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 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. He walked slowly, and was stooped over a bit as though he were always looking at the ground. 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." The older boy had heard all this before and did not want to prolong the question-and-answer session, so he hurried on. "And the mud from your field is being carried away to the field below, and it will never come back, because mud always runs downhill, never up again. We are sorry, Tata, and we will never do this again."
Tata was not ready to stop his lesson as quickly as that, however. 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.
The hand of man
I havebeen back to my childhood home several times. There have been changes. A road now links the hill people with the plains folk, but traditional ways still go on. The terraced paddy fields still hold back the mud. Rice still grows. And the old man the boys call "Tata" is now one of the boys I used to play with 65 years ago. I am sure he lays down the law when he catches someone churning up the mud, and I hope the system holds for years to come. I have seen what happens when it doesn't.
The Nilgiri hills, or Blue Mountains, were a favorite resort in the hot season for missionaries from the plains. They were steep and thickly forested, with few areas level enough for cultivation, even with terraces. The forestry service allowed no clearing of the trees except where tea, coffee, or fruit trees were to be planted. These bushes and trees, in turn, held the soil—and all was well.
Thirty years after my encounter with "Tata" I was back in India, a doctor and a missionary myself, with a wife and growing family. We began going to the Nilgiris for every summer holiday, and our children reveled in the cool air and lush forests. But something was different, or soon became so.
A new breed of landowners had begun to take possession of the land. These new "farmers"—former political prisoners who, following India's independence, were given tracts of land—had not farmed before. They had never been exposed to a Tata teaching them the value of mud. They wanted to make money, and make it fast. They knew the climate was ideal for potatoes, and that there was a market for such a crop. Forests were thus cleared on sloping land, and potatoes planted. Two and even three crops could be harvested per year, and money flowed freely into their purse.
But harvesting potatoes involves turning over the soil, and monsoon rains often came before a new crop could hold that soil. Not surprisingly then, as my family and I returned to those mountains of boyhood memory, the water now looked like chocolate syrup. It oozed rather than flowed. We were seeing rivers of mud. I felt sick.
I went over to ask old Mr. Fritschi and his wife, a dear Swiss couple living in Coonoor on the Nilgiri hills, about the havoc that was being wrought and to find out if there was anything we could do. They had been missionaries of the Basel Mission but were long retired and now owned a nursery of young plants and trees. They loved to help and advise farmers and gardeners about ways to improve their crops. It seemed to me that these devoted people would know if there was some way to advise the landowners about ways to save their soil.
Mr. Fritschi's eyes were moist as he told me, "I have tried, but it is no use. They have no love of the land, only of money. They are making a lot of money, and they do not worry about the loss of soil, because they think it is away in the future, and they will have money to buy more." Besides, he continued, they can deduct the loss of land from their income tax as business depreciation.
Thirty more years have passed and we have left India. But every year I go back to visit Vellore Christian Medical College and take part in the leprosy work there. I do not, however, enjoy going back to the Nilgiri hills. I look up to those slopes and see large areas of bare rock of no use to anybody. Those deforested areas that still have some soil look like gravel. And the clear streams and springs that ran off from these areas 60 years earlier are dry to day. When the rains come they rush in torrents and flood, then they go dry.
Oh Tata! Where have you gone? You have been replaced by businessmen and accountants who have degrees in commerce and who know how to manipulate tax laws. You have been replaced by farmers who know about pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but who care nothing about leaving soil for their great-grandchildren.
A worldwide drama
Outside of India I have seen another drama involving trees, soil, water, and human starvation working its tragic sequence. The place is Ethiopia.
I first came to Ethiopia in the early 1960s when I went to Addis Ababa on behalf of the International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled. My task was to negotiate the establishment of an all-Africa training center for leprosy workers, with an emphasis on rehabilitation. I met Emperor Haile Selassie and his minister of health, as well the ministers of agriculture and commerce, the dean of the then-new University Medical College, and representatives of American AID, and the Rockefellerfoundation. Later I wentto work in the new training center as a surgeon, teaching reconstruction of the hand and foot. But, as had happened so often in my life, it was the land that caught my attention. Most of our leprosy patients were farmers, and their future had to be in farming if they were not to be dislocated from their families and villages.
