This newsletter is a bit half and half: half from last (school) year and half from this one. But what makes for an even stronger divide is the extreme weather, as half of the articles tells of the dry and distressing months of severe drought and the other sings of abundant and blessed wetness..
The school year, however, is fully up and firing on all cylinders… The student strength has increased by 15 while teachers strength has remained the same.
We had to say goodbye to Preethi akka as she took a temporary break to support her son in college. Renuka akka, on the other hand, made a timely appearance. coming from Sholai school, she is a wonderful addition to our team.
Beside settling down in all sort of ways, we already had our first all-inclusive parents- teachers discussion-meeting with the topic this time being ‘understanding and celebrating culture diversity’. We decided to take this never-been-more-important topic for discussion and exploration throughout the year. Watch out for more on this!
Also worth mentioning that many of the pieces in this newsletter were written by children from the older group, who are beautifully growing to undertake more of the many responsibilities around the school.
This August has been our most magical. It has ended what has been referred to as the worst drought in 140 years. While lack of rains and drought is bad news for everyone, for us at Marudam/Forest-Way it means much more, as the success of our primary work is all connected to the rains. As our afforestation program involves planting 15000 trees a year, not getting sufficient rain last year has had a severe impact as we have lost almost all the trees that were planted last year. The whole hill wore a depressing look with all the animals straying toward town to look for food.. The conditions were same in the farm too. We had stopped farming completely and the whole endeavor was to just keep the trees on the farm alive..Parasuraman, our farm in charge said that he had given up hope that rains will ever come again..
And then the rains came. and how!! Night after night of pouring rain.. rain to heal a parched earth, to bring life back to the plants, to the animals, to us…
it rained 19 days out of 25 days. The relief was so strong that many of us went on a high and couldn’t sleep at nights. We just sat and watched the rain and let it heal us. The sound of the pouring rain and the fields filling with water slowly pushed out the ache within that had become part of our existence.
Overall we got 497 mm of rain in August. This is only 3 mm less than whole of last year rain combined. On a single night we got 150 mm and 100 on another. The water bodies around us are filling and our well is half full.
Many are under the impression that we don’t get rain in August, but as per the records of the last 20 years, August is the second most rainiest month of the year, getting an average of 150/200 mm. The rainiest month is October or November, with as much as 300/400 mm.
This year, however, it doubled its highest average rainfall.
Parasuraman has been working with the FOREST WAY from the very beginning, even before it was ‘THE FOREST WAY’. He lives on campus in a small house which he built himself and, among thousand other things he does, he is in charge of the farm; is our chief seed collector; overseeing the mother beds section in the nursery; leading fire fighting along with Govinda; an artist and an expert in all building works; care taker of cattle and chickens; as well as a devout husband and father to his three children.
One of the key pillars of The Forest Way, he puts in a 14 hour day, 7 days a week. The first member from our group to actually shift to the farm, together with his wife Parvati and oldest daughter Vishnupriya, his second daughter Tamilarasi was literally born in an ambulance in front of the school. The girls now both study in Marudam, while the third child – Sivaramankrishnan – is still a toddler and is being carried around by his dad as he goes about his work.
For this edition of the newsletter we decided to cover this remarkable person. This is a comprehensive adaptation of an interview by the older children and teachers during one circle time. In his simple, straight-forward and humble way Parasuraman imparts a fascinating, eye-opening story.
I was born in a village called Nedungavadi, about 10 km from Marudam, in the year 1982. I studied in the village school until 5th standard, then in a school in Kannakurrukai which is a slightly bigger village. I used to go to school by cycle. I studied till 10th standard and got 293 marks in my 10th exam. During my school days, up to 5th standard I would take care of the sheep before and after school. When I grew a little older i began to work in the fields from day break until 8.30 before leaving for school and then again in the evenings. Before the 9th standard I was not very interested in farming, though I worked daily, but as I grew older I became more and more interested.
After I completed my 10th standard I told my father that I did not want to continue with my studies and wanted to do farming instead. He tried telling me that studies are important and that I should continue further, but I was adamant and he finally agreed. I was then fully involved in farming for five years. During that period I learned a lot, particularly from my father. Having observed the people in my village I felt that I should also learn other skills and went to join a petrol bunk, where I worked for almost four years. Initially I was vending petrol/diesel but later i was promoted to handling cash. I earned Rs.700/- per month in the year 2000. I did this along with farming in my spare time.
