The Photographic Essay, at its best, is an act of seduction. Words & Photography dance the tango—leading, gathering, swaying as one, often suggesting. Each incomplete without the other. Both nudging the narrative forward. When I reached out to Janice Pariat in commissioning this piece, I knew I wouldn’t have to be concerned about the words. One of our finest writers of the moment, Janice has brought her customary grace and powers of observation to this eco journey that serves, concurrently, as a meditation—on stillness; on the relationship between human and plant life; on the redemptive powers of home—played out in the forest behind her family home in Shillong. Her photographs have an unspoken poetry all their own—startling in their lucidity; enveloping in their richness. Everything true. Everything resonant. Everything poignant. Welcome, then, to “Everything Forest”.
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The word for world is forest . As is the word for writer, I’ve begun to believe. The word for home. For belonging. For what isn’t a forest but everything? All connection, all resonance, all life. The history of the world, a friend ventures to say, is the history of forests. How they have been saved, or not saved, tells us all we need to know about us. Which road we are choosing to hurtle down in wild and dis-compassionate abandon. Here, in these hills, people believe forests are the playgrounds of spirits. They are holders of ritual, remembrance, mystery, reverence, receptacle and conjuror of our stories.
On a larger scale, though, everything is forest—inspired by an idea borrowed from permaculture—“Everything Gardens”, which gestures towards the notion that nothing in nature, including us, works on its own; that everything like within a garden—our lives, the world—is connected, with other beings our allies. And that perhaps only through understanding this may we cultivate a healthy ecosystem.
For years though, I’d ignored it, the forest behind our house in Shillong, my closest forest. I don’t even know why. Perhaps I was not worthy yet to find it. Perhaps something in me needed to shift. To be uncovered. To be made raw, and vulnerable. Perhaps we may enter a forest only when we are ready to be transformed. When we are invited.
Is there a right way to enter a forest, I wonder? Perhaps only with an openness that allows the wind in the trees to be our guide. So that a path unfurls before us that continues long after it ends.
In this way, all is realigned for me. Words, ways of being, because everything is now routed through this new cartography—how to understand as a forest might understand.
Everything, for one, slows down. I am invited to think about time and steadiness and seasons—to travel through the motions of the day as a tree might, standing still, reaching out, reaching down.
Maybe this is why I feel more connected to the earth. This earth. These hills. How long it has been since I’ve been away—searching perhaps only for myself? But this return, in truth pandemic-inspired, has been wholesome, nourishing to the heart, the mind, the writing life.
And I find myself here. In the forest behind our house. In the hills that cradle this town. In the waterfalls and rivers that cascade out in the countryside. In the rocks and stones that I throw my arms around. I’ve come to realise that the only way to truly know a place is to walk through it.
The only way to love a place is to walk through it. To step your feet upon the ground. To enter into its rhythm, its breathing. To know its gradations with your soles. The shape of its river stones and pebbles, the squelch of its mud, the tripping of its roots, the tickle of its grass, the rustle of its fallen leaves.
I am beginning to understand that to be a writer I need to walk into this forest world. To live, yes, but also to inhabit. There is a difference. I might collect experience, like an assiduous archivist, but to walk into the forest world is to be, to brush against the trees, touch the wildflowers, to step into the leaves.
To touch wildflowers is to stop time.
I am learning that merely to look at the form of trees—of plants—is to notice that they are the shape of stories. That there is morphological unity in branch, twig, bud, flower, leaf, and seed that speaks to a unity—of structure, of form—I seek in my writing.
A forest contains all the words I will ever need.
Which is why I carry it with me. In me, of course, wherever I go, but also to the table where I write. Gifts from the forest, gifts on early morning walks, that inspire with their shape and form and the lives they led before they found me.
To walk in the forest is to pause. To stoop low, eyes wide, knees on the ground, and realise that this space is multiple universes all at once. The cosmic above, the minute below. The patch of moss an entire galaxy. Teeming with life. I have rarely stopped to look at the miniature like this—and it teaches me humility.
Small lives, small towns, small creatures—often overlooked, dismissed, and yet, and yet teeming with life. All these years I have been led to believe that being here is not enough—that to do well and be “successful”, is to stay away, in a big city, another country. That this place is not enough. And now I see that it is. More than enough. A universe of enough, and more.
To become more in tune with forests is to be more in tune with the world—to feel the invisible tug between you and everything. To ask—“Where do my borders lie? Where is the line dividing the world and I?” And to have no reply other than—“It is not there.”
Often, while on a walk, I stop and stand and ask the two questions that Robert Macfarlane thinks we ought to ask of any strong, poignant landscape: What do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself? Or that I haven’t known of myself so far, in so long. What does this landscape reveal? About itself. About me. How do I place myself, small, fleeting, within it? How do I find—and perhaps this is always all that matters—context. My feet. My ground.
 Editor’s Note: The first line in the essay—“The word for world is forest”—pays homage to Ursula K. Le Guin. It is the title of one of her novellas—a fabled work of speculative fiction—and later an individual book. The Word for World is Forest has long been held as the inspiration behind Avatar, one of the highest grossing films of all time.
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories and Seahorse: A Novel. She was awarded the Young Writer Award from the Sahitya Akademi and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction in 2013. Her novella The Nine Chambered-Heart, bestselling in India, was published in the UK and in ten other languages including Italian, Spanish, French, and German.
She studied English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Her work—including art reviews, book reviews, fiction and poetry—has featured in a wide selection of national magazines and newspapers. In 2014, she was the Charles Wallace Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Kent, UK, and a Writer in Residence at the TOJI Residency in South Korea in 2019.
Her novel Everything the Light Touches is forthcoming with HarperCollins India, Borough Press UK, and HarperVia USA in October 2022.
Currently, she lives between New Delhi and Shillong with a cat of many names.