December 2015 Newsletter

Trip to Auroville/ by Harish & Poornima

As a part of the farming project for the middle group (with children from 9 years to 11 years)we decided to visit an organic farm called Solitude in Auroville. Solitude farm is run by Krishna, who has been a friend of some of the farm teachers for more than 15 years. Krishna has a very deep understanding of permaculture and his entire farm is modeled on a mixed cropping and low tilling method. The farm thrives with abundant fruits, vegetables and crops and the soil is rich with earthworms and other living organisms. The farm supports a fully organic Cafe, and during our stay the children had the complete experience from growing to cooking food. The children also visited an afforestation project taken up on a dried up river bed and took a joyous dip in the beach towards the end of the trip.

auroville vignesh
By Vignesh (12 years)


Here are some stories and painting done by the children after returning from he trip:

We arrived at Aranya Forest at 11.45am from Koot Road on a Tata Ace. Saravanan Anna talked about the forest and trees. There we ate lunch in which I ate six idlys and two chapattis. We watched “Animals Are Beautiful People” . Next, Ram Anna talked about snakes. Then we took a walk through the forest. We saw iron wood trees, cane, thorn banyans, wild cashew, terocarpusmarsapium, red sanders, virali, banana tree and rock banyan. Then we went to a gorge. It was a place where a river once flowed. We saw lots of amazing pebbles.
We reached solitude at six in the evening. On the way to dinner, Simba (a dog), who was surrounded with people, started to bark. Madhu got scared and fell and hit her head. She got a big cut.
We ate dinner and went to the capsule, which was big enough for all of us to sleep in. We woke up at 5.30am. We had our breakfast and Krishna Anna showed us his farm.

Then we worked.

auroville painting
Hariharan (12 years)

I mulched, dug and cut. There we ate lunch and Krishna Anna showed us his video about Solitude. After that, we played Running and Catching. Then we went to Johnny Anna’s place where we went on the fire fox and a pedal-car.
Next day we woke up at 5.45 am and climbed the windmill.
After that we harvested tapioca. While harvesting, a scorpion almost touched Hindu’s foot! then we composted the beds and put nets over tiny cucumber seeds. After lunch we went to see a water waste place. Then we went to the beach and finally we went to the bus stand and took a bus back to Tiru. We reached home at 7.30pm.

On the morning of the second day we climbed a windmill. The windmill runs by wind. When the windmills fan turns, its rod pumps water from the well into the fields.

auroville vikram
Vikram (12 years)

We climbed the windmill in groups of three. I was with Hariharan and Nirmal. It was beautiful. I saw the rod going up and down. I admit I was a little scared at first. But it was worth it! the view was amazing! I wished I had gliders on so that I could soar high above all that. I could see other windmills that looked like flowers. A carpet of green seemed to be laid down just for me. The expanse was huge. It took quite some shouting to get me down.

On the Hill/ by Govinda

Rain and Planting

As I sit and write this, looking out of my open front door, the top half of the Hill is shrouded in cloud, as it has been for most of the past month. Pond herons stalk back and forth across the paddy field in front, as the older rice in the field behind dances in the wind and rain. The rains, which have reeked such havoc on Chennai, have been much kinder to us, falling steadily but for the most part gently, perfect for charging depleted aquifers. A few months back, there was little sign of this liquid bounty. May and June had been unusually kind, with some wonderful summer thunderstorms that cooled the summer heat, brought relief from the ever-present fear of forest fires, and gave a huge boost to all the little saplings from last year’s planting. But what should have been the warm-up act for the South-West monsoon, proved to be a bigger hit than the main event. There were just enough intermittent rains to keep things looking green, but temperatures were at peak summer levels and the fire threat was very much alive again. Finally at the end of August and beginning of Sept a couple of good rains meant we dared to start planting, and in three days there were four thousand trees in the ground at the foot of the Hill, on the Western side. Then, in the absence of more rain we put things on hold and anxiously watched as the temperatures again climbed and the trees began to wilt. Three weeks without a further drop, and we took the step of watering the trees. We’ve never done this before, but this planting site being at the foot of the Hill rather than on the slopes, made it possible. Of course, all it took was one day of watering for the rains to return, so praising cosmic pranksters, we swung back into planting mode.

delivering plants
Delivering saplings

Within the next couple of weeks, another twelve thousand plants were in the ground, spread between the plains and lower slopes of the Western side, and the lower South-Eastern slopes. There were again some hot times after that, but all the saplings were fine, and when the rains returned, at the end of Oct, the last couple of thousand trees went in. Since then, the North coast of Tamil Nadu has received a record breaking deluge. Lakes have filled, some have even breached, and we have had the best period of sustained rainfall in the last decade. If this is due to 2015 being an El Nino year we do not know; certainly things have been extreme.

