“Barrenness is Always a State of Mind, Never a State of Land”-Yuvan Aves

Heart of Conservation Podcast Ep# 24 Show Notes (Edited)

O:06

Introduction: Hi there, Thanks for listening in to season three, episode #24 of Heart of Conservation. I’m Lalitha Krishnan bringing you more stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world.  You can read the show notes of this episode right here and check out the extra links provided by my guest below.  I am speaking to Yuvan, a naturalist, educator, activist, musician and author. One of India’s young influencers Yuvan is currently documenting coastal stories, helping create tree laws, saving the biodiversity of sand dunes and water bodies apart from a host of other ecologically relevant issues. 

0:46

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you Yuvan for joining me and my listeners on Heart of Conservation. I’m truly excited to be speaking to you. There are so many things we can talk about but I’d like to start with something more recent if you don’t mind. In collaboration with the Madras Naturalist’s Society, you recently launched the Urban Wilderness Walk Internship which in your words is a dream come true as a naturalist and educator.  Tell us the why, what and how did you realize this dream?

1:20

Yuvan Aves: Yes, sure. Firstly, I am very, very delighted to be on your podcast. A lot of people you have spoken with, some of the questions you have asked, their work, their voice, their writing has been very formative for me and so I’m very happy to be here in conversation with you.

So, see, Urban Wilderness Walks emerged from this idea and thinking about what creates cultures. And is it possible to have a city-wide culture which is eco-centric where people are excited about, are knowledgeable about, are engaging with the biodiversity found around them in an urban space…that’s the challenge…and active about environmental issues, and exercising agency. And not slinking away into life which urban spaces often presses on us. Of being passive, of going to work, coming back, you know, sleeping and eating and all the rest of it. so, the dream of the Urban Wilderness Walks Internship is to try to create a city-wide network of young naturalists, resource people who can facilitate activities around ecology, nature, environment. That they then periodically take people on walks and kind of evoke urban spaces in an entirely different light. That was the dream and it kind of grew slowly. First, it was a few friends…I did it in my apartment…I do it once every few months. Then I asked some friends, who are also naturalists to do it at theirs but that wasn’t kind of meeting what I was visioning in my head. Then, through Madras Naturalists Society, we actually offered it as an internship for colleges. For life science students. One of the things about Chennai is that it does not have an ecology course…Chennai or its outskirts. In fact, there are only one of two places that offer young people a course in ecology or conservation biology or environmental sciences. People often diffuse away to Bangalore, to Dehradun and other places. You know, the aspiring naturalists who want to pursue a career here.

So, the idea was to train young people with the experience, the knowledge, the skills the tools, to be fantastic facilitators…you know, who get people excited about living things and nature in urban spaces.

-Yuvan Aves

4:15

Lalitha Krishnan: Interesting that a state like Tamil Nadu doesn’t offer ecology courses or enough of it as you say. You encouraged some of your students to draft this petition to push for a law for Urban trees and they succeeded. In fact, you shared an (Instagram) story where I think they’ve convinced 600 schools and colleges. That’s amazing. That must have felt very empowering (for them). Could you briefly tell us about this?

4:48

Yuvan Aves: That campaign is part of a Nature Education cum Citizenship Programme I conduct for a school where I’m working for the past three years called Abacus Montessori School. Very fortunately, it’s grounded in the Montessori philosophy. And Montessori is one of those educational philosophers who went through the worst of human history. You know, the world wars and said, “Oh, we need to reimagine education. Children need to be able to think for themselves. They need a variety of experiences. Their experience of learning needs to be uncoupled from the larger market forces.” And these were questions she pondered upon deeply and wrote about them. So, in our school we have this programme for Nature Education right from Primary, you know, the little toddlers to up to Class 12. So, when we come to Class 10, 11 and 12, it’s about citizenship. Citizenship in the way we’ve crafted it for our school means a few things. One is, that children’s learning is in direct participation in matters of society, environment and politics, and governance. In direct engagement with the real world. Not just intellectually or not just in kind of insulated silos. It also means being active and practising action as a grounding and philosophy. Which means a whole range of things you know. Children decide, OK, this is my question, this is my concern, I am going to pursue it. Agency coming from within rather than coming from instruction outside. This is kind of what the Citizen Science Programme holds for children.

