Chapter 10: The Wealth of the Social Landscape

From the moment of my first visit to Bangladesh in the mid 1990s I was uplifted and strengthened by the political and spiritual ideas and practice of the Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agriculture Movement) and UBINIG (Bengali acronym for Research on Alternative Development), the non-governmental organization established by Farhad Mazhar and Farida Akhter to support the movement. It brings together some 300,000 Bangladeshi farmers in a common framework of ecological agriculture and celebration of the joys of life. It is the most original rural movement I have ever come across, and deserves vastly more attention and support than it has received to date.

My travel to Bangladesh initially focused on cultivated agricultural biodiversity, the topic that first took me to South Asia for IDRC. Soon, however, I became fascinated with the culture, landscape and people of this improbable country. My passport accumulated three and sometimes four Bangladesh visas a year for many years, and I created the unwarranted impression among Bengalis that I spoke the language. There was even a room in one of the UBINIG centres known as “Daniel’s room.” Farhad fondly chided me recently for not visiting in some time, saying that when he sleeps in the room people ask him, “Why are you using Daniel’s room?”

I felt not only welcome in the farmer centres run by UBINIG, but also at home in the rural landscape. Bangladesh is a lush and green country for the most part, and more water than land at some times of the year. The fields around Tangail in central Bangladesh, the centre I spent the most time in, are bound by narrow bunds and simple dirt tracks connecting people and villages. Human figures dot the landscape in all directions, collecting grass, grazing a few goats, carrying a head-load of jute stalks, or simply walking to and from their home. Everything seems connected in a slow dance, bathed in the sun and embraced by humidity. My response to the heat was to relax and let the sweat absorb into the long cotton shirt or kurta Farhad had ordered for me. In the privacy of the walled centre, I wore a lungi , a bolt of cotton cloth wrapped around the waste like a skirt. I loved the feeling of air moving on my legs, but had to constantly adjust the knot to keep it from slipping off to the ground. Pants were safer when visiting and facilitating work in villages.

The Nayakrishi Andolon is guided by ten rules establishing a foundation for farmers to shift from industrial or traditional farming to ecological farming. The first is the absolute rejection of pesticides and harmful chemicals in agriculture. “They are poison to health,” proclaims one of the many T-Shirts from UBINIG I picked up in the early 2000s and still wear on occasion. I experienced the benefits of the rule through the food I ate at the UBINIG centres — red rice now prescribed by doctors in Bangladesh for cardiac health, lady fingers cooked in a light curry sauce that reduces inflammation in the body, steamed greens with onion and potato imbued with dense nutrition, and tiny, calcium-rich fish you can eat whole or strip clean through your teeth.

“Keep seeds in your hands, Sisters” is another rule. Ecological farming uses biodiversity to protect crops from disease and pests, ensure optimal use of available soil, water, and air and provide a wide range of food items good to eat at different times of the year. Satheesh calls this kind of farming, also practised in the Deccan, “a ready-made supermarket: nutritious eating, tasty eating, varied eating, culturally satisfying eating.” Keeping their own seed not only helps farmers remain self-reliant, it also protects the biodiversity the community needs to keep agriculture local and adapted to local conditions. “After a recent flood,” Farida remarked over zoom call a few months back, “the variety of seed types conserved by farming women were able to support others that had lost seed of a particular crop. Untimely rains, flood, drought and other conditions made worse by climate change are all reasons to keep seeds in your hands.”

In the early morning I would visit the “Community Seed Wealth Centres” established in every UBINIG centre. A sturdy bamboo and palm structure, the centres are stocked with samples of several hundred rice varieties stored in clay pots made locally and, for parts of the year, sealed with a mixture of mud and neem leaves to control insects. Vegetable seeds are stored in small glass bottles, suspended in colourful macrame holders to maximize the storage space. Gourds have their own protective shells. Sitting on lattice work shelves that allow air to circulate, each one stores a unique variety of pumpkin or squash. The seed caretaker, always a woman, periodically empties the pots and spreads the stored seed out on woven palm mats to dry, choosing sunlight for some species, shade for others and moonlight for delicate seed types. The depth of women’s knowledge embodied in seed is breathtaking.

