In the Land of Milk and Honey: Mornings

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The belated beginnings of clipped memories from the Himalayan Permaculture Centre, in Surket District.

For friends in the UK we are home, and it would be lovely to see you all!

Mornings

The dawn cracked morning peaks in through the door, curdling in smoke. Crouching round orange flames and red embers, I am mesmerised, whilst the rice gets up to boil, thinking how to describe the movement of the flames on wood – stroking, caressing, purring along. I warm my hands on the hot metal mug of sweet cardamon milk chai.

Small Cezanna, after two days of grumpy unwellness, dips her hand into the sugar jar, grabbing the buried spoon and heaps sugar into her own pot of rice. Bemola secures the top of the pressure cooker, creamy moisture bubbling through the small holes on top until the pressure forces a sudden whistle.

The dark mud den room of uneven walls is plastered with now a desiccating mud, clay and cow dung mix reminds me of streaked webs in Mum’s batiks. I am perched on the edge of a squat clay stove. Two holes punctuated in a raised clay platform for pots to wallow in over the fire fed underneath, and smoke is partially drawn up into the chimney moulded into the corner.

Every so often the cock, kept under a woven bamboo basket, crows sharply.

Outside, the cold grey cloud of the morning and last few days is now broken through with sunlight. The dog dozes curled up on a weathered pile of wrinkling turnips, the green wheat terraces arc backwards as white clouds seemingly dissolve into blue. Bhuwan hangs a tin voiced radio from a window and kicks a homemade football about with a cheery Cezanna. Colourful children pass along the footpath on their way to school, its tin roofs shine white though trees across the valley.

From the Bureaucracy of India into the Dancing Foothills

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Schizophrenia of Soldierhood

It was election day in the state of Utter Pradesh when we chose to cross the Indian-Nepali border at Rupaidiha to Nepal Ganj, and orders from Delhi stated that no one was to cross until 5 o’clock this evening. Whilst Jonny navigated himself between the various authorities vying for control of the gates, trying to negotiate and reason with them to excuse us from waiting the arbitrary 9 hours, I sheltered under a tin awning as rain battered down.

I watched a huddled figure, drapped and clinging to dirty shawls, scuttle along the street towards the drop-down gate. Spotted, a tall karki soldier confronts her, loomed over the skeletal creature, who, shoulders hunched to take up less space, shrunk back into her shell. What the soldier said was inaudible to me – but his gestures jeered. Distracted by a large crowd approaching the border gates, she was able to slip past bare-footed, head down beyond the guard box and curve to the entrance of the army’s concrete compound. A white CCTV camera, tucked within tree branches, swivelled to look down its nose at her. She waited.  The female soldier who had smilingly dealt with us, told her to move on. Grumpy faced she crossed towards me to crouch bare-backed pressed to the wall under a slim shop over hang.

I watched her for a while as she stared across at the army defiantly. I dug out three bananas from out backpack and took them over to her, she smiled when I wished her “Ap ka din achcha ho.”

Looking out into the rain again I watched the same female soldier swing her stick like an arrogant English country-gentleman parading her territory, ready for the hunt. A wet couple trespassed, a switch flicked, she drummed up to the woman and shoved her polished wooden stick up against her chest like a stop sign. The husband negotiated their right of passage, and his wife slipped past the dominatrix.

Minutes later, that same soldier carried a bundle of fried foods balled up in newspaper to the wet hermit crab, and gently offered it.

Climbing into the land of milk and honey

To reach the Himalayan Permaculture Centre, we had a day long climb from the earthen roadside of the remote village Goume in Surkhet district, up through terraces of a rainbow of greens to drier scrubscapes and olive oaks with spiked leaves and pine trees.

The day was breathtakingly beautiful. As we moved up through the cold sinking mist, small fireworks of rape yellow mustard speckled above the glare of rich eerie blue greens of rice and wheat leaf.  Shards of mist, so thick that it was possible to see the moisture glistening and dancing in the air, were shot through with sunlight. Once above, we looked back on the cotton lake of goosebumb clouds, the mountains on the other shore a blue silhouette, lapping at the edge of a Maoist camp.

As we walked, Bhuwan (a co-ordinator) taught his daughter Cezanna English, and she taught us Nepali. As she swayed on his shoulders, he would say “friend means…” and she would reply “sar-tee”. “Girl means…” – “Ka-tee”; “Happy means…” – “cou-see” and so on.

I felt so intensely alive, aware of tingling blood pumping through my fingers and breeze skimming cold across the damp sweat on my chest. Bird calls and vibrating insects were luminescent.

Passing through a village we adopted an ant-trail of curious children. Bhuwan was teaching us the names of wild animals – “Barg means tiger”, “Haatee means elephant”, “Goi-a-dah means rhino” – and to root them in my brain I attempted to growl, trumpet and grunt the new names in turn.  The children giggled and repeated them amongst themselves.

We stopped for lunch late morning at Bhuwan’s father’s house – one of the concrete rooms is rented to a pharmacy. A small child, not older than Cezanna, was picking at the earth and scraps of polystyrene and plastic litter amongst piles of wood. She found an old packet of pills, half-used. Scratching away the foil, she rubbed her fingers in the pink powder and began to lick. Still crouching, I pointed at the unknown substance in her hands and shook my head; making a sad face I rubbed my belly. Cheekily she smiled and hid behind a banana tree. So I had to tickle them out of her hands.

Coulbadai, a six-foot tall (a giant by Nepali standards), serious faced Nepali joined us, expecting to carry our bags for the steep ascent ahead. He seemed wary of us, and spoke very little. Slowly he smiled at our insistence to carry our own packs, using our newly word “bolio” (meaning strong) whilst jokingly flexing our very small (at least mine are) biceps. He was to become one of our favorite faces at the HPC.

