The Lord of the Trees

I gazed out of the window feasting my eyes on The Lord of the Trees working hard so early in the morning. The trees went past their blooming-flowers phase to the sprouting-young-leaves phase in the past few weeks.

“How can anyone who has spent any time observing life like this, feel like not preserving it?” I asked. Us not looking after Earth well enough for future generations is a pet peeve that regular readers of this blog know.

“Because I don’t think people stand and gaze at squirrels like you do when one is already late for school in the morning”, came the crisp reply and I nodded sadly hastening to bustle about for the morning tasks.

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The squirrels have resumed lording about the trees like they own them, which I suppose they do, since they are in them so much. I see them lovingly scraping bark, and checking out the fruits . I fight a losing battle every year trying to save the fruits from them. Friends have suggested fruit nets, but I haven’t the heart. They are the ones that live there, and sometimes I like to think of them sunning themselves on the branches while I am in a drab looking conference room surrounded by tonnes of concrete to pay for the land that these trees rest on. I only wish they would eat the whole fruit before tossing them to the ground, or hiding them away somewhere for the Winter months.

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I cannot deny that it is nice to see the little creatures busy again. The winter months are a little slow for them: though they do not hibernate much (apparently, they do not have enough body fat to sustain them through long cycles of hibernation), they sleep a lot. I wonder how their burrows are, and whether they feel the difference between night and day when they emerge from their deep burrows into the spring time bursting with flowers, fresh leaves and the promise of fruit. 

A few days later, the son and I picked out a book in the library called Morris Mole by Dan Yaccarino that dealt with a similar subject. The book was about a mole who was a wee bit different from his brothers and sisters.

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Morris Mole – By Dan Yaccarino

One day when the moles ran out of food in the deep deep burrows, the eldest moles wanted to dig deeper down, but Morris had an idea that nobody listened to. So, he “dug deep down in himself and found courage”, to dig upwards.

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Morris Mole – By Dan Yaccarino

When he emerged into the spring time, he is enamoured and baffled by the big wide world up there. 

This world also offers him the rare gift of friendship with creatures unlike himself such as a fox. 

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Morris Mole – Dan Yaccarino

The book made me think of how some seemingly little occurrences and thoughts have the power of transformation in them. Would Morris Mole have discovered this wondrous world overhead if he had not paid heed to that little crazy idea and acted upon it?

A few days later, I stopped to observe a squirrel again. This time, it was sitting by the roadside, and sniffing a mustard yellow flowery plant with a contented look on its face. The photographers up at the National Geographic magazine would have been able to get a picture of just such a thing. As it turned out, by the time I fumbled in my pockets, and took out the phone, dropping the keys in the process and finding some tissue marring the phone screen, the squirrel scampered probably laughing to its burrow. But I have the image in my mental eye: I hope it will remind me to enjoy the present when plans shadow life, or life overwhelms reflection. 

All good things are wild and free – Henry David Thoreau

I wish we could all dig deep down inside us to find the determination to set aside some time to spend with living, growing things that are very different from ourselves – observe a bird sing, marvel at a squirrel on a tree, look at ants carrying food, watch a spider spinning a web, or feel the wind against our faces knowing that it just rustled that beautiful tree top nearby. Maybe that will open up a way of living that is much more rewarding and satisfying like the world Morris Mole found overground.

 

 

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The Dance of the Butterflies

Magical March gave us the immense satisfaction of walking to school under magical rainbows,  leprechauns had wreaked havoc and left treasures, my mother got to see her father for the first time at the age of 73, we had a beautiful trip playing in the snow, the doting grandparents arrived and the children have been reveling in the social rainbow that enveloped them.

Out in the natural world, the hills are alive with the sound of moo-sic (cows grazing – get it, get it?), the cherry blossoms send sparks of joy piercing through the soul every time I look at them, and the butterflies have been dancing the dance of joy. Rain showers cleansed the Earth, and all nature around us seems to be smiling benevolently.

