Perma Time

I remember the first time I heard the P word, from a friend whose cousin had quit normal English life for some kind of commune in southern Europe’s warmer climes. Yurts also came into it if I remember correctly. At any rate that was an eye opener for us. Previous to that we had talked vaguely about organic farming. Permaculture is much more holistic, a whole way of living in relationship with your land, and much more zeitgeisty. It is also vast and, for newbies like us at least, completely overwhelming.

Most people approach it via a permaculture design course, but that requires a minimum two week commitment sans enfants – 2030 maybe. Bill Mollison’s cornerstone text, The Permaculture Manual, consists of hundreds and hundreds of information- and idea-rich pages, and is mainly aimed at those in temperate climates. Want to watch the free video series instead? There are 40 episodes of an hour or two each.

So, while aspiring to the holy permaculture grail for many years, we have done very little about it. My bedside table is already piled high with tomes on earthbag building, ayurvedic herbs, Indian trees and rocket stoves. And we rarely find time hanging heavy in daylight hours. We are fortunate in that many of those who visit the Wildside have a permaculture design course or two under their belt and have been able to dispense sound advice on rainwater harvesting, soil building,energy management, and of course the two biggies swales and mulching. While we were able to form some kind of idea about what to do in theory, it still seemed too huge a task to start. Maybe next week, or next year.

One such visitor, Moshik, a volunteer who came for a week and stayed for a month, proved to be the turning point. Well versed in permaculture lore and keen to try out his theoretical knowledge in practice, he kick started our journey into Bill Mollison territory with a papaya and banana circle, and soon we were marking out swales with a home-made A-frame, obsessing about nitrogen-fixing trees and of course mulching mulching mulching.

The papaya and banana circles are large mulch pits fed by grey water and planted around with papaya, banana, sweet potato and other tubers, lemon grass, pineapple, ginger and turmeric.

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We have now built three and hope that they will soon provide us with plenty of fruit, unlike the hundreds of other banana and papaya plants that have either died or stopped growing. If they work we may try to extend them into a large vegetable garden as shown in this diagram:

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The soil-building is rather more complex. I had never appreciated the fact that tropical soils are in fact much more fragile and potentially poor than in temperate climates such as England. As Moshik put it the nutrition in the tropics is all tied up in the fauna and flora. Strip the land of the jungle that shades and noursishes it and the soil deteriorates very fast. If the large-scale agriculture of Europe and North America has degraded the soil there, it is catastrophic when practiced here.

Much of our land is exposed scrubby grassland. The soil is poor: acidic, prone to erosion (as seen by plant roots spreading laterally instead of down) and with very little water retention capacity. That is why the fruit trees we planted here have not done well. In fact what we should have done is first build swales to prevent water run off and erosion, and then plant fast growing nitrogen-fixing trees whose roots would hold the soil and also enrich it. High maintenance plants like these hybrid fruit trees should have come right at the end. Ah well. `

So that’s what the plan is now. We have started with a few swales on two slopes that are particularly degraded and are planting as many gliricidia and haluvannu cuttings as we can along paths and boundaries.

Towards the end of the rains we want to plant some other flowering nitrogen fixers like Gulmohar and various Cassia varieties. And we have worked on getting wagon-loads of mulch – elephant-trampled banana and fishtail palm trees, rich decomposed leaf litter from the jungle, gliricidia and silver oak cuttings – for liberal application to the swales, all of our existing trees and any areas that need covering. This probably amounts to about 5% of the mulch we need, but it’s a start.

It’s taken us four years and many mistakes to get to the point where we are actually rehabilitating our land. A hydrogeologist who came had told us that if we greenify this area enough an underground spring will come back up somewhere between the house and the kere. That would really be the icing on the cake.

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Fruit Forest Update

As promised, an update on the fruit forest we planted in September:

 

Even Bharath has been impressed with the rate at which most of the trees have prospered. The mangoes have shot up and put out beautiful red leaves. The guavas are fruiting already. The jasmine bushes are constantly in bloom. One pipal tree is over 10ft tall. And many others such as the Chaste Tree (Vitex negundo, Lakki in Kannada), Siris (Albizia lebbek) and Neem (which doesn’t normally grow well in this region) look like they’re on steroids.

Laggards include lemon and pomegranate, which are growing but only just. Some such as the agaru, the tree which gives us the agar in agarbatti, and nutmeg seem to be withering away to nothing. And certainly some trees have died.

