ASK NOT WHAT THE EARTH CAN DO FOR YOU, BUT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR THE EARTH
– (John F. Kennedy’s quote, re-worded)
Illustration credit: Priyal Shah
Sound Mix: Nikkhil Shirodkar
I start by inviting you all to close your eyes, and do keep it closed till I ask you to open them.
We are going to use the power of our imagination to go back in time.
Imagine this earth, without any maps, boundaries or countries.
Imagine it without any human beings, as we have not yet arrived on this earth.
Just the sky, the earth, oceans, mountains, forests, plants, flowers, sun, moon, stars, and then all the animals that lived in it.
Different shades of green, spectrums of blue, oooof…many many a hue!
In such a world, tell me…
Can you feel the fresh air on your face?
Can you smell the scents from the several flowers?
Can you hear birds chirping away in a chorus?
Can you hear the footsteps of little cubs running around the forest floor creating mischief?
Can you sense Mother Earth holding all of this generously with the Big Mama smile on her face?
Now, hold all of this in your heart, and slowly open your eyes.
It was in such a world, many, many moons ago, even before Ice Age, where forests and oceans had festivals and celebrations in different seasons. Animals travelled far and wide to attend them. The largest of them was the African Forest Festival, that happened once in three years.
Yes, you are right, this was a very grand and special one.
The messengers and broadcasters for all such world news belonged to one group of birds – the Vultures.
Mama Pacha and Papa Virumba Oloye, the wisest and oldest couple in the vulture clan, at thirty years, were the appointed Elders of the clan, all living in what is now South America. The rest of the vultures as well as other animals, near and far, held them both with love and respect.
Adapted to all environment across the world, their able clan of young vultures travelled across forests and oceans around the world, gathering and sharing news, so all beings knew the happenings and events of different habitats, through the news they brought.
The long beaks of the members of this clan allowed them to drink nectar from the flowers; their sturdy beaks, to break the nuts; their long wingspan, to fly over forest canopy eating fruits that nobody could reach, and so the clan were never challenged for fresh food, no matter where they travelled. Not to mention their thick tuft of hair around their head, neck and wings, that protected them in the coldest of weathers.
Mama Pacha and Virumba Oloye, were a bit traditional in certain ways of the world. Members in the clan had to mate for life, no hanky-panky. They couldn’t kill other animals, not even an insect. Unnecessary social gatherings and hanging out wasn’t preferred. A rather austere life the vultures led, but from the youngest to the elderly, everyone respected Mama Pacha and Papa Virumba’s advice – pure, wise, and trustworthy.
And so, the week’s regular meeting was convened, and all the Elders of other species had also gathered. This time even the celestial beings, the sun, moon, other stars had all joined in. After all, there was lot of excitement in the air, to hear about the upcoming African Forest Festival. Everyone was eager to know – what’s the festival’s theme; what’s the costume theme; who were the performing musicians; what were the activities being planned; what new species were likely to attend; and so on. But as soon as they saw Mama Pacha & Virumba Oloye enter, they knew something was wrong. They both walked rather quietly to the platform from where they always shared news. The regular spring-in-the-feet sort of entry, was missing. Drooping shoulders, a look of worry in their eyes. They just stood, like something had drained the energy out of them.
Ssshhh…Ssshh, Quiet, said one of the Elders.
Let them talk. Let us just listen.
Generally Mama Pacha spoke, but this time Virumba Oloye, stepped forward:
‘My dear friends, things are not that ok in the world. None of us have been invited to the Forest festival next year. Remember, even three years ago the dinosaurs were forming large groups of their own and not talking to others, distancing themselves, and scaring many of us away when we extended the hand of friendship? They have since, further grown in numbers and in power, taking over the entire Pangaea region. All resources, food, fruits everything is directly now under their control. Rest of the animals are struggling to meet their needs, and several have died. News from our messengers is that the whole region is beginning to look like a graveyard except for the dinosaurs. The African Forest Festival has been announced only for their kind, and the news is that they are discussing how to take over all the species and dominate this earth’.
There was complete silence, all the Elders shaking their head.
One Elder said – `This is terrible, terrible news. We must do something. We cannot let one species dominate the earth. Our ancestors and we are witness that any such situation is an emergency. It isn’t the natural order of things’.
Finally, it was the stars who broke the silence and the murmurs, `We need to examine this problem from a much larger perspective, and balance needs to be restored. We will take it to Mother Oracle
(aw-ruh-kl) and see what she has to say. Let us meet tomorrow evening here, and we can discuss the different possibilities’.
The next day the stars and members of the solar system, were already there when all the Elders entered. Young and old of the forest had gathered. All of them anxious to understand what would be the course of action, the course of correction.
The Elder of the celestial system announced, `We have carefully examined all the news, consulted with the Mother Oracle, as well as the spirit of the forests and the spirit of the oceans. Life in that part is indeed struggling and suffering, and will continue to, if we allow for this dominance. Several warnings have been ignored by the Elders of the Dinosaur clan. We have no option but to do what is necessary. On one of the days of the festival, when only the dinosaurs have gathered, we will take action. A restoration of balance is our responsibility, and the Oracle has spoken for it’.
Everyone gathered, nodded. They knew that when such Higher governing energies interfered, it was serious and essential. They hadn’t done so for generations.
The Celestial Elder continued, `except there is one problem…until now the earth has managed with the earthworms, mushrooms, and smaller creatures as decomposers of waste. The dinosaurs are giant creatures, and if they die, their heavy carcasses can cause decay and disease if they aren’t broken down, and this will hinder other species from growing and flourishing. A larger species needs to take on this task, and soon’.