We spent the rest of the afternoon climbing, until dusk. Then Bhuwan pointed at the green roof across the valley. Not long after, we arrived.

We were sat down on wooden benches, a table between us and the crowded community. Each person, in no particular order, pinched tikka – rice soaked in sour milk skimmed from curd – from the metal plate in front of us and dabbed it onto our foreheads, as they whispered greetings and hopes for our stay. Each person pressed rose petals into our palms, before nodding “Namaste” – the light in me sees the light in you, or as Mahatma Gandhi said: “I honour the place within you where the entire Universe resides; I honour the place within you of love, of light, of truth, of peace; I honour the place within you, where, when you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”

Drums were pulled out, and the two youngest boys were goded to dance for us all. Although shy, they both danced elegantly. Then Jonny and I were invited to the floor – the first dance of many to come over the next few weeks in the mountains.

Guwahati and the Case of the Pigmy Hog

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The Brahmaputra Mail was already the slow train from Delhi to Guwahati and was expected to take 35h to make th journey.  However the train was running 5h late as we were nonchalantly informed by one of the many chia wallas that patrolled up and down the train at regular intervals throughout the day and night calling out “chai, chai, garam chai” all with the same indistinguishable nasal twang.

Our main motivation for coming to the North east was to met up with friends of Katie’s dad.  friends he had made in the course of research he had undertaken for a potential film project he was working on the film was to be a documentary looking at human elephants conflict which is a problem in some parts of the region.  Our first rendezvous and our only reason to worry about the lateness of the train was with our couchsurfing host Annjuu.  Despite our late arrival Annjuu greeted us with warm tea and an equally warm welcome into her comfortable and spacious flat.

Guwahati is an unremarkable city that fulfils many of the stereotypes of Indian urban life, noisy, overcrowded and polluted.  We spent a few days in Guwahati dodging traffic, hopping on and off buses and generally planning our next move.  We had time to met a few of Tom’s friends as well as making a very interesting visit to the worlds only Pigmy Hog research and breeding centre.  The only place in the world where Pigmy Hogs have been successfully breed in captivity.

The center had been established by a truly inspiring couple, Nandita and Gutam, back in the mid 90s.  Nandita was out-of-town at the time but had assured us that her husband would be willing to show us around and talk us through the work that they were doing through their NGO – Eco-systems.

So a time and a place was arranged and after a few minutes stood outside the regional passport office looking lost and attracting lots of attention, Gutam rolled up in a smart black 4 x 4.  Once in the car Gutam managed to move us seamlessly through the heavy traffic while navigating us through the history, habitat and habits of the Pigmy Hog.  Before arriving at the center we had already learnt that the Pigmy Hog is the smallest of all the worlds Pig/Hog (these terms can be used interchangeable) species.

It seems as though the diminutive Pigmy Hog has been giving scientists the run around for quite sometime.  Firstly it was believed that the Pigmy Hog was just a small pig undeserving of its own classification as a separate species.  This was until further studies of this elusive animal could be conducted that established that this little piggy was infact not just any little piggy but a separate species all of its own, Porcula salvania.

In another case of scientific back tracking and thanks in large part to the habits and habitat of the Pigmy Hog, the Pigmy Hog was declared extinct in the early 1960s until the discovery of a remnant population in Manas National Park in north-west Assam saw the Pigmy Hog become one of those rare creatures that has been crossed of the list of extinct species and written back into the book of life.  These events highlight just how tricky the Pygmy Hog is to spot let alone study in the wild.  Gutam, in five years of working almost daily in Manas never spotted one.  This makes estimates about their exact number more guess-work than informed assessment but scientists guess that there are fewer than 500 individuals in the wild, prehaps many fewer according to Gutam.

The Pigmy Hog is fussy about where it lives, choosing only the rich alluvial grasslands that, at one time, stretched almost the entire length of the Himalayan range.  These grasses, some of the tallest on earth, flourished where the plains met the foothills of the Himalaya, where both sun and water are available in abundance.  The conditions that allow for the growth of gargantuan grasses, as well as supporting life for the worlds smallest Pig also support healthy populations of some of the biggest animals on the planet including the Asian Elephants and Rhino aswell as the largest Feline, the Royal Bengal Tiger.

Such conditions also proved good for growing other more anthropocentric grass species including wheat and rice and in a nation that is fast becoming the most populous on earth while still maintaining a majority rural population, the incursion of people and agriculture have brought about the loss of the vast majority of these rich alluvial grasslands.  Now only a few isolated pockets remain intact in protected sites dotted throughout Nepal and northern India.

Even in these sites, most of which are National Parks, the protections of these grasses isn’t assured.  Despite, even because these sites are national parks and the elusive, secretive and small nature of the Pigmy Hog means that it is never going o pull in the crowds like the Elephants, Rhinos or Tigers.  So what happens is that the national parks are managed for and for the easy of seeing the big game.  In practice this means that a programme of burning is conducted in the dry season, the logic being that the burning stimulates new green growth that the animals can eat and also that no one wants to pay good money to go on a jeep safari to spend all day looking into 20 ft high grass.

What in fact happens is that the quality and diversity of the grasses is diminished and the habitat of sensitive, albeit smaller, habitat indicator species, such as the Pigmy Hog is destroyed as in their natural state these grasslands don’t experience fires.  As Gutam said this is crazy, if you get the habitat right for the sensitive indicator species then the big game will follow.

Hopping out of the car at the center the first thing that struck us from within the wire mesh of the enclosure that stood in the center of the research facility, was the grass.  At 20ft plus the grass drafted many near by trees and we understood why the Pigmy Hog is so tricky to spot in the wild.  We spotted our first Pigmy Hog almost immediately once we’d climbed to the 1st floor balcony that overlooks the enclosure in the building that housed the admin and offices.