The soil doesn’t exactly look rich. It is still the light, sandy soil it was earlier, prone to cracking and hardening. I haven’t seen any earthworms or any other sign of optimal soil health. Thanks to the several tons of biomass though it seems to be nutritious and soft enough for the trees to flourish. The rear sweep of the forest area is proof of this. On the fated night of the JCB that corner didn’t get dug or mixed properly and is therefore too compacted and poor in nutrients. All the trees here are still small and thin, and this is where almost all of the deaths have occurred.

Maintenance over the last eight months has been minimal. We have watered daily, except when it has rained. We have added fresh straw as mulch to the forest floor whenever it has started to look a bit thin, about every two or three months. We have applied jivamrta monthly. We have replaced stakes that have broken or become too small. And once a month or so I weed the whole thing. Our other 200 odd saplings, which are spread over several acres, have been a handful these past few months. We all had mutilated arms and legs from hacking down the jungle trying to find many of them. And we have done regular mass watering and mulching drives with our ever-changing gang of volunteers. The fruit forest, by contrast, is a one-man job and blissfully easy.

I have tried to track the growth of about 20 different trees. Some have remained almost the same height and some have shrunk – either because my measuring method is not foolproof, or because a taller branch has broken off, or both. We have also tried to keep tabs on trees that have died. I reckon between 5 and 15 saplings have died so far, which is exactly the 2-5% Afforrest say to expect. I’m not sure which species; it’s fairly difficult to identify a tree once dead and I haven’t been monitoring them closely enough to know.

The full Excel file with all the data in can be accessed here.

Some friends who visited pointed out that the thorny trees we have planted, including Ber and Bael, are going to make it all rather impenetrable. This is a good point and one we haven’t really dealt with yet. We could trim them but Afforrest’s instructions ask us not to do any trimming. I am also a bit worried about the Pipal and Banyan trees. I did specifically ask whether it would be a good idea to plant them and was assured all would be well but given how big the Banyan in particular grows – much bigger than the 1000 sq ft area which encompasses the entire fruit forest – I do wonder in hindsight whether we would have done better to omit them.

My biggest concern now though is the monsoon. Will these saplings be able to handle three or four months of incessant Western Ghat rains? We have added an extra layer of banana leaf mulch to minimise erosion and made a coconut-leaf barrier around the edges to stop too much surface water getting in or out. We have also dug swales uphill of the fruit forest (which is on a slope) so it doesn’t have to bear the full brunt of the monsoon rivers that appear within minutes of heavy rain, and to rehabilitate this area which was chewed up by the JCB and has become hard as cement. Stay tuned for the next episode post September…

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Wild Food Notes

This is the season of abundance here, and the one time of the year when we can eat almost entirely hyper-local – we barely even need to travel the 10km for fresh produce into Sakleshpur thanks to the generosity of the jungle, our neighbours the paddy farmers who are growing vegetables, and our own vegetable garden, in that order.

Growing our own fruits and vegetables has proved harder than expected, but because of that we have been pushed into foraging a lot more. It turns out that gathering food from the forest is a lot easier and more fun that trying to coax poor soil into giving produce, so we have been doing rather a lot of it. The one constraint we have is insufficient botanical know-how. Almost all our knowledge of the edible and medicinal plants growing here has come from visitors. There is no foraging handbook, no weekend wild food courses. Nor have I been able to glean much information locally. I find the younger generation with whom we can talk fairly easily don’t seem to know much about wild food. The elderly, who are probably treasure troves of information, are often less open to talking and, to me, much less comprehensible.

Wild food isn’t as sweet, fleshy and soft as the varieties that man has cultivated from it. And it often needs more work to prepare. It is though often quite delicious – the heady scent of our wild mangoes for instance makes even Alfonsos seem inspid. And it is increasingly being recognised as far more nutritious than the weak and over-bred plants that make up our daily diet.

We have long wanted to write down and build on the little we do know about these plants, so here is a first stab at it. Comments, additions and edits are welcome. I have given names in English, Latin and Kannada where known.

Fruit

Jackfruit | Artocarpus heterphyllus | Halasina kayi/hannu

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There are many types of jackfruit. In addition to the standard large green variety which is sold in cities, with thick skin that takes skill or a lot of time to cut, and has a firm, slightly tangy flesh, we have the large brown ones which fall easily apart when you try to open them and have many more pods than the green ones, and flesh that is creamier, sweeter and more gooey. I have been told that the latter have some medicinal property.

We use the kayi (the unripe jackfruit) to make a coconut curry, or for pickle. You can also fry it to make jackfruit crisps.

