Give Yourself Up To The Mountain

John Button, an Australian, has been working with Permaculture for thirty five years, first in Australia, and for the last fifteen years in India, South East Asia, continental Europe and the Canary Islands.

He has worked in the role of designer, implementer, teacher, consultant and project co-ordinator, in climates zones including dry tropics, rainforest sub-tropics, Mediterranean, temperate and alpine. He has broad, practical experience, having built several houses, planted many gardens and orchards, and many thousands of trees. He is an active campaigner for environmental and social justice. 

“I arrived (1989) in Tiruvannamalai to help initiate a project to reforest the sacred mountain Arunachala. Specifically I was there to plant trees and to make a forest on a little mountain that was little more than rocks and stubbles of grass. A tall order to be sure, and lots of work! I wasn’t there to sit around contemplating my navel, or to indulge in philosophy, much less esoteric ramblings. The advice, which I heard on more than one occasion, was that I should simply ‘give myself up to the mountain’. Ha, how could I possibly hope to reforest the sacred mountain if I simply surrendered myself to it?

“The project had been initiated by Apeetha Arunagiri, a fellow Australian who had lived in Tiruvannamalai for many years. However, it was in the context of a Deep Ecology workshop conducted on my land on the New South Wales north coast (Australia) by one of the founders of RIC, John Seed, that my own involvement began. He opened the subject with a statement and a question. “You and Rob have sure planted a lot of trees, and I know your love for India. Have you ever thought of planting trees in India?

“I had first met John during demonstrations to save the rainforests from the chainsaws of the logging industry. I had planted many thousands of trees in regenerating our degraded cattle farm, and had a profound love for India forged in the course of various visits there. More significantly, a great friend, Rob Ritchie,  had introduced me to his long-dead guru through a book which had touched my cynical soul to the core. The book was, 'A Search in Secret India' (Paul Brunton) and his guru was Ramana Maharishi. I had been strongly affected by Brunton's tale and the credibility of his direct experience of a divine perfection, which I had previously always sceptically dismissed and denied.

Working with Permaculture for nearly 10 years in Australia had set my life on a new direction, and I certainly already had a passionate relationship with India, but none of this adequately prepared me for the reality of the task. I was a total novice to project work, and my relationship with India had been as a free wanderer totally unconstrained by any specific focus other than spontaneous experience. 

Over-awed by the task ahead of me, I asked around for suggestions from whoever I understood to have more experience than myself in working with such an undertaking. Bill Mollison, co-founder of Permaculture, advised that if there were no local volunteers, then there was no project. An experienced American Peace Corps volunteer, went one better: she suggested that I write myself a letter about all that I thought I would be doing there, put the list in an envelope, seal it and don’t open it until at least 4 months after my arrival.

Apart from a tiny band of people, the general idea of planting a forest on Arunachala, was met with almost total scepticism. Incredulity that anybody could be so foolish as to contemplate greening the barren mountain. All photos from the earliest period of Ramana's residence on the mountain showed not the slightest existence of forest so who could believe it was possible? And even hostility: lemongrass was harvested each year by a handful of grasscutters who then fired the Fire Mountain to encourage the grasses and incinerate any other competing species; others deliberately lit the mountain with the belief that Siva in the form of Light would manifest their earthly desires if they set it on fire.

A plantation effort by the Forestry Department years before had born little encouragement for success, and one possessed Swami/tree planter had been reduced to bitter cynicism by the constant vandalising of all his efforts to green the mountain. My own parents declared me to be quite crazy when they realised I was actually paying for the privilege of reforesting a sacred mountain in south India. I responded that I was convinced that I would receive infinitely more than I could ever give. 

The first two plantings on the mountain seemed to confirm the pessimism of the majority. Almost 100% failure, our seedlings burnt to char by the fires, or devoured by the goats, or plucked out to be used as kindling. Determination finally succeeded though, as all who know Arunachala would well understand. Watchmen were posted to guard every seedling. Somebody initiated creating stone cages around every planting, a strategy which I resisted as absurd energy loss better used in the form of more watchmen. In hindsight though, the symbolic significance of demonstrating that we would stop at nothing to ensure the mountain was forested probably convinced many people of our credibility. Or sheer madness.

A huge step forward came with the approach to the Temple authorities to create our main nursery in the great Temple itself, since the Temple is sited on a number of abundant natural springs. In the process of growing our seedlings, we would regenerate the gardens which had once shaded the Temple, including recreating the sacred plantings that had traditionally been associated with worship. We also undertook to provide coconuts and flowers used in daily ritual. It was accepted, and we took a great leap to rebind the ancient association of nature and the Divine being inseparable. We also raised up to 300,000 seedlings each year, and in the process created the largest Temple garden in the country.

One day, a fire broke out on the mountain. Without anybody cajoling, villagers closest to the ARS planting rushed up and beat out the fires. It was the most significant public gesture I could have hoped for; that the local people clearly perceived more benefit to themselves in a mountain covered with trees than with rocks and grass. At last we had our volunteers, en masse. These days, one sign of smoke on the mountain inspires a rash of phone-calls and a small army of workers and student volunteers invade the slopes with water and fire-beaters to extinguish the blaze. 

