Custodian of her forest garden

For people like Bhanumathi, guarding and protecting their farms is a way of life. From The Hindu.

This is the story of Bhanumathi — a woman in her 70s, whose home is on a forest farm in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka. An expert gardener, cook and craftsperson, she conserves traditional seeds of the area.

Conservation is a familiar term for many children, thanks to media focus on the topic and perhaps, a high dose of the National Geographic TV channel. For those from an earlier era, it was not a concept or word encountered easily.

Most of us tend to think of conservation as something related to larger animals, “cute” creatures, poaching of elephants and so on. What about smaller animals and plants that are not so obvious? Don’t they call for attention too? They quietly go about the private business of living their lives. Who will be the champions of their cause? It is people like Bhanumathi.

Know your plants

Walking through her multi-tiered orchard with swaying areca palms, trees bearing mango, jackfruit, banana (five local supreme tasting varieties), spices like pepper, cardamom and cloves, and tubers, Bhanumathi points out a slew of wild plants growing peacefully alongside the cultivated ones. She shows one and explains that its leaf is placed on the head of a baby, freshly bathed, to ward off coughs and colds. The juice from the root of the other nondescript plant is used for headaches. The dew that settles between the stem and leaf stalk of the wild jasmine collected at dawn is good for certain eye ailments. Walking with her and listening is like being privy to a very old and intimate relationship she shares with friends from the plant kingdom.

Bhanumathi’s deep bond with the plants around her allows her to know their behaviour and uses in cooking and medicine, their special needs and the seeds they produce. She collects and saves the seeds of many old varieties of beans, greens (like amaranth), pumpkins and gourds, brinjal, cucumbers, lady’s finger and other plants from her forest garden. She knows the character and flavour of each vegetable variety, and lovingly plants their seeds year after year, keeping the tradition of food gardens and seed saving alive. These seeds don’t stay with Bhanumathi alone. She shares them with her community by gifting or exchanging them. The seeds she and others like her save, travel to cities like Bengaluru, as important ambassadors of change, where urban gardeners grow these ancient varieties of vegetables in their own home gardens. Farmers and gardeners from other rural areas also often reach out to the seed network Bhanumathi is a part of, to ask for seeds to plant. You can be a conservationist from your own backyard!

Forest gardens in this part of the fragile Western Ghats often have over 300 species of plants, most of them edible or with medicinal properties. The communities that have lived here engage deeply with the plant plethora around them. A specialised cuisine around the world of plants has evolved over the centturies. Eating lunch with one of the families here in their forest homestead may consist of tambli (a buttermilk based appetiser) made from the tender leaves of sandal or brahmi, or a sambar made from the very local maggay cucumber. In preserving and growing these old varieties, the many women and men gardeners are also ensuring that they protect the cultivated and wild food and seed base of their community and for those of others. Bhanumathi is a quiet, mild person. A champion and conservationist with a firm belief that she is part of a slow but potent revolution. A custodian of forest gardens, seeds, cuisine and part of a culture where you have the inborn instinct to nurture nature. May her tribe increase!

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