Here we exhibit a collection of articles that may have not quite made it into Boundless, due to lack of room, or which have only been given a brief mention. We hope you enjoy reading these.
BOUNDLESS, EDITION 4
TAX – AN UNEQUAL PLAYING FIELD
A report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reveals just how extensively tax reduction schemes are used by the rich and powerful.
It seems that once you achieve a certain level of wealth, paying tax is no longer a problem. Through clever accounting systems, it is possible to reduce all corporate and personal taxation to a negligible level. One of the most popular mechanisms of doing this is through setting up offshore companies in so-called ‘tax havens’ like Panama and the Bahamas.
In April 2016, an unprecedented data leak from an employee of Panana-based bank Mossack Fonseca provided evidence that would rouse public anger at tax inequality. It was enough for Iceland’s PM to stand down and for David Cameron’s tax affairs to be placed under scrutiny (his father’s company, Blairmore Holdings Inc, was incorporated in Panama and run from the Bahamas, allowing wealthy families to avoid paying tax in the UK).
Tax avoidance and evasion is a major issue, but one that has always been hard to tackle due to the power and wealth of those who benefit from it – none more so when this includes politicians and media owners. The former have the power to change policy, whilst the latter can shape or re-direct public opinion (and some of the largest media owners have managed to pay little or no UK tax).
Now a cache of 1.3 million files from the Bahama’s corporate registry has created the largest public database of offshore entities in history. As noted by the ICIJ, this new information ‘reveals previously unknown or little-reported connections to companies owned or run by former politicians from the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.’ The sort of connections that can result in resignations, criminal indictments, and regime changes.
The Bahamian data, when combined with the Panama Papers, provides startling insights into the mixed dealings of politicians, business executives and criminals – together with the lawyers and bankers who make these processes possible. And it is not just the Bahamas where tax reduction and blatant avoidance takes place: the British Virgin Islands is another place listed by the European Union as an ‘uncooperative tax haven’, where the super-rich secrete their gains.
In the UK alone, there is a whopping £34 billion ‘tax gap’, defined as the difference between the revenue that should be collected each year and the amount actually received. If this gap were to be closed, it would be enough to prevent some of the biggest cuts to front-line public services.
Moreover, in the UK there exist ‘softer’ tax schemes that allow higher rate tax-payers and investors to reduce their level of tax. These schemes include the reliefs given to those who donate to charities, as well as those who invest into ‘social enterprises’. Whilst presented as socially good, which can indeed occur, it is also the case that a donated or invested organisation can do far less at tackling core social needs than would otherwise be spent, through tax, on public services.
Many of these investing initiatives make high claims that have not been held to account, bolstered by other media that do not fulfil their journalistic responsibilities to present an accurate and comprehensive story (one such media outlet in Bristol was itself the recipient of an investment). Our own preliminary investigations into the matter would suggest that, in some cases, scarcely a penny of the invested amounts make any real positive difference to those they purport to help – with such schemes only serving to re-direct public money into the pockets of wealthy private interests.
In future editions of Boundless, we shall be further examining the issue of tax reduction, avoidance and evasion in all its nuances, working in partnership with the ICIJ and other sources.
Just another charity shop?
With 21 charity shops along Gloucester Road alone, and hundreds across the city, what makes ours so special? Like any charity shop, we sell donated goods to make money for our cause, supporting formerly homeless people by providing a home and work. What many of our customers don’t realise is that the people serving them used to be homeless themselves.
For many who experience homelessness, loss of self-esteem is a major obstacle they must overcome. So people who live in the Emmaus Bristol community – our companions – carry out meaningful work in our social enterprises, making a real contribution, as well as building up their work skills and confidence.
This is a core principle of the Emmaus movement, which began in 1951 when some of the first Emmaus companions in Paris found out that founder Abbé Pierre had been asking for food donations. Feeling that begging compromised their self-respect, these first companions became “rag pickers”, collecting things that people no longer wanted and selling them on. This was the start of the first Emmaus social enterprise.
To this day we run re-use and recycling enterprises, not just selling donations, but also fixing and re-using where we can to help reduce landfill. Buying from us doesn’t just raise money for a good cause, it’s a practical and direct way to help somebody rebuild their life after homelessness.
We have three shops across Bristol, including a pop-up shop on Brislington Hill, and also run house clearance and electrical appliance testing services. Pop in for a browse and a chat with our companions Monday – Saturday, or call ahead on 0117 954 0886 (Stokes Croft) or 0117 963 3033 (Bedminster) to see if we have what you need in stock.
By Joao Rousa
Meal times are the kindest clocks. They divide the day, help keep us focused. We are fed two times a day and each one of us can’t wait to get our plate, even though the taste of the food leaves much to be desired. How I long for a thick juicy steak!
Anyway, let me introduce myself. I’m Benny, as the name and picture on my ‘room’ door states. Of course, it’s really just an extra-big cage. I’ve been here 2 years now and I’m not sure when I’m getting out.
Right opposite used to be my pal’s room – he got out yesterday, lucky geezer. Now a new one’s in there, pining away. His cheap coat looks like it’s been through plenty of homeless nights. When exercise time comes he’s going to wish he died younger than he is now. Just look at those eyes!
We’ve all been through pain, both outside and in here: betrayed, made to fight for our lives, chased down like monsters, kicked down and called names until nothing seems to matter. Sleep away your days, I try to tell him. Because in here sleep is the only escape.
When I dream I am always running – from what, I can never remember. There are trees and fields, mountains and rivers. I can taste the air, so fresh and cool, carrying with it the many scents of life. They say we are descended from a simpler race – no, a stronger and more noble tribe. Some of the ones here bear their features: a proud brow, piercing brown eyes, strong legs, chest and shoulders. They walk more slowly, pacing their rooms night and day, perhaps dreaming the same dreams. Running…
A bell sounds. Here it is: exercise time. The new one looks up. I don’t bother smiling.
One by one, the doors open. The guard on duty today never says anything but bad words. He’s the sort that finds power and strength only in attacking those who can’t fight back – and if they do… well, let’s just say things can get a lot worse.
Out into the sun, across the pavement, onto the grass – a rush and swirl of bodies and faces. The fence keeps us from going very far. I look around and see the familiar gangs getting together, playing their dim-witted games. My spot, as always, remains unoccupied. It’s in the shade, out of the way. This is where I sit and watch and wait.
The newcomer zooms out, his head low. One look at the main gang seals his fate. They close in, faces fixed in the same twisted snarls. I blink and he’s down. After about half a minute they let him be. Probably in his toes that seemed more like a day. Coat torn, blood streaking his nose, he looks even worse than before. And he’s slinking over in my direction.
