To Listen.

I am the roach

I will encroach

And feast upon on the Shola land

Takes its food and leave but sand

 

I am blanket, a sea of green

Once shrouded in forest

Now all is seen

On muddy slopes the dawn beats down

And less of birds, there are, to resound

 

Yes less of birds in the honey trees

And lesser of buzzing and fussing

And dancing from bees

Less are the streams that once did flow

I sucked them dry

I too must grow

 

I suck and I take

Mother’s bend and they break

Baby leaves so fresh and light

Soon to become a beverage delight

 

And yes I give too

I have given to each one of you

Your morning rituals are warmed by me

By afternoon you’ll pause for me

 

And day by day

And mouth by mouth

I’ll quench the north

I’ll quench the south

 

So let me take

From this ancient land

Let forests fell

Let fences stand

So drink, let others care

Don’t heed their warnings

When they say beware

The above poem is one that I wrote around December during the fellowship. It was tea time, which is a gift of 10-15 min (longer depending on the depth of conversation) to pause in work. That day I decided to sit in solitude behind a building and across from the tea fields. Poetry is my outlet of solitude and reflection, and in that moment the tea became my muse…an adverse one, however. Tea has only been in the Nilgiris since the late 1800’s, having been introduced by British colonists who believed a Chinese strand of tea would thrive in these hills, but industry didn’t take off until a few decades later. Yet, once it did, tea plantations began spread across the Nilgiri, like a green tinted wildfire, and became an epicenter of tea production in all of India. This brought a great deal of industry and economic growth to the Nilgiris, yet at a cost. A consequential debt that may put the land and its people in debt for who knows how long.

 

In a nutshell – The land was once rolling with grasslands that conjoined, in a mosaic like fashion, with the shola forests, a type of tropical montane forest that is stunted. This shola-grassland natural partnership supported the biodiversity and water quality of the Nilgiris, it is/was a home to endemic wildlife, and was so rich in resource that the variety of indigenous people groups could completely rely on it for their necessary NTFPs (non-timber forest products). Yet since the onset and explosion of tea, the land has degraded and can support far less than it once was able, both wildlife and people included.

 

In some cases, I have learned about these relationships and consequences through online articles and formal discussions. Yet, I believe I have learned the most through stories. And ultimately those stories have taught me that everything is connected: what crops were plentiful this year, the traditional prayer ritual, how much honey the Giant Rock Bee will make this season, if the rains come, if people have to migrate to find work elsewhere. The aforementioned short list is, of course, discussed throughout the articles I have read (especially on the behalf of the website) but the stories I have heard from those around me, my coworkers and those outside of Keystone, have made a more lasting impression about this interconnection.

 

For instance, I spoke with a honey hunter from the Toda tribe about his experiences collecting wild honey. He told me of a time, more than ten years back, when he reached into a cavity to pull out honey and there was so much honey that it pooled down his arm. He then said that such a honey flow had not happened since. Those words reverberated the most. Other individuals from other tribes in the Nilgiris have remarked that there have been less and less flowers each year, and thus less and less honey that can be made. The Badaga community once collected honey routinely and there is a honey temple that still stands erect in one of the villages, yet this practice essentially faded away generations ago. Why? That’s unknown.

 

But there are stories of what once was. Some in whispers of remembrance, some as grand tales that continued to be passed down. And, again, what those stories have taught me is that everything is connected…and I mean beyond the stretches of the Nilgiris. This blog, my last blog, conveys a double message or perspective. It reflects on the boom of a developing land, country, and world that is causing a tremendous growth in economy and opportunity, yet there are underlying consequences that should be considered because everyone will be affected. This blog also portrays what I have said throughout this fellowship – that stories are powerful. There are an incredible tool for teaching and understanding. I don’t fully know the capacity of stories. But below is something I believe about stories (forewarning, as it is a philosophical worm hole in my brain that someone might understand or is complete and utter nonsense) –

 

Stories are not tangible. They have no physical matter; they cannot be gripped or cupped within one’s hands, and the voice and tone bequeathed to them cannot be displayed for others to see. But they must have substance because our hearts are filled and our neurons fire when we hear them. They must be an invisible bridge between all human beings, and maybe all of life, because we connect when we they are told each other’s stories.

 

Just as life is interconnected, our stories seem to be so as well. With all that being said, I hope the world (myself included) learns to listen. Listen to each other’s stories, listen to the groans of nature as change is happening at an exponential rate, and to listen to how there is a connection between it all. My utmost gratitude to the AIF Clinton Fellowship and cohort, and especially to my Keystone/Last Forest family, for giving me the space to listen. I hope it did well.

Audra Bass

Audra believes that India beautifully embodies the inter-relation between people, the environment, and the health of both systems. She is thrilled to be in such a diverse place, both in terms of people and the natural world. She loves that AIF tackles issues from a multi-faceted angle and challenges such as education are also considered connected to health, economy, the environment, equality and feels that it is this interconnected approach that will make changes. Audra wants to combine her passion for environmental justice, activism for local populations, and cultural appreciation during this fellowship, and hopes to gain insight to apply these passions even more so her work. She has traveled around the world, from Madagascar to the Amazon doing odd jobs from primate fieldwork to environmental education with local schools. These experiences have taught her to be versatile and adaptable, and how to fall quickly in love with a new place.

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