Suprabha Seshan
Photo: Ian Lockwood

Re-growing a Forest: The Remarkable Life of Suprabha Seshan and Her Rewilder Friends

Ecologist, educator, environmentalist: above all, an inspirational figure dedicated to the ‘rewilding of habitat and human beings’ (from her TedX talk this August). This month, Darshana Ramdev, contributing writer at The Kodai Chronicle, caught up with Suprabha Seshan, a renowned conservationist who lives and works at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary (GBS), a forest garden and community in the Western Ghats, located in Wayanad, Kerala.

The spokesperson of this well-known sanctuary, Seshan received the 2006 Whitley Award (the top environmental prize in the UK, commonly known as the ‘Green Oscars’), and the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship in 2005. Her life is dedicated to plant conservation, habitat restoration and education, and she looks at reforestation as a multi-dimensional relationship between plant and animal species, human beings, and the land we all inhabit. One of India’s leading conservationists, she is grounded in a more radical approach to reforestation than that of the prevailing, more conventional view (growing more trees). Her writing has been published in Scroll, Indian Quarterly, Economic and Political Weekly and many other publications.

With trademark eloquence, she speaks to The Kodai Chronicle about decades of work that has involved the integration of scientific and traditional practices, understanding the complex conditions in which plants exist and relate to each other, and how human societies can exist in harmony with this diversity.

Darshana Ramdev: How did your interest in conservation begin? Was it an intentional choice, motivated by a circumstance, perhaps?

Suprabha Seshan: I don’t know if there was a conscious moment of transformation as such. My childhood was full of people… gardeners, nature lovers, people living in rural areas in India, who were comfortable with non-humans. There was a spontaneous transition to making a life out of it. It got wilder and wilder, the schools I went to, the friends I made. I grew up in Delhi then spent a few years in Bengaluru. I also studied at Brockwood Park Centre in the UK, run by the Krishnamurti Foundation and got my degree there. I was there when I heard of the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary for the first time, actually. I was a young, college-age student and a couple of people there knew about the place but we Indians, even those from the South who had an interest in nature, hadn’t heard of it.

At Brockwood, I was doing a project on the history of landscape gardens and parklands. I became fascinated by human influence and how the ecology of the land changes and evolves with every generation of human beings. In fact I’ve continued to explore the different approaches gardeners have to conservation. I also became fascinated with the idea of wilderness—is it a North American concept? Where does the wild end and the domestic begin? Which humans have had the longest associations with the wild?

Suprabha Seshan in a video on the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary’s Facebook page

DR: Your travels after college and the time you spent in the United States appear to have had a profound impact on your life as a conservationist. Tell me about that?

SS: I was in the midst of exploring the relationship between humans and their non-human surroundings. I stayed in Adivasi villages and later focussed on conservation missions, as well as the attitudes to nature that tend to influence them. It was on that wilderness-related journey that I ended up visiting Gurukula and was very impressed by it. I was still exploring at the time, though, so I went to the United States and spent a year interning at the Land Institute. There, they outlined the fundamental problems of agriculture.

DR: What did you learn there? Agriculture and wilderness have always been in conflict with each other. What are the means for reconciliation? Are there any?

SS: The prairies, which I studied in America, were long sustaining biomes (though post-glacial). We looked at how many species live there and in contrast examined the annual wheat monoculture, the root systems and topsoil of both the wild grassland and the planted grassland. We also learned about the old communities of indigenous peoples in the Midwest and so on. It was eye opening to learn from people looking at recreating agro-ecological ecosystems based on natural ecosystems.

Suprabha Seshan speaks in ‘Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary – And the forest came back!’, part of a series of films by Swedish documentary filmmaker Boris Ersson, ‘The Forest In Our Hearts’

DR: How did you arrive at Gurukula, then?

SS: I was looking for examples of traditional agro-ecosystems in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and so on. There were old ways of horticulture that resembled the natural forests. That’s when I came to the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary and met Wolfgang (Wolfgang Dieter Theuerkauf, the founder). They were trying to conserve and regrow the forest but they were different in the sense that they were looking at it in terms of its myriad species not just the ones useful for humans

DR: Why was that a different approach?

SS: Even now, when we think of reforestation, we do so in terms of tree cover. Yes, it is a tree-based biome of course. But to think of it as only trees is like saying there are only tigers in the forest and no tree frogs! Gurukula was intriguing – they looked at orchids and ferns and tender herbaceous plants as well. They asked questions about diversity, evolution and biogeography. Their approach was through the lens of cultivation, rescue and restoration. My early days here were spent making journeys into the forest and climbing the Western Ghat mountains with Wolfgang, other GBS members like Laly Joseph and Suma Keloth, and many conservationists and botanists from the region. They were marvellous adventures into biodiversity and the conservation and cultivation of endangered species. So I stayed on. I was a young intern then, with a backpack, doing volunteer work, going on plant-based expeditions with Wolfgang, taking kids into the forest, writing newsletters, and growing vegetables. It’s a spiritual place, a group of people living together in enquiry. And our enquiry was ecology.

