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The Cogito: The Human Experience

It is hard for a person to put the human experience in perspective. A person will describe his experiences as a human experience, so will a community, and the experiences between two people and two communities will differ immensely. And they will differ between two cultures by leaps and bounds. To put it in a perspective, the human experience is a collective wisdom of not one but many individuals, communities, and cultures, with every bit from here-and-there. If someone asked you to put the human experience into words, your account will be different than mine, than more-or-less anyone’s – it will be heavily biased on a side you identify yourself with, whether that side is religious, spiritual, natural or philosophical. To get a fair view of the human experience, the perceiver needs to be a non-human. No intelligence has taken birth – or has been found – that can put human experience in a perspective. Yet some can, and we can more-or-less interpret it from them.

A dog itself would share different dimensions of human experience – a stray’s will differ from a pet’s by an array of its own personal experiences. So would a pangolin’s from a tiger’s; as would an aphid’s from a honeybee’s. Collectively, this is their wisdom of their experiences with humans.

Of course, the title of this article is indeed too great to even be a title for an article. One could write countless pages for countless eons, and would still fall short to complete the book on human experience by a moment in time. Here I do not even try to explain my human experience being a human myself but I hover around the periphery of the subject, pondering what a human experience is like – do I perceive it in the right way when I play fetch with my pet? What he perceives me as is the human experience? I yearn to know as much as I yearn to know what an encounter with an extraterrestrial will be like – both these instances are equally unimaginable.

The human experience however is bound by this world. It is like a forest – every tree’s trunk is the edifice which serves as questions – or visions – upon which numerous stems – or ideas – branch out, on which numerous leaves – or cultures – branch out, and the ultimate aim – rather a subconscious aim – of this forest is to spread – physically and philosophically. If we indeed view the human experience as a forest, it had to have had an ancient tree –or two – which propagated and evolved, and thrived. The two trees were seeded with a doubt – who we are and what do we do. And the trees flowered, and they did what they did for they felt the time was right for it.

Today, we are living with the same questions – who we are and what do we do, although it is reverberated through every human soul on a more personal note – who am I and what do I do. We are doing what we are doing for we feel the time is right for it. But all the things that we do today are different than yesterday, than the time before, and I’m afraid we are losing our path which should have led us elsewhere. It is time we retrospect upon our current question, and ask the next: how long can we go on like this? If not like this then how?

Daniel Quinn in Beyond Civilization asks the same question. To quote his essay The Mayan Solution (pp. 53):

[…] We are making the world inhabitable to our species and rushing headlong towards extinction, but Civilization must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance.
This meme wasn’t lethal to pharaonic Egypt or to the Han China or to the medieval Europe, but it’s lethal to us. It’s literally us or that meme. One of us has to go – and soon.
But…
But…
But… But surely, Mr. Quinn, you’re not suggestion we go back to living in caves and catching dinner on the end of a spear?
I’ve never suggested such a thing or come anywhere close to suggesting such a thing. Given the realities of our situation, going back to the hunting-gathering life is as silly an idea as sprouting wings and flying off to heaven. We can walk away from the pyramid, but we can’t melt away into the jungle. The Mayan solution is utterly gone for us, for the simple reason that the jungle itself is gone and there are six billion of us. Forget about going back. There is no going back. Back is gone.
But we can still walk away from the pyramid.
[The pyramids Quinn talks about can be referenced from pp. 51 – 52 of Beyond Civilization.]

Many, many people are already challenging the pyramids, many have moved on to the next question - how long can we go on like this? If not like this then how? But it is not enough. Quinn subtly hints at another question: Do we fit into the scheme of nature anymore? We have to. Returning back to the wild, fortunately, is still a possibility, however preposterous or unlikely, for although we have walked a long way off, there is always a shortcut to the right way, or, to omit the right-and-wrong entirely, let’s call it the nature’s way. What humanity has done by walking off-course is switched off those memes that come to us naturally (say, hunting to feed than hunting as a sport, but there will always be those who choose the latter), and switched on those memes which are irrelevant but we’re still holding on to.

If it isn’t the time we asked the right questions we’re still ages away from talking of the human experience. It is a continuous process, faster than evolution, but it is recorded in history nonetheless (from where we can learn and be better humans), and it is predictable for the future if we continue on the current course. Every individual, every community is shaping its own experience – this enriches our human experience in turn – but it is not about the sum of a few communities, or countries, anymore – it is about our planet.

The secret about human experience comes to a surprisingly simple equation. It is not special as we think we are. It is ordinary – and by that I mean we are no different than the ant you squished or the snake you killed. The equation I believe in is that the human experience lies between letting a trapped mouse walk free and in killing it. What we will do is what we have been told – consciously or subconsciously – to do. It’s probably as simple as that.