The term “community seed wealth centre” may seem quaint, or even a little awkward in English, but it is profoundly political in meaning. It intentionally eschews use of the term “seed bank” associated with the Green Revolution centres where I worked in the early 1990s and that hold most of the world’s agricultural seed diversity. While in theory the diversity in seed banks is held “in trust,” the commercial character of the banking metaphor aligns with much of what actually happens with the intellectual property bound up in every seed variety developed over decades and even centuries by farming communities. Commercial seed companies benefit disproportionately from these seed collections by adding and patenting a minor quality or reproductive lock to the original seed (aptly dubbed “terminator technology” by Pat Mooney, the Canadian founder of the ETC Group).

By contrast, the term “community seed wealth” communicates the collective origins of all seed inventions, who the seed currently belongs to and the abundance seed represents beyond the notion of money. The centres also put into action the practice of in-situ conservation of agricultural biodiversity, a scientifically recognized approach that contrasts with and is sometimes seen as a complement to ex-situ conservation in gene banks. To stay relevant, crop genetic resources must be actively managed by farming communities, and not simply “frozen” in time outside of the agricultural system as in ex-situ conservation. In situ, or on-farm conservation of crop biodiversity, acknowledges that plants are living organisms co-evolving in a given environment. The steady stream of farmers I saw visit the seed wealth centres, exchanging seed of their own for a variety they wanted to try, gave a human face to technical concept. I take pride in having contributed to the outcome. “The small funding you provided from IDRC, and our many discussions about seed, inspired me a lot. Seed is thriving now. It is important given the climate crisis. You are part of this result.”

Somehow the Nayakrishi Andolon has managed to sustain itself as a national ecological farming movement and coherent set of ideas and practices, despite periods of national turmoil, destructive international policies, and the ebb and flow of external funding for UBINIG, the animating organization. Farhad’s explanation is that “Nayakrishi is a powerful way of doing things, in real life, not some fancy idea that doesn’t work.” It sustains itself by virtue of the strength of the practice, and steady innovation. Our goal now,” continued Farida, “is to strengthen the capacity of Nayakrishi farmers to share their surplus with the broader community.” UBINIG does this by organizing farmers to get the most from local markets and also stock shops in Dhaka with fish, vegetables, chickens, mustard oil, puffed rice and milk produced without chemicals. The demand, and willingness to pay for pesticide-free produce among the middle and upper classes in Dhaka, is strong and helps to give Nayakrishifarmers an advantage in the market place.

“We continue to learn,” said Farida. “Recently we have understood much better how to link poultry, a good source of income, with ecological farming and fish ponds.” Integration of the three, it turns out, greatly reduces the costs of production. Some 70% of the food for chicks comes from grass, cow dung, and insects on the land, and only 30% from purchased or cultivated grains. Avoiding closed spaces eliminates the use of antibiotics and helps with management of the excreta, deposited on the land in the day and into the water of fish pond when the chickens are roosting overhead at night. Fish eat the algae blooming from the waste, completing the nutrient cycle. The biological outputs of one are the biological inputs of another, maintained and reproduced within a community and between human communities and nature: Chickens, biodiversity rich farming, fish ponds, exchanges of income and food in a social landscape. “There is only one problem,” Farida said to me with a smile, “there are many more cocks in the flocks, and they are shouting all day.”

Biodiversity is not cultivated[1]

When I was a young child my mother would regularly serve me green peas from a can. Whenever I could, I would take a few in my fingers and crush them into an edge under the table, out of sight and out of my mouth. Only later, in the late 60s, when frozen peas became readily available, did I learn to tolerate them. While I have fond memories of other food my mother made for me, green vegetables was not one of them.

This experience of food, probably common among North Americans of the 50s and 60s industrial era, was very different from the experience of most South Asians of the same generation, regardless of economic class. Nostalgia for mother’s food includes a wide range of dishes made with leafy greens, small tubers and roots, leaves of trees, and hearts of stalks and grasses. These are normally collected from the borders between fields, along roadsides, in small patches of forest or fallow land, in ponds and other water bodies, as well as in the cultivated fields and homesteads. They make delicious green curries. We call these food sources, flourishing in the interstices of the public and the private, the uncultivated biodiversity of the social landscape.

During a workshop on uncultivated biodiversity organized in Tangail, Bangladesh, by members of the South Asia Network on Food, Ecology, and Culture (SANFEC), participants were invited to search the surrounding rural landscape for plants they recognized and prepare a dish to be shared with others. Local women accompanied people from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka to ensure that dangerous plants were not selected in error, and helped them with preparations. I sat out of the exercise, with no personal history or knowledge to draw on. Because I did not know how to cook anything I might see on the landscape, none of it was food to me. The realization made me feel vulnerable, although fortunately for me others served many tasty dishes by the end of the morning.

