Belipola in the Rainy Season

Sabina Arokiam from GENOA writes of her visit to the Analog Forestry and Community Development Centre in Belipola, Sri Lanka

I arrived at the tropical heaven of Belipola in the height of Sri Lanka's rainy season. It was a time of indulgence for the teeming forest vegetation and critters, and the nearby river gurgled with hearty laughter. Life filled up to the brim and overflowed at every turn and corner. It had been a big year of unravelings for me, and I was inching my way through the last days of 2014. The New Year was approaching and I was flying home on the 1st of January. My eyes were blurry from nursing a conjunctivitis infection and my brain was foggy from not knowing what to do next with my life. With all that was going on inside of me, the forest provided a safe place to just be. The perpetual rain gifted the perfect excuse to sit back and rehabilitate, and soak everything in.

Like my heart, the landscape was threatening to burst at the seams in various parts of the country. At Christmas, even the railways had to pause because of landslides and floods. At the man-made Analog forest of Belipola however, the thriving cacophony of trees and vegetation planted lovingly by so many beings for the past 30 years kept the ground in place, and allowed the rain to trickle as gently as possible through the deep leaf litter and through the roots of the trees, into the depths of the earth - exchanging, dialoguing, storing, an ever flowing river of precious memory - the sacred ripples of information that has been cycled and re-cycled, weaved strand by strand, string by string, particle by particle, wave by wave since the dawn of the planet’s birth.

A tall ice cream bean tree fell in the height of a storm one night. Small gullies appeared in a few vulnerable spots, and like fresh wounds, were in need of tender loving care. At times, the heart too opens up like a gully, or a flower. It must bare itself and surrender to the unknown yet hold its fragile petals together; come rain, or sunshine or storm. It has to take the risk, it wants to invite, it wants to divulge and indulge, it wants to remember, it wants to be inoculated by the likes of winged creatures such as butterflies and bees and fairies even, similar to the ones that go about blessing and teasing the flowers in the forest of Belipola.

Like the bustling bees that hovered above them, the hardworking two legged forest stewards Piyal, Ramu and Nuang pottered about, pollinating the gullies with embankments, rip raps and vegetation to create buffers against rain pouring on bare soil that threatened to take everything away. I watched them as they repaired the landscape, and I saw the gully transform as it held on to whatever it could that prevented it from being washed away by the rain. Like the gully, I held on each day to whatever I could muster from inside of me, and allowed my moist and tender heart to be stirred and stirred some more by the fecundity of the dense, information rich landscape that spoke its wisdom all around me, in the air, in the sounds, in the water, in the vegetation, in the food, and in the smiles of the gentle gracious people of Lanka.

I stayed indoors most of the time:- contemplating, staring into space, reading a book from Trudy and Sion’s extensive library, making a fire for the rocket stove, or preparing a meal with greens harvested from their sprawling 2 acre vegetable forest garden. To get to the forest vegetable garden, one would have to walk along the forest floor and down to the valley where the river is, but not without first making duly contributions to the leeches that would be waiting patiently for their entrance fee. I loathed the leeches. They were difficult to like or even respectfully avoid. The bigger ones were easy enough to flick off but the tiny baby munchlings held on to the skin like magnetic ingots. One technique that worked involved rolling a leech into a ball between the fingers until it loosened its grasp …but not without it first leaving behind a souvenir of sorts lodged in its bite. In Malaysia, leeches are used in traditional medicine to treat various types of ailments in the skin, blood or nerves even, though I was never too fond of the idea.

Nowhere to be found in Belipola during the dry season apparently, the leeches come out to play, be merry and breed and breed some more during the rainy season. If you keep to the paths that are free of leaf litter in the forest, you can more or less avoid being bitten, provided that you walk fast enough and wear protective footwear. Every now and then however, a leech would find its way into the nose of one of the dogs, aggravating a sneezing frenzy which would abruptly end as soon as the leech fell down like a ripe little fruit, bloated and pregnant with at least a raindrop of blood. Except for the wild hogs, most of the non-arboreal frequenters at Belipola avoided the forest floor like a plague during the rainiest times. The legion of Samurai leeches guarded against invaders who were daring enough to traverse on the wet, slippery and fragile ground; deterring movement, or any kind of aggressive activity because this is a time when the forest was most tender. It is deeply opening its heart and receiving, like a fully bloomed flower. It is opening every part of its being for inoculation so it can give back come dry season when the forest slowly releases the water stored in its aquifers and cools the air. Just like the walls on Trudy and Sion’s mud brick cottage, and like my lungs and skin; the forest had expanded and was unconditionally absorbing all the life giving codecs that fell from the sky; - converging wisdom from oceans, rivers, and trees coming together from different parts of the world, cross-pollinating consciousness between the anything that was in everything, while also taking from us something in return, something that slowed time down, and expanded the beingness of life into an ocean that was at the orchestration of the ebb and flow of the moon’s song. It was a sacred time indeed, a quiet time for looking inside and filling up our wells, and encouraging new shoots to sprout from the dark, leech and mulch infested forest floor. It was most certainly not the place for footsteps.

That month in Belipola was humbling for me. Unlike the forests that knows its purpose and receives full heartedly knowing how it would give back, I had to learn how to receive, without knowing if I could ever give back or how to give back. I felt so helpless, so vulnerable, so open to receiving because that was all I could do, and Trudy and Sion were gracious enough to support me without asking anything in return. They were grateful to open up their home and the beautiful forest Belipola that had blessed their life for the past two years, beyond their wildest imagination and they wanted nothing more than for others to experience what they had the privilege of living and experiencing on a daily basis.

In the forest of Belipola, there was a sense of knowing when to let the forest be, and let it do its thing, and when to potter about and do something. We have our places in the forest, if we can respect its place in our life. I had the good fortune of experiencing what can thrive out of such a knowingness by simply allowing the forest to grow on me, like so many who have visited and lived in Belipola. However, this is not an exclusive experience. The beauty of forest mimicry systems such as the Analog forestry system demonstrated and promoted by Belipola is that it can be applied in a hundred and one ways, and in all sorts of scales and sizes! Belipola, and what it stands for is a journey not to be missed in this lifetime, in our homes, in our backyards, in the forests where we dwell, and live and make love to the world, the entire world.

Looking back at those precious times, and being so grateful for where I am today, I cannot express how crucial those incubating days were. To receive full heartedly is an art. When one is able to do so, one gets filled and that filling up becomes an overflowing, without any effort, only an allowing. When we receive full heartedly like the forests, there will come a time when we become springs that can give endlessly. This is what each and every one of us are capable of being, if we can first let be and let receive.I look forward to the day when I can live out the forest in me :)

Thank you Trudy and Sion, for your gracious hospitality. Thank you Dr. Ranil (whom we heard of so much but never got to meet) for all the work and dedication that you have put into developing Analog Forestry. Thank you to the GENOA members and all the wonderful staff at Belipola, the trees, the plants, the soil, the animals, the insects, the critters, the river, the sky, the healing waters and wind and the myriad of beings that dwell therein. Thanks for letting me into the heart of your forest and home … the forest that I now carry in my home everywhere.

Much love,
Sabina Arokiam