 

One beautiful evening, I stepped out on a walk with my little son. Elementary school children derive a certain pleasure in crouching and looking at ants, snails or ladybugs. This time, however, we crouched down to look at a furry, black caterpillar. After reading Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, everyday for months at a time with each of the children, I did not think that I would be enamored sitting and observing caterpillars, but such is the infectious enthusiasm of youth. (The Wind in the Reefs – Working title of The Wind In The Willows)

I found myself excited and thrilled to crouch and watch the caterpillar make its short journey across the concrete path back into the sidewalk where the bushes grew. I still find it amazing that these creatures metamorphose into butterflies. Eggs->Caterpillar(larvae)->Chrysalis(Pupa)->Butterfly has to be the most magical thing in our daily existence next to rainbows.

Later that week, the crouch with the caterpillar made me reach longingly for the book, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science – Joyce Sidman

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Maria Merian was a naturalist and illustrator in the seventeenth century.  Written by the children’s author and poet, Joyce Sidman, she says:

In many ways, Maria was an enigma. She rarely wrote about anything other than caterpillars…What we do know is that she had boundless energy, insatiable curiosity, and superhuman focus – traits that would have been difficult to live with, but ones that marked her as a true scientist at a time when the odds were stacked against her.

How does one find the passion and perseverance to stick to a field of study in spite of societal disapproval, familial duties and demanding businesses?  The book gives us a glimpse into seventeenth century life: The impossible clamps on Women, the dangerous possibility of any curiosity being mistaken for witchcraft, the difficult life of artists in general and so much more.

I have always admired those who have high energy levels and put it to good use. Maria Merian was one of those people. She was a brilliant artist, had business acumen and her curiosity about insects made her a pioneer in the field of etymology (A field that did not even have a name until several decades after her death). Her contributions to etymology were remarkable because she also managed to travel to Surinam near Barbados in those days with the sole purpose of studying animal life. Her paintings on Surinam and her books on caterpillars had great appeal in Europe, and Maria Merian went on to transform Art and Science forever.

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The book is full of beautiful diagrams, paintings, flowers and plants with little insects on them. It is a joy to thumb through even if it is just to look at the pictures.

 

 

Here is to more butterflies, rainbows and magic.

Teapot Spirituality

Sheesh kababs! What is with Amma – is she tired and cleaning again?” said the daughter, when I acted like a teapot sliding off my tea spout.

I whistled my protest with as much dignity as a teapot sliding off the tea-sp. could when caught in the act. “There is nothing wrong with me. Merely that a lot of work needs to be done, and I cannot come and play a game of Life now. I have Life to deal with now.” The queenly dignity sounded overdone like these actresses who act for 10 dollars when paid 3. I waved my hands impressively at the surrounding environs.

It was true, at least in my mind. Pots and pans needed washing, the floors needed scrubbing, the ….

“You said you are tired at the end of the week, and it has been a tough week. You just said we escaped a fire, and we should just be thankful for Life huh? Get it. Get it? Come on now.”

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I could not argue, and after a flimsy protest, waved down by the children who helped me get the kitchen to a state of relative cleanliness, we sat around playing the game of Life. There was a serendipitous beauty to it. The evening had made me nervous and jumpy, more conscious of the gift of Life, and as usual the children had led me to the calm instead of the frenzy, with their customary élan.

Northern California had been reeling from the effect of wild fires. After an unnaturally hot summer, calamity struck too close to home for comfort. This time, it was people we had lunches with, people we holler out to when we catch a glimpse of them in crowded places. People who will slowly extend that quizzical look into a slow, wide smile as they recognize you, these were the folks asked to evacuate.

Luckily the fires had been contained, and I felt like we could look forward to a quieting down. I had spoken too soon.  That evening, flames leaped higher than trees behind our home, and smoke billowed from nearby. The bags were packed in the car: documents, some cash, a change of clothes, laptops, water bottles, snack bars, and a few pictures. When it comes to it, that is all there is, isn’t there?  Nothing else matters.

