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The Food Forest and the Hands of Women

Further up into the swampy delta of the Mandovi River, in the foothills to the southeast of Panaji, lie Goa India Picturesseveral organic farms and some spice plantations that claim an ecological focus. A patient young man of thirty years took me there in his cramped white car. That was Meghnath. I met him on the street just outside the hotel. His father is 87 years old and still works the rice paddies in a village south of Old Goa. His mother has a garden and sells her produce next to the road. Food was our jumping off point.

It had been the vindaloo for breakfast – after the red fish curry and rice I’d savored for dinner at a small shop just outside the Church of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Towards lunch I tucked into some pickled something that was green and stiff but not too bad and then some mutton xacuti at lunch. But I found the coffee wanting. Thin and with too much milk.

I love food. I love everything about food. The aesthetic, the smells, the consequences. I’m enraptured by the planting, the growing, the harvesting, the processing, the storing, the cooking and, of course, the eating – and I’m passionate about tying these wonderful things about food to the overall conservation of natural resources and the well-being and empowerment of human communities.

I’m here, in large part, because of food. As the Permaculture consultant on this project, one of my main tasks is helping to design a fruitful, self-sustaining and regenerative food production design that meets the ecologically-oriented mission of the non-profit Panchabuhta (the five elements).

For Meghnath and I, food was our jumping off point. In the end however, we connected over our children but he didn’t understand the word “divorce”. I spoke to Meghnath’s 4-year old boy on his father’s Nokia. The boy told his mother I sounded strange, but he laughed and wanted me to talk more. So I told him about my kids. He just giggled.

There is produce here I’ve never seen. There is a purple leaf that looks like oversized Goa India Pictures Peoplespinach and a white root the women sell along the highways. One someone was offering salt-water mango pickles. I’m embarrassed to say that I had to pass. That’s just the tip of it what remains to learn.

After our first few farms – some of which supported a stunning array of produce – we trolled (Meghnath is not one of the death-defying drivers one imagines in rural India) our way past marshes with white wading birds and watched some women catch fish. Then we came to Old Goa, the “Rome of the East” and I melted into the tourist crowds for an hour to see the Sé de Santa Catarina and the Basilica de Bom Jesus where I fought my fellow Catholics for a view of St. Francis Xavier’s crusty old body under the gilted stars. Dead saints are not to be missed. Live ones should be avoided at all costs.

A big Russian said he was sure he’d seen me on TV. In fact, I had helped him buy a large bottle of Kingfisher at a shop in Panaji the evening before but told him he probably had seen me on TV and that I was happy to know my show was on in Russia.

I bought a small, deep-fried fish from a stand, ate it whole and then talked to the women selling fruit. Then we left Old Goa and went up to the tourist-oriented spice plantations and another produce farm in the foothills.

The idea of the food forest is alive here out of necessity. Limited land. A food forest is an, ancient agricultural concept that mimics nature in all its glory. It is not a vegetable garden but a largely self-maintaining whole and inclusive, interdependent and highly productive system of multi-storied trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, pollinators, soil, water and human beings…… it was utilized all over the world – including here in India.

What I saw was a type of eco-plantation type of mix that served a valuable service in

holding soil, slowing water and hosting a vast array of bird life. No, it is not as efficient as it could be but not a bad beginning. Not at all. Between the farms and plantations, I counted nearly forty different tropically-suited plants regularly used in regional cuisine that could

serve as part of a forest system. Of those, I could think of sixty-eight different uses off the top of my head. There were probably several dozen more species I failed to identify and hundreds more uses out there to uncover.

But this is the beginning – a basis with which to build out a more complex and regenerative
system.

I munched some coffee beans from the vine and rolled a green, soft pepper corn in my mouth. A young man at one of the spice plantations poured me out a shot of Kashew Fini, a rather harsh liquor made from the cashew flower. He then poured another.

Another thing I learned yesterday was that…after peeling the bark off of the cinnamon plant, DON’T wipe the sweat out of your eyes.

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