This year was another milestone in our greening of Arunachala and surrounds. It was our 20th planting season, our 19th year of mitigating fire damage. And oh, how the results are showing, with a canopy closing over many areas of the Hill and natural regeneration spreading into the remaining open patches. This means that on the slopes of the Hill we have shifted away from mass planting, and are working to nurture back into the landscape some of the rarer evergreen trees of the region, creating groves where the altitude and topography are conducive to their survival. These are now thriving and establishing living seed banks that will become self generating in the coming years. We also expanded our planting on the fringes of Nedungavadi, Kosaalai and Aadaiyur lakes, and were given permission to begin work on planting in the Nedungavadi forest area. All in all, we ended up planting more trees than ever before (over 22,000), that too of record diversity, as the seed collecting team really took their work to a new level, spending countless hours in local forests and managing to find and germinate a number of species that have thus far eluded our efforts.
We are incredibly pleased to announce that The Forest Way is one of two recipients of this year’s Habitats Trust Conservation Grants, and the other recipients are our dear friends at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. This will be a three year support of our ecological restoration work, and we trust, a long and fruitful collaboration well into the future. Huge thanks to all those at the Habitats Trust who have recognised the value and authenticity of our years of ground work, and chosen to support its continued growth and blossoming into the future. We literally just received this news at the time of writing, and are still beaming with gratitude and excitement at how it will enable a deepening and expansion of our work in the coming years. Hats off to all the team who made it happen.
This type of institutional funding is new to us, and necessary given the current size of operations. But this is also a moment to again thank so many of you whose individual generosity has kept us going through all these years, and upon whom we still rely. We truly hope to remain largely funded by individuals who are personally touched and connected to what we are all doing together. It is the spirit of how the project began and has always run; organically, based on trust, with interconnectedness and a shared love for this place and the life that can flourish here. Thanks to all of you.
With children we are monitoring the growth rates, survival and various other parameters of the different species comprising the evergreen patch, at regular intervals. This data will improve our understanding of questions such as which pioneer trees provide most nurturance to the slow growing evergreens, as well as it being a great way for the children to engage more deeply with the planting process and engage with nature through an ecological way of thinking.
Watering the Evergreen Patches
During the hot summer months, three of the older school groups volunteered to water the plants that are being monitored as part of the study.
For four days a week, groups of students, teachers and volunteers carried between 5-35 liters of water each up to the evergreen patches.
This is the first time we have attempted the herculean task of watering plants that high on the mountain, thus increasing their chances of survival during the delicate period post planting.
Our Tamil Bird Book got published!
This was long in the coming. After the success of the English ‘Birds of Tiruvannamalai’ it was clear that a Tamil version was due. The project got delayed because we kept spotting new arrivals to add to the book! The book is a great resource for people wanting to learn about the birds of the region. We have covered the identification, behaviour and ecology of 254 species of birds, along with photographs and illustrations and other interesting information on local names and ecosystems.
We hope this book helps spread the joy of connecting to the world of birds in Tiruvannamalai and Tamil Nadu!
Through last year we’ve been exploring the topic of ‘Wellness’ with our diverse parents and teaching body. We tried to understand the expression of wellness through themes such as Relationships, Social justice, Movement, Creativity and connecting to Nature. We attempted to create experiential spaces to shed light on this important and too often neglected topic. We also started conversations about Child Safety with our parent community.
After a two year break due to COVID we were delighted to host the event again in late October. Together with some 400 guests from various schools and places around Tamil Nadu and Karnataka we celebrated the joy of craft and art, shared and taught by artisans from near and far. The week ended with a grand Mela on a brilliantly sunny as well as rainy day…
Enjoy snippets from Marudam School Life over the past year
Picks from our Farm
This year has been a good rain year, yet again. The rains have been spread out evenly from May onward, giving the trees a long growing season and giving us an opportunity to spread our planting season.
We have crossed 1200 mm yet again, without flooding of the land. It has been a delight to have a full well of water despite extensive planting of paddy. Feeling blessed.
Thamarai Kulam Updates
Work on the new park around the Tamarai Kolam lake has continued. The latest addition is the nearly completed outdoor calisthenics and parkour gym.
Interface with neighbouring Narikuravar and Irula communities
Wipro Foundation’s grant has greatly supported our work with the Irula and Narikuravar colonies relocated on to the land near our campus. Two teachers and a curriculum designer have been providing suitable academic inputs. Beside that we’ve been offering training in craft work as well as weekly park days and nature exposures, as well as basic health care.
Our weaving centre continues to make ecological-minded beautiful fabric, clothes and art. To allow for workshop events we’ve built an open space with a thatch roof. Please come and visit us! (at the Annamalai Reforestation Society not far from our school)
Eco printing has been a big hit, and even the Kindergarteners were able to make beautiful designs using this simple technique.
Sanctuary Asia Awards
V. Arun, managing trustee of The Forest Way has been awarded Wildlife service award by Sanctuary Asia, and Suprabha Seshan, Forestway trustee AS WELL as managing trustee of Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, has been awarded the Green Teacher Award
We cheer and applaud them both!
Thanks to collaborations with Quantum Data Engines, we’ve been able to procure a 2-acre plot adjoining Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Wayanad. QDE’s generous support has enabled us to extend the area under forest cover and extend our support to protect the biodiversity in that space as well.
New Community Members
The new block was completed room by room in the summer months. It comprises of a media room/class, a granary, an admin room, a small guest room, a garbage separation unit and a piano room. A hearty thank you for all the many who contributed towards it with their time, labour, expertise and financial support!
The new land to the south of Marudam, purchased by a group of friends and well wishers is getting spruced up at an increasing pace, with trees, vegetable gardens, and three houses in various stages of progress. We would like to extend a special big thank you to Krishna, our friend from Sittilingi, who’s been lovingly helping each house owner fulfil their dreams in the best style and ecological fashion.
At the Forest Park: Water tank is getting revamped; Nursery Wall; Got longer; a new toilet block
Most wonderful wishes and best regards to all, for the start of a fresh, healthy, environmental favoured and flavoured new year!
We are happy to share with you some pictures from the year past, together with some news – some good and some bad – from the life and endeavors of The Forest Way.
Always grateful for all your support and faith in us,
Enjoy the peek and stay in touch!
Good friends we’ve lost
The Covid wave which devastated India this spring/summer also hit close to home, for all of us at The Forest Way. Many lost close relatives and dear ones. Individually and as an institution, we struggled to keep up with the unfolding needs of the situation, as health services were stretched to breaking point. Efforts to mitigate the worst of the situation through community health provisions did not save three long-time staff members. With great sadness and gratitude to have known and worked with them, we remember them here. May they rest in peace.