Meetings with Animals
This afternoon, as I walked a round of the new path in the Forest Park with my visiting mother, a beautiful red brown Jungle Cat bounced out of the grass not twenty feet away, and made off, in no particular hurry, directly away from us. Utterly thrilled, I tried to alert my mother who was a few feet behind and looking at a plant that had her attention, but he was gone, and she missed him (or her). But then, as we rounded the next corner, there he was again, nonchalantly crossing the path about fifteen yards in front of us and walking gracefully into the thicket without deigning to look in our direction.

Such moments feel like both benedictions on the work we do, and reminders of all that is at stake. As the forest cover thickens and diversifies, year on year we see further signs and expressions of life blossoming. A couple oBoars den.JPGf weeks back, out walking after the heaviest night of rain, I came across a large area of uprooted grass, in the middle of which stood a perfect dome where all the grass had been neatly piled. A tunnel ran through the middle of the dome, but nobody appeared to be home. Wild boar seemed the only explanation, and the footprints confirmed this, but no-one I asked knew of this behaviour. Later though, a visiting friend confirmed that boar do sometimes make these nests in the coldest and wettest weather, and that he has seen a whole family fit into one.

One of the greatest pleasures is to sit amongst the langurs as they go about their business. These magnificent animals used to be quite rare on the Hill, very shy and keepinlangoor slideg to the upper slopes out of the way of people. But these days it’s not unusual to see a troupe of close to fifty of them feeling very much at home in the park. I even sat once and watched the young ones playing on the slides in the children’s park, which of course left a big smile on my silly face.

There’s something almost festive about planting time. First of course, there’s the joy that the rains have come, the turn of season from the harshness of summer. Then there’s also the bustle of all the extra workers, the rush to get trees into the ground as early as possible, the processions of people carrying the plants on their heads as they snake their way up the slopes. But for me, it’s always tinged with regret, as the nursery empties out, and the place is left feeling a little vacant, the presence of all those lovely plants lingering, and one hopes that they survive in their new, harsher reality. nursery through window.JPG
This year however, this feeling was lessened by the fact that the nursery is at it’s most vibrant ever, and there are so many young plants already growing in readiness for next year. In both numbers and diversity, this is surely the richest things have been. In the early days, we concentrated solely on trees. In recent years however, we have added more and more of the shrubs and bushes that will make up the under-story. Lianas are now also being included. While the canopy was non-existent, we worried that these climbers would smother the emerging saplings, but in places, it is now correct to introduce them. We’ve also begun to play with growing smaller and more delicate members of the forest community, such as ferns, commelinas, and orchids. For now, these are limited to the nursery and surrounds, but perhaps in years to come, when the trees are all grown, our work will involve more of these more delicate plants.

The new wall, the beginning of the renovating work on the nursery

We’ve also started work on making the nursery more accessible and interesting to visitors. It’s so much at the heart of our work, but has always been a practical place, and the magic of what is happening may not be obvious to the casual eye. So we are working towards putting in some pathways and highlighting certain plant groups that people may find interesting, as well as making it possible for visitors to see the processes of the nursery without disrupting the work as it goes on. This is still a work very much in progress, but we’ll keep you posted in further newsletters.

Crafts week

Sandy and Keerthi from CFL wrote:
There we were, 7 children and 2 adults, travelling to Thiruvannamalai
and to Marudam Farm School for their craft week! As we eased into the festivities and rhythms there, we noticed several elements which we felt brought richness and essence to the week. The mela-like atmosphere struck us: everyone engaged in crafts from experts to adults learning for the general busy-nessfirst time to children of all ages. There was a sense of togetherness in learning and doing, and somewhere in the midst, gentle instruction was embedded. The rhythm of the day was another striking element where structure and non-structure found a lovely balance. Children wove in and out of rooms where crafts were being done, but also took breaks to play barefoot football on the field, twist on the monkey bars or swings, or just sit around and talk. Something would pull them back into the rooms, a motivation to complete a task, an urge to master a skill, something…While there was spirit of freedom to dabble in particular crafts and move from space to space within a day, there was rigour in each little learning space, to complete the task with energy and care. Through the week, conversations evolved between children and adults from different backgrounds, and we began to get a sense of the school and its activities, for example, the walks, swims and hikes up Mount Arunachala (which we got to do on the last day with older students of Marudam school). It was a rich experience overall, for the children and us, and we definitely want to visit again!

