by Aditya Dev Sood

Vanaprastha photo I think it was the beginnings of the meltdown, almost three years ago, that I first came upon the City Forest. I was talking into my cellphone with someone, maybe my Dad, about where the economy was going, where it was taking all of our clients. It was about finding ways to ride it out. I remember walking and talking further and further away from the office till I ended up at a large half-open garbage collection center. Cycle-rickshaws came by from time to time to drop off refuse from the neighborhood that a truck would later load up and take to a landfill somewhere. Behind it was a small gateway, and behind that another kind of reality altogether.

I stepped past the gateway to a series of paths amidst greenery of every kind. There were tall uncut grasses on the edge of pathways, and behind them shrubs of every size, sometimes growing into large boulder-like forms. The trees were mostly short and coiled, unfurling canopies with their leaves a bit above man-height. It was only raining lightly, but I stood sheltering under those contrapposto trees for a long while. Nothing much else was happening that Tuesday afternoon, and I felt safe, sheltered among those trees despite the rain.

A milestone marked the narrow tar road at 1600 meters, which I supposed was meant for runners or distance walkers. I headed off in the direction marked Tughluqabad, though I was sure the ruins of that city lay much further than I could walk. The narrow, tarred walkway wound all round the forest, sometimes bumping up against the backs of petrol-pumps and busy intersections, at other times losing you in the depth of a forest that knows nothing of the teeming city encircling it on all sides. Saplings have been planted along the sides, here and there, protected by metal baskets. But this touch of human intervention appears superficial, being soon lost in the dense scrub that waves this way and that way, comprised of a teeming variety of plants of all sizes.

I have no names for the plants around me. They waft by silently, speaking only with their silhouettes. They carve space around the sky, they settle around my gaze and give way in the distance, all around there is only the wet, green, dirty kiss between earth and sky.

If I were to step off the path, I might experience the foliage as a medium. It had a density which could be felt on the hands and round the ankles, tugging and dragging one’s pace. The branches of trees arc low, offering their wet bark, where I might sit atop them on my haunches, lay back down into their hammock arms. The rain trickles down through trees, dropping wet plops upon my head, I can taste the wetness of the air.

At some point, I didn’t notice when, the rain stopped. Now, the early evening light is shooting through tree tops, setting branches and leaves ashimmer. Although I’m keenly aware of the scenes that play, right and left, along the path, what is happening is not an active seeing, but an action of the scenery upon the mind, which dilates it, distracts it, diffuses it into non-thinking, non-noticing, just a kind of glancing and grazing upon the flow of the path and of consciousness, now passive, open, not scheming, planning, sorting, or intending. I feel something come on in my head, a tension that is perhaps the opposite of a headache — a kind of somatic sense of bubbling or excitation at my crown, vaguely pleasurable, which also causes my jaw muscles to relax and hang low with the open gasp of a winded runner. All my earlier thoughts are still whirling away at their own continuous r.p.m., but the needle of consciousness has been lifted from their surface.

Perhaps all this is nothing very new or surprising for people who are involved with the outdoors — trekkers, campers, mountaineers of all kinds must be getting something out of their experiences in and with nature. I can’t recall ever being open to these kinds of experiences earlier in life. For much of my young adulthood I only looked for, and therefore could only see, the scratches of culture — architecture, material culture, painting, iconography. All kinds of signals from society, evidence of intertextuality and self-referentiality, the markings of consciousness and human intentionality. Whatever lay beyond the realm of culture was a fog for me — I couldn’t easily even admit that there might be something there I should pay attention to, much less observe or learn from.

My experiences in the city-forest was not actually about observation so much as a kind of peripheral acknowledgement, and then a realignment of the mind, body and self with a leafy-green environment. This experience came about by accident, but I later found it could be replicated again and again. And so I began heading out for longer or shorter walks early in the morning, chasing that buzz or head-rush that could come from not having the mind focus on anything but keeping the body aligned to the walking path, one step after the next. After so many years of experiencing the mind only as a means with which to immediately make sense of stimulus and achieve the objectives of the will, or else to discern the traces and meanings of others’ intentionality, it was something of a revelation that the mind could be used in this other way as well, as a kind of humming drone which could be made to resonate pleasurably in response to natural — and curated — vegetation of varying kinds and contexts.

What are civic gardens, parks, arboretums, green spaces of all kinds for, anyway? I think questions of beauty and power might actually be distractions. All gardens are more or less successful attempts at creating a human terrarium, in which we might allow ourselves to walk or run about, round and round, so as to fleetingly glimpse that part of ourselves which is made of and from nature. The part that cannot happily be stuffed into a blue chambray shirt and distracted with a pieces of beeping and glowing plastic. And not only to glimpse it, but actually to nurture and satisfy that part of us which belongs outside, in the intimate embrace of earth, greenery and sky.

I am mindful of the observation that there can be no immediate experience of nature, one which is not already filtered through human cultural horizons, through which pattern and meaning are made. I think it was Paul Ricoeur that pointed out that our knowledge of landscape painting, for example, can transform the way we gaze at landscapes. For all its untamed, monsoon-fed scrub and plantlife, the City Forest is as much a human artifact as any Chinese Pavillion or Mughal Funerary Garden: there is no megafauna here, there are timings, rules of conduct and signboards to direct you to its many far-flung entrance gates. And yet, as one gazes off the trail, one glimpses a world that is liminally, asymptotically, not of our own creation. Not crafted, not engineered, not designed — in its details, anyway. Framed, to be sure, but still merely organically present, complex, vivid, happening, live like us.