Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Old Fashioned Way

Grain cultivation has been the mainstay of mankind for several thousand years. It is the stuff that empires were built on, wars were started over and it is the foundation of our many diverse civilizations. Wheat barley and rye became the staples of western Asia and Europe. Rice spread through southern and eastern Asia. Here on tiny Okinawa it waited until the 11th Century when a local feudal lord imported it from China and started his own rice crop for his own personal uses.

Key to cultivating this staple of Asia is a plentiful supply of fresh water and is the basis of the theory of "Hydraulic Despotism." This theory basically states that those who controlled the water controlled cultivation and therefore the right to rule. In what has become present day China, Japan and the many countries of Southeast Asia, the great rivers and plains were developed to build this cash crop and the economy. Rice became not only currency, it was king and the king maker.
On tiny Okinawa, with few navigable rivers, a small watershed and limited tillable terrain spring water was often the key to a successful crop. Those that controlled the water supply again controlled the local economy. More rice cultivation meant more money and prosperity. Unfortunately, the limited amount of arable land practically assured that the rice economy was barely sufficient to support the local populace.

The work of rice cultivation is back breaking to say the least. Places where the land is relatively flat and large rice paddies could be more easily built are very few. In the more rugged hill country "which is roughly all of Okinawa" smaller terraced paddies had to be built along the steep hillsides. Water dykes of rock and mud were constructed on steep hillsides and changed the landscape. The force of gravity was ingeniously employed to provide water from mountain springs to the crop lands below.

Even in the low lands where cultivation areas were well established the work was not easy. Rice is grown from seedlings which are produced in the winter months for planting in the spring. Each year the fields have to be meticulously prepared from dry ground. The soil is turned over and cleared of invasive plants. Once ready the fields are flooded and the soil is turned again. Planting time arrives with the warm winds of spring. Whole families and sometimes even whole communities collectively shared in the toils of planting and the hoped for prosperity of the harvest.

After the planting came the waiting and hoping. Okinawa is frequented by many typhoons which give the region its nickname "typhoon alley!" In addition to the elements, the crop could easily be threatened by invasive insects, amphibian species and migratory waterfowl. Drought, disease, thieves and feuding warlords intent on stealing the crop was a constant threat. The farmer had to be ever diligent to watch over his labors and protect his livelihood.

As the time of harvest approached, the fields were drained and when the time was right the crop was harvested all by hand. Tares were hung to dry in the late summer sun and then sent to the threshing floor. A portion of the crop was set aside as seed for the following spring. What wasn't collected from them as taxes or rents was all they had and it usually wasn't much. Ingenious farmers and communities found ways to hide away a little extra to help assure their survival through the winter months and into the following growing season and the cycle renewed itself.

To be successful, one not only had to be industrious but ingenious. Along with the cultivation of the crop came new ways to make the labor easier and the yield greater. As some farmers found success, their families, their wealth and their power in the community grew. Success was often rewarded with land for more cultivation. Families grew into villages and trade changed villages into towns and cities. But it was a thin and fragile line between success and starvation. A typhoon, drought or blight could wipe out a fortune and several generations of hard back breaking work in a single season.

With the industrial revolution came the need for even more cultivation to feed the masses that moved from the countryside to the now burgeoning cities. New inventions came into the market that made planting, protecting the crop and harvesting even easier and provided farmers the opportunities to expand even further. In no time at all it seemed that work that once took twenty people to do now only take one or two to complete.

In the last generation or so mankind has seen the emergence of the environmental movement. Insecticides and fertilizers "chemicals" that helped increase crop yields and fueled the now global economy are now viewed as threatening our very survival. Some think that mans own ingenuity may be the instrument of his own demise. Still others will say that we're thinking far too much. Now it has become stylish and people are looking to go "Green." Instead of using pesticides to poison threatening species and potentially ourselves, environmentally friendly ways are being given a second and third look. It seems that once again, all that was old has now become new again. In some cases, at least in this one, the term "old fashioned" seems to be back in vogue and the cycle of life like the seasons of the year continues on.

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