Skip to main content

NFLC Student’s Blog #6: My thoughts

By Agalya


I like the morning 8:30 reading sessions very much. I am always eager to listen to the stories and curious to gather sensitive informationfrom them.The stories helped me understand how to ask sensitive questions regarding issues like gender. Listening to stories about the Badaga death rituals was very intriguing and I learnt a lot about them.

I loved our visit to the Bikkapathy Mund, where I was able to ask and gain lots of information regarding gender practices. Their culture was very new to me. The Toda temples and the forest around the village were wonderful. I was especially pleased to see the unity among the village people. All the class sessions through this week were very useful to me.

NFLC Student’s Blog #4: Mixed Emotions

By Dhanalakshmi


Early morning, around 9:30 a.m., I sat in the NFLC class, rather nervous. Then Andrew sir began talking and said that he had been coming to Keystone for past eight years, which although I was surprised to hear, did give me a sense of comfort. I was curiously listening to his lecture on Community well-being, health and mental well-being and traditional culture. We then proceeded to see the water festival to Orasolai, where they performed the Gangai pooja. The NFLC team then went to Vakanamaram and watched ‘Dhodaatta’ together.

I was very happy that I got a chance to get back to my hometown to watch ‘Dhodaatta’ with the entire team.  It was fun to watch  the performers dancing through the play. ‘Dhodaatta’ was  being performed after twenty-five  years, although I fail to understand the reason behind its sudden
re-performance after so many years..  In the wee hours, when we were returning from Vakanamaram to Kotagiri, I was shivering because of the unbearable cold, but somehow, I managed.

NFLC Student’s Blog #2: Enjoyable moments

By Monthish K.


Our visit to the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve this Friday, the eleventh of January, was an awesome experience. We travelled by bus from the Keystone Campus, driving along winding roads and sharp turns, descending towards the plains of Mudumalai. The Tiger Reserve, although a part of the Nilgiris,  lies at a much lower elevation. On our arrival, we first went to the Dottabetta peak,  after which we went down the Frog hill which is near the town of Gudalur. From here, we saw beautiful forests and  hills, and an especially peculiar hill called the Needle Rock. We were told that three rivers that flow towards Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu originated in these mountains. The town of Gudalur is also the place where all the three states merge.


Prior to this trip, I had visited Mudumalai three times with my family and friends, but then I had not observ ed or learnt about the beautiful landscape and the different types of trees like I did this time.. I especially noticed how the forests of Mudumalai were different from our forests. We were very happy to spot two wild elephants, which we were told was a rare sighting post three in the afternoon. I think we were very lucky! But in the moment, I was also a little scared because I think elephants are more dangerous than tigers. We then entered the Mudumalai elephant’s camp where we saw the Bettu Kurumba people giving the camp elephants a bath in the river. We also saw spotted Chitals (deer) and Langurs (monkeys) during our visit.. We then visited the Keystone field centre in Vazhaithottam and returned to Ooty via the Kalhatty road, which was a  thrilling experience because of the thirty-six hair pin bends along the road. We then had dinner at Place to Bee, a slow food restaurant, which was a fun experience. Since I prefer my food to be spicy, I did not eat very well. On our way back to the Keystone Campus, we all danced in the bus and enjoyed a lot. We returned to the campus late that night.

NFLC Student’s Blog #9: Everything is Connected

By Read Barbee


The NFLC class explores ecological networks with colored powder

The first rule of ecology is that everything is connected, human and non-human alike. This was the theme for our seventh and final week of coursework in Kotagiri. Finally, for the first time since the start of the program in January, I felt I was in my element. The curriculum presented familiar ecological principles with a unique Keystone spin that gave me a deeper and more nuanced appreciation for the human dimensions of ecology and conservation and provided a glimpse into the ways that the Keystone students perceive ecological relationships and conservation challenges. Some activities included tracing a model of an ecosystem network with colored powder and a fascinating Skype lecture from Tamara Ticktin about the theory of social-ecological systems. In this framework, human and ecological systems are presented as separate but linked through a specific set of feedbacks. The expansion of conservation theory to include human systems is a critical step but also complicates management significantly. When working with two complex, dynamic, interrelated systems, how can one determine which elements of each system to target? There is no clear-cut answer, but it is clear that a holistic approach addressing both systems is needed.