The emperor was very gracious as we talked about the problem. He gave us the use of tracts of the royal lands to farm. The Swedish churches had sent farmers into Ethiopia to teach the patients how to farm more efficiently; and it was a joy to see acres of tef, the local food grain, growing to harvest. Patients with leprosy were learning how to work without doing damage to their insensitive hands. We were grateful to the benevolent old emperor, and all seemed to be going well. Gradually, however, we began to see the real problems of that tragic country.
Camping out in the countryside, while visiting distant treatment centers, we were impressed with the way the countryside was fissured with deep canyons where streams had eroded the soil on their way to join the Blue Nile. Farms on the edges of these canyons were having to retreat year by year as their soil slipped away into the rivers. There had once been trees and forests on this land, but the trees had been felled for timber and firewood, and also to make way for grazing and cultivation.
What impressed me most, however, were the poor crops and stony fields that were cultivated by the peasant farmers. Every field seemed to be covered with great stones and boulders. Many of these stones were of a size that could have easily been levered up and rolled away to the edges of the fields where they would have made useful walls to hold the soil in and keep marauders out. As it was, it must have been a constant irritation to have to till and harvest between these rocks.
It did not take much inquiry to find out why such simple improvements had never been made. The peasants knew, and were frank to tell us, that if ever they made their fields look good they would lose them. The ruling race of Amharas, based in the capital city, contained all the lawyers and leaders of the country. Any good piece of land could be claimed by one of the city-dwelling Amharas simply by stating that it had belonged to his ancestors. Supporting documents were easy to obtain. In court the peasant had no chance. His only hope of being allowed to continue farming his land was to make it appear worthless.
Both the Ford foundation and the Rockefeller foundation had considered sending help to teach good farming methods and to halt erosion, but both insisted to the emperor that land reform had to come first. Only if the land were owned by the people who farmed it would it be taken care of in a way that would preserve it for generations to come. The peasants had to have confidence that their handful of mud would still be there for their children. If not, why not let it go down the river?
I believe the emperor wanted to introduce land reform; but if he tried, he failed. The Amharas were too strong for him. The established church, the old Ethiopian Orthodox church of which the emperor was head, had vested interest in the status quo, and was on the wrong side of real justice. This has happened so often in the past, when churches got comfortable and wealthy. We need to be watchful and aware today.
On a state visit to Egypt, Emperor Haile Selassie walked down to the river Nile and kneeled to scoop up two handfuls of the rich fertile mud on its bank. Raising his hands, he said, "My country." The Blue Nile had carried Ethiopia to Egypt, and the old emperor knew it. He could not send the mud upstream again and he did not have the courage to make the changes that would have arrested further loss.
Today the emperor is dead. Every cabinet minister with whom I negotiated for our training center is dead—they were killed by the firing squads of the revolution. There might not have been a famine today if the trees had not all been cut, if the land had not eroded away, if the absentee landlords of Ethiopia had not been so greedy, and if the church had insisted that justice should prevail.
I did not like the revolution or the foreign invaders who brought it about, but they would never have succeeded if the people had not been laboring under a sense of injustice. The new Marxist government has not succeeded in bringing back the trees or the land, and it has spent its energy in war. But the roots of Ethiopia's problems stem from generations ago—even before the leaders who have now died for their collective sins.
Today I live in Louisiana. I have no soil or water problems. In fact, my topsoil is so deep and so rich that I would not even try to plumb its depth. And the land is so flat that even when it floods my soil stays where it is.
But I cannot be at peace. My home is right beside the Mississippi River. I could probably throw a stone into the water from my roof. My house is an old one and built up on piles. At the time it was built, the occupants would expect to sit on their porch and watch the muddy waters of the Mississippi swirl under the house for a few days each year. If I were to analyze my garden soil, I would find that most of it came from Kansas and Ohio and Iowa and other states upriver. A farmer from Iowa could come to my garden, as the emperor of Ethiopia did in Egypt, scoop up a handful of mud, and say, "My farm!"
