This is a story about my grandfather, we call him Thatha.
Thatha is wearing his usual Banian and Veshti — a comfortable white cotton outfit. His head is bowed, studying the base of the rose bush. He squats down comfortably, expertly tucking in the Veshti around his knees. Sturdy hands reach down lovingly to pick up a ball of mud with a plant and move it a distance away, replanting it.
I walk to his side. He stands up, smiles down at me and then we both turn to the little plant. Slightly droopy, but still green.
“Isn’t that a weed?”
“Over there it was, here it is another plant. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Today I am halfway across the globe from home, at the C&NN Children & Nature Conference in Minnesota. I am in a session in which we are talking about cultural barriers and nature connection. The room is filled with people passionate about this cause and stories about the fear that is stopping people from coming out into nature. I wonder, if we replant barriers, can they support us instead of hurt us? If we see fear differently, can we overcome it?
As someone who wants to restart a conversation about animacy of nature, or the deep connection we all have with it. I can very often start by bringing up a plant that feels precious, that has been connected to someone’s parents, and grandparents and those before them. I can then frame the conversation not from logic and science, not from the cold brain, but the warm one. One that can think in terms of emotions. Where it is okay to feel and honor interconnection.
This is a story about two gardeners.
My friend wants me to meet her boss and colleagues, to convince them to start nature connection work at their school. She also warns me that that they are feeling antagonistic to a newcomer.
I walk into the meeting realizing the need to establish a connection through common ground. We spend a pleasant half hour talking about grandmothers and their gardens. I chose to talk with the gardener who knew what it meant to work with soil, rather than the weary business woman. I walk out with an opportunity to talk to all the staff.
Culture: the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.
I believe that culture is formed as a solution for pain.
I am often left in awe when I see the amalgamation of cultures around me in India. Little things that I took for granted as a kid which I later learned were smart fixes for issues. For instance, fasting and festivals always seemed to go hand in hand. That doesn’t make sense until you realize that festivals happen at every turn of season, when we are prone to infectious diseases — which fasting will guard against.
Ancient lands with ancient people, but also subtle influences from every brush it has had with other civilizations. In India, we have the Siddi tribals in Honnavar who are descendants from Africans but worship Shiva. I speak 5 languages, cook a mashup of cuisines, am native to one city and grew up in two others, at home anywhere in India. Culture makes you perceive yourself to be a person of value, in a world of meaning. When I live in harmony with that, my self-worth grows.
This is a story about mangoes.
I spent close to four summers on, in, around, or looking longingly at mango trees. My grandmother would be tickled about the constant supply of mangoes by the second week. By the fourth, she would have run out of ways to pickle them. By the sixth, I would start getting stern warnings from her. Finally, there would be immense relief at home when the season ended, eight weeks in. No matter how the adults got tired of being buried in this supply of mangoes, my own pride and joy of providing them never diminished.
Perhaps they tolerated it with amusement because they remembered what it was like to do this as a young child. I am yet to meet a crowd of adults in my part of the world who don’t sprout a big grin when talking about mango adventures from their childhood.
Barrier: An obstacle or impediment
Frustration, anger, irritation, resignation, are all words I associate with barriers. Often, I find barriers come from a pain that hasn’t yet been solved. Perhaps from the people you want to talk with, perhaps from yourself.
I have lived my life relatively cushioned; a close happy family, and with (knock on wood) no great tragedies. Stepping out into the world was a powerful experience. I learned by fire, wept with, and got inspired by all those people who have suffered. But, I also wept when I came across people who couldn’t listen, observe, be open-minded; people who hurt within and hurt those around them. Their culture hasn’t caught up with the present. And in the meeting of who they are and who I am, there is friction and pain.
This is a story of a grand woman.
She is sunk into her seat, head bowed, back arched, her hearing aids bringing her news of my arrival. She wears her 90+ years amazingly well and the elbows purposefully placed give you the impression that she could do anything. We have both been awaiting this meeting. For the next hour, we talk about my work, about changes that nature can inspire in all human beings. We sit close together, our voices are louder than usual, and our smiles big. She fills the room with her history.
She asks me about my family. It feels right to tell her where I come from. It jars when I’m told to seek blessings from my father and brother, to get them to approve of our plan to work with a nearby school. I am young and female… May I not trust in my expertise, independent of the males in my family? I laugh as I imagine how worried and astonished they would be if I actually did this.
Catalyst: a substance that increases the rate of a reaction without itself undergoing any permanent change.
This was the word inspired by the amazing conversations at the conference. Can solutions come from the same place as barriers? From the history/story/culture/characteristics of yourself and the people you are trying to help?Are there catalysts that help us slip under barriers? Can the barriers themselves be catalysts?
I have often found myself going in circles while trying to explain to people exactly why it is important to connect to nature. Never able to fully express all the depth of it. Going into monologues that could actually cause disconnection. Instead, I start storytelling. Bringing to the table whatever is a catalyst in the other people I am talking to. Asking them to tell me what connects them to nature.
I love thinking of things in narrative. These days, I always ask myself, what story do I want to frame this in, to enable meaningful conversation? What is the catalyst here?
This is a story of two birds and two children.
Beside me, creeping intently down the pathway were two of my students. Out of the corner of our eyes, we see two birds bobbing forward and backward on the wire, bee-eaters turning their heads in search of insects. Once spotted, they are off with a swerve, tuck, bank, somersault, swoop and glide back to their perch.
We move towards them, more slowly than before. For a whole 30 minutes now, we have been absolutely silent. One of my students turns to me and stage whispers, “Janani, I wasn’t interested in any of these things before. Birds and all. I just wanted to reach where I needed to go. Now, they are so fascinating!” We grin, my heart does a flip of joy. On our first session, these two had plowed through the field, heads bent down, not noticing the displacement of beings hurrying out of their way…I breathe a whisper of gratefulness as I watch the crossover happen and then we go back to watching.
I wonder. Do you recall a memory when you or someone you know worked to ease a barrier with joy? How did you or they do that?
Additional Reading & Resources
Read more about Janani’s social enterprise, GRIN (Growing in Nature).
Watch Janani’s interview in our 2016 C&NN Conference Service Project Video.
THE LIGHT OF NATURAL LEADERS: Young People Move the New Nature Movement
LET’S CREATE A WORLDWIDE HOMEGROWN PARK
NEW INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION TO THE FORGOTTEN HUMAN RIGHT
CHILDREN AND NATURE WORLDWIDE: A Shared Vision
NATURE EDUCATION IN CHINA: Growing Demand, Greater Business Involvement, and a New Model for Conservation