Decline and fall

In the last three months I’ve spent hours daydreaming as I shell peas. The pods are fruit, and the peas are seeds. “Is it only in legumes that we throw away the fruit and eat only the seed?” I asked The Family in March. I got a severely blank look in answer. Pinterest threw up a slew of recipes for using the heaps of succulent pods, but warned that the garden pea pods that I had in front of me were not very good to eat. In April the pods looked withered and dry. Now in the middle of June the pods are definitely sick, and sometimes the peas too. “Is the world breaking down? Has agriculture collapsed?” I asked The Family. She looked at me and said “Peas are grown only in winter.” I persisted, “Why are they moldy? The world outside must be decaying into chaos.” Practical as ever, she said “Our bhajiwala is turning a profit, selling us the worst preserved peas at inflated prices. I’m sure Colaba market has better peas.”

I pushed away the dry, desiccated, sickly heap of pods in front of me to make space for my laptop. Escape into history is easy at such times. Peas (Pisum sativum) still grow wild around the Fertile Crescent where the first domesticated varieties have been found in archaeological digs dated to 11,500 years ago. In eight thousand years peas spread across Asia and the edge of the Mediterranean. I wonder about those distant human ancestors of ours. Did they know what they were doing? Did they reason like us, observe and think, talk to others, share their findings? We still live in the shadows of their revolution, domestication of plants, agriculture, whatever you call it. A room or two in our modern houses are given over to the lifestyles they developed: storage of agricultural produce, bowls and cups and plates, the hearth for cooking. How different were they?

The Hard Work of Farming

After reaching Lobeysa, we gave ourselves time to do nothing. After breakfast we decided to solve the mystery of the missing men, something that had puzzled us in Ura as well as Tang. The Sullen Celt wanted to walk to the fields that we saw across a small river. After surveying the distance, we voted to take the car part of the way.

The whole village was at work in the fields. Nine years back, the economy of Bhutan was clicking up. Hydroelectric power export and tourism were becoming a larger fraction of the economy, but most of the population was still involved in farming. Around a third of the economy came directly from agriculture.Rice paddy being carried for transplantation in Lobeysa, Bhutan Almost all the working women worked in agriculture, as did almost two thirds of the working men. Lobeysa has water for irrigation, which instantly resulted in rice being the main crop.

Human culture is so centred on agriculture that it is hard to think of it as technology. But this was not how the original humans evolved. The little tribes of humans who walked across continents and land bridges exposed by the frozen seas of the last ice age were not farmers. They were hunters and foragers. Farming was invented in diverse parts of Asia during the explosion of plant life that followed the retreat of the ice. Converting virgin forest into farmland, shaping the landscape by tilling, diverting water for irrigation, planting, transplanting and harvesting rice are technologies as old as the settling of Asia.

Tilling a field in Lobeysa, Bhutan

Farming is backbreaking labour, whether it is carrying the rice paddies in a basket from one field to another (photo, above left), transplanting them in a flooded field (featured image), or tilling the field (above). When I look at this work now, I see in it an effort to recreate the soil conditions of the receding ice age in which Oryza sativa, rice, developed.

One major difference between this part of Bhutan and the Bumthang district is in the crops they cultivate. Bumthang has less irrigation, so the major crops there are millets like buckwheat and barley, or potatoes. On the other hand, the Butanese seem to love rice, so the better off one is, the more rice one eats. Economics is the same in all countries!