As Govinda’s mother I come to Marudam nearly every winter. I have participated in craft week before, so I made sure I arrived this year in time for it. What a perfect way to enter the life of Marudam, when different craft teachers come from near and far to share their skills with eager students. Other teachers and more children come from different schools so that during that week the population more than doubles – and the amazing kitchens churn out three meals a day, at lunchtime cooking for over 200 people. Apotteryll the crafts make use of natural materials, be they palm fronds, banana fibre, wood, stone, natural dyes, coconut shells and string. It’s amazing how many different things can be made from these materials, and how many different expressions can come out of any one medium.
For me it’s a dream come true to be sitting with craftspeople and children, learning traditional crafts together, sometimes in concentrated silence, at others chatting and laughing together as we worked, the different ages mixing easily from youngest to oldest. Children are free of timetable and classroom for that week, free to go to whichever craft draws them at any one time. I saw only busy children, very little aimless wandering or distracting play – these children love makinPalm weavingg things. I also loved the spirit of co-operation and teaching each other which is perfectly natural amongst them. Other arts taught were music and drumming, traditional dances, an illustrated story, a large porcupine sculpture made of wooden slats and silambam classes – oh and the new cow-shed was given a keet roof made by the children. All this in one week – the sharing of produce had to be selective of a few examples from each child for each craft – otherwise we might still be sitting there, such was the volume of work produced. I thank all the staff and children of Marudam for letting me be a part of this joyful, loving and highly creative week.

Well well well/ by Mr. Rain

well druring crafts week
Photo taken during the crafts week. Since then, more rains have raised the water levels further, adding to the delight of local bathers…


Farm/ by Maithreyi

New rice being planted next to a rain-battered field(on the right).

Unusually hard rains this monsoon have hit our rice and fruit crop. Two of the rice fields, which contained a particularly tall traditional variety called Vadan Saambar, got completely flattened in the wind and rain. But, we aren’t complaining. The wells are full after 4 years and that’s wonderful for the summer months. All veggie beds are active and alive. We’re trying out a few unconventional vegetables this year, including beetroot, cucumber, and large onions with which we’ve had encouraging results. We have also grown little millet (samai) which was very encouraging in addition to our usual rice, peanuts, lentil and ragi crops. This year we have had a nice seed exchange with friends and farmers as well. We hope to do much more of this in the coming year.


Hip hop

DSC09980The whole school have gathered to watch a Hip hop dance performance, choreographed and performed by seven of our students. The kids have learned the art from Govinda, during Friday’s workshop.

Friday’s workshops are a new thing we’ve tried this year – it means a two-hour slot at the end of the week, where children and adults alike offer – or participate – in different workshops, be it art, building, cooking, soap making, bicycle riding or indeed anything anyone knows and wants to share/explore.
The Hip hop group took the workshop seriously and with zeal, and kept practicing and improving long after workshop hours. The result can be viewed here.

Hip Hop hurray for their talent and dedication!


Fire prevention and Hill cleanup during Deepam season/ by Arun

The Deepam festival occurs normally in the month of November or December. During this festival more than 200,000 people go up hill to be a part of the lighting of the Deepam on the peak. The Deepam then is lit every evening for another 10 days after that and people keep going up for Darshan. This number of people, all holding the notion of lighting a fire, creates a considerable risk of an outbreak of forest fires.

For the past 7 years we have been working towards preventing fires on the hill on the Deepam day. A fire on that day can be a huge catastrophe from both a human and ecological point of view. Beyond the obvious risks of fires, there is an additional risk of a stampede. For all these reasons, we take a lot of care to prevent the Deepam fire from extending beyond its allocated throne on the top.

We have a two-pronged strategy. One is to work towards fire prevention. For this we have about 75 to 100 people stationed at various points en route to the peak, to prevent people from taking up inflammable substances such as match boxes, cigarettes, camphor etc. We also use this opportunity to spread sensitivity and explain the danger of fires and the need to maintain natural spaces clean.

It is a lot of work to frisk 200,000 people, and we wouldn’t be able to do this without the support of the state machinery. We have the co-operation of the forest department, the police and the special task force appointed on duty on that day. We work under the aegis of “Friends of the Forest” and are issued ID cards for this purpose.