Rajamanikam (Kannadikar), from Tiruvannamalai town, worked in the children’s park for more than 12 years. Previously he had worked for many years on the reforestation of the Hill. He was a warm, loving and humorous older brother figure to many at the park, and he brought care and an always young heart to his work. In the previous year he had lost his wife after nursing her devotedly through her final years. He was 75 years at the time of death.
K Lakshmi from Erikarai had worked in the nursery for the last nine years. She died at the age of 50. She was a quiet and gentle presence in the nursery. Her home life had not been easy and her work with the plants was a refuge that she cherished. She passed away in the Government Hospital.
K. Ezhumalai from Adaiyur, known fondly to all as Maappilai, was 45 years at the time of death, from a stroke after a debilitating bout of covid. He left behind a wife and 3 children. He worked as a manual labourer for the Forest Way for almost 17 years, mostly with a smile on his face. Whatever the work, people would be happy to have him on board as he made things lighter with his good cheer and positive spirit.
We’ve continued with COVID relief through the year, though at a slower pace. We’ve distributed provision packets in Tiruvannamalai area, Chennai, Nagapattinam District and for craft workers in Kanyakumari. During the latest rains we’ve offered assistance in some of Chennai’s flooded areas.
During the long summer months while the school was shut, parents from Marudam School initiated a small learning center to provide with extra-curricular activities to children from the area.
We delight in being rain watchers, which means we have been measuring rainfall in Tiruvannamalai every year and have data for over 23 years now.
We follow weather predicting sites and measure rainfall in 5 different places around Tiruvannamalai. You will be surprised at how much variation there is within these 5 places located within a maximum of 10 kilometers from each other.
Our well which is the best indicator of ground water in the farm is watched closely. It is the lifeline of the farm and the decision to grow crops is based on our assessment of continued availability of water from the well. It also happens to be the private swimming pool of the residents of the community and students in the school.
This year has been a fascinating year, with us all set to record perhaps the wettest year in the history of Tiruvannamalai. It is definitely the wettest year in our records. We have so far received 1780 mm of rain with our average being around 900 mm.
It all began steadily, with 7 days of rain each during July, August and September. October had 18 rainy days and 400 mm of rainfall and in November we experienced 23 days of rain and nearly 500 mm. (These two months alone had our average annual rainfall!)
Every water body in this region has filled and is overflowing. There are water birds flying all over. Suddenly it has become their world – a water world. While planning local travel we have to figure out which road is not under water!
And the farm has turned into a swamp. We have multiple streams running through the farm and the road ways have turned into slush paths. There are fish in the most unexpected places. Some of us have taken to wearing rubber boots to prevent and cope with athlete’s foot disease. This looks funny and incongruous in Tiruvannamalai.
There came a point where we were looking skywards hoping for a day or two of sun! In Tiruvannamalai?!
In the Way of the Forest
2021 has been an interesting mix of continuation and consolidation of our well-established greening work, along with some new themes and focuses.
We began planting in July and have planted about 12,000 trees in seven different locations, including plots on the upper side of three seasonal lakes, an ecosystem that we have been moving into in recent years. We’ve also continued our planting on the Arunachala Mountain, which is now clearly at its greatest level of forest cover in a century or more.
This year’s planting focused on a somewhat degraded area on the plain at the base of the hill, along with two locations on the upper slopes, where the focus was on creating patches of evergreen forest among the general mixed deciduous makeup of the emerging ecosystem. Shyam, returning from a four month apprenticeship in ecological horticulture at the Auroville Botanical Gardens brought a passion for the unique evergreens of the Eastern Ghats, and has now taken a key role as part of the vision and monitoring of the planting work.
Seed collection in Aalampoondi, Singarapettai, Melpattu, and Polur
Marudam Farm School
Facing the ever-changing Covid directives and wanting to explore educational possibilities where digital media is not the only player, we chose to leverage being an Environmental school and the fact that most of our students are from the neighborhood to increase our engagement with nature through a variety of projects and activities.
With standing water over most of the ground during the copious North-East monsoon, the vegetable gardens on the farm were hard hit. All of the papayas died due to water-logging, as did nearly all of the vegetables and even a few young fruit trees. Only since the end of November were we able to start picking up the pieces and start afresh, with the hope of seeing some produce in the coming months. Of course, water-loving paddy is a winner in this situation, and by now all our rice fields are planted with various degree of maturation, and we hope for a bumper crop in the coming months.
Thamarai Kulam Updates
Work at Thamarai Kulam has continued in bursts and spurts throughout the past year. Due to Covid regulations we are yet to open the park officially although some areas are ready to be opened to the public. Still, people from the locality come to watch the work and enjoy the space during working hours. Here are a few photos to give a taste of the beauty that is unfolding:
Over the summer our school kids were busy painting a large mural on Thamarai Kulam’s walls, at the guidance of Krishnapriya and Naren, Porkodi and other artist friends
ARS Weaving Center
These year we’ve discovered a whole new colorful and exciting world of embroidery. We also experimented with up-cycling (using old material to create new artifacts) and learned a whole lot about natural dye. The children delighted in eco-printing, and one of the classes used the summer to design, stitch and embroider their own cloths! All are welcome to come and see our work and put orders for stitching/craft of any kind.
Interface with the neighbouring Narikuravar and Irula community
It has been almost a year since our new neighbours – Narikuravars and Irulas – have settled into their permanent homes, built for them by the Government. Even before they shifted into our village, we visited them in their previous housing and discussed how we could best welcome them. We started by planting trees in front of their soon-to-be-new-homes, and our engagement with them has been ongoing ever since, planting more trees and taking classes for them to improving their literacy and numeracy as well as trying to impart environmental awareness to life around us!
Kumar has collated a beautiful Calendar with some of his most stunning bird photos. You are welcome to put an order with him at firstname.lastname@example.org (200rs + postage per calendar)
Dear friends departed
Ramu (left), our very first and oldest bullock, died this summer. Salim (right), son of Gautami that came together with Arun’s family from Chennai, died this November.Their presence is missed.
The new School Building is at its final construction stage, already blending quite nicely with the surroundings:
And we also finished the building of a new woodshed and a home for agriculture processing machines (left) and a little hut for Pari and Harish (right):
And what a wonderous growth for the Aalamaram (Banyan) at the edge of the ground, planted just over 10 years back!
Nine months have passed since our last publication, but the world has turned round and round and up-side-down many a-times since…
…Nothing gave us an inkling that the whole world was about to go into the thralls of a pandemic, yet who can now remember a time when that wasn’t a fact of life?
