“Hooaaaa!” I join in the chorus and run up and down the dale, wildly flapping my arms. To a visitor, it might be a strange sight, but the exercise is routine for residents of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary who balance the fine act of shielding lovingly grown delicate flowers from destructive langurs, and without harming the macaque troops. Among the many lessons that I have learnt in the past three years of calling this sanctuary home, not begrudging unruly animals is only one. While exploring national parks and wildlife sanctuaries has always been high on my travel list, it’s only when I’ve moved to one to become a permanent resident do I realise that the two are completely different ball games. Other than a lot of learning about living in the wilderness, there has been plenty of ‘unlearning’ of city ways that is part of the integration process, and that is what has made life in the wild nothing less than a novel adventure.
The Binsar wildlife sanctuary was a forest reserve until it was declared a sanctuary in 1988. Binsar is off the grid, and one of the first lessons of adaptation I learnt is living without electricity. I remember being thrilled spending a few nights in the Corbett National Park at Gairal where there was no electricity, and sitting with flashlights in the dark watching deer and porcupines scurry delightfully close. But living permanently without electricity is a different deal all together. Even if you have a few solar lights, it’s not easy going back to an era where you can’t use washing machines or hair dryers. Having lived my entire life taking something as basic as electricity for granted, it’s now that I truly appreciate the gift of Thomas Edison, and how a geyser heating water in the bathroom is nothing short of a miracle.
The most important life lesson that I’ve learnt is the importance of letting go. It’s only when very little is within reach, do you truly realise how little one actually needs to live a decently happy life. Far from the vicious cycle of advertising and consumerism, you seek other ways, and find alternatives. You let go of a lifestyle that you realise you never really required but that you had been conditioned to believe was imperative. Eating out at a restaurant is replaced with smoky outdoor meals slow cooked over fire and laughter. You don’t go crazy racking your brain on special occasions; a box of chocolates saved for the event is a cherished gift in the wilderness. There’s no need to despair over a small wardrobe, or having ‘nothing new’ to wear on a weekend. If you have your few jackets and a pair of sturdy walking boots, you’re good to go! There’s no dearth of places to head to, for there are plenty of new trails to discover in the forest all the time. And just when you begin to find it dull, you’ll be rewarded with a rare sighting of a flying squirrel on a deodar branch or thrush fledglings waiting for their mother to return to their nest.
In today’s times, where it’s almost fashionable to say ‘I don’t have time’, I’ve learnt that there is no such thing. There is time, and plenty of it, if only you cut out half the clutter of meaningless activities from a schedule you are accustomed to accept as routine. I have a trekking business to run, dogs to look after, and my writing to keep up with. But I also have plenty of time for marveling at black eagles sweeping across blue skies, or peer at ants heaving a molecule of sugar. I have time to watch and absorb all that one can never learn in a classroom, from assisting animals during birth to discovering how helpful and effective those grandmothers’ tips actually are, be it in the kitchen or infirmary.
A precious thing I have learnt is the language of the wild. Kipling’s Jungle Book was a huge influence on me in my growing years, and I wished I could have conversations with panthers and bears, and gloat with pride over my ability. I haven’t turned into Mowgli yet, but in my time in Binsar, I’ve learnt that there are ways of communicating with the wild, if only you understand the language. Leopards leave scat to tell you where in your neighbourhood they were prowling the evening before. The koklass, an endangered Himalayan pheasant, cackles right back at you at the crack of dawn if you can imitate it. Nightjars chuckle at unearthly hours like overenthusiastic youngsters on a night out, trying to converse at a time when it annoys you more than it pleases you.
In this communication, sometimes, there is a battle to see who can outdo the other. You put up little fences to keep wild boar out, but you know they’ve triumphed when in the morning your kitchen garden resembles a crime scene. Pine martens, with their deceptively adorable looks, are notorious for breaking in through chimneys and raiding homes. They can knock down your lamps and china, and you have to wait months before fixing or replacing either. There are things you do not want to hear, like a pack of fierce wild boar moving parallel to you. There are things you do not want to see, like the remnants of your dog picked up by a leopard. But there are things you learn, even in these, all the time. The key is to unlearn, and leave behind set notions of learning. The key is to keep open not just your eyes, but more than that, your mind.