By far the greatest highlights of the week were our field trip to Banagudi Sacred Grove and the small-group field ecology exercises we carried out in place of our usual Wednesday field trip. Stepping from ordinary Nilgiri tea plantations and farmlands into the dense cover of the Banagudi Grove felt like falling into another world. We were met by an entirely new chorus of birds and dense, green vegetation teeming with wildlife. Wyatt and I saw a pair of elusive Black-and-orange Flycatchers and no less than four Indiangiant squirrels. While in the grove, we were asked to observe with all of our senses and take note of invasive plant species we saw. While the grove initially appears pristine to an outside observer, it is clearly not exempt from human influence. Still, I am very impressed by how well the community has been able to protect their grove, and my experience there gives me great hope for the potential of community-based conservation schemes. I only wish I could have stayed there longer!


An adult female gaur lounges in a tea field with her friend the myna

Our Wednesday field exercisesincluded joining the Keystone gaur monitoring team on their daily rounds around Kotagiri, vegetation surveys in Longwood Shola, ethnoecological household interviews, and streamside ecological restoration work. I worked with the gaur team, and I was thrilled. I had originally hoped to assist with gaur monitoring for my research project, and I was deeply disappointed when I learned that was not an option. Working with the gaur team even for a day didn’t remedy this disappointment but at least helped to satiate my wildlife ecologist’s cravings. I learned about their protocols for tracking, counting, and behavioral observations and how to determine the age and sex of gaur from appearance. Rising early to track gaur through misty tea plantations and shola patches was nothing short of magical and will certainly remain among my fondest memories from the program.


One of the greatest lessons I have had to learn in the NFLC so far is how to be flexible and cope with frustration. Almost nothing has gone as I anticipated, and every day is filled with unexpected challenges and minor irritations. I’m slowly learning how to stay in the moment and “go with the flow”, but it isn’t easy. The program has pushed me to grow in ways that I never expected and in ways that I think only time will allow me to truly appreciate.

NFLC Student’s Blog #8: Networks Connecting Urban Areas

By Lela Robinson







Some cities have pipes above ground,

some cities have pipes below.

All cities have processes.


Water and waste systems in Ithaca NY

Networks embedded within the landscapes we live in provide insight into urban areas. Thirteen drawings of water and waste systems (eight in Indian villages and five in American cities and suburbs) illustrated not only the similarities and differences found in these networks, but also the physical processes which shape our lived environments. Together, the NFLC participants discussed each and every drawing, first in Tamil and then in English. The student drawn systems displayed a number of differences in both how water was collected and how it was distributed. Though not as evident in the drawings, our discussions revealed the most notable difference between the flows of water in India and the States. The network of pipes and drains running through our colleagues’ villages in India are above ground, a visible infrastructure which contributes to their image and knowledge base of their environment. The US has an extended network for water and waste below the surface of the earth, creating a concealed city of utilities. We faced our own ignorance in this exercise, realizing the extent to which we have become accustomed to a network of unobserved utilities. These basic utilities that we so often take for granted are an integral aspect of our everyday lives.

As a class we analyzed the similarities and differences in each drawing not only to cross the boundaries that separate us but also to better understand the processes which shape our lived environments. We learned how spatial collectives of concrete things and the processes, both human and physical, create each other and what we try and define as a city.