The Halt which these events brought for us, at Marudam and The Forest Way, wasn’t perhaps as dramatic as it has been in some parts. Life continued to continue, and much has come to pass, still is passing, to land, to plants, to animals and to folks.
Here are some glimpses from that time:
We were lucky to have the privilege to play a small supportive role for families under stress during the lockdown period. In response to our appeal we received around 15 lakh rupees and we managed to support more than 2000 families – some of them more than once – through this period. We primarily supplied families with rice, lentils and oil and, when required, with medical supplies. In addition to the families needing support in and around Thiruvannamalai, we also supported farmer and migrant families and crafts people in villages near Sirkazhi, and fishing community families near Chennai and Nagapattinam.
During the month of March, around the time the country was entering full lockdown, there was a spate of Forest Fires on the Hill. At great effort and personal risk, all were successfully put out by our team, with the help of volunteers and Forest Department staff, minimising the damage and keeping the forest safe. As always, the fire lines played a pivotal role in making it possible to contain the blaze.
It’s planting season
Yes, it’s that wonderful time of year when saplings leave the nursery and find new homes in the earth. In recent years, we have started to feel that the days of mass planting on the Hill are coming to an end, as the forest is now self generating.
So our work there is shifting towards a pure focus on protection, monitoring and education. But our drive to rewild the surrounding bio-region continues. This year we are working on a number of new and exciting sites:
Aadaiyur Eri Aadaiyur village, 1km from the base of the Hill, is home to our planting and forest protection team. We are so happy to help with planting a grove next to the village
Kosaalai Eri Two more forest patches are being planted at either end of Kosaalai lake, between Aadaiyur and Adiannamalai villages.
Nedungavadi Eri Nedungavadi Village is also home to a number of our forest team. The lake next to the village is contiguous with a large scrub forest. The crew are delighted to be planting on home turf.
Samudram Eri Below the earthen bund of the huge Samudram seasonal lake is an area of municipal land, already partly planted with trees. We have been invited to take on the project, and to create a mixed park including food forest for the village children, livestock fodder for livelihood, play and education areas, and patches of native forest. We’re very excited with this new venture.
Climate Change Curriculum
Marudam teachers, together with friends and associates and along with Socratus Foundation, have been hard at work creating a curriculum for climate change, aimed at 16 year olds and above. This is being offered as a free course, accessible to all on the Thinkific software platform. This is a work in progress – a few modules have been put up, the rest will follow in the coming weeks and months. This work has kept many of us very busy throughout the lock down. The Project has been supported and funded by SELCO.
Work on the park has continued pretty much throughout the lock down
Naama, our Artist in Residence, and some of her work
Thanks to corona and the extra time in our hands, the vegetable garden received generous doses of care and affection from adults and children of the community. We worked through the summer every morning, remaking beds, feeding them with compost and mulch and getting them sowing ready. Finally the rains graced us and we put new seed into the soil, fruits of which we are savoring on our plates during community lunches.
At the weaving center, we continue to explore possibilities, designs and processes in the journey of turning seed into cloth:
Tremendous skies are the magnificent backdrop to our life:
and sometimes, if we are lucky, the same skies open up and feed us with life-giving life-affirming …
It has been a patchy season though this year with very low summer showers but also a relatively benign summer. We enjoyed a wet July with more than 10 rainy days though the quantum of rainfall was not high. August was disappointing – it is normally our second highest rainy month of the year. It started well with a good shower, but followed with three dry weeks. September has begun with our biggest shower in recent times. We are keeping our fingers crossed for good rains for the rest of the year.
More than 15 months after reaching out for funds to get a new vehicle for Marudam, we finally bought one a couple of weeks back. We bought a Force motors – Trax as per the original plan. Here are some photos. The vehicle is mainly to be used for the afternoon Kindergarten trip and for trips involving a small number of students. Thank you everyone for supporting us.
Recentlywe purchased three new post harvest machines for grains and pulses – one for cleaning, one for milling, and one for splitting. These machines help us bridge the gap between the field and the kitchen with our own crops, as well as with that of other small scale farmers in the area. Kamalakannan is happy to elaborate more to anyone who is interested. You can call him at 9940181247.
(some of whom can be seen in this photo from 2015)
We were happy and moved to see some of our oldest students leaving the familiar nest of Marudam. Over the past few years they have moved to a range of different pursuits after appearing for either State, IGCSC or NIOS examinations. The transition between school and what is next has been a different process for each student, and we wish each of them the best, while keeping in close touch and supporting when possible.
Dear friends departed
We have been extremely sad saying goodbye to two close friends, Pattu and Bindhu, who passed away recently. May they rest in peace.
1. New Classroom Block
See a visual presentation made to detail the work done for the ground floor roof of this building here.
2. The land to the east of us was bought to be turned into plots 😦
Left: Before – vegetation growing wild, providing home to a myriad forms of life.
Right: After – all vegetation chopped, burned and flattened, leaving barren land, destroyed lives and us heavy hearted.
3. New neighborhood springs from nowhere
A government scheme to provide housing to two landless adivasi groups has resulted in a new neighborhood appearing just across the road from Marudam School. 75 families will move in to start a new life. We are offering to plant trees to soften their landing, and look forward to getting to know new neighbors.
Most wonderful wishes and best regards to all, for the start of a new year and a new decade!
Through photos and text we are here reaching out to you, with a few picks from the year past, and some news of our endeavors…
Enjoy the ride and keep in touch!
Forest Way Day | Aug 2019
On the last day of August, just before Ganesh puja, we gathered, over 100 of us; friends and relations of The Forest Way, to celebrate 16 years of its conception. We visited all the different venues and sub projects (Park and Nursery, Thamarai Kulam, the Weaving center, farm and school…) and learned from each other about everything that is going on. We then shared an elaborate meal together, and block printed our own design on a ‘Forest Way’ bag. A lovely day and a tradition to be continued!
Thamarai Kulam keeps gaining in green and stone cover, and we are attempting a completion of the first section to be opened to the public before summer.
… & Mela
November saw the Marudam School host the 7th year of the much celebrated Crafts Week, with over 15 schools participating and over 30 skilled and talented crafts people holding sessions across 7 days. The week culminated in the Mela that was full of fun and festivity, with students performing their circus skills, the amazing silambam troupe from Pondy bowling us over with their raw vitality and gymnastics, and a parents and teachers food stalls extravaganza.
