To the outside eye, the city-dweller, or passer-by, the Rishi Valley may seem like a fabulous weekend retreat – a breath of fresh air from the toils of urbanization and industrialization. One can bask in the beauty of the hills, be immersed in the sounds of children laughing, rest in peaceful solitude beneath the wisdom of the banyan trees….and then peace out before their inbox is flooded or they’ve had enough of the “RESTRICTED MOBILE PHONE USE” policy.
To those of us who are here on a more permanent basis, I’ve come to learn that the Rishi Valley isn’t so much a place, but a way of thought. There is a certain kind of individual who consciously and voluntarily moves out of urban India to the middle of nowhere – far away from the globalized epicenter of “India 2010”. These individuals come to this place as much to teach as they do to learn. They bring with them their education, new ideas, and respect for traditional knowledge. They have a shared love for humanity, for nature, for their country. They are proud of their heritage, firmly grasp the realities of the present, and instill hope for the future. And they walk….a lot.
Walking has become a part of my life here. Fresh out of grad school and an American pace far away from the Rishi Valley lifestyle, I’ve personally challenged myself to learn to love the silence, the solitude, and the resulting thoughts that flow in and out of my head. We’ll call it a work in progress…but progress, none the less.
One morning I went on a walk with a legend named Mr. Naidu. Mr. Naidu has been a part of the Rishi Valley School since 1960. He began as a Phys Ed teacher and ended as a nationally recognized ecologist. Much of the environmental restoration of the Rishi Valley from the past half-century can be attributed to his work. An old man now, he invited me to “take a walk” with him up into the hills as he recalled the last 50 years of his life.
Watching Mr. Naidu slowly make his way up the dirt path behind the school – passing rock walls he built around the land he worked to protect, taking careful steps on the stones he’s walked thousands of times, and naming every tree in sight along with the dates his students planted the seeds – was beyond inspiring. Here was this man from the nearby town of Madanapalle who simply wanted to save the valley and community that he was a part of. The solutions he created didn’t come from text books or conferences, they came from simply watching what was happening around him.
As we walked up the hill, we came to a densely, forested area that he called “the air-conditioned room”. Perpendicular to the path and downward slope of the land, were long, carved-out trenches – one after the other. He began a story about watching the water during a heavy rain rush down the hill one day on a walk. He decided to build ditches – on top of which his students planted native trees – to divert the water from the main flow and act as a storage container for the plant life. Totally fascinating.
The morning went on like this – story after story of the systems he created to conserve the scarce water supply of the valley. When we finally reached a clearing near the top, we looked out over the Rishi Valley and his life’s work was visibly apparent: a line of green stretched clear into the distance and then abruptly stopped at the edge of the Valley. Beyond lay the barren, rocky hills of draught, over-grazing, and stripped land.
Mr. Naidu instructed me to read chapter 24 out of the book “The Ends of the Earth” (R. Kaplan) prior to our walk. The author had made a visit to Rishi Valley some years ago, taken a similar walk with Mr. Naidu, and written about his experience more eloquently than I ever could:
“Rishi Valley shows that there is hope, that we as a species will not necessarily destroy ourselves. But it also taught me that if these hopes are to be realized, then solutions must emerge locally. Hope and solutions cannot be imported by big government or from international bureaucracies thousands of miles away” (p355).
Sit on that one, folks.