I consider flashing the evil smile that ensures I’m left alone, but his eyes make me reconsider. He sits nearby, licking his wounds. He’s a runt, a weakling; how he had the guts to stare at one of the ‘Bigs’ is beyond me. Still, he’s learnt now. In here we all learn the hard way.
In my younger days I used to fight with the best of them. I used to roll in fields of gold, ruling a kingdom that seemed everlasting. No one dared look into my eyes, for fear of the fire that burned within. I was an athlete, an expert at pleasing who needed to be pleased.
That’s all gone now. I’ve got nothing to show for my former wealth, all my friends have left, even my family have disowned me. All for being too stupid and too proud.
Let me tell you another thing about this place. After a while, for the long-termers who no longer have any place in society, you are led away by ghosts. Not to freedom but to death. Yes, and Benny’s time is coming soon. Part of me wants it… and yet a part of me doesn’t.
Exercise time is over. Back to my cage.
I sit, watch, yawn, sleep…
Again the snowy fields stretch away to a setting sun. Running. I feel the others beside me, breathing hard, hearts pumping in synchrony, legs kicking white. We can sing to the moon, if only to catch the echoes of tomorrow. Something lies ahead; nothing lies behind. There is –
More noise. It’s particularly vigorous this time, which can only mean one thing… a visitor has arrived.
I can see her now – can’t refrain from joining the cacophony. She’s got long auburn hair, a kind face. I can’t believe she’s looking at me, can barely contain my excitement.
“That one’s got a history,” the stupid guard beside her says, “been here too long.”
She smiles at me – Oh please let it be so…
“I’ll take him,” she says, “if only to make him happy.”
Yes, yes, yes!
“Are you sure? There’s a better Retriever over here…”
“No. I’m certain.”
* * *
Out of the cage, along the corridor, enduring the envy of his former companions, Benny leaves for good. The woman beside him strokes his coat and says good words. He is happier than he can ever remember, with a great big doggy smile that will last the rest of his days.
By Laura Cao
The train was already packed when I boarded. Hot and sweaty bodies were at every corner of Carriage 12 – the air inside was damp and humid even though almost all the windows were open. Still, it was better than the 33-degree scorching heat outside. Who knew the weather in July could be this oven-like, especially as it’s England? I hurried forward, phone and ticket in one hand and a small travelling bag in the other. Thank goodness I had a sitting ticket! I would never be able to last standing for the whole journey home, which was five long and tiring hours.
Pushing past a crowd of chatting ladies, I found my seat, stuffed my bag into the overhead storage unit and plonked down on the soft fabric, giving a contented sigh. I was absolutely exhausted, having just taken a two-hour bus ride to the station and been in line for the train for what seemed like hours. Turning on my phone, I texted my best friend.
On the train! So tired, can’t wait to get home x
I watched the other passengers as we all waited for the train to leave the platform. Beside me was a burly man, most likely in his mid-forties, tucking into a huge chicken salad sandwich dripping with ketchup and what looked like mayonnaise or cheese sauce. Next to the wrapper was a large container holding a sizeable portion of rich and creamy chocolate cake. A few other passengers gave him looks of disgust but he was completely oblivious to their stares. He saw me eyeing the cake, though, and pulled it towards himself protectively.
Opposite me, separated by a small wooden foldup table, was a woman engrossed in the book she was reading. Maybe also in her mid-forties, she looked like those posh people probably still stuck in the early twentieth century, with immaculate hair tucked under a vintage hat and wearing a long floral dress. Next to her sat an elderly man with snowy hair and soft wrinkled skin. He was asleep and snoring softly, head leaning against the window.
I leaned back on my seat, closing my eyes. I was finally going home for the holidays. Being a first year student at university money didn’t come very easily so I was forced to work the night shift at a local diner – a job I will be ecstatic to quit. It was tiring work and had a meagre salary.
“Sorry! Sorry, excuse me. Sorry, sorry.” I opened my eyes to see a blustering woman stumbling down the aisle of the carriage. With two big suitcases by her side, a handbag and a cup of coffee, she was bumping into every possible person she could while apologizing profusely.
Bloody hell, I thought to myself. What a klutz.
“Pillock,” Sandwich Guy mumbled beside me while chewing vigorously, globs of god-knows-what-sauce dribbling down from the corners of him mouth. I was confused as to what he meant so I did a quick search on Google: Pillock – a stupid person.
How mean. But also true.
The carriage doors closed and the train lurched suddenly. Pillock stumbled forwards and some of her steaming coffee spilt onto the table in from of me and leaked over onto my phone. I pulled it back in horror.
“Oh my god, I am so sorry!” She exclaimed. She tried to dab the coffee from the table and my phone but backed away when I gave her a dirty stare – a warning to stay away. Fumbling through the back pocket of my jeans I managed to find a piece of clean tissue and began scrubbing furiously. Those kind of people irritated me a lot – the ones who were unorganised and unprepared and caused trouble for other people. I glanced at Pillock again. She was trying to lift both her suitcases up to the overhead storage, grunting and gasping as she pushed them inside. No one was making any move to help her – everyone was probably still huffy about their toes being squashed flat under the weight of her luggage.
After her cases eventually made it into storage, she gave a sigh of relief, took a look at her ticket and stood still for the first time after boarding the train. The intercom then sounded, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Chiltern Railways. Please have your tickets ready for our ticket attendants who will be coming over to check them shortly. Have a great journey and thank you for travelling with Chiltern Railways.”
Ticket in hand, I waited for the attendant to reach Carriage 12. A soft buzz of conversation spread throughout the second-class coach as everyone scrabbled around for their own tickets. The Elderly Man was also awake and was searching feebly for his own ticket. He gave weak grunts here and there as he did so, prompting Twentieth Century Woman to offer her assistance, which he gladly accepted. Sandwich Guy was now tucking into his massive slab of cake, giving me suspicious glances once every now and then.
There was a hushed, indistinct murmur from everyone as the ticketing attendant arrived. I wanted to be over with it as soon as possible – I was very tired and sleepy and I could fall asleep as soon as I closed my eyes. Hopefully Pillock or Sandwich Guy wouldn’t interrupt me. Elderly Man fell asleep again and Twentieth Century Woman’s head was stuck back into her book. I looked up at Pillock, sandwiched between a young woman and a tall framed man, both who had their backs to her. She shifted from one foot to the other, looking uncomfortable. I felt a bit sorry for her since her suitcases did all look really heavy.