After getting a loan, my family bought one acre of land in 1997 for Rs.40,000/- . We had to sell all our goats to pay for it. At that time one goat cost Rs.100/-. Now it costs Rs.7000/-.
FARMING IN THE VILLAGE AND THE CASTE SYSTEM
When I was a child hardly anyone of us owned land. Most land was owned by Reddiars, a Telugu speaking upper caste. There were 5 Reddiars in our village. Each of them owned a minimum of 10 acres of land and were very rich. In a good year they would harvest up to 2000 sacks of rice. Many farmers worked for them. My family worked with two Reddiars and managed around 3 acres of wet land and two acres of dry land. The dry land would be used during the monsoon for crops like ground nut, ragi, urad dhal, samai etc. The Reddiars would pay for the seed and any other inputs while the labour was ours. In the end we would get 1/3rd of the produce and they would get 2/3rd. We belong to a caste called Vaniya Gounders. It is designated as ‘Most Backward Caste’ (MBC). There were also scheduled caste people in the village who took care of cattle, cleaning the cattle shed etc. There was a Dhobi caste that would wash the Reddiars clothes and work in their houses doing small chores. There was a barber who had to come once a month. In return he would get food and during harvest time he would get some produce. The class hierarchy was very rigid. We couldn’t even enter the compound of the Reddiar’s house. If we give them anything in a vessel they would sprinkle water on it before touching it but we had to thresh their grain, clean their rice etc.
We would grow two rice crops a year and one millet crop. Rain was regular and good in those days. In earlier times water would be drawn from the well with bullocks which were also used for ploughing. Then people began to hire diesel engines for pumping water. Later we got free electricity. Everybody had cows and bullocks then – 2 pairs for ploughing and one pair for milk. Fertilisers were already available but we would mix it with farmyard manure and leaf litter. Even now all farmers apply it in the same way. Around the year 2000 pesticides began to appear in our village too.
Harvesting, which would happen mostly between December and February, was always a community activity, with many members from the village participating. Everyone would work in everyone else field in turn. Often harvesting or planting would happen at night to prevent our skin from itching from sunburn and also it would be cooler and easier to work at night. Sometimes during harvest time the work would start around 1 am. After harvesting we would bring the crop home and thresh until 10 pm; we would then sleep for a few hours and again start harvesting work around 3 am and continue till sunrise. A couple working on the land could earn up to 15 sacks of rice in a year.
We had a lot of fun as children. Despite the work we also had lots of free time. In summer we would spend hours swimming and jumping into different wells. I remember one day we swam in 10 different wells. One day a well owner played a trick on us and took all of our clothes and we had to come home in our underwear.
The lake had fish that anybody could take. In March, When the lake would get a bit dry, around March, we would get fish, crabs and field rats to eat from it. The Irulas* in our village would help us catch the rats. The forest adjoining our village used to be very dense then. Nobody would graze their goats in the forest. There was enough grass in the village and around the lake. Also, we used to be scared of the Jackals and the owls, who were considered a bad omen. People would enter the forest to collect firewood but it was usually only dry wood and twigs that they took.
While grazing our animals we would collect a lot of food and cook and eat it then and there. Goats’ milk mixed with a few drops of milk from the Veppalai tree would make a jelly to which we then added jaggery and ate. Like that the village life was quite self sufficient. We would rarely buy anything from the town. Many vegetables would grow in our compost piles. We would eat rice only once a day, at night. During the day we would have Samai. Afternoons we had Koozh and peanuts. We always had Ragi flour at home that we would mix with honey and eat.
As children we really had a very free and rich life. I want my children to be able to have a life like the one we had – the freedom, the fun.
JOINING THE FOREST WAY
After giving up on the petrol bunk job I went back to farming. Ramakrishnan – who is from Nedungavadi – had started working with Govinda on the park and called us to work with him. I joined in April 2004.
