How Green is My Forest

Latest for our Under the Canopy section about the entwining destinies of trees and human beings, conservationist and writer Suprabha Seshan takes us into the 'zillion-beinged' forest of the Western Ghat mountains in Kerala. With leafy and feathered paintings by Meena Subramaniam.
is a rainforest conservationist. She lives and works at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, a forest garden and community-based conservation centre in the Western Ghat mountains of Kerala. Her essays can be found in The Indian Quarterly, The Indian Express,, Hard News, and Economic and Political Weekly. She is currently working on her book,Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad, forthcoming from Context, Westland Publishers.
There’s a trail through a forest along the Stone River where the light never repeats. This is because of the trees. They catch the light and play with it, whirling around their  many-hued leaves.

Slender and winding, this is a generous trail; always bearing gifts. Some days it offers melodies; other days, stories. Often it offers ideas and memories. It does this, I’ve now come to understand, through streams of sensory ticklings.

Dawn or dusk, high noon or full moon, you have a good chance of finding me here. I’m after the light, for it leads me to music. I’ve noticed that the play of light, which includes darkness and everything in between, is resonant with sounds that work on my body and all my senses, as well as my imagination and my dreams.

On this trail I meet birds, frogs and monkeys; snakes, cicadas and butterflies. Sometimes elephants are on the other side of the stream feeding. Always, the plants abound. The meaning of light is divined by them,  and the longest song in the world, which is also the oldest song, contains the passage of wind through the trees, and light through the leaves. The best time to walk this trail, and it will take you all around the land, is the middle of the south-west monsoon. You are unlikely to meet another human; the rain hammers down.

The trail works on me with its manifold tender fingers, giving the faintest but palpable shocks of electricity. This is how the forest slowly and unobtrusively takes  me over, through these minute ionic intensities, coursing through the pores of my skin—the skin of the tympanum, and the smooth skin of the eye, and the inside of my nostrils, that part that is connected to the back of the throat, the soles of my feet, and the great brown surface that makes me believe that I am on the inside of it, that it is keeping me warm and protected, tremulous me swaddled in an epidermis that picks up winds and currents, warmth and coolness, and irritations and tickles through every cell over the entire spread of my body, this being. I know this forest through my skin, this is a truth I’ve come to relish. Skin: now drum, now antenna, now coat, now landing pad for damsel flies and honey bees.

The longer I live here the more I forget which is a song and which a story or sensory prompt through time. Such a tumult of phrases, melodies, verses, tactile, imaginary and verbal loops resounding through the fabric of my life in this place. I collect them all like I do my trinkets from the forest; seeds and leaves, stones and bracket mushrooms, driftwood, resin, shells, flowers and feathers. I secret them away so I may admire them later and remember; so I may gift them someday to another.


Stones, black stones, some smooth, others rough, all with rounded sides, where exposed to air covered in algae or moss, with little pockets of sand, or slime, or mud, and the washed-down roots of ferns and dropped-off bamboo leaves and the leaves of such trees as ainili, vayanavu and todayan. The roots of the meen-mutti tree, under which I sit, run along for many metres, like writhing pythons frozen in mid-combat. They hold the bank, these thigh-sized roots covered in shades of lichens and moss. They put out small many-branching roots, now dry because the water level in the stream is still at summer’s measure, several feet below. A young elephant fern perches in the bank held by the meen-mutti root, its own frond base covered in moss just coming green again with the recent rains. Exposed soil, partly covered in algae and liverworts, has little chaava ferns living in the vertical cracks, cliffhangers of sorts. A clump of oda bamboo that grows along streams in Wayanad, also grows here, curving bowers under which elephants, sambhar, otters and wild boar walk. My perch is a slab of stone placed by Paniya neighbours on their fishing missions, when they shape the flow of water with freshly assembled ducts of river stones. I’m in a gathering of lagenandra, bamboo, royal ferns, stones, snails, water and mud. A verditer flycatcher flits away. A Malabar whistling thrush calls, then a puff-throated babbler, and a white-cheeked barbet. My favourite of all birds, the heart-spotted woodpecker, trills loudly as it lands on a tree up valley.

