13 May 2009

Give Yourself Up To The Mountain

The below narrative by John Button entitled, ‘Give yourself up to the Mountain,’ is a short, fascinating history of the origins of the current reforestation programme at Arunachala and its surrounds.

John Button, an Australian, has been working with Permaculture for over twenty five years, first in Australia, and for the last fifteen years in India, South East Asia, continental Europe and the Canary Islands.

He has worked in the role of designer, implementer, teacher, consultant and project co-ordinator, in climates zones including dry tropics, rainforest sub-tropics, Mediterranean, temperate and alpine. He has broad, practical experience, having built several houses, planted many gardens and orchards, and many thousands of trees. He is an active campaigner for environmental and social justice.

To check out John Buttons current work and view remarkable ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of his projects, click on to his website at this link here.

John Button

“Give yourself up to the mountain!”

“That was the last bit of advice I needed, having just arrived (1989) in Tiruvannamalai to help initiate a project to reforest the sacred mountain Arunachala. I was, after all, there to do something very specific. Planting trees to make a forest on a little mountain that was little more than rocks and stubbles of grass. A tall order to be sure, and lots of work. I wasn’t there to sit around contemplating my navel, or to indulge in philosophy, much less esoteric ramblings.

Still, from the moment I arrived, it was hard to ignore another piece of wisdom offered by a woman with long experience in project work around the world. She had advised me to write myself a letter about what I thought I would do on this project, the inspirations and perspectives that I would put into practise.

“When you have written your list of intentions”, she suggested, “Put it in an envelope and seal it up. Then, don’t open it for at least three months after you arrive!”

I had complied, written and sealed my letter, and from the moment I saw the distinct profile of Arunachala emerging in the distance through the bus window, I was strongly aware of the list and the brilliance of her advise. Preconceptions and expectations are always fraught with potential for disappointment and delusion.

The project had been initiated by Apeetha Arunagiri, a fellow Australian who had lived in Tiruvannamalai for many years. Apeetha is a wonderful artist, but with little experience of green work beyond the potted plants on her terrace apartment near the Ashram. However she passionately believed that Siva-Arunachala was in desperate need of being clothed in green, and to be protected from the brutality of the annual burning which reduced almost the entire mountain to rock and ash. With this in mind, she had written a letter to a small organisation of radical rainforest activists in Lismore, Australia; the Rainforest Information Centre.

In her very poetic letter, Apeetha had explained that while she realised that RIC was involved with saving rainforests and that the barren landscape of Arunachala was very far from being rainforest, surely if such a region was not furnished with trees, then the chances of saving any rainforests still existing in India or elsewhere, would be remote indeed. With this in mind, she had formed a tiny organisation, the Annamalai Reforestation Society (ARS).

While at first her project seemed too far outside the limited ambit of RIC to consider, the poesy of her words and verity of their wisdom took root. It was in the context of a Deep Ecology workshop conducted on my land by one of the founders of RIC, John Seed, that my own involvement began. The weekend was almost unbelievably wet, with more than 60cms of rain falling in two days. Still the region is home to vast sub-tropical rainforests, so rain was hardly a rarity.

I had first met John during demonstrations to save those forests from the chainsaws of the logging industry. I had planted many thousands of trees in regenerating our degraded cattle farm, and had a profound love for Indiaforged in the course of various visits there. More significantly, my best friend, fellow planter and co-owner of the land, Rob Ritchie, who I had first met in India, had introduced me to his long-dead guru through a book which had touched my cynical soul to the core. The book was A Search in Secret India (Paul Brunton) and his guru was Ramana Maharishi. I had been strongly affected by Brunton’s tale and the credibility of his direct experience of a divine perfection, which I had always sceptically dismissed and denied.

The invitation to take part in a project to reforest the mountain so closely associated with Sri Ramana cracked my cynicism about divine providence, and I ran at full tilt through the torrential rain to break the news to Rob. In the end, Rob declined the invitation to go as a team, preferring to stay and maintain the project we had begun on our land.

I had been working with Permaculture for nearly 10 years in Australia, had a passionate relationship with India, but none of this adequately prepared me for the reality of the task. I was a total novice to project work, and my relationship with Indiahad been as a free wanderer totally unconstrained by any specific focus other than spontaneous experience. My list echoed loudly: the pilgrims planting the mountain in great gestures of common enthusiasm for the reforestation; huge nurseries with thousands of vigorous seedlings, a local population excited to work for the common goal. The list contained a host of other follies.

