Thursday, July 05, 2007

My Tukanoan garden

I have been reading The Forest Within by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1996) about the Tukano Amazonian Indians. I have been very struck by the chapter on their gardens and some of the parallels with what they do, and what I do in Emthree (but is not generally done in our culture):

"The Tukanoans always practise selective weeding and should the women find a tree seedling growing through the litter, they will carefully preserve it.

Although most of the area is occupied by manioc, the emphasis is upon diversity. Tukanoan cultivated lands are not fields in our sense, but are mixed gardens with a variety of cultigens. According to the Indians, plants grow better as parts of a diversified plot than in monoculture. People are equally opposed to the idea of domestication; in their view fruit trees, medicinal plants, toxic or narcotic plants develop best if left in their original environment where they can grow in permanent interaction with the local climate, soil, flora and fauna. A fruit tree, they point out, has its pollinators which, in turn, interact in their own way and have their own cycles. A tree may have its insect pests or vertebrate predators, but it also has its defenders; it has its vines and creepers and epiphytes, but they all have a function to fulfil in the tree’s life, and if this interaction is disturbed, the tree won’t thrive.

Part of the diversity one finds in a Tukanoan garden plot consists in the tangle of metre-high charred stumps, fallen trunks, upturned roots, lopped-off branches, vines and underbrush. The Indians run like squirrels over the skeletons of fallen trees, but a city-dweller will have difficulties in balancing along the slippery or rotting trunks, and in passing from one to another. To call this a garden and to claim that this could be a model for a sustained development seems ludicrous, but we shall soon learn otherwise.

What may look to us like a primitive clearing in the rainforest, in reality is an intentional combination of many components. In the first place, the litter of rotting wood, leafy shrubs and carbonised branches is, in the Indian’s view, an important part of the process of cultivation; it contains nutrients (‘energies’) not present in the soil, but which come ‘from above’, and which provide the cultivated species with an articulation with the forest environment, an interaction the Indians believe to be essential. This is not a ‘clearing’ in the forest or a ‘cultivated’ spot in a hostile environment, but a safe-hold, a second home where things may be grown thanks to the forest. In the second place, the felled litter attracts several important species of prey animals: paca, agouti, cavi, deer and armadillo. In this manner, a cultivated plot is an excellent place for what has been called garden-hunting. As the Indians see it, it is a bait, a trap set right in the forest. Next to attracting game, this environment attracts many insects, butterflies and beetles, and these in turn attract birds and lizards. In this variety of life-forms the Indians see a condensation of energies, of pollinators and activators of the cycles of insemination, growth and decay."

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