“Ma’am, can I see your ticket please?” Pillock turned around to face the ticket attendant. “Oh yes, here.” The attendant took a look. “Ma’am, do you know you have a sitting ticket? 29H…” That was where Elderly Man was sitting.
“Oh yes,” Pillock replied. She lowered her voice a bit. “I just thought that the old man looked very tired, he probably won’t be able to stand the whole way so I let him sleep there. It’s okay, I can stand. Healthy as a horse, I am.” The attendant smiled and moved on. Twentieth Century Woman handed in her ticket swiftly without even looking up from her book. Elderly Man woke up and gave his too.
“I have a standing ticket,” he told the attendant in a gentle, wheezy voice. “I’m just sitting here to rest for a moment, when the person comes I’ll give the seat to them.”
I gave mine and Sandwich Guy also handed in his chocolate-and-ketchup-stained ticket.
I was surprised, frankly. About Pillock, I mean. I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover right? What made me feel so guilty is that I myself probably wouldn’t have given that old man my seat – I would’ve just thought about my own needs.
I nudged Pillock. “Hey,” I smiled, “if you get too tired you can sit here for a while.” She looked surprised. “Oh no dear, that’s fine,” she said, chuckling. I stood up. “No, I insist.”
She beamed at me broadly and sat down. We introduced ourselves and started chatting.
Meanwhile Sandwich Man rummaged through his travel bag, took out a bumper pack of crisps and started munching. The noise of his loud, crunching chewing and appreciative murmuring filled the whole of Carriage 12.
By Anita Russell
How could he grip the wheel so lightly, yet still be able to see into the mist that haunted us? Whenever I felt threatened, whether in times of strife or uncertainty, my grip involuntarily tightened. It was an inherited instinct, perhaps a genetic one, but it entirely escaped his behaviour, as if he was more relaxed in danger. Maybe there was some internal battle raging inside that calm exterior, or maybe it was just that bottle he thought I did not know about, stashed beneath the seat.
[Anita’s story is too long to include here but we invite all those wishing to see the full version to email: firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a free copy]
BOUNDLESS, EDITION 3
Turn Off the Lights
In this beautiful article, Suprabha Seshan explores how sacred the night can be – and how civilization has sought out to banish it
It’s a magical time. I’m at the stream, my feet in swirling water; skin tingling with a soft wind coming through the forest. Dusk-light fades to new moonlight and, much later, to starlight. I’m listening to the brown fish owl, who I meet here quite often: he sits on the cheru tree whoo-whoo-whooing to me, while I sit on a stone, sometimes whoo-whoo-whooing back to him. I also hear a distant lapwing, a racket-tailed drongo, a few frogs and some crickets. There are scufflings in the reeds, forest rodents perhaps. The bank is pungent with the night’s greater humidity. One by one, fireflies turn on their green-yellow lights to flicker-dance all around me.
It is a sad truth that most humans today fear the night, which is really a fear of the dark. We are 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 endangered, as the rest of life is. The more we shut it away, the more we succumb to disease and disorder. Most humans no longer relate to the night, just as they don’t relate to anything wild.
The night is weakening, as the planet itself is. For billions of years Earth slept under the light of the moon, the stars, the Milky Way and various cosmic iridescences, until electric lights turned up to cast a cold brilliance upon these spheres, chasing their mysteries away.
The night is under assault, as indeed all planetary attributes are. Things that happen in the night, like plant respiration, the release of melatonin in our blood streams, the pollination of night-blooming flowers by a spectacular diversity of moths, the dark phase of circadian rhythms, the 24-hour timekeeper that all nature abides by—these are all under attack.
The night, the natural night, lit only by the sky, no longer plays upon our minds or our bodies. Neither do the wild creatures with whom we co-created myriad cultures around the planet. In the manufactured white light of an eternal day, we believe we are safe, that we can control demons and desires, our subconscious and irrationalities and passions. We believe we can ignore loyalties to the stars, to the moon, to the benediction of a long sleep, the daily death with which we renew ourselves in every cell of our being.
The more the night is shut away, the more we succumb to ill health. Every earthly being and process is dependent upon this swing from day to night to day; on and on for an entire lifetime. The 24-hour oscillation of temperature and light—as well as the seasonal rhythms they follow—triggers our biochemistries, metabolisms and hormones. These rhythms are as old as the planet, as old as our rotation and our revolution, etched into the memory of each of our bodies. Like the beating of a heart, this pulse of light and heat affects everything in our individual and collective lives.
I remember the night a tiger leapt away from our path, leaving his body’s recent press on the grass; the smell of him. We could hear a rustle, and knew that he was close, very close. We were walking down a slope in a grassland, single file, stumbling in the dark. No moonlight, only the stars.
I remember the many nights of elephant runs, the snapping gunshot sounds of their foraging in the bamboo clumps. I am energised when they are around, alert, nimble, able to draw on different strengths in my body. The calls of the wood owl and the brown fish owl; the loris, the crickets and the frogs, the nightjars and the frogmouths, the slow slide of the cat snakes and wolf snakes; the poise of keelbacks hunting, the shrews and rats scurrying, the dancing sidestep of scorpions and the yapping geckos; the gleaming dance of leaves lit by night light: they all sharpen my senses and body as they enliven the forest where we all reside.
Illustrations: Golak Khandual
Is the night lit? Is it black? Does it have colour? You cannot know this if you are in a city, if there is even one electric light in your horizon.
I seek shadows, the dark, subtle lights: candlelight, dimmed light, moonlight, starlight, bioluminescent fungal light, mistlight and firefly light. I have experienced things in the night that remain mysteries during the day. When I step into my nightskin, I am compelled to leave behind everything that I know to be me and mine. I am becoming more and more nyctophilic.
Most traditions have rituals that can only be performed at night. I was fortunate to be witness to one in the Xingu area of Mato Grosso in Brazil many years ago: a kwarup, or end-of-mourning ritual. Central to this is “the stealing of the fire”, performed each time the tribes of the Xingu come together. This is an acknowledgement that fire was stolen from nature in the first place, that it is all-powerful and magical. Ever since then, the Xingu tribes believe, human societies stole fire from each other.
Fire was our first protection against the night, we are told. Fire was necessary to all peoples, a power to be utilised—for rituals, cooking, storytelling, fashioning tools, clearing land and transforming materials. Fire required humility, caution, respect, discernment. Perhaps it was fire that altered our relationship with the night, by protecting us and keeping us warm. Perhaps it was in fire’s thrall that we cast out the night.
A friend of mine lived with the Nambiqwara tribe in Brazil for five years. He became intimate with their culture. He tells me that the Nambiqwara are deeply respected by all the other tribes in the Amazon. At intertribal gatherings the Nambiqwara are invited to perform special rituals. Trance states are induced with music alone, and even without.
