Traveling around India– as I often did pre-pandemic–I try to read as much Indian literature as I can. On one trip, I read a novel in which one of the central characters refers to her mother not just as mai but aamchi mai or “our mother.” Adding the possessive was very important to the girl and her younger sister. They wanted everyone to know– all the time– that their mother was theirs; she belonged to them and they to her. Yes, to the exclusion of everyone else. This habit shed critical light on the physical and psychological boundaries of their inhabited universe.
At the time of reading this passage, I had just completed a few weeks of trekking around Madikeri in the state of Karnataka. Aamchi mai, especially the possessive adjective, resonated with feelings experienced and perspectives adopted both before and during my hikes through the Kodagu hills with their, at times, patchwork of rice paddies or coffee plantations. The walks, along with this seemingly mundane reference from a novel, got me thinking again about ways of thinking about things, ways of inhabiting not just our universe, but also our own individual “universe.”
Because I’m Canadian, those words, aamchi mai, also make me think of native cultures in my own country which thrived before the arrival of European explorers and colonists. Native spirituality referred to the Great Mother from whom all things come and to whom all things must return. Yes, return. And then what? Be reborn? Go to some paradise in the sky? Does it really matter?
Yes, it does. In reality, it is the matter that really does matter. Because, in fact, the matter that is all things, while it gets transformed into something else in the returning, it– or we– never really stop existing. But obviously our continuation is not how it used to be. For lack of a better word, we get recycled. Is that enough for us?
I think it should be. We don’t really know if “our mother” is unparalleled in the universe. But as far as we know, she’s unique. Life itself is unique. It’s rare. Any form of life in its countless varieties is invaluable. How often, getting caught up in human affairs, do we lose sight of this? But aren’t we the lucky ones for having evolved to such a degree that we can first marvel at and then actually share through discussion the incomparable beauty of our mother’s creation. Would my lasting forever in this particular human or heavenly form give an added boost to feelings of being special or even superior in light of the ephemeral nature of all other things? Would it intensify my own sense of gratitude, appreciation and perhaps guardianship of the natural world?
I doubt it. In fact, it might erode it; I might take it for granted. Generally, I think knowing there’s a limited amount of time tends to make a person want to maximize his or her experience of something. Of course, this could, and often does, lead to unbridled gluttony, an approach to living summed up in the phrase, “get as much as you, while you can, at any cost.” No doubt Oscar Wilde was thinking about similar behavior when he referred to those “who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.” There are far too many supporting examples past and present to offer for that avaricious response to having a short time in our present bodies. But it can also go the other way, a better way for our mother. And in order for it to do just that, I would argue that, as a beginning, we need to experience the awe of nature. Such experiences can be watershed moments that redefine the territorial boundaries that I spoke of earlier. Let me illustrate some powerful moments of mine from around Madikeri.
For a couple of nights our base was outside of a village northwest of Madikeri in the home of a family of rice farmers. It was an absolutely inspiring setting on a hillside overlooking the golden, windswept, ready-to-harvest rice. This was our spot for welcoming in the new year. In the twilight, with the last bit of sun draining off the outstretched jungle leaves that seemed to blush in so many varieties of green, I sat on a bench on the hill above the paddies watching hundreds of swifts in a grand, frenetic choreography. The birds soared from the top of the jungle canopy at the perimeter, diving down to the tasseled husks of rice. Clearly, there was a bounty of insects that kept this mesmerizing display of acrobatics well-fueled. Later, after a simple yet deliciously spiced dinner of various masalas prepared by our adopted mai, followed by a rich cup of local coffee (plantations abound in this area), we headed to the concrete roof of their home, ready to sing in the new year beneath a chorus of braggart stars.
Looking skyward, it would be enough to say that I was whelmed. It was loud Orion that eventually made me feel the “over” part. Looking so imposing with his hunter’s sword, he just told me, or so I thought, to get stuffed. Physicists tell us that we are all star dust. And you know what that means, don’t you? While I glow in pride, musing about my shared cosmic bonds with Sappho or Da Vinci or Curie or Chopin, what about the other, less “radiant” multitudes of the family?! Think of a bit by the American comedian, George Burns, who joked that happiness consists of having close ties with family members who live in another faraway city. I feel the same way about brilliant, fraternal constellations light-years away. I’m very happy to enjoy them from a distance.
We were very fortunate to be in the countryside at this time. Not least for all the bees you could see and hear buzzing around the paddies. That’s a good omen (at least, I like to tell myself that despite what we keep learning about hive decimation worldwide). The honey from the hives of Pushad, the son of our hosts, was incredibly tasty. What the bees seemed most interested in captured our interest as well. The rice harvest was on. And the farmers allowed us to learn about all of the processes, which, in this locality, are still done manually and are carried out cooperatively.
Sometimes I find farmers can have an intellectual arrogance. And rightly so. They’re entitled to it. They know so much about things which are essential to our survival. They can be wary and suspicious of the creatures of the city. Fair enough. I also understand that theirs is a body of knowledge of which urbanites can be ignorant and therefore tend to undervalue. We can be shocked when our type of intellectual arrogance comes up against theirs. These local farmers, however, were very hospitable.
