Deep Ecology in the Himalayas:
In a world that seems to be rapidly escalating in environmental crisis, it seems vital to offer some positive and alternative approaches that can be of tangible help – no matter where we live in the world. We may not all be able to act directly on the larger global and macro levels but we can initiate changes in our own lives, no matter how simple. Sometimes, it can be just about reconnecting with nature and attuning to the beauty and wonder. By doing so, we have a chance to feel and re-experience who we are at the core – an integral part of the magnificent web of life. Recovering this authentic connection to nature and ourselves, we could then engage with the complex challenges of our world in ways that come naturally to us, individually as persons, or as part of larger communities. However, accessing natural places of pure wilderness, forests, seas, and mountains, may not always be easy or possible.
‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ forests located in Uttarkhand, India, are preserved since posterity as a natural reserve. They are considered a rare eco-system because of their diversity of trees and plants forming a rich culture that is deeply interrelated and self-sustaining.
An unexpected change in my personal life in 2016 brought me to an emerald forest in the foothills of the himalayas. My parents had lived in a forest for the last forty years and built a beautiful little farm with greenhouses and fields of rare flowers. When they died tragically, I found myself compelled to leave my city job in Copenhagen, Denmark where I taught Sanskrit literature for several years and move back to my childhood country and home.
On my return, I found that the forest was a wonder, a marvel, a jewel, and more spiritually fulfilling than I could have imagined. Its beauty and silence affected me daily and I knew that I had to share it with friends out there in the world. Since my years in the United States, I knew that wilderness places like Yellowstone Park, the Tetons, Glacier Park can have an extraordinary impact on visitors. It is impossible to be in Yellowstone and not feel the magnificence of wilderness spaces or be deeply affected by them. Often the impact on the individual is subtle and delicate, like a meditation exercise or a piece of music. The soul can open from within like a flower and breathe its real beauty. Air gives way to air and open light to light.
It felt, then, like a real gift to receive the legacy of a himalayan forest from my parents. This past year, since my return to India after forty some years, I have focused on building up ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ as a deep ecology retreat place for friends and visitors. My hope is that my friends and guests will enjoy this exquisite forest as much as I do daily.
‘Deep Ecology’ and some reflections on the significance of wilderness, land, and nature:
It seems that, as humans, we are all settlers on this land we call our earth – raised in cities, rootless, and alienated from the ecosystems we cannot avoid being a part of. We would like to unlearn what we have been taught by a dominant urban culture, and in the process, we want to re-learn joy, connection, and wonder while embracing grief and loss in order to heal. We want to decolonize nature, and in order to do this, we need to build a new relationship with the land.
I have been guided in my work here at ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ forests by the philosophy of Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and activist, who founded the ‘Deep Ecology’ movement worldwide.
For Naess, ecology is not just about pragmatic ‘preservation’ of the natural world – it is about a paradigm shift in our collective consciousness regarding the autonomy of nature and natural species and a respect for the biodiversity of life – of which we are an integral part. In other words, change enters deep into the cultural and psychic spaces of how we feel and think – not just how we react to temporary urgencies. Naess’ approach is of a complete egalitarianism of life on earth without priveleging an anthropomorphic perspective or bias. In many ways, deep ecology points back to ancient hindu spiritualities such as Jainism and Patanjali’s yoga of ‘ahimsa’.
What is ‘Ecology’?
Ecology is the study of the interconnectedness in natural communities. It’s the way different plants, creatures, and forces interact with each other to create the conditions for the whole ecosystem. It is also the way they collaborate to bring about succession, the process by which one ecosystem gives way towards another. Succession is also a process of resiliency, towards more diversity and greater health.
Theoretically, succession eventually reaches a climax community, which is a rich, stable ecosystem that self-perpetuates. However, climax ecosystems are in reality interconnected with systems of healthy disturbances like fire and wind, as well as impacted by human destruction. And so succession is constantly ongoing and all the various stages of succession are present in wild communities.
In our region, the lower Himalayan belt from Uttarkashi to Mussourie in Uttarkhand, India, the climax community is often characterized by the association of ‘deodar’, cedar-pine and fir with rhododendron and oak trees. Can you picture that tall, spacious canopy filtering green sunlight to the soft leaf-littered ground and an understory of pine, oak, Indian beech, chestnut, and dogwood?
