Gardens of earthly delight: Lathika George’s ‘Mother Earth, Sister Seed’ speaks for positive change
Be it with the slow food movement or organic farming, lifestyle choices across the globe are going through a transformation. To enable positive change, however, Lathika George’s Mother Earth, Sister Seed takes a look backwards, at India’s rich traditional agricultural communities and ancient methods of farming.
A landscape designer, Lathika started travelling to farms to learn the ways of traditional farming. “When I looked back at my notes, I wanted to share these stories, the rituals of seed germination and sowing, of communities who live and work together, built innovative water harvesting systems, how they pray, dance and celebrate,” she says. The Kodaikanal-based author speaks with Simar Bhasin about the need for documentation and why going organic might be more than a passing fad.
Give us a glimpse of the traditional communities you found, and their ancient methods of farming.
The Kurichya tribals of Wayanad in Kerala are a great example of traditional farmers who follow ancient methods of their ancestors, while treading softly on the earth, which they revere in the truest sense. They are entirely self-sufficient and need little from the outside world — it is the country and the world that needs them.
Tribal farmers like Cheruvayil Raman have helped save some of our ancient grains — he has his own collection of heritage rice seeds, improved organically over the years by natural selection.
The Thanal Agro Ecology Centre initiated the first experimental rice diversity blocks on his farm, and then across the country, in an effort to save heritage rice strains. India has so many unique agrarian methods that have evolved to suit climatic and geographic conditions, it is hard to choose. Perhaps one of the most innovative farming methods is of the floating vegetable gardens in Kashmir, which provide a steady supply of seasonal vegetables to the valley.
The gardens — called demb and radh — are made of water weeds and woven willow stems, packed with nutrient-rich lake sediment. They are found all over Dal Lake and other lakes of Kashmir, and the produce is sold fresh off the boats in their floating markets. This ancient method is mentioned in many historical accounts, and continues to this day.
You also look at related rituals and folklore.
Each region has a wealth of agrarian traditions — my book holds just a fraction. It is imperative that these rituals and traditions are recorded for posterity — they are an important part of the living heritage of India.
Moreover, agricultural experts are now increasingly looking to the past for solutions, often combining these innovative methods with technology. These traditions have sustained agrarian communities over the ages. The poetic narration of bund building in Kerala’s backwaters was passed down orally for centuries, till it was finally recorded in 1997.
This is just one of the many unique aspects of Kerala’s heritage, a milestone that enabled a watery wasteland below sea-level to grow into the rice bowl of the region. Recently, journalist P Sainath’s PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) started a digital documentation of the country’s rural traditions, many of which are agrarian.
How has travelling through India’s farmlands shaped your work as a landscape designer?
I used the invaluable knowledge I pick up from my travels in my own garden and also in clients’ gardens. Northeast India especially has a lot to offer — farming techniques adapted for steep hill slopes. I also get farmers’ recipes for beneficial brews and pest repellents, methods of germinating seeds, planting according to moon phases, looking for natural signals, crop patterns, mulching, and a lot more. Farmers everywhere are generous with their time and knowledge.
Tell us about the authors you looked to while writing the book.
Rachel Carson is inspirational, Vandana Shiva for her passion, and Masanobu Fukuoka, whose revolutionary ideas are provocative.
Do you worry that organic farming might just be a fad, over a permanent lifestyle choice for people?
A kitchen garden was once a common feature in most homes — it supplied greens, herbs, seasonal vegetables, fruits and berries. It makes sense to grow some if not all your own vegetables — it’s cheap, fresh and you know it’s clean and safe to eat. It may be a fad for some, but for most gardeners who have gone through the invariable trials and errors and produced food, there can be no other way.
Penguin Random House India, `699.