But no mud comes from Iowa to my garden now. The corps of engineers has built a dam, or levee, all along the bank of the river, so the mud runs straight out to sea. During the spring floods, I walk along the levee and look at that mud. They tell me that many whole farms flow past my house every hour. I know that Iowa has lost more than half its topsoil just in the hundred or so years since Americans started farming that land.
Because I am haunted by the mountains of India and by the erosion of Ethiopia, I have to ask why American farmers still lose soil. They tell me they know all about contour plowing, but say modern farming machinery is so big that it is impossible or uneconomic to plow around contours. So they just go straight up and down. They get it done faster—and lose the soil faster. This all gives better returns to the shareholders, and improves all the market indicators. Shareholders and members of the board are today's absentee landlords of the farm. They are not farmers. They tell me that only small family farms still do contour plowing, but they are going out of business. Big companies are buying them up, so they can use "efficient" methods.
They tell me that the American forests are replanted when they are cut, and I think that is probably true. But I also understand that wide clear-cutting is practiced even on steep slopes. It is a matter of pride that every part of every tree is used for timber or pulp or chipboard when it is cut. But then, nothing goes back into the land. There is no building of the soil, just depletion.
My Mississippi River is also the site now of scores of petrochemical plants and herbicide factories. I have chemical plants to my right and industrial plants to my left. (The proximity of the river is convenient for getting water to cooling towers and receiving effluents.) All the trees downwind have turned white and died. They tell me it was fluorides, but it could have been any one of the effluents that have given parts of Louisiana the highest incidence of cancer in the country. Ten years ago all the cattle in this area were declared unfit to sell for beef because of unacceptable levels of tetrachlormethane in their fat. I wonder what the levels are in me and my family.
I look at the great Mississippi and think back to the days of Huckleberry Finn and his raft, when the river was largely water and fish. I look down now at the swirling mud and see it as no better than the Blue Nile, or the Cauvery River in India that carries mud from the Nilgiri Hills. Is there a common thread? It is not ignorance in all cases. Nor is it dire poverty (although that sometimes leads to the cutting of the trees for fuel). No, there would be enough for all if it were not for greed. More profit. Faster return on investment. A bigger share for me of what is available now, but may not be available tomorrow.
God has something to say to us about this. And he said it repeatedly by his prophets. Moses described in detail the care of the land in Leviticus 25. It was to be nurtured and given a regular sabbath year of rest. It was never to be sold on a permanent basis but regarded as a trust from the Lord. "The earth is [the Lord's],…and you are sojourners . . ." (vs. 23). Later, Isaiah pronounces God's judgment: "The earth dries up and withers, the whole earth grows sick;…the earth itself is desecrated by the feet of those who live in it, because they have broken the laws…and violated the eternal covenant (24:4-5). Hosea adds: "Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying" (4:3, NIV). God is concerned about his creation and looks to us whom he put in charge of it. We are to share in its redemption (Rom. 8:21), not be agents of its destruction.
I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge. But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?
I cannot, however, conclude without a small balance of joy and an indication that God still has a church that produces people who care. In the final analysis it is not knowledge or lack of it that makes a difference, but concerned people. The sense of concern for the earth is still transmitted by person-to-person communication and by personal example better than by any other method. Old Tata still lives on. He lives in the boys who played in the mud, and they will pass on his concern for the soil and his sense of its importance to future generations.
Old Mr. Fritschi still lives on through his son. The love of trees he tried to promote in the Nilgiri hills is now being promoted by his son on the plains at Karigiri. A single dedicated person giving a good example is better than a lot of wringing of hands and prophecies of doom.
Ernest Fritschi was born in India and lived there long enough to love it, take Indian nationality, and marry a lovely Indian wife. He studied in Madras University, became a doctor, and then an orthopedic surgeon. Working with leprosy patients, he joined the Leprosy Mission and worked in many countries, including Ethiopia, and then became director of the Schieffelin Research and Training Center at Karigiri near Vellore.
The land for the center had been barren gravel with not a tree anywhere, and water had been hard to locate. I remember walking over the large acreage before we started to build and thinking that it was no surprise the government had donated it so freely. It was good for nothing else.
