The Way Back

Words by Georgina Johnson

Photograph by ELena cremona

The contemporary model of monocultural farming relies on the dispossession of wealth and the conquest of beautiful lands. For Atmos, The Slow Grind Editor Georgina Johnson explains why cultivating a varied garden can be an anti-colonial act.

“When we love the Earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully,” writes bell hooks in her 1996 essay Touching the Earth. “I believe this. The ancestors taught me it was so.” Time and time again, I return to this body of writing to locate myself and find my belonging in the truths that fill her words. She ends on what I feel is a note on guardianship: “Collective black self-recovery takes place when we begin to renew our relationship to the earth, when we remember the way of our ancestors. When the Earth is sacred to us, our bodies can also be sacred to us.” 

When I read Touching the Earth I remember shelling kidney beans with my late Godmother in her light-filled kitchen just as she brought them in from harvesting. I remember the music they made as their bodies split open—part falling to the ground, part flashing into the enamel pan we would later use for the red pea soup that she was teaching me how to make. This was the soup that she’d blessed many tables and many mouths with, including mine. In Caribbean culture the garden is an extension of our love for ourselves and our kin. It is from its soil that we feed our families, cultivate dignity, and learn how to love the Earth as well as give back to it. When I was younger I remember following my Granddad into the garden after dinner and watching him put that which remained on his plate out back. I wondered why he always did this and asked my mum, confused, “why is Granddad always throwing his food away?” To this, my mum replied “he’s giving it back.”

 

Something I loved about following him into the garden was watching his smile grow as he delicately brushed the leaves of the vegetables he and my nan were growing right next to blooming flowers that they’d nurtured for a season and could now just enjoy. This way of growing foregrounded a respect for ecology—the connection between humans and the beyond human, that had been rooted in them for generations.

 

You see, planting vegetation next to flowers distracts some unwanted guests and invites buzzing and fluttering pollinators. It’s a natural pesticide if you will. It’s worlds away from the monocultural agricultural practices of today—the method of growing and farming that designates land to the cultivation of one crop species. It is a method that for scale, consistency, and acceleration purposes disrupts and ignores the intricate organic relationships that our world was formed from and thrives within in favor of the monopolization and colonization of land and living things. This move towards capital power and the practice of speed, scale, and ownership causes the loss of wonder in the magic of growing things that hooks speaks of. It is also through the development of monoculture that there is the loss of power.

The Ecological Legacy of Colonial Plunder

It is impossible to untie the framework of contemporary agricultural practice from its colonial foundations. Ultimately, the drainage and degradation of nature for capital gain is tied to the same draining and decimation of communities and peoples that once thrived on those same lands. In citing a passage from Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, hooks throws light on just how vital this connection is: “Such work is unifying, healing. It brings us home from pride and despair and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are: not too good to work without our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone.” It is the reconnection to joy and wonder that is the crux of another more recent title: an incredible book full of feeling and reconciliation Unearthed; On Race and Roots, and How the Soil Taught Me I Belong by Claire Ratinon. In this work Ratinon speaks to what hooks outlines nearly three decades prior when she writes plainly that “the field was the site of [her ancestors’] oppression and many of their descendants resolved never to return to that wretched place.”

The drainage of nature for capital gain is tied to the same draining of communities that once thrived on those same lands.

Georgina Johnson
Editor, The Slow Grind

What is important is that we broaden our understanding of the history of agricultural monopolization and capitalization to include the narratives of Native land owners across continents—not solely those based in the U.S. My family is from Jamaica and Ratinon’s family is from Mauritius, an island that has a colonial relationship with India—another British Colony—largely due to the mass importation of Indian laborers under British rule, which was established in 1810. Today, of the 1.3 million population of Mauritius, two-thirds speak Hindi, Tamil, and Bhojpuri: “The story of Mauritius is the story of a nation brought into being by the forces of colonial plunder and imperial ambition,” she states. “A story of occupation, trade and warfare.” This is the story that floods history books and erases the story of Mauritius’ lush green forests and delicate ecosystems that served the more-than-humane entities that we all rely on to this day.