The enclosure was divided into separate areas each of which contains one male and one female Pigmy Hog.  The enclosure was relatively spacious and open, with a few clumps of gigantic grass in each enclosure, apparently on account of the Hogs habit of felling the tall grass at the base with their teeth, this provides the material with which the Hogs build their nests.  The nests, which the hogs live in year round (the only pig species to do so) are no more than piles of hay heaped on the ground into which the pigs borrow to rest, seek shade, hide from predators, give birth and sleep.

To my eye and from the vantage point of the balcony the Pigmy Hogs did look just like little pigs but then I haven’t spent much time arround pigs and had only just clapped eyes on my first Pigmy Hog.  At this point Gutam set me straight, “Notice the elongation of the head and nose and the narrowness of the body, that gives the Pigmy Hog its distinctive bullet shape. Also notice the tail, also a unique feature, it’s short and straight unlike the tails of all other pig species which are curled.

As Gutam showed us round the 15 or so enclosures we got a chance to see the hogs close up and were shown how to distinguish the males from the females.  It’s easy really, the males have moustaches and quite splendid bushy one at that, they also possess two large bottom teeth, these teeth serve to push up their moustachioed upper lips which in turn only heightens the pigs resemblance to a well-groomed Victorian gent or one of the more dedicated members of the handle bar club.

As we wandered around Gutam told us of the successes they had had with the breeding programme.  At this point a gaggle of especially small pigletts piped up from one near by enclosure with high-pitched squeals as if to reinforce the point.  So far the center has bred 70 odd Pigmy Hogs and has released 30 some back into Mannas National Park.

In the wild, aside from human encroachment the greatest threats to a Pigmy Hog are predation from other animals including all feline species (Tigers, Leopards and Jungle Cats) also birds of prey and just after they are born and while they are at their smallest and most vulnerable babies have been known to have been picked up and carried off by crows.

In conjunction with the reintroduction programme Gutam and his team were trying to change the land management practices of the park wardens and local farmers encouraging them not to burn in the dry season and to burn only selected blocks one at a time giving grasses and animals a change to reestablish themselves elsewhere.  As Gutam said if you get the habitat right for the Pygmy Hog and other sensitive indicator species then the big game animals will look after themselves.

Hopefully the work of the centre coupled with a fresh search for other populations of Hogs in Nepal and elsewhere in India will ensure that the future of this little pig isn’t once again to be added to the rapidly growing list of extinct species.

A living landscape.

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Our next port of call was Meghalaya State, the so-called “Scotland of the East”.  The hilly, in parts mountainous, state lies sandwiched between the Assamese Plains to the north and the vast plains of Bangladesh to the south.  It was a 2 1/2 hour ride in a Sumo (shared Jeep/taxi) up into the hills to Shillong, the state’s capital.  The hills did bear a passing resemblance to those of the highlands, especially as we climbed higher, where pine trees dominated the landscape but the copious sunshine and the exotic species, including Palms, Bananas, Bamboo and Beetle Nut trees at the lower altitudes, made the comparison seem a little tenuous.

From Shillong it was our aim to get to the village of Mewlynnong a further 2 hours south and only a short walk from the Bangladeshi border.  A chance internet search of ‘living root bridges’ had thrown up the blog of a British photographer, Tim Allen, who had worked for the BBC on the Human Planet series.  The East Kasi Hills, in which Mewlynnong is nestled is a thickly jungled area that forms the Indian Bangladeshi border and is the wettest place on earth.  The region can receive up to 11 meters of rain in some years, we were told later by one of the villagers that one year, it has rained everyday for 3 months.

This combination of the steepness of their landscape plus the sheer volume of water they face each year lead the people to an ingenious solution to the problem of crossing all the rivers and steams that swell and surge during the wet season.  Conventional bamboo bridges aren’t up to the task and are either washed away or require rebuilding or repairing each year.  So the imaginative and resourceful locals enlisted the aid of the local ecology of the jungle in the form of the rubber tree.  The rubber tree is perfectly suited to the task of forming bridges as it send out multiple vine like roots from its branches that grow until they hit the ground where they then take root.  So either a conveniently placed tree is selected or one is planted at a point where people want to cross a river.  As the tree grows and matures, sending out air roots from its branches these air roots and the branches are trained along lines made from vine and other natural jungle materials to the opposite bank of the river where they take root in the soil or cling to the rocks.  This process is repeated with as many of the roots as the tree gives out until a bridge is formed.  A walk way is then grown in situ as the roots and branches thicken and fuse together, this is further strengthened and made safe for crossing with more roots and branches that form hand rails and structural supports.  Imagine the Clifton suspension bridge designed by Salvador Dali.  This process can take years before the bridges are ready for crossing and the maintenance continues for the life of the living bridge, which can live for many hundreds of years.

This technique is not only employed for crossing the seasonal rivers but also the locals have coaxed ‘living ladders’ out of the rubber trees to enable them to negotiate the steeper parts of their hillsides.

Upon arriving in Mewlynnong, after a spectacular drive, we were excited by the prospect of exploring the area for its bridges and ladders.  We were also excited at having arrived in ‘the cleanest village in India’.  On first inspection the village certainly lived up to this accolade, although to be the cleanest village in India wouldn’t necessarily mean all that much but here not only was the village free from litter they had bins.  Bamboo baskets suspended in the trees.  Each house in the village and all the communal spaces also had immaculately kept gardens, brimming with flowers and shaded by trees that blurred the boundary between village and jungle so it was hard to tell when you had left one and entered the other.

