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Knee Deep in Soil

sarada's passage to navdanya V

August 24, 2010 by saradagrace
6,268 views

All living things are based on soil. In ancient times, humans believed it was the mother of all life, the placenta of the planet. In this her fifth article, Sarada Eastham delves into the soil’s subsistence and elder wisdom.

“To forget how to dig the earth and tend soil is to forget ourselves.”
Mahatma Gandhi


Pausing this morning, knee deep in rich, moist soil, I stand to stretch my back. I feel the coolness of the earth on my toes, and I wiggle them just a bit in pleasure. The sweat has run a river down my spine, and I am thankful for the way that it cools in the breeze. It is hardly seven in the morning, conversation bounces around me and the farm has been at work since dawn.

Planted as a seed of stubbornness

Buoyed by the sugar and spice of a piping hot cup of chai and the promise of a few hours of (relative) cool before the stifling stillness of an unbearably hot afternoon, the work begins. Songs drift from around me, punctuated by the echoing ‘bang’ of a shotgun, fired high into the sky to keep the parrots, crows, pigeons, hawks and other hungry winged creatures from devouring the near-ripe crop of mangos.

This soil is a testament to the healing power of the Earth. When Navdanya was started, almost thirty years ago, it immediately became clear that there was a need in India to demonstrate that organic farming could work. Dr. Vandana Shiva, the founder of Navdanya and her brother, Kuldip, found the perfect land for the project: a desertified, cracked, wizened landscape that had limped along cultivating a eucalyptus plantation for fifty years before finally, even eucalyptus couldn’t be squeezed from the parched soil.

The potential for life and the freedom to become

There is a story that is told and retold here about how the local farmers laughed, and told Vandana and her brother that this was ‘wasted land’ ‘bad land’ and ‘broken earth’ not even worth the time that it would take them to drive here to look at it. Vandana, fierce woman that she is, stomped down the long road to where the farm now lays (or so the story goes), put both feet on the Earth and said, “here.” And here, Bija Vidyapeeth (the Seed University) was born; planted as a seed of stubbornness and dry, desperate hope.

Keepers of the Earth

At first, the local farmers were proved right. Nothing could grow in the poisoned, overused soil that had been tainted by chemicals, plastics and years of monoculture cropping. There were no insects or animals to help with pollination, and each season more of the precious soil dried and blew into the hot winds that sweep from the foot of the Himalayas. It was a slow process, and a journey of great learning, as farmers who believed in the rejuvenating power of the Earth began to gather and learn from one another and the ancient traditional ways. In India, as in other places, the old ways are fading fast, replaced by colorful technology, fast ideas and plastic solutions. Elders were called, and the reclamation began, led first and foremost by the Grandmothers: keepers of the Earth and the original vessels of life.

Traditional seeds grown in local soil

As Vandana told me the last time that I saw her: diversity is life, and uniformity is death. Without each precious part of the marvelous indivisible whole, the system begins to collapse. The seed is representative of the centre of this continuum. Containing the potential for life and the freedom to become, the seed offers food, nourishment and community for those who hold it. With the first harvest from the Earth at Bija Vidyapeeth a seed bank was created to honor and protect this potential. Within the seed bank, the best of the traditional seeds are harvested each year, and placed back into the bank for the following year.

As Bija Vidyapeeth’s stock has grown, they have shared the seeds with the nearby communities, offering organic, traditional seed varieties that provide an option to the mountains of bags of yellow ‘quick grow’ seeds that flourish on almost any store shelf around the country. Instead of purchasing seeds that can not be harvested the following year (because they contain a ‘terminator gene’ that prohibits their propagation) and that require specific fertilizer (Monsanto brand, of course) to germinate, farmers become self-reliant by harvesting, keeping and caring for their own traditional seed varieties.

Sharing seed with ever expanding communities

Grown in local soil, these seeds are miracles in responding to the challenges of the local climate. Millennium has shaped their response to drought and pests, and as only the strongest seeds are kept for the following year, each generation improves in strength and resilience. In return for the loan of the seed bank seeds, communities are asked to harvest their own seeds, and to offer the seeds back (at a rate of 125%) to the seed bank. This way the stock of precious life grows, and can be shared with ever expanding communities.

"I have become the Earth"

Using this grassroots model to transform culture, the Earth, and the community life of rural India, Navdanya turns now to fight at the policy level against corporate interest. Vandana speaks tirelessly at the international level to raise awareness about food and water issues, while across the country and globally, farmers are beginning to unite and to build community as they did in the old days, before the times of the mountains of yellow ‘quick grow’ bags.

In the fields of Bija Vidyapeeth, I stand next to Didi (older sister), a wizened elder who shines with laughter and years used well. She gestures to me, and I turn to her, and marvel at the heat glimmering around her, making her seem as though she is a part of a miraculous mirage that has drawn her from the Earth itself. She throws her head back in laughter and squints her eyes at me, pulling up her sari and showing me her legs, caked in soil to the thigh. She shouts at me in Hindi, laughing harder as it becomes clear that I do not understand what she is telling me. “I have become the Earth”, my friend Suneal translates, laughing along with Didi. I laugh too, and it surprises me, coming so fast that I have to sit down to catch my breath. “I am the Earth too!” I shout. “Or maybe,” I giggle “it is the Earth that is us?” And the morning leaves Didi and I there, knee deep in soil, bent over in laughter, and buried in rich, regenerated Earth.


Yogini, activist, and humanitarian, Sarada Eastham, is a former YDC graduate and Youth Coordinator at RYYO, living an inspired life as a student of International and Community Development. Her internship with Navdanya; a biodiversity conservation and organic farm in Northern India, and her cultural immersion have been unfolding before us on Lightwaves. This article has been featured as part of our August 2010 sustainability week.


1 Comment »

  1. What a beautiful miracle life is :) Thank you for sharing this inspiring story.

    Comment by Bronwen Erickson — August 25, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

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