The Subverse - Season Four

In Season 4 of The Subverse, host Susan Mathews explores the story of “earth”, an ancient element, a home to millions of lifeforms. Join us as we explore this pale blue dot in all its complexity.

Episode 2

Fractured Ecologies: Caste, Indigeneity and Nature in India

In this episode, host Susan Mathews is in conversation with Dr. Ambika Aiyadurai, an anthropologist studying wildlife conservation with an interest in human-animal relations and community-based conservation. Her monograph Tigers are our Brothers: Anthropology of Wildlife Conservation in Northeast India was published in 2021. She has written extensively on issues of caste and indigeneity in the environmental sciences and academia in India. Ambika completed a PhD thesis in Anthropology from the National University of Singapore in 2016, and currently teaches at IIT, Gandhinagar in India.

They spoke of how social hierarchies impact what ‘earth’ means to its various inhabitants. For some a safe haven, for others a dangerous, hostile place. In the Indian context, this is evidenced by the deliberate invisibility of caste in environmental studies and in Indian academia. The exploitation of nature and the perpetuation of caste hierarchies are inextricably linked, with purity and pollution playing significant roles in determining access and exclusion. The lives and livelihoods of people of marginalised communities are often entwined—in a daily connection or a daily struggle—with the fabric of nature itself. Caste and class determine access to land, water, forest, pasture land.

The ‘environment’ is conceptualised as apolitical and asocial, like a kind of a local terra nullius. The social is absent from environmental studies and discourse. Nature is seen as separate from, and devoid of, humans. Indigenous worldviews, like that of the Mishmi in Arunachal Pradesh, where Ambika has worked, challenge this dichotomy, seeing instead a continuum of human, non-human, and spirit worlds. However, for a long time, wildlife conservation research and practice have ignored these communities and their knowledge.

The conservation model of ‘protected areas’ is offshoot of the dominant ‘development’ practices. The state and scientists view the forest as a place to be measured and mapped, assigning it economic value. Both protected areas and infrastructure like dams and highways cut through geographies inhabited by indigenous peoples, making them ecological refugees. The same notions of purity and pollution lead to the idea that people need to be evicted in order to conserve, a dark history of our national parks in our country.

In finding answers to how we can approach repair and reparation in these academic and other conflict zones, Ambika speaks about the need to shift power structures, change our classrooms, to push for diversity among students, teachers and practitioners, to revamp our syllabi and be active in frontline activism.

More about our guest

Dr. Ambika Aiyadurai is trained in natural and social sciences with masters’ degrees in Wildlife Sciences from Wildlife Institute of India and Anthropology, Environment and Development from University College London funded by Ford Foundation. In 2017, she was awarded the Social Sciences Research Council (SSRC) Transregional Research Junior Scholar Fellowship. She has two co-edited volumes, Ecological Entanglements: Affect, Embodiment and Ethics of Care (2023) and More Than Just Footnotes: Field Assistants in Wildlife Research and Conservation (2023). She is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IITGN.

You can find more about her work leading the Environmental and Humanities research group on their website here and on the Centre for Sustainable Development website.

Episode 1

Sonic Earth: Life, Loss and Listening

We start Season 4 of The Subverse, which will focus on “Earth”, with a conversation with David George Haskell, a writer and biologist. We focus on his latest book, Sounds Wild and Broken (2022), which explores the story of sound on Earth. It was a finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction and the PEN E. O Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. In it, David writes about how, three and a half billion years ago, sunlight found a new path to sound: life.

The wonders of Earth’s living voices emerged after hundreds of millions of years of evolution that unfolded in communicative silence. From the ancient cricket Permostridulus which bears the earliest known sound-making structure, a ridge on its wing, this sonic creativity was spurred on by some amazing marvels, anatomical and otherwise. They range from insect wings and flowering plants to ciliary hair and even milk.

Now, both land and water are far from silent; fish drum and twang, whales sing, birds chirp and wings buzz. The sonic diversity of the world is rooted in the divergent physical worlds and social lives of animals and the happenstances of history. Every species has a logic, a grammar, to its sound making. And still, the process of hearing is one of unity at the cellular level. Sound also travels across oceans, creating a sort of global unity in sonic communication.

Sound is ephemeral, instantly dissipating, and yet can be older than stone. So, in listening to animal voices around us, we are taken back into deep time and legacies of sonic geology. But it is also a ledger of loss. Our species is both an apogee of sonic creativity and the great destroyer of the world’s acoustic riches. As we get noisier, we diminish sonic soundscapes, bequeathing the future an impoverished sensory world. This sensory crisis is an important measure of the environmental crisis, and a powerful untapped tool for environmental justice.

How do we create a poetics and politics of listening? We tend to think of experiences of beauty and of creativity as somehow separate from politics and ethics, but Haskell points out that they are deeply intertwined. We are embodied sensory beings. As a species, we need to gather and celebrate the voices of non-human beings.

Technological advances have allowed us to record these soundscapes to check on the health of ecosystems. But when we get too reliant on technology, we ignore the wisdom of the people who have lived in the forest for centuries and don’t need gadgets to gauge the health of the forest, or to protect it.

David spoke of the generative capacity of sound which comes from life and interconnection. He closed with an invitation to take a few minutes of each day and listen, without judgement or expectation, and let sound do its work.

More about our guest

David George Haskell is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, a Guggenheim Fellow, and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, USA. His previous books, The Forest Unseen and The Songs of Trees, are acclaimed for their integration of science, poetry, and rich attention to the living world. He

To learn more about his work, you can visit his website here.
You can find him on Instagram and X.