I’ve clambered down to the stream to contemplate inter-being. Streams are perfect places for this. I have lived long enough in this place to know how I am shaped by this stream, by this wild and fecund habitat. I also know how I can support this habitat, as it is my home. My friends and I have made it secure for the moment, so that it can get on with being itself. Such security is not entirely in our hands, but we have made a promise to this place, that we will do what we can in the time that we have. It is an undeniable fact that this place is now richer and more fertile, that there are many more creatures here, and that the density and diversity of the vegetation has increased. We each have our anecdotes and our various awarenesses born of our respective cultural and ecological histories, but we agree: there is more life here now than 20 years ago. So far there are no lists of species in this valley, no quadrats and transects, just a handful of humans walking around, keeping watch and cleaning up behind everyone else, countering destructive practices, collecting stories, and sharing our knowledge with children, the coming generations.


We are the people of this land. These are our bodies. Together we are one body, and always will be. We matter. Humus, seed, fruit,  organ, blood and bone. We are root, water, mud, alga and stone. We are the snap of bladderwort. We are buttress-rooted trees. Trogon and hornbill; cobra-lily and cinnamon; mushroom and pill millipede. We are this forest. We appear from the cloud, we are mist, we are monsoon rain. We are strikes of lightning charging the soil.  We are streams and hills; bedrock and valleys. This forest is us. We are the people of this land.


Forest Family by Meena Subramaniam

Rain. Forest. Two short words representing two entities, on conjugation, each defining the other. Rain defines the forest. And forest defines the rain. Together they mean: places in the world where you get a certain kind of rain, and a certain kind of forest. When I watch the rain, I think to myself, such a rain anywhere else in the world must mean there is this kind of a forest growing over there, or that there could be a forest, or that there was once, and not so long ago, such a forest there.

Once upon a time, the whole land, everywhere, was a kind of forest. It was a biome, once upon a time. Oma is ‘unified whole’ in Greek, hence chromosome, proteome, genome, interactome and biome; the last, a word that came to be around a century ago. For me biome is home combined with bio meaning life. Bio-home, life’s home. Home comes from the Old English words ham, and hoom, like in hamlet. I enjoy the fact that home is a dwelling place for any creature, and that all creatures are homes for other creatures. House and home are related but one is a possession to be acquired and sold, and the other a sense of belonging, comfort and safety. Biome is simply my biological home; my natural community: this natural community, in these hills, in this forest, along this stream, with these valleys, and all these humans and non-humans.


I write these words as a settler-migrant, naturalised semi-exotic, or cosmopolitan mainstream dominant cultural refugee, with increasingly strong and abiding feelings of belonging

So I write these words as a settler-migrant, naturalised semi-exotic, or cosmopolitan mainstream dominant cultural refugee, with increasingly strong and abiding feelings of belonging, a word I hesitantly use when over one hill are my Kurchiya friends whose antecedents go back at least 200 years, and then on another hill are my Paniya friends whose antecedents must go back millennia. Tens of thousands of years. Nevertheless, I am a two-legged, warm-blooded, largely herbivorous mammal who wandered here, and stayed put. And it is likely, if this forest hangs on for a few more years, that I will die here.

Pachcha is green in Malayalam, as is haritha (derived from Sanskrit). This forest is green and, the textbooks say, it is evergreen. In Malayalam ‘ever’ is nitya and ‘green’ is haritha and ‘forest’ is vanam. This forest is now referred to as nitya-haritha-vanam. Visiting schoolchildren say it is a rainforest of a million-zillion hues of green. Paniya friends across the valley say: ‘We are the children of this forest, and our lifestyle does no harm, it supports the green. The forest is still here, and so are we’. How green is this land! A young Paniya woman says she can hear the trees speaking, and that she understands their emotions; that the trees speak to the animals. How green is her mind! And I have dreams where every leaf is unique, so there are uncountable shades of green. The green too never repeats. How lovely is this land, our home, our green country!


I choose the words biome and community instead of ecosystem. I like the word community for the simple reason that all beings love community. Nature is community, and the root meaning of this is simply common, which also gives rise to commune, communicate and communion. ‘Common’ has sadly become a despised state, and yet it means to share. Life’s commons are always shared; generosity and conviviality are intrinsic to being alive; no disparities and hierarchies. A sharing that sustains, and gives life, and is all-affirming. How else could such diversity come into being?

One of the beautiful aspects of living with more than the members of one’s own family—with more than one species, or in a place with an immense variety of species, or in a region with farms and gardens with many types of plants growing, from tubers, to spices, to herbs, to trees—is that you are compelled, in fact it’s both a moral necessity and a delight, to relate in many ways, in a thousand different ways, even in a million-zillion different ways. That is, if you are a sentient member of this biome and not a machine.

