When I was growing up in urban India some decades ago, plastic, other synthetics or processed were not mainstream. Shopping bags were made of cloth and we took our own to the shops. Toys were mostly made of wood, paper, cloth or metal. The clothes we wore were of natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk or wool. Food was stored in glass or metal containers. Meals were prepared from scratch with fresh, seasonal, local produce purchased from vendors in the neighborhood. Water, electricity and fuel were judiciously used. Paper, metal, cloth and glass were recycled after they’d first been thoroughly used and reused, composting was commonly practiced and walking was the most common means of getting to places in the neighborhood. Pure coconut oil was used to keep hair and skin soft and silky, face-packs of plain yogurt and chickpea flour made faces glow while body scrubs of sugar, lemon juice and coconut oil effectively and safely exfoliated our skin. No worries about parabens, artificial coloring or perfumes. The leitmotif that played through our lives was simple, organic, natural.
Fast forward to 2014 USA. We are being coaxed, cajoled and convinced to rethink our current habits and move to, wait for it, simple-organic-natural. What was old is new again. Only this time, there is ample scientific/medical/sociological data to corroborate the advice. Somewhere between the years of my youth and middle-age, we were seduced by products and methods that were brilliantly touted as convenient, time saving and less expensive. We know now that much of this has come at great cost to both the health of our planet as well as our own physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. But this is not about slamming all things new. Certainly, great progress in understanding and helping our needs has been made. I’m grateful for many modern conveniences and necessities and would not consider turning back the clock all together.
That said, there are several things from yesteryears that we have already adopted back into our lives. Recycling, composting, going organic, energy conservation, avoiding processed foods, shopping local are some of the those. But, it wouldn’t hurt to consider more of the old ways in our gardens and by extension, the earth at large. It is not a matter of whether or not one believes in climate change. It is elementary that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction. So each time we do something to the land or the atmosphere, we are creating a shift in the balance. That, will naturally have consequences.
It stands to reason that we examine and revive some forgotten, yet correct practices. From re-establishing windbreaks of trees to protect the soil and crops to encouraging open pollination, the time is ripe. Looking to the past would be very instructive in how we not only protect the earth but in controlling the damage we have already wrought. Our very survival depends on this.
Take the case of trees. We are either denuding entire forests for purposes of construction or drilling or we are hugging trees and cannot, will not allow any cutting down at all. In both cases, it is misguided and short-sighted. Let me explain with two examples.
The first is the ancient craft of coppicing. This the regular cutting of trees and shrubs to ground level. On the face of it, it might sound destructive but there are clear environmental benefits to be reaped. This cutting down permits light to reach the forest floor which in turn encourages a rich variety of flora and fauna to thrive whilst providing a renewable timber source from the strong re-growth from the coppiced trees or stools. Many trees make new growth from the stump or roots when cut down. Hence, regular coppicing is a sustainable way for to get timber for various uses. Without the filtered light, many plants would never grow. Consequently, the creatures that seek such plants would not venture to these parts. You get the picture.
The forest or woodland is harvested in sections on a rotation basis. This means there is a crop ready each year somewhere in the woods. This traditional method of woodland management is beneficial for great biodiversity. It also maintains trees at a juvenile stage which means coppiced trees will never die of old age.
The second example concerns the Aborigines of Australia. For millenia, they managed the continent like a garden. By effectively using controlled fires they kept the flora in check. The grasslands that resulted from this practice attracted animals which could be hunted to feed the Aborigines and at the same time, they provided huge firebreaks that prevented the devastating fires that are today becoming increasingly common.
With the arrival of Europeans, many new plant species were introduced and the native people were displaced. Without these indigenous caretakers, the plantings went wild. A practice perfected over tens of thousands of years was effectively stopped almost overnight. Experts on fire prevention and environmental preservation are now calling for a return to the old ways. Ironically, there are conservation groups against the use of this ancient method. Their heart is in the right place but they need to understand the obvious science behind it. It really comes down to each of us taking the responsibility of becoming knowledgeable and using that knowledge correctly.
There is plenty we can learn from old, time-tested ways of maintaining our land and our lives. Everything from the past is not bad, naive or based on ignorance. After all, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The ancients already gave that to us.
(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar