A Punjabi Garden, Part III
A California gardener used the farming wisdom of her native India to create a suburban paradise that restored her soil--and sustains her soul.
By Patricia Klindienst
Ruhan found her tall, straight neem sapling at a festival for all the chapters of the California Rare Fruit Growers Association. A nursery from San Diego had one specimen. Thrilled to have found it, she bought it, and now it grows with the phalsa and jamum, as it would in the Punjab.
“Do you see that little dome-shaped net? And another over here? They are full of neem seeds I am propagating,” she says.
It is rare indeed to find this tree, or its seeds, anywhere in the United States, and rarer still to encounter anyone here who knows the story of its place in the history of ancient India. A tall, straight tree with pinnate leaves, the neem, when it blossoms in early spring, bears white, honey-scented flowers. Its fruit, a one-seeded drupe, resembles a large olive when young, turning yellow as it ripens. The word neem comes from the Sanskrit nimba, a short form of the phrase nimbati syasthyamdadati, “to give good health.” In ancient Indian texts, the tree is referred to as Sarva Roga Nivarini, “curer of all ailments.” Its bark, twigs, leaves, flowers, fruit, and seeds all have healing properties, providing natural forms of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, pesticides, wormicides, and fungicides. For centuries Indians have brushed their teeth with neem twigs; women have known how to treat menstrual disorders using its leaves. Parts of the tree have been used for millennia to heal skin wounds, including snake and spider bites; it is a powerful remedy for malaria, leprosy, and common fever. Postpartum mothers and their nursing infants are strengthened by the juice from its leaves.
The neem grows fast and huge. It repels most pests without killing them while providing nutrients to the soil, birds, insects, and bats. For thousands of years the people of India have used its leaves to keep stored food and clothing free of pests. It is extremely drought-resistant and makes an excellent windbreak. A neem tree can live for 200 to 300 years. Its deep roots help prevent erosion and restore degraded land. Its wood is hard and naturally resistant to termites. It can even defend itself from an infestation of locusts.
It was for all these reasons, as Ruhan told me the first time we met, that the great emperor Ashoka had neem trees planted in every village and along all heavily traveled roads throughout his empire. In 30 places throughout India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Afghanistan, pillars of stone, each standing 40 to 50 feet tall, still polished to a mirrorlike shine after 1,600 years of exposure to the elements, bear the words Ashoka addressed to his people after his conversion to Buddhism, when he renounced war and devoted his life to improving the conditions under which his people lived so that they might be happy.
Born in 304 B.C., Ashoka was crowned around 263. Eight years later, the ambitious young ruler, known for his ruthlessness and cruelty, launched a bloody war of expansion to annex Kalinga to the empire he had inherited from his grandfather and father. It is said that while he was walking the battlefield after victory, overcome by horror at the death and suffering he had caused, he encountered a Buddhist monk walking quietly through the rotting bodies of horses and men, already being devoured by birds. Ashoka approached the monk and asked how he could be at peace in such a place. Was he happy? And if he was, how had he come to be so? And would he teach the emperor what he knew? In response to learning the precepts of Buddhism, Ashoka renounced violence and became an ardent convert, making a pilgrimage to the Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini and undertaking the lifelong study of Buddhism. In this way, as Sharon Salzberg, a leading Buddhist teacher in America, has written in her book “Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness,” a nameless man with nothing but a robe and a bowl influenced the destiny of an empire. As a witness for nonviolence in the midst of carnage, the monk indirectly helped spread Buddhism throughout Asia, for Ashoka’s son and daughter introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. The Buddhist Publication Society of Sri Lanka makes contemporary English translations of Ashoka’s inscriptions available for free, hoping to continue sowing the seeds of nonviolence.
In one of the edicts still legible on an ancient stone pillar, Ashoka describes the carnage on the battlefield at Kalinga, where hundreds of thousands of men and animals perished. He speaks of his remorse for the great suffering he caused, recounts his conversion to Buddhism, and entreats his people to follow him in the way of peace.
