OUR ONLY EARTH: AN INDIAN PERSPECTIVE

Simon Coleman

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Image source: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/1-bluemarble_west.jpg

 

I recently came by chance upon a booklet of lectures by Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India in the 1960s and 1970s (her career continued into the 1980s).  I was particularly struck by her embracing of the earth as one community, with an outlook on humanity that was not merely international, but was in some sense ‘universal’.  The excerpts below from a 1972 lecture contain a powerful ecological message but Gandhi still welcomes technological advance to improve living standards, especially in poorer nations.  She wants to see technology and protection of Nature progress together, but for this to happen a higher level of thinking is required.  She also touches on Indian spirituality, emphasizing the rationality within that tradition rather than its more mystical elements that have often attracted western spiritual seekers.

 

Of course, we have to remember that this was delivered in 1972 when many of these ideas were relatively new.  But imagine a western leader ever delivering a lecture like this!  I’m posting it because I feel that the values and hopes it expresses are close to those found in some of Richard Jefferies’ humanistic and ecologically aware writings.

 

“I have the good fortune of growing up with a sense of kinship with Nature in all its manifestations.  Birds, plants and stones were companions and, sleeping under the star-strewn sky, I became familiar with the names and movements of the constellations.  But my deep interest in this our only earth was not for itself but as a fit home for man.

 

One cannot be truly human and civilized unless one looks upon not only all fellow men but all creation with the eyes of a friend.  Throughout India, edicts carved on rocks and pillars are reminders that twenty-two centuries ago the Emperor Asoka defined a king’s duty as not merely to protect citizens and punish wrong-doers but also to preserve animal life and forest trees…

 

Along with the rest of mankind, we in India – in spite of Asoka – have been guilty of wanton disregard for the sources of our sustenance.  We share your concern at the rapid deterioration of flora and fauna.  Some of our own wild life has been wiped out.  Vast areas of forest with beautiful old trees, mute witnesses of history, have been destroyed…

 

It is sad that in country after country, progress should become synonymous with an assault on Nature.  We, who are a part of Nature, and dependent on her for every need, speak constantly about exploiting Nature.  When the highest mountain in the world was climbed in 1953, Jawarharlal Nehru objected to the phrase ‘conquest of Everest’ which he thought was arrogant.  Is it surprising that this lack of consideration and the constant need to prove one’s superiority should be projected onto our treatment of our fellow men?…

 

Must there be conflict between technology and a truly better world or between enlightenment of the spirit and a higher standard of living?  Foreigners sometimes ask what to us seems a very strange question, whether progress in India would not mean a diminishing of her spirituality or her values.  Is spiritual quality so superficial as to be dependent upon the lack of material comfort?  As a country we are no more or less spiritual than any other but traditionally our people have respected the spirit of detachment and renunciation.  Historically, our great spiritual discoveries were made during periods of comparative affluence.  The doctrines of detachment from possessions were developed not as rationalization of deprivation but to prevent comfort and ease from dulling the senses.  Spirituality means the enrichment of the spirit, the strengthening of one’s inner resources and the stretching of one’s range of experience.  It is the ability to be still in the midst of activity and vibrantly alive in moments of calm; to separate the essence from circumstances; to accept joy and sorrow with some equanimity.  Perception and compassion are the marks of true spirituality…

 

The feeling is growing that we should reorder our priorities and move away from the single-dimensional model which has viewed growth from certain limited angles, which seems to have given a higher place to things rather than persons and which has increased our wants rather than our enjoyment.  We should have a more comprehensive approach to life, centred on man not as a statistic but as an individual with many sides to his personality…

 

Thus the higher standard of living must be achieved without alienating people from their heritage and without despoiling Nature of its beauty, freshness and purity so essential to our lives…

 

We want new directions in the wiser use of the knowledge and tools with which science has equipped us.  And this cannot be just one upsurge but a continuous search into cause and effect, an unending effort to match technology with higher levels of thinking.  We must concern ourselves not only with the kind of world we want but also with what kind of man should inhabit it.  We want thinking people, capable of spontaneous, self-directed activity…who are imbued with compassion and concern for others…

 

It has been my experience that people who are at cross purposes with Nature are cynical about mankind and ill at ease with themselves.  Modern man must re-establish an unbroken link with Nature and with life.  He must again learn to invoke the energy of growing things and to recognise, as did the ancients in India centuries ago, that one can take from the earth and the atmosphere only so much as one puts back into them.  In their Hymn to Earth, the sages of the Atharva Veda chanted:

 

                “What of thee I dig out, let that quickly grow over,

            Let me not hit thy vitals, or the heart.”

 

So can man himself be vital and of good heart and conscious of his responsibility.”