Lalitha Krishnan: Alright.

6:47

Yuvan Aves: So, Class 10 children learn RTI (Right To Information). You know, how to file RTIs for the State, for the Centre. And there’s also a reflection into what ‘Freedom of expression’ means. What ‘Active citizenship’ means. What are the different things they want to pursue based on their life experiences and backgrounds? And they use RTI as a medium to explore this whole thing and different modules like that. So, in Class 11, we have something called A Class Campaign. So, children come up with a cause that is local, which pertains to Chennai or Tamil Nadu, and find ways of amplifying it or giving voice to it. Engaging with it in real-time. So, last year, the Class 11 children took up the Save Pullicat campaign. You know, right now, a beautiful lagoon is under grave threat because of a port proposed by the Adani Group. So last year they took that up and they made some beautiful art and they also ran a petition. They had other ways of spreading the message. And, they conducted a press conference in Chennai. And through that, what happened is the message reached a whole lot of people and a public hearing was decided for the port. We know public hearings are shams you know, often in the process of  clearing of wild spaces. They were able to stop that. Because the media took it up…

Lalitha Krishnan: Nice.

8:25

Yuvan Aves: …and the District Collector said something like, “Let’s scrap the public hearing, looks like a whole lot of people are going to turn up; we have Covid issues…” and you know, all that stuff.  And they stopped that and that was such an important thing in the campaign because very shortly later, a few months later, the new government came and they kind of rode on this. 

You vote for us and we will scrap the Adani port. 

It was a win in that sense, you know, a little spanner in the works. 

So, this year what the children took up was… you know, these children have been part of creating a forest in an arboretum in our farm school which we have in Vellaputhur. And they have been to different landscapes around Chennai and India, understanding wild places. And so, one of the things they easily took up was a Law for Urban trees. A little background to that is a lot of states in India have a law for urban trees which means there are trees -very old ones- important for the cities’ health, for people’s health which have a specific law protecting them. You take, for instance, Maharashtra. It has a beautiful law, its implementation is up for question, but there’s a Tree Authority made of people and govt. officials who look at how to create awareness. Who scrutinise projects which want to fell a few thousand trees and so on? There is a Tree Helpline. There is a clause that says if trees are more than 50 years old, they get a label called ‘Heritage trees”. That gives them extra protection.  But in Tamil Nadu, there is no such law. Similarly, West Bengal has, Kerala has, Assam has, Karnataka has.

 In Tamil Nadu, any tree falling outside a protected area has virtually no protection. Virtually no personhood. 

10:25

You know, through my activism work and looking at other movements in this state, if there is a tree law, it protects people and places. For instance, Pulicat. If there was a Tree law to protect the mangroves to protect the kinds of vegetation there-which is very old- it would be an added layer of security for the fisherfolk there.  North Chennai is a watery landscape and artisan fishers are 1000s in numbers who have been living here for centuries. 

Similarly, for instance, if you take the Salem highway recently, which has been scraped in some sense by the new government; but if there was protection for trees…lakhs of mango trees were going to be cut. But if they had protection, far more livelihoods are saved.

If you take the common urban landscape, trees support, protect people. They have a social life in urban society. The iron-walla, the tailor, the cobbler, the auto stand…everything is under trees…the provision shop. So, the children took this up and they wrote a letter and they got endorsements from students from about 100 different colleges and schools in Tamil Nadu. 600 endorsements from 100 different institutions. They’ve written to the Chief Minister, the Chief Secretary, the Principal Secretary of Environment. The media was interested. They spoke to the media and it’s kind of an ongoing process. I’m happy that it’s also kind of triggering conversations in other groups for instance who have been fighting for a cause like this. It’s a kind of coming together and one hope that this will result in a law.

