Lessons from the fields

Last month, I learned a lot from working the vegetable field of my Foodlife Work group, here at the Asian Rural Institute.

Every day, groups of four to five people take care of each one’s field. But since the training participants were off-campus for a study trip it was me with a volunteer and occasional visitors who managed all the work with the plants for two weeks. Normally, the participants take lead and outline the plans for all the different tasks. I follow their orders and observe their leadership. In the end, most of them are much more experienced farmers, and I perceive the field work as something recreational.

But this time I had to take responsibilty and see that all activities are managed well by myself. I had to observe the plants, think about the timing for certain jobs, and guide the visitors who came to help us.
To welcome guests and letting them join the farm work is not so difficult. The real challenge was to care for plants whose language I am barely familiar with. I didn’t think deeply about it in the first few days. We prepared beds and transplanted more than a hundred seedlings of Chinese cabbage and cabbage. On harvest days, we cut corn, eggplants, leaf vegetables and so on. In between these things we weed the beds.
The shock came on Thursday evening when I found almost all of the cabbage seedlings having dried up under the hot summer sun. I had transplanted almost hundred of them by myself in the morning. We rushed to pour water, and – much to my relief – most of them had recovered the next day. However, dozens remained dead. Filled with a completely new sense of responsibility for these small lives, I made sure to provide enough water every day, but then another problem came in form of insects eating holes into their small leaves.

Due to these problems, I slowly started paying more attention to the plants. Most of the different vegetables in our field are doing fine, especially the leaf vegetables such as mulukhiya, kangkong and shiso (“Japanese basil”). The soy bean plants look all strong. Eggplants, bell peppers, chili, ocras are growing so quickly that daily harvest is necessary. Beautiful winged beans are now increasing in size and numbers. But some other varieties are obviously struggling. The tomatoes used to grow beautifully big and red. Recently, however, they spoil with an ugly yellow color, or they burst out of their own skins. I sprayed fermented plant juice and water calcium acid (made from natural materials) to repell insects and encourage growth. I am not sure if it had helped. Tomatoes get also attacked by crows. So we added a very simple net system that will scare them away.

My biggest regret of all are the pumpkins. We’ve got about four or five pumpkin plants whose vines were crawling vigorously along the ground. The week before the participants left, we cut the grass around the plants’ arms to relieve them from the weed. One participant warned me that it was this very grass that the pumpkin needed for growth. By clearing the earth we would kill both grass and pumpkin. I didn’t think it would be that serious, but then two of the pumpkin plants – one of which had been growing well so far – withered away. Watering and spraying liquids did not help it. I must confess I am ashamed of such a wasteful – mottainai – action, and that I failed to protect their lives.

The next issue was the ongoing heat. There was almost zero rainfall during those two weeks, but even after the incident with the dried cabbage seedlings I did not think of watering other plants from time to time. It’s curious: Many vegetables seem to do fine, even great without rain on a dried up soil. Are they nourished by morning dew alone? Do they absorb moisture through the leaves? Does the rice husk charcoal buried with the fertilizer work so effectively as water holder? And how comes that some other plants dry up quickly? Again, I failed to be aware of the climate, the soil, the plants’ needs, the situation of insects or animals. In a broader way, I was blind and deaf to the environment’s whole ecosystem.
Perhaps this is symptomatic to a city boy, whose mind is constantly occupied with stuff, never being mindful or aware of the moment. But I believe that when you pay attention to the seasons and cycles of life, to all the subtle signals of nature you will become a more complete person, more aware that you as a human being are unevitably connected to the ecosystems, even the entire cosmos. This is just one example of how farming enhances spiritual awareness. If I can’t even recognize a plant in need of water, how will I hear the craving of my own soul or that of others?

I always say “I am not a farmer,” though I dream of having a natural vegetable garden of my own some day. But this time I was strongly reminded of how little I truly know about agriculture and plants, and of just how mysterious their lives are. Farming means to care for life, to understand the silent language of plants. In industrialized agriculture – where vegetable is only treated as commodity, as products with price tags – there is no time for such carefulness.

Of course, it was not all failures, though those were precious to open my eyes – working in the field is enjoyable, seeing hundreds of frogs sitting in the corn leaves, being accomanied by butterflies on the way to the field, following the growth and fruit-bearing of different vegetables. Even when you work under the heat, they delight you with colorful flowers and scents, and make you look forward to a meal.

Out of one of the damaged pumkin plants’ arms, fresh leaves are shooting up, indicating it’s on its way to recovery. Plants have such an amazing ability to revive even after you trample on them or chop almost all of it away. They are stubbornly resilient, patient, determined to keep on until they’ve spread their seeds, fulfilling their simple mission: to be and to create. These silent, ancient lifeforms give us life.

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