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Nilgiris Field Learning Center

A Project of the Keystone Foundation & Cornell University

NFLC Student’s Blog #9: Eat only what you grow

By Sowmiya B 
(Summarised from the drawing by Sharada Ramadass for NFLC 2020)

It is lovely to see our Keystone students get comfortable using art as a medium of expression for the blogs. They all like to draw and this is evident in this week’s blog drawing by Sowmiya where she shares her thoughts on practice week (week 6).

“From the field trips and experiences, I got to know that many people do not eat from outside much. They mostly eat what they grow. They also told me that this is what keeps them healthy. Therefore, we should also partake of all organic and natural food”, reflects Sowmiya. And this is what she has depicted in her drawing, showing a farm growing food for self consumption.

NFLC Student’s Blog #8: Overlapping Habitats

By Hailey Shapiro


During Ecology Week, we learned about human/wildlife interactions.  This concept was new to me.  In my hometown, I grew up with clear lines cleaving my mental map between my town and natural areas.  City planners had long ago covered the wetlands with asphalt and hacked down most of the trees to make room for buildings. Humans, lawns, and domesticated dogs lived inside the town; wildlife stayed in the surrounding rivers, wetlands, and distant forests.

We learned during Ecology Week that the human/wildlife division is not so simple.  I was surprised to learn that, in India, about 80% of elephants live outside protected areas, and some leopard and hyena populations live in areas that are densely populated by humans (Thekaekara; Athreya et al).  In many cases, we learned, there are no solid lines between human and animal habitats.  At Keystone, we see the overlap between humans and wildlife daily.  Guar—large buffalo with fluffy hairdos and sharp horns—roam around campus a few times a week, peacefully chewing grass.  Monkeys often come by to try to steal snacks from tea time or to sit in flower bushes grooming each other.  A mother huntsman spider has nested in our bedroom ceiling and we often find her children cooling themselves on the cold tiles in our bathroom.



The ecologists here told us that they are working to find ways to increase positive human/wildlife interactions and decrease conflicts.  Sometimes, this applies to large-scale conservation efforts.  The ecologists, for example, are studying guars’ travel paths to ensure that the animals have safe road crossings.  Zoe and I are also learning about how we can improve human/wildlife interactions on an individual level.  Since we arrived, the Keystone staff have been teaching us how we can make small changes to our daily lives to improve our interactions with wildlife.  Wait for the gaurs to pass if they are grazing in your path, and don’t look them directly in the eyes.  Instead of chasing monkeys off campus, just make sure to lock doors and windows so that they do not come in and steal things.  At night, don’t wander into the forest where the leopards and wild boars might be.  And shake out your clothes before you put them on to avoid uncomfortable interactions with spiders.

As I write this, I can simultaneously hear a guar chomping grass under my window and a Keystone employee’s car ringing as it backs up onto campus.  The guar and other animals are a constant and key part of life here, and I am grateful for all of the positive interactions I have had with them.Here, I don’t file away thoughts of wildlife until I visit a natural reserve, like I tended to do back home.  Disregarding the creatures that share our habitat would be dangerous and harmful, to them and to me.  Instead, by always keeping my furry and scaly neighbors in mind, I can adjust my daily life to maintain peaceful interactions with wildlife.


Works Cited

Athreya, Vidya, et al.  “Big Cats in Our Backyards: Persistence of Large Carnivores in a Human Dominated Landscape in India.”  Plos One, March 2013.

Thekaekara, Tarsh.  “Local Celebritites—Stories of elephant personalities in the Gudalur Region of the Nilgiris, South India.”  The Shola Trust, April 2016.


NFLC Student’s Blog #7: Gaur Monitoring

By Anupriya
(Summarised from the drawing by Sharada Ramadass)

As it is popularly said and agreed – a picture can speak a thousand words, Anupriya decided to put her thoughts about the week (week 5) on ecology in this simple and illustrative pencil drawing. Clearly it shows what captured her attention during the week – the field trip to monitor gaur herds in Kotagiri.

