You might say that I found a secret life, back in one of the deepest hidden places in the interior of Borneo. I spent a lot of my days there walking forest trails, gathering forest foods and searching, with experts, for wild meat in the tropical forests. We would start late in the day, sometimes even in the night, and often we'd go all night on charged AA batteries. We'd walk the rivers, past the forest farm plots where we spent our other time, stuffing our backpacks with roots, shrimp, fruits, and fish. I fell into a rhythm, and the weeks turned easily into months. The time for planting rice came, and though I knew I'd gained friendship, trust, and knowledge from my late night excursions, it was digging into the steep mountain slopes that changed my life. For weeks, I woke each morning in elevated tropical timber houses carved out of the very forest edge where we were farming. After coffee and rice we'd start our day by planting one of 17 different rice varieties that the community I was living with saved and planted each year. We used so many types in order to hedge against drought, pest, disease, storms, or too much rain. We all planted these different varieties, every family in the village, on different slopes with different soils. I stayed for the planting season, and the planting became a way of living. We'd plant family to family, along a vast forest edge in food gardens that were connected to each other. I'd sleep in different houses, depending on what land parcel we finished working on each day. One night, after glasses of rice wine, we all got to talking about someone who could taste soil. Of course, any of us can take a taste of soil; we all end up with earth in our mouths, sometimes. But the story, the magic, was that this individual could discern the type of soil by that taste--what it held, what it could support, even what it might be missing in order to grow the best rice or other foods.
I couldn't get this out of my mind, the story of the soil taster, as I worked and planted in the days that followed. So a guide and I set out searching. We looked for days, camping along forest trails, abandoned camps, in old mango and durian fruit groves where communities once lived. We never found him. Or, to be truthful, we found one of his relatives, much later, who didn't quite believe the story.
While I've heard that there are still people who can taste and know soil, the fact that this knowledge and possibility was lost there with this one individual bothered me. Weeks later, with the planting season finished, I hiked out - a long day hike to a logging road on my own. I didn't need a guide anymore, I could speak some of the local dialect, some bahasa, and I trusted the hand drawn map of river intersections, hunting trails, and landmarks - beehives, ironwood and beetlenut trees.
Still based in Asia after this experience, I secretly drifted. I traveled everywhere, living and farming with communities. I was paid as a consultant to travel even further and work with more distant farmers in East and West Africa. I had a growing fear that farming was eroding just as I was capturing it, across all these continents. Whether it was along the vanilla trail in Madagascar, or the highlands of Papua New Guinea, I had a hunch that something was wrong. In one assignment, I was a mediator in an effort to document high value lands for an Asian government. One evening, a villager and friend tired of my questions, tired of the effort to mark some spaces more important than others, 'it's all valuable. We need all this space to grow our food, to live, to nurture.'
At the height of that consultant career, I bought a satelite phone to transmit some of these stories of farm and forest community struggle to a wider audience. Along the lines of transmission, though, or by the strike of a delete key in the United States, my worries about farmers losing land, losing knowledge, and not having support were often lost or diluted.
Back in Malaysia, where I lived, I dove in deeper, working on permaculture farms. I started traveling with small teams of farmers to document land conversion, injustice, power relations, and banned chemicals.
On one difficult assignment, where I had carried my video camera for miles without getting any good footage, I sat down out of frustration. I had a long hard look that day at where I was, where my own roots might be. My friend's own food garden back in the United States needed tending. I had started a long distance relationship with a woman who loved digging in and growing too. I didn't know yet if she tasted soil, but I had seen her smell it, breathing in Oregon coastal forest loam in a familiar way.
So, I knew I had to farm, myself. I wanted to be with people, to grow community, actively, putting the camera down, doing the work. I knew that I might never have any land that I owned outright, but I craved land where I could sink roots, stay, and by caring for it, feel that mutual support. Now that we might have to leave the land we had been growing on, after a year of growing all of our own food, and much much more, Mary and I are in deep. We know just how those farmers feel when there is a storm in the night, when our sheep are threatened, or when another parcel nearby, that could be someone's farmland, is sold off or built on.
There comes a time in every story teller's life when there is nothing left to do but to act: to synthesize what knowledge can be found, and, as one farmer put it at a workshop here 'you just have to start.'
We don't know where this journey will take us, and this writing, but it is our attempt to dig in, to find our own tribe, to be a part of planting and preserving the rich diversity of foods: to find 17 varieties of something. To become the people who we chase, in stories and in our daily work, building our own soil, growing roots, ourselves and one another.