DR: You have had a long association with the conservation and restoration of the Shola grasslands. Tell us about it.

SS: Our work with upland ecology has resulted in a far more ambitious undertaking by Vasanth Godwin Bosco, a former student who became a close collaborator, on shola-grassland restoration. In 2001-2003, Sandilya Theuerkauf, then at GBS, did a study of the grasslands of Mukurthi National Park, as a result of which the TNFD incorporated our suggestions into the working plan of the park. Vasanth came on one of our long term programmes in 2009 and then went on to do a deeper and more exhaustive study of the vegetation of the entire upper Nilgiris (his homeland), and the threats to the high elevation shola-grassland mosaic. He also established a nursery of native species, and initiated projects with many different stakeholders on restoration. I support his work and also run educational camps together with him, and have on behalf of GBS bought a piece of land on the southern cliff of the Nilgiris to restore to shola-grassland species.

Because of the lockdowns I have not been able to go there. Vasanth has been clearing exotics and planting native species.

We had a long and close association with Robert Stewart and Tanya Balcar. We explored the Palnis and Nilgiris from 1996 until their demise, recently. Their focus was mostly trees and shrubs. Ours were herbaceous, epiphytic, and shrubby species. We both got into grassland issues at the same time. Together we had a successful conservation exchange to do with high elevation ecology. We have had a great connection with others in Kodaikanal, Ian Lockwood, Father Mathew and Meena Subramaniam as well. Youngsters like Vasanth have benefited from our highland association, they went on to do remarkable work in habitat and species conservation.

Suprabha Seshan on a hike in Kodai in 2012 with Robert Stewart and Tanya Balcar
Suprabha Seshan on a hike in Kodai in 2012 with Robert Stewart and Tanya Balcar (Photo: Ian Lockwood)

DR: ‘Re-growing a forest’ is such a broad term. What does it actually entail, on a day-to-day basis?

SS: There are the usual methods, of course—collecting seeds, cuttings, tubers, transplantation and weed management. Also leaving the land alone, as the forest grows itself back too, this is what I study. All these forms of propagation and conservation are quite ancient—you take something from somewhere and plant it somewhere else. You leave lands fallow or let them rewild themselves. That is the essence of it, no mysteries as such. And yet, it’s not as simple as that either—pulling out a plant and bunging it into another pot, or putting seeds into vaults. Yes, you can do those things also. The mystery comes in when you look at how wild plants are so attuned to specific conditions. The Gurukula rainforest gardeners are trying to understand the very special ways in which an orchid, a tender fern grows, how a climber grows,  or a tuber, the different trees at different elevations and the many varieties of grasses. Each plant is a world unto itself and exists in complex conditions. For it to do well, you have to understand these conditions and also see how plants function in relation to each other. It’s about the diversity of the ecological community and how plants respond to conditions and also create conditions for others to thrive.  

DR: Agriculture and forestation have always been in conflict with each other. Are there means of reconciliation?

SS: Agriculture has decimated the wild world and caused enormous ecological degradation. It has always meant this decimation of biodiversity and the planting of something that only humans want, when the creatures of the forest want something else. For instance, if we want to plant vegetables in this location, we need sunshine. The actual forest is 40 metres tall. If there is sunlight, it means the loss of forest cover. It applies to grassland too, which needs to be cleared to grow crops.

Can they reconcile? It’s not about finding a balance so much as moving towards creating conditions that are conducive to more diversity. If you work towards greater, native biodiversity, you start to eat differently. You eat the greens that grow on a tree or the leaves of a bush rather than palak. You’re eating the leaves of a tree rather than the herb. The latter requires sunshine but the tree or a bush are part of the forest polyculture. 

It’s about thinking differently and considering the ways in which you can live from the land while recovering the land to what it wants to be.    

DR: What sustainable agricultural practices can we look at and how will these change the way we live?

SS: We need to reconsider many things. Monoculture practices would give way to some kind of polyculture for instance. Instead of thousands of acres of banana or tea plantations, you would grow a variety of plant life forms. Modern agriculture is largely based on annual monocultures, the most extractive form of farming. We need to move instead towards perennial methods that aren’t chemically intensive. So, yes, you would be living very differently. It’s a practical shift, the moment you switch from annuals to perennials , from exotic to native, from monoculture to polyculture, chemical to organic, there will be consequences for human beings and for other species too.

DR: What role does traditional knowledge play in your reforestation methods? And scientific practices too?

