Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Tree

A long time ago, a great forest covered a distant land. One day a woodsman came walking along a path through the forest, whistling a tune and enjoying the summer sun. He carried an axe, resting it on his shoulder, and he walked easily, casting a professional eye over the trees as he walked past.

Suddenly he came across a very old, gnarled giant of a tree with an owl sitting on a nest in its branches. "Hello owl", he said. "Hello to yoooou toooo." said the owl and they smiled at each other.

"This tree doesn't look very well", said the woodsman.

"No, indeed. It's been ailing for quite a while" said the owl.

"Yes, I can see where disease has come into its limbs and has weakened them. This isn't good, owl."

"You're not wrong," said the owl.

There was an easy silence as the woodsman thought a little. Eventually he put his axe down on the ground and stretched his arms to waken the muscles. "You know, I think I could probably sort this tree out," said the woodsman.

"Hang on," said the owl quickly, "Sort it out how?"

"Well, it's simple see. This disease needs to be cut out of the tree if the tree's going to get better. And I reckon I'm just the man for the job - I can see where the disease is and I'll just lop off the bad bits."

"Whooooooaaa boy," said the owl. "Back up a little. The tree might be sick, sure. But that doesn't mean you're the man to cure it. I'm not sure that this tree needs the tender ministrations of a sharp blade at all. In fact, I reckon that's the last thing it needs."

"How so?"

"Well this tree was doing pretty well until woodsmen started messing with it a few years back. Giving it a little prune here and there - `for its own good' of course. One guy even tried the same trick you're talking about - cutting out this nasty disease with his axe. A fat lot of good that did - this tree hasn't ever properly recovered from that operation - the disease just got a whole lot worse. But at least we're surviving, and at least I've still got a nest for my babies."

"Well owl, that's as may be. You've clearly come across some bad woodsmen. But I'm different from that - I know what I'm doing. I know trees and I know this tree - I can fix it. I know I can."

"Thank you kindly for the offer," said the owl, "but we'll be just fine without your help. You go along now mister and good day to yoooouu."

The woodsman grimaced. "Owly, I've heard your comments but, with respect, I think you're wrong. And I'm going to prove it."

With that, he picked up his axe and walked purposefully to the tree. As the owl watched in consternation he examined a branch for sign of disease and then picked his mark and started chopping. In just a couple of minutes the branch was half cut through and soon, with a big creaking noise, it started splintering and dropping to the ground. A couple more hearty blows and the branch and tree were split asunder for ever.

"Now would you look at that!" said the woodsman. "This tree is going to be a whole lot healthier now. That branch was riddled with disease - if I'd just left it be the whole tree would have been brought down."

This time the owl didn't respond. She was flapping her wings in agitation and muttering soothing noises to her babies. The sound of chopping had aroused a chorus of frightened cries from the youngsters hiding unseen under their mother's soft belly.

The woodsman turned to the tree again and began examining the next branch. Finding evidence of more disease he started chopping away. He was confident that, with a few minutes work, this tree would be entirely freed of disease and the owl would be proven wrong.

Somehow though, it didn't work out that way. As he finished cutting off each branch he would look up and immediately spot more disease on the remaining branches. A few minutes quickly turned into a few hours of hard work.

He was so focussed on the task at hand that he barely noticed the owl getting more and more frantic. She alternated between whispering gently to her babies and trying desparately to quell her rising panic. Although it distressed her babies even more, she started to squawk wildly to try and attract the attention of any passing animals that might be able to help. But either they didn't hear her, or they were doing their best to stay out of harm's way, for no one came to her help.

Suddenly the owl launched herself from her nest and swooped down savagely on the head of the woodsman.

"Hey, what are you playing at?" he asked angrily. She'd taken him by surprise - he'd forgotten about her altogether, and she'd scratched his scalp.

"You're cutting my branch!" she screeched hysterically. "My babies are in a nest on that branch!"