The forests of Uttarkhand, especially in the north-western belt of Mussourie, are rich in bio-diversity with an estimated 39,00 plants and herbs that have healing potentials and possibilities. There are rare butterflies, birds, and insects that enrich the region through their delicate interactions with the forest trees and plants.
Interdependence in Ecology:
Besides Arne Naess, I have also been studying the writings of a late 19th century professor of biology, Henry Chandler Cowles, whose work in the region of Indiana Dunes in the USA is to date considered pioneering. Cowles, while studying the interactions of the land with plant communities, observed that dunes evolved from barren sand near the shores to ridges of pioneer grasses to hills of shrubs and trees and finally to climax forests. The plants that lived on the sand, he discovered, grew in predictable patterns, with marram and sand grasses first, followed by red osier dogwood and sand cherry, then maple, oak and pine.
Others before Henry Cowles had recognized that Indiana Dunes were a dynamic ecosystem, with land forms and microclimates supporting more plant diversity per acre than any other national park in the United States. But where others had only seen hills of sand and an interesting variety of plants, Cowles saw centuries of ecological progress compressed into distinct zones only a few hundred feet apart.
In his publications, Cowles established that plant communities succeed each other, each serving as a foundation for those to come, while simultaneously creating the conditions for its own collapse. This concept of the interrelationship of organisms was revolutionary and it changed the way that people looked at the natural world.
It is important to recognize that local and indigenous peoples of the regions that Cowles was working within had long understood the profound realities of successor and interrelational plant communities. The same is true of the forests of Uttarkhand – the local and tribal Garhwali people who live close to forests understand how dynamic eco-systems function like waves of life layered upon each other in delicate fibres of co-existence and succession.
Healing from the Forests
Moving to India from the forests of western Pennsylvannia and of Denmark, I am learning to understand the magic and power of forests here in Uttarkhand. It is my hope to share the beauty of these forests with visitors who would be interested in exploring.
It can seem overwhelming to face our own alienation from the land, but we can begin by celebrating small ways as inroads to start filling the gaping void of urban excess by building meaningful connections and direct experiences.
When we realize for ourselves the ways that healthy plant and tree communities prevent erosion, or how some flycatchers and other small birds can only breed in deep forest, or how the presence of invasive junk trees can actually make wastelands richer, these truths are filled with a passionate and irresistible urgency. They are They are not just abstracted facts to be either memorized or forgotten – they become part of who we are as living creatures in the world.
In realizing a vision for ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ forests, I have been guided by a few pertinent principles that help one in connecting with its pure natural spaces.
Learning to Listen
‘Unexpertness’ of our own conditioned urban minds involves setting aside our own internal pressures to be an ‘expert’ and learning afresh from the forest. Subtly and insiduously, one can have preconcieved notions about a forest and its complex realities and also expectations of what it should ‘offer’ us. The idea of expertness can be a barrier connecting with the land, alienated from our own authentic experience. The opposite of expertness is not ignorance but humility and listening to our own direct experience in nature.
The strength of our relationships, both to each other and to the land, is our capacity for creation. We would like to build relationships as a listening community to forests and breaking from the haze of city lights. There could be nothing more enchanting than a walk through the forests at twilight or watching the stars from a look-out point. We want to find that spirit of enchantment and allow it to enliven ourselves and our communities.
We are all connected to the land and, deep inside of us, that knowledge persists. It rises up in us when we’re out in the scrubby wild meadows that are always pushing back at the city’s edges, or it presses its way into our consciousness, interrupting our routines and reminding us what matters.
And yet, there exists a pervasive riptide that can drag us away from that connection. Society promotes and enforces a way of living that’s quite opposite of being enchanted by the land. This goes a long way towards explaining where we’ve been for the six months since our last post…
We all get swept away sometimes for lots of different reasons. What’s important is to make sure to escape our daily lives, even if just for a half-running trip to the park on your lunch-break, to scream and laugh into the wild monsoon rains. Most likely you will find wonderful surprises, like that wild plants and flowers grow from the asphalt there. Or maybe just find time to stand outside the door, face warmed by the sun, observing a bird. Such surprises open our hearts, eloquently reminding us of the amazing beauty and resiliency of the wild. Even when we return to work, the feeling lingers that we are always connected to that great web of life, that we are held by it and cared for.
