10 Things Forests Can Teach You

...And not just about the birds and the bees.  
Forest Nature
Forests have a lot to teach us. Illustration: Sejal Mehta

1. Death is not imminent when you’re without mobile connectivity.

There’s a moment on a trip to a forest that defines that you’re now in wild country; your phone loses connectivity. One moment, you are feverishly tapping away on keypads – emails, photos, chats, even typing out perfectly worded outrage in 140 characters at the speed of light – and in the next, you are free.

Forests give us no option but to look up, and outside of, our phones. They force us to actually look around, not just glance up periodically from multiple ongoing conversations. They silence the noise that originates from your phone – of opinions, of chats, of “likes”, of the clamour of voices that demand your attention now. The deeper you go, the more the woods peel away the fatigue from social banalities. The forest makes you leave at its edge the delusion of our self-importance, of needing at all times to tell strangers in a virtual space what we think, what we feel, of the misconception that the world will end without your involvement. The wilderness knows that there’s much more that’s important, and it forces you to stay in the moment, to be present.

2. We all have inbuilt arsenals. We just have to recognise them.

If you have ever watched a tiger hunt – patiently, because there is no other way – you would have noticed that it stalks its prey for hours. It hides in the grass, pouncing only after the animal gets fairly close. It uses stealth and ambush as tools, not speed. The tiger knows it isn’t built for long chases, like the cheetah, which can almost fly in pursuit of meat. The deer, in turn, has been allotted enough weapons to protect itself: speed and an acute sense of smell. It would be monumentally silly for a tiger to hunt like a cheetah, or for a deer to engage in a physical battle with a big cat. Everything in nature is constructed with an inbuilt arsenal. There is a reason certain plants have defensive thorns, while other predators rely on the gift of camouflage. We’re all equipped with our own weapons. But we need to find those strengths inside us.

3. You’re inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, and at the same time, your impact matters.

“Woods are not like other spaces,” writes Bill Bryson, in A Walk in the Woods. “To begin with, they’re cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you’re in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.”

Nature makes you feel incredibly tiny but at the same time, it also makes you realise the strongest parts of you. In the book, Life in the Valley of Death, Alan Rabinowitz, the President and CEO of Panthera, describes battling loss, sickness and regret while on a mission to protect Burma’s Hukawng Valley. In the conservation battle that he begins, he finds life lessons to treasure from the very valley he is striving to protect. He writes, “What I couldn’t have known when I started however, was that I would soon be forced to face the fragility of my own existence, and would soon come to realise the parallels between human condition and the fight for wildlife – both requiring consideration and compromise.”

4. Forests are homes, too.

The fact that we visit forests on holidays with the expectation of wildlife sightings, lets us forget that these spaces aren’t amusement rides that suddenly sprang up for our entertainment. These are homes, with strong pasts and stories. The Silent Valley National Park, Kerala, is result of a historic worldwide conservation movement in the time before social media connected like-minded individuals across oceans. Stone pillars at the side of the road at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve are remnants from the reign of the Gond kings, and the Ranthambhore Fort tells stories of kings and hunting parties from the British era. Humans and animals share these homes, and travelling through these landscapes teach us how fragile that relationship is. In Prerna Bindra’s book, The King and I, she meets a Sunderbans villager narrating a close shave with the tiger, “Ali is a simple man, educated till class four. But he taught me what years of education, fancy conferences and tomes of ecology couldn’t: It is man who destroys the forest. If the tiger had not been here, we would have flattened the jungles, culled the mangroves, hunted the animals and ravaged the land. We would have starved and without the protection of the trees, the tide would have swallowed us all. The tiger kills us, but occasionally; it is only a warning. If we destroy his and our home, we will all perish.'”

5. Respect comes from equal footing.

Children (and even adults) who’ve spent their lives looking at animals in zoos, will never respect animals or their homes in the way they should. They will never fully appreciate why they should behave appropriately and not litter in a forest. The understanding that this is a territory that belongs to animals comes only from travelling through it. On a safari in Kanha, we were sitting in wait for a tigress that was making her way up the hillside to where we were. A half-hour passed by, we waited. There was a child in the next car who was narrating, to our extreme annoyance and to his parents’ inexplicable delight, his interactions  – nothing short of bullying  – with big cats in zoos, and how he wasn’t scared of this tigress. Just then, she roared: loud, ferocious, and fairly close to our left. The forest was literally stilled into silence. Everything stopped, even the crickets. I confess that I took a fierce pleasure in the fright on the faces of the family in the next car. Zoos are unequal spaces. Things look different when you’re on equal footing, out in the wilderness. You won’t forget which species has the way of right here in a hurry.