12:27

Lalitha Krishnan: Definitely. That’s great. This coming together is itself a big force if it happens…the voices of many. Moving on, in an article you wrote about coastal sand dunes you said, “Sand is slow water, a patient fluid, which is moved, shaped, folded by wind, waves, and vegetation. It flows over the years and with the seasons, like a current in deep time”.  

I loved that imagery but more importantly, what I didn’t know is the whole significance of sand dunes. That it can create freshwater for one or that sand dunes are even more effective than mangroves and casuarina plantations in terms of protecting coastal communities during a tsunami or storm. How so?

13:22

Yuvan Aves:  Yes, there are studies by Care earth and Feral India which has brought out this truth, you know. Sand dunes are seen often as landscapes that don’t have life. If one were to go with an informed eye one sees so much. I was in a village called Poigainallur in Nagapattinam, a few months ago…in search of sand dunes in fact. Poigai is an interesting word. Poigai means freshwater pond in Tamil; a word which is not often in use nowadays but poigai also signifies an aesthetic water body. Something which kind of has a beautiful backdrop perhaps has lilies and lotuses. It’s called Poigainallur but it’s bang next to the sea. So, one thing that the village is known for and also a cluster of other villages around it is that there are massive sand dunes there. You know 40 feet. You have to climb them like little hills and go around them and navigate the landscape. And the people here have this interesting practice of protecting the sand dunes and letting them revive. If you went and spoke to them, they will say that as long as they can remember, they keep these palm fronds in the direction of the wind and stop the wind. So, sand kind of gathers there and they take palm seeds and put them behind and so they sprout and they grow sand dunes. After storms, after strong weather events, the sand dunes take a beating. They again use this practice to help them recover fast. And the whole aliveness of a coastal dune landscape I was able to see through those people’s eyes. You know, the fisherfolk of that place. And, it’s miraculous, 30 feet from the tide line they have water pumps –from which I have tasted the water—it gives clean water. And perhaps just 200 ft just behind the sand dunes there’s agriculture happening. So, these sand dunes—these are called secondary or tertiary sand dunes– they are massive. Right behind them, there is a forest because the sand has it from sheltered salt-layered winds and it creates a perennial pool. When you walk in such a landscape, the brain is confused because on one side there are waves crashing and on the other side there’s a frog scape. Frogs are calling hardcore freshwater species.

But the deeper hydrological importance of sand dunes or any coastal cities is that sand on the edge of a place actually creates this bio shield from seawater ingressing, you know. Still, water can travel underground into freshwater aquifers and contaminate them and they become unusable. If you look for instance, in North Chennai, where all the large coastal infrastructure has come up because the people here are largely from fisher communities, there is no beach.  If you take archival pictures from British India of North Chennai, you will find there was a very large beach there. There is no beach right now. Interestingly, in 2019, a study by Anna University found that in the whole of India, maximum sea ingress is in North Chennai in places like Ennore and nearby. Sea in some places had come in, crept inside, underground up to 18 km and contaminated water. So, people have had to move from here, build desalinisation plants and so on.

The hope is to evoke the magic of sand dunes. ‘Sand’, the way we use that word is without life but not so. They actually ensure life happens by just being on the coast.

17:46

Lalitha Krishnan: That is so amazing. I really feel like and going and seeing them (sand dunes) now. Tell us about your travels down the Indian coast. Did you do that for two years? I am not sure if I got that right. So, what were you thinking when you began this venture and what did you return with?

18:04

Yuvan Aves: Yeah, so hopefully, I will be able to kind of begin again. On the 20th I am going on a long tour of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu where some very special coastal ecologies exist. And pre-Covid, also I was going to different places on the Indian coast and understanding the places a bit and the people who live there. The idea, the interest in coasts started with our campaign for Pulicat and the hope and the action to save it. One of the things we found was that while campaigning for this place, we did not have enough stories. We did not have in fact, in some places, scientific data and other kinds of things that would evoke this kind of place as beautiful, as magical, as worth saving. So, we had to do that on the go, on the run.

