I stand on the tower, a homemade Gothic structure at the edge of a heaving tropical forest, watching the monsoon winds whip in over the hills. All is dark, tumultuous, dramatic. My umbrella flaps, then snaps inside out. I am nearly lifted away in the stinging rain. I shiver and cling on, revelling in the elemental force of those rain-laden winds, wet clothes clinging to my skin, thunder rumbling in my ears, the green of my tropical world awash in grey.
The mountain briefly appears, silhouetted in silver, then of a sudden, vanishes. She reminds me: the world is there, but largely invisible most of the time. Outside of this cloud-hung wilderness there is space and time and history. She reminds me: Takt and Spannung weave through this landscape, like rivers on a floodplain.
I climb the tower most days, no matter the weather. I learn many things up here, mainly because the tower looks over a startling and disturbing divide between two profoundly different realities. Westwards is wilderness, 100 million years old, vegetation thick and lush, vibrant and lifebearing, utterly inscrutable, mysterious, under assault but not defeated yet. And eastwards I face the crumbling edges of civilization. Each day I contemplate the various forces that have shaped this landscape: the British and their colonial enterprise to open up mountain areas for plantation, extraction and summer dwelling; the state of Kerala?s land reforms, which led to the migrations and the end of aboriginal Waynad; and now the effects of globalization, American imperialism and the final pillage. I see poisons and pesticides flow through the valleys, into rice fields, up into people?s bodies. Sometimes I think I see the cyclical nature of human history if I look back far enough, over great sweeps of time.
I face this everyday, every moment, this divide within and without, between wilderness and decay, sentience and thought, forest and artefact. And I face a funny sort of death: imminent, brutal, all encompassing, seeping in through the pores of my skin and the air I breathe. Not my own.
Let me digress for a moment and explain a couple of things. Takt is rhythm, keeping time, as in beating a drum.
Spannung is tension or polarization; the word also means voltage. Both words have further nuances. Takt is the plant and Spannung is the animal. Takt is the country and Spannung is the city. Takt is Dasein (existence, being here and now) and Spannung is Denken (thinking). Takt is natural science and Spannung is history, anthropology, social science.
More importantly, Takt and Spannung, by their interaction, make up Kultur. My lessons in the jungle include expoundings on the three-stage theory of history of Spengler. The first stage is Vorzeit (before time, the earliest age, embryonic) which is pure Takt, or an age where the instinctive tribal collective unconscious prevails; it is pure nature, pure wilderness. Second is Kultur, when Takt and Spannung are present in a dialectical unity of rhythm and tension. Kultur also means cultivation, for example, making a garden out of the jungle of Takt. The third and final stage is Zivilisation, pure Spannung, or an age of empire and megalopolis, not art but commercial art, not science but technology. This signifies severance from the roots, a disproportionate development of artefact.
Now the sun gleams through again, shafts of gold pierce the darkness. I descend into the Ark. A magical garden with a cargo of rare and endangered tropical plant species. It?s an Ark, no doubt, metaphorically and actually. We?ve made sure there?s so many of every kind, hundreds and hundreds of species, enough to populate whole new lands. But, where are we going, captain? What direction? What purpose? Whither and Why?
The captain says: Here, for now. Because.
He then goes on to other things:
- Unless you as a naturalist/educator are able to perceive nature in its totality, rather than categories, you cannot appreciate what you encounter and, therefore, you cannot know your direction.
- We are not doing things that have a reason: to be written, taught, accomplished. The only imperative is love.
- We have no time.
- Two contrary things about history. First, ?He who?s vision cannot cover history?s 3,000 years, must in outer darkness hover, live within the day?s frontiers.? Second, human history has nothing much to teach us other than the fact that we do not learn from our mistakes.
- No living thing is ecological by intent, only by design. Including us. The difference, we are able to overstep our physical limits. Our reach, our impact, our prowess are extended by technology.
- We?ve always cut, overpowered and killed. This is embedded even in our (Malayalam) language: to improve a place is to cut it down. People feel overwhelmed by nature, especially the forests, so they keep them at bay.
- Whenever a culture grew up and overstepped its local limits, there was always a space elsewhere to grow, there were always some resources left somewhere to pillage. Where shall we go now? To the moon? Earthly space is running out. Everything depleted, water, fossil fuels, minerals. Science and technology, we believe, will show us a way out of this: even if we destroy everything. Even if we pollute and destroy, there will always be another place, to start all over again. We can live in glass bubbles on Mars.
- We cannot look backwards: we cannot see ahead: we are in the dark. We have, therefore, to move with little steps, without harming ourselves, our world, our fellow beings. People will say, the world is burning: big solutions are called for. If history is anything to learn from, big solutions (spiritual, social, technological) create bigger mistakes ...
So listen to the plants.