Beautifully capturing the landscape and its elements (including herself), she comments on her experience, “I liked the gaur monitoring very much. I had mixed feelings of fear, awe and surprise, seeing the Gaur from such close quarters. People and Gaur seemed to go along their normal business without any issues. It was difficult to distinguish between the male and female Gaur. Observing their behavior was amusing and entertaining as well.” Need we say more? I think not.

NFLC Student’s Blog #6: Reflecting on the ‘Crossing Boundary Exercises’

By Visithra
(Summarised from the audio by Sharada Ramadass)

The Crossing Boundary Exercises for the week (also known as CBE, in short) has been a focal theme for the NFLC, helping the students explore and cross over many kinds of boundaries – be it culture, language, or domain of focus. This week’s (week4) CBE was the main attraction for Visithra, putting the theme of the week – Livelihoods and Enterprise into perspective. And here’s what she says:

“This week I liked the CBE class the most. I got to understand how to do marketing from Miller sir. I was able to correlate this with what others had been discussing during the week. Jyothsna spoke about livelihoods while Mathew spoke about organic food and I was able to see how it all fit into marketing in this CBE. Both these aspects were very useful to me. I definitely think we should eat organic food and I will definitely set up a small nursery or kitchen garden in my house. I think this will help me eat organic food. And going beyond myself, I would like to show and tell others also about how to keep an organic garden or nursery and get access to organic food.”

NFLC student’s blog #5: The Hidden Side of Cities

By Hailey Shapiro

When our teacher asked us what happens when we flush the toilet, I realized I had no idea.  There was water that went down a pipe, and… after that, it could reroute back to my bathtub, for all I knew.  I wasn’t only uninformed.  I had never even thought to ask the question.

It turns out that the answer to the question depends on what toilet you’re flushing.  In some areas of Coimbatore, we learned during our field trip, the water flows through pipes into an underground septic tank.  Trucks periodically empty the septic tank and transport the sludge to a treatment facility, where it is filtered, separated, and thoroughly cleaned with the help of some hungry bacteria.The process transforms the dangerous sludge into soil and clean water, which is used to grow crops in nearby fields.

The treatment plant

During our visit to the treatment facility, I was amazed at how many pipes, people, and chemical processes were behind a flushing toilet. I was impressed that all of the complicated components—the plumbing, the transportation, the treatment—managed to link together to manage human waste safely and efficiently.  And all of it happened far from the eyes of the people actually flushing the toilets.

We further explored sewage and other infrastructural systems during an exercise in class.  Our teachers gave us markers and big sheets of poster paper and told us to draw a city.  We drew the most noticeable aspects of a city: grids of roads lined with chunky skyscrapers, factories, and suburbs. But a city, our professor explained during our discussion afterwards, is much more than the roads and buildings in our drawing.  There are numerous other systems that are working constantly so that a city can exist and function.  People move in and out, cluster in certain areas to live and work, and protest on the streets.  Art and culture spreads, emerges, and blends in cities’ museums, restaurants, and households.  Families and businesses dump trash into bins, which trucks transport to landfills on the city’s outskirts.  Water is pumped from wells and lakes, through underground pipes, and into facets.  And, of course, toilets are constantly flushing.

The field of crops that treated sludge is used on

These infrastructural systems are often hidden—underground, or at distant treatment facilities—but they are nonetheless essential.  The health of people and the environment depends on infrastructure.  Without an effective sewage system, for example, cleaning products in wastewater flow directly into rivers, and people are more likely to come into contact with human waste and the dangerous bacteria it contains.  What happens after a toilet flushes has the potential to save lives.

This experience made me appreciate the complexities of cities and towns.  The buildings and roads that we see form only a city’s skeleton; the infrastructural systems are its vital organs.  These complex systems allow me to perform daily tasks that I once thought were simple, such as turning on the facet, throwing away trash, or washing soap down the sink drain.  Now, when I flush the toilet, I am grateful for the complex infrastructure hidden under the bathroom floor.

