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A Lesson in Conservation

I grew up in the mountains of South India. My parents were missionaries to the tribal people of the hills, and our lives were about as simple as they could be—and as happy….

Rice was an important food for all of us. And since there was no level ground for wet cultivation, it was grown all along the streams that ran down the land's gentle slopes. These slopes had been patiently terraced hundreds of years before; and now every one was perfectly level, and bordered at its lower margin by an earthen dam covered by grass. Each narrow dam served as a footpath across the line of terraces, with a level field of mud and water six inches below its upper edge and another level terrace two feet below. There were no steep or high drop-offs, so there was little danger of collapse…

And it was here I learned my first lesson on conservation.

I was playing in the mud of a rice field with a half-dozen other little boys. We were racing to see who would be the first to catch three frogs. …Suddenly, we were all scrambling to get out of the paddy. One of the boys had spotted an old man walking across the path toward us. We all knew him as "Tata," or "Grandpa." He was the keeper of the dams. …Old age is very much respected in India, and we boys shuffled our feet and waited in silence for what we knew would be a rebuke.

He came over to us and asked us what we were doing. "Catching frogs," we answered. He stared down at the churned-up mud and flattened young rice plants in the corner where we had been playing. I was expecting him to talk about the rice seedlings we had just spoiled. Instead, the elder stooped down and scooped up a handful of mud. "What is this?" he asked. The biggest boy took the responsibility of answering for us all.

"It's mud, Tata," he replied.

"Whose mud is it?" the old man asked.

"It's your mud, Tata. This is your field."

Then the old man turned and looked at the nearest of the little channels across the dam. "What do you see there, in that channel?"

"That is water, running over into the lower field."

For the first time Tata looked angry. "Come with me and I will show you water." A few steps along the dam he pointed to the next channel, where clear water was running, "That is what water looks like," he said. Then we came back to our nearest channel, and he said again, "Is that water?"

We hung our heads. "No, Tata, that is mud."…

He went on to tell us that just one handful of mud would grow enough rice for one meal for one person, and it would do it twice every year for years and years into the future. "That mud flowing over the dam has given my family food since before I was born, and before my grandfather was born. It would have given my grandchildren and their grandchildren food forever. Now it will never feed us again. When you see mud in the channels of water, you know that life is flowing away from the mountains."

The old man walked slowly back across the path, pausing a moment to adjust with his foot the grass clod in our muddy channel so that no more water flowed through it. We were silent and uncomfortable as we went off to find some other place to play. I had experienced a dose of traditional Indian folk education that would remain with me as long as I lived. Soil is life, and every generation is responsible for all generations to come.

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