It is widely known that rhythms at particular intensities can lead to altered states of perception, that different peoples around the world have used drumming to understand the subtler qualities of the real world. It is known that drumming at night is especially conducive to this. In the monsoon, as a million drops of rain fall on a million leaves; when a thousand frogs merge their balloonings and tinklings with the thrumming of cicadas; as darkness falls, as the clouds run slow over the hill, as the gloaming turns to night; if you are alone: beware. You might lose your way, as well as your sense of who you are.
In nature, in a connected life, awareness flows between creatures. It is not contained in a single organ or body. It is everywhere. Night walks facilitate this expansion particularly well. If you drop the shell you incarcerate yourself in, if the drummings of the forest get through your conditioned responses, then you experience what everyone else in the forest already knows.
The night is particularly suited to alter our states of perception.
The night equals sleep, for the greater part of our human experience. Dark also was the time spent in mother’s womb, where we were alive-but not seeing, pure foetal awareness suspended in liquid intelligence, the sounds of mother’s body. We cannot remember this consciously, but our safest and most cherished experiences of the dark will be like that foetal chamber: low light, the sound of water; perhaps a lover’s hands or body or breath (or a dog’s); the immediacy of your children or parents. This envelope of night is my most intimate space, where inner and outer lose definition, where dreams are messages and promptings, where everything moves, is alive and mysterious and perhaps dangerous, but mostly just imbued with shifting qualities, aided by the pulsating sounds of crickets, frogs, the wind through the trees. My ears shoot through a sonic barrier that is simply impossible to breach in the cold light of day, when eyes dominate.
Do eyes see further, or do ears hear further? At night we can hear distant sounds. Do I hear the clouds, the trees, the mountains and streams better at night? What happens when you are truly alone, on the borderline between fear and extra sensory alertness for your own safety? Does the soundscape open, does the breeze tell you things, does a molecule speak volumes, do tremors and rustles amplify? Why do blind people hear and smell so uncannily well?
Everyone recognises the need for sleep. It is as if the night is a place we truly enter only when we fall asleep. We go into our bedrooms and turn off the lights. Most of us relax after sundown.
I feel safe when I’m with dogs at night. I can sleep deeply, knowing they will be alert. Babies sleep deeply in their parents’ arms. Lovers curl around each other, skin to skin, limb to limb, tender and protective at once. One can sleep deeply when one feels safe. This is the paradox of sleep. We are completely vulnerable for those hours, we are most at risk, and yet are deeply renewed by it.
Hence security guards, iron grills, alarm systems, fences, fierce dogs, street lights and weapons to be secure against robbers, thieves, rapists, murderers, psychopaths, serial killers and even spirits and ghosts. So that we can sleep deeply, so that we can be vulnerable.
Some indigenous peoples say that electric lighting keeps spirits away. In fact, some say electric lights restrict the movement of spirits. And, that this banishing of spirits is bad for the world.
I remember an evening when the full moon rose, after the sun went down in the most extraordinary explosion of colour. I remember how big and orange the moon was as it rose in the east. I remember the full silvery light of that night. Three of us were on a tower. Everything was quiet. Out of the valley to the west, where there is forest, a strange wailing began, a high-pitched undulating keening, melancholic in the extreme, and beautiful. It went on and on, this rising and falling high-pitched note. I imagine mermaids sing like that, enchanting and heartbreaking at the same time.
We had never heard anything like this before. It was later that night, when there was a great crashing and trumpeting in the valley, that we realised the elephants were back. Had it been one of them? We heard this once more, and never again. I have yet to hear reports of elephants singing. Perhaps these eerie sounds were made by other creatures. But not by a human.
I believe the night to be a fertile period, in part because it belongs to creatures and processes for whom darkness is necessary, whom diurnal beings like ourselves never meet in waking reality. Without them, the biosphere would not be what it is, as the interdependencies between night life and day life are essential to all ecologies, no matter where. Matings, huntings, pollinations: the night is very busy. People in my village fight for their right to cheap electricity. I’m of a mind to join activists campaigning for a “right of the night” itself.
They lobby for areas of land where no electric lighting disturbs the night sky. They know the night is endangered and that we need to protect it. They fight against light pollution, which is detrimental to human health and to natural ecological processes, to the lives of pollinators and mammals and blooming flowers, and indeed for the respiration of all plants in the vicinity. Electric lights, particularly white lights, alter our circadian rhythms so drastically that stress levels rise, causing all kinds of dysfunctions to our bodies and our thinking capacities.
The night is a hindrance to this patriarchal enterprise called civilisation. The fact that we can wilfully 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, an apt metaphor for the state of 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 civilisation depriving the earth of its sleep, insanity spreads far and wide.
We need to bring back the night.
A Meaty Issue
In Boundless (Edition 2) we cover the relationship between diet and climate in a few sentences. Here, courtesy of Laura Wellesley at the Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs, you can read about the issue in full.
Meat Consumption and Climate Change
Globally, our consumption of meat has reached unsustainable levels. Industrialized countries are consuming more than experts deem a healthy limit (twice as much in the case of the average EU citizen, three times as much for the average American), and the emerging economies are fast catching up. This level of overconsumption is bad news for our health, contributing to a rise in obesity and non-communicable diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart diseases. But it’s also very bad news for our planet. The production of animals for meat, and of crops to feed these animals, is a major driver of climate change.
Already, the livestock sector as a whole contributes 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions – that’s the same as tailpipe emissions from every car, lorry, train, plane, and boat on the planet. Methane and nitrous oxide, two of the most potent greenhouse gases, are released by the animals themselves, from their manure and from the fertilizers used to grow their feed, combining with CO2 emissions from machinery used to house, feed, slaughter, process and transport them. With global meat consumption expected to rise by 76% by the middle of the century, measures to improve the efficiency of production will not be enough to keep livestock-related emissions from rising.
If we are to reduce the climate impact of our appetite for meat, and if we are to stand a chance of keeping global warming below the ‘danger level’ of 2 degrees, we need to tackle unsustainable patterns of both production and consumption. A global shift to healthy levels of meat consumption – meaning a significant reduction for most of us in industrialized countries – would bring significant reductions in GHG emissions, as well as contributing to improved public health.
Governments can – and should – do more to influence our diets and to tackle overconsumption of meat. There’s no one silver bullet: a comprehensive package of policies and strategies will be needed if diets are to change at the scale needed. Policy options range from awareness-raising strategies through ‘nudge’ tactics in retail environments to more interventionist measures like a carbon tax on animal products. Strategies will need to be tailored to particular country contexts and, to be successful, will need to involve a wide range of actors, including governments, public figures, business and civil society groups.