When ripe, the fruit is huge and often we can’t finish a whole one so we often make it into jackfruit jam. People here grind it and use it to make dosa, idlis or fried snacks. It could also be dehyrdated.

Jungle Jack | Artocarpus hirsutus

This is a related but separate fruit to the jackfruit. Apparently it can be pickled when unripe. When ripe it is bright orange and creamy but with very little flesh. We have many trees but the fruit are all very high up in the canopy – unlike the jackfruit which grow conveniently on the trunk – and difficult to get down so we haven’t been able to eat or experiment with it much.

Wild Mango | Kadu Maavin Kayi/Hannu

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The unripe mango is made into various pickles, including a local salted mango speciality. The ripe fruit is slightly sour and very fibrous compared to cultivated mangoes. Locals use it a bit in sambar. We made about 20 jars of mango jam from it last year which was a hit.

Wild Jamun | Kadu Nerale Hannu

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This sweet cherry-like fruit can only be eaten when ripe. The wild ones here are tiny but much sweeter and with none of the astringency, when ripe, that the large ones on sale in the cities have. We expected a bumper harvest this summer as the trees fruit alternate years and we have a good ten or so huge jamun trees all of which were due to fruit. Our plans to make jamun jam and jamun wine though came to naught because none of the trees gave anything like the amount they had two years ago.

Haale Hannu

The fruit is creamy with big black seeds, and leaves a sticky residue on your hands and lips. I don’t have a photo unfortunately nor do I know its botanical or English name.

Kooli Mara

This tree is apparently good for furniture but it also produces a small green fruit which looks a bit like ber. Can anyone identify this? And is the fruit edible?

We also have a couple of these distinctive-leaved trees in the jungle.  Bharath says they give an edible fruit but we haven’t yet collected or tried it.  Does anyone know the name of the tree?

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Greens

Purslane | Huli Soppu | Portulaca oleracea

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This grows abudantly in the paddy fields just before the monsoon and throughout the year on the edges of the vegetable garden. I’ve read that it contains more iron than spinach. We usually make it into a soppu daal or if chopped finely a salad. The stalk can also be eaten.  This is not native to India; it was introduced here a few hundred years ago from the Americas.

Amaranthus | Dantin Soppu

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There are many varieties of this, some of which are cultivated. The wild variety pops up everywhere and seems to flower more and faster than the cultivated variety, which makes it harder to prepare because the flowers need to be removed. We normally cook it – treating it like spinach – unless it’s very young and tender.

Indian Nightshade | Ganikke soppu | Solanum ptychanthum

I’ve never seen anyone grow this. It springs up in all sorts of places. When young, the leaves are big and easy to use. As the plant matures, the leaves get smaller and it puts out flowers and then berries. The berries when black are edible and delicious (when green apparently they are poisonous, although I’m rather confused because a cursory Google search indicates the black ones can also be deadly). I’ve been told you should use only the leaves, not the stem or flowers.

Wood Sorrel | Oxalis stricta/corniculata

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We have just started using this in our salads.  It was introduced from Europe pre 19th century.

Brahmi | Mandukaparni | Centella asiatica

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This is not the other, more famous Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) but still is meant to be excellent for all things to do with the head: brain power, mental balance and for the hair. It is slightly bitter. We have it in salads and juices, add it while cooking and also boil it along with our soapnut shampoo.

Kadu Mensin Kayi (this is what neighbours have told me it is called here; it means ‘wild pepper’)

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We make our famous jungle juice, a great cooler in summer, from this by mashing the leaves in water. The same process is used for creating a hair conditioner and even a jelly. Its bunches of berries look similar to those of the cultivated pepper vine so perhaps that is what has earned it its name locally.

Chandige

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This is one of the jungle clearer’s greatest foes. It has tiny barbed thorns which seem to reach out and grab you every time you come near it and then stick in your skin. Its spreading, twisting branches make it difficult to hack at. And the more you cut it the more it grows. So although we know in theory that we could de-fang the tendermost leaves and cook with them, we are far more concerned with getting rid of the plant at the moment.

Wild Coriander

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I’m not sure if this is actually related to coriander, but its leaves taste and smell just like the domesticated herb.

And I’d also like to find out more about edible ferms. These are the ones we have growing here. A friend told me that this type of fern can be eaten.

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You pluck the tendril shoots before they unfurl in the morning, soak them in vinegar and then eat raw or cook.

