A tight cluster of people, some with binoculars pressed to their eyes, some squinting up at a tiny flash of orange amid the branches above, whispering so as not to disturb the subject of their awed ogling.
“The scarlet minivet?”
“Haa. Yes, the scarlet minivet...”
Where are we? Natural History Field Quarter? Wrong. (hint: scarlet minivet is not found in California.) Sunita has wrangled it so that I can come along to the Third Annual Retreat of the Conservation Education Network, which as I understand it is a bunch of people doing a great diversity of awesome environmental education work. These people are working for the most part in ones and twos to play a vital part in conservation and education: leading a garden class in a school, sneaking environmental lessons into textbooks, teaching about snow leopard conservation in Ladakh where snow leopard conflict poses risks to livestock, villagers and leopards alike; a guy from Auroville who has school kids conduct water audits in the surrounding villages and then helps the villagers to fix leaky taps (saving some insane amount of water in a water-poor area); people who work at the Bee Museum in Ooty; people who work with indigenous communities on sustainable harvesting, help elders to be recognized as teachers, and teach communities to advocate for themselves and their rights. I am quite humbled by the volume of vital, good, grassroots work these people are doing. Storybooks and teacher-training books on conservation, with lessons that we might teach at camp, they're so well thought out; Sunita's good work that I get to help with; I wish I could tell all the stories the way I heard them. Someday, will we inspire enough people that we will tip the balance in favour of sanity, of wonder, of hope that is not flashy and grand but works? Here, I am most hopeful.
The amusing cultural similarity of bird lovers the world over was made plain to me on a hike in Longwood Shola, outside of Kotagiri. Kotagiri is a former British hill station. Its more popular lower neighbor, Ooty, is the subject of a thoroughly entertaining David Attenborough movie about Ooty's steam engine. Back in the day the British came to these mountains and, finding that they were mercifully cool, tried to rebuild Olde England in them. The photos will explain. If they love home so much why didn’t they just go home after a while is my question...but one of the good things they left is a great naturalistic appreciation.
This place is in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which contains a baffling assortment of towns, villages, indigenous communities, tiger reserves and small places like this Longwood Shola. It is managed by the Forest Departments of three different states. And this Keystone Foundation, which is hosting the conference, is working to get it legal status as an independent reserve. Should that happen, they have the perfect staff all ready, trained and working: representatives of the tribes who live in the reserves doing a mixture of education field work and botany, writing or whatever their specialty is; professional people from other states; and a great network of local people with various sorts of expertise. India, if I haven't said this already, is all about networks. And this Conservation Education Network is a good one, boy. Many of these people work in isolation amid skeptical local populations (more on this later) and sporadically grateful schoolchildren; the relief and gratitude at being among like-minded people, able to ask for counsel, and merit congratulations was quite striking for me.
The last night, some folk dancers from the Kurumba tribe show up to teach us some dancing. They bring a sheet of corrugated tin and some rocks; upon this they light a fire. Portable fire pit! Brilliant. They are all drunk as skunks and grinning. One tiny little man has exactly one front tooth. He is wearing a beanie and smiling so drunkenly and happily, playing a drum. He looks just like a gnome. But can he ever play this drum! Once in a while he holds it over the fire, to heat the leather so it tightens. That music, drums and little nasal-sounding horn-flutes, will echo in my head for a long time to come. Nor will I easily forget the sight of all these Indians, of all kinds of castes and backgrounds, attempting to follow a lithe, graceful little man in dance. I still have not grasped the reality of how far India has come, that this caste-blind sort of interaction can occur.
Then to Ooty, where we eat Chinese food, buy chocolates, and check out the Botanical Garden. I steal some seeds. From Ooty we drive through a tiger reserve (no tigers, but we did see two tuskers—big bull elephants with long tusks and men on their backs, carrying huge loads of bamboo, tusks under, trunk on top. If I were a park ranger in India...)
We reach Mysore just before dark. Sunita's aunt from Chennai wants her to check out this house that needs renovation, so we take an auto to some other family member's house, get the key to the house in question, go see the house, meet another cousin, and go back to the family house. An old auntie named Aka (older sister) Pati lives there. Aka Pati has had a hard life, but she is the best kind of old lady. When I am old I would like to hold myself like Aka Pati. She has a long, long braid, and she's sitting in her sari in a plastic chair on her porch when we first arrive. She's there when we return. Everyone presses her hands, hugs her around the shoulders, speaks loudly for her benefit. I say “Nimma nori santosha”--happy to meet you in Kannada and she laughs—a warm, kindly cackling, unstoppable toothless laugh. This old woman loves, is loved, is love.
It makes me happy to know that this sort of family may continue to exist in a city, not just in communities where everyone lives together because they always have. It makes me glad to know that people keep it on purpose. It makes me glad to know that Sunita, who lives alone in the Western Ghats, has this sort of family to come home to one day.