Coastal landscapes exist on a cusp. You know, with changing climate, with seas becoming more unpredictable, more intense, they are the most vulnerable. Coasts and coastal communities. But they are also our first line of defence from climate-change driven consequences and impacts raging in from the sea. 

So, they exist on that cusp on that very difficult cusp. They are on the margins and also coastal communities are marginalised in that sense – in a political sense. That feeling… that intersection of realities during campaigning for Pulicat kind of drove this whole idea. So, what we’re doing is…one is a large project all across the Tamil Nadu coast, again, through Madra Naturalist Society. I work with a team of friends. I should mention their names; we’ve all been equally part of that. Vikas, Ashwathy, Anuja, Nandita and Rohit and myself.  So, people call us the Ocean’s Six and all that. So, whatever time we have, we are on the beach. We are with fisher people; we are at estuaries and creeks and so on. We have finished 1/4th of the Tamil Nadu coast and we are looking at, as comprehensively possible, documenting the ecology and the life there. You know the deep inimitable knowledge of artisanal fisherfolk.

If you come to this part of Tamil Nadu, the north, not the entire Tamil Nadu, there are nine words for winds. Wind speech is so vivid that if you walk with a fisherman elder…you know of my greatest teacher has been Pallayam from Urapukkam village near Adyar estuary.  He can stand there and he is so intensely perceiving the wind. And he can tell you if it’s (the catch) going be mackerel. Is it going to be no catch, is it going to be anchovies or is it good for crabs? (All) by reading the wind.

-Yuvan Aves

That, I have been understanding a little bit but for them, it’s an embodied knowledge. It’s knowledge in their blood. So, local knowledge and threats to this landscape. This is something we hope to do for the entire coast of Tamil Nadu.

As a personal thing, I want to travel to different places in India and collect these stories. I was in Goa recently speaking to fisherfolk in a village called Nauxim. Interestingly, the fluctuation between spring tide and mead tide is called sudthi-budthi. I just hope I am pronouncing it correctly in Konkani. Interestingly, sudthi-budthi is also a reference to our variation in emotion and mood. So, in their speech, the coming in and going out of the tides—the lunar fluctuations—is likened to the emotionality of the sea. And therefore, the sea is alive in that sense.

22:41

Lalitha Krishnan: Beautiful. So, do you think all of your travels, the research and conversations you’re having will one day become a book? Do you see a book emerging from it?

Yuvan Aves: Yes, that is a dream, stories from all around the Indian coast. Of biodiversity, of local knowledge of different threads of a coastal landscape being magical places. Perhaps a collection of essays or perhaps a different form. Of course, there are other people who are doing fantastic work. For instance, Marine Life of Mumbai. Work like those groups… different parts of India. Yes, I do hope it becomes a book in a few years.

23:31

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope so too. I would love to read that one. Yuvan, again, talking about music. You have so many talents.  In 2019, you held a musical concert for conservation where you also performed.  Tell us about your musical interest and the specific cause that you held this concert for?

23:52

Yuvan Aves: I’m a recorder player. The recorder is not a recording device. It’s a musical instrument from Europe. It’s a woodwind instrument seemingly simple to play at the beginning but it gets a lot harder when you progress with it. I started learning the recorder when I was three and a half when my mom joined me for classes. Interestingly, just a note about my teacher who is no more but then I owe a whole lot to him. S Balakrishnan. He was also a famous Malayalam music director. I wanted to pursue this instrument purely because of his own kindness. I was initially learning the piano from him. But he did not know it too much so he said, “See, this is all I know with respect to the piano. I can refer to other good teachers but if you want to learn from me, I know this bunch of (instruments). I know the flute, the recorder,” and so on. So, I happened to tell my mom, “See I don’t care what I learn, I want to learn from that teacher”. And, he was very kind and helped me love music. I have not pursued the piano. I have not pursued other kinds of things I had started learning deep back in childhood. But this, I have been able to pursue till date and I am a music teacher also and that is, of course, thanks to my teacher. So, coming back to your question about the concert of 2019, one of the things I hope to continually explore –of course, Covid got in the way—is to merge music with my work in activism. One opportunity which came by was the move of the Chennai metro to hack down Panagal park. That’s an old park with some very, very old trees—a few 100 of them—for a metro station. A metro station is a railway station that the cream of the cream of society uses. There’s MRTS, there’s Southern Railways, there are four kinds of local railways.  Of course, it’s public transport and I have nothing against that but their siting was in parks. They’ve already kind of flattened two very old parks: Nageshwara park and part of Thiruvika park they have taken over and constructed and those parks have gone. And so, they wanted to take over Panagal park as well.