Planting on the hill
17,000 saplings were planted by the forest Way this year, along 4 different locations on the hill: Neranamalai (close to Katu Shiva); near Owl rock; along the Eastern slope; and by Kosaalai lake (near Aadayur). Around 100 people in all participated in the operation, which lasted from July till October.
…and fire line work
The arduous work of creating 25 kilometers of fire lines on the hill is now officially over! Hurray to the diligent labour force. Let us pray for a fire-free summer to come.
A Trip to Central India
The students from the Younger and Older groups went to an eventful, intense and perspective-opening trip this year. The trip started at Gram Seva Mandal, Magar sangrahalai and Anand Niketan near Wardha, Maharashtra, where they saw the entire process of hand-made cloth from seed to cloth. From there they continued to Bidawani (via Adhar Shila Learning Center in in Madhya Pradesh), where the Narmada Bachao Andholan office is located. After meeting Medha Patkar, the champion of the continued struggle against the devastating effects of the Sardar Sarovar dam, the group went on to see in their own eyes the crushing reality of the submerged villages and the Nisarpur rehabilitation center. Everyone was touched and overwhelmed both by what they saw and by the resilience and generosity of the affected locals. As an extension of the trip the students are working on a depictive drama to be performed to parents.
Weaving and Crafts Center
The weaving center was inaugurated towards the end of April by a small gathering and has since been fitted with three looms and five sewing machines. We then got busy figuring out the intricate vocation of growing cotton; ginning it (seperating the seeds); turning it into thread; and weaving it. Together with Sandhya, who is in charge of the complex operation, there are three women permanently employed at the center.
We were blessed to have good rains this year, 15-20% more than our long term average rainfall, over-all more than 100 cm . The rain was also nicely spread throughout July to October, with September receiving the highest rainfall this year. As has been the case for a while now, the North-East monsoon has failed to deliver much rain, so that most of our rain comes from the South-West monsoon. The stream ran for a really long time this year, filling many of the water bodies along the Forest and Children park.
Rice Planting… and harvesting
The generosity of the rains this year helped us with our rice crop. The farm had 6 fields planted with rice and January saw the harvest of the golden grass around the time of Pongal.
…. in combination with modern devices, the rice is being painstakingly sifted.
Apprenticeship in Ecological Nurturance : A course
This August we had good and enriching time hosting the first leg of a new course, dreamed by and conceived by us together with friends from Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary and Upstream Ecology. The ten month course came about from the need for more dialogue, experience and work around reviving the health of eco-systems around us. A small but diverse group of adult participants from all over the country have come forth to learn, share and live with nature. They are now at the sanctuary in Kerala, and will proceed to Ooty next month.
Clowns without Borders
A smashing performance by the magnificent clowns, acrobats, musicians and jugglers from ‘Clowns without borders’. The group visited the school in December and brought great joy and abundant laughter.
As part of our work with the forest, we continue to keep a keen eye and document all new forms of life that we see re-entering the young and growing ecosystem. Here are a few highlights…
Pongal celebrations 2020
Only chemical-free kolam powder was used this year, with stunning and affecting results!
a. Construction commenced for a new classroom complex!
The block will include a sump for harvested rain-water; a granary; and a small office space.
Making compressed mud blocks
b. New Oven built near dining hall
The new oven has a cylindrical metal drum that is fired from below, which means it uses less wood for firing.
Thank you and Good bye old oven! You always served us generously with so many good things to eat… And now with a pot on your head you give ground for a whole tree to come into being!
c. Altering well entrance
In July, while the well water was at its lowest, some work to enlarge it and strengthen the path leading into it has been taking place.
10 years of Marudam
This year we are honoring 10 years to Marudam. With so much going on we haven’t stopped to make a proper fuss over it, but thought we would mention it here…
The first term of the school year has flown by, making the picture above (depicting the first assembly of the year, everyone fresh from a long summer break) seem from a long way back. But here we are, ready to conquer yet another Marudam school year, fully open to learn, explore and grow.
And just before you proceed to read the articles and the news we wish to take a moment and light a memory candle for one of our dear workers who is not with us anymore. It will be Raman’s first death anniversary on the 17th of October 2018. Raman from Adiyur, who is a close relative of Masilamani, has worked with us for over 10 years. Immensely loved by all and always readyto crack a joke, he died from a heart attack while getting ready for work.
May his memory be blessed.
It was with great joy and excitement that we all put our finest garments one summer day, and joined the celebration of Sandhya and Pachaiappan’s long-awaited-for wedding function! Both are long term and well loved teachers at Marudam, theirs is a true love story. We wish them all the best for a happy married life!
A new toddler-dedicated area was inaugurated at the children park. By the shade of the baobab tree there appeared a small mound, a tunnel, a slide, climbing frame and all, decorated by a mosaic work done by students and teachers of Marudam.
During the months of July-August a bunch of us at Marudam have had a real treat in the form of Salsa classes… Our teacher was Karen, a volunteer from Colombia.Besides teaching us Salsa with great gusto, she also contributed to our nature database collecting and sharing.
On a fine Saturday afternoon we held a first-class concert at the school featuring Bindhumalini – a Carnatic and Hindustani singer from Chennai, and Shanti – a Baul singer who is also a parent and a Music teacher at Marudam. Attended by parents, children, teachers and even the community dogs, it was a memorable and sublime experience.
It was on a hot summer day in April that a group of us joined a demonstration for child’s rights and against sexual abuse, at the wake of the brutal rape of Asifa, an 8 year old girl from Kashmir.
and last but not least – We are happy to announce that this year’s Crafts Week will be held between the 27th of October and 2nd of November. For queries please write to email@example.com
Community store/ Kartik, Kamalakanan and Arun
Our community store is by far the fast emerging star of Marudam, and turning out to be one of our best outreach initiatives as well.
The store begun three years ago with few simple and some complex ideas behind it.
At the simplest, it was an initiative to fulfill the essential grocery needs of our community. On a deeper level, it aimed at an exploration of where our food comes from. Practically it meantavoiding middlemen, particularly in the form of large corporations, as well as avoiding plastic packaging. To achieve this, sourcing from small farmers in the neighbourhood became a noble aim in itself.
There were many life affirming ideas woven in to these objectives. For example, by sourcing groceries locally we dramatically reduce food mileage while moving in the direction of strengthening the local economy, even if in a small way. Small farmers are known to be one of the most exploited factions of society as they get abominably poor returns on their labour, and are at the complete mercy of the middlemen. Often they get so little that it doesn’t even cover their cost of growing the food. To remedy this, we are committed to buying at a rate which is fair by the farmer(known as Fair Trade),not to be dictated by the market price. Our aim is to be able to buy small farmers produce through the year, which will guarantee them a steady income. In return we are encouraging them to move towards growing food organically. When we are not able to source from a small farmer, we source it from a local wholesaler, without the packaging.