I was first involved in dredging the ponds in the park which we did manually. We found all kinds of waste inside, including medical waste like needles, and earned Rs. 100/- a day. It was difficult work but I felt happy to be working on a restoration project.
One day Govinda noticed me and asked me to accompany him to the Javadu hills to collect seeds. I didn’t think much of it then but as I kept accompanying him to the forest my interest started to grew. I went back to my father and learnt from him too. When Murugan anna who was in charge of the nursery quit his job, I was chosen to replace him. I found that I had a flair for germinating seeds. I learnt many different techniques for germination like soaking in hot water, using acid etc. Since then I have experimented and learnt a lot on my own. I also regularly went seed collecting with Kumar Ambayeram and Arun. From them I learnt about the wider world and about environmental issues. At that time I didn’t know how to ride a motor bike. Since then I have learnt and can take other people with me. Volunteers of the project often join me and they are keen and eager to learn about trees.
MOVING TO THE LAND
In 2009 there was nothing on the land. I felt bad to leave my parents but we had loans and I needed to repay them. At first I stayed in Pandurangan’s house** and took care of the land from there. I got a big scare one night when Shamu the bull broke free and attempted to walk off to the park. I thought he was lost, but was then found near Pandurangan’s house.
Soon, it was decided to start farming on the land. Govinda wanted to do organic farming. Initially there was no soil at all, or it was too hard where it could be found; consequently the yield was poor and we barely got two bags of rice. It was quite upsetting for me. Over time and with hard work the soil has improved and became more arable.
Once I went to a seed festival with Harish and Sasi and there I learned about indigenous seeds. We also visited the live seed bank at the ‘Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems’ in Sukkon kollai village, where we saw more than 90 varieties of rice. I found it fascinating. We regularly cultivate 5 varieties of traditional rice in our fields. We are also trying to cultivate millets and are trying out different techniques. Even now I am still learning. The current drought has brought the farm work to a standstill. We eagerly await rains to start the farm again.
*Irulas are tribal people who are famous for their rat and snake catching skills.
** Pandurangan is Marudam’s immediate neighbor on the east side.
We are very happy to share that we have just recently embarked on an exciting (and a little daunting) new project. We’ve been approached by the Thiruvannamalai municipality to take up the regeneration of the largest water body that lies within the town itself, Tamarai Kolam. This is a big tank, over thirty acres of water, on the southern edge of town, and it remains full throughout the year. There is a thin strip of land around the lake, separating the water from the buildings that surround it. On this little strip, some years ago the government had built a concrete walkway for the people to enjoy walking around the lake. But the work was never finished and that path lies in various states of disrepair, covered in garbage and broken glass.
The reason that the lake is full through the year is easy to find. Three large drains bringing a steady stream of the town’s grey-water direct and un-treated, straight to the lake. Fed by this nutrient rich soup, the water is a bright green colour always. But that green is billions upon billions of cyanobacteria and algae, working their magic, for though the inflowing drains are putrid, the main body of water is not offensively smelly, and is remarkably home to full time populations of over twenty species of water birds and warblers, along with many more that visit regularly. The work of the water-born algae in processing the effluent is shared by the rushes and other marsh plants that line the edges of the water, and these provide essential feeding, hiding and nesting place for many of the birds.
At present our plans for the lake are modest, and we will work slowly to get to know the possibilities and the needs of the place. First and foremost it is a little patch of wild in the middle of town, and we will look to protect and nurture that life. It is also a much needed piece of common land, public space in a town growing so fast and not taking the human need for open ground into the least consideration. We feel strongly that access to common land, to woods and water and hill, are basic human needs and rights, and our alienation from the same hurts us and the land. Our children’s park at the foot of the Hill is one of the few non-commercial and non-religious public spaces of any size in a town of a quarter of a million people, and one of the prime motivations of taking on this lake restoration will be to create another place where people can be and meet and play outdoors.
Initially we will be doing a whole lot of garbage cleaning and removal of some of the thorn bushes that prevent people using the path around the water. Slowly we will begin work on a little park on the south side of the lake, where there is a wider strip of land that gives the space to plant gardens and put in some places for children to play. At the same time we’ll begin to look at whether there are ways to support the habitat that surrounds the water. Some tree planting to give shade and other nesting opportunities. Looking at whether there are ways to support the marsh plants in diversifying and extending their reach. And of course looking into the inflowing town water, and how we can improve the health of that water before it enters the lake.
