Travels in India conjure memories of priceless Everglades

(Published at ContextFlorida) Although I am at the end of my third visit to India, this is still a nation that feels more remote from my experiences than any other. In the far south, it took nine hours to drive the hill country from Tamil Nadu on the east coast of India to the edge of Kerala on the west. The roads wind through villages, tea and rubber plantations, groves of spices – pepper, cardamon, cinnamon and nutmeg – once worth their weight in gold in European capitals.

The wealth that slipped through India was once so vast that only 100 years ago young princes and princesses played in chests loaded with sapphires, rubies, emeralds and precious metals. Today, the suffering of the disadvantaged is dire. The dirt and pollution are ubiquitous. None of the deficits can obscure the fact that the nation is moving, propelled by two cylinder engines, nuclear power plants and the global economy.

But with so many unique languages and 29 strong and independent states ruled by their own congresses, to an outsider India can seem more a state of mind than a sovereign state. When President Barack Obama on his visit to New Delhi stated that there is no fixing climate change without success in India, I wondered: “How? Who? Where?”

This morning, I woke at the edge of the largest wetlands system in Kerala, called Vembanadu. It is shallow, not quite as shallow as Inle Lake in Myanmar, and home to fishermen paddling dugouts and wading birds scouring lotus mats for food in the quiet dawn. It’s a completely managed water system: saline in the dry season and fresh water during the monsoon months.

In winter, the temperature here is very similar to the Florida Keys. The sounds and flocks of cormorants, herons and egrets reminded me of dawn on Florida Bay in the early 1970s when – miles from the nearest marina – you would wheel the skiff around a small island and cut the engine just to feel the world come alive at daybreak.

We transformed a treasure – the Everglades – so that its assets now can only be found in hidden corners, unaffected by pollution or water management extremes. Unless one experienced the Everglades back then, the real value of what has been lost is for the imagination: sapphires and rubies and emeralds we let slip through our hands.

Unlike India, the “who, what, where” of Everglades restoration is clear. The government agencies and farmers and land speculators and conservationists are identifiable. It’s an important reason I am so adamant about seeing the Everglades in Florida returned to life so other generations can witness the ephemeral beauty of the world. We have to lead the way.

Our heritage wilderness is the rootstock of civilization based on moral order and, for that reason alone, more valuable than any treasure scoured from the earth. If we, in the United States, won’t clarify these points, who will?

What we gain from nature is proof that life regenerates. Proof that hope springs eternal. It is a promise only humans can break in our muddy quest for industry and progress.

The dawn haze on Lake Vembanadu and the morning mist over sawgrass prairies in Florida are separated by ten thousand miles and billions of sleeping hearts, each filled with anticipation of the day ahead. For hundreds of thousands of years, the growth of the human tree has been defined by another promise: that one generation might follow another within the small space occupied by a human life, if only we are industrious, wealthy and fortunate enough.

The remnant Everglades can be recovered before the baselines become worn-out talking points for politicians. To those who say, what happens in the Everglades is God’s will and besides, nature will adapt without any help from us, I have three words: you are wrong.

What is on the climate change horizon is not a world you or I would want to live in – a desecration of creation or a fulfillment of destruction theology. At the end of the day, when the diversity of species is crushed, what survives are species and organisms that thrive on waste caused by decay. That’s the story of the Everglades so far. So why aren’t we changing our behaviors and beliefs to avoid that outcome?

I may have a better chance understanding India than the answer to that question.

Alan Farago writes the daily blog, Eye On Miami, under the pen name, Gimleteye. He is president of Friends of the Everglades, a grass roots conservation organization based in Miami, FL. A long-time writer and advocate for Florida’s environment, his work is archived at alanfarago.wordpress.com Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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