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Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Living Planet

‘Tell me again, Granpa, about the Dark Time. How many people were there in the world? How did the few become clever and kind? What happened to the many who remained cruel and stupid?’

Written by Manjula Padmanabhan |
Updated: January 1, 2017 12:00:31 am
‘What can we do to save ourselves?’ They knew that the problem was the humans. ‘They’re clever, but not wise’ ‘What can we do to save ourselves?’ They knew that the problem was the humans. ‘They’re clever, but not wise’.

The great bird, with its 20-foot wingspan and scarlet head, glides in languid spirals high in the dizzy blue sky. Far below, it can see the green streak of a narrow valley cradled between the toothy peaks of the Andes. On the green, a twitch of movement.

A tiny golden child. Running naked in the grass. Shining black hair streaming behind her.

A tasty snack? Not today.

For the child, Bella, the just-dawned day, the grass, the sweet air of the valley — each is a distinct pleasure. She is delighted to be above ground after the night’s sleep. She turns to see if her grandfather is following. “Quickly, Granpa!” she calls to him, “or the morning will be all used up!” Though she appears unclothed, in fact, she wears a sheath of fine golden wool that covers and protects her from the harsh winds that patrol the area.

They are alone, these two, living in the valley in their terra-pod: a cosy, multi-level dwelling created below the ground. The little girl’s parents are alpaca herders. They travel from one valley to the next, often spending weeks away from their child. Yet, she does not miss them nor they her. Around her wrists, the little girl wears twin bracelets of electronic beads, which function as a communicating device. Whenever she needs to, she can speak to her parents and conjure up live images of them as tiny holograms that twinkle and sparkle in the air between her cupped palms.

Behind her, a white-haired old man emerges from the earth. He wears a woollen tunic over felt pajamas. On his feet, warm sandals. He is borne upwards by a softly whirring escalator. The terra-pod draws energy from the sun and wind via collection devices scattered across the valley. “Coming!” he calls to Bella. “Don’t run away before you’ve had your breakfast!”

She stops, waiting for her tall grandparent to catch up with her. As she waits, she reaches into the grass, searching with her small fingers to find a lever that she can pull up out of the earth. There. She finds it, unfolds a handle and begins turning it. The struts of a light tent emerge in swift mechanical jerks from the ground, snapping into place to form an angular dome. When Granpa catches up with Bella, he puts down the two bowls he has brought with him and unfurls the flexible screens that pull out from each member of the frame, creating a wind-break. The material of the screens is transparent and iridescent. Like a soap bubble.

“There,” he says. “Now, we are sheltered from the wind and can eat our cereal in peace.” Bella has already brought out and spread a brightly patterned wool mat stored within a recess just beneath the tent-space. She knows, as does her Granpa, that their valley floor has dozens of such storage places containing pieces of equipment, furniture and even machines for surviving in their environment.

“Shall we call our friend, Granpa?” asks Bella. Her bowl contains a mix of roasted grain, dried fruit and a sprinkle of alpaca-milk cheese. The spoon she uses has a bone handle with a polished sea shell for its scoop.

Her grandfather smiles, pointing upwards, to the condor circling high above them. “He’s ahead of you. He’ll come when he’s ready. If we’re lucky, he’ll have a small gift for us.” The old man has added a couple of quail eggs to his breakfast, boiled and salted. His fork is made of bone and shell too.

“Tell me again, Granpa,” says Bella, “about the Dark Time. How many people were there in the world? How did the few become clever and kind? What happened to the many who remained cruel and stupid?”

Granpa’s face creases into a wry smile. He has been teaching her the history of their world. Whenever he thinks he has painted too harsh a picture, the little five-year-old reminds him of the boundless appetite children have for fables about violence and bravery — so long as they are of the past!

“Well,” he says, “long before you were born — even before your parents were born — our beautiful blue planet was in danger. There were too many people. Those who were selfish and cruel began to grab more and more land and water. Even the air, they grabbed for themselves. They left nothing for those who were weaker, kinder and more peaceful. All the animals of the Earth were suffering. The Earth was dying.”

Bella’s eyes grow round and wide as she listens. “The animals, who had long since abandoned the humans, came together in their thoughts. ‘What can we do to save the Earth?’ they said to one another. ‘What can we do to save ourselves?’ They all knew that the problem was the humans. ‘They are clever,’ said the whales, ‘but not wise. Already they have destroyed so much. How can we fight them?’”

“In the silence, one small voice spoke up. It came from a virus. ‘We can do it,’ said the virus. ‘No, let me put it this way: we WILL do it. Give us time. Give us enough humans living all packed in close together. And no money or good intentions to fight infection.’ All the animals trembled. There was a sinister finality in the voice of that invisible virus. A terrible truth about what lay ahead for the Earth and for the humans and even some other species.”

Granpa stops speaking as he thinks back to the epidemics. Of the scattered communities left to manage in the aftermath. Of the great strides made in electronics, communications and automation that permitted tiny settlements to live in dignity and to maintain contact across vast distances. Of the networks of cooperation and shared knowledge that permitted the communities to enjoy vibrant, creative lives in varied environments.

Bella says, “And after the Dark Time, Granpa, were the animals happy again?” She has finished her cereal. Soon, she and her Granpa will place the used utensils in a wire basket that they’ll leave inside a flowing stream that winds through the valley.

“Oh yes,” says Granpa. “Not just the animals. We are all happy, including humans. We have rediscovered our purpose in life: to be stewards of the abundance of nature. To nurture and celebrate the creatures of the Earth. We have understood how to live in harmony with this living planet and the continuum of renewal, maintenance and death that gives meaning to all reality — ah!” He breaks off to point upwards. “Here he comes!”

Bella and he stand up and step outside their shelter. The great bird has wheeled around, facing north and into the wind stirring the grasses. In his talons, he bears a small bloodied shape. A young mountain goat, perhaps. With his great wings spread wide, he brakes just enough to drop his catch at the feet of the humans. Then he’s off again, without so much as touching down. Now, he will hunt for his own meal for the day.

Granpa swings Bella up into his arms. “Excellent!” he laughs. “We have dinner!”

Padmanabhan is a writer, artist, playwright and India’s first woman cartoonist.

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