Desakota: landuse settlement across southern India

We touched upon the concept of desakota to understand urban clustering and settlements located between major cities. We looked at maps with urban settlements sprawled across, as southern India experiences significant small-city urbanization, both east to west from Chennai to Kozhikode, and along the Kerala coast. The pattern here is one among many across the globe illustrating the interactions between people, their m,ovement and urban economies developing under the influence of global and local forces.

After two days of class at Manda’arae we began to realize the paradox of administering cities as contained places despite the fact that they thrive and grow at a variety of scales. As an Urban Studies Major at Cornell, I have come to realize the irony of defining an urban area when trying to plan a city, an effort which expects established boundaries and processes. Sitting in a classroom in the small town of Kotagiri, Ihave begun to understand and internalize this dichotomy.




NFLC Student’s Blog #7: Month in the Nilgiris

By Nnenna Ezera


This week our classes focused on sustainable livelihoods. We spent a lot of time discussing what makes a sustainable livelihood in the Nilgiris and how incomes may come from different sources like non-timber forest products.

One of the research methods we learned about was focus groups. Now, before I came to the Nilgiris, my mental image of a focus group was very different. I had always imagined it as a group of people sitting around a table in a brightly lit room behind a one-way mirror. Researchers would be on the other side of the mirror watching the people as they discussed whether or not they were excited about some newfangled product. Focus groups in the Nilgiris are definitely not anything like that.

On both Tuesday and Wednesday, we did focus group exercises, and each day we spent the most time discussing exactly what to discuss and how to ask questions. “What are we trying to learn? Is that question too specific or not specific enough? Does that sound biased? How many questions can we even fit in the time frame? “

Keystone students and staff look out at the view from the focus group farmers’ village 

All of the students were broken into three groups. One group stayed to talk with the women at the production center in Banglapadigai village, while the other two groups headed off to talk with landed or landless farmers enrolled in a development program. The group I participated in was assigned to the landed farmers. A while down the road from the production center, we came to a line of houses perched on the hillside. The view was beautiful. I could see all around, down the valley, and to the forested mountain across. Waiting for us there were two of the farmers we had come to meet. A third arrived about halfway through the meeting, but the others couldn’t make it. I learned a lot from the farmers even though we didn’t have the numbers that were originally intended. We sat on the porch of one of the houses and talked about the program requirements, wildlife conflicts, and how the program has affected their livelihood. Here in the Nilgiris, things seem to rarely go to plan but they’re always interesting.

Classes ended early this week, and on Friday the Cornell students got a chance to go down to Coimbatore for the Save the Western Ghats Conference. Descending down the winding mountain roads toward the plains, I was thinking about how strange it is that it’s been almost exactly a month since I got off the plane in Coimbatore and made the opposite journey up into the mountains, marveling at the views, wincing at the narrow lanes and sharp turns, and feeling my ears pop as I adjusted to the elevation. Now I was headed back to Coimbatore with others from the Keystone foundation to go to a conference filled with people working in the Western Ghats, ready to discuss and learn about topics I knew little about only a month ago.


NFLC Student’s Blog #5: Familiarity and Frustration

By Nikki Blumenfeld


There was something about this week that felt different than the others here. It was during our field trip that I noticed it the most, as I was sitting in the grass while the hot sun beat down on me, wishing I had bought a scarf to cover my head.

The sacred Toda temple, there are only two of its kind

We spent most of our day in Bikkapathymund, one of the Toda communities not too far of a drive from the Keystone campus. Fortunate enough to be invited to go on a hike to look at one of their most important temples, we started off earlier in the day, with plans to be done by lunch.

After many miles trekking through the forest, we entered a grassland and were told to take our shoes off. That meant we were close, only a short walk now to the temple. Right as I started to finally see it, a gorgeous, conical temple shaded by an alcove of trees with a buffalo pen next to it, our host turned around and told us that the men would be able to go further, but that the women would have to stay back.