All of these steps automatically reduce or eliminate plastic packaging as well maim the companies and business around packaging itself.
The next step which we are exploring is a system of barter to reduce monetary exchange, which also helps in strengthening our mutual friendships and relationships with the wider community. The store aims to be as sustainable as possible, sharing the responsibilities and benefits with all its stake holders – the environment, the farmers and the consumers.
Last year the store’s turnover was around Rs 6 lakhs. It is likely to be around Rs 9 lakhs this year. It is growing slowly but surely, with many parents of the school and their friends becoming members in the store.
Garbology/ Karthik and Kamalakanan
It is time to rethink. If we can’t reuse or recycle it, REFUSE IT. – 1.1, Gospel of Garbology.
The two main questions that arose from the garbage we generate are – Where does it come from? and, Where does it go? In our attempt to understand these questions many more questions came up. It was an inquiry into how and what people here and elsewhere think and do about garbage. As the generation of waste seemed to be the main issue, commitment to reduce buying packaged products was looked into. The co-operative store plays a major role here; it provides a ground for changing shopping habits as people bring their own bags and containers.
A lot of energy went into waste segregation and we attempted to challenge the perception of what can’t be used further. It took some time and sharp eyes, but we were able to fish out many things that we could find a use for. Our children were exceptionally good in this matter, making toys and play things from the most unexpected material. Recyclable material was sent to the local scrap dealer. A group of children also did a project analysing the different kinds and sources of the plastic waste that makes up our garbage. They sorted all the plastic waste generated over a period into different categories and studied it. The realisations were shared and action ensued. For example, after discussing about the toffee plastic wrappers usually distributed during birthdays, a collective decision was made to have home-made goodies for such occasions instead.
At the end of the day, commitment to refuse single-use plastic seems a must. This is a beginning, there is a long way to go in a journey of challenging our convenience, patterns of thinking and consuming habits.
By and by we were delighted to learn of the ‘Tamil Nadu Plastic free’ initiative starting in January 2019, and even more so about the determination of our Tiruvannamalai Collector to start earlier and go full strength in an attempt to ban plastic.
Inauguration of the Nature Interpretation Centre/ Tilo
After many months of working on the various displays in the Nature Interpretation Centre, we finally had a formal inauguration on the 6th of February. The Forest Way crew in its full strength waited patiently for the District Collector and the District Forest Officer to cut the ribbon at the entrance to this beautiful building. A big group of kids from Marudam were also present, dressed and ready to liven up the occasion with a string of songs learnt in school.
Like most formal occasions, this event too, had ample time before its commencement; the school kids happily used this time to decorate the entrance to the building with wild flowers collected by them from the neighboring forest.
Back in the building, after the last few weeks of giving final touches to our older displays, finishing up newer ones, pulling down the cobwebs and shining up the glass doors,the space finally looks inviting. How will it be, to see tens of people in a space that has so far only housed imagination, ideas and work-in-progress?
The walk around the building takes visitors through a breath-taking photo-exhibition of the various butterflies found on Arunachala Hill by Pamela Sai, a long time resident of Tiruvannamalai. The number of species displayed were no way close to the actual count found here, but the sharp images of the otherwise flittering beings surely made quite a few of our visitors look out of the centre in search for more. Next, is a display of the Tree of the Month, which highlights one tree and allows for visitors to know more about it, and also to find it on guided walks in the forest. Two more displays- one called the Signs and Sounds, inviting visitors to guess the various non-human residents of this forest with clues that they leave behind; and the other a interactive Who eats Whom board, where visitors can pull strings to see various links in the food web, were part of the interactive displays. Displayed on a table was also a big scrap book with drawings of observations by kids from various forest walks.
While a gang of us who have been working hard towards this day, finally get a chance to sit and make useless banter while waiting, interspersed with some runs to the kitchen to steal hot vadas to satiate our hunger, a rumble of cars approach the park gate, and there come the Collector and his entourage! We rise and get ready to welcome him. The Collector seemed thrilled to interact with all our Marudam students, not only sharing his own knowledge but also listening patiently to the shower of answers they had to his questions. He invited the Marudam kids to join him in cutting the ribbon, at last allowing everyone to enjoy Tiruvannamalai’s Nature Interpretation Centre.
As the visitors take turns to play with the sound buttons on Signs and Sounds, and pull the painstakingly engineered toggles for Who eats Whom with all their might, I stand back with my heart in my mouth, wondering whether the displays will stand the test of time and hundreds of children-hands in the days to come..
A forest in the making (planting in Adiannamalai)/ Leela
…and it’s holes upon holes upon holes, as far and as wide as the eye can see, 360 degrees all around, tucked safely (so we hope) at the foot of the ‘elephant face’ side of the hill . Thousands of burrows, waiting to be planted, each with its own special tree, a native species, but an individually unique entity, to grow and blossom into its own splendid tree, to become a part of this emerging forest.
A real forest in the making. Just there, before my eyes.
I’m going back in time, 15 years ago, to be precise. Same mountain, southern side, ‘Children park’ side. Photos and memories joined to remind me of now and then, before and after. Within 15 years the change from bare and charred to a thriving young forest is all too palpable. Not without challenges, to be certain, but some big trees already, and growing taller.
And now this.
I offer a silent prayer to the trees, the soil, the rocks, the grass.
I send a silent appeal to the lord of the rains.
I take off an imaginary hat before the work of all these dedicated, unremitting diggers, planters, seed collectors and nursery workers.
As I leave the spot, I am touched and humbled, perhaps a touch more hopeful about the state of the world.
Two weeks later, on a rainy day, the mountain is shrouded in mist, another visit to the site, and this is how it looks:
The story of our bird book/ Arun
Our own bird book – ‘Birds of Thiruvannamalai’ is finally out! The book has taken us through a long journey, filled with many surprises and a lot of joy. I will try my best to recount the chronological tale of the bird book and its people.
The first conception of the book (in 2015) was as a bird guide connecting it to the birds of the region that existed as cuddapah slab paintings – creations of artist Kumar who had recorded and painted them over years. We felt it would be good to document the information, and make it more accessible. Thus Paul Hine, a senior volunteer from the UK, enthusiastically took up the project and began collating information on the birds in a bid to create a book.
The book was going to contain outline drawings of the birds on the boards with information alongside it. As the book began to take shape, however, we decided that there should be another book, containing Kumar’s birds paintings, along with text, which would serve as a guide for local bird enthusiasts.