Above all, governments need to kick-start a public debate around the diet-climate relationship and overcome the taboo associated with policy interventions on diets. If we are to avoid dangerous climate change, inaction on unsustainable meat consumption is no longer an option.
The Pooka’s Birthday
The Pooka’s Birthday – A Pixie’s Tale
By Rachel Henderson
Deep down in the darkest forest in Cornwall lived a miserable Elf called The Slurker in the Sloe, as he was always slurking in Sloe bushes. He was always mishallowed; in other words, consecrated to evil. The Pixies hated him as he was always turning something happy into something sad.
One glorious sunny morning, the Pixies were singing and dancing and collecting various wild flowers for the Pooka’s Birthday Party, which they were organising for him. The Pooka – (Nature’s Spirit) was the Pixies favourite cat. He was a very special cat – always happy and helpful – and carried the Pixies on his back on long journeys. Little did the Pixies know that the Slurker in the Sloe was watching and listening to them. After a while he came up with a devilish plan, kidnap the Pooka on his birthday and spoil everything; what havoc that would cause! He slurked away, to look for a big sack to put the Pooka in. Oh, to kidnap the Pooka on his special day, what menacing misery this would cause! A misshaped kind of a smile came over his face.
The Pooka had just arisen from a lovely sleep, dreaming about what a wonderful day he would have on his special day. What have the Pixies organised for me, he wondered with excitement. He gave a stupendous stretch and, with confident strides, made his way towards the Fairy Ring, where the Pixies would be.
Now, the Fairy Ring was a magical place – a large ring of Toadstools where all the Pixies and animals gathered at special times: birthdays, festivals and magical dates. This place was surrounded by Witch Hazel Trees whose leaves whispered in the wind, sometimes falling gently onto the bluebells below. A very special place for wishing.
The Pixies were making a marvellous Birthday cake for the Pooka, adding heap of Pixie magical dust by large spoonful’s – the sparkles, crackles and the colour was indeed a fantastical sight. Extremely special magic icing for the name ‘The Pooka ‘blazoned on the top. What a cake: it was so imaginative, whimsical and wild! The Pooka would love it. There were eight candles for the Pooka’s special age. A magical eight – these were hand crafted and each of them had a special wish.
The Pixies decorated the place of The Fairy Ring with sparkly cobwebs that gave a glistening gorgeous glow. Gossamer floated in the air and they placed tiny pieces of quartz crystal around to give the place that extra sparkle. The trees were hung with tiny lanterns of kaleidoscope colours. They were all delighted with what they had created. Invitations were sent out to all the woodland animals: The Fairies, The Elves, The Goblins, The Leprechauns, The Cornish Moon Hare, The Cornish Clan of Moles and dear old Rew the Badger. Oh, how wonderful, what a Birthday Party this would be!
Finbar, The Irish Mole, arrived first – he had a very special Birthday present for The Pooka: a Leprechaun’s Jacket, that the Leprechauns had made especially for the occasion. The jacket was covered with beautifully stitched Shamrocks and stitched inside the pocket, a Lucky Stone called a Touchlucky. Pooka would love this as he had always admired Finbar’s Leprechaun jacket. The Leprechaun’s had stitched The Pooka on it, so that he would never lose it.
All the Cornish Moles now arrived, each with a Lucky Penny – Eight Pennies in all. The Cornish Moon Hare appeared in a shimmer of Moon Beams holding a Moonstone that shone brighter than any diamond. Two Magpies arrived, each with a lucky Magpie tail feather, as Pooka always guarded their nest for them while they were away, and looked after their chicks. Rew, the wise old Badger arrived, all regal with his coat of finest grey. His present for the Pooka was a Pentacord , a magical musical instrument, which when plucked gave out the most mystical notes ever heard.
Oberon, the King of The Fairies arrived with a host of Fairies, their wings a blur of shimmering colours. The sparkling of wings was like rainbows caught in a shower of rain, which diffused in the most magical way. Their gift was a delicate scent bottle, full of delightful dreams.
The Goblins arrived to a fanfare of bagpipes: their gift to the Pooka was a wisdom branch, with nine hazelnuts of wisdom. This, when shaken, made a loud cracking noise and gave you the answer to any question you asked of it.
The Elves arrived, all chattering at once with the excitement of it all. Their gift was an empty magical bowl, which when held, filled with the most delicious food that you could think of. There they all were waiting in anticipation, in this delightful dell that sparkled and glowed with happiness.
Then the Pooka arrived, with the broadest smile that a Cat could muster. Oh, Pooka, “Happy Birthday” they all cried out loud and then began singing:
“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear Pooka, Happy Birthday to you”.
The Pooka was then ushered into the middle of the wild wood Fairy Ring.
“Now, Pooka, close your eyes shut and wait for your surprise.”
They all chanted. The Pooka sat upright and closed his beautiful green eyes. There was a twittering of laughter, that’s all the Pooka could hear.
Then before you could say “whirling whippets”, the biggest turnip came bolting through the air and knocked the Pooka out. The Sluker in the Sloe, as quick as lightning, put the Pooka in a rotten old smelly sack and was off with him.
The Slurker in the Sloe carried the Pooka to his lair, a deep hollow in the ground, hidden by Sloe bushes. He roughly dragged the Pooka out of the dirty old sack and laid him on the ground. It was a very long time before the Pooka awoke, all dazed and bedraggled, and with such an achy head. Where am I, he thought to himself, as he peered through the gloom.
Slowly, as his eyes became adjusted to the dark, he noticed a dark figure before him. The Slurker in the Sloe, with this evil piercing eyes, looked deep into the eyes of the Pooka. A shiver went up the Pooka’s fur. This icy glare froze the Pooka solid. The Pooka was now a frozen lump of ice. The Slurker in the Sloe laughed and clapped. He danced with glee around the Pooka with menacing jerks.
In the Fairy dell, everyone was in shock at such a dreadful happening. Rew the wise old Badger, waved his magical paws in the air, and waves of sparkles and light surrounded the dell. A strange silence ascended all around. Magic would restore the Pooka back to where he belonged. Everyone gathered around Rew to listen to his wise words. “Now, Elves, Pixies, Fairies, Goblins, Moles, Magpies, we must rescue the Pooka. With speed and spells, we shall return the Pooka to the dell. So hold hands, wings, fur and feathers and send our loving thoughts through the air to our dear old Pooka.”