Resignedly, I sat down. Of course, I thought to myself, I should’ve known this was going to happen. It wasn’t the first time I had experienced this type of restriction since I’ve been here. The girls in our batch had been warned beforehand too- we were going to be treated differently because of our gender, and though we might want to protest, we should remember that as visitors it is not our place to say what we feel is right or wrong and change what is not our community.

The NFLC students sit and eat lunch after their hike

As I sat there on the grassy slope, watching the men walk closer to the temple, I did notice that this was starting to irritate me more than it had in the past. During the first few weeks here everything felt so new and unusual and exciting, but now I was getting used to this place, finding familiarity in my day to day life. Yet with this familiarity came the frustration that this kind of occurrence will be something I will encounter often here.

Walking back, we were told that the women of Bikkapathymund could not walk any further than where we had left our shoes, too far away to even see the temple from the distance I could. This complicated my feelings even more than they already were- just as I did not want to be seen as inferior to the men in our group, I did not want to be given special treatment over a huge portion of the people we were visiting. It made me wonder too, why could I be afforded the opportunity the Toda women would never have? What did our hosts view me as? Though it was made clear that we weren’t men, it also seemed as if we weren’t really women either- we were something in between, but what exactly that means, I am not quite sure.




NFLC Student’s Blog #1: Ways of Knowing Landscape

By Read Barbee


We explore the rolling hills of the 9th Mile Toda settlement with the Keystone students.

This first week at Keystone has been a whirlwind of sensations—new sights, new smells, new language, new landscape, new birdsongs. The colors, the sounds, and the aromas all seem saturated, dripping with vibrancy and life. Bright orange soils blend to verdant green vegetation reaching up to a crystal clear and cloudless cerulean sky. The January air is crisp, cool and clean, each breath like a sip of fresh, cold water, and soaking up the ever-present sunshine I can’t help but feel its warmth rising within me in waves of profound joy. I am a stranger in this place, no more native than the fragrant eucalyptus, lantana, or silver oaks symbolic of British colonial rule, and yet already I feel at home. Already I have begun to send tentative roots into the soil, exploring its complex composition and grounding myself in the surreal beauty of the Nilgiris. But all of us from Cornell are faced with a challenge: will we be parasites like the vines slowly strangling the Amla tree, or will we integrate ourselves as valuable members of a cross-cultural symbiosis? Like the giant rock bees, can we use the nectar of our experiences here to produce something sweet for ourselves and for and our local partners?

My partners Agalya, Sangeetha and I working on our Keystone campus map outside our main classroom in Manda’arae
(Photo: Neema Kudva)

In this first week, we have discussed different ways of knowing place and relating to the world. The Keystone students relate to land very differently than we do in the US, and I’m particularly interested in how these differing relationships to land shape the treatment of it. For our first collaboration with our Keystone partners, we created a map of the campus using only our bodies for measurement. I have always thought of maps simply as tools for understanding spatial relationships, but now I am beginning to appreciate their potential as bridge-builders. When you create a map together, even if you don’t speak the same language, you reach an agreement about the way the world is. You create knowledge of a landscape over which you have collective ownership. It is quite a powerful thing.


This Friday, we took a bus tour throughout the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. The trip was fantastic because it strengthened our relationships with the Nilgiris and with the Keystone students. We saw high-elevation shola forests and blooming rhododendron around the Badaga settlement of Thumbatty. From Doddabetta, the highest peak in Tamil Nadu,we saw hilltop islands surrounded by oceans of clouds. We visited the Toda settlement at 9th Mile, scaled the rocks at Frog Hill, and experienced the majestic low-elevation dry forest and elephant camp at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. We blasted Tamil music and danced in the bus all the way from 9th Mile to Frog Hill, which I think is the first time we really started to come out of our shells with the Keystone students. Dancing, like map-making, transcends language. We had so much fun that, after dinner in Ooty, we danced in the bus all the way back to Kotagiri.