That night, everything felt keener. The comfort of putting away the dishes, the joy of playing a board game, the delight of being ordinary, the familiarity of the mundane, the contentment of a bedtime story, the gratitude for the simple act of breathing.

“I just got twins Amma.” said the son after rolling his dice.

“There goes your quiet retirement!” said the daughter, and the children went into peels of laughter, and I joined in noticing how much better it felt to laugh with abandon. I felt the 17 facial muscles work as the laughter gripped me. I observed the act of laughing together as if I was perched atop the roof, looking at us having a good time. Is this what consciousness is?

I finished the piece on resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth using genetic samples obtained from the pristine Arctic Tundra, and impregnating an Asian elephant with the questions on consciousness, and whether or not there is a Soul. I love it when a work of fiction explores the questions posed by futuristic Science, and I finished the post by tying it up with Never Let Me Go, By Kazuo Ishiguro.

Everyone knows, teapots are far from spiritual, and my understanding could make a teapot sing. If you were to explain the concept of consciousness, conscience and soul, how would you do it?

 

The Nest

Summer had spread its warmth and happiness in myriad ways. It had browned the state of California, made children cherish a vacation spent in the warm company of cousins, friends and grandparents. It had also led us to discussing a pair of swallows or robins who had raised their family over a friend’s garage recently. The excitement over this last item was palpable, if second-hand. I have told the children lots of tales before of growing up amidst nature, and their favorites are the ones featuring fauna of various shapes and sizes. The time we ran from a mouse, the time the panther came, and so on.

Amma – have you really seen a nest before?”

“Yes. Of course.” I replied.

They had the look of expectancy about them, and I did not disappoint.

I told them that not only had I seen a bird’s nest before, but was so shocked at having seen it, that I almost toppled off the tree in fright. They guffawed at this, as though nothing amused them more than mothers falling off trees, and I mock-pursed my lips at this misplaced joy. But I had to admit, if I imagined my mother falling off a tree at their age, I would’ve guffawed too, and genetics cannot be helped and all that.

I cleared my throat and continued with the thrilling tale of the nest. They listened with rapture.

We were playing what loosely passes for badminton out in the rushing wind just to see how to play when the gusts of wind took the shuttle askew. One time, the shuttle caught in a tree, and we tried retrieving the thing with hockey sticks,  shouting (our sound waves generate sonic boom to dislodge shuttle – duh), and a myriad other techniques before placing a stool on a chair and hoisting me up to the nearest branch. It was then, I saw the dear home. It looked just like I liked it: haphazardly thrown together, a comfortable haven from a stormy world. Cozy, if a little messy. I stood there for a few seconds delighted at my find, and prudently did not holler the finding to my playmates below.

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I have always had a soft spot for babies, and there must have been some being raised there. I almost clambered down without the shuttle-cock in shock.  I kept the information quiet from some of the more cruel children, and expertly diverted our game elsewhere.

The children gave a wistful sigh, “Hmmm…..Wish we could see a nest!”

Every time we go to a wooded area, we look for a nest, but so far we have been unsuccessful in our quest.

A few days later, I was meandering around the lanes, when I spotted something on the floor. The pine trees in the lane had shed plenty of its pines, and the brown pine needles and the pine cones make an interesting scene partly because we are always on the lookout for lovely looking pinecones. It was then I spotted what was unmistakably a nest. There it was – perfectly shaped to house little birds (an ornithologist could probably look at the nest and tell you which birds planned to raise a family in them, but I could not) I picked it up and saw the nest must have fallen a good 10-15 feet even if it were on the lowest branch. Luckily, no eggs were in the vicinity, and I gingerly picked up the nest to show it to the children.

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After the initial excitement, I was told that I had been heartless in bringing the nest home. Why could I have not put back on the tree? While I admired the sentiment behind this, I felt that expecting me to scramble up that large a tree to put a nest back was a bit much. So, the nest was housed in an adjoining tree whose branch was accessible to my height, and we hoped some bird who had procrastinated nest building would be able to find and use it.