Mewlynong is gaining something of a reputation not only for its neatness and proximity to so many root bridges and ladders but also, as we would discover, for the open and generous hospitality of its inhabitants.  As a result two guest houses and a handful of tea houses have opened up.  With the arrival of the road some three years ago (prior to this it was a half hour hike up the hill to the nearest road) the tourists began to arrive.  They consisted primarily of day or over night trippers from Shillong or Guwahati, as the magic of the place is passed on largely by word of mouth and as such has been off the radar (so far) of most Indian travellers and foreign tourists.

We decided to stay at the community guest house that consisted of four buildings built exclusively from bamboo and thatch, each building balancing on stilts and overhanging a precipitous drop down to a rocky river bed below.  Three were for guests and the fourth was the staff bedroom cum kitchen.  The three buildings ranged a palatial 4 bed with its own tree top platform to the modest two bed hut that Katie and I shared.

We spent our days exploring the densely forested hillsides either alone or to get to the most spectacular places, with a local guide.  On our second day Henry (one of our guides) suffered mine and Katie’s slow progress up the steep hillsides to show us some of the more remote bridges and ladders.  We also visited the most spectacular seasonal waterfall, where thanks to it being the dry season, we were able to clamber down the dry river bed to stand on the vertiginous edge of what, in a few months time, would be a raging waterfall.  Peering into the abyss below turned my stomach and spun my head with the giddy hight of it.

The river bed turned steeply to the west directly below and the action of the water in the wettest place on earth had stripped bare a cliff-side directly opposite us that belied the age of the earth and the power of that odorless and colourless liquid we think we know so well.  We repeated this sensation a few days later at another dried up waterfall where we were led my Mathew.  This time it was the spector of Bangladesh that struggled through the haze to face us, its ethereal form contrasting markedly with the solidity of the rock that had faced us a few days earlier.

Our wanders up and down the hills in this area were facilitated by an expansive network of meandering and criss-crossing paths, the vast majority of which were paved with hewn stones intentionally and ergonomically placed.  At points these stones rose or fell into vast staircases.  These paths to my mind were as spectacular a feet of human ingenuity and engineering as the living ladders and bridges which acted as the links between the paths and were part and parcel of the same routes and causeways.  The amount of hours and effort that had gone into making miles and miles of paths and stairs, some on impossibly steep slopes; generations of labour to implement and maintain, boggled my mind.

Our evenings were spent in the company of the locals that we befriended, either in the kitchen at the guest house, on the tree top platform, if the adjoining hut was unoccupied or at the tea house where we occasionally had our super.  More often than not our evenings were accompanied by the dulcet tones of the locals singing hymns in one of the two churches in the village that held daily services.  We learnt from Henry that Welsh missionaries had arrived some 200 years ago and converted the people to Christianity.  Prior to this conversion Kasi culture worshiped the Cockerell as its principle deity, believing that it ensured the rising of the sun each day with its cock-a-doo-duling.  The locals we chatted to seemed to have no regrets about the loss of their traditional animistic beliefs in favour of more a foreign faith.  People wore their christianity openly asking us if we shared their beliefs and talking fondly of the arrival of the Welsh missionaries to their village.

Only time will tell what effects the arrival of the road and the opening up of their village to a steady stream of tourist will have on the people and places of Mewlynong.  Little was already starting to build up at the main root bridge closest to the village that was the most popular with the day trippers.  But as yet the people had not been jaded by the influx of ‘foreigners’ (both Indian and other) and had hospitality and friendship to share in abundance.  Like us I expect that most people who stay for more than a night or two will remember the smiles and friends they made more often and more fondly than they will the spectacular places that they visited.

 

For some amazing pictures of the area and good directions on how to get to the village please follow the link to Tim Allen’s blog: http://humanplanet.com/timothyallen/2011/03/living-root-bridges-bbc-human-planet/

Life in the Soil

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Below is an edited interview I conducted with the wonderful Marilyn and Chris, a wicked wife and husband team and co-founders of the Hummingbird Project. They are traveling around the world working with small farms and communities spreading clever permacultural techniques and teaching about the wonders of the Soil Food Web.

Katie:         Thank you very much Chris and Marilyn for agreeing to do this interview on the Soil Food Web and everything that you’ve been doing here at Navdanya.

Katie:         Could you please explain what the Soil Food Web is?

Marilyn:      Sure, the Soil Food Web (SFW) is a way of describing all of the microorganisms that are working together in the soil to help feed the plants. There are several different trophic levels. Trophic is a Greek word meaning food. So there’ll are based on different foods categories that microorganisms eat.

Source:  Dr Elaine Ingham’s website http://www.soilfoodweb.com/sfi_approach1.html

The first trophic level includes all plants that are able to photosynthesise, capturing sunlight energy through speasalised chloroplasts, that transfer the sunlight energy in to sugars. The sugars in turn are translocated into the root system to help feed the microorganisms and help set up this whole soil food web.

Katie:         Can you tell us why the soil food web is important?

Marilyn:      The SFW is important because the microorganisms feed plants whilst plants are also feeding the microorganisms. It’s a series of mutualistic relationships that have developed over millions of years where microorganisms provide all of the nutrients that plants need.

Chris:         It’s important for the same reason that the water cycle is important, or the life cycle is important, because without it there would be no terrestrial life of plants on earth.

Marilyn:      A lot of people have a misconception that plants need us to go to the store to buy specialized fertilizer and plant food, but it’s completely inaccurate. The plants and microorganisms have evolved over time so they absolutely do not need human beings to add inorganic, synthetic fertilizers to the soil to feed plants. The microorganisms do all of the nutrient cycling, and more importantly make the nutrients bio-available, which means that nutrients are in a form that’s easily absorbed at the root hairs.

Chris:         Boom.

Katie:         Can you explain just a few examples of these beneficial relationships between microorganisms and plants?

