Interview of Suprabha Seshan ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Suprabha Seshan. She has lived and worked for twenty-five years at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in the Western Ghat mountains of India. The Sanctuary is a centre for plant conservation, habitat restoration and environmental education and also a community. In 2006, on behalf of the Sanctuary she won the Whitley Award, UK’s top prize for nature conservation. She is an Ashoka Fellow. Her new book, available next year, is called Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad.

So first, thank you for all of your great work in the world, and second, thank you for being on the program.

SS: Derrick, thank you so much for having me.

DJ: I would like to start by reading a paragraph from one of your essays, and then you just go from there.

“It is a sad truth that most humans today fear the night, which is really a fear of the dark. We’re told this is primal, an instinct we inherited from our savage ancestors huddling against predators after sunset. From this we conclude that the night is dangerous, that it heralds death and contains demons. Yet it is the night which is in danger, as the rest of life is.”

So can you talk about that a little bit?

SS: I wrote that some years ago because I spend a lot of time awake and in the dark, at dusk and before dawn, listening to animals and the wind and rain. And I believe, I’ve always believed, that this is a deeply restorative period. I’m a creature of the day, but as it goes into the night I just love it so much. And as you feel the night creatures waking up and hear them, something really important happens, which is that your eyes kind of shut down and your other senses wake up and you start to feel, and hear, and sense things that are just different from – we know that we’re visual creatures. But it’s the dominance of the eye that really bothers me. Maybe I’m not such a visual person.

So I start to think about that. I’ve lived nine years of my adult life without electricity, and that was perhaps the most beautiful time of my life. And when the community decided to have solar power and then take a connection to the main line electrical grid, I would go up to a high point on our sanctuary’s land, and I’d seen nights for years where there were no electric lights. There were lantern lights and moonlight and starlight, and we would have conversations under the stars. And this is gone now, or going. It’s still dark compared to other places in the world, other places in India, but the loss of this deep quiet is really hurting our bodies, and what about the rest of the natural world? Bats and birds, night birds, crickets, frogs. So I’ve been thinking about that a lot. And that’s what the essay was about, the loss of the night. The death, the killing of the night is also one of patriarchy’s great achievements.

DJ: I agree with you and I’m with you 100%. Can you help me understand your last sentence? Can you bring patriarchy in explicitly? I’m not following that connection.

SS: Well, I’m thinking of all the machines, the big toys that require these enormous power grids, and the hunting out of shy creatures, and just the flooding – I’m thinking of prisons and these lights that are on all night and nobody can rest and it just drives you crazy. So that’s the image in my mind when I say patriarchy’s hunting out the night, it’s destroying the night. It’s men with huge machines, or cultures with power grids and thermoelectric power stations, and the hunt.

DJ: Here’s something you wrote about it. “The night is a hindrance to this patriarchal enterprise called ‘civilization.’ The fact that we can willfully turn the night off and on at the flick of a switch adds to our delusion of having conquered the universe. The longest night of extinction, a metaphor for things today, includes within it the extinction of the night. There has never been so little night till now. The extinction of the night is a necessary objective of human supremacists. They hunt darkness out, for they know that it’s actually life-bearing. With the floodlights of civilization depriving the earth of its sleep, insanity spreads far and wide.”


That’s you.

SS: (laughing) Yes.

DJ: So do you want to say anything more about that?

SS: Well, I’m also thinking of photographers who want to go out at night with their big high-beam torches, and they are waking up creatures or prying on creatures who want to be in the dark. And you can do anything with that switch. And so this precious part of the natural world, I’m seeing it as a discotheque right now with lights everywhere and turning it off and on. It’s an invasion of something of great beauty.

