Walking in the 'Abode of Clouds'

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Photograph by Pankhuri Singh

In the city, every time I put my feet on the ground I remain oblivious of the connection I have with the earth beneath my shoes. The concrete and the thick layer of tar obstruct my senses from going deep down. When I walk, I walk with heavy and unmotivated steps, with a strong desire to reach the destination as soon as possible. The eyes look in the same direction always. The ears are used to cars honking and people screaming. The nose breathes in the pollution and breathes out a sigh of sadness and distress, the heart fears this world of competition and hides itself deep inside me…People of this world see hope only in separation.

The crazy, violent and distracting city life didn’t appeal to me anymore. Lost in the glare of meaningless, luxurious lifestyles in cities, we detach ourselves from a very important bond. Instead of experiencing ourselves as a part of nature, we act as an outside force destined to exploit nature when we want and then declare ourselves as the saviors of nature when we fear that our survival is under threat.

If there is anything I have learned, it is this – caring for nature should not come from the fear of human extinction. The motivation to preserve the planet should evolve from the  realization that we are a part of everything around us, inextricably connected to every living and ‘non-living’ thing. As John Muir has so evocatively said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

So, to inspire myself, I decided to continue my walk in the East Khasi hills of the state of Meghalaya, in the North East of India. Meghalaya in Hindi means ‘the abode of clouds’. The inspiration to do this journey on foot came from an article I had read by Bill Bunn, where he aptly stated, “When we walk we stop killing. We take our place in nature and restore our humanity.” And so I walked, to reconnect, rediscover and re-establish my bond with nature.

Walking for Learning

I joined a group of diverse people from different parts of the country and all over the world, choosing to walk in search of old traditions, wisdom, culture, love, innovation, creativity and humanity in this land. This journey by foot, called ‘Shodh Yatra’, is always headed by Prof. Anil Gupta, and is a scouting, networking and dissemination programme of an organization called SRISTI. Shodh Yatra aims at unearthing such traditional knowledge and grassroots innovations that have not only enriched the lives of men, women and farm labourers but have also significantly contributed towards the conservation of biodiversity.

Another aim of the yatra is to create exchange and sharing between farmers from different geographical locations. The journey is an interesting one, because I had an opportunity to experience four different kinds of learnings: From within, from each other, from nature and from the local people.

The walking pilgrimage happened over eight days and it began from village Laitkynsew Sohra (Cherrapunjee) toSmit near Shillong, which is the capital of Meghalaya. We trekked through the forests and stopped by every village enroute. We had conversations with the farmers about the different methods they had developed in organic farming. The conversations also entailed mutual sharing of creativity and different innovations that villagers had developed over time. There were competitions held to test the wisdom of the young students of the villages about different medicinal plants found around the village. These activities were also, in a way, to inspire the young generation to sustain their fast disappearing traditional wisdom. Women were encouraged to share their most nutritious recipes with the objective of making people aware of the unique nutritional value of the indigenous crops and their importance in maintaining the agro-ecological diversity.

Walking for Connectedness

Often, though a trip is planned with ecological aims, the very fact of travelling by a vehicle contributes highly to one’s carbon emissions. In comparison, walking helps drastically minimize one’s ecological footprint during the trip. On a vehicular transport, our pace is fast but observation is slow. We see many things, but miss seeing things ‘through’. Walking thus enables a closer look at what is going on around us - little ants scurrying around doing their work, birds zipping past in search of the next meal, an eagle soaring gracefully above in the open blue sky, a snail moving even more slowly than I am but with a persistence that is inspirational.

And then we walked some more, through the undulating valleys and steep trails. We continued walking deeper into the valleys and visited remote and isolated villages. At times when we struggled in adverse conditions, we drew inspiration from people and animals going about their daily lives.

Seeing how the local people coped with the difficulties and hardships of living in such remote areas, taught us a lot. It was interesting to see how people who live in such difficult terrain, manage to do so in a much more sustainable manner. We observed that the local people were closely connected to nature and were very content as a result. They did not complain about what they did not have; instead, we saw instances of how they met their requirements with things available around them and used them efficiently.

In most of the houses, we noticed that old truck tyres were used as pots to grow small medicinal and kitchen plants. They would also use these tyres to stack different kinds of tools. In one house, we discovered a four staged ‘Chulha’, which was created for the optimum use of heat energy generated from burning firewood. This is a fireplace with different levels that have different functions, which optimize the use of heat. On the first rack above the fire, sit big pieces of wood to dry; the second rack holds pieces of meat being preserved, and the top rack houses seeds inside a cloth bag to preserve them well.

Walking for Inspiration

As we continued to trek further, we found the magnificent old Khasi Living Root Bridges in the village of Nongriat. Instead of using cement, the villagers, using their ingenuity, have created wonderfully functional and aesthetic living root bridges. These bridges are made by using the roots of the tree called Ficus elastica. This tree grows commonly along the riverbanks and is also found perched atop big boulders. In fact, these roots entwine themselves around these large boulders in order to create a firm connection with the earth.

Another clever technique the villagers use is to direct the roots of this tree through the hollow trunk of the areca nut tree. As the bridge begins to take shape, flat stones are laid over the roots and they gradually become embedded into this living growing frame of roots to form a strong  walkway over the river. Over time, these roots form strong bonds with each other and a living root bridge comes into existence. Some of these bridges are over two hundred years old and perfectly usable even today. In fact, villagers claim some of these root bridges can carry over 50 people at a time. They have even made a  double-decker root bridge for the fun of it!

What a contrast this makes with urban ways of living! Our hugely expensive city bridges made of iron, cement and mortar tend to grow weaker with time, needing constant and ever- increasing maintenance. The Living Root bridges in the Khasi hills, on the other hand, have continued to grow even stronger with time. In fact, they can be sustained for long periods with minimum maintenance and inference from us. Moreover, they cost nothing to make.

When I look deeply at these amazing root bridges, the incredible waterfalls, the resourcefulness and creativity of the children, I feel a strong sense of identification with the environment. It is visible when one sees how the Khasis are still preserving the natural sacred groves from which they do not take anything, thereby allowing them to grow sustainably and without interference.

Like Stephen Harding explains in the context of deep ecology: “This identification is a heightened sense of empathy and an expansion of the concern with both human and non-human life. We then understand that other beings, ranging from microbes to multicellular lifeforms, from  ecosystems to watersheds, in fact to Gaia as a whole, are engaged in the process of unfolding their innate potentials. We realize how dependent we are on the well-being of nature for our own physical and psychological well-being. As a consequence, there arises a natural inclination to protect non-human life.”

Pankhuri Singh has worked with WWFIndia as a researcher studying humanwildlife conflict in the Terai Region and EIA of large hydro-power projects in the North East Himalayas. At present, she is working in the fields of theatre, art, ecology and education. She can be contacted at pankhuri.ses@gmail.com. Her artwork can be accessed on www.awaraaart.wordpress.com