Panagal park is there as a green lung space, an oasis you can walk into in the most haphazard hectic park of Chennai. Around it is large cloth shops, Saravana stores, Nalli and so on where in fact, the employees during their break, come in here to destress. That’s something you see. It’s an important landmark of Chennai. So, they wanted to hack that down; we were putting together ways in which to stop that. Initially, we took Rober Macfarlane’s Heartwood poem. That’s the poem he wrote for the people of Shielfield who were protesting against the cutting of trees in their streets.

“Would you hew me to the heartwood cutter?

Would you leave me open-hearted?” As if the tree was speaking to the woodcutter who has come to it with an axe. I adapted that poem for Tamil and we made a little animation of it as a way of gathering solidarity with people. And, after that, if you look at music, music comes from the belly of trees. If you look at, for instance, the veena, or the kanjira, if you made it out of the heartwood of any other tree other than the jackfruit tree, it wouldn’t sound the same. It wouldn’t be the veena…its characteristic timbre and tone. If you made the violin from anything else other than spruce or maple or a few other related trees it wouldn’t sound like a violin. Similarly, with all the instruments you hear in an orchestra, the cello, the viola, the bamboo flute… So, music is really as we have known it for all these centuries, is the belly, the hearts of trees singing. So, that was the theme of our concert. ‘Music comes from the heart of trees, let’s save them’. And, there were professional musicians, there were children, there were readings of poetry around trees and it did make an impact along with the other kinds of campaigning work we did. And, right now the plan to hack down Panagal park is stalled. Not shelved but then Chennai Metro has gone silent about it and we are keeping the pressure on so yes.

28:55

Lalitha Krishnan:  Another beautiful effort. Also, I would never have thought of musical instruments like that though we do know they’re made of wood. That’s really amazing. So, you do want to harness the powers of music and use it to propel your activism more in the future.  

Yuvan Aves: We planned in fact, a concert around wetlands in 2020. But that did not come to fruition because of Covid. But hopefully, when things ease up, even more, we’ll be able to do that.

29:27

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re self-educated; you authored two books already, and you’re at the forefront of relevant conservation efforts in terms of educating and engaging. Who or what has been the biggest inspiration in your life? I’m sure there are many.

Yuvan Aves: About the self-education journey itself, I am firstly very, very grateful to my mother whose life has not been very easy but one thing which has been her priority and continues to be is my growth and well-being. And despite all the hardships she faced, she gave me a beautiful childhood in the sense that parenting often becomes about projecting one’s own identity and needs and what one wants to draw from society onto the child. My mother’s philosophy of parenting shifted that and I am very grateful for that. And that’s something I’ve learned from and practised in my work as an educator. She observed me-the child-breathlessly. She would observe with care and curiosity – “What is the energy of this child? What draws him?” And then, she would feed into that. She would go read up, she would go research and she would buy things, create the experiences and that played a very big role for me to grow as a naturalist and in different fields which are not very popular or not too many people are in. Of course, increasingly they are but not as much perhaps.

So, it started like that and I was also fortunate to go into a Krishnamurthy School. First, I was at The School, in Chennai on a very beautiful campus.

And Krishnamurthy’s philosophy was you know, no group or person or leader or spiritual organisation can lead you to the truth. You have to be a light onto yourself. He said, “truth is a pathless land”.

He spoke about the energy to find that which is true or eternal is deeply unique or driven from within each individual, irreplaceably so.

