Hidden in the quiet, French suburbs of Pondicherry lies a forest that seems to be bursting at the seams with life: Merveille. There is a small black gate for visitors to enter and see a green microcosm unfurl in front of their eyes. Forty years before, this land was barren and rocky, unnoticed by passersby and seemingly unprofitable for any. No one could have possibly imagined that a few decades later, this piece of land would be blooming with a myriad of exotic species of flora and fauna.
The 150-acre forest is a culmination of years of hard-work of some volunteers and the man behind it all, Prakash Patel. Fondly called Prakash Bhai by the locals, the 70-year-old man has managed to leave a legacy for generations to come. There are over 1,700 species of plants, including Liona creepers, Serratia climbers, and ground orchids, some of the rarest and most special species of plants to ever exist. Over the course of many years, Prakash Bhai used hit-and-trial methods to bring an entire ecological system into being.
As a Geography and Ecology teacher, he felt that hands-on education is much more important than books. He started an initiative to teach children how to make the environment better. “People should plant a tree to make a treehouse, not gather some logs and build one. Then they will know the value of a tree as a living creature and have mutual respect for it.” He has taught many students over the years, amongst whom is Lipi didi, a student from the first batch. She now takes care of Merveille, after Prakash Bhai was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Creating a forest, an entire microclimate, and soil from barren land ecologically and economically was not easy. “If it is not economic, you can’t expect people to emulate it,” remarks Lipi didi. Another major challenge was keeping trees safe from villagers who usually cut them down for firewood. For this, trees were first planted at the periphery and then at the core. Through this way, while villagers would take firewood, the trees at the centre would get time to grow.
Humans often give little thought to the consequences of their actions, and quite frequently, villagers would carelessly throw bidis or cigarettes into the forest, burning acres of land. In fact, vandalism and theft are still quite prevalent. Children would steal the fish from the ponds, and numerous village boys would trespass and go for a swim. “We had to constantly solve problems,” said Lipi didi. All the volunteers are women, and in order to prevent people from throwing garbage and wastes into the forest area, the women and their children were educated about the idea and significance of Merveille. This was done by distributing plants, communicating with children, and teaching them about the earth’s ecosystems.
When asked why the forest is not known by many, Lipi didi raised a pertinent question: “if we spend all our time advertising this sanctuary, when will we get the time to work?” Engaging with people, showing them around, answering their questions is rather tiresome and takes the volunteers away from the work that they could have been doing. Further, it is difficult to find committed volunteers. Most leave after a few days as the work gets too hard for them. Tending to a forest is a grand feat within itself, and teaching new volunteers this work, who would leave within a short period of time, is “not at all easy.”
The volunteers had faced many problems in their personal lives. The women’s husbands used to “drink and them beat them up.” When the wives came out to work, they were paid and were able to educate their children. Prakash Bhai also shared the produce with the women – mangoes, lemons, tamarinds, bananas and various other plants that were grown.
“Everyone remarked on how hard we must have worked, but the truth is that though we put in a lot of effort, it was joyous. It has always been a joyous unknown.” As we spoke, there was a peahen resting on the top of a hut. Every day in Merveille is a surprise. Some days there are spotted deer; other days there are pine cones falling down.
“We took cues from nature. We could not attend to everything all the time, so every time we went to a place after a while, we could feel the magic.” The forest has three areas. The first zone needs to be looked after often and is called the “Magic Garden” because there are many interesting events that happen: butterflies appear out of nowhere; exotic flowers bloom. The second area does not need everyday care due to its sheer size. It is the “Secret Garden”. When you stumble across it someday, you can marvel at the new changes that nature has unfolded. The third area is the “Enchanted Forest”. It is the zone where plants are allowed to grow on their own. “Human beings are visitors to nature’s magic,” and all three zones are interwoven, spilling into each other.
Merveille is a French word that means “wonder”. Aside from being a sanctuary, the forest is a true wonder. Some time back, when there was a drought and there was no nectar, the fish in the pond helped sustain the bees and butterflies with their body fluids. There is a place to welcome every life form that wants to visit and hopefully stay. The ecosystem is self-sustaining, self-regulating, and self-correcting. “To be able to actually reach this, human societies can actually take what they need rather than take out of greed. Nature has a way of teaching you; you learn from the very air you breathe. In all these forty years, I can say, without a doubt, that there has never been a day when I did not discover something new when the forest did not tell me ‘keep going.’ Your senses become attuned to nature’s language.”
When Prakash Bhai was 10, he had visited Nairobi, Kenya and thought, “This kind of incredible beauty of nature, I wish I can one day actually help make.” Today, life seems to spill out from the fissures, the gaps, the crannies of an ecosystem that is a testament to what human determination and perseverance can attain.
~Arushi Gupta and Ritika Mukherjee, Amity International School Noida
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