Marilyn:      Sure. One of our favorite types that we’ve been talking about here at Navdanya are leguminous plants. These are plants that are able to capture atmospheric nitrogen and convert into a form that is bio-available to plants. Here at Navdanya they’re growing a lot of soy beans for example. Soy beans have a symbiotic relationship with rhybozium bacteria. The bacteria infect the soy beans at the point of the roothair and they physically capture atmospheric nitrogen by adding hydrogens, making it bio-available to the soy-bean plant.

Katie:         Jolly good. And how can we feed the soil food web?

Marilyn:      By adding finished compost. There is a lot organic material in compost, so your providing a food source for the microorganisms as well as inoculum of good-guy, beneifical microbes. In this way you’re jump starting the soil food web and ensuring the that the microbes will grow and survive there.

Chris:         So you make a compost pile and you spread it out. That’s how you grow microbes. Or make a compost tea or compost extract to grow your microbes and spread it around.

Marilyn:      Chris brings up a good point. When we arrived at Navdanya at the end of November, first things first we started making a compost pile. We’d already looked at a few samples under the microscope and saw that most of the fields here at Navdanya were bacterial dominated and, since learning about the soil food web and based on our experience over the past couple of years, it seems to us nine times out of ten you’re going to have to add beneficial fungi to the soil.

So, with the help of many interns here at Navdanya, we made a fungally dominated compost pile. That means that roughly:

·         50% of the compost pile was carbon – woody material and a lot of dry leaves – fungal food

·         25% regular nitrogen – food scraps, green plant material

·         25% high nitrogen – cow dung – both bacterial food

By making a fungally dominated compost, you can use this as a source of good-guy fungi and bring balance to the soil microbial life – that means balance between bacteria and fungi.

Katie:         And can I just ask a clarifying question? If we cut our grass and put those cuttings on the compost, or if we prune a tree and put those branches on the compost – are we adding carbon or nitrogen?

Marilyn:      You have to think about the life cycle of the plant. If you cut a plant that is actively growing, i.e. actively photosynthesizing, and storing sugars, the cuttings will be a nitrogen food source for the bacteria. They will be a “green” plant material. Even if you let the grass dry down and a few days later it’s brown, it’ll still mostly be nitrogen and will feed bacteria.

Versus if you rake leaves, say in the fall, where the tree retrieves all of the sugars and nutrients from the leaves before it sends out hormones to tell them to drop. As the tree retained its nitrogen sugars before going into its dormant winter state, the fallen leaves will contain more carbon than nitrogen, which is a great food source for the fungi.

Katie:         So obviously with your wonderful microscope and high tec lab here at Navdanya, you’ve been able to assess the soil and see that it has been mostly bacterial. But if we don’t have a microscope back home, how do we gauge what is happen in our soils? And how might we then alter or re-balance the soil?

Marilyn:      Sure, alright. A couple of things you can do, looking at the colour of your soil can give you an indication of how much organic matter it contains. For instance, there’s a lot of sand here at Navdanya, this white colour indicates a lack of organic matter. And we’ve just heard from Vandana Shiva about two hours ago, that when they bought the farm back in 1987 the soil was all sand, and the water would flow straight through and nothing was retained in the soil. So Negi Ji, the head farmer here at Navdanya, has added lots and lots of organic material to help build the soil structure. And when I say this, I mean the microbes build the soil structure, the organic material is simply a food source for the microorganisms.

Chris:         Also, using the idea of succession – the idea that, if left undisturbed, a piece of land will continuously change from annual crops to scrubs to soft woods to hard woods, and from a simple soil food web comprising solely of bacteria to a mix with fungi to a more and more complex web of microbes in turn. But each time you plow, or set fire, or turn the soil –  the process of succession is pushed back to a more weedy, bacterially-dominated soil and “Mother Nature” has to come in and heal the land again, back towards a more fungally-dominated forest environment.

Source: http://www.earthactionmentor.org/articles/chicory  

So you can look to see what “Mother Nature” is putting in your yard. And if “Mother Nature” is putting a lot of weeds into your yard…

Katie:         And what do you include as weeds?

Marilyn:      I would say anything that’s fast growing and sets out a lot of seeds. But this could be a food source, for instance amaranth is fast growing and sets out lots of seeds.

Katie:         OK. SO fast growing plants indicate that there are lots of bacteria in the soil?

Marilyn:      Yes, that’s definitely true. If you looked at a soil for example, maybe a plot on this farm, and you saw all sorts of weeds, you can tell that it is a bacterially dominated soil. And if you didn’t want them there you can add a little more fungi from your fungally-dominated compost pile to discourage their growth.

Chris:         I think it’s fair to say that in most situations, soils are more bacterial than fungi, because fungi takes longer to establish and is further down the succession chain. It takes more care to propogate the fungi than the bacteria, which will grow anywhere. Nine out of ten times the home gardener is going to need to add more fungi to create more balance.

Katie:         Have you noticed much of a difference between organic and chemically fertilized soils that you’ve tested here at Navdanya?

Marilyn:      We’ve had the good fortune to train about sixty farmers through the Navdanya farmer training programme. During the last training, Negi Ji asked some of the farmers to bring in their chemically treated soils, and by this I mean urea, which is really popular here in India to add to the soils. Inorganic urea is salt based and salts dries out and kills the microbes, so when we looked at the soil we saw only a little bit of bacteria and hardly any organic matter – the soil was essentially sterile.

When we compare Navdanya soils, they have a lot of organic material, and as we said earlier some of the plots are bacterially dominated, but others have flagellates and protozoa, and some nematodes. Any of the plots that have a mulch on top have really good microorganisms, meaning microorganisms from all different trophic levels of the soil food web.