31:51

So, the school’s philosophy was—and I met some amazing people there—who were interested in wilderness and nature who came to teach there. So that was important nourishing soil. After class 10, studying there-because of different circumstances, I did not want to pursue schooling in the conventional sense. One midnight, I went to the Director of my school. I said, “See, at this point in time, I can’t be at home. I don’t think I can pursue school the way I’ve done so far. You know, I have different ideas in mind but I just wanted to reach out to you.” His name is G Gautama and he has been an inspiration throughout. Both his philosophy and his toughness and his different threads of reimagining what education should mean… He would often come and say, “See, I don’t care what I’ve taught you,” -to parents, you know-, “If these three things, children feel good about, my work as an educator is complete. One, they should not contemplate self-harm or suicide. Two is they should be able to walk on fresh paths. They should feel empowered enough to try something entirely new”. And, he had a few principles like that which I am not recalling at the moment. So that fed in a lot into my own strength and my own practices as an educator. So, I went to him just when he has started a new school near a place called Vallipuram, a 100-acre campus in the fields and farmer landscape of Chengalpet.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is it called?

33:35

Yuvan Aves: Pathashalla. And he said, “You come over here, you pursue your education by yourself and we’ll see what we can do”. We’ll see how else you can be involved. I went there for my A levels, you know, the 11th and 12th, the Cambridge syllabus…I did it all myself. So, I would read the books, add questions, call up different people I knew… perhaps teachers in the school or other people who might be able to help me. I’d say, “Hey, I want to clarify these doubts, would you have half an hour in the evening?”

 And then, I registered in a different school, Headstart Learning Centre outside Chennai. So, I would go there to write my exam and go back. The academic part of my education was very, very small. While I was there, I walked dozens of lakes. I have had so many conversations with colleagues, teachers, children, farmers, the Irula community, other kinds of people from the village

I also started doing what they call, ‘subject enrichment workshops’ for govt. schools around Pathshalla which are in a rural landscape and which don’t have much funds. So, our intention was to connect the content they are learning through the state syllabus to their immediate landscape, the biodiversity they see around them. The tools they use, the lives they live. Their landscape. That also went very, very well. I started reading and writing with far more fervour during that time.

So those are some of the people, there are a lot more. For instance, if I look at my activism work, I am deeply grateful to Nityanand Jayaraman, who I consider as my mentor. Right now, he is writing for Kodaikanal and for what Unilever had done there by dumping mercury and so on. That’s shortly how I came away from the conventional path of education and found other things and other people.

35:40

Lalitha Krishnan: You know, I feel you have achieved a great deal in a very short while usually young people don’t usually get asked this but if you had to turn back the clock, would you have done anything differently? Do you have any regrets?

35:54

Yuvan Aves: The thing with regret is that you know, one goes through suffering in life. One goes through difficult times. And a lot of important learning and a lot of growing comes from that. Sometimes when you think behind superficially you want to not have that difficult period, that painful experience. I’ve had, for instance, a very physically abusive father and a stepfather. And, let’s say sometimes when I look back, I want to undo that. But a lot of the commitment, the energy to work with children and to completely rethink education and parenting and just the community children are coming from that difficult experience.

Lalitha Krishnan: All the wrongs… are you sort of putting it right?

Yuvan Aves: Wrong and right is a polar way of thinking about it but sometimes what we hold as regrets were actually triggers for growth and wisdom, and one learns that on the way. I’m glad I don’t have the opportunity to go back and do anything although one wants to. Because those are times that shifted you, which moved you inside.

37:31

Lalitha Krishnan: Alright, thank you for sharing that. Is there’s anything else you’d like to talk about or share (about your work)?