I learned from this experience, and research undertaken by members of SANFEC, that the collection of uncultivated plants merges seamlessly with the science and technology of cooking. The plants are food sources only if one knows how to cook them. This knowledge determines the collection, and alters the dividing line between the edible and the non-edible, the nourishing and the merely compostable plants.

Mothers and grandmothers are the repositories of this knowledge. As they light the chula, a conical clay stand used to concentrate fire on the cooking pot, they send the girls in the household to collect the plants they want for the meal. The boys are also helpful in the collection of leafy greens, roots and tubers such as the lotus from the rainy season water bodies. Typically, they combine this activity after school with the collection of mollusks to feed to ducks and small fish captured with a small fishing net or even by hand in shallow puddles formed by tidal forces. Within 15 to 30 minutes the children gather the items and bring them home where they are sorted, checked for spider eggs and other insects, and washed until the water is clean of dirt. The leaves are then drained in a bamboo tray or kept in a bowl, depending on whether the remaining water is to be used for cooking. The plants are cooked as soon as they are collected, unless they are left overnight on the roof to ferment for the next day’s morning meal.

The role of cooking in the development of human societies is a specialist’s theme in anthropology, but a vitally important practice for people anywhere that make use of food sources available in the landscape. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, author of “the cooking hypothesis,” argues that cooking, and in particular cooking of tubers, is what made us human.[2] Cooking de-natures proteins, gelatinizes starches, and helps kill pathogens. This makes it easier for our guts to absorb calories, diverting energy from chewing and digesting foods toward the expansion of the brain, the distinguishing evolutionary development in the emergence of Homo erectus. Not all anthropologists agree with him, however. The dominant hypothesis is that hunting and a change to eating meat caused the evolutionary shift to smaller guts and larger brains. Cooking came later. While gender is not central to the scientific debate, it is not difficult to imagine the implications of the competing theories: either meat-hunting men or tuber-cooking women are responsible for the evolutionary development of the human species.

The contemporary significance of women’s knowledge of cooking became clear to Farhad, Satheesh, Farida and I when we started collecting information on how poor people survive. Even finding them to interview was difficult at first. “When we asked, where are the poorest of the poor,” Farida remarked, “the answer came back, chak meaning ‘out there’ in the open fields.”

They were collecting their family’s daily nourishment from the road side, from government lands, or while doing weeding work for landowners. As they moved through a cultivated field, they made two piles of weeds, plants for humans and plants for other animals, bringing both home as part of their wages from nature. Without damaging the growing plant, they also collected the secondary parts of cultivated crops such as jute leaf, pumpkin leaf, amaranth leaves and the tender leaves of potato. “This relationship with cultivated and uncultivated spaces and the gifts of nature,” Farhad noted, “was initially hidden by our own biases and a narrow focus on the cultivated components of agriculture.”

Living and hunting for caribou in the Yukon had shown me the value of “wild foods” and their role in the contemporary culture and diet of Indigenous peoples and some rural Canadians. I also knew about “famine foods” referenced by humanitarian agencies as making the difference between those that live and those that die during times of extreme hardship. The contribution of leafy greens to meeting the more regular nutritional needs of vulnerable groups such as young children and pregnant women was also well documented, and a central preoccupation of IDRC’s Micronutrient Initiative upstairs from where I had worked in Ottawa. What Farhad, Satheesh and Farida brought to the discussion through their research on uncultivated biodiversity was entirely original, pointing to a social landscape where food, ecology and culture converge.

“Our attention to uncultivated foods should not be seen as a preoccupation solely with an agriculture of the disadvantaged,” noted Farhad. “Rather, it is a lens through which to question mainstream concepts of agriculture, irrespective of the communities with whom we work.” We found that the totality of both cultivated and uncultivated biodiversity and its availability mattered, not just the crops harvested per unit of land. Food security, the elusive goal of international development organizations across the world, was being ensured by ecological and biodiverse farming practices and social systems that provide ready access to both cultivated and uncultivated sources of food, fodder and fuel. Women mediated the relationship through the technology of cooking.

Farmer women of Medak on the dry Deccan Plateau in India were Satheesh lives use 79 different species of uncultivated leafy greens as food, providing to their diets outstanding sources of vitamin A, calcium, zinc, magnesium, manganese, copper and phosphorous important to human health. Many of the plants are rich in iron, and therefore helpful in the prevention of Iron Deficiency Anemia, a condition especially harmful for pregnant women and their babies. “What do you mean by weeds?” asks Eeramma, an older woman farmer from village Shekhapur in the Deccan. “There is nothing like a weed in our agriculture. We eat whatever grows on our land. If we can’t, our cattle eat them. There is no weed on our land.”

