wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Alison Jolly

Lucy's Legacy

As the population density increases, the long fallow period shortens. The forty or fifty years that the forest takes to reach full height (though not for centuries full species richness) reduces to ten or twenty years. Farmers then fell little saplings whose burned wood scarcely fertilizes the fields. Soon five years: now there are only twisted bushes to burn, with gnarled roots to dig out one by one, while weed seeds persist in the soil of the reused fields. As pressure on the land increases, the time goes down to two years or one. Now fallow fields are grass meadows.

Grass is a whole new challenge. Grass roots mat in a tangled interlace below the ground surface. Firing grass produces a 'green bite' of new shoots if you are pasturing cattle, but it is no help for planting crops. Confronted by grass, you plow.

A plow is a complex tool, best made with an iron blade. You must keep draft animals to pull it if you are not strong as an ox yourself. You spend the days of spring turning over the sods, trudging back and forth to trace the heavy furrows. The alternative, if you grow paddy rice, is to drive vertically into the field with a long-handled, narrow-bladed hoe or shovel. Clod by clod you dig and turn the earth. The blade is narrow because no man could lift wide shovelfuls of rice-field clay.

When you have spaded the surface, you let in water, turn cattle loose and chase them through the mud. You whoop and holler and dress up in leafy branches like a spring spirit, accompanied by all your real and honorary male kin. This is fun, though exhausting. At the end of the day the field is a slurry of muddy ooze, well mixed with the dung of frightened cattle, and every man of the family is caked with the same mixture. Then the men go off and wash, ready for the feast the women have prepared. It will be the women's turn soon enough—the backbreaking task of replanting shoots of rice from the green chartreuse 'nursery fields' and weeding the paddy through the summer, while the children scare away birds.

In short, everything the forest used to do is now delivered by human or animal labor: aerating soil, fertilizing, weeding, fighting pests. The Malagasy have a proverb: 'The rice of the first harvest is not for the lazy man.'