Yuvan Aves: I want to talk about something that will be out soon. It’s something our coastal team is doing for Place-based Education.  You know, if you’re living in Chennai, everything you do from your daily life to your practicalities to your weather, to your occupation is affected by the fact that you are living next to the ocean. And one of the things about a centralised syllabus is that you learn a great deal about the Ganges and the Yamuna, you know? Important parts of India but then you go and ask an average citizen in Chennai or the public, “What are the three most important rivers through Chennai?” You know, cities grow around rivers always from deep back in civilization till now. That’s something we forget. Nobody can name three big rivers. Adyar, Kosathalaiyar, Cooum. It’s not in people’s imagination. Similarly, the different coastal habitats, the winds, the currents…although they kind of affect our daily life, and knowing about it would be important, not just the place but for our own connection with it, and living our lives in touch with these aspects…it’s not there in what children learn in schools.

One thing we’ve done and I want to share the material with you as well, is a set of posters specific to the coast. What lives there. And a little field guide which people can open. Go out there on any Chennai beach, find 100 different things right from gastropods to bivalves, to crab to reptiles, and so on. When you know the names, when you know what to look for, the place comes alive. 

This is something I like to say in different places as well where I speak. Barrenness is always a state of mind never a state of the land. What is barren is our eyes and our imagination. But when these aspects, something like this come into our lives, places can turn magical. 

So, a little field guide for the Chennai coast. By the end of this month, we would have distributed to a100 schools in Chennai. And the hope is to kind of shift the way children experience these places. One of the things I have found as a teacher is …you know, we had the Vedanthangal (Bird Sanctuary) Campaign. That campaign was mostly a success. I’m saying mostly because it has not been cancelled completely you know? The plan is to de-notify the sanctuary for commercial interests to allow big pharma companies to expand. 

I was happy that I had taken many, many batches of children to that place because when that place was in threat, we went into Covid. Schools wouldn’t function. The first module we did was Vedanthangal. And, children sparked up to it like fire. And it was perhaps the largest, most copious art campaign which has been done in Tamil Nadu. Right from 3-year-olds, 4-year-old children you know… Vedanthangal is not just nursery ground for birds, lakhs of birds but also children.

So, taking children to a place and creating connecting experiences is one of the best ways to protect that place for long term conservation because that place begins to speak to them. It becomes part of their lives; it becomes a source of emotional connection. 

-Yuvan Aves

So, this emotional connection we are creating for the Chennai coast would be available for and distributed all across Chennai and people and public and so on. The hope is to evoke these places as beautiful and magical in people’s imagination.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great so how do you do this. Do you have sponsors who help you make this happen?

Yuvan Aves: Yes, we’ve been sponsored by the Biodiversity Collaborative to make this material, print them and distribute them. 

41:47

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. I usually ask my guests to share a word or concept that’s related to conservation and holds some significance to them. Somewhere I read you’ve discovered 140 words in Tamil that are related to the landscape and are lost in translation or not translatable at all.  I’d like you to share a few of these lost words if you don’t mind. I can add all 140 on my blog, Earthy Matters if you give it to me for those interested.

Yuvan Aves:

One of my other big dreams hopefully is to create an ecological dictionary-not comprehensive in any sense, but then to evoke the deep reciprocity between language and landscape especially in India.  

-Yuvan Aves

There is a beautiful article that was published by the Pioneers where linguistic diversity- if you look at the world- and biodiversity overlap.

The biodiversity hotspots are also the most linguistically and culturally diverse. I wrote an essay about this with specific reference to India and some of the work I have been trying to do; collecting from different parts, different states. It’s called ‘Speaking Rivers, Speaking Rain’. It was shared widely at the time it was written. 

43:20

If you look at, for instance, one very fascinating example in Tamil Nadu, it’s the word, ‘purumboke’. It’s a word that refers to landscapes which are used commonly. Wetlands. Grasslands. Scrublands. These are places which nobody owns but everybody needs. And, they have very important ecological functions. They’re not allowed to be economised directly or they cannot be. You cannot go to a salt marsh and grow paddy. A salt marsh buffers the ocean’s rage. It protects your hydrology; it is a breeding ground for scrimp and fish and crabs. So, you know, sometimes in the minds of local people ‘commons’ also means a cross-species commons. ‘purumboke’ has the potential of embodying that philosophy. But during the colonial times, that word was shifted into meaning ‘wasteland’ because you could not go and grow things there. You could not have your plantations there. You cannot go and grow casuarina in the middle of the lake for instance. So, this (word) was twisted into meaning land which had no use. So now, it’s a bad word… you know, as a vulgar word you call somebody who is of no use as it were. So, one of the things we are trying to do in Tamil Nadu is shifting the word ‘purumboke’ back into meaning something beautiful. That’s an important story with respect to land words. 