She was right, he hadn't even realised. What's more it was the last branch left. As he looked around at his work, he realised that he'd chopped down all but a fraction of the once mighty tree. The main trunk still stood, and one long branch which supported the owl's nest.

"Why, you're right, owly. I see you're right." And he put down his axe and paused to wipe the sweat from his brow - cutting this tree had really taken it out of him. The owl flew back to her nest in relief. She'd stopped him just in time - she turned her attention to her crying babies - "It's all right now. Don't worry, Mummy's here..."

But suddenly she felt a shudder run through the nest. She looked up and saw the woodsman was cutting the branch. "Twaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrkkkkkkkk" she screeched in wild panic. "What are you doing? My babies!"

The woodsman didn't look up from his work. But between blows he gasped out a few sentences. "Owly, I don't expect you to understand.... But if I leave this branch all my work will be for nothing.... And this tree will still be here, diseased and uncured.... This branch is harbouring a disease that will kill this tree and it's my duty to cut it out..."

But the owl wasn' t listening. She was flapping frantically, trying vainly to protect her babies from the shudders running through the nest. Her mind whirred in panic but there was nothing she could do. She could feel the branch weakening with every brow. Oh God, oh God. Suddenly the branch collapsed a little. The whole nest dropped with it and she felt her stomach in her throat. Her babies were thrown around in the nest; their feeble cries were filled with terror. It would take just one more blow, she knew, and the branch would fall. As she watched the woodsman pull back his arm, she leaned down and gently picked up one of her babies in her mouth. As the axe hit the branch, she spread her wings and took flight.

As she beat her powerful wings she heard the branch hit the ground. Her heart jerked in her chest and a burning sadness spread through her whole body. But she flew on, her baby in her mouth - the only baby left - whom she had to save. The forest was wide and there were many trees but who would have her? She had only one nest and it was gone now. There were hard days and nights ahead, this much she knew.

The woodsman stood by the remaining tree trunk. The great tree which had stood for many years was now little more than a stump in the ground. Great branches lay strewn around on the ground - though diseased they were still great solid pieces of wood. This had been a great labour. He was tired now and it was time to go home and rest.

* * * * *

The next day the woodsman returned to the tree stump. This time he travelled on a cart that was pulled by two weary looking horses. He tethered the horses in the shade of a nearby tree and picked the axe out of the cart. He spent the rest of the day cutting the branches of the tree into logs and loading them onto the cart. It was hard graft and by the end of the day his hands were full of splinters.

Once the axe slipped and came mighty close to cutting off his foot. But it missed and the scare seemed to renew his focus. He chopped twice as hard after that and the tree was soon completely carved up and loaded onto the cart. As darkness fell he climbed on the cart and clicked the horses into a walk. It was beautifully cool now after the sweat of hard work in the heat of the day.

As he pulled out of the clearing a distant bird call sounded through the forest. It was an owl, he thought. The call sounded repeatedly as he left the clearing where the tree had once stood - it was a strange call. Oddly strident and clear, but full of a deep emotion that he could not quite name. What was that bird screeching for, he wondered? He'd forgotten all about the owl that had lived in the tree, so he had no inkling of the sadness that filled that call.

When he got back to his house, he greeted his wife with a kiss. "The man from the timber company came by earlier," she said. "He was keen to speak with you."
"Yes, I'll bet he was. Come and see this." He led her outside and showed her the cart full of logs. "Good solid logs these," he said. "And rare too. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw this tree yesterday."

"Why, this is wonderful, " said his wife. " But there are strange markings on its bark. Has it got some kind of disease?"

"Oh, don't worry about that. This is good timber, that's all that matters. We're going to get a mighty good price - the timber company are going to love this. We're set, baby, we're set!"

He kissed her and they went inside. It had been a long couple of days.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

A Circle of Good People

The text of this post is taken from here. The post describes a movement here in Tamil Nadu which very much fits into Negri and Hardt's Project of the Multitude (see my earlier post). Alternative structures to that of government are being set up. These structures are not just protest structures, they are creative and productive. And in creating these structures, ordinary people are weakening the influence and relevance of the corporation-government nexus. Nice one!

