A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka
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All my life I have traveled to India to visit my father’s family in Chennai, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. On each trip to, I gathered impressions. There were the seeds of the mehindi plant whose leaves an aunt ground into a paste to decorate my hands for a cousin’s wedding when I was ten. There were ones that grew into the limes I plucked from an uncle’s front yard in Alwarpet to make fresh juice at his house when I was thirteen. And there were those from the neem tree whose upper branches my grandmother reached for from her balcony and used to craft me a toothbrush when I was nineteen. Maybe it was these seeds that planted in me a desire to leave the race of the upwardly mobile Northeast where I was raised and landed me at the end of a dirt road in Oregon by the time I was twenty-six.
Aprovecho Research Center, the environmental nonprofit where I lived from 1996 to 1999 and continued to work with until 2004, was composed of an eclectic team of idealists, hungry for knowledge. Much of the forty-acre land trust was a forest where we collected the wood to build and warm our homes and to cook the food we grew organically. We harvested electricity from the sun with a solar array and built a small dam to trap water from a spring. Both a school and research center, Aprovecho drew people from around the world to teach and learn the skills of sustainability. But just as I was turning my back on consumerism, living deliberately in developing-world style on the edge of my developed nation, Indians were getting their first real taste of material wealth and wanted more.
I left Aprovecho in 2004 to pursue work as an environmental journalist, wanting to continue to write about subjects I spent hands-on time with at Apro: sustainable forestry, organic farming, alternative building, and how those of us who inhabit Planet Earth can live for the long-term. All this eventually led me to India to pursue the question of sustainability there. In my first book, A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, I tell the stories of ordinary people and micro-enterprises determined to revive India’s ravaged land and waters. Framed around the five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. An engineer-turned-farmer brings organic food to Indian plates. Villagers resuscitate a river run dry. Cook stove designers persist on the quest for a smokeless fire. Biologists bring vultures back from the brink of extinction. And in Bihar, one of India’s most impoverished states, a bold young woman teaches young adolescents the fundamentals of sexual health.
My driving question was this: Can 1.2 billion people, one of every five on earth, learn to live with some semblance of sustainability? Because India’s current ecological crises reflect what America and other global communities will be confronting in the years and decades to come as population pressures collide with natural resource limitations. The answers could provide a roadmap forward, from drought-stricken California to electrifying Sub-Saharan Africa. Through years of reporting across India and deep research, I found both cautionary tales and renewed hope for a nation that has the potential to create a sustainable and prosperous future, for India, the earth, and all her inhabitants. In many ways, the book began at Aprovecho.