Overall, I feel very proud of the progress we have made creating bonds with the Keystone students thus far. We have learned and done so much this week that my head is still spinning, but by far the most meaningful thing we have achieved is the beginning of deep friendships with our Keystone partners. I look forward to cultivating those relationships and watching them bloom through all of the wonderful and challenging experiences that lie ahead.


NFLC Student’s Blog #3: The Entangled Planet

By Wyatt Westerkamp


This week at the NFLC was full of twists, turns, long bus rides, and piles upon piles of food. It was also one of the most thought-provoking and stimulating weeks of my life. I witnessed and took part in rituals, dances, festivities, and dramas, trekked through mountains, and was the guest of many kind and wonderful people. In the process another world unfolded before my eyes.

My first glimpse into this world occurred at a Kota festival at their temple in the richly foliated Nehru Park at the center of Kotagiri. The festival celebrated Kambatrayan, a word that we were told, meant both“unity” and “god”. The festival is important on a spiritual level, but it also served to unify the community, solidifying and pronouncing their Kotahood. What immediately struck me was the dance: all acted as one, slowly circling as if in orbit around a massive tree in a sea of twirling white shawls.

We attended a Badaga water festival the next day. The function of this event was to worship the holy spring around which the village was centered. This involved giving offerings to the spring water, but it also included prayers to the gods along with dance, food, and festivities. Both the Badaga and Kota festivals seemed to develop a connected and entangled trinity of the divine, the natural, and the human, each of which interacted and blurred into each other.

Nearly every village I went to reflected this trinity. Often built directly into the forest or grasslands, the villages were full of life, including roaming cows, goats, dogs and birds. They were mostly small, relatively self-contained, and had very tightly knit communities. Each village also had its own temple or temples for use exclusively by the community. All of this was a far cry from the neatly compartmentalized world I grew up in in Cincinnati, Ohio—there were no empty green lawns, no manicured parks designated as “nature,” no megachurches to churn out spirituality like a product for mass consumption.

Niligiri, an Irula healer, divines the severity of an illness by placing burning camphor into a glass of water

Although these traditions and lifestyles in many ways exemplified an idealized community model, there were many contentious issues. Unity is a great concept to strive toward, but its actualization takes care and upkeep. Festivals and ritual provide important arenas for this, but sometimes they are simply not enough. As more and more people leave their villages for well-paying jobs—and why shouldn’t they?—inequity grows, jealousy festers, traditions get left behind, and the foundation of unity begins to crack. Irula and Kurumba healers we met and spoke withboth claimed that some community members practiced seivinai, roughly translated to sorcery, on more well-off members. They also lamented people’s quickly fading interest in tradition, expressing a very real fear that their knowledge would be lost to the world upon death. I hope that some middle ground can be established between the benefits of development and the rich perspectives and traditions I witnessed, for their loss would be tragic— not only for these communities, but for a humanity that desperately needs to open its eyes to the interconnectedness of the world around it.


NFLC Student’s Blog :The Land of Legs

The Land of Legs

By Paige Wagar

*Beep beep beep*
I’m not sure why I even set an alarm. With only three days stateside under my belt, my sleep schedule is far from aptly adjusted. I am up at 4am and ready for bed at 6pm. Nonetheless, my 7:30am alarm means that it is time to get on with the day. I jump out of bed and peek out my windows, assessing the weather before deciding on an outfit for the day. Rays of sunlight practically blind my not-yet-adjusted eyes. Another beautifully sunny summer day in Southern California. And here prompts adjustment number one to life after India… legs.

From the moment I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, there were legs everywhere! My sister greeted me in the shortest shorts I had seen in four months and the skirt my mom was wearing at the airport showed knees. Knees! I wanted to rush them out of public as soon as possible! People were probably staring. What were they thinking? After a thirty second mental explosion of disbelief I was able to reign in my thoughts and bring myself back to reality, back to California, back to the Land of Legs.