“How will any bird know to look for a nest?”, the children asked. I was doubtful too.

A few days later, I picked up the children’s book, A Nest Is Noisy. The dear book assured me that there were plenty of birds that look for built nests, and the nest I had picked up could one day become a home again.

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. John Burroughs

Ma With Fahrenheit 451

As I took a walk one morning, I tried to identify the flowers and trees in the neighborhood, and found myself humbled by my meagre botanical knowledge. A bird or two chirped nearby, and I tried my best to enjoy the quiet by zoning out the drone of the constant hum of traffic from the main road. I looked up at a tree that I loved, a Gingko tree, and sat myself down nearby watching the suns life giving rays upon a garden just watered. The tiny water droplets refracted the suns rays, and the world around me felt magical.

As if to complete this picture of serenity, two butterflies danced into view. Their dance around the flowers on that sunlit morning with the rays of the sun coming in through the Gingko trees leaves was enough to mesmerize anyone, and I found myself smiling and lapsing into a contented silence. It is not often that I get to slow life down enough to sit and watch butterflies in the garden. In those few blissful moments, I experienced the beautiful concept of Ma. Ma is the Japanese concept signifying the space between moments, and is a practice in the Zen art of being present in the moment. Ma is the pause between sounds.

Ma is beautifully explained in the children’s book written by Katrina Goldsaito and Illustrated by Julia Kao titled, The Sound of Silence.

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In the book, Little Yoshio looks for the sound of silence after he hears an old koto player on the street tell him that her favorite sound is the sound of ma, of silence. Intrigued, Yoshio looks for the sound of silence in the streets of the city around him, he looks for it in the bamboo garden, but finds other noises are constantly present, and is wondering whether he can ever find Ma.

Then one morning, he enters his school earlier than usual and immerses himself in a book, he experiences it for the first time. “Suddenly in the middle of a page, he heard it. No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed.

The butterflies cavorted higher and higher and then swooped down with joy to the lavender patch. I let my mind flitter about like the creatures I was watching. Reflecting upon life is increasingly becoming a luxury, I thought to myself. I had just finished reading Fahrenheit 451, and could not help thinking of some of the things in the book that Ray Bradbury had the foresight of seeing 50-60 years ago, long before we were addicted to technology and lured by the concept of busyness. Fahrenheit 451 talks about a future in which all books are burned by firemen. (451 F is the temperature at which book paper burns. )

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People live in homes where the Televisor is on all 4 walls, signifying constant stimulation. One fireman is curious to see what is there in the books that those who love it so much are even willing to die to keep them. He steals a random book here and a book there with every burning, and he tries his best to make sense of it, but is unable to grasp the beauty of random poetry. He tracks down one person whose books he had burned and asks him to explain. Excerpt from the book below:

“Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we may forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched patches of the universe together into one garment for us. 3 things are missing

Number one: Quality, texture of information. They show the pores in the face of life

Number Two: Leisure”

“Oh, but we have plenty of off hours.”

“Off hours yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a 100 miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting i some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor. Why? The televisor is real. It in immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense?’

Summing up, he says the books give you three things:

Number one: quality of information.

Number two: leisure to digest it.

And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.

Complement with Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

From Botany to Ma and Fahrenheit 451, I was flitting about like a butterfly myself, and could not have asked for a more pleasurable show in my head had I planned the thing.

Mum At Mafia

As the sun set, and the frogs came leaping out in the wilderness, a cabin in Mt Shasta was feeling the throb of excitement. Frogs leapt outside, people leapt inside. Frogs croaked outside, people sang inside. The grandfather, Thaatha, and grandmother, Paati, were told that they do not get to watch their Tamil television that night, and to set aside the time for games. All drama tonight was to be live.

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The family was sitting around the dinner table and feverishly discussing the evening game session. No trip is complete without game nights, and a sense of thrill rent the air. Ice-cream had been bought and stowed away for a mid-game snack, post-dinner cleaning activities were looked upon as if it was normal for everyone to pitch in, so we could all start playing. (Maybe I should introduce game nights on a regular basis to get such willing help.)