DJ: Everything you’re saying there really reminds me of both zoos and pornography. What I’m trying to get at is that there is this – zoos, because they force these creatures to be on display for us at our desire, our whim, creatures who – I was going to say almost undoubtedly don’t want to be there, but the truth is they undoubtedly don’t want to be there or there wouldn’t need to be cages, would there? And then pornography really is the same thing in that it is putting these others on display for your consumption. So the whole enterprise seems very pornographic and domineering to me. And I love your line about turning night on and off with a flick of a switch.

SS: Yeah. And that’s complete control.

DJ: So is that going to be one of the essays in the new book?

SS: I’m sure it will feature. The new book is going to be a series of new essays and I will probably bring the night, and other things I’ve written about already; I will probably bring them into the book.

DJ: So let’s talk about another essay, which is called “The Music of Everything.” What do you mean by that?

SS: Well, the world is full of song. It’s full of sounds, and with people living in cities, they’re mostly hearing mechanical sounds. But when you’re living in the forest, the whole world is singing. And from a very young age, I’ve had this habit. I just go in somewhere and I try to pick out the note that I can resonate with, with my voice. It’s different when you do it in the natural world, in the forest, and it’s very different when you do it in, say, a room. So I grew up doing that kind of singing, or humming, or vocalizing with motors, and fridges, and trains. And as I started to spend more and more time, and then my life became one in the forest, with natural sounds, I would find myself doing the same thing. I would just go out and I would be, like, cawing like the hornbill, or try to find a pitch that I could sing from. It’s so evident that everybody’s speaking, everybody’s singing, and that singing and speech are really just two different ways of saying something. It’s this full-hearted communication and participation in this beautiful world, which is a sounded world. So that’s what that essay was about.

DJ: And in that essay you use the word “sing” deliberately and not the word “call.” And you know you hear about people calling birds all the time. What is the difference for you?

SS: Well, I’m hesitant to say that I’m calling a bird and that’s a deliberate act of, an intentional invitation to the bird and, you know the responsibility then is on the bird to respond or not. I go and, when the elephants are there I do various songs of my own, or vocalizations. And it’s like an incantation and a contribution to that musical, to that space. And maybe they want to join in. Maybe they want to listen. Maybe they will just ignore me and walk away.

So there’s a difference between calling to someone and then you expect a response, whereas singing is a solicitation of a different kind. It’s an offering, actually.

DJ: It seems to me that both of these, those two essays, are … well, instead of me telling you, why don’t you tell me? What ties those two essays together? And your other work together, too?

It seems to me … now that I’ve said that, I’ll go ahead and tell you that one of the things that ties those together has to do with accepting nature as it is, as opposed to inflicting one’s … like, the people I’ve known who have, for example, called owls; what they’re attempting to do is to do a survey. They will call an owl in hopes that an owl of that species will respond, so they can then mark it down on a chart that there is that sort of owl here.

SS: Right. Yes.

DJ: As opposed to, you know, just entering into the conversation, or the symphony, that is the forest, on its own terms.

SS: Absolutely. And so much of what I’ve heard of other people when they talk to animals, they have to have proof. And I don’t want to have proof. I don’t want to go that way. I’m not proving to another human anything about my gentle solicitation of the others. I don’t want to prove it. I might describe it, and I might want to share it. And I have to be quite specific about what happens and accurate about what happens or doesn’t happen. But it’s not about proof. It’s not about evidence. The writing itself is an invocation of that kind of thing, of going out into the forest and listening to the drongos, or the hill mynas, and the scimitar babblers. Not even, at some point – it’s like to even let go of “this is this species, and that species, that’s the alarm call.” To kind of just stop that for a little while. So not to pick out and exercise discernment. I don’t want to pick names and say “Oh that’s that, and that’s that.” But when you go out, and you’re listening to all these sounds, is that how you listen to a symphony? “Oh, there comes the oboe, and there’s the drums, and there’s a clarinet.” I think to enjoy, or deeply enter the music, I think you have to stop with the mind that wants to identify everything. And that’s when the great music happens, is when you take in the whole. And you’re also listening to every little detail, but you’re not writing down lists or proving anything or showing off your virtuosity and “Look, I called the elephants and the elephants came when I called.” Well, that was not the point of that. The point was that I sang to the elephants and they didn’t go away, so what happened there? Were they listening? Of course they were listening. Their ears, their sensibilities were so much more powerful than mine. Of course. They didn’t go away.

