Godwin Vasanth Bosco’s much-awaited book Voice of a Sentient Highland is ecological thought at its creative best, a many-layered exposition at once specific to an area and, at the same time, a guide to others elsewhere. In reading this, I’m sure you will feel the urge to grow intimate with a place you love, ask meaningful questions, make sensible connections, and then be inspired to act upon your hard-won experience.
Sentient Highland is both vast in scope and loyal to a place. It is a map, a natural history guide, a manifesto, and a meditation.
Step by step, the blue mountains unfold as you turn the lavishly illustrated pages. First, the land and its primordial history negotiating geological forces over sweeps of time. Next, the forests and grasslands and the immense variations amongst natural communities across the plateau, dependent on the elevational gradient, the influences of the rain, and the shape of the land itself. And then, the heart-stoppingly beautiful plants and animals who live here along with traditional and indigenous humans; co-inhabitants of the Nilgiris for millennia.
You will then be guided through the many threats to these ecologies. Powerful and harmful anthropogenic forces are running riot over the land in the blink of an eye – a land grown by ancient slow-moving tectonic plates. In fact, new ecologies are forming as old ones die. You will learn about how plants cope and fight back; and encounter regenerative vegetations rising to meet man-made environmental tsunamis unleashed by modern civilisation.
You will then be presented with some of the lies we are told about what and who can halt this devastation. These are lies many environmentalists tell, things that benefit the techno-industrial complex while they block real-time efforts combating ecocide. As we approach chapter 7, we discover Sentient Highland is at core – a call to action and an exhortation to listen to plant communities all over the planet – to allow them the full space needed to recover organic vitality and draw carbon out of the atmosphere.
Forsaking a green-tech career in the West and with two patented gadgets in hand, Godwin Vasanth Bosco came home to roost in the Nilgiris in 2011.
I got to meet him just before this happened (in fact, I was privy to that moment in his life when things turned around completely). We were exploring the natural world through the Landscapes and Life-skills course at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, in collaboration with Pradip Krishen in the Satpuras and Himal Prakriti in the Himalayas.
Godwin Vasanth Bosco, known to all of us as Vasanth, joined us, taking a temporary break from his studies in Finland. By the end of the course, Vasanth’s mind was already aligning with the Nilgiris. Looking back, it’s clear he took us all very seriously. The course facilitators were and are inhered in specific landscapes; it’s what we want to see happen with everyone we guide – that they too take root somewhere: a forest or seashore, a desert or mountain, with the plants and animals and humans of that biome. Vasanth decided to return to Ooty to learn about the Nilgiris and those who inhabit it – no more Finland, no more designing gadgets to make technologies more efficient, and more apparently green.
Nine years have passed since then. Nine years of solitude, devotion, and painstaking exploration of every valley and fold of a magnificent high-elevation plateau in southern India: its beauties, capacities and strengths, as well as its trials and tribulations. Nine years of documenting the last refuges and flashpoints of change – natural change – even as the resilience of the environment declines.
I recall the many conversations and debates that Vasanth and I have had in the course of these years. I find myself growing quiet, as I delight in this work’s culmination. Sentient Highland provokes a stillness. I find myself thinking like a mountain, feeling like a grassland, growing strong like the wind and rain, energising like little flowers and herds of bison. Sentient Highland demands an enquiry past given narratives.
What happens when you start to make forays into the worlds of non-humans? Where will these lead you?
What happens when you learn lessons from ecological communities directly? What unique perspective might emerge in your dialogue with humans, rocks, plants, and animals around you? Will your observations, reflections and conversations with others in your landscape and your continual efforts to grow these connections not guide you to taking your own creative and inspired actions – actions commensurate to the challenges you now perceive?
The Nilgiris are already becoming a better place for Vasanth’s efforts and investigations. There are flowers blooming, forests rising and grasslands burgeoning under his care, along with a growing community of youngsters and elders who are ready to ally with his cause.
But why stop at the Nilgiris? Will a mountain-land elsewhere on the planet, with its humans and non-humans, not heed the work, words, and images from the Nilgiris, the clarion call ringing through these pages? Will a desert or an island or an immense river such as the Amazon and the people living there not resonate with the truths of ecological agency described here? I see in my mind’s’ eye: resurgent nature everywhere countering the grotesqueness of hubris and Sentient Highland speaking to comrades in earth-protection alliances across the planet.
Gary Snyder, the North American (writer and) poet, says, “Find your place on earth and dig in.” Here is Vasanth, a man who’s done it against serious odds without and within. Dominant ways of thinking and perceiving that deny consciousness to the rest of the universe and to other creatures and cultures are in the way of our collective survival. Is the land not wilful? Are plants not plotting their own action? Are you not ready to listen to the mountain? What would the indigenous people of your land guide you to do?
So this book should be taken very seriously. It is as much the result of real arduous work as one of imagination and deep learning. It is thick with fact and bursting with images and descriptions. You will walk out upon reading it to reflect upon the complex issues it raises as you stand on the land supporting you, feeling it underneath your feet; as you thrill at the vitality of the living world around you expressing itself, showing you what to do.
Invigorated, you can begin partnering with the powers still held in the earth, ones that Vasanth and his friends are interested in supporting.
Squashed underneath the forces of hubris but not dead yet is the only world that matters. It’s still the only one bearing life – the natural world – infinitely more capable and full of solutions than any of us humans can imagine, even as it goes into a steep decline.
Savour each page. Read the two narratives (the second in yellow). The photographs are breathtaking, the writing is informative and based on hard experience, and the argument is honed out of years of observation study and compelling evidence. Now find your place on earth and dig in. Form your own regenerative ecology with other humans and non-humans.
What can you all achieve together in the next nine years (the time it took to bring forth this book)? Will the place that you call home, wherever it is on the planet, be better for your presence? With all planetary boundaries at stake and tipping points crossed, is there anything more pressing for you to do?
Excerpted with permission from the “Introduction”, by Suprabha Seshan, to Voice of a Sentient Highland, Godwin Vasanth Bosco, Partridge Books.