Ananthagiri Hills Trek

Ananthagiri Hills Trek, (c) GHAC

I spent most of yesterday trekking through the jungle at Ananthagiri Hills with about ten people from the GHACand my two children. In between climbing old-creek beds off-trail, hiking through fields of torturous thorny grasses, telling stories to keep the kids happy and uncomplaining, and looking for and at stones, bees nests, peacock feathers, and even one scorpion, I found myself ruminating about the many relationships I and those around me have to the jungle here.

My friends and neighbors view even the small patches of jungle (Hindi for “forest”) near my quarters as dangerous and not to be entered. When the children play there, a neighbor calls me warning of snakes. The children and adults do not enter the forest. When I invite them to learn more about snakes (through the GHAC’s collaboration with the “Snake Sense” organization), the children jump at a chance to join me, but the adults will not accompany them. I must request permission to bring 5 children along with me, with no other supervisors. The event, associated with India’s wonderful “Children’s Day” holiday turns out to include a hike. We trek up and down a local hill, slide down a crack between boulders, challenge ourselves to pass along the edge of a large, highly angled stone, climb a tree. The children with me alternate between fear and enchantment, feelings of prowess and worries of inadequacy. At the end, each child receives a first aid kit and a reminder that they gain much from pushing their limits. Will they keep their adventurous nature?

GHAC group (c) GHAC

GHAC group (c) GHAC

Clearly, the GHAC views the jungle as a place for fun, adventure, exercise, and comradeship. On our hike yesterday, we launched ourselves from the edge of a hill up a mountainside through brush, thorns, and rocks. In contrast to my neighbors, concerns about snakes were not prominent. Indeed, from what I learned at snake sense, a dangerous encounter is unlikely (and likely to be precipitated in part by a lack of sense). The excitement of discovery, and the challenge of hiking these non-trails sustains my children through the beginning of the hike. As they begin to tire, I begin to notice that many trails snake through the woods and fields and across or along our path. Soon we are passed by herders walking their cattle down the trails. White birds fly among the cattle clearly benefiting from their presence. To these herders, the jungle and fields are not adventure but home and land. We continue on our way, unremarkable to those who share the space with us. Eventually, as we return, we pass the only “wildlife” we’ve seen besides a single scorpion: A lost goat bleating for its pack, unaccompanied.

At home, just down the road from our quarters, the workers who are helping with the campus expansion enter the forest frequently, it is their bathroom, washroom, and perhaps more. Behind the residence, the local organic farm is engaged in transforming parts of the forest into food. The forest sounds, smells and sights reflect these activities. It is clearly lived in, not just because of the trails that run through it and the plants that grow in it, but also because of the pervasive presence of garbage. In contrast, during our hike, garbage was rarely sighted: Those living on the land preserved its cleanliness. Why, I wonder? Fewer people? Different lifestyles? Perhaps a sense of environmentality that grows from using and being responsible for the land, benefiting from its preservation [1]?

At the end of our hike, we traveled to a local lake to relax, cool off and play. We share the surrounding coastline with those who simply live there and other visitors, but we have managed to find a corner of the lake that only one other person, a man chopping wood. The adults in our troupe of adventurers spend hours sharing food and playing in the water. We have brought no toys, boats, or other equipment. A half-full water bottle doubles as a ball for a while, then the play turns to tag. Meanwhile my son repeatedly splashes at those he knows will react by chasing him, throwing him into the water. I am struck by the sense of playfulness and community among this group of strangers who have just met and spent the day together. I think an american crowd might have more quickly run out of things to do, perhaps splashing, then splitting off into small groups swimming. I can’t remember the last time I saw adults playing tag.

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At the end I am left with a question: What creates these different relationships to the jungle, and how might they change? Agarwal’s paper describes a particular transformation in one community’s relationship to the Jungle. From viewing the forest as something that must, by necessity, be pillaged (and that is big enough to take it), one informant says “We protect our forests better than government can… For us, it is life… Just think of all the things we get from forests. If we don’t safeguard the forest, who else will?” [1, p. 2]. After presenting this initial transformation, Agarwal spends much of the rest of his article deconstructing its genesis in the varied regulatory structures and enforcement mechanisms put into place in the decade over which the transformation takes place. He argues for the role of “intimate governance”, rather than “government at a distance”, in creating environmentality. What is promising about the specific success he observed is the way in which it “led to a cascade of changes in institutional, political, and social domains connected to the idea of community” [1, p. 21].

While my observations lack the scale or depth of Agarwals, it seems likely that the different relationships, ownership, and upbringings I observed also have a direct impact on the preservation and use of the forest. Given the interdependency of these factors, as well as the impact of relationships among stakeholders, community attitudes and identity (e.g., [2]), lasting behavior change seems unlikely without multi-faceted, multi-level solutions1.

1I have argued elsewhere that there are multiple reasons to consider multi-level, scalable projects that engage with governments, organizations and individuals in sustainability research (and, as an aside, that much of the research we do now on sustainable HCI may be lack valid motivations). The analysis here seems to provide additional evidence for the need to think more broadly about the work we do.

[1] Agarwal, A. (2005). Environmentality: Community, intimate governance, and the making of environmental subjects in Kumaon, India. Current Anthropology, 46(2).

[2] T.Dillahunt, J. Mankoff, E. Paulos.  Understanding Conflict Between Landlords and Tenants: Implications for Energy Sensing and Feedback.  In Proceedings of Ubicomp 2010.