Forgetting

FORGETTING

by Bijal Vachharajani

11 March 2021

I am 45 minutes into the film. Just as one of the protagonists swings a stick and bashes a skull in, I realise I have already watched the scene. I text my sister, who had urged me to watch this film – she was surprised that I hadn’t already seen it. I am surprised that I had.

We’re surrounded by so much media clutter that this really wasn’t astonishing, of course. But, for me, it’s just another piece that fitted into the jigsaw puzzle. Or, rather, vanished from the jigsaw of my memory.

A week after my friend went home – three weeks or so after my partner died suddenly of a heart attack – I forgot my house key in the lock. On the outside. I did it again, a few days later. Since then, I keep getting up in the middle of the night, making my way to the corridor that leads to my main door, peering into the dark to check if my key is in the basket, one which also holds loose change, rubber bands, and seed pods collected from walks.

I don’t even remember everything from the time my friend stayed with me, holding my hand, weathering my silences or people visiting me: it’s a blur.

I have started keeping my Goodreads ‘Read’ list updated, so that I stop buying the same book again and again, only to realise that I have read it. And the book’s very memorable. And expensive.

The gas is left on, after straining the tea – I stare at the blue flickering flame when returning to the kitchen: blank, scrambling to remember, how did I forget to turn it off. Again.

I sit in meetings, online and offline, and trail off in the middle of a sentence. I look wild-eyed at my colleagues for cues – what was I saying? I have got into the habit of scribbling notes before I talk so I can squint at my barely legible writing and pick up almost where I left off. I forget names of people on a panel discussion with me, and stare at their name tags or Zoom profiles to address them correctly just in time.

If they weren’t so nice, my team would have had a field day with this – forgotten conversations and discussions laced with befuddlement. My planner is jammed with lists and meeting times, so that I don’t miss anything crucial. I find myself repeating conversations with friends, just typed out a few days earlier. Bits of it spit back into my memory, like the ocean throws back our plastic waste, leaving me spent and tired.

Forgetting, memory loss, confusion – these are a rabble of words for just one of those side effects of grief, the asterisk to loss. There’s plenty of research that shows that the grief of losing someone causes memory loss, befuddlement and anxiety over this confusion. The brain, according to an article I read in Nature, is built to forget.

Perhaps my mind is trying to keep his memory bright, so everything else dulls in comparison? Or perhaps the haze that envelops me filters information.

I panic – will I forget his voice, the shape of his hands, the way his eyelashes curled? What else will this loss take from me? As he said, our stories are everything. What if I lose mine – ours?

As the pandemic set in, the haze solidified to butter in the fridge state. Cold, hard, and unyielding to the sharp edge of a knife. The world stopped outside my doorstep, it fitted into my apartment, like jelly in a mould. The balcony became my outside – clouds rolling in as Black Kites circled the sun, the orange glow of the sunrise dappling my wall, the infuriating cooing of the pigeons as they build nests on my balcony relentlessly and, in contrast, the twirling chirp of the Red-vented Bulbul that I could listen to all day. It made the forgetting more acceptable. Nature.

Trying to understand the complexities of memory better, I came across the term ‘environmental generational amnesia’. In a paper titled The Importance of Children Interacting with Big Nature, the authors Peter H. Kahn, Jr. and Thea Weiss, state – ‘The problem of environmental generational amnesia is that nature gets increasingly diminished and degraded, but children of each generation perceive the environment into which they are born as normal. Thus, across generations, the baseline shifts downward for what counts as healthy nature.’

So, the idea of what is nature is constantly shifting from one generation to the next. To me, that’s a terrifying thought. As were the authors’ examples – a concretised fountain to a city child could mean ‘big water’ or a squirrel could be a ‘big mammal’. At one level, it’s all I could do to not burst out laughing; but at another, it is a sobering thought to entertain. I have met children, for example, who have never petted a dog (‘my parents say it’s got germs’) or climbed a tree. We’ve forgotten that clouds are stories in the sky, not tech interventions that hold our tangible memories; that streams are water bodies, not just video flows; and tigers are not just cute emojis or GIFs.

Robert Macfarlane, in his book Landmarks, has written about the loss of nature from our lexicon – nature words being axed from the dictionary in favour of technological ones – and through his many writings has urged people to conjure up spells to bring back lost and forgotten ones.

It frightens me, the collective, comfortable forgetfulness that we’ve settled into. The slipping away of nature. Its forgotten absences and lingering silences that we now live in. Inattention, heedlessness, oblivion, negligence – the rabble of words that define our collective nature memory.

It’s a monumental, visceral loss to see and experience nature as a pale shadow of what it really is. To perceive degraded nature, smothered by concrete and glass as natural makes me heart weary in a way that intertwines with my grief. Just how falcons have adapted superbly to built environments, our children are adapting by forgetting nature in its true form – wild and fiercely wonderful – and living a diminished version. A mere sequel to the original. That is a loss to truly mourn.

