Ditty: Make Forests Not War
Indian singer-songwriter Ditty shares her thoughts on carbon-neutral touring and taking the positive side of the Corona-related pause for humans and nature to reimagine a new future.
Days before the lockdown was imposed in India (for three weeks from 25th March onwards) , I was in and out of trains, hopping through the country on what would be India’s first carbon-neutral tour as Ditty. Make Forests Not War was conceived with a lot of love. I was singing earth songs that I have been writing for years in gardens and public parks across ten cities to birth conversations about conscious living. Plants and trees rustled; birds, dogs and creatures sang making music with me. I had spiders, mantises, bugs and other insects make themselves comfortable on me whilst I sang – really! As exciting and for some, as creepy as it sounds, I’ll tell you all about it later. For now, I’d like to talk about how I was strangely enough, relieved to hear about the virus and that it was time to stop.
I now had a reason to feel OK about resting, calming, and giving myself the time to heal, but that wasn’t all; so did my folks, my friends, and everyone else around the planet, even though it would come at a cost for some. It made me think as a few thousand human beings die, we now have a reason to turn off our unstoppable automated systems that have been driving our economies and societies for so long and in the process, causing irreparable damage like driving millions of species extinct.
I have for years, like many others, been living a busy life. Living two lives of an urban ecologist and an artist, has often come at the cost of my physical and mental health. Years ago, I decided to simplify my way of being to live the kind of life that I spoke about and idealised. I had witnessed firsthand, rivers like the Yamuna and the Krishna ceasing to flow, polluted to irreparable conditions. I had seen the oceans bleaching, creatures disappearing; mountains, farmlands and forests being turned to desert. We are doing a lot of damage due to overconsumption, and since I wanted to do something about it, there was no place else but to start with myself. At first, I used to think, we have to heal the Earth. Now, I understand that we are indeed the Earth herself. We are part of an incredible Earth body called Gaia, she knows how to heal herself, we just have to get out of her way.
So I decided to live more responsibly. I moved from Sri Lanka to Goa where I lived in a small place. I worked in urban ecology, learned how to grow my food and started teaching others. I stopped buying stuff, strived towards zero waste. Slowly these ideas started creeping into the songs I wrote. I wrote my debut album, Poetry Ceylon and was pleasantly surprised to find that most songs were inspired by the Earth.
So much transformation, and I was still travelling a lot for music. Soon enough, I had to face up to being a more responsible musician. Therefore a carbon-neutral tour? Well, yes, carbon is just one of the many problems that lead to degradation and climate change, but it was a start. For each action we perform for each product we buy, we use fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide amongst other greenhouse gasses and toxins into the atmosphere. But really, when I noticed that trees actually drop from the atmosphere and not really grow from the soil, it blew my mind. If you’re like what? Read on.
I have had a wonderful relationship with trees ever since I was young. I would go and lay under trees to just stare at the beautifully entangled branches falling over me. Watching the leaves move and creatures go up and down, sometimes just listening to the various sounds (there are so many). There exists no waste in nature and trees are truly our companion beings. One day I was laying under a beautiful Semal tree (Bombax ceiba) with no leaves and red flowers in spring and I was asking myself how much of her was similar to my own body. After exercising my brain a bit, I realised, the tree took in the waste from our bodies (CO2), then broke it up into carbon and oxygen, stored the carbon in its bodies in the form of glucose and exhaled excess oxygen which became food for us! Whaaaa. Mighty photosynthesis! The tree was made up of air and water. If there was ever a machine that could remove excess greenhouse gasses from the atmos in a simple and cost-effective way, this was it. So I got down to calculating how much damage we would be doing on this tour and how many trees we’d need to plant to offset this damage on the next tour which was anyway called Make Forests Not War, based on a song I wrote inspired by the recent events that unfolded in India – communalism and climate change, which are both serious threats to our continuum. Make Forests not War came from the idea that we need more forests to heal ourselves, each other and the planet.
There were three of us travelling – Lucy Peters from the indie record Label Pagal Haina, who had helped me put together the tour, Filmmaker Ankur Kapoor and I. Between the three of us, we were taking three flights, 23 trains and cabs across cities coupled with the emissions from transport that the audience would have and the emissions from electricity we would consume to live and charge our recyclable battery-powered musical gear. It was shocking to me – I hadn’t expected to cause so much harm. I looked for initiatives to help us undo this, but couldn’t find any. I often saw little carbon offsetting initiatives on travel platforms like Make my trip etc. but found out they didn’t show us the whole picture. Here’s a detailed calculation of how much carbon we needed to offset. To put it in simple terms, the carbon emissions from the tour were equal to the carbon stored in the body of 30 trees in a forest that would take a period of 40 years to grow and offset. Yup, a small tour as an independent artist. And so, we decided to gift and grow a food forest (a forest with edible plants) at an alternative school called the Yogi Art Centre in North Goa for children to cherish over the years.
Besides offsetting the carbon, we were making better choices. For example, travelling on trains meant it was going to be slow but 10 times less damaging than flights. And that was really wonderful. It made way for some beautiful conversations amongst us and with strangers and downtime between the shows. We met the author Gita Vishwanath on one of the trains and became friends! We slept on overnight trains which helped us avoid hotels. We also chose to stay with friends/ acquaintances in cities rather than in hotels. Touring as a musician can be extremely hectic. This tour was quite the opposite– it was healing all of us. In each city, we spent time laying under trees in parks. We were using simple equipment, a microphone, a speaker and an electric guitar to make music outdoors. Nature was the experience. The tour was small scale– maximum ninety people in a city meant it would be warm and intimate. Some audience members cried, some were happy and others were surprised at how they felt. I think we were able to plant some seeds into people’s minds and learnt for ourselves– we always have a choice.
Nature is finite and is constantly turned into consumable goods and services that we don’t need. We lack small, simple and slow solutions today. Life is becoming faster and we are getting further away from the universal truth of oneness. I think simplicity is necessary for environmental sustainability and social justice. Whilst our society, media, governments, relationships tempt us into believing that we need more and more, I say we need less stuff and a more meaningful life. Living a simple and slow life has given me the opportunity to express myself in the most ethical way and has given me the luxury of time. All of us are artists if we have the time to do things we do creatively. I have learnt so much, I plan to set up a charity to help others become carbon-neutral too and to enable large carbon sinks to move toward a carbon positive world. Whilst I hope to resume the tour to play live music again soon, nature is busy resuscitating. The air quality has improved across the world, in India, one can see the Himalayas from the plains; rivers are starting to revive themselves, creatures are rejoicing the absence of human beings and I am choosing to look at this pause as a blessing. It’s been so long since artists, visionaries and scientists have been telling the world we need a change. Now is a chance when we can reimagine a new future.