As if it were not astonishing enough for an emperor to confess his remorse and devote his life to making amends for the appalling suffering caused by a war he waged simply to expand his power, Ashoka instituted a reign of peace that extended to all people, within and beyond his boundaries, and then to the land itself—plants, trees, birds, fish, and animals. He banned the hunting of many species of creatures and the sacrifice of any living being. In addition to creating thousands of monasteries, libraries, and hospitals, he set aside wildlife and forest preserves. In his second rock edict, quoted in the Buddhist Publication Society’s translation, Ashoka made provisions for medical treatment for animals as well as humans, and “wherever medical herbs, roots or fruits for humans and animals were not available,” he had them imported. The neem trees planted along main travel routes grew near the rest houses Ashoka had built along the roads. He also had wells dug and other trees planted for fruit and shade so that his people, especially the poor, might not endure needless suffering. The state, Ashoka taught, has an obligation to protect and conserve the entire living community.
In Ruhan’s garden, the neem tree, with all its natural healing properties, commemorates this reign of peace and justice; its story is one of transformation and hope. In the context of the global marketplace, however, the neem is at the center of quite a different story.
In the past decade, the neem tree has become the subject of intensive research around the world, as transnational corporations and governments of developed nations engage in a race to be the first to successfully patent and bring to market biologically friendly agricultural and pharmaceutical products derived from it. In 1992, an ad hoc committee of the U.S. National Research Council published its findings in a report called “Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems.” It concluded that neem has the potential to control many of the world’s pests and diseases and reduce soil erosion, desertification, and deforestation. And if, as some researchers believe, neem is also the source of a natural spermicide, research could lead to the development of an oral birth control pill for men, thus helping regulate the growth of world population.
In contrast to other trees planted for reforestation, neem is more valuable for the byproducts of its fruit and leaves than for its wood, so it could be raised sustainably. Because it can be grown in poor soil, large-scale plantings necessary to harvest quantities of its seeds do not need to compete with food production. Large plantations of neem, given the cooling properties of its great crown of evergreen leaves, might even help slow global warming.
No other known plant or chemical possesses all of the neem’s capacities for preventing and healing disease in soil, plants, animals, and humans. It all sounds so wonderful. Where, then, is the problem?
A short passage in the 1992 report’s opening pages suggests the answer. The promise of the neem “is currently known to only a handful of entomologists, foresters, and pharmacologists—and, of course, to the traditional farmers of South Asia” (emphasis added). It’s that last phrase, which weighs a handful of specialists from technologically advanced nations against millions of traditional farmers in India, that gives so much away. What of these people—the world’s largest remaining population of small farmers—and the millennia of traditional knowledge that is their birthright?
The creation of just one byproduct of the neem, an ecofriendly fungicide, requires 20 tons of seeds per day. Neem seeds are now being bought up by corporations in staggering quantities, driving the price so high that farmers in India can no longer afford to buy them. As a result, the neem is now the subject of a number of international lawsuits. India’s leading environmental advocate, Vandana Shiva, speaks of the West’s attempt to plunder the biological wealth and traditional knowledge of the rural poor of the East as “biopiracy.”
“Why has civilization proved such a disastrous failure?” Sir Albert Howard asked in “The Soil and Health.” “The answer is simple. Our industries, our trade, and our way of life generally have been based first on the exploitation of the earth’s surface and then on the oppression of one another—on banditry pure and simple. The inevitable result is now upon us. The real Arsenal of Democracy,” he argued with startling clarity, “is a fertile soil, the fresh produce of which is the birthright of the nations. . . Does mankind possess the understanding to grasp the possibilities which this simple truth unfolds?”
Sixty years ago, Howard argued that the way we grow our food—the way we till the soil in our own backyards—engages us with politics at the most fundamental level. As one of very few private gardeners in America to cultivate a neem tree in her backyard, Ruhan Kainth keeps alive the legacy of its sacred place in her native culture. In her devotion to the community of the land she has helped to create, she has taken her place as a citizen, not of the Punjab or America but of “the land.” Here the seed and the tree are cultivated in a relationship defined as kinship—“adoption,” as she puts it—a commitment to loving responsibility.
“It is my devotion,” Ruhan says quietly, reflecting on what her garden means to her. “It teaches me. When I am out here, I am in the gardens in Delhi. I am visiting with the villagers on the farm in the countryside. That was a time of great peace, so when I work in my garden, I see those scenes and I remember that peace.”
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Patricia Klindienst is a master gardener and an award-winning scholar and teacher. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut, and teaches creative writing each summer at Yale University.
Excerpted from The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic America, by Patricia Klindienst. Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Klindienst. Reprinted with permission of Beacon Press, Boston.
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