We were spending a lot of time trying to organise the bird book as per the slabs on which they were painted. This turned out to be a tedious process as the birds were painted as and when Kumar spotted a new species, therefore not organized according to their natural groupings.
These bird species were listed and collated over nearly 10 years of bird watching. At some point of time we abandoned the idea of two books and decided to bring out one comprehensive bird book. At this point of time we had spotted 148 species. But all of a sudden, a complete pandemonium… Kumar began to spot new species ever more frequently, reaching an astonishing pace of one species a week!! Every time there was a lull from Kumar’s side, we would decide to freeze and finalize the list and publish the book at that number, but within that week Kumar would find another species, throwing the book into a period of joyous mayhem.
There are many probable reasons for this sudden, anomalous increase in the number of birds spotted. The forests have been growing in diversity, density and stability, attracting more migrants to stay over. It is also likely that Kumar’s expertise at bird spotting has grown! and that equipped with a better camera (with better zoom) he was able to photograph more birds, which helped in the identification process. In identifying, Shantaram from Rishi Valley Bird Centre was a great help, particularly with the warblers! Jeganathan from e-bird was also a big help.
Yet another major reason for the increase in birds spotted could have been the drought in the region in 2016, which seemed to lead to a lot of local migration to previously unexplored areas in a search for resources. For example, we were totally surprised to spot a Brown fish owl near the foot hills, so far from any water body.
If 2016 was the year of the drought, then 2017 was the year of abundance. It was a bountiful year with record rainfall which filled all water bodies and that again led to a new explosion of birds. We suddenly had Pelicans, Spoonbills, and Painted storks residing in our backyard, extravagant and unexpected gifts. And just when we thought the bloom of diversity was at a crest we discovered a large, an almost perennial lake hiding quietly within the outskirts of the town. Little did we know what a giant boost to our bird count. In that area alone we recorded nearly 50 species including Bar headed geese, Woolly necked storks and even Seagulls! There were surprises on the forest species too. When we first spotted the Racket tailed drongo, we couldn’t believe it at all, as it is a bird associated with dense forests. We spotted quite a few of them in many locations in the following months. The first one was near Skanda Ashram, later near Kaatu Shiva, the Samudram Eri etc. The exhilaration on our faces soon turned to disbelieving wonder as this flamboyant mimic was followed by the White bellied drongo and the Spangled drongo – all new to the region.
The filled Samudram Lake behind our school campus become home for thousands of birds and again of many species not spotted earlier. In addition to the water birds there were many other birds along the fringes. For example, on one set of bushes we would observe hundreds of Booted warblers roosting. We also spotted the elusive Yellow bittern among the dried stalks of the crops, well camouflaged and almost impossible to see. The Zitting cisticola migrating from far north was another big surprise and delight. Through the whole of last year, evenings became delightful. Overhead, all the day birds would flock back to the lake in their hundreds and a little later night birds like the Night heron, would leave for their nocturnal abodes.
Paul in the meantime went back to the UK, and Akila more than happily stepped in to put together information on the new species being spotted. While Paul liked being brief and to the point in his presentation, Akila liked to cram in as much information as possible, as every single fact seemed fascinating and too insightful not to share. The introduction to the book, preface, details of various habitats etc. was all prepared by Govinda. Hence the book reveals quite different styles.
As Kumar grew more adept at photography, he wanted to add some of his photos as well as paintings. We decided to use both forms. Incidentally, he records all his observations on e- bird, often several times a day!
Then began the work of designing and presentation. Right through, Madhurya, an artist who has been volunteering part of the year in the project and spending the rest of the time in Nepal, has been a major resource.
When we reached 198 species, we seemed to have stopped, tantalizingly just below 200. We did all the proof reading, finalized the details and gave the material for printing.
Then came the big question, of whether to print it on regular paper or recycled paper. The difference in cost was quite marked and the regular paper would have a brighter finish. But being an afforestation project, it seemed wrong to do that. Another big question was in regards to number of copies, which would make a big difference to the cost of each book. After a lot of back and forth, we decided to print 1000 copies, keeping the cost at Rs.250/- per book.
For the last stages, Sundarmoorthy, a long term friend of the project, a web designer who designed the Forest Way website, did the finishing touches and removed all the little glitches, a painstaking work. A big thanks goes to his patience and commitment.
As this was going on, Kumar found 5 more species, and Nirmal one. (Nirmal at 12 is the youngest birder to contribute a species to the book). We added these 6 species at the end of the book, sourcing two photographs for that end from friends, as we did not have good ones ourselves.
Finally we had the bird book formally released by the Collector in February, but managed to have the book available to the public only in June. The press were very generous, giving it wide publicity, with many newspapers and online publications carrying news of it. There has been since a reasonably steady demand for the book.
Harish is currently working on a Tamizh edition of the book. As this article is being written, the number has gone up to 212! Isn’t it amazing?
Hope the forests keep growing and the numbers keep rising to present us with bouquets of feathers and chirping songs!
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Books are available for purchasing at the park or by online order from Arun (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Greening work/ Govinda
The first and most important thing to mention is that we have survived yet another summer, the weather has changed, the soil is wet, and there were no devastating fires this year. So the young forest grows another year taller, another year richer. The survival of the trees planted last year is extremely heartening and humbling, and as I write this there are teams of people out digging thousands more pits for new trees, filling in gaps, adding diversity, giving our little helping effort to the glorious unfolding of the forest re-growing itself.
Apart from fire, the main impediment to the regeneration is not wood-cutting or goat herding, but the ever growing populating of spotted deer, which now range all over the Hill, and not only browse small saplings, but can kill larger young trees by rubbing their antlers on them. At the same time, they are almost certainly responsible for reducing the fire risk by eating so much of the lower level vegetation. And so no interaction in the wild is ever some simple equation, and who knows the connections and ripples of each relationship? Doesn’t stop me fantasising about returning leopards to the hill though.
On the greening front, there is an exciting new possibility on the horizon. A number of our farm/forest team come from a village about ten kilometres away called Nedungavadi, which borders a large area of scrub jungle. The area is under the Forest Department and designated as reserve forest, but is heavily degraded and under-protected. We are planning to begin regeneration work there over the course of this planting season, with a small patch of perhaps ten to twenty acres. This will give us a manageable area to begin planting and protecting while learning more about the relationships of the surrounding villages with the forest, and the specific character of the forest itself, and what it may need. We have already had positive conversations with the district forest officer in regard to this, and hope to begin in the coming weeks. The prospect of the greening work spreading out into neighbouring forest areas, and all the experience gathered by the team over the years going back into their village forest is truly exciting. Hopefully interesting stories to follow….
