The sea at Timbulsloko, Indonesia, didn’t just sweep in by itself, eroding the coast by miles. This gradual inundation was caused by human choices. Mangroves had shielded the land since time immemorial, allowing agriculture to flourish. But once people started to cut them, the sea began to reshape the coast, even washing away villages. Now, brushwood and bamboo structures have been set up to slow the tides, encourage sediment build-up, which will hopefully lead to the eventual formation of new mangroves.
The thriving, natural boundary that is the mangrove – lush, salt-saturated, interlocked grace, often the habitat of creatures of the sky and sea – has something to teach us. So does the restoration undertaken by the people of Timbulsloko. Sometimes we blunder. We think our boundaries aren’t important, and then we suffer. But we can correct this, provided we understand their necessity.
Another beautiful assertion of natural boundaries is how, in parts of the world including Kerala, Sri Lanka and Tanzania, marauding elephants have been kept from entering crop fields not through electric fences, but through a border of beehives. Not only are elephants frightened away (peacefully), but the devastation the planet will experience with the coming extinction of bees is averted just a little.
When it comes to interpersonal boundaries, many perceive them as restrictions only the unkind would impose. But the opposite is true. In order to have real goodness, one must have a clear sense of respect towards self and other. Healthy boundaries protect and nurture. Like cacti, palmyra and other organic fences used in rural homes, they are lovely to have, and hurt no one except those who intend to trespass.
Pondicherry’s French Quarter escaped the impact of the 2004 tsunami because of a 300-year old colonial stone seawall which was frequently reinforced. But the barrier had never had the larger population in mind, and hundreds of fisherpeople who lived and worked beyond its length were killed. Sometimes old protection mechanisms become insufficient, and we must find meaningful, updated methods. This can happen especially to those who are usually very good with maintaining boundaries. We fail to account for unexpected breaches.
Sometimes a barrier needs to be instated despite how unpleasant it feels to do it. Being reasonable and gentle does not always work. So if the scent of marigolds (known to repel rabbits, mosquitoes and certain insects) won’t do, perhaps the stink of coyote urine needs to be deployed. Coyote urine is used by agriculturalists in the US to deter against smaller pests including deer, skunks, rabbits and raccoons. As for larger predators: there is a point beyond which self-preservation must come first. When someone invades your privacy or space, threatens or disrespects you, demands your attention or drains you, you have every right to cut them out completely. They already have their explanation.
A story, too, can be a boundary. This is how sacred groves have survived around the world, through myths that rendered them inviolable. Long before the word “biodiversity” was coined, a native knowing ensured that what was precious was safe. Sometimes, the entirety of the story is just one powerful word, a word like “Enough”, or “No”.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 23rd 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.