The Venus Flytrap: Natural Boundaries

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.

The Venus Flytrap: When You Burn A Bridge, But You’re Still On Fire

The forests are burning, again, and so are the bridges. In one of the most striking images that I‘ve seen, a trajectory of incandescence outlines the distant black hills against the night sky, while the reflection of the blaze dapples the Ganga waters. Visually hypnotic, but terrible both in cause and consequence. The burning has gone on for a long time.

Those bridges I spoke of are only metaphorical: one way to find sense and language for this much incineration.

How does one withdraw support from those who abuse it? Amputation is a question of the correct knife. Sometimes, a needle will do to loosen a knot. Sometimes, it takes the the heaviness of a guillotine. Most times, it requires pulling out the knife that was plunged into one’s back and using it to stake freedom.

You built a bridge so you could share the bounty of your own land. You built a bridge so you could live more of other places, other impressions. You built a bridge because there was someone on a further bank who seemed to need it badly, and you misunderstood those who paid no heed as cruel, not cautious. You built a bridge so you could stand at its centre and marvel at how you suspended everything – doubt and mistrust and past failure – to build it anyway, and here it stands. And still you arrive at the day when you find the balustrades breaking down, the traffic one-way, and silt  weakening the foundations you lay with your own hands. And so you set a torch to it, and as the first flicker kindles, the words in your mouth and your beaten, beating heart are I’m free, I’m free, I’m free.

What is not known about amputation, except by those who have successfully performed it, is this: you don’t cut anything of another person away. You only excise that which has become gangrenous within you because of your involvement with them.

I woke very early one morning this weekend with the awareness that I was carrying tight orbs of anger and unhappiness, forms of thwarted love that had outlived their circumstantial triggers. I was as surprised by them as I would have been to find mice in my mattress, and I responded in the same way. They had no place in my life, in my body, in my bed. The arsonists behind those conflagrations had long since left or been left, but this was what they had left behind.

Who set the forests on fire? Who taught you tears could douse them? I looked at those red-hot burdens and said: this is my work to do.

Boundaries are just as beautiful as bridges. They keep out those who don’t deserve your bounty, your benevolence. But as you draw the lines and keep vigil within them, know that everything that wound up on your riverbank still belongs to you. Some things you cannot transmute except by way of bonfire.

You’ve been an inferno for a long time, any way.

What rises from the ashes is aurelian, smoke-feathered, jewel-eyed. It takes flight by the light of broken bridges as they burn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 5th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.