Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Peak experiences

Two days ago, Hannah, Abhyudai and I, had the tremendous privilege of traveling with Dr. Shiva and some other scientists here at the Navdanya to a village for a meeting of women farmers in the Garwali Himalaya. My vocabulary of superlatives isn’t big enough to adequately describe this experience. And saying it was amazing, is simply stating the obvious. It was beyond wonderful, and a little hard to digest, if not summarize in a blog post. I’ll do my best.

Traveling with an international figure (who, by the way, doesn’t have a assistant, and answers her phone personally) was an experience all in itself. There was a recent oil spill near Mumbai and floods in Ladakh, and Dr. Shiva, when she had reception in the mountains constantly took calls from the media about these recent events. She explained in her own special way, that I characterize as unrelenting outrage, how the world was going to hell because of climate change, loss of biodiversity and chemical farming. I liked this part a lot. When she wasn’t on the phone she bombarded us all with ideas about how to change the world. This part almost put me in a catatonic state.

In a welcome break from these rather esoteric mental exercises, we stopped suddenly when Dr. Shiva pointed to an especially nice (and accessible) example of intercropping. Intercropping is an ancient technique for preserving biodiversity, farmland and conserving space. It is practiced all over the Himalaya, and in this example we found something even more interesting. There were two botanists in the car who, along with Dr. Shiva, have probably seen (and collected seeds from) every variety of millet grown in India. They found in this field a variety they had never encountered before. Excited conversations were held in (extra) rapid-fire Hindi with the owner of the plot, samples were collected and plans were made to come back in a month for the harvest. I think I might have swooned at one point.

Or maybe I was carsick. Our six hour journey to Uttarkashi (on the first day) involved an infinity of twists and turns on narrow mountain roads, which our driver took with an extra spurt of speed giving those of us in the back of the van whiplash about ten times a minute. I think every cell in my body has been relocated to a new and uncomfortable place. But on the second day, when we climbed even higher into the mountains, my discomfort turned to enchantment. Civilization fell away, cars disappeared from the road, streams gushed down the steep slopes and splashed across the roads and ancient trees grew out of rocks. It felt like we were disappearing into the mists of time, going back to the source, the origin.

In a way we were. The source of the Ganga is here in these hills (only another 4000 feet above where we were at a mere 8000 feet) and we followed one of its branches to this village. India is home to the world’s oldest civilizations, and the Ganga is the source of all life in this region. Time suspended for me as I watched the velvet green terraced hillsides slide by us, and I secretly wished the journey would never end. But end it did, abruptly at a village seemingly untouched by modernity. The women gathered to meet us wore their traditional clothes and their finest gold jewelry given to them at their weddings, sang their old songs and shared their ancient seeds. If I had been left there to die in their arms, I would have died happy. The only thing that got me back into the car to leave was a promise made to me by them, and to myself that I would come back one day.

They welcomed us all with turmeric and vermillion for our foreheads, garlands and flowers, touched our feet (a tremendous honor reserved for elders) and fed us tea and traditional foods. In the hour that followed they shared their concerns about the erratic rainfall they were experiencing. That had forced them to save five times more seeds (bija) because their crops were failing. They were grateful to Navdanya for helping them to set up a seed bank that gave them more collective security. That simple thing allowed them to avoid buying hybrid seeds which would put them in debt and not allow them to keep their seeds for the next year. My heart burned to think about this way of life teetering on the verge of extinction by destructive forces and machine mentalities completely beyond their control.

To say these women are beautiful is a serious understatement, and sells a bit short their courage, their dedication, their generosity and sweet humor. Their faces are lined with time and by the sun, but their hearts sing with pure joy, and they all shine with health, pride and vitality. I felt incomplete as a human being in their presence. I am so occupied with things that don’t matter at all. So invested in things that are ephemeral and don’t last. And in so doing contributing to the very forces that threaten this paradise. I can only hope to find the courage and strength to follow, teach and live peace, justice and ecology in every moment I take a breath.

In spite of the extra burden on seed saving due to their lack of rain, when I picked up a few seeds of millet that had spilled out of a bag to save, they gave me a sample of all their millet, amaranth, sesame and soybean with pure hearts, pride and joy. The gift could not be refused, and I accepted it with tremendous humility. I hope I can “be the bija” and plant seeds of hope for a more gentle society in my own world.

Strangers at the door, we departed as kin, with hugs that express all the saudad a person can feel at farewell. Strong, work worn hands clasped our heads and our cheeks touched, both sides. Hand to the heart, and fingers lifted to lips in a kiss. Love remains, joy lives forever.

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