A Punjabi Garden, Part II
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
Sir Albert Howard, the most famous advocate of soil restoration in India, learned how to grow things from gardeners and laborers, upsetting British imperial presumptions about what constitutes knowledge. In two of his most famous works, “An Agricultural Testament” (1940) and “The Soil and Health” (1947), he describes his education on the land among the rural poor of colonial India. A contemporary of Aldo Leopold’s, he published one of the 20th century’s most important books on the relationship between agriculture and human culture two years before Leopold’s classic work, “A Sand County Almanac,” appeared in America.
Trained at the Royal College of Science in London and at St. John’s College, Cambridge, Howard was appointed mycologist and agricultural lecturer in the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies in 1899. From 1899 to 1902 he worked on plantations in Barbados, a former center of the English slave trade, where he studied fungal diseases of plantation cash crops, including sugar. “In Barbados I was a laboratory hermit,” he wrote in the introduction to “The Soil and Health,” “a specialist of specialists, intent on learning more and more about less and less.” It was “contact with the land” and the people who worked the land that showed him the fundamental weakness in the hierarchical organization of academic agricultural studies. “I was an investigator of plant diseases, but I had myself no crops on which I could try out the remedies I advocated: I could not take my own advice before offering it to other people.” When he was offered the post of economic botanist at the Agricultural Research Institute in Pusa, India, in May 1905, Howard readily accepted. Having worked in labs far too long, he was eager to have land of his own to experiment on.
The chasm between science in the lab and practice in the field led Howard out the door and into the fields of India’s peasant farmers, whose crops, he observed, proved remarkably resistant to pests and disease. Yet the farmers were illiterate, had no access to advanced technology, had received no scientific training, and never used chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or fungicides. Though they were poor by every standard of modern industrialized cultures, their soil, their crops, and their animals enjoyed robust health. How was this possible? What were they doing that made their agriculture so productive?
“I found,” Howard wrote, “I could do no better than watch the operations of the peasants . . . and regard them and the pests . . . as my best instructors.”
Though he had grown up on a farm in England and had received the finest education Britain could offer, it took Howard years to become as proficient a farmer as the rural poor of India. “At the end of five years’ tuition under my new professors,” he wrote, “. . . the attacks of insects and fungi on all crops whose root systems suited the local soil conditions became negligible. By 1910 I had learnt how to grow healthy crops, practically free from disease, without the slightest help from mycologists, entomologists, bacteriologists, agricultural chemists, statisticians, clearing-houses of information, artificial manures, spraying machines, insecticides, fungicides, germicides, and all the other expensive paraphernalia of the modern experiment station.”
It was coming to understand the way in which living fungus threads in the soil invade the cells of plant roots, where they are digested, that helped Howard understand why rural farmers’ practice of returning the manure of their farm animals to the soil proved so effective. The mycorrhizal association, as it is called, is the process by which plants feed directly from the soil, deriving the protein necessary to support life. If we interrupt this symbiotic relationship or destroy it with chemicals that kill microorganisms like the healthy fungi responsible for the uptake of proteins, the soil dies and nothing will grow. “One simple principle,” Howard wrote, underlies the “vast accumulation of disease which now afflicts the world.” The “undernourishment of the soil is the root of all.” By 1940 he had concluded that “the slow poisoning of the life of the soil by artificial manures is one of the great calamities of mankind.”
Disease travels up through the food chain—the “biotic web,” the “chain of energy,” as Leopold described it—from soil to plants to animals to humans. So too does health. The power to resist disease, to confer health and contentment on humankind, Howard argued, lay in mimicking natural cycles of growth, decay, and regeneration by returning all organic matter to the soil. “The failure to maintain a healthy agriculture,” he wrote during World War II, “has largely cancelled out all the advantages we have gained from our improvements in hygiene, housing, and our medical discoveries.”
Our economy, in other words, was backward, because we did not understand that our life depends on the health of the soil beneath our feet. To the imperial mindset that dispensed Howard to teach the rural poor to garden, he replied with the news that the flow of wisdom traveled in the opposite direction—up from the poor to the rich, from the colonized to the colonizer.
* * *
Ruhan Kainth made the same discovery 40 years later. When she found the dead soil that chemical fertilizers inevitably produce in her backyard in California, the wisdom of her humble teachers in India helped her to restore it to life.
Before leaving India, Ruhan had pursued two kinds of education—one through the generosity of rural farmers and the family gardener, another at the university. In 1972 she was studying for her master’s degree in economics in Delhi. It was a period of severe political repression and fear in India. It was also the first year Ruhan was eligible to vote. When a woman professor asked her whom she would be voting for in the upcoming election, Ruhan said of course she would never vote for Indira Gandhi. “No one in Delhi would dare speak openly against her,” she explains. “You couldn’t trust anyone. You couldn’t speak. I knew university professors who disappeared. They were never seen again.
