A Handful of Mud

Soil is life. Can we preserve it for future generations

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.

There were no roads. (We never saw a wheeled vehicle except on our annual visit to the plains.) There were no stores, no electricity, no plumbing. My sister and I ran barefoot, and we made our own games from the trees, sticks, and stones around us. Our playmates were the Indian boys and girls, and our lives were much the same as theirs.

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.

Those rice paddies were a rich soup of life. When there was plenty of water there would be a lot of frogs and little fish. Egrets would stalk through the paddy fields on their long legs and enjoy the feast. Kingfishers would swoop down with a flash of color and carry off a fish from under the beak of a heron.

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. It was a wonderful way to get dirty from head to foot in the shortest possible time. Suddenly, we were all scrambling to get ...

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Posted:
September
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