All the loving thoughts mingled in the air, with the sparkling light, and in rippled circles arose high into the air above the forest. These loving thoughts dispersed into; the clouds, which floated through the sky. The voices of all the magical forest creatures rose and chanted “Find the Pooka and make him safely return.” The chants and clouds began to spark and thunder. The air was charged with magic. The clouds began to darken with one drop of rain, then a downpour. This was not ordinary rain, but rainbow-coloured rain, pouring down with magical wetness. The rain tricked down into the dark hollow of the Slurker in the Sloe’s domain. More and more rain came down, which was now a river. It had found the Pooka and with swirling circles of water sparkling with magic, melted the solid frozen Pooka.
More and more clouds gathered above the hollow and decended into the hole. The sparkly mist and water gathered up the Pooka, who was now covered in sparkles and coloured rainbows. Twinkling and glowing, it was like he had wings. He magically floated into the air and the clouds which were of the pinkest of hues, surrounding him with tender loving care. Up and up, into the sky. Oh, what a wonderful journey, high in the blue! He looked down and all he could see was the tops of the Oak trees. He gave the loudest of mews, which echoed through the clouds.
“There he is,” shouted the merry gathering. “Oh, Pooka, Oh, Pooka, over here,” they all cried aloud. The clouds gently made their way to the Fairy dell and laid him down in the middle of the Fairy Ring. They all rushed around him and covered him with kisses and hugs. There were smiles of delight to have their dear old Pooka back.
“Let the Birthday Party commence,” roared Rew the Badger. “Let us make this the best magical party in Cornwall.” So it was that the Pooka had the best Birthday celebration ever. The sparks of magic lit up the sky and could be seen for miles around.
Meanwhile, The Slurker in the Sloe sat in his gloomy dark wet place and sulked until his next evil plan….
In this article, Suprabha Seshan describes the background and aims behind the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in northern India.
When asked about the origins of this refugee camp for plants, several versions are proffered. Some like to believe, that the rubble of post war Berlin had something to do with it. Others say, that the roots are older, and closer, they formed as the forest rose out of the metamorphic rocks of Gondwanaland, as the Indian plate nosed its way into the underbelly of Tibet, that it germinated from the land itself. And still others, people like myself, say the roots are more troubled and complex, neither here nor there, they are born from the clash of cultures; first the cutting swathes of colonial plunder for the benefit of the mother country, then logging operations by Indian state and corporations which coincided with waves of disenfranchized settlers from lowland Kerala, and then the final onslaught by processes of urbanization.
Enter: the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, a plant conservation centre in the Western Ghat mountains of India, flourishing on a premise that plants are the basis for life.
Guru is the Sanskrit word for teacher, typically, a man. Here, however, nature is the teacher. Kula, pertains to family. In ancient India, gurukulas were places of retreat and learning, set in forests, where students lived with teachers, and became part of their families. Since our teacher is nature, and we live here, we are all part of nature’s family. Botanical pertains to plants. This place is dedicated to plants. Which is not to say animals are excluded. The notion is, that by paying attention to plants, animals get taken care of too. In the reversal of strategies hogged by champions of top predators-as-keystone for conservation, this sanctuary begins with plants; is underpinned by the awareness that plants create environments, and that these become home to animals, as well as source of streams and mist, and a salubrious climate for all.
Sanctuary comes from the word sanctum, or holy place, from which usher forth many interpretations: half-way home, ark, womb, refugium, asylum, orphanage, gene-pool, protected area, retreat, centres of spiritual renewal. This place is inclusive of all the above. We also think of it as home and community. It is a place we all live in. Working so closely with plants, and participating in this magical work of restoration and plant conservation, we ask: is there something that is not sacred? Is there a being less holy than another, a place, a culture, a caste, a gender, less than any other in the family of nature? Is the whole earth not sacred? Is every place not home to someone? Can the entire biosphere not come alive again?
Into this sanctum, this refugee camp for plants, slips in the story of the planet, the endgame in this current apocalyptic way of things. The story of the planet is wedded to the story of this place, as it is to each of our stories. All exist under dire, life threatening circumstances, subject to the toxic advancement of industrial civilisation, the most recent manifestation of human supremacist thought.
My friends and I have been working with floral refugees in a desperately worsening scenario for many years now, and our actual work includes a daily dance between despair and resuscitating delight. It’s evident that nonhumans respond to human care, it’s also evident that nonhumans are being decimated by anthropogenic causes, and that our work is a response to hubris. Racing through our days, is the awareness of a war that seems to be ending all life, if not maiming it or making it chronically ill. Most likely everything we do will fail, and yet, paradoxically, everyday, the delight is powerful, and the promise, great. One day things will get better for all of us. It is simply undeniable that all these plants and animals want very much to live, and are vigorously busy getting on with it, and that they continually make things better for each other and the environment as a whole.
The plants, which vary in form according to the habitat they grow in, and in all cases create that habitat by mutual agreement, have, like most plants in the world by now, a scientific name, as well as a vernacular one, and all have a character that is their own. I tend to give them my own (largely descriptive) names, as I’ve failed to keep up with the discoveries and re-orderings of modern botany. In fact, I slide between a taxonomy at the individual level and place-or-community level as the situation requires, as do the ecosystem-gardeners here, each with their own mnemonic for remembering the hundreds of species, and thousands of ecotypes we work with in this refugee camp for native plants of this region.
When it comes to plants, the question of where an individual ends and another begins is tricky, but my objective is to refine my powers of discernment based on some sense of relationship with them, and to use categories relevant both to personal experience and collective learning. I’d like to honour the fact that, beneath and before “taxa” are interdependencies between organisms within communities, and with specific environments, and that the many human cultures of this land speak of this complex weave of life, in myriad ways.
Each plant here belongs to a unique locale in the wild, and has been rescued from imminent destruction in the belief that we can give it another chance. Once here, each one is protected and if possible, multiplied, in intensive care nurseries, or in rehabilitated mixed species communities that are more self-willed, and less controlled. The setting of this refuge is once-forested land, mostly cleared for cash crops, which in turn got cleared by us, or altered for the plant refugees. It is thus a strange admixture of ancient and wild, feral and weedy, exotic, edible, ornamental and horticultural species. Into this photosynthesising, carbon-absorbing and fecund milieu, arrive the animals (including humans), and the fungi.
These then are the agents of ecological restoration in this monsoon dependant tropical forest biome. Where the plants go, animals and mycorrhizae soon follow, and vice versa. Although plants are quite independent of animals, it is clear that they benefit from them too. They are, however, hugely dependant on the fungal underground.