 It’s clear that this is a land where everyone is known, the vayanavu by the eerullam kuzhi on the kallampuzha upstream from the koodal, is a recognition-from-the-heart of a lovely being of immeasurable value. Translated: the Ironwood tree by the Dark Hollow pool on the Stone River, upstream from the Confluence. This is the obeisance I strive for. The diktat of the heart, with its own nomenclature, and ways of attuning, in this vast, glittering zillion-beinged forest, my home.

Malabar Giant Squirrel by Meena Subramaniam

I return to the hill. Here is a piece of ground, once compacted and bare. It’s being watched over by me, it’s a future forest. I am the official protectress. I don’t do anything, but I stop others from doing too much, cutting and clearing, for instance. During a monsoon a few years ago, I watched some moss cover this area, and then some grasses and oxalis weeds. I watched some ants making some tunnels, and ferrying seeds back and forth. Some lace ferns arrived here a season later. Every year the character and texture of this little herbaceous community changes. Suddenly I spied some adder-tongue ferns. They were not planted here, but my gardener friend had a few in a pot elsewhere in the fernery. And now there is a community here. Then some more ants, and a few earthworms popping their heads out, and little skipper butterflies and picture-wing flies; in this manner I have seen a whole area transform such that, in time, beautiful birds take refuge in regrown forest.


What I know about the rainforest can be penned onto a sticky note. But what I’ve experienced and understand through a web of experiences, now that’s another matter. Knowledge accumulated through observation and study is different from experiences shaping a creaturely existence. The fact of living in a forest, or on the edge of one, or on the edge of a whole one and a battered one in the process of slow recovery, and the effects on my body, heart, mind, relationships, cosmology, worldview and politics is, of course, a story. Our story.

The lemongrass hill is now a young forest. Don’t ask me how it happened. All I know is, it did. The forest planted itself perhaps.

These experiences germinate new possibilities, mostly through the dazzling assortment of nonhumans. Perhaps these plants and animals bring all their ways with them when they find I’m not about to chase them out, or hunt them down, or smother them in concrete, or drown them with a dam. Every morning, I wake to gaze upon a hill that is now full of trees where only lemongrass used to be, bare ground, leached and worn by annual assault from spade and chemical. Across the stream, an ancient, mighty forest still stands. It has had me in its thrall for decades. The lemongrass hill is now a young forest. Don’t ask me how it happened. All I know is, it did. The forest planted itself perhaps. Some animals brought some seeds perhaps. Maybe the wind carried some spores. Perhaps rhizomes of ginger and asparagus and rootstock of chopped pullandi trees bided their time and grew out when harmful behaviours were halted, countered or turned inside out. Maybe my friends who are rainforest-gardeners planted species here and there. It’s a miracle I witness day after day, how life wants to live, and how sweetly it ushers forth fecundity with the slightest encouragement.


 As I write an earwig slips out of the bookshelf. Earwigs are drawn to books in damp climates, the paper can be mistaken for a kind of leaf-litter, which is their normal preference. In the absence of which, books might suffice. Earwigs usually begin the work of making a book come alive, in a literal sort of way. Spiders might follow. Termites swarm in on a sultry summer evening. Everyone loves a juicy termite. Hunting spiders have happy hunting in these parts, as do the geckos. Here glides a praying mantis, who likes to eat termites and spiders and fight with geckos too. Forest cockroaches might rustle in, and drop a clutch of eggs between the pages. In time, a toehold of composting… and who knows, a seed might just parachute in. Voila, this is how a book could grow into a forest. Towards this goal, a prayer. That every thought, word, fact and feeling conveyed through these pages, behaves like organic molecules breathed out by trees living in this ancient biome, our home (where a forest still stands); trees speaking to other trees, soliciting a response, and making things happen, most definitely. Talk to us, you’ll see.


IMAGES  Meena Subramaniam, is a self-taught artist who uses acrylic on canvas as her main medium. Her work has featured in many publications though she never exhibits publicly. Menna’s primary focus is nature and biodiversity encompassing avian fauna, butterflies  and flora. These paintings come from a deep inspiration and connection with the natural world that surrounds us and from a passion for all wild life. She prefers to visit  remote destinations filled with natural beauty. She has worked out composition  skills by challenging the mix of fantasy with reality and hopes her ardent plea for conserving wild landscapes will be heard over the din of consumerism.


An original version of this essay was first published in the July-September 2018 issue of The Indian Quarterly dedicated to the theme: ‘’The Forest’.


Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.


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