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For those interested in delving deeper, here are very few references I had a chance to browse through. There are many more out there, and I hope the young minds at schools are taught this:

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkin
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkin

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<< Read the previous The Cogito article The Mantis in doubt.

The Legend of Sahyadri

by Vivek Kale

The grassland around us was lit silver under the moon light. Darkness prevailed as the moon waned behind Telbaila. The dark sky was ornamented with numerous stars, with an occasional streak of crashing meteor blazing the eastern horizon.
Moon setting over Telbaila, a giant blade-thin geographic feature of Sahyadri
At dawn the eastern skies were lit again, this time in a subtle shade of red. With the sun arrived the delicate golden rays that lit the entire grassland golden bright. And then winds awoke, caressing the grass merrily. A lone harrier glided in the sky, just few meters above the grass, and vanished beyond the bushes which dotted the golden fields.
Telbaila and the surrounding grasslands under the early sun
While the golden grass crowned the pinnacles, the shadow on the precipitous Harishchandragad cliff started shifting slowly downwards. The entire view was a drama set in a large amphitheater. We could see a pair of endangered vultures, resting at the ledge on the cliff, where they had made their home.  With improving light, the forest in the valley below became alive with calls of Grey Jungle Fowl. An occasional Langur boom reverberated in the valley.  The little peregrine falcon waited patiently for the thermals at the edge of the cliff.  As the light took over the shadows, warmth took over the chill.
The prayer hall of Bedse is one of the early rock temples carved in the giant monolith of basalt rocks in Pune District
The chill and tranquility filled in the ancient Buddhist rock temple of Bedse. Only the flutter of Blue Rock Pigeons perturbed the tranquility.  As the sun rose higher, leaving behind the horizon, the faint shadow of Stupa and its capital appeared on the domed wall behind. The sunlight appeared faintly as it passed through the thin fog floating in the sky, and pierced through the windows and doors on to the capital of Stupa. The light intensified dramatically to bathe the beams a fabulous golden, enlightening the soul, and mesmerizing all the senses.
The pristine evergreen forests adorn the foothills of Sahyadri, harbouring a variety of wildlife
As we sensed the faint song of the birds coming from distant hills hidden in the mist, something moved on a nearby tree. Mesmerized were we as we listened to this invisible Malabar Whistling Thrush, singing from its heart in the evergreen forest of Bhimashankar. We felt as if the forest is singing, lost in the whiteness of the mist. Further on the trail we heard the songs of Puff-throated Babblers in a mixed hunting party with Brown-cheeked Fulvettas. Deep in the darkness of the valley below on the Konkan plateau a pair of Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers was busy hunting geckos and crabs along the streams ready to flow, waiting for the monsoon rains to arrive.  Small saplings dotted the forest floor, ready to rise before the onset of monsoon.
Clouds march over a carpet of Senecio grahamii, a common herb on the plateaus
Monsoon arrived and the streams started flowing. Every dent in the ground was filled with water, and small puddles littered the landscape in no time. The mist we saw earlier in the morning had suddenly turned to water. A musical concert of frogs began on the ridge, in the forest, in the hollows of trees, in bushes everywhere around.  As we walked on the drenched trail full of Gaur pugmarks, through the layers of fallen leaves on the forest floor, happy leeches jumped upon us in such large numbers that we ran with the fear and happiness together. The forest was ornamented by green moss, mushrooms, fluorescent algae on tree barks, and numerous regenerating seeds on the floor. We left the legendary forest fort behind after climbing down the Junglee Jaigad. Thousands of streamlets had come together to form a large river with a deafening roar. I have felt a mixture of fear and joy together in such moments, and such secret revelations of evergreen rainforests have left a long lasting impression on my mind.
A Malabar Crested Lark scans the horizon in the backdrop of exquisite monsoon greens
And there are other, not-so-pleasant moments in nature that I have seen. Once I saw a lone Malabar Crested Lark with its wings spread in anxiety, defending its nest against the human visitors at Kaas plateau. These small birds that nest on the open grasslands surrounded by an array of beautiful herbs are not the only ones who are threatened. The rare and endangered plant species of lateritic plateaus such as Kaas are being pushed to extinction, just for the zeal and pleasure of people who come for picnics without respect or awe for this natural wonderland.