For the very poor in the agricultural villages where Farhad and Farida live in Bangladesh, uncultivated food sources make up an average of 65 percent of the food by weight, and among middle and better-off households around 35 percent. These numbers show that plants and animals that uncultivated biodiversity provides a very large and nutritionally strategic portion of the food needs of community members across all social classes. Animal feed and fuel are also drawn in large part from uncultivated sources. “You do not need to spend money for the uncultivated food. It is available,” says Saleha Begum, a young Bangladeshi mother responsible for feeding herself and two children while her husband is away for long periods working as a laborer. While caloric intake is low, starvation, chronic undernourishment and obesity are virtually absent.

What was most surprising to us, however, came from a deeper assessment of the survival strategies of the very poor. In the development industry they are sometimes called “the hard core poor,” and often considered beyond reach. They make up roughly 20% of the population in many rural villages of South Asia, so a significant failing in conventional poverty alleviation programs. The picture that emerges from poor people’s own accounts of daily activities points poverty alleviation in an entirely different direction. It shows us that poor families in biodiversity-rich landscapes do not only consume what they collect, they also exchange these plants and animals with others to get other things they need. Most of the exchanges are with better-off women because the better-off will not go out themselves to collect the leafy greens they want to eat and prepare for their families. The transactions usually don’t involve cash, but rather other products such as broken rice or rice husks used as feed for chickens, or paddy straw used as fodder for cows. The exchanges between women of different economic circumstances makes it possible for the very poor to keep hens and ducks, and perhaps even a cow as an income-earning activity.

The reciprocity crosses other boundaries as well. There is demand in the local markets for uncultivated leafy greens and small fish, particularly during the monsoon when cultivated vegetables and protein sources are scarce and expensive. This is a period when the risk of micronutrient deficiencies is greatest for vulnerable populations such as women who are pregnant or menstruating and young children. Greens are sold by the poor to get money to purchase other household goods such as soap, oil, salt, spices and clothes. Other so-called waste products are also transformed into sources of income. Cow or bullock paddies, for example, picked up from a road or pathway and applied to a jute stalk makes a valuable fuel for sale during periods of the year when fuel is scarce. All are direct community contributions from the poorest of women. In return, the uncultivated and cultivated biodiversity available to them in the landscape and through their relationships with others in the community sustains them. Our calculations show that in villages where biodiversity-rich farming is the norm and the customary rights of the poor to collect food from their surroundings are respected, the poorest of the poor earn almost 100 percent of their livelihood from uncultivated plant and animal sources. These ecological and ethical relations fashion a “social landscape,” a kind of safety net and community builder, that ensures survival, no matter how difficult that may be.

On Property and Memory

While the farming enthusiast in me was intrigued by the fresh perspective on the contribution of uncultivated biodiversity to food production and rural livelihoods, it was the complexity of the social network enabling access to food that turned my head. When stopped at a bridge overlooking flooded fields in Bangladesh, Farhad asked me, “Who do you think owns the water?” The question had never occurred to me and my response turned first to the owners of the flooded land. Then I noticed boys fishing in a culvert below the bridge and dozens of lift nets scattered across the landscape as far as I could see. “Bangladesh is a land of water,” said Farhad. When the land floods during the monsoon, he explained, water flows in and out of the private spaces, converting them into a kind of “private commons” available for fishing to any member of the community.

Community definitions of property rights blur the boundary between private and collective ownership in a myriad of other ways. In Cox’s Bazaar, a coastal region of Bangladesh I visited frequently, community mangrove forests protect the shoreline from ocean storms and create breeding habit for fish. They also contain grasses useful to grazing animals. Overgrazing, however, threatens everything by exposing the soil to erosion. The solution, in place for as long as people can remember, is to prohibit direct grazing by animals and allow people to cut and carry the nutritious grasses. I could see people with bundles of grass on their heads as I made my way by boat up one of the coastal rivers. The detail that made the management practice work, however, is an additional rule stipulating that the grass has to be cut by the person using it. The rule effectively blocks use of this common-pool resource by wealthy individuals, who would not consider cutting their own grass. Sending hired labor to cut won’t work either because everyone can see, and potentially complain, if that happens. The transparent and easily verifiable rule sustains the resource for smallholders willing to do their own work, and protects the interests of fishers and other villagers dependent on the mangroves for protection from ocean surges.