There were these gentle sounds. So were the elephants singing with me? I don’t know. But I like to leave it open that perhaps they were.

DJ: This takes me to another essay of yours, a recent one. It’s not published yet, I believe. You wrote in there “We are the people of this land. We are nature, human and nonhuman. These are our bodies. Together we are one body. We are creation and always will be.”

I’ll read a little bit more. “We matter. Humus, seed, fruit, tooth, organ, blood and bone. We are root, water, mud, algae and stone. We are the snap of bladderwort. We are buttress-rooted trees. Orchid, fern, dragonfly, elephant, monkey. We are larva, worm, cocoon, creeper, liana and honey bee. We are this forest.”

So can you tie that to the other essays?

SS: There’s a young woman in my neighborhood. She’s of the banyan people, so the line “We are this forest” is something that she has said. We are the people of this land, we are the children of this forest, we are this forest. So I had that very much in my mind. Every day I have this question: here’s this body, this human body, this mammal walking by this stream, and there is this profound exchange between this mammal and stones and buttress-rooted trees, and the air and the water and so on. And what’s going on there – there is no separation there. I’m 100% sure that bodies connect. That’s ecology.

I’ve had these dreams where every cell – there’s one specific dream where I can see the skin of my body and every cell is standing up and has got a head and two arms and each cell is waving and calling out to say “I’m here” and “I remember.” So there is this profound knowledge and awareness in every aspect of the natural world, and you cannot separate it. You cannot separate the awareness of the tree, the awareness of the elephant, and the awareness of me. There’s a level at which it is so interconnected and intertwined. And so we are not the same, but in that moment of feeling part of the forest, we are this forest.

DJ: And in that same essay, you also write “What I know about the rainforest can be penned onto a sticky note. But what I’ve experienced and understand through what I’ve experienced, that’s another matter.” And that, again, seems to be tying into everything you’re saying.

SS: Yes. I did do my bit in – towards understanding through science, some aspects of the rainforest. And the longer I’ve lived in this place, and the more I’ve been in conversation with people around me, the language of science and the means of perception, using transects and quadrants and machines and lists and so on; that sort of falls away. I am sure there are people who put all that to good use, but I do believe that’s not my way. I don’t want to make a list of species of the land anymore. I have done it, and if somebody else wants to do it, that’s fine. But experience is something else. And also all that knowledge that I worked towards building up is not at the forefront of my consciousness now. If you would ask me about the type of forest that I live in, I would be able to tell you that these are the dominant species, these are the common species, these are the rare species and so on.

DJ: And you could give their Latin names. I just need to point that out. I know you well enough to know that you could. You could do nomenclature from now until eternity and you would still be doing nomenclature. So you can do it. It’s like the cliché that Picasso was also a really good draftsperson. You have to know the craft before you give it up.

SS: That sounds good to me. I don’t know if that’s how I did it. It just fell away. And yes, I have used Latin names and I have enjoyed using them.

DJ: Oh! Somebody I just interviewed yesterday, one of the things he said to me was that people will talk about getting all enlightened and losing your sense of self, and he says it just makes him laugh because you actually have to have a sense of self before you can get rid of your sense of self, in terms of enlightenment. So it’s the same sort of thing here.

Sorry to interrupt with this, but I think it’s really important to see that you are not just somebody who is not emphasizing the nomenclature simply because you’re too lazy to do it.

SS: Not at all. And I think nomenclature – so I have this, in the same essay, where – I’ve actually used Latin names in most of my essays. I encourage people to find out what, find out more about the natural world using any means whatsoever. So this is a paragraph in the same essay, where I just say “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-being-ed forest, my home.”

