Learning To Be Detritivores

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 42 No. 6, June 2022

By Yuvan Aves

Ten of us sat around a tall compost heap at Kotturpuram Urban Forest (KUF), filling packets for seedling trees. Each handful crawled, writhed, and bled with life. A rotting rain tree twig crumbled in someone’s hands. A whole village of bicoloured pennant ants Tetramorium bicarinatum poured out of their apocalypsed rooms, pantries, creches, and halls. Major workers, minor workers, alates and all, carrying their white eggs and larvae, maroon pupae, hurrying to find another safe twig or dung cake – about a lakh and fifty thousand of them. Deeper inside the heap was an albino millipede, shyer than its dark-coloured siblings, crawling over bits of leaf, sensitive to sunlit squares, curling to camera clicks.

Kotturpuram Urban Forest is a wild oasis inside Chennai, located on the bank where the Adyar river curves like a camel’s hump a few kilometres before entering the sea. This place was a landfill two decades ago. It was reclaimed by ‘Nizhal’ – a trust well-known for tree conservation  – and it slowly turned into a community forest with the participation of volunteers from various neighbourhoods in the city. One among the hundreds of children who often came to this place was me. I first began visiting, to water the trees and add compost for them, when I was in grade nine. I’ve been coming here regularly since then, and have been able to bring back many groups of children after becoming a teacher. I remember when the trees were just saplings and the park just a dry, open space with sand, grass, and rubble. There was one hand pump in the large area that everyone had to wait in line for, to fill buckets and water saplings.

A profile of a millipede, one of those compost heap creatures we call detritivores, that consume dead or decaying plants. Certain bacteria, some crustaceans, insects, worms and fungi are detritivores. They enable life to continue cycling, working silently in the background, under leaves, and in their burrows. Photo: Abhishek Jamalabad.

Now, it’s a forest.

When The Soil Is Rich!

That day, our group had three middle-school kids, two school-teachers, two nature educators, a zoology professor, and two life science under-graduate students. A compost heap is a great space for grounded conversations. Air – lungs – blood are thick with 20 flavours of geosmin, mud-breath. Hands are dirty, eyebrows sweaty, fingernails are packed with humus. We spoke as we uncovered with each grip, the creaturely labour, which created soil. A young boy held the fat squirming larvae of a rhinoceros beetle in his hands for the first time. We found and watched inside cupped hands, wireworms – honey brown larvae of click beetles – and the larvae of black soldier flies, which could wriggle on their backs just as fast they could on their feet.

Seeds of Putranjiva and Arjuna trees were germinating deep inside the heap. A blue-black flower wasp Scolia sp. landed on it and scouted around while shivering its iridescent antennae. It looked into mats of leaf litter and dung chunks. A flower wasp, through its presence, speaks for the local Earth’s health. Mother wasps find beetle larvae, pierce their skin with their ovipositor (egg-laying needle) and deposit their eggs inside the soft bodies. Wasp larvae devour the living tissues, pupate, and emerge as adult insects, eventually killing the beetle grub. Good populations of grubs are found only where the soil is rich in organic matter, where enough leaf litter falls to the ground and is left to naturally break down; where all kinds of animals live and eat and poop. Then the flower wasps come around. They indicate that the soil is full of compost heap creatures, these world-feeders we call detritivores.

Amongst us teachers and college-goers, we ideated lesson plans as we brainstormed all the natural history and science learnings that a heap of compost offers. We spent some time cursing indoor classes.

A bronze skink Eutropis macularia, a species found in South and Southeast Asia, was one of the many creatures the author’s students discovered while studying the module ‘life in the soil’ at school. Skinks are a type of ground-dwelling or burrowing lizard. Photo: Public domain/David Raju.

Learnings From Compost

The next fortnight, I worked with primary and elementary children in my school on the module ‘Life in the soil’. Just earlier, the kids had set up a composting unit at home and started a kitchen garden – which had a tuber, greens, a vegetable, and a flower to attract pollinators. They shared what they grew and the creatures they began seeing in their composting containers – small white mites, fruit flies, fungi, little maggots, and even centipedes. Then we learnt to draw dung beetles, step by step, rolling a ball of dung – insects where both parents care for their larvae. After this, the kids headed out into the campus grounds and did a soil bingo sheet – finding different soil creatures and the clues they leave. Along the western compound of the campus, the ground was lined with earthworm castings, which looked like frozen brown bubbles. Domino roaches clustered over banana peels. In the leaf litter of Indian beech trees Millettia pinnata, we found all the growth stages of Asian cockroaches, dry-leaf roaches as we call them. The little ones are black with stripes along their back. The adults brown as sand, flying around like moths when the leaf piles were scoured by small hands. Under cement slabs covering the plumbing, kids found young bronzed skinks, which slipped into the smallest gaps between stones. Then we lifted an old grow bag to find a worm snake and a couple of red-headed centipedes curled up in the moist cool mud.