It is all very exciting, and a wonderful chance at a new engagement with the community. There is already a lot of excitement from the people at the prospect of something new happening, and we hope to build on this and see where it leads. There is tremendous scope for public art around the water, space to get the population outside and moving, place for children to be themselves, a wild place in the heart of town with water and birds and marsh, all right under the Hill which looms large over the water.
So exciting yes, but daunting too. We will need to raise tremendous amounts of money over the coming years as this project unfolds, but we will be able to make a significant start that will already make a difference to the place with modest funding. For this, we are just awaiting the agreement from the Municipality, which in the time honoured tradition of bureaucracies everywhere, is taking its own sweet time.
Baby Annapoorna was born within the compound of Marudam Farm on the 18th of April, to be remembered as one of the hottest days in the hottest summer we knew. Adored by school children, teachers and farm workers alike, she is a delightful and integral part of the Marudam community.
Last year we (the older group) had gone to the Gurukula botanical sanctuary for our fourth visit and once again let ourselves get carried away by a wave, big and powerful that shook something deep inside us that we can never forget.
The sanctuary is located near the edges of a rainforest in Wayanad, Kerala; blissfully isolated from our usual lives. Only when visiting such places do you realise what a restrained lifestyle you live, stuck unconsciously in a world that is so limited.
We stayed in a camp, which basically consisted of a canvas tarp that protected us from the night’s heavy dew that trickled slowly from the tree tops and on to the roof, producing a comforting lullaby that merged beautifully into our dreams.
Since we already knew the camp well it was like going back to our favored home. We spent the first day clearing and cleaning the surroundings, setting up a temporary kitchen in which we would prepare our meals. The camp is really the nicest place to stay in, with no electricity and none of the so called ‘comforts’ of our usual life, and waking up to the call of the Malabar whistling thrush and the extroverted hill mynas.
One of the really nice things about this trip was that we did not have a schedule. Each day took me through a mini journey, learning from the forest what little was revealed to my blind senses.
Most days we had what was called ‘solo time’, where we would wander off in whichever directions we pleased and where we stayed silent by ourselves for however long we felt like. The really nice ‘solos’ were the ones where we sat in one place for the longest time and start to notice minute details which you would usually miss. Sitting by the stream, for example, you start noticing the ripple pattern, the way that the tadpoles arrange themselves against the current, the water skimmers that jump continuously to stay in the same place almost as though they were running on a treadmill… And after an hour the silence that surround you is so strong that you realise just how many hours you spend chattering, carried away by pleasurable yet meaningless talk that is endless in our lives.
After lunch those who wanted could go to the stream for a cold water bath. They would come out soon enough, legs trembling with cold, in a desperate search for towels. And soon the evening would creep in. We would have our evening snacks and then ascend a little higher onto the hills overlooking magnificent surrounding hills, and the dusky orange light merging with the coming stars. Lastly the drongos would appear, black silhouettes against the darkening sky, flying up and dropping sharply down onto their favourite branch with an insect in their mouth.
At night many of us would help in preparing dinner, some would read and others update their journals. At a certain point we would gather and have a little sharing session of how our day went and of our experiences.
Some nights we would venture for a night walk after dinner. We would trail as quietly as we could and search for pairs of tiny bright jewels that were hidden in all sorts of places. Some of these jewel-like eyes belonged to frogs and geckos, but most to tiny insects, moths and spiders.
Once in a while we would spot a coloured ball of fluff. These were sleeping birds that pulled their heads into their bodies and spread their feathers out making them look like pompoms. Quite often we would spend several minutes just arguing about what bird it might be.
One night we spotted a giant pair of eyes. It was the slender loris, staring intently at us with the most adorable face that forced a smile across everyone’s face.
After a week in the sanctuary I felt strong emotions arise in me. You tend to build a deep relationship with the place, one that you do not want to let go of. You promise yourself that you are going to come back and next time for a longer visit. I felt resentment, knowing that as soon as I return home I would fall right back into my earlier pattern of life where each week repeats itself, forming a complicated routine.