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LAPWINGS IN SPRING

Simon Coleman

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The following passages are from ‘Haunts of the Lapwing’, Part 2, which is subtitled ‘Spring’.  See the earlier post for Part 1 of this essay: ‘Winter’. Once again, Jefferies displays a profound sympathy with his subject and an enduring fascination with the behaviour of a relatively common bird.  Other well-loved sights and sounds of spring – the stream, the flowers, a nightingale – enrich the scene and add depth to the principal subject matter.  When reading Jefferies’ natural history works, we can always be confident that he never simply tells us what we could expect to discover on a typical day at a certain time of the year: instead he relates what he actually did see, and how he came to make the observations.  In this manner, they never feel commonplace.

 

“A soft sound of water moving among thousands of grass-blades – to the hearing it is as the sweetness of spring air to the scent. It is so faint and so diffused that the exact spot whence it issues cannot be discerned, yet it is distinct, and my footsteps are slower as I listen. Yonder, in the corners of the mead, the atmosphere is full of some ethereal vapour. The sunshine stays in the air there, as if the green hedges held the wind from brushing it away. Low and plaintive come the notes of a lapwing; the same notes, but tender with love…

 

From the bushes by the stile on the left hand, which I have just passed, follows the long whistle of a nightingale. His nest is near; he sings night and day. Had I waited on the stile, in a few minutes, becoming used to my presence, he would have made the hawthorn vibrate, so powerful in his voice when heard close at hand. There is not another nightingale along this path for at least a mile, though it crosses meadows and runs by hedges to all appearance equally suitable; but nightingales will not pass their limits; they seem to have a marked-out range as strictly defined as the lines of a geological map. They will not go over to the next hedge – hardly into the field on one side of a favourite spot, nor a yard farther along the mound. Opposite the oak is a low fence of serrated green. Just projecting above the edge of a brook, fast-growing flags have thrust up their bayonet-tips. Beneath their stalks are so thick in the shallow places that a pike can scarcely push a way between them. Over the brook stand some high maple trees; to their thick foliage wood-pigeons come. The entrance to a coomb, the widening mouth of a valley, is beyond, with copses on the slopes.

 

Again the plover’s notes; this time in the field immediately behind; repeated, too, in the field on the right hand. One comes over, and as he flies he jerks a wing upwards and partly turns on his side in the air, rolling like a vessel in a swell. He seems to beat the air sideways, as if against a wall, not downwards. This habit makes his course appear so uncertain; he may go there, or yonder, or in a third direction, more undecided than a startled snipe. Is there a little vanity in that wanton flight? Is there a little consciousness of the spring-freshened colours of his plumage, and pride in the dainty touch of his wings on the sweet wind? His love is watching his wayward course. He prolongs it. He has but a few yards to fly to reach the well-known feeding-ground by the brook where the grass is short; perhaps it has been eaten off by sheep. It is a straight and easy line as a starling would fly. The plover thinks nothing of a straight line; he winds first with the course of the hedge, then rises aslant, uttering his cry, wheels, and returns; now this way, direct at me, as if his object was to display his snowy breast; suddenly rising aslant again, he wheels once more, and goes right away from his object over above the field whence he came. Another moment and he returns; and so to and fro, and round and round, till with a sidelong, unexpected sweep he alights by the brook. He stands a minute, then utters his cry, and runs a yard or so forward. In a little while a second plover arrives from the field behind. He too dances a maze in the air before he settles. Soon a third joins them. They are visible at that spot because the grass is short, elsewhere they would be hidden. If one of these rises and flies to and fro almost instantly another follows, and then it is, indeed, a dance before they alight. The wheeling, maze-tracing, devious windings continue till the eye wearies and rests with pleasure on a passing butterfly. These birds have nests in the meadows adjoining; they meet here as a common feeding-ground. Presently they will disperse, each returning to his mate at the nest. Half an hour afterwards they will meet once more, either here or on the wing.

 

In this manner they spend their time from dawn through the flower-growing day till dusk. When the sun arises over the hill into the sky already blue the plovers have been up a long while. All the busy morning they go to and fro – the busy morning, when the wood-pigeons cannot rest in the copses on the coomb-side, but continually fly in and out; when the blackbirds whistle in the oaks, when the bluebells gleam with purplish lustre. At noontide, in the dry heat, it is pleasant to listen to the sound of water moving among the thousand thousand grass-blades of the mead. The flower-growing day lengthens out beyond the sunset, and till the hedges are dim the lapwings do not cease.

 

Leaving now the shade of the oak, I follow the path into the meadow on the right, stepping by the way over a streamlet, which diffuses its rapid current broadcast over the sward till it collects again and pours into the brook. This next meadow is somewhat more raised, and not watered; the grass is high and full of buttercups. Before I have gone twenty yards a lapwing rises out in the field, rushes towards me through the air, and circles round my head, making as if to dash at me, and uttering shrill cries. Immediately another comes from the mead behind the oak; then a third from over the hedge, and all those that have been feeding by the brook, till I am encircled with them. They wheel round, dive, rise aslant, cry, and wheel again, always close over me, till I have walked some distance, when, one by one, they fall off, and, still uttering threats, retire. There is a nest in this meadow, and, although it is, no doubt, a long way from the path, my presence even in the field, large as it is, is resented. The couple who imagine their possessions threatened are quickly joined by their friends, and there is no rest till I have left their treasures far behind.”