None of this has much scope if the land is not left wild, really wild; wild enough that you feel a frisson of danger as well as beauty from it. You need to perceive how exactly you matter, or don’t, to the others on this land, how to get along with them, or not; to feel the paradox of your own creatureliness; you are a large organism, but not as large as sambhar deer, elephants, bison, ironwood trees and king cobras, and you are small, but not as small as bird-wing butterflies, bioluminescent mushrooms, tree frogs and thalloid liverworts. You need to understand how you feed their lives, and how they feed yours. In a truly ecological life, your presence signifies food, or agency, be it to bloodsucking leeches, mites, mosquitoes, bluebottles and midges, to butterflies tasting the salt on your skin, or fish nibbling your toes, or plants releasing burrs onto your clothing, or animals attracted to plants that you plant; or habitat that allures elephants and perhaps one day even tigers.
In 1971 a young German named Wolfgang Theuerkauf came to Wayanad, a mountainous district in Kerala, India, to live in solitary retreat in a forest. He had been sent by his teacher, to take care of a piece of land, and to set up a hermitage. He was 23 years old. He carried with him a shoulder bag with one little notebook, with the meticulously copied out text of The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Taoist text based on alchemical symbols. He was barefoot. He wore a waistcoat but no shirt, and a lungi, a clean but faded piece of cloth tied sarong-like around his waist.
This was the culmination of a two-year journey beginning in the communes of Berlin. Wolfgang walked and hitch-hiked his way via Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal and Delhi, stopping for six months on the beaches of Goa, before meeting Nataraja Guru, a philosopher successor to Narayana Guru who had been a well known forest mystic from southern Kerala, who, 60 years previously had challenged the social oppressions of the Hindu caste system, especially the practice that alienated one group of people on the specious notion that they were “polluted”. Narayana Guru had launched a whole new spiritual order in the early years of the 20th century, speaking of one caste and one religion. He welcomed all men and women, adults and children, of every caste and background to perform their own rituals, without mediation by the priestly caste. He had, and still has a huge following.
Nataraja Guru espoused the same ideals as his mystic and reformist mentor, but had an intellectual bent of mind. He had studied zoology and geology, and done a D. Litt on Educational Psychology at the Sorbonne, to eventually come upon his own philosophy: a dialectical unity of western science and eastern mysticism. He took the young Wolfgang in, as he did so many travelling seekers from the west, giving them spiritual refuge, and then sent him to the wilds of Wayanad.
Wolfgang was, at that time neither intellectual, nor spiritual. However, he was looking for a place where he could be alone and quiet. The woods were not appealing but they suited his purpose: dissolution, self enquiry and surrender.
Seven years went by like this largely in contemplative retreat, punctuated by a yearly rite in thanksgiving to nature, and to Nataraja Guru for giving him the space to be. Seven years of solitude. I touch upon it here briefly to acknowledge the fact that the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary’s beginning was so simple that looking back, it is simply unbelievable. A person in solitude in a forest, chopping wood, carrying water, stoking fire, with no idea to “do” ecology is the starter material (or seed) for a botanical sanctuary specialising in restoring rainforest and conserving native plants, which by the year 2000 is one of the largest refugia of native species within India.
There are many accounts of “self-made” men and women. Heroic, admirable, poignant stories of individuals who rose out of indigent poverty to do path breaking work that redefined society. The Sanctuary’s work is connected to an individual who allowed himself to be shaped by the beauty and the power of plants.
The story goes that Wolfgang’s love (and consequent concern) for plants at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary started with a single orchid, not long after he married Leelamma, around the time their son Sandilya was born in 1978. It appeared suddenly, one day, out of the confusing disarray of the wet dark green woods. An Aerides crispa astride a rotten branch, lying miraculously alive on a firewood pile for weeks – a bizarre, strangely different life form, stiff and waxy, with silver stilted velamen and strap like leaves. It was something he’d never really noticed before – this epiphytic being, adapted to a soil-less world, living off of humid tropical air, leaf wash and decomposed bark dust.
It captivated him. And magic-ked him forevermore into the wild world of rainforest plants.
That was the beginning. When he knew nothing about plants, the forests and ecology. Old botanist friends of his reminisce that he would accompany them on their forays into the forests when they were graduate students, to learn about plants with them. He started to grow the plants that they collected for research. He also explored the mountains with local people of different areas, slowly putting together a refuge at home, as well as his own indictment (infused by Oswald Spengler’s analysis in the Decline of the West) of modern civilisation.
Decades later, the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary is home to several hundreds of species of orchids, and many other plants ranging from bryophytes and ferns, to gingers, impatiens, aroids and legumes and a host of shrubs, trees, tubers and climbers; a few thousand species at a conservative estimate. Now 63 acres are under our collective care. With the current land prices as high as they are, this is no small achievement. And there is a frog species named Raorchestes theuerkaufii, as well as a plant: Impatiens theuerkaufii, in honour of Wolfgang’s contribution to conservation.
Wolfgang never made secret of his uncannily prescient far-reaching concern for native species and forests. His vision to protect and restore these together, well underway by the mid 80s received very little local acknowledgement or support at the time. His reclusive nature lacked missionary skills but worked extremely well in the high intervention, rigorously focused mission located at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary targeting the bio-region as a whole. He was savvy enough to maintain low profile for political reasons, reasons that have subsequently proven very wise and eminently justifiable. He foresaw a ruthless degree of commercial exploitation of plant species that he feared would destroy the last of these very soon. His strategy for thirty years had been the “search and rescue” of plant species from areas either being devastated or under threat of devastation. His careful survey and ground-truthed analysis of plant species erosion began way before governmental agencies and scientific institutions. He was also connected to conservationists in Kerala who were involved in the movement to protect the Silent Valley from a dam project. However he remained focused on his own mission, which lay in rescuing floral survivors onto his ark, because he wanted them to have that extra chance should other interventions fail.
In the 1990s after the Rio summit and the new prominence given to “biodiversity,“ suddenly his work came under spotlight. Whereas previously dismissed as an interesting but useless exercise (as it was not remunerative work with economically useful plants), the Sanctuary now appeared as a repository of endangered plants, and a highly risky occupation in the hands of unqualified individuals; a potential threat to regional biological integrity. When permission was granted to Wolfgang and his team to search through Kerala State (including its protected areas) and assess its plant populations for risk of extinction, xenophobic elements and scientific vested interests used dirty tactics to halt his exploration. They colluded with journalists in mainstream media and headlined him as a “biopirate” posing a dangerous threat to national biodiversity because of his “German origins” omitting to mention that he had been an Indian citizen for over thirty years and had not left Indian soil for over forty and that his wife and family and entire team were local people belonging to a poor area of the state.