Even as I write this piece I have taken myself through a little journey and I remind myself of the promise that I had made.
I often find myself looking across the Marudam campus, thinking of the various ways in which it has changed and developed over time. In particular how the animal and insect life has built on the expanding foundation of the formed vegetative cover. The growth is emphasized by the contrasting characteristics of the different corners of the campus, where small niches emerge as certain animal groups create their own territories and coexist in the jigsaw puzzle-like oasis.
What is fascinating is that the animals mingle with man made side of the garden and irrigation system as the Koels feed off the papaya trees, the purple sunbirds replenish their thirst by drinking the water residue inside taps, and squirrels feed off custard apples and chikoos. As the farm is going through a water deficit the animals seem to lean more on human resources, nourishing themselves and seeking a safe haven from predators by roosting and building nests in proximity to buildings and in places of high human activity.
Staring out from the front porch of my home I see a pond heron lurking in the shade of bushes, crouching on its spindle-like green legs in hopes of scavenging for insects from the dry earth. The length and form of the beak and body portrays determination and patience, as a pair of beady eyes prowl the ground constantly like a watchman. A group of cackling babblers fly to a blue bird bath and gather around the rim in an excited frenzy. A vigorous shake signals the start of the bathing as the birds flutter in and out of the water to shake off the oppressive heat.
There are two regions of a scrub like setting circling the school, and these hold the highest biodiversity in animal and bird life. Here the elusive pair of blue-faced malkoha traverses the terrain like ghosts and the Indian pitta lets loose its call. There are constant surprises one finds and the newest addition is the extravagant paradise flycatcher with its ribbon-like tail bursting forth at unexpected moments. Over the seasons and at different times of the year a constant influx of migratory animals can be witnessed. These animals use the campus as a pit stop and help us distinguish between residents and travellers.
The bee population has become quite prominent as there is a simultaneous presence of approximately three bee hives on the campus. The different colonies shift their location after a cycle of about three to six months, yet these hives seem to shift only within the campus. At first the hives were fairly small in size but a recent observation revealed a full scale hive of about one and half feet across. But even the bees seem to lean on the man-made aspects of the farm as one can witness them swarming for a drink of water from a dripping tap or pollinating man planted flowering plants and fruit trees.
There also seems to be a growing population of species – specific pairing, which means a relationship of a certain plant with another specie. The oleander hawk moth caterpillars, for example, were observed only after an oleander tree was planted and established. Other such occurrences include a booming population of a red bug that goes through continual life cycles on a creeper adjacent to the lunch hall, whereas the insect is not found anywhere else on the campus.
The insect life has truly gone through a fascinating growth through the years, providing a significant addition to the campus’s biodiversity. There seems no end to the assortment of insects and spiders one can see. Some are camouflage, dull and indistinguishable from their surrounding, while others glow with iridescent blue and green metallic sheens. When taking nocturnal walks with a head torch one cannot help noticing the many reflected beads of light on the ground. This was discovered later to be an assortment of various spider species, all share a common trait of living in burrows in the ground, only coming out to hunt.
Moths are another fascinating subject to observse, as while they are extremely populous, they remain rather elusive. They range from the haunting death-faced hawk moths, colourful fruit piercing moths, big eyed owlet moths and the odd but gourgeous humming bird moths. The list is quite endless if a person knows where to look. Some encounters with moths provide a glimpse of the moths’ lives, as when some of us observed a death faced hawk moth sitting next to a bee hive with the bees completely un-alarmed by the voluminous presence. It was later understood that the moth feeds on nectar from the hives.
Though currently parched, Marudam campus is becoming a pleasant pocket of considerable biodiversity. There are constant changes in the dynamics and interplay of the different species and there are always some surprises. And all the animals, be it birds, insects, or others, provide a presence of energy and life which is essential for the well-being and growth of the place, providing the motivation to persevere and preserve Marudam as we know it.
Since the first symptoms of drought, the residents of Marudam campus have been rationing, re-using and recycling every drop of water. New methods and ideas have popped up over the course of these last several months, and have somewhat proved to help preserve the little water available as best as possible.