It is in this context that what our captain thinks and says is significant, because it is what he has lived out in his life. But no one has listened much, they thought him eccentric at first, then undesirable, then slightly mad, even dangerous. Unusual behaviour tends to produce estrangement in others which tends to further the unusual behaviour and thus the estrangement in widening cycles until some sort of climax is reached. All this is very convenient, especially when your action does not fit the rationalist economic paradigm. Anyway, in his case, there was simply Magnum, or a full step away from the known ... into a life of solitude from which this garden of delight has emerged.
Now 30 years later, there is an international award for this ?madness?. There are praises from all around. Mostly only because the times have changed. Motives become explicable in terms of science, conservation, ecosystem ecology, social gratification. Saving the wilderness is a cool thing to do. Like bungee jumping, paragliding, crocodile wrestling. People find us prescient, innovative and not so mad anymore.
I take a walk on the wild side. I need to smell and feel and hear and see in order to get my thinking straight.
Every time I enter this magic garden, I am overwhelmed by the profusion of life. There are shy, sweet, tender things here. Vulnerable beings. Rare ones. Singularly special. Lovely beyond measure. Watching you, welcoming you as you weave your own singularly special way.
There are fierce things too. Large wild beasts that roam the wooded slopes. Things that bite and scratch and kill. Things that annihilate all attempts at normalcy, just in their exquisite beauty. Like snakes and leeches and atlas moths and fairy blue birds and golden tree ferns.
It is this that attracts me so profoundly to this life in the forest. It is this daily embracing of embodiedness that I cherish. I feel human, alive, related: in excellent company.
Wandering through this wild garden, one has odd realizations: Like how our minds ? the human mind, my mind ? have a profound connection with the wild; how they are, in a way, summoned out of the wild. Although now tenuous and disturbingly endangered, this Wild Mind (which is unconfinable and yet powerfully rooted) still walks the twilight zone of our awareness like the great cats of our forests.
Like how the mind, though largely subjective and personal, is shaped by intermingling worlds and dimensions, and is not mine alone.
Like how it is wide and deep and unique and particular. River-like, it has a journey, and river-like it begins in the mountains and forests only to empty out into the vast and unfathomable ocean. And yet, it flows through specific valleys, through specific mountain ranges, around specific bends, over specific stones: attaining an exquisitely unique identity, known only in that way, only if you walk that valley.
Funny how, in this personal-impersonal, particular-general, small-vast, my mind-wild mind continuum, a life is lived. How all human lives are lived.
Standing on the tower and feeling the spirit soar with the gusting wind, it feels like there is a calling to follow the spoor of the wild mind as it is being lived in the present. The tracks of one?s life appear out of the shadowy and mysterious past, but their significance lies in how the present cliff is negotiated now, in the arch and angle of one?s feet as they step upon the lichen covered stones. The tracks disappear into the unknowable future, but it is exactly how I open into the sensuous present that will determine the way forward.
These tracks into time, then, now and all time to come, spiral. As the trace of a tiger in a wild mountain upland connects me to a single, specific tiger and its unique existence, as well as to all tigers that have ever lived and are still to live, my own life, so immediate and so close to hand and so utterly important (to me only) rustles richly with the lives of other people, other stories, other minds, other understandings. Other beings, of the mountains and the woods. Other entities, like water and stone and wind and earth and sky and star. As well as dimensions unperceived and perhaps unperceivable by me.
Isn?t this absolutely extraordinary?
From ever since I can remember I have wandered the body, looking for its mysterious relations with the world around. The things that puzzle me are usually physical: the way the body reflexively cringes when a thorn is stepped upon, the uncanny manner in which it senses the presence of other beings, the way it draws constantly upon smell and sound and texture and taste and form to orient itself and how this is in itself an exceptional and highly nuanced intelligence that is able to act whether or not ?I? am focused on those very same things. I find the immediate experience of things, the swift encounters between my body and its surrounding medium, to be an immense and fabulous mystery. The fact that it is all so close at hand, and such the source of my wellbeing, makes it even more worthy, I feel, of my conscious attention.
Then there is its even more bizarre connection to the dream-world, the thoughtworld, the dimension of shifting and kaleidoscopic, internally imaged, realities. Direct experience is a principal source of our mental activities, and yet we seem to have turned in on ourselves to the extent of occluding this dimension from our conscious awareness. We have split ourselves down the middle somehow, and shut our minds away from the organic and bodily portals that unite us with the living matrix that supports our every breath. We become involved instead with the imaged and worded dimension, which appears more real than reality, more interesting, more powerful and effective, a realm into which we can retreat and spin out our further effects onto the physical and sentient world. Furthermore, and this is the central point of concern, we become addicted to this incarceration in our heads. Our environmental crisis, and perhaps all crises of humankind, spew forth from this thralldom ? on the one hand so innocent, and on the other so dreadful and grotesque.
My life and that of most of my friends oscillates between these dimensions. Every day I move from fireside life in our community kitchen, from being joined in audile tactile empathy with my friends to this private abstract visual activity of writing words in neat tiny rows of printed letters on an LED screen. Just like everyone else in the world.
Somehow I find this to be an excellent place to be.