Unheeded Warning: The Village Where the Chipko Movement Began

Years ago, I wanted to write a children’s book about the Chipko movement, an astonishing story of love and clarity. In the story, 18th century people of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan in northern India, led by their women, hugged their trees to prevent them from being cut down, because they knew the value of that forest and didn’t want it to be sacrificed to a king’s ignorant ambition.

Deborah Lee Rose beat me to it with her beautiful book, The People Who Hugged the Trees, so I never completed that project, but the story remains vivid in my mind.

In the 1970’s, a woman named Gaura Devi in the area now known as Uttarakhand brought the ancient story to life in her own village to protest the cutting of trees by contractors. The 45th anniversary Google doodle commemorating that event includes a soundbyte history. The movement is credited with the passing of the Indian Forestry Act of 1980 and other measures related to biodiversity and conservation.

As history marches on, Gaura Devi’s Uttarakhand, like much of the lower Himalayan region, is threatened by fast-melting glaciers. No one’s been listening to local activists, or paying attantion to the findings of the special committee ordered by the Supreme Court of India after the last (2013) severe floods. Excert from the CNN report:

Ravi Chopra, director of the People’s Science Institute, was part of that committee and advised the government against building back-to-back dams in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, high in the Himalayas. They discovered that the run of the river dams, which operate by digging large tunnels into the side of the mountain, actually “weakened the mountain by introducing fractures and fissures,” increasing the risk of landslides.

Chopra said nothing much came of the committee’s recommendations. Dam building continued. And now another Earth Day is behind us. Time will keep moving and so will the planet. Yes, planting trees is a good thing, but it’s not enough.

On Earth Day: Reading Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson

Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life was a masterpiece of vision and heart, published in 1941, and overshadowed by the events of World War II. Knowing of Carson’s life and work, it’s possible to see a parallel between that largely unsung book launch and today’s pendemic overshadowing the earth and its crisis of climate.

Under the Sea-Wind was the first book by a genius whose life was too short.n It’s the tender, minutely detailed chronicling of a coastline and the lives it nourishes.

I looked at how the opening and ending speak to one another. Here’s the first paragraph:

The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.

It places readers at the shoreline, making us suddenly aware of an unknown landscape coexisting with our own. That landscape, we know from the beginning, lives by its own rules. If we cannot even see where water ends and land begins, how will we step wisely?

The ending, too, makes us feel our proper size in the bigger scheme of things:

As the waiting of the eels off the mouth of the bay was only an interlude in a long life filled with constant change, so the relation of sea and coast and mountain ranges was that of a moment in geologic time. For once more the mountains would be worn away by the endless erosion of water and carried in silt to the sea, and once more all the coast would be water again, and the places of its cities and towns would belong to the sea.

A moment in geologic time. That’s the span we occupy. In the end, the earth will keep turning, the mountains eroding, the shoreline shifting. We have seen already what happens (fake news notwithstanding) when we remove our clumsy selves from city streets–or is it at least in part that when we’re not rushing around, we have time to pay attention?

When we are through the pandemic, we will have to think about what kind of tomorrow we want. While everyone longs nostagically to get back to normal, we will need to understand that there will be no going back. Carson’s book is about time as much as place, and time will keep on moving, whether we take helpful actions or harmful ones.