Last week the host of my guesthouse near Anuradhapura showed me an ants' nest built from leaves. The leaves, now dead, were stitched together by the jaws of the ants who, by the way, pack a painful sting. The nest looked like a bunch of dead vegetation. Cool to think about but maybe not that impressive.
The next day in the field we saw a tree filled with these nests, most of which were in the early stages of being built. Ants covered the tree, busily operating to an unseen code. At least the code was unseen to us. The ants, I'm sure, were operating lockstep to an unmistakeable set of pheromonal messages. Subtle to us but all-controlling to them.
And so it is as we explore the Sri Lankan landscape. Up here in Jaffna, I had walked in the morning to a neighborhood (Arasady) at the edge of the Nallur Kovil religious precincts. I found a smaller kovil with a longer name (Veeramakaliamman) with its attendant kulam (tank) that was supposedly rehabbed by the Norwegians in 2005. The Veeramakaliamman kovil kulam got me to thinking about past landscapes here, especially as regards water. Was this a low-lying area with springs (I've heard there's a spring under to Nallur Kovil) that was once wetter? Did the kovils grow up around revered places where water ran year round? Were the drainage canals (now dry) that fed into the kovils once used for transportation, or were they an introduction of later European colonists who built them to drain the marshy areas? These questions for me, which Janet calls "stripping away the present" are a kind of all-controlling obsession. They are the heart of my Fulbright research here in Sri Lanka. They are based on subtle, intangible, almost invisible cues in the landscape.
So many questions from my morning foray that I asked again in the afternoon as I dragged Janet to the spot more or less in the heat of the afternoon--an outing she had risked that paid off. We spent some minutes at Veeramakaliamman and continued our walk until we came to a shaded, inviting looking lane. We turned up it and after 100 meters or so came to a gate opening to a garden and a couple of houses.
Immediately we were invited in by one of the girls of the family. We were joined by the whole family (minus Mom, who came out to smile but who was very much engaged in cooking the family's late lunch). Conversations and coconuts formed a jolly afternoon of picture taking and picture sharing, and quite unexpectedly we had performed our "cultural exchange" activities for the day.
The gathering clouds started to perform their exchange ritual too, just as we were finishing taking the last family group photo. Our host gave us his two umbrellas, which we really only needed for a few minutes, and we were on our way back to the guesthouse, a little richer for following the subtle landscape around us.