From I.T. to agriculture

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Image caption: 
Roy tending to the vegetable bed
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Photo by Kaushik Ramu

The transition from software in Texas to growing food in Wayanad is teaching important lessons on Nature, life and happiness.

After puddling a bund in preparation for transplanting rice and taking a dip in the river nearby, I feel great! There’s nothing like some good, creative, physical activity to get me going. Watching the rice plants growing so lush in the nursery gives me immense joy. I may have done the sowing and puddling, but Nature is doing the real magic. And by participating in this process with my hands, mind and heart, I too feel like a part of the magic. “There is meaning and basic satisfaction just in living close to the source of things. Life is song and poetry.” - Masanobu Fukuoka, ‘One Straw Revolution’

Moving Away

All of this is a far different life than the one I used to live. Though my parents are from Kerala, I grew up in the U.S. and the big city was the only reality I knew. I did not know where my water came from, how the food I ate was grown, what powered the central air-conditioning or where all the garbage I produced was taken. I was so disconnected from Nature that I saw rain as a bad thing!

At college I developed an interest in social justice and Gandhian ideas, but soon began working as a software engineer for corporate America. I had achieved the ‘dream’ that so many aspire to - a ‘successful’ IT career and all the material goods that came with it. And yet, I realized I had been changed in the process. I had become greedy for money, consumerist, overly-competitive and stressed out - yet no happier than before. This was not who I wanted to be.

There was also a realization that I was supporting a system that I did not believe in: multinational companies that exploit the planet for profit; and a government that wants to recreate the world in its own image. Still, it was extremely difficult to leave, as I had become addicted to this life.

It wasn’t until the Iraq war that the cognitive dissonance - the split between what I believed in and what I was doing - became too great to ignore. I realized my tax money was going to build bombs to kill a lot of innocent people for the sake of oil and for the sake of a wasteful, consumerist lifestyle that I myself had adopted. So finally I quit my job and came to India, in search of a different way of living and being.

Small Steps

At the time, I did not have a good sense of what Nature is, or what a more natural life might be. I soon found that while I had been pursuing material needs - nice cars, trendy clothes, the best restaurants - I was ignoring so many basic needs like pure air, healthy food, a physically-active lifestyle, creating things with my own hands, close friendships, singing and dancing. I have learned these lessons mostly from people living a life closer to Nature, and Nature herself was my greatest teacher.

I lived for two years in a remote village in the northern part of the Wayanad district of Kerala. The village was surrounded by forest and was populated mostly by Adivasis (original inhabitants of the forest). I began learning organic farming on a tiny 3 cent plot of land (1300 square feet), and it was good that I started so small because I knew so little about farming then.

The villagers would come by and show me how to do various things on my land and to live in a way that was closely connected to the local ecosystem. Everything was new, and adjusting to this new life wasn’t always easy. Getting used to leeches, snakes, life without electricity or running water, and a new language - all took time.

I learnt so many basic lessons that hadn’t been taught to me in school: how good rain is, how Nature is the source of food and not the supermarket, how we too, are a part of Nature. Walking in the forest I could see the cycle of life and death - how everything is impermanent, everything changes. In the village I saw people who really do live in the present. The non-adivasis criticize the adivasis for not knowing how to ‘save’. But as one adivasi replied, “What are you all saving but worries?”

More recently I moved onto a one-fifth of an acre plot of paddy land near Kanavu, a small alternative school. Here I built my own bamboo hut with help from the Kanavu students and my neighbours. I have been cultivating rice and vegetables and learning a lot - especially through my failures. Still, I have enough home-grown rice to last the year, which fills both the belly and something deeper. I have learned that all of life can be art and meditation – be it farming, cooking, building, anything. And when our actions spring from the creative energy deep within us, work ceases to be work and we feel connected with the flow of life and Nature.

Being Sustainable

Living on land and working with it makes it easier to understand what sustainability truly means. If you are taking water faster than Nature is replenishing it, it is not sustainable. So if water tables are dropping - as they are throughout much of India - there is a serious problem. Likewise, if soil is being eroded, you will quickly lose fertility. Here in Wayanad, after every rain, the rivers become brown, carrying tons of soil away. One learns to stop taking Nature for granted.

The activities of the industrial man have caused the climate crisis, but the rural poor may suffer more. It is not just about ecology, but also social justice. The question is: how do we find a way of living that meets our real needs - both materially and spiritually – that is socially equitable and in harmony with Nature?

I haven’t found all the answers. I cannot even call my current lifestyle sustainable. One lesson I have learned is just how unsustainable and extreme the Western way of life is. And I still struggle with it. I travelled to the U.S. recently for my sister’s wedding, and realized that just the flight alone contributed as much to global warming as many traditional Indian villagers contribute in their entire lifetime. This is not to demand perfectionism, but at least awareness.

I want to feel some unrest because all our actions have costs, and only when we are fully aware of such costs - when we really feel those costs deep down - will we find limits and balance to our actions. For instance, when I was building my bamboo hut, a lesson that became very obvious was that when you do the labour yourself, you will not want to build too big - scale becomes easy to comprehend. Likewise, if you are doing farming with your own hands, you will not want too much land - it will be too much work! By being personally involved it is much easier to be aware and mindful of what goes into the making of things - the labour involved, the use of resources, and the effect on Nature. It also connects us deeply to the products of our hands and enables us to get tremendous joy in very simple ways.

Little bumps along the way

Living off the land, of course, is not always rosy. Nature provides for us but also takes away. Things that you have worked hard to grow may be eaten or destroyed by insects, monkeys, or in my case, neighbours! Shortage of rains or unseasonal rains - both of which seem to be increasing, quite possibly due to climate change - can wreak havoc on our plans. And during the time it takes to learn new skills and a new lifestyle, many mistakes and failures will occur. We will certainly need patience and extra support during our learning phase.

Perhaps the key to living in harmony with Nature is to learn to adjust to Nature rather than always trying to adjust Nature. When the adivasis here need something - anything really - their first action is to look at their immediate surroundings, and usually they find something right near them that they can use to meet their need. Whereas my first thought is usually, “What do I need to go buy from the shop?” It is quite a different way of thinking. The non-adivasis criticize the adivasis for not knowing how to ‘save’. But as one adivasi replied, “What are you all saving but worries?

To live life harmoniously with Nature we need to work with ourselves internally, as well as make changes in our external reality - both are interconnected. We must look within ourselves - at our desires and values, our health in its fullest sense and whether we experience contentment, peace and love. At the same time we need to look critically at our environment, our culture, and the structures of society.

When I am in the city, I feel the temptations of city life quite strongly - I want to eat out, to get some ice-cream, to shop, to consume. Whereas when I am in the forest, I am drawn to Nature and when I am on the farm I want to do something creative on the land. So if we want to live the ‘creative, life’ rather than the ‘consumerist’ life, we will need to create spaces that are in tune with that. We also should find other people who are on a similar wavelength - natural living is not something that can or should be done alone.

The main thing I am working on right now is the idea of a community - pursuing a path of holistic transformation together with others on a similar path. I feel keenly the need to co-create spaces for living and learning in new ways, together with others. This may include simply being near each other, sharing in the activities of life - good food, song and poetry. It may also include spaces for visitors to experience new ways of being, more connected to ourselves, to Nature, to each other, and to the Creative Power within us and all around us. The adventure continues!

Roy Jacob studied Urban Studies at Stanford University and worked for nearly five years as a software engineer in Houston, Texas. He is now a farmer-artist-writer and philosopher, based in the Wayanad district of Kerala. He can be reached at: studentoflife@fastmail.fm.