Satheesh offered other examples from the Medak in India. “It is a common sight in the Deccan to see women go with one or two goats when they leave home for weeding in someone else’s field and graze them in a limited area while they are working. The farmer is happy with this arrangement because the animals deposit urine and dung on her or his farm, increasing the fertility of the soil.” The castes on the margins are also a part of the barter system in Medak. Satheesh explains, “The Begaris are the grave diggers for the community and the Madigas do the ‘undoable’ jobs like disposing of cattle carcasses. They come to the field the day after the harvest and go straight to the threshing floor where any grain leftover is theirs, no questions asked. They are also entitled to go round the harvested fields collecting fallen grains, an activity that can easily result in 30 to 40 kilograms of grain over a few days.”

When I saw a women and her child pulling up and pounding sugar cane roots in a field at first I had no idea why they would be doing this. Farida, who stopped to talk with them, explained that the roots are burned for fuel. “It also helps clean the field for the next crop, which benefits the land owner.” As I reflect today on the implications of the practice of gleaning, and the multitude of arrangements between bigger farmers and workers and among different occupational castes, I remember the 1857 painting “The Gleaners” by the French artist Jean-François Millet. In the foreground are three peasant women, strong bodied, tanned skinned and modestly dressed, gleaning stalks of wheat after the harvest. The abundant harvested crop, field workers, and an overseer on horseback occupy the background. The women are blocked visually from the background harvest by furrows in the ground and the watchful eye of the overseer.

The art, depicting class strife on a large-scale farm, was openly scorned when it was shown in the Paris Salon because it made the French middle and upper classes, still reeling from the French Revolution of 1848, feel uncomfortable and threatened by the perspective that French society was built upon the labor of working people. The art historian, Bradley Fratello, argues, however, that the political content of the work was radically transformed later in the century. Millet’s many scenes of peasant life, and the class conflict they portrayed, gradually became veiled in nostalgia tinged with guilt. By the turn of the 19th century the work had become part of the cultural legacy of la France profonde, a patriotic and touristic embrace of what France had been and what they dreamed it could become again.[3]

Our exploration of the survival strategies of the very poor in South Asia was not an exercise in romanticism and nostalgia, blind to suffering, class conflict and severe exploitation at the hands of local people. Traditional community institutions are often inequitable and may be unjust, a reality explored in the chapter on Nahua caciques in Mexico and raised by “The Anthropologist” in the chapter on cultivating peace. Pushing local institutions aside and enclosing public and private spaces, the dominant policy response to the problems of common pool resources, comes with real costs, however. “The use of uncultivated biodiversity is a real survival strategy built up by rural communities over the course of human history,” wrote Farhad. “It should not be ignored.”

Satheesh recounts the traumatic experience of a severe famine in Medak twenty years ago, “The memory still haunts people and when they narrate their survival strategies, uncultivated foods occupy centre-stage.” Sangamma, a woman farmer from Hoti-B village said, “At the time of drought, we ate Nakka Thoka (seeds from a wild grass resembling fox tail millet) with the leaves of Doggali and chiles. I gathered about four bags of seed from a field.” The private property distinction vanished during this period in a sharing atmosphere and the use of uncultivated foods increased proportionately. The communities did not expect to be rescued by the charity of the powerful or technology of corporate agriculture. Nor were they helplessly mired in a famine trap beyond their control. Food was available by virtue of the diversity of the farming system and relationships among people.

Reflecting on the policy implications of what we had found, we wrote: “Until and unless governments can absolutely guarantee significant new rural employment for the very poor, something that has been impossible to achieve for decades and in light of current trends fades even further from sight, it is irrational and unethical to destroy what currently sustains life and keeps certain obligations alive.”

Ecological Ethics

The Indian economist and feminist scholar, Bina Agarwal, wrote the Foreword to our book Food Sovereignty and Uncultivated Biodiversity in South Asia, published by IDRC and Academic Foundation, an Indian publisher. She said, “This book is an eye-opener. It makes us see much that we would casually walk past, that we might never taste, that we cannot purchase. It compels us to rethink what constitutes food security, women’s knowledge systems, and common pool resources.” The contribution of the practice raises fundamental questions regarding how to feed people everywhere. Is industrial agriculture, which destroys all life except a few privileged food sources, the best way to feed the world? “We should not presume that the present rationality of industrial agriculture is a universal path,” Farhad said recently. “The future of agriculture must allow genuine experiments people are doing with their lives, not by universalizing them but rather learning from them and from what we have lost from the past.” The sense of loss and remembrance felt by South Asians thinking about the food their mothers made for them is an invitation to re-imagine alternative futures everywhere.