Gradually the exposed path up to Skandashram has become covered in a shady canopy of trees as the barren rockscape is transformed to forest. High on the mountain, the vast bamboo glades which once dominated some areas, are naturally regrowing, having laid dormant for many generations. Vestiges of huge old trees long ago felled are re-sprouting, responding to the simple presence of time to grow, without fire or blade or teeth to hinder them. Of course a big blaze can still seriously damage all the good work, but now there is a host of independent groups all working in their own right to regreen Arunachala

The project was primarily focused on reforestation, but the path to achieving success involved so many other activities: education and awareness-raising in schools and villages; wasteland regeneration; supporting other NGO’s by co-operative tangents; nursery-raising; and, of course, a lot of politicking to raise support. Oh what a lot I learnt along the way, not least about myself.

As for my retort to my parents, I have indeed received infinitely more than I ever 'gave '. Constantly confronted with my own limits and expectations of success or failure, I was forced to observe my reactions and response more profoundly than ever before. The teachings of Arunachala are relentless, irresistible. I received two exquisite daughters too, delectable fruits of a relationship born in the shadow of the mountain. And the success of my professional work has come as a direct result of association with the blessed Arunachala. Giving myself up to the mountain.


It’s now over 15 years since I lived by Arunachala’s slopes, though I still visit it daily in my thoughts, and from time to time physically. How it changed my life; nothing could be the same after experiencing those eight years burying myself in co-ordinating the project. Learning to swallow my hopes and expectations was perhaps the biggest learning. We occidentals are so wound up on expectations and hopes and intentions and outcomes. India shines the brightest light on each of those follies.

One wise fellow, observing the project and my work, noted: “Ah, this greening work is wonderful, but I do notice you have some frustration, yes? Well I want to encourage you to just keep on doing your work with all your heart, and surely you will succeed. And remember, if you can overcome those frustrations here in India, here at Arunachala, then definitely you will not be bothered by frustrations elsewhere.” Ah, how very true.

Intentions and plans and strategies, are wonderful motivations of course, just as long as we are not too expectant of the nature of the outcome. We had plenty of ‘failures’ along the way, but each was treated only as a lesson, an inspiration to find other ways of succeeding, or to reconsider the focus of our activities. We found better ways, new strategies, and eared quite unanticipated gifts along the way.

Love finally lured me away from the project, which in any case had no need for my constant presence. The greening was going on, through many different projects, some initiated by people inspired by our initiative, others by people who had begun by working with us before striking out on their own.

It’s 27 years since John Seed’s invitation to be involved in Greening Arunachala, and all that has happened since then has been a consequence that work-play. The notion of a green Arunachala was generally considered to be crazy at worst, fanciful at best. It was neither and both, but it’s worked a treat. Still, it was a transformation waiting to happen, and I was lucky to be invited to assist that change. It seems that nothing can stop it now. Where once there was only our band of fools bent on the work, now there are multitudes involved in various ways. Some left the original project and started their own, while others were simply inspired to add their energy to the idea of a forested Arunachala.

Even if someone strikes a match to create that Siva Fire Mountain now, with one sniff of smoke, there are watchmen who immediately send out the word and a host of students and other volunteers swarm onto the mountain to extinguish it. Everyone believes in it now, and the results have been spectacular: birds and animals not seen for years are returning, and now that the mountain is largely free from fire, the vegetation is exploding in a green cover. 20 years ago when the sun struck those rocky slopes, hot dry air rose and evaporated any clouds in the vicinity. Now the same sun strikes the damp surfaces of countless leaves, and the air rises humidly to tempt the clouds to rain. Springs run permanently where previously they were dry. The response of Nature is extraordinary when we support her needs.

Arunachala now has the status of National Heritage, and is ‘protected’ by the force of legislation. I’m not totally convinced that such a title is all-positive, since it alienates the people who have depended on the mountain for millennia; the ordinary folk. Perhaps it would be preferable to link them with the forested Arunachala by allowing collection of herbs and fallen wood in exchange for their active protection of the mountain. Still, it is a green mountain, and year by year is more so.

When I first clambered all over the mountain I recognised amongst the stubbled grasses plants that I knew from Australia that confirmed to me that there had indeed been forests on the mountain. Now I have learnt that they were not seedlings sprouted from the birds that carried in the seed, but many of them were actually the suckers of ancient dormant trees that had been felled and burnt, but still survived for many decades as fire and goats and tempest conspired to wipe them out. What resilience nature holds. Inspiration to us all, of the power of Gaia, even in the face of human folly.

I’ve been blessed by being associated with the success of foresting a sacred mountain, and that success has inspired many wonderful invitations to work on other projects, all over the world in diverse remarkable circumstances. In the process of the path I’ve followed since, I’ve worked in so many situations: with strategies for disaster situations  (in Pakistan); designed the land for a new school in Bali (Green School), revegetated a barren island; worked on all continents except North America, as consultant and designer, for NGOs and institutions, individuals and communities. All blessings that have flowed from ‘giving myself up’ to the mountain.  I don’t believe that the flow will ever stop.

Now I’ve come full circle. Having left my beloved regenerating land on the New South Wales north coast almost 27 years ago – ‘just for a couple of years’, I had thought – I am finally coming home again, have milled up a few of the thousands of trees I planted there in the early 80s, to construct a simple house, to lead a simple life again, close to home and old friends. Back to my roots. Giving myself up to the mountain still.