The second strategy is to put out a fire if it occurs despite all these precautionary measures. For this we have a team of about 60 people, comprising of seasoned fire fighters, who are positioned in different parts of the hill. This team heads up the hill at 3 in the afternoon and stays till all the crowd leaves the hill, sometimes as late as midnight. In recent years we have had only one or two fires which were put out within minutes. The awareness is slowly spreading, and the number of fires has been on the decline. This year we were lucky with the weather, and the wet conditions supported an all fire-free Deepam.

Clean up after Deepam

After the ten days of Deepam lighting we start our clean up operations. We do this with volunteers, comprising mostly of students and teachers from our school, sometimes from other schools too. We also convert our park day visits to further carry out the clean ups. In this way, children of all ages get to participate in the process.

Last Saturday we headed up for the first time this year, a group of 20 willing kids and 15 adults. Ramanashramam supports this venture by providing lunch for the group. Sunday was a rainy day, but 12 of us had a great time clearing up in the wet and cool climate, shrouded in mist. With such wonderful weather conditions, all well equipped wcleanupith raincoats, the joy was abundant and there were no signs of fatigue whatsoever.

One good idea we’ve evolved is to separate plastic bottles and other recyclables from non recyclable stuff. Incidentally, the money which is generated from the sale of the recyclable bags invariably covers our breakfast cost!

We are committed to continue with the clean up till all the paths are completely cleared of garbage. In addition to the pleasure of leaving a place back in its natural condition we have many other side benefits. We have the pleasure of being on the hill, particularly the higher reaches, during the cool months. It gives a chance to the kids to test their stamina and speed and for the older ones to check their fitness levels. It gives a chance to spend time with friends in a relaxed manner while also doing a productive work. For some there are other benefits like bird watching, insect and plant observation etc. All in all, a very satisfying undertaking.


About learning

In September we had a parents discussion group about learning.

Sangeetha writes:

Yesterday, I was part of a really rich dialogue on ‘What is learning?’ at Marudam, along with all the parents and the teachers. We had to break out into small groups and answer the question “If we can think about all the different things we do in a typical day, why, when and how did we learn to do them?” Some of the most profound statements about learning came from the so-called “first / second generation learners”. Whoever coined and uses this phrase really needs to do some serious soul-searching!

We learn …
* when we don’t let our ego come in the way.
* when we are forced into life situations where we have to deal with things.
* when we are trusted to learn.
* when we are trusted with responsibility.
* from failures.
* as we grow up in the presence of elders in the community.
* when the environment is rich with inspiration, opportunities and resources.
* when we are emotionally stable.

More than the statements themselves, I think the sharing was done in a very authentic and insightful way!


Thank you

We are very grateful to Dr.Anandan who donated Rs.6,00,000/- in our hour of need. This donation came at a time when we had a serious funding crisis and thanks to this we were able to carry on with our work without worrying about funds day to day. This contribution was made in memory of the late Shri Desikan, founder chairman of the Consumers’ Association of India

Dr.Anandan is director outreach MS,who founded MS research lab in India, His timely help and philanthropy is truly appreciated by us at the forest way and personally by me.

We are also extremely grateful to the Bambino Educational Trust who have donated 6 lakhs for the obstruction of the new school kitchen. The trust had previously funded the construction of the new library complex, and we are very happy that they have seen fit to continue their generous support of our school. The new kitchen will be built on the site of the old cowshed, and so work was help up as a new cowshed was constructed. That was completed by the children when they put on the coconut thatch during the recent craft week, and we are now ready to begin the work on the new kitchen.

We would also like to take this opportunity to thank all of the other donors, large and small, who have helped and continue to help, make everything we do possible. Our gratitude is deep and heartfelt.

On behalf of the forest way team


Masila interview/ by Arun & Harish

We have decided to introduce our team to you through interviews. We begin with Maasilamani, who has been working with us since the start of the project. He leads a team of workers from Adyur, who plant trees, create and maintain the fire lines, put out fires etc. When he is not on the hill he helps in the farm and on building projects. His team made all the bricks needed for the library building working right through summer, the hottest time of the year. Maasilamani has been a big source of inspiration for all of us in the Forest Way.

He has a deep understanding of the hill; its many folds, gullies, valleys, ravines, and slopes are known to him intimately. He can find his way around any thorn thicket, boulder, even on a new moon night. A few years ago we had issues of fires breaking out at night and many a night the fire fighters wouldn’t be able to reach the exact spot due to not having a good enough understanding of the terrain, but Maasila and his crew would always get to the place in no time at all. We always say that he has aDSC00069.JPG built in GPS and Google earth map inside him! He actually has a name for every rock on the hill.