It was a disappointment to me that the book received little attention from policy makers, academics or NGOs in the field, a regret I feel even today as I write about the experience. I had designed the book as a series of essays and, with help from Justin Wonnacott, an Ottawa-based photographer friend, filled it with photographs from my own work and the work of the UBINIG and DDS photographers. The effort, which took several years to finally accomplish amid competing priorities, represented for me the integration of text and visual ideas needed to convey the way of life and insight I had witnessed. It included a collection of short films on agricultural biodiversity produced by Satheesh’s team and the SANFEC network, including the film on the South Asia-Canada Exchange on the Future of Agriculture. Justin, through his design, helped to make the publication a work of art. After publication, and circulation of a few hundred copies to SANFEC partners in the region, the book languished. Without my position at IDRC to promote it, the policy contributions of the book remained buried by the cacophony of voices competing for attention on the international development scene. It also lacked the literature review needed to appeal to academics by situating and highlighting the intellectual contributions of the work. I don’t know what more I could have done, however, and it remains a beautiful book I am proud of.

The experience of researching and writing the book offered me something else only hinted at in the publication. It brought me firmly into the orbit of the spiritual tradition of Lalon Shah, the 19th Century Bengali poet whose work Farhad has introduced me to and with which the Nayakrishi farmers had formed a deep bond. As I came to understand, Lalon’s teachings, carefully and lovingly modernized by Farhad’s critical and creative mind, reclaim ecology and ethics in the context of spiritual knowledge. Take for example the understanding of waste in the factor model of production. A factory typically focuses on the production of a single commodity and relies on an uninterrupted flow of external inputs. Furthermore, it is not capable of recycling its own wastes internally, generating social and environmental impacts the one-dimensional world of mainstream economics calls “externalities.” By contrast, waste, like weeds, has no existence in nature, nothing that separates it from the unity of nature. This idea contributes very concretely to the ecological movement, elevating composting, agricultural biodiversity, and farming practices that avoid harmful chemicals to a spiritual level:

Lalon’s teachings and Nayakrishi farming are the same thing. It is a way of being and thinking where all your faculties get involved. Plowing, sowing seed, harvesting: all your faculties are sensuously engaged with nature. When you think about nature intellectually, nature becomes an object of thought. Nature is seen either as a means for consumption or a means for producing something. Problems appear from the intellectual assumption this creates of separation from nature. In truth, we dwell in nature. This form of human being, manifesting with all faculties through active engagement with nature, is where we are both nature and human, not separate. The consequences of forgetting that we dwell in nature are profound. It ends in climate disaster and destruction of the whole life world.

As I write these words, garnered from a single conversation with Farhad, I ask myself: “What does it mean for me to dwell in nature in this place at this time?” It is minus 36 C with the wind chill outside today, and tomorrow the temperature is expected to swing up to above freezing before dropping again the following day. Climate chaos. Earlier today I watched a red cardinal puff up its feathers as it perched at the bird-feeder. Later, a peregrine falcon descended into a tree in my backyard. The small birds were nowhere to be seen. Now, having just returned from a walk in the woods, my fingers still struggle to find their way on the keyboard. Mother, what will you feed me? The tea I made for myself from the Chaga mushroom collected from a birch tree last summer? Acorn flour from burr oak nuts soaked for 7 days to remove the tannins? Yes, wild-crafting is important, despite the inconvenience. So too is the militancy I feel as I grapple with feelings of despair, anger at others for their complacency, and frustration with the fragmentation of the social movements needed to build another possible world. And every day, as part of our dinner grace, I thank the farmers and creation for the food we eat.

Image: Lalon disciples singing the songs he composed.

[1]: This section draws from text by Farhad Mazhar, myself, P.V. Satheesh and Farida Akhter, published in “Food Sovereignty and Uncultivated Biodiversity in South Asia,” IDRC and Academic Press, 2007.

[2]: Wrangham, R. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Basic Books, New York.

[3]: Bradley Fratello, 2003. France Embraces Millet: The Intertwined Fates of “The Gleaners” and “The Angelus.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 85, No. 4, pp. 685-701.

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