The Older Group Drama- Behind the scenes/ Nitya
We had not performed anything for what felt like ages. The whole idea of putting together a piece of work to display at the end of the year was more like a reminiscence of good old days than an activity of the recent past. It was quite a sudden decision then, that we were going to do a play. Things moved very fast, levels of excitement and enthusiasm ran high, and we were very lively and upbeat about the whole thing. Unfortunately, we had not yet managed to focus our energy into a cohesive or definite plan of action. All we had was the vaguest idea about plot and characters and the conviction that it shouldn’t be like the other dramas, no comedy or lighthearted messing around. We wanted to dive full-blast into something with a strong and moving message, and that was the inception of the long process that followed.
So for the first couple of weeks theatre classes were mostly spent with draining discussions which were more about who can keep quiet the longest rather than proper talking. All initial enthusiasm had died and our talks about details of who – what – and how,lead us nowhere. Perhaps it was because we had never undertook a project all by ourselves, without a teacher or a guide to take us through the process step by step. Ranjni akka was always there, but without ever pushing us or trying to make sure we worked efficiently or seriously.
The arrival of Dhruv Anna, who introduced some theatre games to the class, followed by Alice Akka and Richard Anna, with their motivating support and encouragement had re-energised us. In just a few weeks we had progressed in leaps and bounds, and by the time Alice Akka had to say goodbye we had a proper framework and a script for the drama. The drama was to unfold around the funeral of Lakshmi, memories by the different people attending the funeral making out the scenes. Snapshots of her life- a forced marriage, an abusive husband, a society that tormented her in so many ways would emerge through out the play. We were essentially depicting the harsh realities of one hard-working, lower-class woman.
Our journey putting the act had, I would say, a fair share of ups and downs. Some even said it was more ‘the leaderless older group’s struggle of cooperating and doing something as a group’ rather than ‘Lakshmi’s life struggle’. Nevertheless, as Richard Anna kept reminding us ‘just play and enjoy’, we eventually did just that and I am happy that we managed.
Editor’s note: The Older group finally staged the play on March 2018. It was vastly affecting and more than a few tears were shed during the performance. Beyond providing a complex and profound learning ground for the group, it stirred a relevantconversation about social justice and women’s role in society among the viewers.
A visit to Krishna’s Farm, and a trip to Sholai School and Vendanthangal
Last school year, the hornbill group went to the Solitude farm (run by Krishna and Deepa) of Auroville with 15 children and 3 teachers. We were greeted by Krishna anna warmly. Our aim was to experience the farm’s commitment to grow and share local and wild foods with the larger community.
During our two-day stay on the farm, Krishna anna took us for walks around the farm in which we collected thipli, sanguppoo, nannari, guava leaves, soursop leaves, an more. Krishna introduced us to the value of using locally grown vegetables, grains, pulses and fruits in everyday diet.
We later boiled all what we collected to make a juice, which was as medicinal as it was tasty! We also made medicines for our friends who had cough, and an aloevera plaster for one of our students who had some skin problem. We also helped making food baskets for regular customers. Recipes were shared with the customers, explaining how to use the produce that they find in these baskets.
We had a small circle time with Krishna, where we talked about the importance of using local resources. Krishna shared his journey in Auroville and the children related it to their own journeys in Marudam. It was a new experience for the kids to collect unconventional edible plants from the wild and turn them into delicious chutneys and salads, juices and snack items. They started being open to more creative ideas of making food which are both local, ecological and nutritious.
The next morning, we (teachers) were delighted to see some of the children getting very involved in setting up the Cafe by their own initiative. They really enjoyed working together with the akkas who, by then, had become their friends. By mid-day we made our own lunch and while at it, the kids had a ball, play-acting as customers and waiters at the cafe.
In the afternoon we all went for a walk to Fertile (Johnny Anna’s place) where the kids from the TLC school were getting ready for the TRASHATHON (fashion show of garments made from plastic and waste). The children laughed and enjoyed the different grandly designed clothes made from plastic trash. We were amazed to learn that all of this was collected on the beaches of Auroville. After that we ourselves went to the beach and believe it or not, some of us spotted a dolphin.
Back at Marudam, the children collected and made a juice from wild flowers and leaves on the farm for one of our parents’ meetings, which was enjoyed and appreciated by everyone!
Bird watching at Sholai School and Vedanthangal
As a rule, we always try to link our trips to the topics being studied in depth. For example, we culminated our rainforest study with a stay at Gurkula Botanical Sanctuary. When we studied about the ocean, we visited Chennai and attended the turtle walks.
This year, for a group studying about birds, two trips were organized – a day trip to Vedanthangal and a three days trip to Sholai School. The children were all very excited to observe birds in their natural habitats.
In Vedanthangal the children were amazed to observe water birds at such close quarters. They were awed by their size and their colours. We went during the breeding season which meant some birds were building nests, while others were tending to their chicks.
Sholai School is located on the lower slopes of the Western ghats near Kodaikanal, on a beautiful campus spread over 80 acres, with coffee estates, organic farm lands and a running stream in its midst. Over 160 bird species have been observed here.
The children were enchanted by the beautiful setting, the glamorous mountains and the much cooler weather. They went on to observe more than 60 species of birds, many new to them. They also got a chance to learn about the school’s organic farm, their craft centre and the small hydro-power plant which generates power from the running water in the stream.
The children also interacted with students of their age in the school and trekked to a nearby river. For some of the children it was their first trip on a train, so many new experiences!
I anchored both trips along with Pachaiappan Anna. As an avid bird watcher it was a special treat for me to be doing my favourite activity with the students.
Thamarai Kulam/ Govinda
After a long wait for the official authorisation to come through, work on the Thamarai Kolam lake restoration began in earnest early in the summer. For those wanting to refresh on the background to this project, take a look here.
Following an initial cleanup of the lakeshore we began working on the landscaping of the area below the tank dam. This narrow strip of land is about 350 metres long and only averages 25 metres width. Even so, this is the main area of available land as the rest of the lake surrounds being built up almost to the very waterfront. And so it is this strip that will become the main body of the park, the remaining shores only providing a walking path around the lake.
Given the challenge of such a long and narrow piece of land, the plan is to create as much interest and complexity as possible in the landscape, to make it seem larger than it actually is. To achieve this, we have brought in a huge number of boulders from surrounding farms that have bulldozed them to the the edges of their fields. Although we don’t normally like using heavy machinery, this has meant playing with big toys, and the transformation of the place was quick and dramatic.