The ugly nature of the “witchhunt” eventually came to light. The Ministry of Environment and Forests retracted its enquiry, even admitting the frame-up by a named scientist. To the extent that this sort of scapegoating of innocent people was acknowledged, it was justified on the grounds that there is a real monstrous threat to Indian biodiversity by foreign commercial interests (ignoring the equally dangerous exploitation by local agencies). A person of foreign origin was presented as such a perilous threat to national bio-resources that the public agencies favouring Wolfgang’s work had no choice but to suspend any form of acknowledgment or support. The Ministry’s own assessment disclosed that Wolfgang posed no threat at all and in contrast, was actually spearheading a way to save species from extinction.
What a political fracas to land in, for a mystic gardener refugee from the slums of Berlin, a child of the flower-power era from half the world away! Wolfgang started to quip after this, “…and I thought the most harmless occupation in the world was that of a gardener”.
In an interview given to Shilpa Jain of Shikshantar in 2003, published in a newspaper for “walk outs”, with the title The Sweetness of Contact, Wolfgang gave the following response to the question: so how did the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary come into being?
“Each year I had to organize a pooja [ritual] in honour of Nataraja Guru. And one year, a group of local kids turned up and helped me before and after the event. They kept coming back, and so their parents agreed to let them move in with me to have an ashram-type education. That went sour for various reasons, but I had tasted the sweetness of human contact, and I didn’t want to be alone anymore. Through them I learned Malayalam and was able to interact more with my neighbours. I eventually met my wife, Leela, and we had our first child, Sandy.
During those years, I was relating to the living beings of the forest – birds, insects, butterflies, plants were everywhere. I didn’t have scientific or local names for them so I named them in my own language. At the same time, I saw the tremendous environmental depletion happening around me and saw that these beings were retreating. So I started taking the plants off the firewood and re-locating them elsewhere. Once the interest was there, of course, you start looking more and seeing more.
I didn’t know anything about plants, but I was witnessing an erosion of them. I didn’t get many answers from the local people (who were new settlers), so I went around to universities to try and understand more of what was happening.
Though a whole worldwide movement on environmental issues was happening, I was cut off from it until much later. I was rescuing plants simply out of my own interest. But through word-of-mouth, people started coming as visitors and staying on to work with me.
The Sanctuary has over the years just organically grown into the form it is today, shaped by the people and the land itself. There has always been a sense of direction, but not a plan. Our challenge has been to remain true to our interests. We cannot forget what we are doing, or we lose contact with our selves”.
A friend of mine says that the premise mentioned at the start of this piece – that plants are the basis for life – is not literally sustained. Of course. This in fact, had been a challenge posed to Wolfgang by many people. Some conservationists believe that he was a plant supremacist.
Perhaps the problem is simply the word “the”. For how could anyone claim that plants are “the” basis of life? They are simply “one” of the myriad bases for life. What about the bacteria at the bottom of the ocean , or the ones who live deep in the earth’s crust? What about cyanobacteria ?
Wolfgang’s mantra, or premise, perhaps can be modified to this. Plants are one of the foundational bases for terrestrial life. The nice thing about this modification is that it’s not in contradiction to the fact that they were certainly the basis for his life.
Wolfgang died in November 2014. He’d lived on this hill for 40 years, grown a family, a community, a refuge for seekers, students, marginalized people, a steady workplace for the needy, an infant forest, and this plant sanctuary.
He left behind a small and resolute team of plant protectors, mostly women, each one responsible for hundreds of species of native plants, and a fecund, irrepressible and steadily multiplying refugium for life.
He never went back to Germany, and never saw his mother again. However, his father and step-family visited him here. His step-brother Thomas Theuerkauf in particular, took a great deal of interest in his work.
All his life, he’d only ever known two homes.The first was in Berlin, in a one room tenement in Kaiser Friedrich Strasse in Charlottenburg, where he lived with his mother, Hildegaard Schmidt, his grandmother, a dog named Daisy, a African grey parrot named Sina, a cayman, some fish and a python, just after the Second World War, until 1968. His next home, was in the jungles of Kerala.
We buried him under the trees, in the middle of the plant sanctuary he’d raised, overlooking the wild forest. It’s a place most of us walk through everyday. He’d indicated one day: “I was here, before, and I will be here, after”. In the kind of double-speak he was so good at, he’d mentioned molecules becoming molecules, and being with the trees who’d given him so much bliss. We knew where to lay him down.
Now he’s in the middle of all of us, as he was, for so many years. Feeding the trees, the soil and the water. Feeding us all.
Sandilya and his sister Anna, built a stone-lined plantarium to remember him by. It’s very plain, both stern and strong, like their father, and contrastingly, just like their father, brimming over with myriad plants, and surrounded by tall trees. Anthuriums, staghorn ferns, peperomias, begonias, pileas and bromeliads now thrive above Wolfgang, with butterflies, flying lizards, yellow-browed bulbuls and trogons swooping around from time to time.
Wolfgang believed that we need to sustain that which sustains us, each other, and nature. He believed the people of this land, the adivasis, and the traditional farmers, had a close relationship to the natural world, and he fretted about the erosion of this. He admitted often, of his own status as refugee, and of his gratitude to the people here, for taking him in, and letting him be. The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary thus reflects a miscegenation of approaches to nature and culture, as well as a spectrum of strategies from education, to horticulture, restoration, ex-situ-conservation, activism and advocacy.
Wolfgang also believed that the people of Kerala were gifted gardeners, and that gardeners could help heal the world. His vision for a new culture, that would arise out of the debris of the old one, phoenix-like, based on the power of plants required a rekindling of the ancient art of cultivation, a life-affirming synergistic action between humans and plants, in order to create a better world for all.
Above: Wolfgang’s final resting place
Some folks, in the early days of this work, thought of Wolfgang as the vattu-pidichha-saipu, the mad foreigner. One visitor described him as possessed by plants. The Sanctuary has even been described as Wolfgang’s Folly.
Still others would say, that there was a method to his madness.
And there are a few who do believe that such a sane man is rarely seen.
I just think of my friend, and co-conspirator on this journey with plants, as a man who planted a million flowers.
And is now one himself.
Illustrations by Brigitte, who’d visited GBS 18 years ago. Birgitte is a professional cartoonist, and had worked with the Tintin comics.
Photo and text by Suprabha.
For anyone interested in reading an endearing account of Wolfgang written by Dr. C. Sathish Kumar, an eminent orchidologist from Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, in the botanical magazine Rheedea, here is the link: http://www.iaat.org.in/images/Rheedea_downloads/Rheedea_24_2/Rheedea_136-137.pdf