 

So to India. The inauguration of the industrial revolution in Britain was established through the “rule of, by and for a multinational corporation,” states Shashi Tharoor in possibly the most conscientious and thorough examination of what the British did to India in his book of the same name, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. In it, with care and rightful brutal honesty, Tharoor outlines just how the British “stripped farmers of their ownership of the lands they had tilled for generations” through the design and resolution of the British East India Company to bleed India dry of land, people, consciousness, spirituality, and beauty. Just to build a picture of how successful this was: by the time the British left India, India’s share of the world’s economy dropped to 3% from the 27% that it held at the beginning of the eighteenth century. This was intentional.

Dispossession and Degradation: Monoculture Farming Today

Over here in Britain we have a popular saying: “Put the kettle on”. It might seem extremely ordinary but it actually has many meanings: a hard day, a time to talk, the right time to get the good biscuits out. My first thoughts about tea when researching for this piece came when someone telling me a story mentioned that their Godmother was a part of the Earl Grey family. “As in Earl Grey tea?” I responded—to which they confirmed. I immediately felt sick and shocked at the same time because, embarrassingly, that is my favorite strain of tea yet I was completely naive to its beginnings. I just thought it was a brand name.

 

But the history of the tea is, in reality, rooted in a pain and violence best summarized by anti-imperialist thinker Sir Walter Strickland, who wrote that “whilst [Britons] sip their deleterious decoctions of tannin…they too are, in degree, devourers of human flesh and blood.” He is speaking to the forced labor and slavery that, like in Mauritius, the British consistently utilized to exploit and destroy Indian forests for their capital gain and the building of their economy. Whilst they grew tea to achieve this, they benefited from the synergy between the tea, the soil, climate, and geography of the respective parts of India that a variety of teas were grown and named after: “the light, fragrant Darjeeling, the robust Assam, the heady Nilgiris” which were all shipped out of India. The growing demand for tea in the West in this era rings through time. It’s just one example of how monocultural farming today is one of the children of colonialism.

The development of the contemporary model of monocultural agriculture still, to put it plainly, relies on the dispossession of wealth.

Georgina Johnson
Editor, The Slow Grind

Let’s go further. With the rapidly growing demand for tea in the West came an even more rapid devastation of Indian land—and with it an ecological imbalance. The British brought in non-Native species of plants like eucalyptus, which were thirsty and drank up the ground and pulled out the vital nutrients that Native species of plants survived on. More forest and Native species of trees such as Assam were chopped down as farmers were forced to grow poppies to extract opium (poppies cannot grow in their shade). A monoculture of eucalyptus and poppy converted once vast flourishing lands into lands that were dry as a bone. Even more than this, it directly led to the decline and erasure of tigers, cheetahs, and lions from the lands they once roamed, transforming the delicate ecologies of areas such as Madras, née Puliyar—which means the town of tigers and leopards—to ruin.

 

The development of the contemporary model of monocultural agriculture still, to put it plainly, relies on the dispossession of wealth, the conquest of mass landscapes, and the degradation of tender ecologies of beautiful lands. Colonialism and imperialism will always be to blame. They draw a white circle of ownership around land and on people. We make these very present forces vague and obscure with jargon, but they are both actioned by people and they, to this day, are being actioned through the same vehicle—people. hooks names it by attributing the industrial mechanism of capitalism and ultimately the mechanization of the body as reason for the mind/body split that transforms the psyche of Black folk. Ratinon echoes this and points to it as the ultimate reason why we have lost the learning and language of the land and why we can’t tune in as our ancestors did. But I want to return to what hooks said “When we love the Earth we are able to love ourselves more fully.”

 

I think perhaps I always knew this. You see, when you watch the people you love care for something, you can’t help but love it too. My Granddad taught me his love of the Earth. That’s how I know growing is the way back.

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