Ennangalin Sangamam (Confluence of Thought) is the off-shoot of a highly localised earlier movement called Nalloor Vattam (meaning circle of good people). This movement was first formalised and legitimised by the right-wing RSS in the early-’80s in an attempt to build a movement of grassroots groups across Tamil Nadu. However, in the process, they ended up networking a large number of neighbourhood people and institutions who did not necessarily subscribe to the RSS political and social views.

So, out of the darkness, light may come: The Nalloor Vattam now functions in most parts of Tamil Nadu as an apolitical organisation more concentrated on volunteering for a need in the neighbourhood and less inclined towards any political activity. Moving still further from its RSS origins, the Ennangalin Sangamam is the embodiment of a simple idea: Create a space in which these neighbourhood volunteers can come together and share their stories.

This year's Ennangalin Sangamam took place on Sunday, January 6, 2008 at Pattabiram on the outskirts of Chennai. This was the third year the group gathered and it has grown each year. The first year had about 100 participants, the second 152 and this year there were more than 500, some of whom had travelled nearly 500 kilometres to be in attendance. A directory of contacts was published at this year's Sangamam and it contains more than 300 names.

The only qualification that is needed to attend the Ennangalin Sangamam is a willingness to talk and listen. There is no formal registration or payment of fees -- the whole event is designed to sit within the context of volunteerism. The organisers themselves are volunteers, who have taken it upon themselves to create this space and allow the stories to be told.

And everyone had a story to tell. Two of the participants had taken it upon themselves to promote eye donations in their local community. They had convinced more than 100 people to donate their eyes after death, thereby bringing sight to many who had been blind. Another man had taken it upon himself to tell the stories of disabled people. He had spent time talking with different people with different disabilities, written down their stories and published them. His aim was inspiration -- to let the reader hear what can be done against the odds.

Another man worked in an HR consultancy company which focussed on finding employment for the physically challenged. He himself suffered from muscular dystrophy as well as a number of other ailments. He had first encountered the company when he himself had gone there to get help to find work. While there he had used his English skills to translate a conversation for a parent of a deaf woman. The manager of the HR company was impressed and hired him as a consultant there and then.

One speaker particularly impressed the audience as he told of his work facilitating better education facilities for long-term serving prisoners in the Madurai central prison. As he described the social stigma which is suffered by a prisoner's family he broke down with emotion. The suffering of the prisoner's family is immense and the burden is particularly heavy for the prisoner's children who, though innocent of any wrongdoing, often lose out on a fair education.

Many other groups provided support to disabled people -- either through housing, or by the provision of crutches or tricycles for mobility, or through education and work opportunities. A significant number worked on education related issues -- enabling children to go to school and supporting them in their school work. Another group of people were involved in `annadaana'; they volunteer to source, cook and serve free food to abandoned invalids, small village schools and other marginal sections in semi-urban and urban environments. The common thread that united all these groups was a belief that people should be given every opportunity to live a fulfilled life. And, more than a belief, they have a will that converts to action -- concrete outcomes for the improvement of people in their community.

There were hundreds of other stories like this that were shared throughout the day. Some people got up on the podium and told the whole group, many stories were shared over a rice meal (provided free by another set of volunteers) or while drinking tea.

So many stories, so what? Storytelling creates connections. The people gathered in this room were acutely aware that the work they did was important but also that it wasn't enough; that they couldn't do it all on their own. There was a sense that too many people in India are let down by the society in which they live – opportunities are denied and potential is unfulfilled.

What is needed is a web of hope that can run through society and which will help to support people in time of need. The Sangamam helps to spin that web. By hearing other people's stories, people gain inspiration and energy to continue their good work. By telling their own story people receive affirmation for what they have undertaken – it is a morale-booster. People gain knowledge and ideas that they can apply to their own context. Practical support structures are forged through conversation, collaborations are initiated.