“In 1972 I decided to leave. I couldn’t live under those conditions. If you lived in a country where you had politicians like Mrs. Gandhi, who ruled with dictatorial power, then you could not be free, your conscience could not be free.”
It was then that Ruhan told her father that while she knew she would be poorer in America, she was determined to go. He had hoped she would become a government minister. “I told my father, ‘You have told me all my life how you have never compromised. It was you who taught me all this.’” Six years later, in 1978, she left her homeland to come to the United States.
Ruhan and Atma Kainth are from the Punjab, the Land of the Five Rivers. “The land I come from is right below the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. The Punjab has a very rich history, because it’s the crossroads of all cultures. The Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthians, the Mongols, the Arabs—just about everybody came by that route, trying to enter India. And the Punjabis had to meet them, sometimes had to fight them. That’s why most Punjabis are very open-minded, very liberal, very accepting of other cultures.
“It’s still very accepting. We’ve had all kinds of trouble, of course. When India was divided up in 1947, half given to Pakistan, which became a Muslim nation, all non-Muslims had to leave—overnight. The British, in dividing India and Pakistan, drew the political line that led to the exodus. The moment the orders were given, people began to cross borders. As they began crossing, let’s say a trainload is coming from Pakistan into India, full of Hindus and Sikhs. Along the way it would be stopped, and all of the people were butchered by the Muslims. Even though they were leaving, abandoning their homes and their lands, they were killed. And the trains going from India to Pakistan, likewise, full of Muslims, were killed. There was mutual slaughter. The rivers turned red.” Half a million people died in two weeks. “The few who were able to escape with their lives were lucky.”
“Most of our relatives were on the Pakistani side of Punjab, so they had to cross over. Some had to live in refugee camps in Delhi for a time. My parents were lucky—they were able to get out. They came to India. My father’s ancestral lands were left there in Pakistan, their house, everything. All of the Punjabis living on the Pakistan side were uprooted. It would be just like dividing California between north and south.
“My husband’s family was on the Indian side of Punjab, so they did not see this. My husband, Atma, came to America with his 25 dollars in 1972. He still has five of those dollars. He kept them as a reminder. You see, in the ‘70s the Indian government only allowed us to take 25 dollars out of the country. Now they’re liberalizing, but then you couldn’t sell your property there and transfer your wealth here. We got married in 1978, so I came here as the spouse of a U.S. citizen.
“Now,” Ruhan says with great ceremony, “you have to see this,” and she leads me out across the garden to stand under the canopy of a great tree whose branches are hung with fruit unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They’re the size and shape of kiwis, but the smooth skin is magenta when the fruit is young, turning a purple so dark it’s nearly black when they’re fully ripe.
“Not many people have this tree,” Ruhan says, with marvelous understatement. “It’s called a jamun in my language, which means ‘purple,’ but in the Fullerton botanical garden it is listed as a jambolan. I went seeking it. I finally found it with a Pakistani woman who had it as a two-year-old plant. This is the first time it has bloomed and made fruit. For me, it was like a baby being born when it bloomed.”
Ruhan has nursed this tree along for 11 years. “There’s a special story about this tree. In India, my father was given 20 acres of land in lieu of his ancestral lands lost to Pakistan. So he gathered the pits from all the jamuns we had eaten and planted them as a windbreak so that when the winds come at high speed—sometimes the wind blows at 80 kilometers an hour—it would not destroy what had been planted. So I grew up with these trees. I remember eating this fruit as a two-year-old. Oh, it just feels so wonderful to have it bearing.” She strokes the branches, whose bark resembles the drooping, wrinkled skin of an elephant’s legs. “All of my relatives who are in L.A. are so delighted. Now they wait for the fruit to ripen, and I will share it with them.”
Hunar suddenly swoops down, hanging by his legs from an upper branch, and holds out his hands, which are filled with dark purple fruit. He grins with pleasure to have startled us.
Ruhan smiles at her youngest son with great affection as she chooses the darkest fruit for me. I bite into the gorgeous sea-green flesh inside the dusky purple skin. It’s tart, with a hint of sweetness, surprising and delicious, unlike any fruit I’ve ever tasted.
A few yards from the jamun, Ruhan shows me the sugarcane she planted in the corner of her backyard—a tall, upright plant with strappy leaves, a link to the years she spent managing the farm. “This is not the same sugarcane that grows in the Punjab,” she says, “but it’s very similar. We cut the dried husks down to use as compost. Here is some of the sugarcane that we just harvested. See how it’s looking very messy and junky there right now?”
She turns around and points to the cherimoyas growing in a small grove beside the house. “I’ve noticed that since I’ve been putting the sugarcane husks under my cherimoyas, I’ve never needed to feed them. They are creating a soil web which keeps the plants healthy without my having to fertilize them or use any pesticides.”