Vegetables

Wild Brinjal | Sonde Kayi | Solanum torvum

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Wild brinjal looks exactly like its cultivated cousin except that it has nasty thorns and grows anywhere and everywhere extremely quickly. In fact it is so fast growing, and so thorny and resilient, that we cut down much more than we use. Its hard green berries can be prepared in a variety of ways – but always first crushed, soaked, drained and then cooked as they are very bitter – and kill parasites in the stomach. The flowers are also apparently good for sore throats. This originally comes from the West Indies.

Taro| Kesa | Colocasia esculenta

There is much confusion, among us at least, about which of the many wild taro plants growing here are edible. I have had two bad experiences, once with the leaf which we didn’t cook properly and once with the root which I assume was from the non-edible variety. In both cases, eating even the tiniest bit of the leaf or the root made our throats constrict. A friend told me that only the ones with black stalks, like this,

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can be eaten. I’m a bit wary though of trying again but maybe third time lucky…

 

 

Medicinal Plants

Many of the plants listed above have medicinal properties. In addition we are aware of the following ones which are used, as far as we know, as medicine more than food:

Ipomoea hederifola

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This was introduced from tropical America. It has a sweet base which the children love to suck on.

 

Mimosa pudica | Touch Me Not

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A ubiquitous rather annoying ground level shrub with tiny prickles which closes when you touch it. I think it is also nitrogen fixing.

 

Pandanus odoratissimus | Ketaki

This grows in abundance by rivers and in waterlogged places around us.

 

There is also this which looks like Asparagus racemosus or Shatavari, a relation of the better known asparagus (Asparagus officianalis), which is used in women’s health.  Locals harvest it from the jungle but I haven’t been able to find out exactly what for.

 

[I also see that several of our cultivated plants, aside from the specific medicinal herbs we grow, also have medicinal uses, including:

Ixora coccinea, a red shrub with a globe of tiny red flowers

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Allamanda cathartica, a common creeper with flowers of yellow or pink

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Basella alba, basale soppu or Malabar spinach. This is apparently brilliant for mouth ulcers. The children squish the dark seeds to make nail polish.

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Passiflora foetida, passionflower. We have recently tried making fresh and dried teas from the leaves and flowers; it is a great relaxant which can help you sleep better.]

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Mushrooms

There are one or two types of mushroom that locals say we can eat. They grow at the beginning of the rainy season on the grasslands such as the meadow by our house. There are many many others about which we know nothing. Where can we get more information?

Being vegetarian, we haven’t explored the meat side of things. I do know though that people regularly hunt wild boar; we often encounter a couple of men with a gun on our land or our neighbours’. It is illegal and often the hunters fabricate some story to explain their presence with a firearm. I have also once seen a woman collecting the tiny crabs that abound in the paddy fields when flooded. She even showed us how to break off the various extraneous parts of it so as to be left with a bite-size piece of crab meat under the main shell. Locals also set up fish traps in the rivers, when the rivers haven’t been pumped dry. I haven’t though seen the fish they catch. Perhaps in the big river of the district, the Hemavati, they are decent sized but I’ve never seen fish there and certainly in the small streams that run through the paddy the fish must be tiny.

As an aside, we have also become adept at using up the parts of fruits and vegetables that are normally wasted. Here are some of our favourites:

Watermelon peel

After eating the red fruit, you are left with a white layer of flesh and the hard green rind. Remove the rind and you can then grate the white flesh into a salad like cucumber, cut it up and cook it in a palya or sambar as you would bottle gourd, or make halva. A friend showed me a great way to use it recently: grind it into a thick liquid and use that to mix the batter for idlis (we keep a flour of ground rice and urad daal here which we soak in water overnight for idlis and dosas). The white flesh has lots of calcium apparently and is much the most nutritious part of the fruit.

Jackfruit seeds

Many people do use the protein-packed jackfruit seeds in sambar, or roast or boil them. We are also trying to look at other ways of processing them, perhaps by drying them out and making a flour to add to rotis or bread. I’ve once tried making them into a houmous. Any other ideas?

Banana stem

There are enough banana trees for us to eat banana stem everyday, should we want to. It’s quite fibrous – good for cleaning the stomach apparently – so once a month is probably ample. We cut it up fine and cook with potatoes or in a sambar.

Banana flower

In Kerala they use this a lot, but around here most people don’t seem interested. A friend taught us a simple recipe with coconut. You have to first prepare all of the flower stems though. I’ve also heard it can be eaten as a salad.