The topic under discussion was the best game to lead with.
Monopoly? (Groan from me)
Uno? (Groan from the girls)
Chess? (Only 2 players)
Puzzle? (Groan from everyone)

“Keep eating and talking so that we can get a move on.”, I said, and everyone sincerely spooned some food into their mouths.

The father-in-law, meanwhile, was communicating with the love of his life (not the iPad, his wife). He looked like he was attempting the mamba dance without music or footwork, and we looked on curiously knowing fully well what was going to happen.

He pointed vigorously at the rice and then at his plate. The rice and the plate. The love of his life burst forth and said, “Why don’t you use your god-given tongue? Why point at the rice?! What if I don’t see? Next time, I am going to take my plate and sit outside on the porch, let’s see what you will do then!”
The son said, “There are frogs outside now Paati.”
The whole table burst out laughing, and the little fellow did not understand why his technically correct statement was this funny. His loving older sister patted his head and said, “Oh! Bobbicles! Bobbicles!”
The father-in-law was still pointing at the r, and the p.
To my mind, what was more telling was the fact that he was pointing at the rice, and then at his plate, as if the rice has been deposited elsewhere before, but we do not delve into their romantic demons, and I passed him the rice.

“Why not start the game session with Dumb-charades?”, I said. “It is a game your grandfather will excel at because he talks so little, and we can all have a good time.”

There was a lot of enthusiastic nodding for Dumb-C when the daughter and husband said together, “Or how about Mafia?”

A thumping approval met with this suggestion, and the rules of the game were being explained to the grandparents in a flow of fluent Tamil & English. (“Tell panna koodathu. Find pannanum. Save pannanum. Who is the mafia find pannanum.”) The Tamglish Grammar rules is a blog post that is simply waiting to be done in the Indian-American context.

We sat around with cards explaining the role of the Investigator, the Civilians, the Mafia & the Angel. In larger groups, this gets harder to do, but in our group size, there was only 1 designated Mafia.
The rules we used were simple:

  • The Mafia chooses one person to kill.
  • The Angel is given a chance to save one person.
  • The Investigator tries to find who the Mafia is.
  • The rest are Civilians.
  • If the Mafia is caught or if the Angel saved the killed person, the person identified by the Mafia continues to live.

No words are spoken, people open their eyes when called upon and point fingers to identify who is who.

“Thaatha is going to ace the game! Finally a game where he doesn’t have to speak, and be happy about it!” said the grandchildren, and their grandfather gave them one of his coy smiles and settled down in his armchair.

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With me so far? Good. No speaking.

I got to tell you, just when you tell folks not to do something, they find the overwhelming need to do exactly that.

The daughter was the Narrator, and she started the proceedings with Tamil sErial style background music.

Investigator, open your eyes.” The Investigator did.
Mafia, open your eyes.” The father-in-law was the Mafia.
Who would you like to kill?
“I will kill your Paati. “ he said using the voice that should’ve helped him get the rice without any tension if he had simply used it then.
“Everyone open your eyes! Thaatha! You want to kill your wife, this is your chance to do it quietly. Not tell everyone!” said the granddaughter giving him marital advice with glee.

The laughter ricocheted around the room, and a few frogs outside leapt away from the window. From them on, every time you expected Thaatha to keep mum during Mafia, he was listening to his wife’s advice on using his tongue, and it provided for great hilarity.

Coming up next: Dumb-Charades.

Do-Nothing Cooking

It was a mild and breezy week-end morning. “Yeah! We are going to work in the garden today! In the garden! In the garden!” I heard the song gain in strength as the gardeners thumped upstairs. “Get up amma!”, they called. I was lingering on in bed, savoring the warmth of the summer quilt.

“What is this?” I asked a little later. The husband was back from somewhere brandishing several sinusoidal wave-like sticks of blue. Could they be fancy walking sticks?

“No – silly. These are for the tomatoes.”

