By Leslie Nazareth
A forest can teach us lessons of self-governance and interconnectedness.
When I was very sick and without a hope of living, caring for a tree brought me back to life. I planted a sapling in my balcony. I watered it every day and measured its growth. One momentous day I struggled my way down the steps of our flat to the society compound to plant it in the earth by the car park. Then I visited it everyday and my mother even wrote a poem about the tree and my recovery.
In its search for light my tree veered away from the wall – its first mistake. The gardener lashed it with a tight wire to the wall. Right above the restraining wire it started to bend outwards again. It pressed so hard against the wire that one day the wire broke and the tree tipped right over, onto the cars below. Thus began a story of pruning and counter-pruning till it began to look like a jagged bolt of wooden lightning that had struck the earth and frozen there. Its second mistake was to shed its leaves on the cars below. This was not tolerated and one day I was shocked to find it had been cut down to the ground.
But, the story wasn’t over. In a few months it grew back with a defiance that prompted my mother to write her poem.
This story in its essence is a graphic symbol, a fable of our age. The tree represents nature, especially our nature, our own personality and character, our body and spirit. It actively seeks light – the source of life and its meaning. The gardener represents the functionaries of our civilization, wanting us to grow in convenient, manageable, predictable, uniform, straight lines.
At a deep level many of us – especially young people on the brink of a career decision – loathe the conflict between the natural and the civilized. But we console ourselves by looking around, at our parents and even back into history to decide that adopting this condition is our human fate and even an achievement.
However, the history we usually look at is the history of our own type of civilization. Humans have lived in alternative ways in the past and continue to do so in the present as well. Some people have identified four different phases in the human life where the dominant type of human organisation changed from living in bands, to living in tribes, to living in kingships, to the present fourth phase of living in nation-states.
The third and fourth phases strove to end nature’s regulation of their lives and achieved a great measure of success in this through exploiting fossil resources and producing and storing great surplus. This success became their nemesis. With the self-regulating forces of nature out of action in their lives, they reproduced to vast numbers and brought in new needs like those of governance, policing, public health issues, certification, registration, taxes, permissions and an even greater exploitation of fossil resources to fuel the unbridled growth of their society. The paradigm of compulsive growth now firmly grips our society with an assurance that it is the only future for humanity.
Administrating such vast numbers by remote control is a mind-boggling task. Rules are a way of solving repetitious problems without thinking. But they work only if the problems come in standard formats. So our governors want us to grow in standard sizes and shapes. Our governors are not just the administrators and politicians. They are scientists, educators, religious teachers, technologists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, economists…
The overgrown machine of civilized human life makes an individual feel helpless to change anything in their way of living. Young people with passion, ideals and dreams find it hard to swallow the pill of acquiescence to a world where their brightest future is to become a cog in some heartless, obsolete system just because they have to have a job, just because they have to eat, just because they have to get married and have a family and store away funds for their old age.
They long to follow a path with a heart. Sadly, that is a way of life banished by our civilization. Yet, it is the source of an individual’s initiative that releases the locked-up creativity and concern that this planet is begging for.
Four of us who worked together in a youth organisation decided to change that at least for ourselves by forming Phase 5. It is a proprietorship that promotes awareness, advocacy and alternatives to restore natural systems of living. By choosing the name Phase 5, we wanted to say that in spite of our deep criticism of present civilization, we are not trying to turn the clock back to some romanticized past. Also, that we needn’t assume that the fourth phase is the end point of our destiny on this planet. Floating something totally your own and offering it to the world is an awesome experience of coming alive. It is our own little tree heading for the light.
It is very strange that in an age which glorifies enterprise, admires it and even worships it, the vast majority of the people are less enterprising than hunters and gatherers! Today, we prefer not to take the initiative and incur risks. We would rather blame others when things go wrong. All we want to do is sit and get fat like broiler chickens doing time while their farm manager decides how much food, water, lighting, space or sleep is best for them.
I once managed birds and cows in such batteries and noticed that city-folk seem plugged-in and ‘milked’ in a very similar way. Since almost everyone lives this way, it is hard to see anything wrong with such a remote-controlled lifestyle. Yet, in every attempt we make to solve the problems of the age, we unwittingly tend to re-apply the cause of those problems: the insistence that someone else, usually far away, solves all our problems.
Although we can look to phase one and phase two societies for ideas that come from outside these patterns of thought, they are hard to find and many have become infected with our mind-map already. One of the great repositories of experience in natural organisation that is still somewhat accessible to us is a forest. A forest is the living result of a history of successful plant and animal relationships that go back thousands of years.
In such a forest we should zoom in to the life of a tiny root fungus. This little life form helps a tree acquire minerals and water in exchange for sugar. Trees and fungi are ‘listening’ and adapting to each other without the need for instructions from a distant king of the forest. Yet, this relationship and its products are vital to a forest. Innumerable relationships of this kind make up a forest whether we are aware of them or not. There is no need for extraneous governance in any of these relationships. Instead, there are inner laws embedded into each plant and animal by ages of selection and trial by living. It is their very nature.
Emulating a forest may sound too fantastic to act out in the here and now of the city. But for the individual, finding and following a livelihood that one truly loves makes these ideas immediately relevant. I think it is a crucial first step even if it does not look ‘green’ to start with. Green is our nature and with freedom, will spring back to life like my tree. Being personally responsible for one’s life and livelihood forces us to consciously unplug from remote controls and connect to our own nature and to the supportive elements around us. As we extend our bandwidth of self-governance and mutuality to other concerns like food, health and information, we find a whole new world of freedom ready and waiting. In this web, care is natural rather than a duty or philanthropy. Once we recognize interdependence, we can find ourselves ultimately connected to everybody and everything, from a worm in the forest to the planet itself.
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