Saudhe

Over the last three or four months we have learnt what it means to find, collect, cut and stack a year’s worth of firewood. Never again will I look at a pile of logs with complacence.

We combed almost every inch of our land hunting for fallen trees and smaller logs and twigs, with the more adventurous among us climbing dead trees and lopping off branches. We spent hours piling sticks up and packing them into both the jeep and Gautam’s capacious and much abused Pajero to bring them back to camp.

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The great jumble of wood next to the woodshed grew and grew until we all felt there would be enough to last us a decade rather than just a year. Still we searched and collected, loaded and unloaded, only stopping when we had picked up almost every fallen stick of wood on our land.

When we were done with collecting, we started cutting. After several days of breaking up the smaller stuff with hands and feet, we realised that our mountain was fast becoming a molehill. Once our higgledy piggledy heap of sticks, branches, logs and trunks was reduced to a neat stack, it shrank considerably. Undaunted, we moved onto hacking the bigger bits with the machete or our lethally sharp two man saw.

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While four of us broke, hacked and sawed for a week, Bharath re-did the woodshed, which is a simple affair of sturdy tree-trunk pillars and a tarpaulin roof. Our first attempts at stacking did not impress Bharath, “Sari illa”. And he was right, as always. The stacks started to wobble and topple. And so we had to re-do it, several times, until we were able to produce works of wood art like this:

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Now at last everything from the tree trunks to the splinters are neatly and logically arranged and well protected from the rain. I cannot help but gaze lovingly at the woodshed and every stick of firewood burnt brings immense satisfaction.

Firewood has been a feature of our lives here right from the start, with almost all of our cooking and water-heating done on fires. In previous years though we have always left it up to Bharath to organise men and machinery to do the job for us; they would normally cut suitable branches from trees, use a chainsaw for the biggies and then split everything with an axe. It was all sourced from our land so we have always been self sufficient in terms of fuel but we had almost no involvement in the process. This year thanks to Avin and Jeune being here, and a continuous stream of volunteers, I felt brave enough to take it on, in spite or perhaps in part because of of Bharath’s ‘nimage agilla’. As we are also now increasingly using the much more efficient and much less smoky rocket stove to cook, it was important to get enough of the smaller and medium sized sticks; the big fat ones don’t fit.

Doing the firewood ourselves has led us to parts of our land that we haven’t visited for years, if ever, in the process discovering all kinds of interesting plants, animals and other oddities. We have learnt how to cut with khatti and saw (though not the axe – we could have split the bigger logs but kind of ran out of energy….); how to stack firewood; how to organise the piles. The wood collected just from our few acres is incredibly heterogeneous, and there is definitely a firewood hierarchy. Some are easy to break and burn in a flash but disintegrate fast. Some are ramrod straight; others are crooked, twisted or forked and need a lot of work to make them stove-ready. Some trees give wood which is light but very hard and burns for a long time. Some have such beautiful patterns you feel they shouldn’t be burnt at all.

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There are many disadvantages of using fire to cook, from the trivial irritation of everything getting black with soot to the serious health hazards of smoke particularly in a small and badly ventilated kitchen. In India, and particularly in rural India, switching from firewood to gas is progress, and I can understand that.

We almost always have some kind of a camping gas arrangement here, strictly for emergencies such as tea required immediately. I hope though that we retain our wood fires. For me, it’s not the eco brownie points, the independence it gives us from the system or the enhanced flavour it lends to all the food we cook. Many off-gridders use biogas from cow manure or humanure, which offers green credentials, self sufficiency and convenience that more than makes up for that lost wood-fire taste. A fireless kitchen, however gleaming white and wonderfully easy, feels cold. There is a certain primaeval connection humans have with fire. And it feels good to be extending this connection: living on and caring for the land which grows the trees, collecting and burning the branches they have jettisoned, and making use of the ash and charcoal that the fire produces.

Wildlife

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An elephant discovers our mud pond

Snakes in the house: two harmless but huge rat snakes and the beautiful semi-venomous vine snake. Elephants all over our land: in the coffee plantation, behind the cottage, behind the round house and in the kere. (The lone male who we spotted having a drink and a splash there one afternoon evidently told his mates because that night there was a pool party. We found the life ring ripped off its rope and bobbing in the water, skid marks down the banks, fence posts knocked over and our pump hut pulled apart.)

Scary? In some ways, yes. The word ‘snake’ almost always elicits moderate to severe anxiety in visitors, but when we mention the possibility of elephants people are excited: “Really? Can we go see them?” The local inhabitants by contrast think nothing of snakes, most of which around here are not poisonous, but become very agitated when elephants are reported to be close.