Ernest, however, had faith in the land and was determined to prove that it could be productive of more than buildings and a hospital. Other directors had made a good start, but Ernest made a rule for himself that every year he would plant trees. He collected seeds and seedlings from everywhere and nourished them in his own garden until they were strong. Then he would plant them out just before the rains, and have them watered by staff and patients until they had root systems deep enough to survive. The hill that formed one border of the Karigiri land was bare and rocky, and the rains would send a rushing flood of water over the gravel of the hospital grounds. So Ernest built contour ridges of gravel and soil to hold the water long enough for it to soak in.
I remember the hospital and its surrounding staff houses and chapel as they grew. They were grey and white and stood out on the skyline. They could be seen for miles as the only structures breaking the monotony of the gravel slopes. Today, as I approach that hospital, it is hidden in a forest with trees higher than the tallest buildings. The place has been declared a sanctuary by the environmental department of the state government in recognition of what already exists. The whole area is full of birds; we counted and identified over 40 species in one afternoon. The water table, falling in most places, was rising last year under the gravel at Karigiri. Soil is building, not being lost.
What is a few acres among the millions where the reverse is true? It is important to me because it sounds a message. One man can make a difference. Dedication is what is needed. And faith. It is important, too, because the man who made this little revolution is not a professional farmer or a government official. He is a doctor who loves trees, soil, and water. He was sometimes criticized by his board of governors who said his goals and objectives should be to treat and rehabilitate leprosy patients. Money, they argued, should not be diverted to other goals, like farming and reforestation. But he proved that concern for soil and trees benefits patients too. Buildings do not need air conditioning when they are shaded by trees. Patients who see and participate in good practices on the land learn to reproduce the same when they go home.
Not far from there is the Christian Medical College, founded by the beloved American doctor Ida Scudder. She insisted on building the college on an extensive piece of land where there would be room for gardens and trees. She was followed by others who had the same view, including the first Indian director, Dr. Hilda Lazarus, who doubtless had claims to fame in her own medical specialty but whom I remember for her love of trees.
Dr. Lazarus is long gone, but her trees and philosophy remain. In my day we used to get excited and concerned about new drugs and new diagnostic equipment, but today when I visit the Christian Medical College, I find the director more likely to be excited about preserving the water table, and growing the right kind of crops and preserving the soil. This is health, and this is hope for the future. There is still life in the land, and God still blesses those who recognize "the earth is the Lord's."
I am a grandfather now. My grandchildren do not call me Tata, but I rather wish they would. It would not mean much to them, but it would remind me that, in addition to the immortality of our spirit, we all have a sort of immortality of our flesh. If the kids called me Tata, it would remind me that, down the centuries, there may be many generations of people who will bear my humanity, who will enjoy life, or who will suffer in proportion to the care that I now take to preserve the good gifts that God has given us. Part of that care is in teaching and in example.
My grandson is called Daniel, and the next time he comes to visit me I shall take him out into my garden and scoop up a handful of mud. I shall ask him, "Daniel, what is this?"
This article originally appeared in the April 16, 1985, issue of Christianity Today.
Other stories appearing on our site today:
Noted Surgeon and Author Paul Brand Dies at Age 89 | Connected his pioneering work with leprosy and his missionary faith.
God's Astounding Laws of Nature | "I like to think of God as developing his skills," said Dr. Paul Brand. Interviewed by Philip Yancey (December 1, 1978)
A Surgeon's View of Divine Healing | Do doctors waste their time by doing slowly and painstakingly what could have been done in the twinkling of an eye? (November 25, 1983)
Blood, Part 1: The Miracle of Cleansing | We moderns are repelled by the thought of blood cleansing, but biologically and spiritually the precious liquid does exactly that. (February 18, 1983)
Blood, Part 2: The Miracle of Life | A well-known surgeon talks about that miraculous red river within us as an emblem of life. (March 4, 1983)
Blood, Part 3: Life in the Blood | If Jesus had been born in the twentieth century, would he have chosen the image of transfusion for his forgiveness, love, and healing? (March 18, 1983)
The Scars of Easter | He knows the wounds of humanity. His hands prove it. (April 5, 1985)