Seeing how excited children were to learn by exploring the outdoors, I made a similar leaf litter survey, then a wall survey – sheets having creatures and clues in these micro-habitats, which have to be found and ticked. These activity sheets are now part of the classroom materials. Every day, some child or the other takes them on a campus exploration. The primary teachers confided recently that looking for creatures around the campus helps the youngest children who newly join school, to settle down and stop crying for their parents.

The ’soil bingo’ (see opposite page) is a sheet with mostly pictures of common detritivores. They are creatures that feed on dead and decaying organic matter. Detritus-eaters. But to me, detritivores are also powerful metaphoric beings, which wield the power to transition death into life, waste into compost and fertility. To be detritivorous can be synonymous to healing, restoration, transformation – of land, water and possibly our ‘self’.

The soil bingo sheet, created by the author, is used extensively by his students and fellow teachers. Using the sheet, children find different soil-dwelling creatures and the clues they leave behind. Photo: Yuvan Aves.

The work of detritivores returns good health to habitats, reverses extractive and depleting ecological processes, and makes endings beginnings. Perhaps as importantly, they show that beginnings need endings. They let life thrive wherever they walk, crawl, burrow and slither.

They are millipedes, earthworms, dung beetles, domino roaches, woodlice, pill bugs, and dung flies – their whole life cycles on and under land. Water snails, shrimp, the larvae of crane flies, caddisflies and mayflies in freshwater. Decorator worms, peanut worms, starfish, and sea cucumbers on the ocean bed. Lugworms, fiddler crabs, red ghost crabs and wedge clams on the beach.

I have found essential meaning in the work of these creatures, in my own path towards healing. Detritivores lend their castings as affirmations. They have taught me to discover within myself the ability to turn my trauma and suffering into inner growth, strength and wisdom through my difficult childhood. To turn life’s mess into something akin to fertile soil. Describing them doesn’t seem too different from describing my own story of learning ‘to be a detritivore’.

The author with students and teachers on a walk to study detritivores at Kotturpuram Urban Forest (KUF). They can be seen using bingo sheets to tick off the natural treasures they spot. A landfill until two decades ago, KUF has now been restored into a thriving forest by the Nizhal Trust with the help of volunteers; it offers a peaceful respite in Chennai’s urban landscape. Photo: Yuvan Aves.

A Difficult Childhood

I am 26 now. Last year, on December 9th, my step-dad passed away and I did his last rites despite opposition from those who knew of the abuse and mental trauma he inflicted on our family. He lived alone for the last few years of his life. The physical abuse and violence he put me through had left me with serious injuries as a teenager which caused me to leave home at 16. I wanted to walk off, at the time, as a pilgrim into the hills or to some forest – but I decided at midnight to knock on the door of my then school principal – G. Gautama – and tell him what I had done. With my mother’s approval, he let me stay at Pathashaala, a hundred-acre residential school he had just started. I grew and taught there, independently doing my high school and college degree through distance education… while growing as a naturalist and nature-educator.

Five years later, I returned to my home as a grown young adult, to discover that my step-dad had beaten my mom. I demanded that the violence stop for my family once and for all. He left us to live alone, unable to stay in the same house as a strong me. I later learned from his elder brother post-funeral that my step-father had himself suffered terrible childhood abuse at the hands of his alcoholic, violent father, who had inflicted violence on his mother and siblings. He ran away from his home in his early 20s, but carried deep psychological scars, that obviously never healed. His grand-father too was similarly abusive. Here was an inter-generational family history of enduring trauma. But I was fortunate to have lived a vividly caring and memorable childhood until the age of 11, thanks to my mother. This enabled me to ‘compost’ my trauma through practices and learnings into a vital energy that continues to drive my work as a nature-educator. My post-traumatic growth was facilitated by the support of extraordinary friends and mentors. But, most importantly, my mother and my school encouraged me to build deep emotional and physical connections with the natural world and with all other species. Somewhere within me lay a gift that saw me become part of the vast mystery and community of life. I sought meaning and solace from banyan trees, Pied Wagtails, moon moths and millipedes. This I know to be the core source of my inner wellbeing and resilience… being a citizen not just of human society, but of a boundless multi-species community that helped me recognise that I was larger than my suffering. That it was ok for me to dream along many different paths. It is difficult to describe how or why, and I do not offer this as a way for others. Neither do I want to give the impression that the journey was easy. Trauma endures. Parts of it never leave. But one can restructure its purpose into something fertile – like earthworms and beetle larvae inside the compost heap of our minds. To be able to do so is possibly the greatest of all our life’s challenges. I remember some of my most painful days, when I would also sight a Paradise Flycatcher, Vinegaroon or a rat snake – and it would immediately lift me, repurpose my life, and help me ‘hang in’ there. Sadness or an aching limb would hurt a little less.