The people of Singapur, once a remote hamlet on the cliff of Pune district, are now happy. The road has reached them just like many other hundreds of villages located above and below the Western Ghat ridge. With the road has come the much needed development, but at what cost, is unknown to anyone. The forests are burnt alive patch by patch for harvesting millet on every slope of the hills, at every edge of the cliffs. The villagers resting under the only trees left on the slopes of Pate village at the foot of Bhairavgad near Chiplun, in Konkan, say “we want more millet!”
Ground-dwelling birds, such as the Malabar Crested Lark, are most threatened today primarily because their habitat,
the basalt plateaus, are considered to be barren or wastelands in some parts of our country, leaving a large
gap in studying and understanding the ecology of  such plateaus.
As the millet and rice fields have gradually started encroaching the Sahyadri, the hunger for food is competing today with the need for energy. To grind the millet we need energy. Surrounded by the wind mills all around us, we were at the top of Patta fort. The caves here have been painted by oil paint by locals, and the hills are covered by the windmills and the serpentine network of the roads, piercing through the forests and grasslands on the slopes and plateaus of this beautiful leopard country.

The slopes and plateaus other than the protected and unreachable section of Sahyadri today are fenced, pushing the wilderness to the walls of its own precipitous cliffs. The water streams now flow through the fences, often diverted or pushed towards megacities growing at the edge of Western Ghats, only to get polluted and misused.
Sahyadri is not only a biodiversity hotspot, but also a cultural hotspot, having seen the coming and going of
a number of cultures, traditions, and civilizations - and of all the early settlements, ours is the most threatening.
Though we feel the beauty of Sahyadri every monsoon in its true colors, sounds, and expressions, in the dancing wildflowers, in the gushing waterfalls and streams, in the amazing plants, insects, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals left around in forest, we are compelled to see its rapid degradation at the same time. And that hurts.

The profound wealth of nature has everything in it that we need. In the past few centuries, we have started modifying nature to create artificial structures with superfluous ideas, taking authority of naure into our own hands. There is no doubt that most of us are getting the pleasure and prosperity from our artificial creations, but at the expense of survival of nature, and in extension of mankind.
The gems of Sahyadri lie not in its minerals and ores, but in its grass
The elements of nature have been supporting human life for millions of years, with perfect symbiosis between various elements of nature forming a complex web of interdependency. Indeed, nature once depended upon man as man still does upon nature. We are now breaking the linkages between various species and exterminating some along with their entire ecosystems, which have been part of our own life-supporting system. Shifting from obligatory to facultative, we are perhaps slowly eliminating ourselves.

As we are slowly unbalancing the equilibrium with nature which was maintained in the past, we seem to be now divided at a political level; those for controlled development and those who want indiscriminate consumption of natural resources. Western Ghats or “Sahyadri” as we call it lovingly is not insulated from the ill effects of economic development. Like most of the biodiversity hotspots, it is affected by the human greed for the natural resources that it reserves, perhaps more than most hotspots of the world. Sahyadri is not only known for its biodiversity but it also has inspiring traces of our own earlier civilizations. Even today, Western Ghats support the entire civilization of south Indian peninsula with its natural resources: rivers, forests, and its innumerable animals. Let us try to preserve it as much as possible by striking a balance between economic growth, socioeconomic development and conservation of ecosystems.
Sahyadri are the birthplace of a number of economically important rivers. The least we can do to protect our own
interests is protect our lifeline - the rivers - and the mountains and the trees.
The awareness about our natural resources, rather ecological richness, and civic sense amongst our society is alarmingly low. I can only hope that the larger majority of mankind will re-appreciate nature in future by forgetting political boundaries and egos.

Let us hope that the legend of Sahyadri will survive and continue to co-evolve with all its elements and species forever.

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About Author: Vivek Kale

Vivek is a visionary with a true passion for nature and a special bond with Sahyadri. His passion towards the science and arts, with correct level of visualization, has grown higher and higher with his wanderings in the Western Ghats, from hills to valleys and from forests to grasslands. He expresses his ideas through his visual journal, “Me Sahyadri” (Marathi for “I am Sahyadri”), using two mediums, a monthly photo- magazine and audio-visual films.
Vivek's initiative, Me Sahyadri, a bilingual online journal aims to raise awareness about Sahyadri's vulnerable treasure
His bold work speaks for itself; however he considers it to be a small attempt to spread awareness. According to Vivek, the scientific information is learnt conventionally by us through textbooks or using documentaries. His idea behind “Me Sahyadri” is to have a perfect cocktail of art, natural history and social science.
Vivek has released several video documentaries of Sahyadri, and he is probably the only person to enable people like
us to look at our mountains with awe and wonder.
You can view his works here: http://sahyadrigeographic.com


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This work is © Vivek Kale and has been published with his permission. No part of this article, including photographs, can be used without prior permission of the author. Please visit the author’s website for more information.