Illustration Core Zone Forest

Everybody needs a safe place. Illustration: Sejal Mehta

6. Safe places are imperative.

Forests have core areas, sections that are cordoned off, safe places for the wild to breathe, undisturbed by humans. Wouldn’t it be interesting, and useful, to have our core protected, from being poached, hurt or disturbed? Our essence, the light we carry inside, is sometimes dimmed by external forces – punishing work schedules, societal perceptions, the breathlessness of daily life, of the mundane, of family obilgations. It is imperative to be able to spend some time with yourself, alone, whether it’s a 10-minute chai break, or going for a swim, or taking a book and heading to a cafe.

7. Great beauty exists even in the little things.

Some of the most significant moments I’ve had in the wilderness haven’t really come from the “big sightings” or actual safaris. Of course, I’ve been dumbstruck every time the tiger steps nonchalantly out of the foliage, its orange-black coat glowing in the sun. but it’s the “little things” that have rendered me speechless. A night walk in the forests of the Western Ghats introduced me to Mycena, a bioluminescent fungi that makes a forest glow in the night. A lazy boat ride, off the coast of Harnai Bay turned into a spectacular show of almost a hundred dolphins racing us on every side, turning every heart aboard to mush. And a sunrise, where instead of the mad search for the tiger, we sat in the incomparable Kanha meadows and just watched the great ball of fire make its ascent into the sky. There’s great beauty everywhere around us, we’re just too occupied with a more popular perception of beauty.

8. There’s synergy in everything.

Every time you see a grazing herd of spotted deer, you’re most likely to see a pack of langurs in the vicinity as well. The two share a symbiotic relationship; the deer alert the langur of the presence of the predator by their sense of smell, while the langur uses the vantage point of tree-tops to pinpoint where the predator is hiding. Look up high at the canopies when you walk under them. I came across a delicious phenomenon called “canopy shyness” that explains why trees are so careful to maintain gaps between canopies: for equal distribution of resources. It’s smart to share strengths.

9. Survival does belong to the fittest.

Nature is brutal. Predators attack the weak, the young, the solitary. It’s a game of luck, chance and defences. It teaches you to be prepared not just to fight when things don’t go as planned but to try again in the face of failure. I read that only one out of every 20 tiger hunts is successful. That’s a tough ratio for the cat considering how long it takes to stalk its meal in the first place. During a safari in Masai Mara, I saw an antelope use every mechanism it knew to escape from a cheetah, running zigzag to slow the cat down, knowing that it had to keep this up for just around 15 seconds, after which the cheetah’s heart would not allow it to run further. It was the most incredible escape I’d witnessed. Afterwards, the resilient animal wandered off to graze on the other side of the field. Survival belongs to the fittest, a fact that we need to consider as a species, too, or risk being wiped out by the effects of our own mindless expansion.

10. And in the end, life goes on.

I read a beautiful piece on how the Japanese take their learnings from the bamboo. How the bamboo stands erect, and is yet flexible to change, how its hollow insides enable wisdom to flow in, how it remains useful to the end. The forests are the best examples of how things endure. How life goes on. Our wild spaces have been around for centuries. Civilisations have come and gone, forest fires, volcanoes, earthquakes. Landscapes have changed, adapted, grown, taking what they need, letting go of what they don’t. A forest that’s been around for centuries teaches you lessons in resilience and that things don’t always work out, and that’s okay. What matters is that life endures.

As you drive through the cleanest air you’ve inhaled in a while, and listen to the birds chirping, with the coolness of the trees soothing the most troubled parts of you, you think: Maybe we deserve better. In that we probably need to live in the way forests do – simply and without complication.

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    Sejal Mehta is an editor, writer, and the former Web Editor of Nat GeoTraveller India. An old travel hack with a bias towards big cats, Sejal has also worked for Lonely Planet and Saevus Wildlife. She tweets as @Snaggletooth_00.

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