Katie:         Can you tell us some of the things that Navdanya does that we should emulate?

Marilyn:      Well, first thing, back to the organic material – this is so critically important. You have to provide a food source if you want a lot of microorganisms in your soil. 

Compost, there are so many different types of compost here at the farm. We’ve found one that’s called the Cow Pat Pit, that seems to be loaded with good-guy nematodes. Nematodes are higher up on the trophic level, and they are particularly interesting because they are pretty big so they’ll only be in areas where there is a lot of good pore structure because they need to be able to physically move around – so there needs to be lots of bacteria and fungi making good pore structure so the nematodes can do their thing. For instance, they are excellent at cycling nutrients, they eat everybody else in the soil, so they’re always mineralizing and excreting a lot of nutrients. Therefore they are an excellent nutrient cycling source in the soil.

Katie:         And what are some of the things, coming from your permaculture and science background, that you hope Navdanya might consider changing or other gardens elsewhere might want to consider?

Marilyn:      In our base line assessment, we noticed that a lot of the agricultural fields that are not mulched are bacterially dominated. We haven’t seen a lot of fungi, we haven’t seen a lot of nematodes, microarthropodes and other microbes that we would hope to see. SO one thing we could change, would be to add more mulch (covering bare soil with leaves and straw) to their soils. This would first of all, preserve water, essential in a sunny environment like India where water is a precious resource. Mulch also creates a great environment for the microbes to grow.

Chris:         Yeah. Mulching and protecting the soil. The head farmer is a little leary about mulching thirty acres of soil, that’s why we’re also working with him on creating these different fungal preps, dilutions of fungal compost and spreading those on to the fields to add the missing nutrients, which he seems to be interested in.

Katie:         Thank you so much!

For more information on the Soil Food Web check out Dr Eliane Ingham’s website and work here.

Navdanya: An Early Departure

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Navdanya is an impressive organization. It has done important research on the political, economic and environmental impacts of GMOs, and impressive campaign work against Monsanto and other ruthless, self-serving corporations. It has been a wonderful proponent of organic agriculture, teaching sustainable practises and supporting farmers transition, as well as saving seed –  maintaining seed diversity and keeping seed rights  in the hands of farmers. For these reasons my great admiration of Navdanya and Vandana Shiva remain. However, as a (intended long-term) volunteer the farm was not the abundant learning environment I’d hoped for.

Despite appearances on the website, it was clear after a week of being here following the Gandhi and Globalisation course that volunteers are not really needed. Other than structured courses put on by Bija Vidaypeeth – the Earth University at Navdanya farm – the farm plays host to visitors, volunteers and interns mostly as an extra source of income. This in itself is no bad thing, it subsidies free trainings for Indian farmers, supports campaign and research work, and provides and income for farm staff. However, as I slowly learn the intention of an organization or project is key in how it is run and what is available to others. So, as the through-fare of visitors and volunteers are considered more side-salad than the main course, guests rather than volunteers/wwoofers, little emphasis goes into passing on knowledge to them. A full team of farm staff are hired throughout the year, they have their jobs to perform, and there are clear lines between what they do and what keen volunteers can do – chopping veg but not cooking, flipping roti but not making the dough or rolling it, weeding but not ploughing. Moreover, whilst we were at the farm, there was no one to coordinate volunteers, showing them the ropes, introducing, explaining, helping them to figure how to best use their time and skills, and for long-term volunteers and interns someone to provide continuity of contacts, information and design of projects set up by previous volunteers  – the school program, research etc (we’ve heard that Navdanya has recently filled this roll).

The majority of what we learned was from other western volunteers in informal ad-hoc workshops: how to set up and run farmers markets; natural house building; community garden projects. Most memorably, we were lucky enough that our trip coincided with a wonderful couple Marilyn and Chris, who had come to the farm as soil scientists to map and analyse Navdanya’s soil life and teach the soil food web (in an interview I will post next, together we tried to synthesise their take-home messages).

Marilyn’s background is in infectious diseases, but in the last several years she has delved into soil science. She exudes calm and happiness, which Chris balances with a warm understated humour, gently teasing Marilyn and parodying himself. Marilyn is amazingly bright, but teaches in such an excitable, open manor – emphasizing how much more she can learn, always genuinely keen to know other people’s ideas, thoughts and knowledge.

In part what we learned from them, Jonny and I quickly realized Navdanya was not the place that we would learn the most nor be most useful. Many of the traditional organic practices used here are not always the most beneficial. Yes, organic is better than chemical farming, minimizing pollution – carbon dioxide and climate change, nitrogen and eutrophication – but in and of itself, organic doesn’t encourage biodiversity, feed the soils or sequester carbon. Moreover many of the methods used required a lot more work than “conventional” agriculture – which makes it all the harder to convince farmers to switch back.

In coming to this understanding, the distinction between organic and permaculture became clear for me. As Patrick Whitefield says permaculture is the third way – beyond the drudgery of the past and the energy-intensive, destructive industrial agricultural systems of our present. Permaculture is about creatively designing out human inputs – labour, fuel, chemicals – by observing and mimicking evolved intelligent natural systems, typically highly complex forest systems. In this way it aims to increase resilience and sustainability.

So for instance, the composts made on the farm are primarily bacterial foods, the key ingredient being cow manure in a concentration unlikely in natural ecosystems. Most of Marilyn and Chris’ soil samples from Navdanya rich in bacteria, but contain little or no fungi or more complex microorganisms. Marilyn explained that heavy bacterial soils encourage the growth of weeds (her definition being, fast growing plants that are quick to set seed), which creates hours, sometimes days, worth of weeding. Beneficial weeds such as, clover whose roots become infected (good infection) by pink rhizobium which fix nitrogen in the soil, are pulled out and discarded on the edge, leaving the main bed of soil exposed to air and desiccation (drying out), water erosion and leaching.