Both reactions are justified. I am sure that there is an innate human fear of snakes. (I would have liked to see whether Theos, who is too small to be conditioned to fear them, is naturally scared or not. But of course when we do have a situation with a snake he is normally being held safely in the arms of an adult who definitely is scared, and thus feeds on that fear. He hasn’t ever faced a snake one-on-one; wild as we like to think ourselves we’re not quite ready for that.) And certainly a bite from a poisonous snake is not a joke. Elephants meanwhile have already killed several people in the area – they are amazingly difficult to spot in the jungle and deaths normally occur when people surprise them – and caused untold damage to crops and property. The forest department sends a band of officers every time they enter an inhabited area to patrol and monitor the elephants’ movements for days. So it’s all pretty serious stuff.

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our forest officer friends helping us keep an elephant at bay

For me, it is the encounters with snakes that cause sleepless nights, even when I know they are harmless. Seeing elephants so close at hand has only filled me with awe and respect. They are so clearly gentle creatures, going about their own business and trying to avoid humans wherever possible.

Unfortunately though that isn’t possible. Elephants have become a problem here because we humans keep on multiplying and expanding our domain. As land owners convert more and more jungle land into coffee plantations and pump rivers dry to irrigate their off-season crops, elephants have less area to roam and less means of sustaining themselves. Everyone wants to keep these huge animals off their land, away from themselves and their valuable rice, coffee, fruit trees, water pumps, buildings and vehicles so they do all they can to drive them away when they approach. The current favoured method is firing shots in the air and setting off firecrackers. Some have also erected electric fences. All of these measures irritate and agitate the elephants, and succeed in detering only for a very limited time. We have dabbled in alternative methods of elephant control, including bee-hive fences and chilli smoke, but haven’t got anywhere so far and my guess is that the elephants would soon wise up to these too. Nobody at least in our area seems to be looking at the bigger picture: How can we create corridors where elephants can safely move from one jungle area to another without damaging property and/or encountering humans? How can we compensate them for their shrinking wilderness? How do we halt or at least slow down cultivation and construction and protect the jungle?

After much discussion on how to keep snakes out of the bedrooms and elephants out of our land, and numerous attempts to beat back the jungle and seal all the holes, Bharath and I are agreed on one thing. No matter what you do if they want to get in they will find a way. “Bar beka, barutte.” So perhaps the best approach is to come to terms with the fact that these visitations can and will occur and instead to focus on being vigilant at all times. Humans have survived being in close contact with such wild animals not by shutting them out but by being alert and skilled at tracking, avoiding and managing encounters with them. The trouble is that now we have lost those abilities and thus rely much more heavily on structures and contraptions than our own wits. And as we become more successful in our man-made environments at keeping nature out we become even less able to handle wildlife and even more scared.

We also have to accept that an accident could happen. However many precautions we take we cannot eliminate that possibility. Modern society, with its risk-minimising paraphernalia – insurance, liability, health and safety regulations – doesn’t like the unpredictable and the dangerous. But life, real life outside a concrete box, can never be risk-free.

Injury and Illness

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Battle scarred from an early age

Injury is an everyday event here. We get scratched, grazed, bruised and cut as we move about. We hurt ourselves with the machete or axe. We burn our feet when hot coals fall from the stove and our hands when applying lime plaster. We swim daily in a pond whose murky depths make it perilous for the many non-swimmers who visit. We are bitten by ticks and ants, stung by bees and wasps, and at risk of serious injury and death by scorpion, snake and elephant.

For the hunter-gatherer, even a minor injury could prove fatal. The tiniest foot wound if infected could make it impossible to keep pace with your group as it wandered in search of food and water, leaving you alone without sustenance and vulnerable to predators and the elements. A major accident – falling from a tree in pursuit of honey, or being attacked by a big cat – would only mean a more certain, quicker death.

When humans started to live in fixed settlements and farm, injury became less life threatening, in that you could recuperate at home while others brought you food (if your family set up had the manpower to manage without you for that time). Still, a broken bone could be the end of you.

In today’s world, modern medicine does a pretty good job of fixing injuries. Doctors and hospitals are at their best when lancing an abscess, healing a third degree burn or stitching up a head wound. Modern urban life too is fairly conducive to recovery. If you think it’s tough managing in an apartment and/or office with a broken leg, try doing it without crutches, running water or food delivery apps.