NFLC Student’s Blog #4: Reflecting upon Governance, Water and Sanitation

By Sowmiya
(Summarised from Sowmiya’s Tamizh writing by Sharada Ramadass for NFLC 2020)



Week3 (Governance, Water and Sanitation) had a deep impact on our young student Sowmiya B, when she got to understand more about sanitation and especially, sanitary workers, during her field trip to Coimbatore. So much so that she hopes to work in that domain, in the future! Here’s what ran through Sowmiya’s head that she shares, with all of us:

“Only now I realized how much of problems exist in sanitation and why it is important. I learnt that 2.3 billion people lack good sanitation facilities and over 28,000 suffer from diarrhea and it made me sad. When we see this, we think of how to stop or prevent this. The fact that Keystone considers this important and is working on this is appreciable. Because many may not give it importance thinking it is dirty and lowly work. I also thought that way before. But after this week, I realize more and don’t think that way. Building toilet facilities and providing safe sanitation was some of the things I learnt about Keystone’s work. When I learnt how the fecal water and sludge are separated and while the sludge is used back in agriculture/ farming, the water is reused for other purposes, I liked it very much. Because of this we can prevent birth of children with deformities and loss of lives.”

NFLC Student’s Blog #3: Reflecting upon gender and ethnographic methods

By Anupriya
(Summarized from the audio by Sharada Ramadass)


Reflecting upon gender (roles and power norms) and ethnographic methods (week2), one of our Keystone students, Anupriya, had this to share:

“On 31st, Friday morning, we did an activity on mapping our individual gender events over a timeline. All 5 of us had to put down events that happened to us because of our gender – both the sour and the happy experiences. I really liked this activity as women usually hurt inside, keeping unpleasant experiences to themselves. This gave us an opportunity to share our feelings and lessen the burden of carrying it alone. When I shared my experiences, I was able to forget my hurt due to those incidents. The mapping also made us recall our childhood. In this fast moving world, we tend to not think about those events that happened during childhood. My thought is that women should have equal freedom to take up whatever work they may choose in this world.”


NFLC Student’s Blog #2: Wastelands

By Zoe Barr


In class earlier this morning, we had been told that Rifle Range was a wetland that provided a number of communities with their drinking water, but while looking at the site that I saw, I found that hard to believe.  My attention was immediately brought to the mounds of garbage creeping towards the small waterway, with each household encroached about the wetland expelling its own stream of plastics and rotting food into the valley sheltering what was left of the riparian habitat. A community toilet was stationed near a well that a woman was collecting water from, which I was later told had an unsealed septic system and had likely not been maintained in years. I had to step off the dirt roadway multiple times in the half hour that we were at the site to allow for vehicles to pass by, leaving me wondering just how much oil and gas was making its way into the water that the same people that drove those cars depended on.

The valley that Kotagiri resides within, which was once likely a mosaic of wetlands, grassland, and shola, but is now primarily inhabited by people and tea plantations

At one point in time, the Nilgiris had wetlands in nearly every mountain valley, with grasslands and shola forests comprising the rest of the landscape. With the rise of British colonialism, these unique landscapes rapidly were replaced with eucalyptus and wattle plantations, and wetlands that once lie at the feet of the hills were drained and converted to agricultural fields. Today, the valleys that were once lush marshes are now the homes of countless tea plantations- a legacy that remains from the time of imperialism.

When these ecosystems were destroyed, wetlands were largely perceived as wastelands- a breeding ground for disease, teaming with mosquitoes, and lacking the capacity to be economically productive. Because people did not recognize the benefits and vital ecosystem services that were provided to them via these riparian habitats, and oftentimes still don’t, they are often either utilized as dumps or are filled so the land can be used for some other “beneficial” development project.