From deep within the cherimoyas we hear a squawk. “Ah, my chickens!” Ruhan says.
Chickens roosting in the cherimoyas? In suburban Los Angeles?
“We eat their eggs,” she explains, smiling. And they help fertilize the cherimoyas and, when she lets them out, the main garden too.
Hunar leaps over the low fence that keeps them within the cherimoya grove, sneaks up on two, nabs them, and carries them back to us, one under each arm.
“These are Silkies,” Ruhan says, taking one into her arms and stroking it as it clucks. They’re huge, colorful beasts, with fearsome-looking spurs on the backs of their legs. “Then I have two Auracanas. They lay green-and-blue eggs.” She calls them the Mothers. “I love them,” she says, and it’s obvious. “I had a third one, a male, and he started crowing and the neighbors complained. He was a show chicken, so beautiful, but I had to give him away to a friend. Once, when the hens laid eggs, they sat there, and I knew nothing was going to happen, so I went to the Buena Park High School, and I got fertilized eggs and switched them. The hens hatched them and took care of them, so that’s why I call them the Mothers.
“These cherimoyas are my special babies. I have planted some of them from seed. Last year I had over three hundred pounds of cherimoyas,” she says, as if this were not at all unusual. “I ate them, I juiced them, I gave them away. We had lots of friends who wanted them.”
“You grew these from seed?” I ask, incredulous. They’re as tall as the house.
“Oh, yes. In India, when I was little, I used to eat custard apples. When I came here, I looked and looked for them. One of my gardening friends said, ‘Well, we have something similar we call cherimoyas. They grow up in Santa Barbara. They can’t grow here because we don’t have the bug that pollinates them.’ I said, ‘Well, how are you going to have the fruit?’ She said, ‘I’m going to hand-pollinate them.’ So I said, ‘Show me how to do it.’ She taught me how to do it, so I hand-pollinated for several years with a brush.
“The flower is female in the morning, and by evening it turns into a male flower. So the trick is to collect the pollen when it’s a male flower and then look for the next flower in the female stage, and then you pollinate them. I did that for many years, and I got a good crop. Then last year—can you see up there?—I got fruit at the very top of the trees, and I certainly didn’t go to pollinate those. So I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. Perhaps I don’t even need to pollinate anymore, because somebody has arrived in my garden who’s taking care of the job.
“The custard apple I grew up with as a child is a cousin, a relative of the cherimoya. But for me, these will do just fine. They’re bigger than the ones that come from my country. I enjoy them, so I have adopted them.”
Just as I’m thinking about this garden as a biology lab—in the small triangle of yard that fences in the chickens and the cherimoyas, Ruhan has created a biotic community of remarkable complexity—she turns it into a kinship system. Adoption, not assimilation, is her model, a relationship of choice, and once you choose, you love what you’ve chosen as your own.
How do people respond to the botanical wonders of her backyard? Newly Americanized Sikhs as well as her American neighbors, Ruhan says, have been scandalized by her choices, each for different reasons. “People from my own country who came by and saw me back here working in the garden said, ‘Why are you digging?’ Why wasn’t I inside watching TV and doing American things?”
Speaking of her American neighbors, Ruhan says, “Tell me, is there some law that says I can only plant flowers in my front yard?” It takes me a minute to realize she’s not joking. The neighbors objected when she planted fruit trees in front of the house and strawberries and vegetables in the ground beside the driveway. It startled her to encounter such active resistance to her wish to use every available inch of her land to grow food. “I’m trained as an economist. I’m limited in my ground. I can’t afford more land, so why shouldn’t I be able to use every bit of it?”
To her Punjabi friends who wanted her to be at once more Indian and more American, she answered with energy. “I realized that I was offending people. But here, I don’t have my gardeners. I don’t have crop-sharers. I have only myself. I want to have a garden, a beautiful garden. And I am my only resource. The pleasure of planting a seed and making my own garden is a pleasure that should not be denied me.”
How complex, the negotiation of so many boundaries in the garden. Questions of who plants, what is planted, and where it is planted make plain a host of unspoken rules about the decorum of how one ought to present oneself in the garden. The landscape is such a powerful marker of nationality and class.
Ruhan is mixing it all up. An educated woman from a wealthy family in India, she cultivates a peasant’s garden in America, down on her knees, digging in the dirt. What her neighbors and friends from India cannot see is the act of faith in her labor, the patient devotion of her commitment, a healing of the land that comforts her and keeps her family healthy and strong.
As we walk the dirt paths that meander through her unplanned garden, we are never very far from the house or the back fence, never more than 30 yards or so from her neighbors’ property, but the thick planting, the ring of trees around the perimeter, the rhythm of the tall and rangy next to the squat and full, the beautiful happenstance of planting things as she found them, suggests an impulse so democratic that it borders on anarchy.