Showers have shortened by great measure and the water used for them is then fed to thirsty plants or, in some extreme cases, used to wash clothes and then given to the plants. Dish water is carefully collected and sprinkled in the garden. Any leaks from taps or pipes are either immediately blocked or gathered in vessels and used for other things. The waste water produced by the R.O unit is also collected and fed mainly to the trees, which feel the effect of the dry spell even worse than us humans.
Since the beginning of the school, two sets of three ‘anakodai’ each are laid out with water every day, for students and teachers to wash their lunch plates in. The system is to scrub your plate with organic powder in the first bucket, wash it off in the second and give it an extra rinse in the third. This summer we’re using only one set of buckets, and in the evening farm residents distribute the water around the campus’s trees.
About a week ago the decision was made to buy a tank of water so that the trees and plants on the campus could be given a good round of watering. The tank arrived two days ago and the water was pumped into the water tower after which the trees have all been enjoying an unexpected – though brief – abundance of water.
In order to keep the trees alive water tanks had to be bought for the next 3 and a half months, from Mid- April till end of July,
And finally it rained. Awoken from sleep by the blessed sound, the crash of thunder and the dancing of a million drops. The smell of the burnt Earth receiving those drops, the smell of the trees opening their pores and releasing their fragrance to the air. The power of the lightning, flashing and reflecting in the fast growing puddles. My wife, weeping softly next to me in relief and gratitude. A lone frog, somewhere out in the fields. It has been so long. And as it rains, it is still too soon to relax, to fully celebrate and delight as we would on another such rainy night. No, it takes the next couple of days to let down a guard and a shell I must have built over these months of drought. How much more so for the beings of the forest? For my life was never in danger this last year, the shops still had food, and if the taps didn’t always have water, I was still going to drink.
And what will they remember the beings of the forest? If more rains now follow, and we are blessed with a good monsoon this year, will the plants and the animals remember the record breaking temperatures, the absence of anything to drink? Will it change their approach to life? How does it change mine?
Three days and two solid rains later, and this morning I am able to truly enjoy the world coming back to life, the trees beginning to flush, the bird and cricket song louder and more joyous. The ground is still largely bare, worn down as it was to dust, but grass shoots are waking up, seeds are sprouting. This morning we began to plant a few hundred trees at the foot of the Hill in the park, and I was happy.
Amazingly, in all the dryness and heat, we have made it thus far with only a couple of instances of fire, and almost no significant damage on the Hill. And with this rain, day by day, almost hour by hour, the mountain takes on a deeper green hue, as trees long in shut-down mode wake up and put on new leaf. I’ve not yet had time to do a round of the slopes and get a good sense of how previous plantings have fared (only after a good rain can we know who has survived and who not). But Masilamani went for round of the planting on the back of the Hill yesterday, and says that much is coming back to life.
As with all things, these newsletters take their own time to ripen, and I wrote the above piece almost a month ago. Since then, the month of August brought us as much rain as the year of 2016. Streams are flowing on the Hill, the tanks are full, the trees are all taller. In the last weeks we have planted more than fifteen thousand plants on the mountain, and will plant yet a few more. This includes a couple of thousand high up, close to the peak. I have been wanting to try planting that high for a couple of years, up beyond where the cloud forms and the temperature is a couple of degrees lower, and the trees may collect that morning mist. In that slightly different climate, where also the winds are more active, the trees tend to be resilient evergreens, sturdy trunks with beautiful dark green foliage, small and waxy leaves.
On the farm too there is bustle and life once more. Fields of millets, (saamai, varagu, and cholam) are fast becoming lush, while three varieties of rice are growing in their mother beds, ready for transplanting. The vegetable beds too are fast sprouting, gourds and beans starting to climb their trellises, amaranth greens already being enjoyed, root vegetables thickening below.
And so all is so very different. It is of course a land of some extremes, these hot plains nourished each year by the monsoons. But never can the extremes have been so stark. From one day to the next we inhabited different worlds, without going anywhere. All of us here felt the drought at many levels apart from the practical and physical. Now with the rain, we too are infected with the life force and the riot of vitality that is unfolding all around, and busy as it has left us, for now we are so happy.