“Yes – don’t you want large tomatoes from the plants? Look, they are already sagging outside.”, said the father-in-law pointing to his pride and joy in the garden. “The rasam can be even tastier with these tomatoes.”, he said with a sly grin on his face.

“Can you make rasam without tomatoes? I just don’t like tomatoes but I like the rasam otherwise.” said the daughter.

This I-Don’t-Like-Tomatoes theme was getting a bit tiring. I rolled my eyes, and stamped my foot in exasperation. “I do not know how to make tomato rasam without tomatoes! Let me know when you make it. ”

“Okay okay! Sheesh kababs! No need to get all cranky if you don’t know how to cook something.” she said and made off to the garden dragging her little brother with her to help her grandfather.

“Make rasam without tomatoes indeed!” I muttered to myself as I gathered the garlic, cumin, pepper, tamarind and tomatoes for rasam. Once the rasam was comfortably simmering, I went back and forth from the kitchen to the garden. Every now and then I was beset upon to give directions and suggestions for the garden. I asked for an old rose plant and the star jasmine creeper to be pruned.

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“But they are poonchedis ” said the father-in-law reluctant to cut flowering plants. South Indians have this strange, but endearing affection with flowering plants. I assured him pruning was good.

The children were busy discussing how to plant the other little flowers and herbs in the garden. The son was looking mighty impressed with himself for he was patted with admiration by his elder sister on the gardening tip he had provided.

“If you put a garlic in the herb garden, then nothing will happen – you know? Nothing. Yes. Ms Lara told us that. No insects will come.”

“Really? We can do that.”

“What?! Do we have garlic in the house? I didn’t know that!”

“Of course we have garlic in the house! How else do you think we can do any Indian cooking you little diddle gump?”, said the chef, who wanted to make tomato rasam without tomatoes.

The little brother was suitably impressed and a few frozen cloves of garlic made its way to the patch containing the Thai basil leaves.

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I looked at the father-in-law. He was tackling the unruly star jasmine creeper with energy. The jasmine had crept up the adjoining fir and cherry trees and was busy making its way past the garden fence. I saw the intense concentration on his face, and surveyed the garden. He must have taken lessons from the barber in the best army in a past life, for the trees had an efficient crewcut demeanor when he was done with them.

The whole scene reminded me of a short story, Annamalai, by R.K.Narayan in The Grandmother’s Tales. The story is about a gardener who had stopped on with him. The gardeners horticultural knowledge and classifications are simple. All flowering plants were ‘poonchedis’ while non-flowering plants were ‘not poonchedis’. The story writes of his taking charge of the garden and how sometimes he would go on a rampage and prune everything in sight, and the garden wore a threadbare, forlorn look for a few days afterward. At other times, he let things be, and the garden flourished anyway. It is a beautiful story that transports you to a little garden in South India almost instantly.

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I smiled thinking of the story. My horticultural knowledge is as woeful as that gardener’s, and my father-in-law’s botanical classification was equally simple. However, I hope our garden too thrives. Maybe we will become the best advocates of the Do-Nothing farming that Farmer Fukuoka speaks so highly of in the Biomimicry book by Janine Benyus.

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Quote from Biomimicry book:

A young man named Masonobu Fukuouka took a walk that would change his life. As he strolled along a rural road, he spotted a rice plant in a ditch, a volunteer growing not from a clean slate of soil but from a tangle of fallen rice stalks.

This proved an inspiration for the young boy : how a grain thrived without the need for coddling and soaking in water canals and so on.

Over the years Fukuoka would turn this secret into a system called Do-Nothing farming because it requires almost no labor on his part and yet his yields are among the highest in Japan. His recipe, fine tuned through trial and error, mimics nature’s trick of succession and soil covering . “It took me 30 years to develop such simplicity” says Fukuoka.

Instead of working harder, he whittled away unnecessary agricultural practices one by one, asking what he could stop doing rather than what he could do.

A sizzling sound alerted me to the rasam simmering over its sides. I charged into the kitchen wondering how to better the Do-Nothing cooking technique.

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