India Nature: Kutch Backroads, An Essay, part II

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Nikon Sprint 10x binoculars in hand, I walked alone down a dusty road towards Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, a heavily-modified landscape of retention dikes bordering the Gulf of Kutch and my first destination. A small bird perched on the telephone line overhead. With the sun at its back, I had to move to the side to get a good view: too late, it flew away unidentified, so I couldn't add to my list. A couple of Black-necked Storks, a flotilla of Common Pochards, and dozens of other shorebirds and waterfowl later, another small bird perched on a small tree. With good light, I recognized it as the previous unidentified bird, a Rufous-tailed Shrike, and checked it off in my notebook.

The list kept growing at Narara Bet, part of Marine National Park. To get a permit, I spent a day in the bustling city of Jamnagar, a small taste of upwardly-mobile India Inc. "Permission granted," said the forest officer, several hours of paperwork later.

I awoke at 5:00 am to catch the 6:00 am State Line bus to Vadinar. "Vadinar? No, o'clock." said the enquiry man behind his distortion-ridden microphone. Rubbing my tired eyes, I waited another hour. At 7, the bus left, then turned around again one minute later. "Next bus," the conductor said as the bus went for repairs.

Hours later, I was in Vadinar, surrounded by refineries and walking on top of a mound that covered an Indian Oil Pipeline. I didn't know this until a guard blew a whistle at me while I was looking at a distant hawk. I thought this was supposed to be a national park.

The national park began where the oil pipeline went underwater to the large tankers out in the Gulf of Kutch. In India, sometimes the boundaries defining what is park, what is pipeline--what is truly protected--are unclear. National parks and sanctuaries in India are small green dots within an immense and populous country. Even within these green dots, people graze their livestock, cut trees, mine for minerals, and lay pipelines.

Because of the late bus, I missed the morning low tide, so waited all day in the regenerating mangrove forests, planted by the Forestry Department after years of deforestation, for the tides to subside. As the time passed, I showed the pipeline guards how to use the binoculars and a few of the shorebirds--some plovers in winter plumage, stilts, sandpipers, the Eurasian Oystercatchers, and the black-and-white flocks of Crab-plover feeding and resting in the broad silty flats of the gulf. The latter two alone made the trip worthwhile.

But I couldn't submit simply to upping my life list. Seeing a bird, identifying it, checking it off, moving on to find another bird, and posting the list online ("look what I saw") seemed superficial. Inside, there was an uneasiness. I felt a subtle yet pivotal conflict between a life list and a deeper way of experiencing nature. For me, birdwatching while traveling needed to be something more than just "bagging the birds."

The conflict was also rooted in my scientific ecology background meeting a more primal spiritual side. On the scientific side, identification, numbers, statistics mattered. The quantification of nature led to management decisions implemented on the ground, a utilitarianism designed to protect the rare species, those animals without a voice in human society.

On the spiritual side, life in the present, experiencing all senses fully and mindfully was the path. The path was slow, intuitive, and placed you directly in contact with nature without the mental barriers of names or numbers. Like a quarreling couple, the argued in my mind, yet I hoped they could find a resolution, as both had its place and role.

Nine months before, I left a consulting job with WWF in Northwestern Yunnan Province to explore deeper connections between the mind and nature. For four months, I backpacked around Tibet, seeking solitude at Lama Latso, the Dalai Lama's holy lake; listening to glaciers speak, and interacting with wildlife. At the climax of the trip, I circumambulated Mt. Kailash in one day, a 34-mile circuit climbing to 18,500. By the end of the kora, completed with Khampas and nuns as companions, I felt my mind-body-nature relationship tested to the limit. Yet the test felt peaceful as my mind relaxed and achieved a certain rhythm. For Tibetans, this was a natural part of life.

Fresh from the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, I entered the Indian Subcontinent through Nepal, ready to learn from meditation and through spiritual masters--Tulku Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama and Karmapa in Nepal and Northern India. Tales of Shivapuri Baba, Milarepa, the Tumo, the Tulkus, the Lung Gompa, enlightened beings living in harmony with leopards, surviving in high-altitude caves through bitter winters, and walking across vast stretches of land without tiring pushed all limits of the physical body. For these sages and yogis, their feats were just a by-product of their deep states of realization and even enlightenment. They had fully transcended samsara, a state of mental chatter and confusion.

What became clear to me was this: spirituality and nature observation go hand-in-hand and I was just beginning this long path.

This is nothing new. The connection between spirituality and nature is as old as the hills, as the saying goes. Nature trackers and wildlife observers have lectured and taught for years about how to become a part of the natural world and to learn about nature. Tom Brown, the tracker from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey would tell you to take your time at each track, even the tracks of ants. John Stokes, John Muir, Thoreau, and Native American trackers would tell you the same. These trackers and naturalists would tell you also to clear your mind of clutter, to live in the present, to immerse yourself, to let go of inhibitions, to ignore discomforts of heat or cold, to be mindful, to smell, breathe, taste, see, touch, and hear.

Living in this manner led to higher levels of consciousness for both the trackers and the yogis. For the Native American scouts and shaman, there are four levels of consciousness, popularized as beta, alpha, theta, and delta. At one level, beta can be seen as a cluttered mind, full of distracted thoughts and desires. Delta, on the other hand can be seen as "a blending of the self with all things. The vision is powerful and overwhelmingly beautiful, and it is only reached through extreme sacrifice and asceticism," as Tom Brown described it. Alpha is a natural state of mind characterized by calm and aware senses, without the clutter of an beta state. Theta is a state between alpha and delta defined by deep intuition; in essence everything is a gradation of consciousness and awareness.

As one progressed along a spiritual pathway, a deeper level of realization and oneness with the world was reached, ultimately leading to enlightenment or the delta state of mind. In these states, fear between the spiritual being and animals disappears. Approaching animals and experiencing nature are facilitated. In essence, this was transcendentalism, the long name that we learned in high school English class but never quite understood. We only knew that Thoreau was cool.

Still, comfort with nature took time, and a balance was needed. I have often inadvertently scared animals testing the boundaries. The animals will give you subtle hints that you are approaching their zone of comfort. Still, many people have died approaching dangerous animals too closely, perhaps thinking they were outside the laws of nature. In essence, birds were much easier and safer subjects.
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