“These are my guavas,” Ruhan says, introducing me to the peerless Allahabadis native to the Punjab. Nearly seedless, this variety has a unique flavor comparable to the rich taste that sets basmati apart from all other rice.
When Ruhan first arrived in the United States as a new bride, she lived with Atma in a small apartment. The first thing she planted in America was a pot of mint. Next she planted coriander. When they were able to move to a house, it was wonderful, she says, remembering. “It opened up possibilities for me. I started looking for trees from my country. I wanted to eat a fresh guava so badly, so that was the first tree I planted. A friend who owned a factory knew that one of her employees, a Mexican, was a gardener.” Ruhan’s first seedling was the gift of another immigrant, someone also hungry for the foods of home. “I was so happy!” she says. “I would just look at it—I would watch it grow. These are things I need so badly,” she adds, her voice growing soft, remembering her early years of adjusting to America. “When I put each of these trees in place, I am being true to myself.
“Oh, Hunar, go get that,” she says, suddenly pointing to a ripe fruit, which he plucks and places in her hand. “This is a white sapote. Now in India, the one that I have is a brown sapote called a chikoo. This is the closest I could come to the brown sapote. It’s so good that now I have adopted this one.”
Hunar has fetched my dessert. After the homemade dal and chapatis and fresh yogurt, I will, Ruhan says, taste the sapote.
“Ah, here is my okra,” Ruhan says, and I am grateful to see something I can actually recognize and have eaten. “I was raised with it. We eat it all the time in Punjab. I wonder how it went around the world—do you know?”
“With the slave trade, most likely,” I say.
“Oh, really?” Ruhan says with a blend of sadness and surprise as we continue past it.
“This part of the garden is for my bees,” she explains, gesturing to the brightly colored annuals and perennials at our feet. “I’m trying to plant as many flowers as possible to invite them. The hummingbirds love this part too.”
Along one stretch of the back fence are her hives, square white boxes that seem odd in their neat, angular whiteness among the wild growth, the textured bark, the many shapes of leaves. So Ruhan harvests honey as well. To the trees, shrubs, sugarcane, herbs, spices, and chickens, she invites the great pollinators and orange-throated Anna’s hummingbirds.
We pause before a white mulberry from Pakistan, like the ones she grew up with in her garden in Delhi. Close by, the beige perforated shells of ripe almonds hang from the branches of a tree native to a region north of the Punjab, where the climate is colder. A bougainvillea has climbed through the almond tree, draping its slender branches with the vermilion paper lanterns of its flowers. Close to the almond, Ruhan has planted a plum and a peach tree, so that they might help each other attract pollinators. Close by are her papayas, and below them edible cactus. A swarm of four o’clocks, lemon yellow, grows at our feet—more bee food.
Along the back fence Ruhan’s loquats are in bloom beside a stand of tall Jerusalem artichokes lifting their bright yellow flowers to the sun. Beside them, hung with fruit, is another Allahabadi guava and jicamas, a root vegetable like the Jerusalem artichoke but sweeter. Her first jicama was a gift from a Colombian friend from the California Rare Fruit Growers Association.
“Here is a phalsa—it has a special berry,” she says. Like the strangely beautiful fruit of the jamum, the phalsa berry looks more like a jewel than anything you would want to eat. Ruhan fills my hands with the oval jet beads, whose sharp, sweet taste wakes the senses. When in flower, one variety of phalsa makes a stunning vermilion flower, the other a bright yellow. The phalsa is another of India’s medicinal trees. Ancient texts describe using its leaves, seeds, and flowers to treat a long list of ailments.
Hunar, who has come up behind us, surprises Ruhan with a passionfruit. She receives it gladly, then sends him off for more. “Find one that’s purple,” she calls to him, “and then I can make a drink with it.”
What, I wonder, will Hunar’s memories of this garden be? I think of this child of the 21st century foraging in his mother’s garden, thinking it’s normal to know the history of your food, to eat from the land you live on, to drink only fresh juices from exotic fruit you have watched ripen and learned to pick at just the right moment. He could not have this experience in Delhi any more than Ruhan could.
Our walk is nearly finished as we once again come up beside the pomegranate. Its huge dark fruits are awash in the honey-gold light of late afternoon, so that they glow against the dark green foliage of the tree’s great crown.
“This is one of the biblical fruits, isn’t it?” Ruhan asks. For her, every plant must have its story, its place in a culture. To eat is not simply to consume but to dwell in history. To garden is to cultivate a relationship of kinship—with the earth, with dead soil returned to life, with plants, bees, birds, and chickens. As tiny as this piece of land is, it is home to a vast and intricate world.
“Ah, and here at last,” Ruhan says, “is the neem tree.”
Check back tomorrow for part III of this story. Return to part I here.
Comment on this article here.
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 the publisher, Beacon Press, Boston.
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