Other than cultivating more fungally dominated composts and soils, it is common amongst permaculturalist to intercrop – in Nepal we’ve seen mustard and grain crops and pea crops planted together – or to sow poly-cultures – at the Himalayan Permaculture Centre the record has been set at 24 crops sown together. This increases ground cover, competes out unwanted plants and once established needs regular harvesting – and eating of – green leafy vegetables to thin the beds and allow create space for crops such as carrots and turnips to fully mature.

At Navdanya and on “conventional” farms, once a crop has been harvested, the cows and the tractor are brought out to drag the plow through the fields, breaking any threads of fungi that might have formed and exposing other microorganism life to the air (although Marilyn explained that the cow plow used at Navdanya is less penatrative than tractor plow, so not as destructive). These fields are left barren for weeks at a time. Without plant roots and organic matter remaining microorganisms starve or dry out. Moreover, regular flooding of the fields, forces air out of the soil, compacting it and creating anaerobic conditions.

So it was with Marilyn and Chris that I came to learn the importance of life in the soil. As a different Chris – Chris Evans, a British Permaculturalist who co-founded the Himalayan Permaculture Centre – said “Soil is to plants what flour is to humans: inedible. Microorganisms are the chefs of the soil. Just as humans need flour to be processed and baked in order to make the carbohydrates and nutrients available, plants need microorganisms to process organic material and make nutrients bioavailable for them.”

It was frustrating for both Jonny and I realizing that there were few practises that we’d choose to replicate for biodiverse farming, and not being in a position to influence change. And so we choose to leave early, knowing that Marilyn and Chris, in their wonderfully humble and gentle way, with the respect staff at the farm and in Delhi have for them, will be able to encourage the evolution of various farming methods.

All the same, I think they will still struggle to break the back of the plow, alter handed-down compost recipes (of manure, jaggery, pulsed grains, ghee, sugar, left to sit on concrete) and to convince people here that compost toilets are not only more hygienic than flush systems but also hugely beneficial for forest systems. Traditions are held close to the chest, and tradition is something Navdanya prides itself on retaining.

So perhaps that is one of the most important lessons that I’ve taken from Navdanya: whilst it is important to acknowledge the value of old knowledge, traditions and skills, like everything else, modern science included, it’s important to not blindly accept Tradition as best.

Navdanya: Peacocks in the forest

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Jonny and I spent only one month of the three we’d planned at Navdanya farm in the Uttarakhand plains. It was a mixed month – between endless weeds to be picked and seeds to be cleaned in warm sun; to evenings of chaotic volleyball or cricket and evenings of  glee and dancing with farmers visiting for training; to huddling over a knife and board chopping vegetables and by the gas stove flipping mountains of chapatis with Prakashi or Sunil whilst cold grey skies lurked outside; to skill-sharing workshops and presentations with other volunteers to cosy documentary-movie nights in the round huts.

 

An Indian Wedding

Towards the end of the Gandhi and Globalisation course Madhu, an Indian-born American-based lecturer on alternative education at PENN State Uni, a woman who glows warmth, insisted that I gate crash the local Indian wedding that French Louise and Gaeton, and American Kim and Lindsay were attending, explaining that it would be against Indian etiquette not to. Running late, we hitched a lift and rode in comfort in the spacious cushioned cab of a public goods carrier.

We arrived at Chandra’s house anxious that we had missed the start, but as I slowly learned, lateness is a foreign concept in India and time runs a lot looser. For well over an hour we sat drinking chai, watching Chandra adjust and fuss over Lindsay’s sari, and talking to a thirteen year-old student of hers, who promised he would style some break-dancing moves on the dance floor.

Bangers began to explode outside: the grooms procession was upon us. Standing in the gateway, we watched a straight-backed man dressed in white robes wear a solemn smile. Swaying on a horse he was mobbed by male relatives, friends and gate-crashers, all illuminated by white lights glaring from a dr-suess-esque elephant-sized horn-studded rolling music wagon.

We overtook the parade and arrived at a sparsely guested pink and green marquee. Walking up the red carpet under a tunnel of fairy-lights we passed the bride’s family dancing together in a candle lit courtyard. We sat and waited on white chairs, the fabric slightly grubby from the previous wedding or few. After much waiting and enjoying the confident dance performance of a mini Danny T-Bird, incorporating an exaggerated hair-comb into his rocking moves, we clabbered up to join him and the other ten-year olds, becoming the new entertainment for the gathering guests.

Just after the arrival of the groom, the now bustling marquee suddenly emptied. We followed the crowd into a courtyard lined with buffet tables at the back of the tent. The amount of food was unbelievable. Perhaps fifty silver trays were spilling over with mountains of Indian curries, sabzes (vegetable dishes) and dals (pulses), as well as Chinese noodles, momos and meat dishes, fountains of Indian sweets and gulab jamun and towers of roti and other filled flat breads. As seemed common with Indian host culture portions of each were generously piled onto our plates. The floor quickly began to resemble the debris strewn fields left in the wake of a weekend long festival – paper plates, plastic cups were dropped where standing once emptied.

Again the marquee filled, most of the guests sat and waited. The groom was sat in one of the two thrones placed in the top right hand corner. It was only our group and the children and a few teenagers dancing to the blaring pop music. Finally, the Bride appeared. As far as I remember the dance music barely dimmed. Dressed in gold and red, surrounded by hennaed women, she slowly proceeded up the carpet. Once beside her fiancee in her own throne, the crowd pressed in, everyone on their toes anxious to watch, obscuring the ceremony from the dance floor and seats. Once they disperse the couple sat patiently to have their photo taken with every guest, invited and not, we too where ushered up to the platform. When we left an hour later, the smile-tired couple were still being photographed.