SS: What we do has evolved here, is an on-going experiment that grows out of constant conversation between people from different backgrounds. It’s not about bridging a dichotomy of different practices; it is a holistic approach in and of itself. For instance, we have scientists for the theory but the practical knowledge comes from the folk here. In Kerala, people are really into cultivation. Local knowledge can be backed by science—it’s not really about trying to mix science and indigenous practices but what is good for the land, which is highly threatened by over collection and habitat loss. We have beautiful relationships with botanists that have evolved over 40 years about ferns and orchids,  mosses, grasses and trees. It has been a long conversation with them about species, taxonomy and biodiversity.

The rigours of cultivation are best understood by the traditional practitioners, who bring the practical knowledge of how to actually grow something. And the bottom line is the life of the plant.

DR: When we think of ‘poaching’, we imagine tiger skins and ivory from elephants. But you have discussed yourself, the poaching of plants. Would you like to talk about that?

SS: It’s a recent development, perhaps spurred on by the pandemic. People want to grow indoor plants; it’s a sort of mania that has taken over  since the pandemic. As a result of this, the nursery trade has increased. And also, people want rare plants, the more exotic the better. It has resulted in the poaching of plants, a phenomenon taking place all over the world. There is a sort of rage to possess these plants and make YouTube videos about them!

The purpose of botanical gardens is to introduce people to the beauty, diversity and vitality of plant life. You have amazing creatures doing different things and we’re all fascinated by them. But this is a fashion, a fad that feeds into some kind of commodification. Someone figures out that there are places which possess these plants—it spreads through word of mouth and then it’s like a bidding war. The older the plants are, the bigger the leaves they put out, so you have an instant recreation of the Amazon in your living room. It’s a trend and has to be addressed. Plants have become status symbols, now it’s all about, “This is how much I have paid for it, I’m the only one who has it” and so on. It really is insane and Gurukula has been a victim. Lots of people have been telling us about what’s going on at a broader level, we are not the only ones

DR: Does government policy support efforts like yours? What is your take on the amendments to the Forest Rights Act, for instance?

SS: I’m not the best person to ask. I don’t have much hope in that kind of systemic structure because they are fundamentally extractive in nature.

If you look at forest policy over time, you realise that each policy is worse than the previous one. There was a slight recovery for a while – we were quite excited by the introduction of the Forest Rights Act. Now, a decade later, you have deep and disturbing changes being proposed. They look minor on paper but the consequences are horrific.

There is awareness and the reality is quite disturbing but there is no positive trend in terms of policy.

DR: Forest officials, at least in Karnataka, say that reduced human activity during the pandemic actually benefited the forests. Did you observe a trend like this also? 

SS: On one hand, the pandemic reduced human intervention and we were all witness to nature’s remarkable capacity to bounce back. We were seeing the Himalayas from places they haven’t been visible from for years; animals came out of hiding. At the same time, the pandemic was also used to unleash huge infrastructure projects and trade routes.

Suprabha Seshan on a hike in Kodai
Suprabha Seshan on a hike in Kodai in 2012, seen here with companions including Tilottama Sarkar, Shyam and Vasanth Godwin Bosco, who spearheads grasslands restoration in the Nilgiris (Photo: Ian Lockwood)

DR: Education is an important part of what happens at Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. Tell us about it.

SS: Education here is an immersive experience and involves meeting nature on its own terms. We de-gadget the kids for a few days, or weeks, depending on how long they’re here. They go swimming, go eye-to-eye with local flora and fauna and work with the community. Daily life is very practical here—gardening and taking care of the land. When kids come here and see adults living the way we do, it opens them up to the possibility that there might be other ways to relate to the natural world.

One of the key aspects of our education is that the human body itself is an endangered biome. The very core of human existence is under assault. We’re so hooked on our gadgets.

The programme ranges from a short visit—perhaps a daily visitor from Kannur will bring some kids over for the day to much longer stays. One valley at Gurukula doesn’t have electricity or tented camps so kids bathe in the river, wash their clothes in a stream, collect wood, cook on open fires and sleep under the stars. It’s a very raw existence. Once they settle into that, they can do chores for the endangered species garden like making a rock wall or helping the gardeners. When they come back on a repeated visit, they spend more time trying to understand plant conservation and habitat restoration.

DR: How easy or difficult is it for these children to adapt to such a drastic change? Especially since there are so many elements of this life we might have to look at going forward?

SS: It varies! We had two 14-year-old girls, who took a brave decision to come stay here with us. One was here for one month and the other for 10 days. This was before full-time school began. Both responded in such different ways but by the end, they had found a connection with this kind of life. Each child is different—there are so many things going on with them. There’s peer pressure, early addictions, parental conditioning—we have to find ways for them to relax into the place. At the end, they have all kinds of stories and leave wanting to return. Kids from more expensive schools have an intellectual appreciation but find it difficult to adapt physically. They are not in their bodies. Those from rural and tribal schools have a more mutual affirmation of the forest and are able to adapt physically too.

Darshana Ramdev

Darshana Ramdev has over a decade of experience in journalism, working for major Indian newspapers, and has written about science and technology, urban policy, theatre, music and art. She lives between Bengaluru and Chinnappalam.

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