Another fascinating facet of Maasila is his boundless energy. He is over 50 years of age, is a grandfather several times over, yet none of us can reach even a fraction of his energy levels. There is this by now famous anecdote when on a particularly sunny and hot day of tree planting we were exhausted after an hour. Maasila remarked “it is rather tiring isn’t it? I too went home and rested for ten minutes yesterday before starting my next job”…

Maasila has remarkable people skills. He leads a team which can swell to around 50 workers during the planting season. He co-ordinates the work force, ensures that the required work is done, then does his own share of the work.
All of this he does with much grace which earned him respect of all. He has to liaise with different sets of people, such as the forest department, the supervisors of projects on the ground, project coordinators and so on, and he manages to keep everyone in the loop and work with everyone with dignity and poise.

Here are snippets from the our interview with Maasilamani:

Interviewer: Have you been to school?

Maasila: Yes i went to school till 3rd standard in my village, Adaiyur. I dropped out as i was not motivated to continue further.

I: When did you start working?

M: I started working when i was around 10. I did tree planting work near the Srilankan colony. I worked with a team for the Forest Department for wages of Re.1/- per day. [This is about 45 years back] Real work started at 18 though.

I: What was the main income for the family then?

M: The main income for my family and many others came from cutting firewood to sell in Thiruvannamalai. They used to cut trees from Kavuthi hills area.

I: When did you join the Forest way?

M: I have been working here for the past 13 years. Before that i worked for the Annamalai Reforestation Society for a season. I joined with a team of 6 people and we have all been together ever since. We helped build the first kottai in the park.

I: What do you feel about your work?

M: I feel happy that we are working for the Annamalai hill. We have all done so much planting work here together and we feel a need to protect that. We try to put out fires as soon as they occur, even the smallest delay increases the risk of the fire spreading and destroying the young trees that we planted as small saplings over the years.

I: How do deal with the others in your team?

M: I have been working with so many people; those that function with a work ethic are only a handful. I explain to them that the plants are like our children and that we should take care of them; I try to inculcate the right attitude and feeling in them. But those who are still careless I send back. Bringing the right ethic into our work is most important for me.

I: You interact with so many different people, how do you feel?

M: When relating to different people one must be aware of how to talk to youngsters, how to talk to older people, people from different organizations and even different cultures. If we start categorizing people as good or bad then where do we go to work and how are we to survive? Whatever the nature of the people I deal with, I try to understand them and learn to work with them.

I: Everyone says you are running around so much… what’s the point?

M: The impetus to work is completely from within. Those who work full time with me understand me well, but I can’t expect that from everyone!

I: Is your work tough?

M: We have got used to the work – if we have to survive we have to work. When we see a snake nearby for example, we do get scared but we do our work with trust – if we are to die this way then so be it!

I: Can you share some of the tough moments in your life?

M: There are a lot of family problems; if we just stay at home then the problems will loom large. It is therefore better to get to work where other things grab our attention!



Various members of the Forest Way community participated in different forums in the past few months, connecting us and our work, to others and their work, sharing experiences, relating, strengthening, learning.
Poorninma, Arun and Harish organised a get together of like minded schools from around Tamil Nadu to discuss the various challenges and scenarios in the current educational set-up. The meet was held in the beautiful campus of Sholai School, and was facilitated by Ramdass Anna.

Paripoornam attended a meeting cum training session on child safety, facilitated by the TULIR trust and led by Lois Engelbrecht. Lois is a leading expert on child safety who has worked tirelessly for the cause for three decades. She is a friend of the school and has been an inspiration in guiding our approach to child safety, as well as taking the issue to the wider educational world in Thirvannamalai.

Harish, Arun and Maya attended the annual teachers conference of the Krishnamurthi Foundation in Rishi Valley. This was a great opportunity to spend time in the amazing Rishi Valley campus during the rains, and to meet and share with so many other passionate and dedicated educators. Arun also gave a well received talk on our approach at Marudam.

Govinda and Leela attended the annual retreat of the Conservation Education network, this year held at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Kerala. Beyond meeting comrades
of the path in the magical gardens of GBS, the meeting allowed for a deep and honest look at what it means to educate and do conservation work in the world’s state of rapid collapse.

In the coming weekend, Harish and Poornima will attend a conference which will explore the subject of fear at CFL.