Re-enchantment is the word that best describes this sort of feeling and action. It’s about curiosity, enthusiasm, play, and a desire to share it all with others. We strive to have our thoughts and actions grow from this re-enchantment, and we think it’s contagious. Because it wants to spread and be shared, re-enchantment is not a retreat. There is not enough wild space left for retreat to be an option, and attempts at personally escaping risk leave the needs of the land and of those most hurt by colonial society for last. We feel an urgency to fight back, to hold the hard truths in our hearts even as we pursue beauty and richness.
Re-enchantment is a sometimes difficult and always ongoing process. We need to take time to heal and nourish the connection to the land that we are all born with. We include the prefix “re-” before “enchantment” to celebrate and emphasize this. Self-repression and alienation from the earth are actively beaten into us through forces like industrial education, mass media, and institutionalization. But we can break the spell by constantly fighting to remember, and to spread our enchantment like wildfire.
For some folks, the weight of daily traumas and repression don’t leave room for much enchantment. Those hurt most by this culture of death are those who perpetrate destruction least and often have the least access to healing creeks and wise old trees. We’ve often come to places where the forest suddenly ends to make way for a giant mansion – it’s a visceral reminder that easy access to healthy wild spaces is directly related to class and social position.
When access to wild space is reserved for the most privileged, what is good for the health of those spaces comes to be defined by the powerful. And when the powerful define what’s good for the land, then it becomes difficult to build a movement for the health of the land that also challenges power systems. Most modern conservation and environmental groups are tragically good examples of this: they embrace the logic of private property, policing, social control, and restricted access to protect pockets of wilderness in ways that are valued by elites. This leads to forests being seen as just another site of recreation and creates social and psychological barriers in addition to the material ones – “hiking” isn’t one of my hobbies, so why should I go to the forest?
It is important to leave our daily lives behind for a magical spell even if it is for an hour or a weekend. One never knows what one would find. Surprises open our hearts, eloquently reminding us of the amazing beauty and resiliency of the wild. Even when we return to work, the feeling lingers that we are connected to the great web of life, that we are held by it and cared for.
Building relationships is rooted in the idea of radical interconnectivity. We are a part of the natural world, and our health is tied together with those of the creatures, plants, natural systems, and rhythms of the specific places around us. Humans belong to eco-systems, we depend on habitats, we inhabit watersheds – there is no separation between us and the land. In fact, we seem to have forgotten where we came from and where we wish to return in our souls.
What does it mean to have a real relationship with the land? It means we can trust in the authority of our own experience. Building a relationship is a powerful source of knowledge and wisdom especially in a culture that tells us to deny our own agency and to defer to experts. It also requires engagement, actively seeking to deepen our relationships. Trusting the authority of our own experience doesn’t mean we need to be content with what little we have. It is a lifelong journey of learning, unlearning, and play.
And so we need to open ourselves to joy and humility. An ecological spirituality requires a playful spirit and the humility to let go of the need to know and have answers. Questions and wonders lead to more questions – our senses open to natural rhythms and we notice more details of the world around us. By emphasizing questions over answers, we deepen our relationship with the land without the baggage of being an expert.
Seeking a connection with the land also means listening to its story. The history of a landscape is written on it.
Relationship building is much more than identifying by name. Its about close attention over time.
Deep Listening to the Forest
At ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’, we believe that Its far easier to offer critiques of our post-modern urban environments than to offer a genuine alternative. So, we offer five simple principles for connecting with forests. These are: finding our roots in relationships, ‘deep listening’, ‘urban ecology’, ‘re-enchanting’, and ‘unexpertness’.
At the core, we believe that each being is an energetic living force who is part of a complex and beautiful web of interrelationships. One can choose to be grounded in this truth, to connect with forests, and let the health of our communities guide our actions.