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Adventures in Aipotu
By Sanat Mohanty
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Adventures in Aipotu: Episode 9, Part 1

What a Waste!

It came back to Damini now. She had completed a circle. She began this adventure with an understanding of how perspectives are different based on where you stand. Now that same idea had been revisited. In the meanwhile, she had interesting experiences, met scores of people, …or animals, …or boats. She had asked herself questions of peace, of coexistence, of emotions and how to deal with them, of democracy and then again of truth. "Truth - neither this nor that", she repeated to herself.

Aris had now swum to the edge of the lake. "This is where we part company girl", he said. Damini swung off Aris's back. Wading up to her knees in the water, she went around and hugged Aris. Clearly unused to such display of affection, Aris quickly said, "Go on now. And remember to read something interesting even as you read your Growlings and Talkins. And remember the resolve of the hobbits." Damini smiled that Aris had known about the hobbits all along.

Turning around she walked towards the coast, not turning to watch the large turtle slip back into the lake. A bare land stretched out in front of her. The landscape was stark; brown, hard earth and black rocky outcroppings. Not a blade of grass was to be seen. Damini, with courage of a veteran of a thousand adventures, walked on. After what seemed like a few hours, she noticed that there was a region of greenery with a few trees and a small, rather frail looking hut. She wondered whether it was a mirage. She quickened her step. As she came closer, she saw a hut hidden among the trees. A thin stream of smoke rose from the hut.

Soon she was at the oasis of greenery. In front of her was a brown hut of dried straw and sticks. She was clearly at the backside of the hut. A small garden occupied most of the space and a path weaved through patches of cabbage, trellises of vines and some small shrubs. Making her way through the garden, she walked up to the hut and then around it. Coming up to the front door, she called: "Is there anyone in there?"

A bare-bodied man with an old pair of torn trousers that reached his knees and an old straw hat stepped out. And he had a face of a cat with graying hair and luxurious whiskers. He had deep blue eyes and a charming smile. He had been browned in the sun and his hands were those of someone who has spent considerable time working the land. "Hello, Damini, I am Filo", he said. "I have been expecting you."

'Why do you live in a wasteland?', Damini asked? "Wasteland?", Filo asked, quite taken aback that the land around his home could be considered waste. "This is not a wasteland." Damini realized that her comment might have been rude. Her face turned red and she stuttered: "I am sorry. I did not mean to be rude. But is it not difficult living here?"

"Come with me, let me show you what is special in these drylands", with that, Filo turned around and began to walk towards the front of the hut. Damini followed him as he strode towards the edge of the green oasis. Filo stopped in front of a low earthen structure that looked like a raised manhole. He lifted the cover and Damini peered into the hole to discover a well unlike any she had seen before. This was a very narrow hole - a little wider than the girth of a large man - and very deep. The walls of the well were Earthen and were reinforced with some sort of a fibrous rope twined along the wall.

"You will find such wells in a number of dryland regions. These wells are built with a great understanding of the Earth's interior. In some parts of the Earth, there are impervious layers of rocks under the topsoil. Water cannot seep through these layers and the sub-surface moisture can be conserved. When wells are built above these rocks, water does not seep out. The narrow mouth and the cover on the well reduce evaporation of the water collected. The rope is plastered along the inner wall of the well to prevent the well from collapsing."

"Wow", Damini was impressed. Clearly, this was an engineering feat.

"Look", Filo pointed at a beetle that was lazing on the grass next to the well. "That is a special beetle. Its back is made up of patches. Some of these patches are such that water likes to wet them. Others are patches that are oily - water stays away from them. By arranging these patches appropriately, the dew that condenses at night on the back of the beetle rolls along onto its mouth where it can drink it. If the entire back were made up of a skin that liked water, the beetle would be drenched but would not have water to drink. On the other hand, if the back was entirely oily, the water would just drop off and again the beetle would be thirsty."

Damini just stared at the beetle. It was indeed a genius of nature. "One really has to be innovative to survive here", she said.

"That's right", Filo replied. "Innovative and cognizant of the ways of nature. That's true for all animals and plants in all environments, but it is especially true here. You may think of such areas as dead regions but in fact if you look closely, you will find a variety of animals that live in such regions. There are goats of different kinds, camels and some cattle that have adapted to the dry land and its vegetation. Dry lands around the world are teeming with animals - you have to look carefully. There are rats, snakes and lizards of various kinds, possums and wallabies - animals that are unique to such environments. The fauna here is very specially adapted too. The eucalyptus trees with their extra-long roots are found here. The dryland tea-tree and various kinds shrubs have adapted themselves to such conditions."

"Why is the land around arid while right here is a verdant oasis?" Damini asked.

"This was not always an arid land", Filo replied. "A few decades ago this was fertile land. Hard to believe, isn't it?" Filo queried, noticing Damini's wide-eyed surprise. "The forest extended all the way back to the shore of the lake by which you came. This is a result of reckless felling of trees, and bad agricultural practices that resulted in the land losing its fertility and the topsoil being eroded. Now all that is left is this", Filo ended, waving his hands at the expanse of arid land.

"How can agriculture result in land losing its fertility?", Damini asked. That seemed like a paradox.

"Bad agricultural practices can affect the fertility of the land. Your scientists today seem to think that the ancient Sumerian civilization might have ended owing to such reasons. Plants take nutrition from the soil. They also give chemicals to the soil. If one plants the same crop over and over again in the same place, it results in depletion of one kind of chemicals and an increased concentration of another kind. This can make the land infertile. Similarly, extensive use of fertilizers can cause over-accumulation of chemicals, thus poisoning the land. You must remember that the fertilizers that are used in fields are actually poisonous substances. These fertilizers leach through the soil and get into the groundwater. As a result, our drinking water sources get poisoned as well."

As they spoke, the twosome had begun to walk away from the oasis where Filo's hut was located. The brown cracked earth extended in all directions except for patches where some dry grass seemed to cling on to the last vestiges of water. "Agriculture can devastate the earth in other ways as well. Usually, plants take water from the earth close to the surface. With an increased pressure for production of food, people have tried to practice intensive farming techniques. In addition, there are certain crops - such as sugar cane or some other fruit orchards - that need much larger quantities of water. Thus, the farmer begins to dig deep bore wells and pump water out. The water that is drawn out comes from deep aquifers that were filled with water over hundreds of thousands of years. With such practices, the water within the Earth is being steadily depleted. This also affects the land. In regions close to the sea, as fresh water is depleted from under the surface, saline water from the sea creeps in. Once the water table becomes saline, it become very difficult to grow anything."

As they spoke, Damini noticed that Filo changed directions a couple of times. There were no landmarks that Damini could see that might help one mark ones route. Yet Filo walked on confidently. And Damini followed.
 

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