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Holding the Cosmos in Our Hands

“This is a seed. The seed comes from the tree, the tree comes from the seed. It’s like the chicken and the egg. If people want to understand it, they will break the seed apart -- they will actually kill it -- to see the cells, the chromosomes and the genetics. There is another way to look at this: I plant a seed in the ground with my hand. This seed needs moisture to germinate, which comes from the rain, which comes from the clouds, which comes from the ocean under the impact of the sun. So I am holding the ocean in my hand.” Bernard Declercq pauses with his wild white eyebrows arched and a widening grin, holding a seed in his hand. “It is the Cosmos! I plant a seed and a miracle happens -- something new is born out of this carbohydrate and protein, a new life is born. This is a miracle, you see? The miracle of life.”

Bernard, along with Deepika Kundaji, care for Pebble Garden, a 7-acre site in Pondicherry, India, devoted to forest restoration and seed conservation since 1994. Due to colonization, much of the land in Pondicherry is barren, an arid landscape with a few scruffy shrubs. The territory used to be home to a lush subtropical forest, but ongoing quarrels between French and British colonies led to cutting more and more of the forests to rebuild the settlements. Without the forests, the soil could no longer retain monsoon waters and therefore eroded immensely.

“We have places you need a hammer and a chisel to dig a hole in the ground to plant,” Bernard remarks. This situation is not unique to Pondicherry. Out of the 329 million hectares of land in India, 93 million hectares are in a similar condition, all from the deforestation of colonization. "If you go to South America, China, Africa, the Westerners have destroyed 3/4 of the world and are still doing it. I could tell you many stories but I'll stick to my own," claims Bernard.

Typical landscape in Pondicherry circa 1984. Due to repeated deforestation actions from both French and British colonies, the land in Pondicherry eroded and could no longer support life. (Image courtesy of Pebble Garden)

Bernard and Deepika set out to offer a model that could be replicated by two people dedicating a few hours a day to regenerate land.

They operate under two strict conditions:

  1. No hired labor, because they want to be able to find methods that only two people could do.
  2. No external inputs, because if this was to be possible for 93 million acres or more, buying that much soil would be impossible. Bernard explains that, “If we buy soil to regenerate this land, then we destroy another part. In the Economy of the Universe, we are making no difference.”

Before foreign influence, the villages maintained their own forests because they were dependent on the trees to build their huts and feed their animals. “But when the British came, they claimed all the forests and waterways as their property, and started the ‘Forest Department’ and the ‘Department of Public Works,’" Bernard states with frustrated sarcasm. “People had to steal from their own forests, and so they didn’t maintain it as well. So the whole system collapsed.”

Pebble Garden's method of soil-building: layer wet biomass, soil, and charcoal inoculated with urine and microbes. Click to learn how to build a charcoal kiln! (Photo credit: Lauren Ladov)

So how to build a forest and regenerate land? It starts with biomass, any organic material -- plant- or animal-based. All biomass consists mostly of oxygen and carbon, with small percentages of hydrogen and nitrogen.

“Did you eat rice at mealtime?” Bernard asks. “You paid a lot of money for air; 95 percent of what is growing is air, only 4-5 percent comes from the soil. Nature is very well done.”

To make biomass on barren land, however, is a difficult task. A pioneer species is needed to lead the effort and support all the other species. Pebble Garden started with an Australian acacia shrub variety that accidentally first appeared in Pondicherry 10 years prior, and now “grows like mad,” as Bernard puts it. While committed to restoring native species, Bernard chose this foreign shrub as the pioneer because it was the best option to bring back the rest of the natives, and it had already become a part of the landscape.

“We have changed our environments so much, our waters, our airs; nothing is pure anymore,” he adds.

The pioneer species not only provides biomass for topsoil-building to commence, but invites birds to return to the area by offering branches for them to perch. With the birds come seeds (through defecation). Small sprouts emerge from the soil, creating shade in the understory. Shade offers a habitable environment for termites, which break down biomass and build soil, which gain them the affectionate term of “soil factories” from Bernard. The chain of reactions turns and multiplies, and with some helping hands to design water retention strategies, and throwing in a few more seeds, soon enough a forest emerges. It has been 23 years since the first seed was planted, and today Pebble Garden is teeming with trees, vines, fruits, birds, animals, insects, and microorganisms.

The Soil Factories of termites at work, breaking down the biomass of palm fronds and leaves. (Photo credit: Lauren Ladov)

In the middle of this forest sits small beds for the seed-conservation efforts that Deepika oversees. She works with more than a hundred varieties of traditional vegetables that are nearing extinction, like 20 different varieties of brinjal (eggplant), 7 varieties of lady’s fingers (okra), all sorts of beans, greens, and chilis. Seeds are extracted, dried, saved, renewed every three years, and distributed at community seed festivals and exchanges. She chooses to save seeds that are more unique to the area or of cultural heritage importance. **

“If you plant a seed, you are a co-creator with nature because a new being is born. This being has sentiments, feelings, interactions, communications. It’s not stupid --it’s alive. And all life, whether it is my life or the seed’s life, we are linked,” Bernard says as he talks of the thousands of seed varieties humans have co-created with nature over the centuries through selection, play, and interaction.

"At one time, we had 200,000 rice varieties,” he declares, then rattles off a list of features: Rice varieties that grow overhead, varieties that can be harvested in 58 days, varieties that are scented, varieties that are all purple to designate them from nearby lookalike weeds, varieties that have more protein, varieties given to lactating mothers to stimulate milk production, varieties edible without boiling, varieties to make bread with, varieties for old people who cannot chew.

Bernard recalls certain contemporary farmers around the world who have tapped into something beyond conventional soil sciences to influence what happens to the seed and land. A Mexican farmer, Jose Carmen Garcia Martinez can grows 8lbs onions. A Russian farmer, Svetlana, who stands with her arms outstretched over her fields, can make her plants grow taller and faster. These farmers understand the links and cosmic connections.

Bernard Declercq standing next the the acacia shrub used as a pioneer species for 7 acres of land regeneration. (Photo credit: Lauren Ladov)

“Who says that the information is sitting in a gene? How can you prove this? Is the musician sitting in the radio,” Bernard asks rhetorically, then continues.

“When I was a kid, my neighbor was repairing radios. There were bulbs and transistors in the radio. If you took out a certain component, all the high pitches disappeared. So the high pitches must be sitting in this component. I can prove it because when I put the component back, the high pitches reappear, so it must come from this component, right? It’s logic. But it is not true. The high pitches are not sitting there--this is just an instrument to reproduce them.”

“The information is in the Cosmos”, Bernard concludes. Referencing Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief and Rupert Sheldrake’s The Presence of the Past, Bernard strongly believes that everything is in the environment, and that we can change our environment and we can change ourselves. “Without the possibility for change, there is no hope for the human race; we would just destroy ourselves.” He looks at me, perhaps knowing that I am thinking about how we humans are doing exactly that -- destroying ourselves. Bernard smiles and talks about how amazed he is with the global movement of people, especially in youth communities, who are returning to farming.

“It’s an international movement that goes beyond borders. No one feels himself French or German or Belgian anymore. The young people have overcome this limitation. They are people of the World. I think that is very beautiful. I think that is where there is the hope … The fact you can have a seed in your hand is already an impact.”

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“Even a pebble kicked in an idle moment has its effects on the hemispheres.” ~ Sri Aurobindo

**Unfortunately, Deepika was unavailable to be interviewed for this piece.

Lauren Ladov is a local food activist and educator. For the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, she is based in India, engaged in indigenous seed preservation and creating a digital curriculum for teachers and youth to learn more about seed saving and diversity education.

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