When I look at the tree, I see the seed. So that’s where it all starts—where this story begins. Do stories really have a beginning or an end? Like the seed and the tree, it is all a cycle—the cycle of life and death. The seed that feeds—that most important unit of life. One cannot imagine its creation, and so one must not interfere with its birth.
To protect life on earth, the seed must be protected. The natural or indigenous seed belongs to the land of its birth. It nurtures and is nurtured. It is a product of eras, of survival of the fittest, of natural evolution. By introducing variants or new species into an environment where they do not belong, we disturb what is a delicate natural unseen balance of which we actually know almost nothing, even if we think we do. We trigger a chain of events or unleash unseen and unknown long-term effects. This I feel deeply and as a being that is only a tiny part of this vast and mystical universe: there is a feeling that one must protect that which gives us life on earth.
My need to create an indigenous organic seed bank at my organic farm in my village Bhuira in Himachal Pradesh, the Western Himalayas of India was born from this belief. Born of need; perhaps because my village people have lost all sense of protecting what nurtured this land for centuries. They have embraced hybrid imported seeds from the west and all the associated shenanigans of pesticides and high yields that go with the package. Food habits have changed. Food is now bought. Self-sufficient sustainable lifestyles have gone. Traditional high nutrition foods like mountain rice varieties, soyabean, mustard, corn (makki), barley and millets (koda) have been replaced with wheat, tomatoes, French beans and apple and peach crops. In recent years, even the staple mountain foods of rajma (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) or kidney beans, and kulath dal or a particular kind of lentils which can break down kidney stones are now grown only by very few farmers in our area.
The rajma/baladi varieties of kidney beans are all planted when the rains begin in May-June, along with the corn and other legumes like soyabean (bhatt) and black urad dal (lentil variety). There are a mind boggling 230 varieties of rajma in the neighboring Himalayan state of Uttrakhand, and it is hugely relished in the northern states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Punjab, and Nagaland. It is harvested in September-October. The millet (koda) is planted a little earlier in April and is ready to cut in May. The barley (jau) is planted in October-November and harvested in May. Mountain rice, which is cultivated dry on sloping terraces, is planted in May and harvested in October.
Legumes are an intrinsic part of Himalayan cuisine and an easy source of high protein and minerals in a basically cereal based diet. They are a must during marriages, traditional rituals, and festivals. Some Himalayan varieties provide fuel, fodder, and form a part of traditional medicinal practices. In mountain farming, indigenous varieties of legumes complement hill cereals in terms of cropping patterns and cycle and can thrive in adverse soil conditions with very little input. However, all this knowledge remains largely undocumented and unknown to the outside world.
In Himachal Pradesh, we now also have to deal, on a daily basis, with a huge monkey menace, also man-made, which can destroy a year of work in an instant, destroying the will to cultivate. With changing climate patterns and unpredictable freak weather, we are also faced with a difficult situation as organic farmers, for growing anything naturally is now a huge challenge. It is more so when your surrounding environment is a virtually hostile one like mine, which supports a largely anti-nature system of cultivation and is not a part of your struggle. I am at present the only organic farmer in my village, as all the other farmers have hopped onto a bandwagon that they now find very difficult to get off.
Our Himalayan environment of mountains clothed with beautiful thick deodar (cedar) and oak forests of rhododendron is filled with numerous medicinal plants and wild edible fruit and leaves. Sadly very few locals value or even have the realization of these natural treasures today. The associated traditional medicinal practices have disappeared and so also the knowledge that went with them. I have seen the wild berries of the forest survive all freak weather conditions, flowering and fruiting year after year and feeding the forest. The wild peach trees on my land are the same. Leaf curl or not, they give fruit in abundance, a fact that I have recorded every year, and the fruit size has increased in the past years. However, the fruit trees grown and taken care of by us may do extremely well one year and give almost no fruit in the next. That should be telling enough, but who is paying attention.
Maize is grown with kidney beans, and each one assists the other in its growth, the latter being nitrogen fixing. Small circular fish ponds in a rice field enhance the rice yield greatly due to the algae that grows in them. Wild apple and bamboo and blue pine make an ideal combination for all in the right measure. The number of flowers on the potato plant tells you how many potatoes to expect from the plant. We must walk barefoot in the early morning dewed grass to protect our eyesight. We learn these things, if we are lucky, from a word shared by someone sometime or from our elders who heard and followed. No school ever teaches these things; no system of education believes in carrying forward or furthering this kind of knowledge. Single cropping is the most unnatural and damaging agricultural practice and yet the most common all over the world. Poison is being added to our food, and we are willing to eat it knowingly. We cut the tree that gives us life, and we expect it to grow back with ease.
The land is the best kind of school, and it teaches humility above all things. It is not easy for us to accept that we belong to a world that we do not really understand or have forgotten to live in. We want to live in a world of our own creation, forgetting that we are here only because of where we were born.
I am learning to see, and the land is my teacher. I feel deeply blessed and grateful for this wonderful view from my window. This gift of beauty that is a part of my life and me now, and I believe, forever. Though I know that my earlier ancestors were farmers, I was not born of a farmer’s family in this life. But I am of the land and the mountain. I needed to go back, and so I am on my way home.
Ritu Varuni trained as an architect at the Institute of Environmental Design, D.C Patel School of Architecture, Vallabh Vidyanagar, Gujarat (1986-1991), India and has also been associated with craft design for the last 22 years. Her architectural work in residential and resort design has been mostly in Delhi and Himachal Pradesh. The designs bear a distinct craft input and detailing with a specialty in wood and bamboo material.