The author with students and teachers on a walk to study detritivores at Kotturpuram Urban Forest (KUF). They can be seen using bingo sheets to tick off the natural treasures they spot. A landfill until two decades ago, KUF has now been restored into a thriving forest by the Nizhal Trust with the help of volunteers; it offers a peaceful respite in Chennai’s urban landscape. Photo: Yuvan Aves.

Now a teacher for a decade, I have seen this phenomenon play itself out all too often. A bully or an aggressive child in a group, probably has an aggressive parent, or an unsafe home environment. Their emotional landscape and needs, at a critical developmental stage, become threatened, neglected, and dysregulated. This is then transferred onto others. Yet, I have seen many such children heal spontaneously, with a little help and a shift of context, or environment, in some form. They work on themselves detritivorously by turning their trauma into an insightful, unique sensitivity. Educators and earthworms have similar roles.

If I love the life that greets at eye level, I should love equally the workers who help make such life possible.” – Camilie Dungy

…the great image of the human being is being composted.” – Bayo Akomolafe

Adult Asian cockroaches, or dry-leaf roaches. are brown as sand, while their young ones are black with stripes along their back. They tend to fly around like moths when the leaf piles they prefer are scoured. Photo: Public domain/Barry Fitzgerald.

Transforming Toxic Environments

Kotturpuram Urban Forest was once a toxic landfill. It is now a wilderness at the city’s heart, a shelter in an increasingly warming landscape. A testimony that a community of people can, like pillbugs, work together and return to land its livingness.

A whole village of bicoloured pennant ants Tetramorium bicarinatum – major workers, minor workers, alates and all –  carrying their white eggs and larvae, and maroon pupae, hurrying to find another safe twig or dung cake. Photo: Yuvan Aves.

It is March now, South Indian spring, and trees shed leaves only to immediately grow fresh ones, or bear flowers. They will soon carry pods and seeds. The Ashoka trees Saraca indica are bearing their deep red flowers in the forest. The Indian beeches have all shed their leaves and stand bare, their branch tips waiting to burst into tender green. When I rake its litter for the compost pits, I notice that each leaf pile has its own distinct smell as it crumbles into soil. The peepal’s litter is tangier to smell than the earthy beech, and the mahua smells a bit peanut-buttery. There is a morph of evening brown butterfly to blend with each shade of leaf-litter. This must surely also be a period small soil-dwelling creatures look forward to and prepare for in some way. A time when trees feed them and in turn they feed tree-roots. Destroyer ants Trichomyrmex destructus create the outer fort of some of their nests out of tiny Albizia leaves. Velvet sugar ants Camponotus rufoglaucus have placed leaves of Indian beech and bamboo around their burrow, like a den. Fallen flowers of palaash, walsura and Trincomalee have long lines of black crazy ants salvaging the residual nectar. Mupli beetles, ash weevils and other insects munch on fallen petals. Dung beetles wrestle at the chital droppings. Indian red bugs gorge on the rotting seeds of jungli badam. It is a creature that eats nearly anything – from trampled snails, to fallen caterpillars, to sour fruit. It sees all matter as a cycling of undifferentiated energy. The rains that follow a few months later, will turn the ground layer into dark humus. And so, the season’s song goes on.

Pill bugs are a family of woodlice that can roll their bodies into balls. They are thus known by several interesting names – roly polies, slaters, potato bugs, doodle bugs and cheeselogs. Photo: Public Domain/Karun Rayker.

This forest helps me imagine a more humble language for detritivores, and how they enable life to continue cycling, working silently in the background, under leaves, and in their burrows. Not in economic or numeric terms, but in almost a mythical way. Like in the Gondi cosmology, where worms are the eternal protectors of the Earth. Or the Melghati folktale, where termites lend mud to God from which human beings are made.


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