I live with people who can put at least 2000 Latin names on the plants, so they know about 2000 different species of plants, and they know the Latin names and many of the indigenous names. So I am not at all against it.

DJ: I agree with you on this, but I want you to tell me what’s your deal? What’s your problem with the word “ecosystem”? You say “I choose the words ‘biome’ and ‘community’ instead of ‘ecosystem.’” I completely agree with you, by the way.

SS: Well, I dunno. Isn’t “ecosystem” somewhat to do with – systems really make me think of machines and parts, whereas “biome” and “community” just make me think of a whole bunch of people living together, different sorts of people living together. So one you can only tear apart, and the other one, you can sort of pull it apart and put it back together and you can do all these things to it and reassemble it. But you can’t really do that with biomes and communities.

DJ: You know, one of the ways I think about this is that I can take apart a chair. I can unscrew the various pieces of wood from each other, and I can leave them on the ground for a year, and then I can screw them back together and the chair will still be there. And in fact I can swap out parts and it doesn’t matter. But if I take off your arm and take off your leg, and take off your stomach, and I put them on the ground and leave them there for a year, and then I reassemble you – a chair is not really more than the sum of its parts.

SS: Yeah. These biomes and communities have interdependent individuals, beings, who need each other in every moment of their existence.

DJ: So we’ve talked a little bit about your writing, and I guess there are two directions I would like to go with the rest of the interview. One of them is: can you talk – I know we did an interview about this before, but can you talk again about the importance of the sanctuary? Can you talk about the sanctuary’s work and about its importance? And then after that, let’s talk about the murder of the planet.

SS: Okay. So, Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary is a place where we are focused on the natural world through the plant members. 93% or some crazy figure like that of the Western Ghats has been destroyed, converted to industrial plantations and different aspects of organization, dams and so on. So it’s pretty dire, and how do you work with that if you know that? The people I live with, a number of them are absolutely incredible gardeners. And when I say “gardeners” I mean they use the tools of gardening, which is this love and sensibility for plants, and cuttings, and seed collections and transplantation and growing, in a number of ways, all these endangered species from across the mountains. And so the Western Ghats are 1200 kilometers long, and there are still beautiful forests and habitats and these remaining refuges of great biological diversity. And one way to work with that is to go to these places that are in the process of being destroyed, and just like if you were going to a place that had been bombed, and then you bring back whoever is alive back to a refuge. So that is the Sanctuary’s first role, to be a refuge for refugees under holocaust. The great fire that is just eating up the mountains where we live. And it’s known that the rainforest and all its beings pull the rain in and contributes to the water cycle, to the rain and to rivers and so on. From what I know, mosses contribute a huge percentage, like 30% or something, to the tropical rainforest hydrological cycle, the bryophytes alone. And so in our sanctuary we have 150 species of bryophytes and 300 species of ferns and 600 species of orchids. It just goes on and on. Impatiens. 100 different families of plants under conservation because the recognition is there that every single one of these is important for its own sake, but together they are doing something incredibly important.

Many people elsewhere, they’re working on trees, and I think that’s fantastic, because I love trees, and what would the forest be without its trees? But somehow trees are easier to grow from seed. But these little plants are really incredibly difficult, because they like really special environments. So the work of the sanctuary is to explore what would be the best way to give them this extra chance to survive, that little bit of extra toehold really. And one very important reason for this is that as climate changes, many of the low-elevation species are moving up towards higher elevations, and many of the higher-elevation species are disappearing; dying or just being dried out.

So this is incredibly important work of caring for the immense diversity of this biome, to its plant members. And with the plants come the animals, and we’ve seen such vibrant recovery of frogs and insects within the little place that we have. Most of it was destroyed. We’ve seen how barren land can recover into an incredible diversity of plants. So in a way you can call us plant supremacists because we believe that plants are the – without the plants, nothing else will happen. But that’s just a way of saying we love plants. And someone else might work with fungi, or someone else might work with the whole, and those are all fine and valid ways of doing something for the natural world.