 

 

Signs of Spring

Rebecca Welshman

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Jefferies’ field notebooks are full of references to the passing seasons. Each year he carefully noted the first signs of spring and summer and found happiness in the visible tokens of the seasons as they returned.  As he wrote in The Open Air “I knew the very dates of them all—the reddening elm, the arum, the hawthorn leaf, the celandine, the may; the yellow iris of the waters, the heath of the hillside. The time of the nightingale—the place to hear the first note.”

The first arum is often noted, and he looks for it on the banks of woodlands or along the edges of lanes. In ‘Nature Near London’ he notes the connection between the arrival of spring plants and the activities of the birds:

“The spotted leaves of the arum appeared in the ditches in this locality very nearly simultaneously with the first whistling of the blackbirds in February; last spring the chiffchaff sang soon after the flowering of the lesser celandine (not in this hedge, but near by), and the first swift was noticed within a day or two of the opening of the May bloom. Although not exactly, yet in a measure, the movements of plant and bird life correspond.”

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In ‘The Life of the Fields’ he describes a few warm days in early spring when it is possible to see and feel the growth of the season. An expanse of agricultural land, which in the winter months assumed a dreary and monotonous aspect, is lightened by the hazy sunshine. Larks are singing, and the bare banks that fringe the woods are slowly turning green:

“It is the February summer that comes, and lasts a week or so between the January frosts and the east winds that rush through the thorns. Some little green is even now visible along the mound where seed-leaves are springing up. The sun is warm, and the still air genial, the sky only dotted with a few white clouds. Wood-pigeons are busy in the elms, where the ivy is thick with ripe berries. There is a feeling of spring and of growth; in a day or two we shall find violets; and listen, how sweetly the larks are singing! Some chase each other, and then hover fluttering above the hedge. The stubble, whitened by exposure to the weather, looks lighter in the sunshine, and the distant view is softened by haze. A water-tank approaches, and the cart-horse steps in the pride of strength. The carter’s lad goes to look at the engine and to wonder at the uses of the gauge. All the brazen parts gleam in the bright sun, and the driver presses some waste against the piston now it works slowly, till it shines like polished silver. The red glow within, as the furnace-door is opened, lights up the lad’s studious face beneath like sunset. A few brown leaves yet cling to one bough of the oak, and the rooks come over cawing happily in the unwonted warmth. The low hum and the monotonous clanking, the rustling of the wire rope, give a sense of quiet. Let us wander along the hedge, and look for signs of spring. This is to-day. To-morrow, if we come, the engines are half hidden from afar by driving sleet and scattered snow-flakes fleeting aslant the field. Still sternly they labour in the cold and gloom. …

Among the meadows the buttercups in spring are as innumerable as ever and as pleasant to look upon. The petal of the buttercup has an enamel of gold; with the nail you may scrape it off, leaving still a yellow ground, but not reflecting the sunlight like the outer layer. From the centre the golden pollen covers the fingers with dust like that from the wing of a butterfly. In the bunches of grass and by the gateways the germander speedwell looks like tiny specks of blue stolen, like Prometheus’ fire, from the summer sky. When the mowing-grass is ripe the heads of sorrel are so thick and close that at a little distance the surface seems as if sunset were always shining red upon it. From the spotted orchis leaves in April to the honeysuckle-clover in June, and the rose and the honeysuckle itself, the meadow has changed in nothing that delights the eye. The draining, indeed, has made it more comfortable to walk about on, and some of the rougher grasses have gone from the furrows, diminishing at the same time the number of cardamine flowers; but of these there are hundreds by the side of every tiny rivulet of water, and the aquatic grasses flourish in every ditch. The meadow-farmers, dairymen, have not grubbed many hedges–only a few, to enlarge the fields, too small before, by throwing two into one. So that hawthorn and blackthorn, ash and willow, with their varied hues of green in spring, briar and bramble, with blackberries and hips later on, are still there as in the old, old time. Bluebells, violets, cowslips–the same old favourite flowers–may be found on the mounds or sheltered near by. The meadow-farmers have dealt mercifully with the hedges, because they know that for shade in heat and shelter in storm the cattle resort to them. The hedges–yes, the hedges, the very synonym of Merry England–are yet there, and long may they remain. Without hedges England would not be England. Hedges, thick and high, and full of flowers, birds, and living creatures, of shade and flecks of sunshine dancing up and down the bark of the trees–I love their very thorns. You do not know how much there is in the hedges.

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Image source: cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk

We have still the woods, with here and there a forest, the beauty of the hills, and the charm of winding brooks. I never see roads, or horses, men, or anything when I get beside a brook. There is the grass, and the wheat, the clouds, the delicious sky, and the wind, and the sunlight which falls on the heart like a song. It is the same, the very same, only I think it is brighter and more lovely now than it was twenty years ago.”

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Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stream_and_old_bridge_on_Exmoor,_Devon_(2545075797).jpg