching the raw veggies. 

Nirmal was very disappointed that we had one gas stove. He wanted it to be fully natural. While we empathized with him, it was useful to have the single burner of the gas stove in terms of time spent. 

Some loved fetching water from the spring. Trebhuvan rejoiced in carrying the largest water cans.

Swimming in the ice-cold water was the standard midday activity. Many of the students were too skinny to enjoy it unlike the fat truly yours. But everyone participated gamely. The more spirited ones would swim laps and tried increasing the number of laps every day. It was wonderful to see almost everyone swim several laps on the last few days. 

Porkodi, one of the teachers even managed to get swimming lessons there.

We had a Giant squirrel visit our campsite every day around noon to feed on the seeds and pods of the Silk cotton tree. While we delighted in gawking at the squirrel, the squirrel spent a lot of time watching us. With curiosity? 

It is difficult to imagine but we had not a single moment of tension during the whole trip.

Forest walks

The icing on the cake was the opportunity to go to the rainforest across the stream in small groups. This opportunity came in turns with everyone getting at least 3 chances. The quiet walks in the forests with Saji and Jaimon were eagerly looked forward to by all. 

They got to climb a strangler fig too. I have been watching various students climb this tree over the last 15 years and feel grateful for the fond memories this generates for the students in the years to come. Here is a tree everyone can climb thanks to its unique strangling arms. Even clumsy me has managed to climb this beautiful being. 

When we got to see tell tale signs of elephant visits in the marsh inside the forests we felt so privileged and emotional to be in the same space as these magnificent beings.

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