The flip side to all this [there had to be a flip side, didn’t there?] is that illness is much less prevalent when you lead a physical, outdoor life in the middle of nowhere. In Sapiens, Harari asserts that infectious diseases, the great scourge of the agricultural and industrial eras, started to hound humans when we began to domesticate animals and live cheek-by-jowl with our chickens and cows as well as each other. Certainly history has plenty of examples of the decimation by disease that can occur when members of a ‘civilised’ society make contact with previously isolated forager peoples; witness Tasmania. The life expectancy of your average hunter gatherer was so short because of the great physical risks facing them not because of fevers and plagues; they were in much better health than their farmer and office-goer descendants.

A similar picture emerges with lifestyle diseases. Indigenous peoples whose traditional way of life is disturbed or destroyed by modern society, and ‘progress’, become easy prey to things like obesity, diabetes and addition. And if modern medicine has not been successful in eradicating and treating infectious diseases – think of the common cold and the ever controversial vaccine programmes – it has certainly failed to control and solve lifestyle diseases. Sewing up the stomach of an obese man or administering morphine to wean an addict off heroin are not exactly solutions.

Here at the Wildside there are many less bugs doing the rounds because we are in contact with far fewer humans (although we are now taking our life in our hands with the acquisition of four chickens and a duck called Cluck). Our lifestyle to a large extent precludes lifestyle diseases. And the combination of day-long movement, abundant fresh air and sunshine, good appetites and good food, and dusk-to-dawn sleep keep our immune systems strong. In some respects then we have then traded illness for injury. While we can never be complacent about the very real risk to life and limb from say a krait bite, we count ourselves lucky to be hale and hearty.

Sapiens

Historical books are not normally on my non-fiction reading list; mugging up endless lists such as ‘What were the causes of the second world war?’ for A Level history was more than sufficient to kill any lingering interest I had in the subject. So when Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was discussed and recommended, as it has been often and variously over the last year or two, I never really intended to read the thing. Sapiens though as it turns out is unlike most history books.

For a start, unlike his more timid state-the-fact and then retreat colleagues, once Harari has all the research and information at his finger tips he isn’t scared of joining the dots as he sees them and offering at times invigorating new perspectives. Our indifference towards the animals that become the meat on our plate for instance is presented as the same indifference civilised nations had for those abducted from Africa for the slave trade. We need our bacon and eggs just as people then needed their sugar; and the businessmen in the middle both needed their profits. It’s not cruelty but disregard. Not that that makes any difference to the victims.

Harari does make some bold and often questionable assertions. While his description of animism changing into polytheism changing into monotheism is convincing, his assertion that intelligent design is a modern invention of man (think genetic engineering and cyborgs) and that up until this point everything has been driven by evolution alone is less so. And not all will agree with him that humans are on the verge of becoming “a-mortal”, that nothing but a few years’ more research and a fat cheque book are all that stand between us and the defeat of death. On the whole though he talks a lot of sense and is fairly even-handed. Money is, he argues, “the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised”, and a wonderful unifier of mankind. On the other hand, “as money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace.” Similarly he sees the history of mankind neither as a path to “inevitable progress” nor as a banishment from the utopia of our original nature-dwelling forebears, but rather something in the middle.

This is the bigger (though not the whole) picture writ large, and Harari succeeds in challenging many of our long-held and unquestioned perspectives on humankind as we know it. For instance, Homo sapiens as a species is not a natural food chain topper. For most of our existence, we were firmly in the middle, and our niche as Harari puts it to use tools to break open the bones left by scavengers such as hyenas after a big cat kill. Our big brains seem to have given us very little evolutionary advantage for a good millenia or two, taking up a lot of energy and giving us precious little in return. It was our use of fire which helped us move up the food chain. It also allowed us to cook our food, thus reducing the time and energy needed for digestion and freeing us up for other things. What really set and sets us apart though from our animal brethren though is our ability to think and communicate things beyond empirical reality (many other animals have languages but as far as we know use them only to state facts, such as ‘Lion coming. Run!’), and then collectively believe in these “common myths” as Harari calls them. Thus a heterogenous group of Homo sapiens living on a rather rainy, grey island collectively believed in the idea of Britain as a nation to which the all belonged and thus came together to fight Hitler in the second world war. No other animal has or can ever cooperate in such numbers. Our closest relative the chimpanzee forms groups of 20-50, and almost never more than 100. This is our forte: large scale cooperation. And indeed as Harari sees it these collectively held fictions – which include money, religions, nations, ideologies, the economy, the law and institutions such as companies, universities and governments – have over centuries and millennia helped to unify all of our species. From local and diverse we are becoming global and homogenous, and there ain’t nothing we can do about it.