You look at water bodies; the number of words for water bodies. For instance, the word ‘eri’ means a specific waterbody that is sheltered on three sides and is a catchment area on the fourth side which is either facing another larger waterbody or is facing a river basin. Eri also means there is a system of flow and overflow of these eris; because if you look at Kanchipuram. After all the real estate, after all the building over wetlands, there still exists 2000 eris today. You look at the hydrological map in the National Wetland Action Plan of Kanchipuram and Chengalpet, you know, two coastal districts in Tamil Nadu, it’s blue. It’s a watery landscape and people understood that the only way to live here was to leave space for water to flow and create space for it to be and recharge. So, the word ‘eri’; I can’t translate it. I call it a lake but I can’t speak of it in English.

46:01

Similarly, ‘poigai’.  You know, we spoke about poigai nallur. Similarly, ‘kundu’, “kundam…  There is another word called ‘Aazhikkinaru’ which are special sites next to the coasts, very near the sea which for some reason give fresh water. Perhaps, they occur in other states too and these are some I visited. If you go to, for instance, Thiruchendur, a coastal temple, there is an aazhikkinaru there, where there’s an aquifer in the ground, right next to the sea which is giving pure freshwater.

And the beauty of these words is that they evoke land through poetry, through ecological function, through the mystery of each landscape

-Yuvan Aves

…and I have been able to collect this from different states as well.  

46:51

For instance, you go to Dibang valley. They have words called ‘Khinu’.  Khinu means spirit. There isGolo’, there is ‘Khe-pa’ there are different kinds of spirits of the forest. Spirit of the large tree, spirit of the hills, spirt of the landslide, of the house fire… 

In the Mishmi perception of the world, everything is alive. Everything is embodied with spirit and agency, and voice. You go to Sikkim, all the words they have…you know, ‘Lepcha’. It started with my interaction with Mayalmit Lepcha who is protesting against the Testa dam. Teesta for them is an important river because their genesis story starts in the Teesta. The first man and woman were created by ‘The Great Mother, ‘Itbumu’ on the Khangchendzonga. When people die, they believe that their spirit travels along the Teesta and reaches Khangchendzonga again. Their sacrality, their spirituality is geographical you know? That’s the beautify of it.  All their words—perhaps, I can share that essay with you is river-rhyme. T

“To be curved like a river”

“To be turbulent like a river” which refers to your mood and so on.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so beautiful…so lovely. Thank you so much.

Yuvan Aves: Thank you Lalitha

48:26

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed listening to Yvan Aves thought as much as I did. Do check out some links (below) on this blog, Earthy Matters. You can listen to Heart of Conservation on many platforms. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com  I’m Lalitha Krishnan signing off, till next time stay safe. Do subscribe for more episodes.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Podcast cover photo courtesy Yuvan Aves. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

Links to Yuvan’s writings and educational material etc.

Language and Landscape – Speaking River, Speaking Rain – Vikalp Sangam
Journey in Self education and my educational philosophy – The Field of Learning (sanctuarynaturefoundation.org)The Ecosystem of Learning – Vikalp Sangam

Our Educational Material for the Chennai coast – https://1drv.ms/u/s!AnNoDXP8OkoAtFSdiZAgpc7wp_up?e=07RoY4
On Sand dunes – https://www.currentconservation.org/in-search-of-coastal-sand-dunes/
On Pulicat and Vedanthangal – https://www.sanctuarynaturefoundation.org/article/a-pulicat-story%3A-the-lagoon-that-protects-a-cityhttps://vikalpsangam.org/article/vedanthangal-art-to-save/

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