DJ: You mentioned monsoon earlier, I believe. And I want to read something that you’ve written.

“Most Indians believe that the monsoon is unassailable: a wind system 18 million years old, which has breathed life into the subcontinent since the rise of the Himalayas, whose formidable heights block it from traveling to Central Asia, condensing it instead into long hard rain. Its intensity varies from year to year, but we believe it will blow. But ever since I have been here, for about 24 years now (when you wrote that) , I have heard people talking about how the monsoon has gone awry, that it is no longer what it used to be. We also know this from scientific data, but crucially for us, we know this from the behaviour of the plants and animals in our sanctuary.”

The monsoon is changing in fundamental ways, but what if the monsoon fails? So for people living in the United States, many of us may not even know what a monsoon is. So can you talk about the monsoon and the changes you’ve witnessed and the changes you’ve read about?

SS: Anecdotally, the monsoon – people who’ve lived in these monsoon-enriched or monsoon-fed lands would talk about the day that the monsoon would arrive. Typically schools in Kerala would start the day the monsoon arrived. It was known that it would be around the first of June that you could expect the monsoon. But in the last 25 years that I’ve been there, it’s no longer clear at all when it’s going to arrive. And if it does arrive, like this year they said 29th of May, and on the 29th of May the monsoon was there. I woke up in the morning and it was that very typical monsoon quiet intensity, but steady rain, and the winds, the clouds were moving in the southwest or the northeast directions. And I was like “Wow! The monsoon is here!” But a week later there was sunshine and it’s just like “Where is the monsoon?” And then a few days later it’s just pouring.

What’s happened is that almost every year, the monsoon has actually shifted. It seems to be coming a little bit later. July, six weeks later, and then it sort of lasts a little bit longer. And there can be long dry spells in between. There can also be monsoon-level rainfall in other months. You cannot predict it anymore. You cannot say “Oh, in that month, in August, we’re going to have ten days of,” that’s when the festivals would be organized. There would be that period of a dry couple of weeks and then some festivals would be organized then.

DJ: So why is this important to plants, and why is this important to frogs and everybody else?

SS: I can speak more about plants. A lot of plants seem to – before the monsoon; March, April, May; you have these very powerful electrical thunderstorms and these short evening thundershowers. The lightning is really fierce and the thunderstorms are magnificent, so you know that in this period it’s sort of building up. But what happens is if there is a monsoon type of rainfall, which is day-long rain, and sustained over many days, the plants start to think “Oh, the monsoon is here.” And then what they do is to start to put all their energy into growth. And then what happens is: it’s not the monsoon, so it dries up. And the monsoon is still a couple of months away. All this energy into new growth cannot be sustained. So plants like tuberous plants for instance; they put out a little new tuber and they’re expecting the rain to come. And they withdraw the energy from the old tuber. But if the monsoon hasn’t arrived, then they become weakened.

So that’s an example of what happens with this. You cannot predict what is going to happen. Similarly with trees. The period of flowering is before the monsoon, and then you put your energy into making the fruit and the seed and there is going to be three months of day-long rain and it’s dark, so that’s the period of slow growth. If that doesn’t happen, if you have drought happening in the middle of the monsoon, like it’s also really hot in June or July, instead of cloud cover, if you have ten days of what we locally call a drought, that’s really bad for plants. They’re not used to that degree of sunshine and heat.

So if you’re really small, that’s going to really affect you. If you’re large, like a tree, and it happens over two or three years, then of course there’s a buildup and tree deaths happen when there’s a sustained messing up of these seasons.