All of this interaction is driven from below, from people who are at the coal face, not from ministers and officials at the top of some dubious tree. It was a pleasant change for me to go to a function which didn't involve a mandatory two-hour wait for some (invariably very late) minister to turn up, to be lauded and garlanded, and then to spend too long singing his own praises and describing his commitment to good works. Instead of this hubris, there was an impressive humility on display – this was a gathering of peers, not of passive spectators.

One false note was struck however. For some reason the organisers of the Sangamam saw fit to give an ex-government employee an hour of the gathering's time to promote the white elephant cause of "river linking". And so the stories stopped and the virtues of this idea were outlined (a process often enjoyed by the politicians of Tamil Nadu). The irony of course is that river linking is inherently a grand, centralised and government-driven plan and, as such, is very much at odds with the typical modus operandi of the Sangamam participants. Fortunately this session occurred immediately after a good lunch and so was largely ignored by the participants as they interacted with each other or rested.

It would be a shame if the Ennangalin Sangamam were to be hijacked by political agendas. There is a sense in which the Sangamam is necessary precisely because the other structures of civil society are not performing as they should. Provision for the disadvantaged has dropped so far down the agenda of government that alternative structures need to arise that will meet the need of people in the margins. But these alternative structures will not work if they are simply mirror images of the dysfunctional mainstream political system. Instead our hope lies in a different way of doing things– not by decree from above, but by sharing with those below; not blinded by grand and glorious schemes but immersed in the small, daily struggles of local people.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Murray Brown

My friend, Murray Brown, died in November 2007. When I heard the news I wrote his wife a letter. I am posting a copy of some of what I wrote here, as a tribute to a good man.

I have very warm memories of Murray. He is someone that I admired greatly and someone whose friendship was very important to me at some key moments in my life. Despite our difference in years I felt very close to Murray - he did not hide behind his seniority in years or his priestly status. He was very warm and big hearted and that is what enabled me to be his friend.

After I heard the news this morning I went and phoned Matt, to console and be consoled. I then spent some time pouring out some memories to Katie, my partner - memories of Murray. She did not have the privilege of meeting him - something that I now very much regret. But it was good to be able to share with her memories of someone whom I consider to be simply a good man.

In trying to describe Murray to Katie, I found myself using the word `naive'. I mean that in a completely positive way. He was naive because he eschewed the faux worldliness of the cynic; he lived with a genuine, heart-felt, unapologetic commitment to his ideals and he delighted in it! I remember SCM discussions when his hearty laughter filled the room, with his delight at new ideas and lively discussion, as well as his pleasure in the company of those around him. And, in turn, it was a pleasure for me to be in his company.

Murray also shared himself and his pain very willingly. I remember very vividly his descriptions of his struggles with mental health problems; in particular he described to me how one day he had reached such a low that he could do little else but crawl around the back lawn picking out weeds. That image showed a unique vulnerability which touched my heart; Murray's willingness to share that image also showed a deep and abiding strength of character.

In the weeks before I went out bush, after leaving SCM, I met with Murray as a kind of preparation. During our meeting, he introduced me to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. He gave me a copy of "The Miracle of Mindfulness", a book that changed my life perhaps more than any other. In turn, it has changed the life of Katie, when I bought her a copy some years later. Katie's father has subsequently received much comfort from Thich Nhat Hanh. I've no doubt that Murray's loving actions will ripple out for many years to come, changing people's lives for the better.

I don't want to turn this letter into a hagiography of Murray - I'm sure he would detest that more than any one else, but my memories and loving feelings are strong and very real. I remember an SCM discussion about men, in which Murrary participated, when we concluded that the best we could ever hope to be was a "wise old fool". This was the path of largest heart, of greatest love. Murray walked that path, I think, and I hope that I too will follow in his footsteps as I grow older.