Gleeful Slum

Lovely French Louise, an intern running the Navdanya school program and three-month resident at the farm, had been invited to start a roof-top garden project in a slum in Dehradun. Invited along, we visited the temple cum community centre on the outskirts where a French-backed NGO ran daily after-school homework help for local children. The children who greeted us at the gate were full of energy and curiosity, sticking out their hands to shake and asking our names, inviting us to join their singing skipping circles.

It was home time soon after and we sat down in the cool classroom to discuss what was feasible in Louise’s remaining three months. Straight away Geete, the project coordinator, who Louise later often referred to as “The Head of the Slum” given the respect he received from people living there, told us that a roof top garden was impossible. The roof was often used for community events and weddings, and he insisted that anything built would be stolen. More importantly, it was not something they needed. The “needs base” was waste. Geete explained that sewage and rubbish is dumped in gutters lining the narrow streets of the slum, which get blocked often, causing multiple health hazards. Malaria outbreaks are apparently common during monsoon, and some people have even caught it in winter despite the fact that the disease is extremely rare in this northern part of India. He explained how multiple groups from NGOs or engineering college had come and tried to solve the problem before, and so far failed to find a sustainable solution. Louise and I both humanities students felt overwhelmed – we intended only to provide the resources and basic skills  for the children to grow vegetables in the small roof spaces available.

He gave us a tour of the slum to illustrate. Unlike pictures and accounts of Delhi and Mumbai slums we seen and read, the homes here were primarily built out of bricks and concrete – only a few rickety shacks remained. The concrete streets could narrowly squeeze two people, and most had concrete gutters slipping up the side. Here lurked grey stagnant water, fesses, the occasional cigarette packet. Geete explained that litter was not a big problem because a lot of the children were “rat pickers” – scavengers for plastics, a days worth taken to a recycling yard could bring in 80 rupees (1GBP and perhaps a doubling of the daily family income). Not only this, most people there don’t have enough money for packaged items. Everyone we passed smiled and said hello. Children flocked around us wanting us to take their photo.

Not long after this first visit we returned to the slum.  This time with the promise of a piece of land at Navdanya where the children could start their own garden. Louise started the afternoon by telling stories and playing games to illustrate the importance of biodiversity and to get the children thinking about the complex system of food production. I then told them about the urban garden revolution in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. We pulled out clay pots, earth and seeds and said we too would start our small revolution.

Over the following week, over three separate afternoons the children came to the farm, squashed into a single rickshaw. We took each group for treasure hunt tours of the farm, and then handed them over to Chris and Marilyn, an American couple, to teach the basics of the soil food web. Chris, adopting a questionable gruff Indian accent (apparently unconsciously) playfully grunted orders. The children folded their paper into quarters, and sitting beside a mulberry tree were told to draw all life they could see above the ground in the top left quadrant – marigolds, curling weeds, grasses, the tree. Then marching, tiptoeing, running they clustered around a barren patch of earth beside the kitchen, and in the top right quadrant they again had to draw all living things they could see above the ground – perhaps a lone weed. Then to the lab, Marilyn fixed up fresh samples of the two locations and put them under the microscope. Below the pictures of life above the soil the children had to draw the corresponding life below – now visible in a projection of the microscopes view. The two samples mirrored the abundance/lack of above the ground. The first, buzzing with bacteria, swimming with ciliates, a nematode and a few strands of fungi. The second, lifeless. The simple conclusion to the lesson, life below ground enables the life above ground.

 

An Afternoon Seed Cleaning

Before coming to India I was oblivious to the immense amount of work that goes into producing rice and lentils and other pulses. Fields are plowed, rice is seeded. It is cut with a sickle often, handful by handful, and left in the sun to dry. The rice grains have to be beaten from their stems – in Tibet horses trampled barley and wheat grains, in Nepal women beat handfuls with sticks. The grain, now separate from it’s stalks, has to be sieved through wind – handfuls or trayfuls lifted to the wind or a fan – to blow away chaff and dust. This is done several times. Then the grains have to be wash and dried before being sent to the mill where they are husked. Finally the bags of grain return for a final clean before market or grain stores for the year.

It was this last stage that I joined five women on the patio platform on one particular afternoon, cleaning rice for three hours. Back bent over a bamboo basket, I picked through, discarding small stones, discoloured rice and other renegade pulses. The women chatted happily occasionally turning to me to ask about home and whether I was married, that sort of thing, and laughed at my broken Hindi. At one point, they asked if I “1,4,3”  Jonny. They kept repeating it, each time cracking themselves up. When one of the male farmer workers came over I asked him if he knew what it meant, which had the girls doubled over and the man’s cheeks glowing. Later Louise told me that I had told him that I loved him.

At five o’clock, as dusk was brewing and the cold settling, we cleared away the rice into sacks and dragged them to the store room for tomorrow. Perhaps in the whole three hours I clean less than 3kg. As we walked out across the fields one girl pulled a gold ring of her finger and slipped it on to mine and another invited me to her home for chai. We climbed over the spearating barbed wired, and through a village of curious and shy child faces. She sat me down and her family crowed round, so friendly and full of questions, excited that I could say a very small bit in Hindi.

During a quiter moment, whilst chai was being brewed and neighbors talking to her uncle, I noticed their small calf tied by its neck to a post, perhaps three meters from its mother. The skin around it’s neck was raw from writhing and pulling against the coarse tether, lines of wrinkles forming. It was the first but certainly not the last time that I was shocked by the unthinking – and sometimes cruel/aggressive –  way people treated their animals. I had somehow naively believed that rural people, particuarly those who lived off small-scale agriculture, would treat animals more benignly that we are known to back home.