Infatuated as I currently am with hunter-gatherers and their lifestyle, the first half of the book demanded my special attention. It is perhaps no longer headline stuff to acknowledge that Homo sapiens has been a hunter-gathering species for almost the entirety of its existence and that consequently we are physically, mentally and socially designed for such a lifestyle, hence our inability to resist eating the entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (carpe calories or die). Even within this though there is much new stuff to digest, such as our innate terror of maths – our brains evolved to acquire and process vast amounts of incredibly complex information about the flora, fauna and landscape we live with and in, not to do algebra. In fact many modern hunter gatherer communities have no words for numbers beyond one and two.

For several years now rewilders, paeleo dieters and other slightly fanatic mainstream-bailers including myself have been debating how we as hunter gatherers used to live. If we could just figure this out, we could perhaps fix our own broken existence and live happily ever after. The problem though as Harari explains is that we have almost no idea how they lived. Ancient hunter gatherers neither built things nor acquired things, so left no trace. And modern hunter gatherers are probably unrepresentative, living as they do either in complete isolation due to inhospitable terrain or influenced by nearby agricultural societies. All that we can tell from modern hunter gatherers is that they are so varied that it’s difficult to see any general truths. (Although Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday does find some significant commonalities.)

What we do know is that they were far healthier physically than the farmers who came after them. This fact it seems is fairly simple to explain: their diet was wonderfully varied rather than being dependent on the grain crop(s); their daily life demanded a variety of often skilled movement rather than the repetitive and brute force required by agriculture (think balancing on branches to get a honeycomb vs hacking away at hard soil to plant next year’s crop); their children were breastfed until around the age of four, which also thus became the minimum age gap between siblings, giving mothers a break from childbirth and small children lots of care and nutrition without a rival; and they were not prey to the infectious diseases such as measles and small pox which were introduced to humankind by the animals we domesticated. In addition, we can imagine that hunter gatherers led much more interesting and varied lives, and worked much less than the vast majority of their descendants. Foragers even in a place as challenging to live as the Kalahari Desert still only ‘work’ about 40 hours a week. (Jean Liedloff said that the Yequana didn’t even have a word for the concept of ‘work’; there was no work/pleasure distinction). As a hunter gatherer you have no home to build, maintain and protect; no crops and livestock to nurture. harvest and store;and almost no clothes and possessions to make or buy, look after and guard.

Perhaps the biggest news though in Harari’s discussion of this period is that our brains may have actually shrunk since the agricultural revolution. Unlike the typical representation of our cave-man ancestors, to survive and pass on your genes in the pre-agricultural world you had to be physically and mentally extremely sharp and skilled. To be a farmer requires much less skill. To be an office-goer, even less.

So why did we as a species switch from foraging to farming? Well it wasn’t intentional of course, and even if we could convince people with hindsight that the agricultural revolution really was “history’s biggest fraud”, there is no going back because we are far too many now to survive except by intensive farming or by massively reducing our numbers. And this brings us to the other perspective. The agricultural revolution was a huge biological triumph for us as a species. We increased in number from an insignificant few to our current world-dominating 8 billion, as indeed did the chickens and pigs and cows we domesticated. On an individual level, our lot, and that of the battery chicken, is far worse than our ancestors; on the collective level we are the success story of the universe.

Harari doesn’t idealise – well at least not too much – the life of hunter gatherers. They were prey literally to a lot, and if someone were injured, or a twin, or ill, he or she might well be thrown out of the group and left to die. What for me though was a major revelation is the impact hunter gatherers had on their surroundings. For a start, there were many different species of humans and it’s not clear why the others, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, died out but Homo sapiens looks like a likely culprit. Secondly, the blitzkreig we are unleashing on the world’s fauna and flora right now is not the first nor the second but the third wave extinction. The second came with the agricultural revolution. The first with hunter gatherer groups as they moved out of the Afro-Asian landmass in which they had originated. Within a thousand years of Homo sapiens’ first footprint in Australia, the local mega fauna, including a marsupial lion, a 200kg kangaroo and the diprotodon (a 2.5 ton wombat for those that didn’t know), was wiped out. As a species we thankfully didn’t leave our incredibly destructive mark on the ocean’s creatures, until now that is.

If only we could have read this kind of history book in school.