Yet, it’s this generation that speaks out against the losses that we face in the form of climate change and the environmental crisis brought on by greed. One that devours and walls up the wild, degrades climate, and destroys forests, water, bodies and air quality. It’s one truth to be grateful for.

We should be in panic. For in forgetting nature, we forget who we are – a part of it, a mere part, even if we think humans are the whole. The Earth is more water than land, we’re more stardust and stories. We’re forgetting how to really see horizons, listen to bird song or even silence, smell the rain as it mingles with mud, taste a crisp cucumber straight off a plant, or feel the crunch of leaves under our feet on a forest floor.

Nature doesn’t forget. Crack open a seed pod: packed into its intricate layers are the past, present and future of that tree. A caterpillar spins its own future, no one tells it to hang upside down and spin itself into a cocoon or moult into a chrysalis, waiting to spread its wings. Some acacia trees sense giraffes munching leaves, and tell others; and they release tannins, making them inedible. A wasp pollinates the exact same species of fig, sacrificing her own life to secure those of her offspring.

Like elephants, nature remembers.

The dance of a sparkle of fireflies.
Dung beetles rolling dung up to ten times their weight.
The craft that spiders excel in.
Parent penguins who recognise their chick’s unique call.
Sea turtles who return to the same beach to nest.
The many migrations of ducks and flamingos and butterflies in their border-free worlds.
They remember. They know.

While we’re allowing amnesia. Even cheering it as it obscures nature. Our reality. And even their realities–

Elephants have fewer forest lands to roam about in.
The light-polluted night skies hide fireflies.
Dung beetles are endangered as tree covers vanish.
Spiders may get more aggressive in the face of extreme weather events.
Penguins have fewer ice lands for their chicks.
Warming waters befuddle the mass nesting of turtles and even skew sex ratios.
And migrations are severely affected by climate change.

A world that’s being rewritten by a climate crisis.

No wonder it’s climate grief we’re experiencing collectively. If I were to look at it from the stages of grief – it’s the adults who are in denial, some giving away portions of nature as if they were pawns in a chess game, with the others bargaining fearlessly for them to be conserved, venting their many angers on social media and WhatsApp groups and against living beings of all forms, falling into depression, or worse, accepting this as an irreversible, irrevocable loss. One of our own creation.

The young? They refuse to. From this loss springs forth a demand for environmental justice and the possibility of a future that’s not debilitated by amnesia about nature. Like the wise elephants, they are mourning the mounting losses.

Thankfully, Kahn offers solutions to this amnesia – to ‘broaden and deepen children’s interactions with nature, and whenever possible, with big nature.’ Take them out, let children (and their adults) experience nature in its glorious forms – in backyard gardens, in forests with rhododendrons and palash, home to tigers and elephants, leopards and sloths, porcupines and hanguls, monals and vipers, tree frogs and monitor lizards, in beaches and mangroves with hermit crabs and barnacles, mudskippers and snails.

When someone asks me what they can do to get children more up close with nature, I always end up talking about Rachel Carson and her book The Sense of Wonder, and I paraphrase – ‘If a child is to keep alive [her/his/their] inborn sense of wonder, [she/he/their] needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with [her/him/them] the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.’

It’s time to step up, adults. We’re at a moment in history where it’s make or break. Do we want to be the preservers of nature, or do we want it boxed up in archives relegated to Once Upon a Time?

My mother grew up when cobras were found coiled up in their bathroom and little brown owls came pecking on their door.

I mourned the loss of scampering palm squirrels when we moved cities, only to find solace in the Gulmohur tree outside our window – teeming with Rose-ringed Parakeets, Coppersmith Barbets and House Sparrows; and splashing in puddles and watching squelchy snails in the monsoon. Later, I discovered Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai’s city forest that is home to leopards, Atlas Moths and Funnel Web Spiders. Many years later I moved cities again, this time revelling in the sheer, simple joy of seeing a sky not punctured by square and rectangular shapes of buildings. Just an infinite expanse of sky embroidered with (real) clouds.

In contrast, my nephew met a cat for the first time when he was about five.

But there’s hope, like Kahn and Carson suggest.

Once, we were waiting outside a doctor’s clinic as my father went for his annual check-up. It began raining and I tore pages from my notebook, which my mother fashioned into paper boats. I opened an umbrella, held my nephew’s hand, and we went outside to a spot where the rain was collecting into puddles. We knelt down and set sail the two paper boats. I felt something bubble inside me, as he whooped with delight, watching the boats merrily sail away, bobbing over little pebbles and blobs of mud. He was eight, he should have done this earlier. Way earlier. But he was still a boy with a paper boat, splashing about in rain-fed puddles. I sent a text message to my partner with a picture capturing that moment. That I remember.

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