In the heat of the afternoon, their generosity of spirit included sharing some cane liquor nicely warmed up in the sunlight. To go with this, we received a healthy serving of badh, which is a doughy sweet made with either rice or wheat flour to which raisins are often added. This little repast took place after observing and asking questions about the cutting, hauling and threshing of the rice. Not that I have attention deficit disorder, but, at times, there were admittedly deep challenges to keep focused on the lessons. And this was because surrounding us the whole while were some saucy distractions. We were being tantalized, if not solicited, by what could be called the tart trees or, if you prefer, the bordello blossoms: the huge, white, mammary-sized petals of the thorn apple; the orange, crush-your-heart mayflowers; and the red-siren poinsettias.
Larger mammals or fauna in general you don’t really see in this area, though locals claim that wild elephants, tigers and leopards are out there in the surrounding jungle. Of course you see plenty of domesticated water buffaloes and cows. Not far from a buffalo or cow, you will inevitably find a white egret, welcomed for its facility at picking off harassing parasites from the hide. And what would a white egret be without its contrasting black cormorant. No big deal? Cormorants, you might say, are a species as fecund as flies. But when you see one stretch its wings out and harness the wind to reach the top of a sprawling tamarind tree, it makes you think that at least that particular cormorant is king. I’ll admit, though, that I’m a sucker for any of nature’s panoply of wonders.
In this region, and while making our way to the tops of Pushpagiri and Tadiyendamol, two of Karnataka’s highest peaks at just under 1800 meters, I witnessed much. And with the witnessing comes the childlike awe of our mother’s own wondrous fertility: a stout kingfisher on an electrical wire preening itself boldly above a field of rice stalks that seemed to sway in appreciation of the fashion show; in the early morning, high up in the branches of a wild mango tree, a family of iridescent green parrots loudly gossiping; on a boulder, a chameleon, seemingly frozen, deliberating over which color it will betray next in order to keep its tongue larded with bugs; as long as my arm, a pale green-yellow rat snake, molting in an irrigation ditch, its delicately tiled tissue of skin a testimony of resilience; a rebellious young monkey hanging by its tail to impress or taunt its mother with its well-guarded handful of fruit; over-sized tadpoles in a creek looking fat as fish for fry; an imperious Western Ghat brown eagle, like the Hindu deity, Garuda, surveying on high for potential disciples below who also happen to be delicious; a quarter moon hanging in the night sky between Venus and Alpha Centauri like a bright white hammock; or a symphony of fireflies sent to tame the darkness with its lyrical glitter. Let me just witness all this and more. Let me just feel and be a part of it. And I will have my thumb in my mouth with drool running down my wrinkling cheeks.
Having said what I did about the ultimate mortality of things doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to continue living in this form. Given that paradise seems to be right here all around us on this spinning sphere of rock in seemingly infinite, dark space, I have no particular appetite for adding my dust to the great bounty of our mother’s dust. Not yet. However, it is important to acknowledge, as the father of the two girls in the novel does as he comes close to his death, that our bodies aren’t really ours; they’re merely on short-term loan to us. But as the loan is in progress and when it ends, how to pay off all that’s owed?
I believe that the recognition of the finality of things, particularly of us in this form, can and should heighten the appreciation and value we ascribe to all of our evolutionary diverse “relatives” within the embrace of “our mother.” Yes, right now, before it’s too late. Perhaps in that way we can start to pay down the principal and the incalculable interest on our mother’s magnificent loan to us.
Of course, it is a privilege to travel and have such deeply felt responses. It is a privilege, however, which may well have to end for a variety of reasons. Writers such as George Monbiot argue this because, in the “getting to” distant places, the consequences for our mother can be irrevocably dire. But in order to make, at times, those ineffable connections, and thus feel a sense of reverence for our larger “home,” we don’t have to do the sort of traveling that requires flights across vast expanses of water. It can be as simple– and as complex– as paying attention when stepping out into our gardens, or going for walks in a local forest or along a beach, or taking bike rides along a city riverbank. Still, certain problems remain.
As we all know, increasing numbers of humans are breathing in more oxygen, blithely converting it into carbon dioxide. Perhaps that in itself would be innocuous. But that supply is then added to the myriad of other greenhouse gas sources created through our hungry pursuit of even more space and our consumption of even more of our mother’s finite resources. We humans, however, were given special gifts: a relatively big brain with its complicated consciousness and miraculous abilities like memory, thought, imagination, and language. Our mother was generous to us. She is ours and we are hers. We belong to each other. That’s an important perspective. But it’s only a start.
Now it’s time to be generous back. And part of that generosity must include knocking down the exclusive, walled community of “we,” encompassing, as it often does, only the human species. Unlike the girls in the novel, aamchi mai has to be seen as the mother of all things, not just ours alone. Then the varied members of our mother’s extended family might in fact have a raging chance– a chance to return to our mother in their own natural time rather than be forced into the dust by us well before their own good night has dawned.
D.B. Goman is a poet, essayist, photographer, and educator. Poems, essays, and photographs have been published in a variety of print and on-line journals, some of which include Quarry, Orion Magazine, 2River View, Travel Mag (UK), Outside In Literary Travel Magazine, The Literary Bohemian, Eye Magazine, Poetry Montreal, 2 Bridges Review, New Verse News, and Sisyphus Magazine. A collection of poems will be launched this year, and a YA novel (a nature adventure) is forthcoming next year.