Apart from the tiny band of people Apeetha had managed to rope into her core of enthusiasm, the general impression was of total scepticism. Incredulity that anybody could be so foolish as to contemplate greening the barren Arunachala: all photos from the earliest period of Ramana’s residence on the mountain showed not the slightest existence of forest so who could believe it was possible? And even hostility: lemongrass was harvested each year by a handful of grasscutters who then fired the Fire Mountain to encourage the grasses and incinerate any other competing species; others deliberately lit the mountain with the belief that Siva in the form of Light would manifest their desires or needs (enlightenment, delivery of a boy-child, relief from debt) if they set it on fire. A plantation effort by the Forestry Department years had born little encouragement for success, and one possessed Swami-tree planter, Nerikutiswami, had been reduced to bitter cynicism by the constant vandalising of all is efforts to green the mountain.

Bill Mollison, co-founder of Permaculture, had advised me that “if you have no volunteers, then you don’t have a project.” Meaning that if there are no locals who believe enough in the project to give their time and energy, the project simply won’t work. Well, there was a handful of volunteers, including me, but the resistance was clear. Not entirely unreasonably, given that even in our small nursery in Ramananagar, we were drawing water lavishly from the well to water our tiny plants, while women were queuing up for hours at the public tap to fill a pot for their essential household needs.

My own parents declared me to be quite crazy when they realised I was actually paying for the privilege of reforesting a sacred mountain in south I responded that I was convinced that I would receive infinitely more than I could ever give.

The first two plantings on the mountain seemed to confirm the pessimism of the majority. Almost 100%, burnt to char by the fires, or devoured by the goats, or plucked out to be used as kindling. Determination – pig-headed stubbonness if you like – finally succeeded though, as all who know Arunachala would now agree. Watchmen were posted to guard every seedling. Somebody initiated creating stone cages around every planting, a strategy which I resisted as absurd energy loss better used in the form of more watchmen. In hindsight though, the symbolic significance of demonstrating that we would stop at nothing to ensure the mountain was forested probably convinced many people of our credibility.

A huge step forward came with the approach to the Temple authorities to create our main nursery in the great Temple itself, since the Templeis sited on a number of abundant natural springs. In the process of growing our seedlings, we would regenerate the gardens which had once shaded the temple, including recreating the sacred plantings that had traditionally been associated with worship. We also undertook to provide coconuts and flowers used in daily ritual. It was accepted, and we took a great leap to rebind the ancient association of nature and the Divine being inseparable. We also raised up to 300,000 seedlings each year, and the largest temple garden in the country.

One day, a fire broke out on the mountain. Without anybody cajoling them into it, villagers closest to the ARS planting rushed up and beat out the fires. It was the most significant public gesture I could have hoped for; that the local people clearly perceived more benefit to themselves in a mountain covered with trees than with rocks and grass. At last we had our volunteers, en masse. These days, one sign of smoke on the mountain inspires a rash of phone-calls and a small army of workers and student volunteers invade the slopes with water and fire-beaters to extinguish the blaze.

Gradually the exposed path up to Skandashram has become covered in a shady canopy of trees as the barren rockscape is transformed to forest. High on the mountain, the vast bamboo glades which one dominated some areas, are naturally regrowing, having lain dormant for literally generations. Vestiges of huge old trees long ago felled are respouting, responding to the simple presence of time to grow, without fire or blade or teeth to hinder them.

Of course a big blaze can still seriously damage all the good work, but now there is a host of independent groups all working in their own right to regreen Arunachala. They will succeed. The need to directly plant has now been overtaken by the necessity of protecting natural regrowth from fire, grazing and stripping. Left to her own devices, Nature will swiftly cover the once-naked Siva

As for my retort to my parents, I have indeed received infinitely more than I ever ‘gave’. Constantly confronted with my own limits and expectations of success or failure, I was forced to observe my reactions and response more profoundly than ever before. The teachings of Arunachala are relentless, irresistible. I received two exquisite daughters too, delectable fruits of a relationship born in the shadow of the mountain. And the success of my professional work has come as a direct result of association with the blessed Arunachala. Giving myself up to the mountain.

John Button
Via Progno 25A
28843 Montescheno

email: johnnaturedesigns@yahoo.com


arvind said...

Fantastic work John Button, "Apeetha Arunagiri" & everyone else associated with the reforestation project. Keep it up

Anonymous said...

Dear John Button.
You've done a great job.
You do pat yourself on the back most enthusiastically!
You seem to be above meditation and
are impatient with "Navel gazers"