Through the summer holidays, a group of teachers and older students spent their mornings sweating away shifting soil as we started shaping the terraces and creating pathways and wheelchair access routes. It was wonderfully refreshing and lovely having them on site.
Then in the last couple of months the masons have moved in, building terrace walls, path edges and waterside platforms. All the while the regular work team is continuing with landscaping and even begun some planting. Things are moving along nicely, and in he coming months we will start the next phase, which will be the creation of the playground area.
As there is no shade from big trees as yet, the recent change of weather is hugely welcome to everyone involved in this project, as it’s been a hot summer working out in the sun. But the way the place is changing before our eyes makes it well worth while.
Birds at the Samudram lake/ Nirmal
This year has been an amazing one for bird-watchers. With the monsoons of last year filling the lake, it has seen more birds than ever!
It started with a few Ibis flocks flying above. In no time, the few turned into many and you could see as many as 80 members in one flock! Then came the cormorants, and next joined the herons, egrets and darters. Grebes and spot-billed ducks soon followed, and then came the starlings- lovely rosy starlings joined the brahminy starlings which were already there. One day I spotted the chestnut-tailed starling, which wasn’t recorded in Tiruvannamalai till then.
There were a few paddy fields at the beginning of the lake where one could see all sort of waders: red-wattled and yellow-wattled lapwings, white browed wagtail, storks nesting, yellow wagtail, purple swamp hen, common moore hens, coots…. At that time, Kumar Anna was spotting new birds by the day – water cocks, new ioras, flycatchers and leaf-birds..
After a long break from bird-watching, I went with my class to a different area of the lake where we saw Cormorants, Darters and Moor hens standing very close. We walked a step too much towards them and they flew of. When we were about to leave, a stilt came and stood 10 feet away from us! It was so beautiful… we watched it as it walked away. As we walked farther into the lake we got a great view of some Painted storks standing in the shallow water.
I was thrilled by the experience of seeing so many large birds up close! On another day, my father and I went walking around, and as we walked, we gave flight to a great many night herons. We kept walking and saw lots of storks and pelicans in the distance. I crept up to them, closer and closer, till I was only 10 feet away. I took some photos, and got back.
Some time ago we saw spoonbills flying above the lake, and later saw them as they were spooning the lake- a big flock of them, beaks submerged, going this way and that, like a dance! We came back very happy.
Now the water in the lake has almost dried up and the Ibis have left, but there are still so many birds to be seen there.
Sumanya summing up her time at Marudam
The awe I hold for Marudam as an experience has no precedent in my life. The time spent in Marudam has truly been the time spent for the soul. Volunteering in Marudam gave me an immense sense of well-being at a time when I needed it the most. It was inspiring to be part of a space wherein there existed a deep love and consideration for nature. Teaching children from such diverse backgrounds in itself was such a humbling experience; I could take chances, make mistakes and constantly learn from them greatly. I couldn’t be more grateful for such an incredible experience that I will always look back in all fondness for many many years to come.
Sumanya Raman from Chennai has been volunteering at Marudam school for over a year. Every Monday she would take the bus from Chennai, teach various subjects in various classes, and then go back on Wednesday afternoon, always calm and amicable. She will now embark on a teaching career at the KFI School in Chennai. We wish her all the best and thank her for her work here.
Older Group Writings
I moved along the wild colourless trees
without their leaves, Without the birds,
without the breeze,But once within the wood I paused,hidden from the scattered light.The waves of her stopped.
No splash of hope that can make my thirst go..
And I am lost here, with losses surrounding me.What more I can bare? A sudden burst of wildness or dryness.
(Kavipriya, a poem)
We dig our way out from mother earth’s intoxicated womb, stabbed by beams of white, blinding lights as the shrill exclamations of oblivious minds try welcoming us with clicking and blinking objects. We take in the poisonous fumes that perfume our breaths. A little further we hear the roar of our destinies calling us with each lick of the sandy shore. We’re guided to it by these stabbing beams held by these bulky giants that stare at us in awe, and we shuffle away from them, towards the still calling ocean. Our flippers put in use for the first time, we experiment a bit until we understand, and then we are thrust into the whole of our lives – just there, waiting ahead of us, this dark dangerous vastness that will become our everything.
(Lila, turtle hatchlings)
Excerpts from a manual of our older group writing group. Final touches are being done to the manual which is going to be published soon.
A letter from the Farm/ Kartik
With a big rain in July, we started working on the fields, hoping as we ever would, that timely rains come. With the alluring promise of rain clouds which kept passing us for the next two months, we tilled the land and sowed different millets… but no rains turned up and the crops failedThe time wasn’t great for the vegetable garden as well, except for the leafy vegetables which have kept us going. Pumpkins and yams from last year’s bumper crop held our hands for a while and we have the kitchen team to thank for stretching their imagination so that whatever came was incorporated into the meal in different ways.
Writing this it is almost the end of September now and the rains are slowly peeking in. Fingers crossed.
Educational outreach at the Park/ Harish
Apart from being the nucleus of our afforestation and restoration work, the Forest Park has also been functioning as a centre for nature education for the past 10 years. Various local schools like TVS school, Arunachala Village School, Shanmuga school and local colleges have been regular participants of our Nature Education Programme. This program has been an attempt to nurture a connection for children and young adults with nature.
A typical visit will see around 30-40 children from a particular class. We usually start with an hour long discussion about a topic suggested by the children. Varied topics such as the prehistory of Tiruvannamalai, understanding local bird behavior, seasons and monsoon patterns,pollination or moon cycle are examples of topics taken up.
The discussions are followed by an hour of walk around a trail in the park. The walks are done silently and leisurely, with a focus on self directed observation. The group stops when a bird or an animal is spotted and many a time a brief tree study is also done. The walks give an opportunity for a direct connection to nature, and widens the visitors understanding of nature. The children become more receptive to life around them and every sound or small movement in the bush draws the attention of the whole group.
We have observed an interesting difference between children who come from villagesand those who come from town (in a generalised way of course): Village kids usually prefers the walk part, being more at ease outdoors and walking long distances, and are in general more observant. During the discussions they tend to keep more quiet. The children from the town, on the other hand, are more receptive and participative during the discussions, and find the walks and the need for silence whilst walking challenging.
We hope that these walks are instrumental in building up a connection with nature and the local environment. Many of the students have later joined activities like garbage collection and firefighting on the hill. Some of the students come back to take a leisurely stroll on the hill even after finishing their schooling years.
This programme was anchored by Arun for many years and now I have been anchoring it since the past two years.
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.