Saving our soil
Abrah Dresdale, right, coordinator of Greenfield Community College’s Food and Farm Systems program, plants a banana tree in the edible forest garden she helped design and plant in southern India.
Abrah Dresdale planting pineapple sucker as part of her final project during a fellowship trip to India. Dresdale coordinates the Food and Farm Systems program at Greenfield Community College.
Desiccated soil in tropical dry evergreen forest of southeastern India.
The soil in parts of Sadhana Forest is desiccated, flaky and devoid of nutrients.
A severely eroded area of about 70 acres in southern India’s Tamil Naudu region seems like it could not spawn life. Yet after 10 years, efforts by an Israeli couple have reversed the effects of severe destruction of this “tropical dry evergreen forest” a few kilometers from the Bay of Bengal. They have reclaimed 5 percent of the land and water conservation efforts have elevated the water table by 20 feet.
But how much could Abrah Dresdale, who coordinates Greenfield Community College’s Food and Farm Systems program, help accomplish in three weeks of working with a small team of students on a fellowship program recently?
Dresdale’s entire trip — centered around the international township of Auroville, created in 1968 in part to replenish an area that’s suffered destruction of forests, erosion and monsoon damage — was focused on the contrasts between our western culture of consumption and the needs of India, where 1.2 billion people live.
“It really drives home the challenges on the planet today,” she told an audience at GCC this week, her first presentation since returning. “Living here in ‘Happy Valley,’ everything is groovy, with all of these local energy initiatives and local agriculture, but when we think about the global scale of what’s happening on the planet, and the impact of our consumption and the practices of westernization and capitalism spreading all over the planet, you start to think, ‘Oh my goodness, we are really talking about resource depletion.’”
Dresdale helped her GCC students design and build a permaculture garden on the Greenfield campus last year — one that uses plants that mimic natural systems to conserve resources. She brought her skills to the six-week David Bird International Service Fellowship she won last year from her alma mater, Conway School of Landscape Design.
Dresdale saw the juxtapositions of mountains of waste next to water supplies and rice fields next to the highway, with its potential for pollutant runoff, yet, the 1,250 acres that’s been reforested as part of the experimentation and research at Auroville and Sadhana Forest provided some hope for the future.
The international community established there is designed to show what the region can look like through thoughtful, deliberate action by people working together to care for the earth, Dresdale said.
Auroville, with 21,000 people from 43 countries, “is sort of this green bubble in the midst of the arid landscape,” with a host of research projects: growing bamboo to provide materials for sustainable living and industry, capturing monsoon water to recharge the groundwater instead of seeing it wash into the sea and erode the land, and using native vegetation to treat wastewater and “compressed stabilized earth” bricks for construction.
For her final project, creating an edible landscape design in the residential area, Dresdale saw the wastewater from the communal kitchen that runs along the ground and reflected, “There’s this amazing resource. How do we turn a problem into a solution?”
In the closing days of her tour, Dresdale and a small corps of students worked on a design and brought together 30 people to build up the soil for planting edible plants already around the landscape: papaya, wild pineapple, banana, ginger, grapevine, wild fig and guava.
“We created this really appropriate technology of ‘lasagna gardening’ with subtropical debris, using acacia mulch, termite droppings and coal, and layering these ... and watering it, and growing plants out of this carbon.
“We were taking the compost that was right there and turning this muddy mess and using a resource that wasn’t being diverted,” she said.
One day before she was ready to leave India, a tour of the finished project area coincided with a rice harvest festival, with throngs of people coming to see the newly created garden, “it was such an amazing affirmation; we left this gift for the community. Because people are going through this area on their tour, they’re going to be able to see how we’ve rebuilt this marginal landscape and how we’ve mobilized the community together to create a user-friendly, aesthetic area that can actually knit social fabric together.”
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You can reach Richie Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269