DJ: One of the things I love about your work is that your loyalty is unabashedly with the plants, and with the land. I was just talking with someone today about how few writers there are whose loyalty to the land is clear with every word they write. Even with most environmentalists, their primary loyalty is still to this culture. Can you talk about the destructiveness of the belief that humans are fundamentally superior and that we have the right to destroy everything from the night, to silence, to the monsoon, to, what? Already 93% of the Western Ghats? Can you talk about that for a minute?

SS: Thank you, first, for seeing, or hearing, the loyalty to the plants and to the land, because that’s true. The second is that I don’t judge the average human being, the person I meet on the street. I don’t look at them and say “Look, there goes a human supremacist.” I don’t do that kind of thing, because I do believe that there’s been a brainwashing happening over millennia in this land, with the caste system, followed by capitalism and empire and modern civilization. This systematic removal, or the breaking of connection between human beings and everyone else has been a long campaign and a long process. And so I do see that if I come into the city; I’m seeing these large mammals walking around needing water and sunshine and love and trees and this convivial life with human beings as well, and other creatures. But there is something that is driving them to get into that bus or that car, and drive across that incredibly polluted city to this work that is inside this lifeless, soulless place. They’re victims, their bodies are surely victim to this enterprise of civilization, this technological supremacist total destruction of everything that truly matters.

When I come into the city, I see skins filtering the pollution. I see eyes tearing up with the dust. I see people coughing, and I think “Well, the best air filter ever invented in Bangalore City is the human lung, and look at the service we all are doing for the automobile industry.” Because they haven’t invented such a good air filter yet. Our skins, our livers, taking up all these toxins out of the water and out of the air and out of the soil. So such a great organ has not been invented yet, and so what makes anyone think that we, the modern humans, are capable of inventing this incredible cleanup operation called “life”? It’s not been done yet. So if anybody’s doing it, my organs are doing it. The trees are doing it. Rats and cockroaches are doing it. Invasive species are doing it, in the sense of cleaning and combating desertification. And so we want to come up with the absolute solution of how this big problem can be fixed, and there’s no fix that we can think of yet, because it’s just not there. The only thing that’s there is life itself, that’s doing what it’s done for billions of years.

So when I see all these journals and conferences for green solutions, I think they’re completely messed up. The only thing that’s working in that conference hall is the human body. It’s the only living thing in there. Do you see what I mean? It’s life itself that’s cleaning up. It’s not a technological solution that’s cleaning up.

DJ: Yes, I see it. And I agree with everything you’re saying, and I think you’ll agree with this too, that when we talk about things not being solutions, I think one step in the right direction would be to stop making more toxins.

SS: Yes. Absolutely. This fish back in our river, the fish populations in our little stream, that feeds into a major river across South India; the fish population has gone up in the last year just from preventing toxins from getting into the water. From patrolling and preventing. From making sure banana stems are not clogging up the flow, from, you know, these pesticide and chemically intensive agriculture operations, they cut these annual banana stems and chuck them into the water and that completely messes it up. And they put in dynamite and all kinds of poisons. They destroy the entire ecosystem to get a few fish. So all we did was to stop that, and we educated people. And the group that’s doing that, they went to 100 different families and said “Look, this is everybody’s river. You have no right to do this. Don’t you want to eat fish next year?”

And that’s what they’re able to do. Fish populations are much higher this year than last year. A lot of the solutions would come from not doing those things.

DJ: We only have a few minutes left, and I’m going to ask you a really unfair question. I know that your book is not completed yet, but at least so far, if you could have readers of that book, when it comes out, take away one thing that they know in their heart, what do you think it would be? Again, you haven’t finished the book, so I know this is completely unfair. But what comes to you?

SS: Well, the whole world is alive and talking to us and showing us the way, and how to live and behave and educate us about behavior. So the wild world is showing us every possible thing that we can do for a beautiful life together. And what not to do. So that’s the behavior part. So can behavior shift? Yes, if you listen to the natural world deeply enough.

DJ: Well, that sounds really wonderful. So thank you for your work, and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Suprabha Seshan. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

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