Never had the Elders and the living beings faced such a scenario. So they all turned to Mama Pacha hoping she would have a solution as her wisdom was well-known. She shook her head, `I can think of nothing. How can our clan be of any help here. You all know what we eat and the work we do’.
Every one nodded with an understanding, and looked at the Insect Elder: `No no, not us. We already have so much work on our plate’.
All heads now turned to the Elder of Amphibians…`Oh we live half our life in water, and there is so much to do there. This is not for us at all.’
Even before they could all look at the Reptile Elder, he jumped in, `How do we eat our kind? No, no, it is too much to comprehend. Please do not put us in such a situation’.
The Elder of the Mammals quickly added, ’You all know, we have only just come to the Earth, and are establishing ourselves. We just don’t have the numbers. We are too young a species for this task.’.
Now all heads turned back at Mama Pacha & Papa Virumba again. They were the ones who had the largest numbers, widest reach, intelligence and the wisdom.
Virumbe Oloye, looked at everyone and said `This is all too much, too soon. Let’s all think, and understand what can be done. We will reconvene tomorrow’.
That night Virumba Oloye sat by the fire. Mama Pacha, watched her grandchildren, and great grandchildren sleeping in their tents. Her memories went back to her as a child, with her father and mother. She remembered how her father and she soared the skies, as he taught her about the forests and oceans, and the abundance of it all. How fascinated she had been to be a part of such a magical world. She then recalled, that whenever her father found her siblings or her cribbing, complaining, or blaming something else for their problem, he would say, `Pacha, ask not what the earth can do for you, but what you can do for this earth. In everything you say, or do, you are tugging at the whole web, so try and do that, which makes it strong, not that which makes it weak.’
She shared this with Virumba, and both held this advice close to their hearts, and slept that night.
The next evening came fairly quickly. Early that morning, Mama Pacha and Papa Virumba Oloye had sent word that they would like to meet their whole clan. Hundreds of vultures gathered, as they knew what was going to be shared would be something very important. The Elders of other species formed the outer ring, the stars, moon, sun and other celestial bodies were also present. Mother Oracle was listening in too.
Virumba Oloye cleared his throat, there was both sadness and wisdom shining through his face. He looked up at the stars, at other Elders, and finally at his entire community of vultures who had gathered. He started, `We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, and their wisdom. Mama Pacha reminded me last night what that means. She will now share with you a few important words’.
Mama Pacha was filled with energy as she spoke:
‘This Earth is precious to each one of us. The time has come for us to be of service for what we have generously received, so the future generations inherit the same beautiful earth. We have been gifted to travel and see how bountiful this earth is. How can we now lose it?’
All the vultures echoed back ‘ No Mama Pacha, we cannot lose it’
How can we have a world filled with death, disease and decay?
All the vultures echoed back, `No Mama Pacha, we cannot do that’.
How can we, who have the numbers, the intelligence, and are gifted, not protect the earth?
All the vultures echoed back, `True Mama Pacha, we have to act’.
Virumba Oloye then stepped forward and declared, `Starting today, the entire vulture clan near and far are prepared to turn into scavengers. We will learn from the earthworms and the mushrooms. We will learn from the insects and their larvae. We will sharpen our beaks; we will shed the tuft of hair on our head if we need to; we will strengthen our sense of sight; and we will prepare our body to digest the carcass of the dinosaurs. We will work as a group, we will stay together and we will clean up the earth, so this earth can continue to be filled with the magic of all living beings, for my grandchildren, for our grandchildren, for every future generation’. With that, Mama Pacha and Papa Virumba spread their large wings, declaring their clan’s mission as called for by the Earth.
The rest of the vultures sent out a loud call that reached the sky and the stars, even as they each spread out their wings. Tears filled the eyes of all other Elders and creatures, clouds gathered, and the earth wept and wept – celebrating the courage of Mama Pacha and Virumba Oloye, their declaration, and what they were willing to do for the Earth.
What happened thereafter, all Elders lived to tell the tale. On the day of the African Forest Festival, the words of Mother Oracle came true. A meteorite struck that part of the Earth, . Mama Pacha and Virumba Oloye’s clan kept their word. Their species cleaned up all the carcasses of the dinosaurs. It took them years and years, but Mama & Papa, held on for another 8 years, leading the group like true Elders. Even as the earth began to heal, abundant life began to return to all the forests and oceans.
It took the vultures generations to clean up the earth, and they had now officially become scavengers in their new role on earth.
To this day every single species feels honored to serve the clan of vultures, when they die. To give a piece of themselves to the vultures in their death, is each animal’s way of saying `thank you’ for the life they were gifted due to the responsibility and action the vultures took when the Earth needed it.
To this day, all the future generations of vultures continue to scavenge and serve this Earth, by keeping it clean and beautiful for the rest of us. In turn, they get a piece of many beings, for the courage and sacrifice they make, for the goodness of Mother Earth.
And to this day, they uphold much of the tradition laid out by Mama Pacha and Papa Virumba – they still mate for life, they still don’t kill. But they have decided to evolve into having a social life, and hanging out in groups, while feeding.
The spirit of Mama Pacha and Virumba Oloye looks on, with pride, and approves of this little change.
This is the story of not how Vultures became Scavengers, but how they each asked not what the earth can do for them, but what they can do for the earth.
Thank you for listening.
This rich and beautiful illustration capturing the story, was done by Priyal Shah. Thank you Priyal, it is such a burst of creative interpretation.
Look forward to hearing what this story brought up for each of you.