The image that was painted in front of me at Rifle Range made it abundantly clear that there was a misunderstanding. It is too often that man and nature are perceived as separate things, no matter how inherently interconnected they are. The landscape that humanity perceives itself as superior to is the same landscape that provides the water and food that is necessary to live. This refusal to acknowledge the mutualistic relationship is what turned this once vibrant wetland into a “wasteland.”

NFLC Student’s Blog #1: Tea Time!

By Hailey Shapiro


Vanukkum from Kotagiri!  We have been here for about two weeks now and are settling in.  The Keystone campus has already started to feel like home; after two days of field work, it was comforting to return back to our now-familiar beds, balcony, and gigantic spider roommate.  It is exciting to constantly explore new things, and equally exciting to start to feel at home in all the newness.

One of the biggest changes for me here is the new rhythm of life.  The Keystone campus works according to a different clock than my life back home, and not just due to the 10.5-hour time change.  My minute-by-minute daily activities, and stress levels, are completely different here than they were in New York.  Everything is structured around a consistent meal- and tea-time schedule.  Breakfast at 8 AM, first tea time at 11, lunch at 1:30 PM, second tea time at 4, and dinner around 7:30.  Then classes and work everywhere in between.  When the chefs ring the bell signaling a meal or tea time, everyone in the campus stops working, leaves their papers and computers in their office, then meets at the canteen to relax and converse.  After about half an hour, we finish our conversations, wash out our cups and plates, and then return to our offices, satisfied, relaxed, and sometimes slightly caffeinated.

Cornell and Keystone students ready for class!

We take time for tea and meals even when we leave campus for field work or have a lot of work to finish.  Last week, out class took a nice break partway through our day-hike to sit down together and enjoy a shared bowl of rice and vegetables.  Another day, our work took longer than we anticipated and threatened to run into tea time, but we still took a break from lecture to focus on tea, biscuits, and casual conversation.

The extreme difference between the Keystone and Cornell schedules hit me during one of the first days of class here, when we performed skits about our daily life in our respective countries.  At the end of our Ithaca skit, one of our classmates asked, “But when do you eat?” and we realized that we had completely forgotten to mention mealtimes between our enactments of course lectures and gym exercises.  When I thought about it more, I realized that, even if we had considered meals sufficiently important to include in our skit, the addition would have been barely noticeable.  In Ithaca, I never left room for three half-hour meal breaks, much less tea time.  I slurped cereal while paging through course readings, chewed my lunch inconspicuously at the back of the lecture hall, and often ate dinner in front of my computer with one hand forking salad into my mouth and the other hand typing a research essay.“Tea time,” for me, was drinking coffee between homework problems.

My first few weeks at Keystone have taught me the value of quality tea time.  We work hard during classes here, and are always learning, always asking difficult questions, always working hard to understand new concepts or Tamil words.  But, at 11 and 4 each day, we step out of the intensity of the classroom for a moment.  During tea time, my brain digests what we learned in the past few hours.  Tea time reminds me to notice and appreciate not only the complex concepts we discuss in class, but also the things that are immediately around me—the chirping birds, the warm taste of tea on my tongue, the wonderful people around me. I have interesting conversations with the interns and staffat the canteen and often learn about another perspective on the topics we’re learning about.  When I walk back to the classroom, my brain is recharged and ready to learn more.

As a workaholic American college student, I often considered time devoted to meals or tea to be time wasted.  I thought that I needed a packed schedule to get anything done, and that if I wasn’t constantly working and running around I was too “unproductive.”  But Keystone has shown me that constant work is not synonymous with good work.  The Keystone staff, some of the most dedicated and hard-working people I have ever met, manage countless programs across hundreds of miles.  We have been studying the organization for weeks now and have not come close to learning about all its positive impacts.  In class here, we have already learned an incredible amount about ecology, anthropological concepts, practical fieldwork skills, and numerous other subjects.  With time to reflect, I more deeply understand concepts,and my brain is always charged and ready to learn more.  And there is always time for tea.

NFLC Student’s Blog: 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.

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