Southern California summer style is casual and simple, easy, breezy, and leggy. Short shorts and even shorter rompers, dresses that depending on the length of one’s torso are more appropriately known as shirts. And being that I live in a laid-back town of beach bums and surfers, when meandering the lanes closest to the sandy shores of the Pacific, more often than not shirts are the only requirement. Here, our definition of socially acceptable coverage is rather liberal especially when compared to the dress code of Kotagiri.

I turn to my drawer and pick up a pair of shorts. High-waisted, acid wash denim that ends just above mid-thigh. These shorts have seen many a beach day and were my go-to weekend attire for most of high school. But today, now, something feels off about them. They seem so… short. Despite knowing that my plans for the day don’t even necessitate leaving the house, these shorts feel risqué. Such a stark contrast to the comfort and modesty of Kotagiri’s kurtas. I place the shorts back in the drawer among their other leggy companions, and pull out a pair of worn denim jeans that ends just above my ankles.

I struggled with the dress code of the Nilgiris. A moral dilemma that, even after three months, never went resolved. At the onset of the semester, I worked hard to keep my frustrations with the dress code to myself. I wouldn’t say that I am the most fashion-savvy, but I suppose that my upbringing in Southern California – a region where fashion is a particularly unique form of self-expression – my reaction to the limitations of dress was nonetheless understandable. I recognize that my response to the clothing of Kotagiri is directly due to the stark difference between the culture of clothing in Southern California and Southern India; my upbringing in a culture of bikinis, denim cut-offs, and strapless dresses informs my opinion on acceptable exposure.

I wore a sleeveless shirt into town one day. I wasn’t bare-shouldered, I draped my shawl in a way that hid my upper arms from the streets of Kotagiri. Retrospectively, it was a rather foolish decision; I let the temperature make my decision on how to dress that day. And though I was substantially cooler than I would have been in a kurta with its ¾ sleeves, I was substantially more self-conscious. As I walked into town, it was as if the wandering eyes of passerby’s could see through my shawl. They knew. To add to the experience, when crossing an intersection a stray gust of afternoon wind caught the edge of my shawl just right and lifted it up, exposing my bare shoulder. In that moment, I swear everyone in Kotagiri was staring upon me. I was self-conscious, embarrassed; I felt violated. And above all, I was frustrated by my shame. All because of a bare arm.

As my time in India progressed, I was able to identify that it wasn’t simply the new restrictions on acceptable clothing that I was frustrated with, it was my inability to override my response to these newly imposed limitations with my desire to recognize and respect the culture of Kotagiri that frustrated me. I was frustrated at my frustration.

And so, I was torn. I wanted so badly to assimilate into the day-to-day life at Keystone to the best of my ability, but I also felt that I was committing a disrespect to my personal beliefs as a passionate feminist. How dare The Man tell me to cover myself! Internal dialogues along these lines played through my head for the duration of my time in Kotagiri. The dynamic it reflects characterized my relationship with the clothing I wore while in India: the devoted and angry feminist who is frustrated with the restrictive dress codes imposed on women of the world by tradition.

What fascinates me most about my post-India aversion to legs, and skin in general, is my belief that people should be free to dress as they please free of judgement and ridicule. And here I am, astounded and shocked by those who choose to wear Daisy Dukes. After only four short months, I had begun to internalize the expectations and social norms of Kotagiri despite never consciously abandoning my fervent belief that decisions on how one chooses to present themselves to the world should not be regulated by societal pressures. I suppose it provides a curious commentary on the strength of social norms and the impact of culture on individual thought. Dynamics that I would have previously agreed are quite powerful, but I had never experienced such a salient moment that highlights their influence.

I’m sure exposed legs will work their way back into my comfort zone as time passes, but I don’t know if I will ever forget the feeling of the eyes of onlookers on my shoulder at that intersection in Kotagiri. Judgment, curiosity, mortification, shame. All because of a few inches of bare skin.

Search the NFLC site!

Subscribe By Email

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

This form is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.